Fierce Compassion

By Cheri Maples


Cheri Maples received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and became a Dharma teacher on January 9, 2008 at Plum Village. Here is part of the Dharma talk she gave to the Sangha that day.

Since I was very young, I have had a passion for justice, which led to my work as a police officer and my work in other parts of the criminal justice system. However, I began working for social justice, not from a peaceful place, but from the place of an angry rebel. Looking back, I realize that fighting for social justice in various forms was one of the fuels I used to keep the unconscious habit seeds of anger burning strongly. As a result, the unskillful behaviors I engaged in created some harm in my personal and work relationships.


I attended my first retreat with Thay in 1991. That retreat started the beginning of the mindfulness journey I have been on ever since. I have lots of habit energy and karma to transform, so this lifelong journey, while not a speedy one, has been and will continue to be a journey characterized by constancy and right aspiration.

For me, the path of mindfulness continues to be about waking up to the mystery that is right here in the present moment. Although there continue to be painful experiences and cycles in my life, I get increasingly frequent and reassuring glimpses of my vastness and my interconnection with everybody and everything in the universe.

As my practice has progressed, I have begun to understand that working for peace and justice is a journey of gentle honesty and a process of learning how to be present so that every interaction with another person is an opportunity for authenticity and understanding.

I was such an unlikely candidate for this path that I consider finding my way to it nothing short of a miracle. Today, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I have internalized about Thay’s teachings.

Suffering as Compost

First, I have learned that our personal suffering is the richest compost of our practice.

I experienced much pain in my relationship to my parents as a child, in my relationship to my children as a parent, and in my other intimate relationships. I have learned how to use this pain to understand more about what it is to be human.

I now understand that blame has often been a barrier I erected not to take responsibility for my own emotions. As I learn more about how to understand and frame my own suffering, I continue to see my own preciousness and that of others. I have learned that imperfection is not a thing to be avoided or blamed on others and that the very things that make me feel so very unlovable, all those defects I tried so hard to hide, are precisely what I have to offer others.

I have learned to remind myself that I need to stop relating to what I would like to fix in myself and replace the seeds of project mentality with loving kindness and unconditional friendship with myself and others. It’s helpful to remember that what I am doing is unlocking a softness that is in me and letting it spread in order to soften the sharp edges of self-criticism and complaint.

The Path of True Redemption

Second, I have learned that the truth is many-sided and can be approached from multiple perspectives, and that it is important to develop a deep sense of openness.

I see multiple doors to the Dharma around me every day and understand that different people enter through different doors. To me, any door that helps people lead a more ethical and compassionate life is a legitimate Dharma door. My challenge as a Dharma teacher is to find and invite people through the Dharma doors that they can relate to by translating Thay’s teachings into a language they can understand. Of course, a major focus of mine will be bringing Thay’s teachings to those who work in the criminal justice system because I understand not only their language and fears, but also the injustices committed when people abuse the trust and state authority bestowed upon them.

I hope I can help people to understand the difference between fear and faith, between doing the right thing and righteousness, between action and compulsion. I hope I can help them internalize Thay’s teaching that when we stop seeing ourselves solely as victims or oppressors, we can develop a sense of forgiveness for ourselves and others that leads to true redemption. And, in finding their way, I hope I can encourage people to think enough of themselves to claim the right to question what is offered, to investigate what they are being told, to trust their own experiences, and allow others to do the same.

In finding my own middle way between action and compulsion, I try to remind myself that although my spiritual practice requires me to take action, it should not be one more thing to judge myself about or be compulsive about. In every major step along my own path, first in receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, then in receiving the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and now being made a Dharma teacher, I have gone through what I call an “I’m not worthy crisis.” When I really get scared that I am not worthy, my partner will say to me, “Do you trust Thay?” I say, “Of course. I trust Thay with all my heart.” She says, ”Then, trust him not to make a mistake. Get out of the way and let the Buddha be the Dharma teacher.”

I do trust that the process of becoming a Dharma teacher will work in a similar manner as the process of receiving the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The trainings and the possibilities contained within the trainings work on me as I work on them. As my understanding and practice deepens, old habit seeds and energies are transformed as new seeds get watered by living up to the possibilities of the path.

So I have decided that the purpose of being a Dharma teacher is no different than the purpose of any student on the path. The purpose is not to do it right but to reside in the joy and possibilities provided by the opportunity to commit more deeply to the Dharma and reap the bountiful harvest that this possibility offers.

In finding my way between fear and faith, I have learned that faith is about discovering the existence of an ultimate dimension and learning to live with heart. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart and letting the world tickle your heart with the wonders of the present moment and your relationships with others. It comes from being willing to open up, touching your own vulnerability, and having the courage to share your heart with others. This is the path to the authentic relationships that are the litmus test of spirituality.

In discovering the difference between doing the right thing and righteousness, I have learned that dogma and righteousness are subtle forms of violence. In contrast, faith enables us to meet life with a sense of curiosity rather than a definition of reality.

One of Thay’s greatest gifts to me was the teaching that if we truly understand our interconnection with others, we can all find a victim and an oppressor within ourselves. I can look back and find painful examples of my own mistakes and unintentional abuses of power. Likewise, I can find painful examples of my own victimization. When we learn to acknowledge and make friends with these parts of ourselves, it enables us not to become one or the other.


As long as we see ourselves solely as victims, our anger will fuel a dangerous sense of entitlement that can be just as destructive as the oppressor’s abuse of power. When I see all the ways that I have been a perpetrator and a victim, I can relax. I can hold more paradoxes, more dichotomies. I can also let go of my guilt about the past and understand that redemption lies in the correction of the course of my mistakes. I can continually begin anew by taking the opportunity the present moment puts in front of me to make a different choice.


An Unwavering Commitment to Non-Violence

Third, I have deeply internalized Thay’s teaching that it is impossible to end violence with violence.

I believe this is the biggest challenge and the most important lesson for all those working in the criminal justice system. Working to provide public safety means working for peace and justice, and requires an unwavering personal commitment to non-violence in our own lives and in our environments and systems. This requires a personal aspiration not to contribute to violence or aggression in any form. If the personal is indeed political, the most radical political act of all is to learn how to live in more harmony with everyone and everything.

When we understand our interdependence deeply, we understand that when we care for ourselves, we care for others; and when we care for others, we care for ourselves. This understanding enables us to effectively work for peace in ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Unfortunately, I work in a criminal justice system based on the premise that punishment of the perpetrator will heal the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator. Of course, people insistent on punishing each other usually become allied in making each other suffer more.

I have observed that it is not the wrongdoer’s repentance that creates forgiveness, but the victim’s forgiveness that creates repentance. This is where forgiveness enters the realm of spirit and paradox. Because it becomes a mysterious gift offered to one who does not necessarily merit it, it becomes the essence of compassion itself.

In conclusion, my own path has taught me how important it is to be present to my own life, to trust myself and help others to do the same, to allow my heart to be torn open in love rather than protected in fear. I have learned to keep asking myself if what I am doing is making me kinder, more understanding, and more loving.

Cheri Maples, True Jewel, worked in the criminal justice profession for twenty-five years; she is also a licensed attorney and clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Cheri practices with SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Dharma Talk – Bat Nha: A Koan

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat HanhDo not just look for what you want to see,
that would be futile.
Do not look for anything,
but allow the insight to have a chance to come by itself.
That insight will help liberate you.

– Nhat Hanh

Bat Nha is a monastery in the central highlands of Vietnam. It is a community of monks and nuns being persecuted by the Vietnamese government, and it is the great crisis of Vietnamese Buddhism at the dawn of the 21st century.

A koan (known in Chinese as a gong an, and in Vietnamese as a cong an) is a mediation device, a special kind of Zen riddle. Koans are solved not with the intellect but with the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. A koan can be contemplated and practiced individually or collectively, but as long as it remains unsolved, a koan is unsettling. It is like an arrow piercing our body which we cannot take out; as long as it is lodged there we can neither be happy nor at peace. Yet the koan’s arrow has not really come from outside, nor is it a misfortune. A koan is an opportunity to look deeply and transcend our worries and confusion. A koan forces us to address the great questions of life, questions about our future, about the future of our country and about our own true happiness.

A koan cannot be solved by intellectual arguments, logic or reason, nor by debates such as whether there is only mind or matter. A koan can only be solved through the power of right mindfulness and right concentration. Once we have penetrated a koan, we feel a sense of relief and have no more fears or questioning. We see our path and realize great peace.

If you think Bat Nha is only a problem for 400 monks and nuns in Vietnam, a problem that simply needs a “reasonable and appropriate” solution, then that is not a koan. Bat Nha truly becomes a koan only when you understand it as your own problem, one that deeply concerns your own happiness, your own suffering, your own future, and the future of your country and your people. If you cannot solve the koan, if you cannot sleep, eat, or work at peace, then Bat Nha has become your koan.

“Mindfulness” means to recollect something, to hold it in our heart day and night. The koan must remain in our consciousness every second, every minute of the day, never leaving us even for a moment. Mindfulness must be continuous and uninterrupted; and continuous mindfulness brings concentration. While eating, getting dressed, urinating and defecating, the practitioner needs to bring the koan to mind and look deeply into it. The koan is always at the forefront of your mind. Who is the Buddha whose name we should invoke? Who is doing the invoking? Who am I? You must find out. As long as you haven’t found out you haven’t made the breakthrough, you are not yet fully awake, you have not understood.

I AM A MONASTIC FROM THE BAT NHA COMMUNITY. Every day I contemplate the koan of Bat Nha—I sit with it in meditation, I walk with it in mindfulness, I am with it when I cook, when I wash my clothes, peel vegetables or sweep the floor; in every moment Bat Nha is my koan. I must produce mindfulness and concentration, because for me it is a matter of life and death, of my ideals and my future.

We know we’ve been successful in our practice, because despite all the oppression and harassment, many of us in our community are still able to generate peace and love, and not be dragged down by worries, fears, or hatred. One young nun offered an insight poem to our teacher: “The Bat Nha of yesterday has become rain, falling to the earth, sprouting the seed of awakening.” She has successfully penetrated the koan of Bat Nha.

All we want is to practice—why can’t we? The senior monks of Vietnam want to protect and sponsor us—so why does the government stop them? We don’t know anything about politics—so why do they keep saying Bat Nha is a threat to national security? Why was dispersing Bat Nha so important that they had to resort to using hired mobs, slander, deceit, beatings, and threats? If the government forbids us from living together and forces us to scatter in all directions, how will our community be reunited? Why is it that in other countries people can practice this tradition freely, and we can’t? These questions come up relentlessly. But the energy of mindfulness is like fire that burns away all these haunting thoughts and questions.

The Bat Nha of yesterday was happiness. For the first time in our lives we were in an environment where we could speak openly and share our deepest thoughts and feelings with our brothers and sisters—without suspicion, without fear of betrayal. We had the opportunity as young people to serve the world, in the spirit of true brotherhood and sisterhood. This was the greatest happiness. Then Bat Nha became a nightmare, but no one will ever take from us the inner freedom we discovered there. I have found my path. Whether or not Bat Nha exists, I am no longer afraid.

We already have the seed and we already have our path, so we are no longer afraid for the future—our own or that of our country. Tomorrow we will have the chance to help those who persecute us today. We know that many of those who attacked us and made us suffer have already begun to see the truth. Prejudices and wrong perceptions eventually disintegrate. There is no need to worry or despair. We can laugh as brightly as the morning sun.

I AM A CHIEF OF POLICE IN VIETNAM. At first, I believed that the order from my superiors to wipe out Bat Nha must have been justified. However, as I carried out the order, I saw things that broke my heart. Bat Nha has become a koan for my life. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I toss and turn throughout the night. I ask myself: what have these people done, that I should treat them as reactionaries and threats to public safety? They seem so peaceful— but I have no peace at all. If I don’t have peace in my heart, how can I keep the peace in my society?

The young monks and nuns have not broken any laws. We forced them to leave the place they helped to build, where they had been living peacefully for years. They lived with such integrity. They ate vegan food, sat in meditation, listened to sutras, shared with each other, and did no harm to anyone. How can we say they are dangerous? And yet we have threatened and harassed them, we cut off their electricity and water, we did everything we could to break their spirit. But they never said a reproachful word, they offered us tea, they sang for us and asked to take souvenir photos with us.

In the end we hired mobs to destroy their community, to assault them, and expel them. Not once did they fight back. Their only weapons were chanting the Buddha’s name, sitting in meditation, and locking arms to stop us from separating them as we forced them into the waiting cars.

My orders came from above and I had to obey; but I feel deeply ashamed. At first I thought they were just temporary measures, for the greater good of the country, for the sake of preserving national unity. Now I know that the whole operation was deceitful, cruel, and offensive to human conscience. I am forced to keep these thoughts to myself. I don’t dare to share them with the officers in my unit, let alone my superiors. I can’t go forward and I can’t go back; I am a cog in a machine and I can’t get out. What must I do to be true to myself?

I AM A MEMBER OF THE BUDDHIST CHURCH OF VIETNAM. Bat Nha haunts me night and day. I know those young monastics are practicing the true Dharma. So why are we powerless to protect them? Why do we have to live and behave like government employees? When will I realize my dream of practicing religion without political interference?

We are brothers and sisters, children of the Buddha. Is it because our practice of brotherhood is not solid enough that they have been able to divide us, that we have fallen into blaming and hating each other? But surely we have learned a lesson: if we can accept each other and reconcile with one another, we can still resurrect our brotherhood and sisterhood, inspire the confidence of our fellow citizens, and be role models for everyone. Even though we’ve left it so long, the situation can still be saved. Just one moment of awakening is enough to change the situation. If we in the Buddhist Church have been cornered into betraying our own brothers and sisters it is because our spiritual integrity is not yet strong enough. How can we be wholehearted and determined enough in our daily practice to attain the spiritual strength we need?

Vietnamese Buddhists have respected and followed the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha for the last two thousand years. But now groups of people hired by government officers wore shoes into the Buddha Hall, put up offensive banners on the altar, yelled and cursed, threw human excrement at venerable monks, and destroyed sacred objects. They violently attacked, beat, and expelled monks and nuns from their temple. This is an ugly stain on the history of Buddhism in Vietnam. It disgusts us and sickens us, yet why don’t we dare to speak out? Can the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, whose members were slandered, falsely accused, and framed by the government, shake off this insult and prove the innocence of Vietnamese Buddhists?

I AM A HIGH RANKING MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT OF VIETNAM. Bat Nha is an opportunity for me to look deeply at the truth and find peace in my own heart and mind. But how can I have peace when I don’t really believe in the path I walk on, and especially when I don’t have faith or trust in those I call my comrades? Why can’t I share my real thoughts and feelings with those I call my comrades? Am I afraid of being denounced? Of losing my position? Why do we all have to say exactly the same things when none of us believe it?

My greatest dream is for my own happiness to be in harmony with my country’s. Just as trees have their roots and water has its source, our homeland has its heritage of spiritual insight. The Ly dynasty was the most peaceful and compassionate dynasty in our country’s history. Under the Tran dynasty, the People’s unity was strong enough to enable them to push back the attacks from the North. This unity was possible thanks to Buddhism’s contribution as an inclusive and accepting spiritual path that could co-exist with other spiritual and ethical traditions, such as Taoism and Confucianism, and so build a country that never needed to expel or eliminate anyone.

How can we eradicate the hideous social evils of drug abuse, prostitution, gambling, violence, corruption and abuse of power, when the officials responsible for abolishing them are themselves caught up in those very evils? How can the government’s policy of “cultural districts” and “cultural villages” ever be successful if it is based merely on perfunctory inspections and punishment? Who is the one that needs to be inspected and who is the one that needs to be punished?

For the last two thousand years, Buddhism has been teaching people how to live ethical lives, be vegetarian, and keep the trainings. At this very time, the young monks and nuns of Bat Nha are reinvigorating this ethical way of living. They have the potential to succeed. Why can’t I open my heart to practice like them, to be one with them and benefit from their support? Why can’t we do as the kings of the Tran and Ly dynasties did? Just because we are Marxists, does that mean we don’t have the right to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, to be vegetarian and practice the mindfulness trainings?

I know that corruption and abuse of power have become a national catastrophe. We have been lamenting it for so many years already, and yet the situation just gets worse with every passing day. Why? Is it because I’m only able to proudly boast of my ancestors’ glorious past, and am not in fact able to do as they did? And today, when there are young people actually doing it, why do we block and suppress them?

I have gone along with the false reports and allowed the people I supervise to use lies, deception, and oppression against these gentle people who never have caused any disturbance to society. In the end, I am put in a position where I become the enemy of the very things I once cherished. Are my true enemies really outside of me? My enemies are within. Do I have enough courage and intelligence to face my own weaknesses? That is the fundamental question.

The Plum Village practices offer a rare opportunity to modernize Buddhism in Vietnam; the last four years have proved their effectiveness. Why are we allowing ourselves to be pressured by our powerful neighbor into persecuting and destroying such a precious living treasure? What will we get that is so precious, in return for destroying this treasure we already have?

I AM A HEAD OF STATE OR FOREIGN MINISTER. My country is or is not a member of the Security Council or the UN commission on human rights. I know that events like Bat Nha, Tam Toa, Tiananmen Square, and the annexation of Tibet are serious violations of Human Rights. But because of national interest, because our country wants to continue to do business with them, because we want to sell arms, airplanes, fast trains, nuclear power plants, and other technologies, because we want a market for our products, I cannot express myself frankly and make real decisions that can create pressure on that country so they stop violating human rights.

I feel ashamed. My conscience is not at peace but because I want my party and my government to succeed, I tell myself that these violations are not serious enough for my country to take a stance. It seems that I too am caught in a system, a kind of machinery, and I cannot really be myself. I’m not able to give voice to my real feelings or to speak out about the situation. What do I have to do to get the peace that I so badly need? Bat Nha is of course a situation in Vietnam, but it has also become a koan for a high-ranking political leader like me. What path can I take in order to really be myself?

The koan Bat Nha is everyone’s koan; it is the koan of every individual and every community. Bat Nha is an opportunity, because Bat Nha can help you see clearly what you couldn’t—or didn’t want to—see before.

In the Zen tradition, there are retreats of seven, twenty-one, and forty-nine days. During these retreats, the practitioner invests their whole heart and mind into the koan. Every moment of their daily life is also a moment of looking deeply: when sitting, walking, breathing, eating, brushing their teeth, or washing their clothes. At every moment the mind is concentrated on the koan. Every day the practitioner gets the chance to interact with the Zen master in the direct guidance session. The Zen master offers guidance to help the practitioner direct their concentration in the correct way, opening up their mind, and helping them to see, showing them the situation so the truth can reveal itself clearly.

In the direct guidance sessions the truth is not transmitted from master to practitioner. Practitioners must realize the truth for themselves. The Zen master may give about ten minutes of guidance, to open your mind and point things out, and then everyone returns to their own sitting place to continue to look deeply. Sometimes there are hundreds of practitioners, all sitting together in the meditation hall, facing the wall. After a period of sitting meditation, there is a period of walking meditation. Practitioners walk slowly, each and every step bringing them back to the koan. At meal times, practitioners may eat at their meditation cushion. While eating they contemplate the koan. Urinating and defecating are also opportunities to look deeply. Noble silence is essential for meditative enquiry; that is why outside the meditation hall there is always a sign that reads ‘Noble Silence.’

If you want to be successful in your practice of koans, you must be able to let go of all intellectual knowledge, all notions, and all points of view you currently hold. If you are caught in a personal opinion, standpoint, or ideology, you do not have enough freedom to allow the koan’s insight to break forth into your consciousness. You have to release everything you have encountered before, everything you have previously taken to be the truth. As long as you believe you already hold the truth in your hand, the door to your mind is closed. Even if the truth comes knocking, you will not be able to receive it. Present knowledge is an obstacle. Buddhism demands freedom. Freedom of thought is the basic condition for progress. It is the true spirit of science. It is precisely in that space of freedom that the flower of wisdom can bloom.

In the Zen tradition, community is a very positive element. When hundreds of practitioners silently look deeply together, the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration is very powerful. This collective energy nourishes your concentration in every minute and every second, giving you the opportunity to have a breakthrough in your practice of the koan. The firm discipline of your meditation practice, the favorable environment for concentration, as well as the guidance of the Zen master and silent support of fellow practitioners, all provide you with many opportunities to succeed.

The suggestions given above can be seen as direct guidance to help you in your practice of looking deeply. You have to see these words as an instrument, not as the truth. They are the raft that can bring you to the other shore; they are not the shore itself. Once you reach the other shore, you have to abandon the raft. If you are successful in looking deeply, you will have freedom, you will be able to see your path. Then you can just burn these words or throw them away.

I wish you all success in the work of looking deeply into the Bat Nha koan,

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Sitting Still Hut, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village, France
19 January 2010

This excerpt from Bat Nha: A Koan was edited by Barbara Casey.

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