On the Way Home

By Eileen Kiera

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

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

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

Carrying the Light

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

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

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

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

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No Heat, No Fear

By Peggy Rowe Ward

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“Bring a sleeping bag,” announces a sign on the Zendo. “Hmmm,” I wonder. I stick my head into the room and am greeted by a cool blast of air. Ah, the power is out. I turn around and walk briskly back to my dorm room in Lower Hamlet and return to the Zendo with more layers of clothing and my sleeping bag. I cannot recognize anyone in the hall this morning. I sit.

It’s January and the poplar trees stretch their bare arms into a grey sky. It is Sunday, the day that we open the monastery doors for a public Day of Mindfulness. Not that many folks join us these days. It’s the early 1990s, and the French have yet to discover that there is a Zen master tucked away in the rolling green countryside of southern France.

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Thay will offer the Dharma talk in the Lower Hamlet dining room, as there is a wood stove in this space. My roommates and I strategize on how to prepare for the talk. From experience, we know that one side of the room will be very hot and the other side will be very cold. We calculate a perfect time to arrive and sit right in the middle, and then we prepare to dress for this event. We take out all of our clothes and help each other layer up. Each of us looks like a strange cross between a bag woman and a gypsy as we are covered with shawls, blankets, coats, and hats. We laughingly lumber out of our room and link arms as we make our way to the dining room.

The dining room is jammed with benches and chairs. Pierre sits by the stove, feeding the fire. Pierre lives a few vineyards away from Lower Hamlet. He is one of a handful of friends that appears every Sunday looking wildly French. He sports a black beret, dark wool Melton coat, and thick knit sweater. He has a large nose that fits perfectly with his kind face. He has a habit of resting both of his strong weather-etched hands on the top of his wooden walking stick. He is a regular presence at Plum Village and we are comfortable with his watchful gaze.

There is no aisle, so we bump-bump-bump our way through the room. The padding has tripled our girth. We crawl on top of the chairs toward the middle of the room. We sit and spill over our white plastic chairs. We are almost wedged together with softness. I look to my left and recognize the eyes of my friend. We smile softly and look around the room. The windows are covered with steam so we cannot see out. Everyone who enters is wearing a similar disguise.

The bell is invited and Thay enters the room, followed by his attendant. Pierre moves away from the stove so that Thay can sit close by the heat. Thay settles in. He is offered a cup of tea, which he holds in his brown-mittened hands. The pine logs simmer and crack. Thay begins his talk and we cannot hear a word.

I have a moment of upset. I look around and quickly discover that none of us can hear. The fire is speaking loudly; there is the drip-drip-drip of moisture off the windows, the rustle of bodies, and no microphone. Breathing in, I breathe into that small upset, take her by the hand and put her on my soft lap. Breathing out, I smile. I sigh and settle into this day. What could be more lovely than this? Magically, I feel my neighbors doing the same. I notice several heads starting to bob and I can feel mine bobbing, too.

A small frisson moves my heart. I recognize that we are in the presence of Maitreya Buddha, that we are Maitreya Buddha. We relax together and breathe as one padded body. Thay is close by. We are warm. We are safe. We are together. Today the Buddha of loving community has manifested herself as woolen-wrapped students of the Buddha silently seated in a dining room, taking refuge in the warmth, in the teachings, and in each other.

Peggy Rowe Ward, True Original Vow, lives and practices in Claremont, California with her husband Larry Ward and dog Charlie, as well as the Baby Step Sangha.

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All Roads Lead to Plum Village

 

By Janelle Combelic

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

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

A Rustic Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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Sowing Seeds of Meditation

By Cara Harzheim

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For thirty-six years I taught in the Grammar School Ludwid-Meyn-Schule, a big high school near the River Elbe, Germany. I was one of seventy-eight teachers in this school of 1,040 students. Teaching was my greatest passion in life. The students were my children, my friends, and my combatants.

In the winter of 1994-95, I spent two weeks at Plum Village. There I found my spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings on January 2, 1995, and when I returned to Germany, I began meditating regularly with my students.

The students called me their “teacher of meditation”: “the exceptional colorful flower of the school, the teacher you can talk to, who listens profoundly, understands you, and gives the advice you need. She is the one you ask for help when your friend wants to commit suicide. She dances with you the whole night through. When you come from a rural background and are afraid of male authoritarian teachers, she supports you to speak up. She sings with you songs of freedom and peace for Blacks, Indians, and Vietnamese and she speaks about global ethics and your behavior in this world of ours.”

Every day, from Monday to Friday, I offered the students fifteen minutes of meditation during the two twenty-five-minute breaks of their day. We practiced several different kinds of meditation, all of which the students loved: sitting meditation (be aware of your in- and out-breath), guided meditation according to Thay’s books, pebble meditation, metta meditation, walking meditation indoors if it rained or outdoors in the former cemetery next to the school, total relaxation, tea ceremony, and mindful eating of a tangerine or biscuit.

When the students had taken part in ten meditation sessions, they got a certificate that said: “She has participated in the meditation extracurricular activity with great success.” Both younger and older students loved to get that paper.

Away from the Turmoil

I always tried to have a room that was quiet and good for meditation, “a room of silence.” First I found an attic under the roof, in which I put a carpet and twenty-five of my own multicolored cushions which I had bought in India, a golden Buddha statue, an icon of Mary and the child Jesus my father had brought from Russia, a big bell and a small bell, an earthen teapot and small cups, a water boiler, some candles, and incense sticks. The caretaker of the school was not happy when he heard I used a water boiler and candles in the attic. He tried to close down the room several times because I didn’t give up preparing tea.

We were moved to a restored room adjoining this attic. However, the substitute headmaster didn’t like us to sit on the newly installed carpet. We fled to the cemetery outside and found it was the right place to meditate about impermanence, illness, and death. A music teacher who was a fervent supporter allowed us to use the music rooms. We sat among all the instruments and tried to generate calmness, understanding, and loving-kindness. We tried to gain a little bit of peace and freedom.

In the end, students collected signatures from other pupils, teachers and parents, and we were allowed to use one of the last cellar rooms with hardly any light. All my groups helped me to furnish it again. We had a big tea ceremony with cookies and Plum Village songs in English and French. It was a cozy room far away from the turmoil of normal hectic school life.

Zen Is Cool

I taught lessons in East Asian and western philosophy to students who didn’t want to take part in classes of religious education (Catholic, Protestant). We spoke about their interests: How to live happily? What is death? How to live sexually? When we explored ethics and metaphysics applied in this world, I introduced the Five Mindfulness Trainings to the students, who showed a deep concern about them.

The first lesson of each Monday morning was Beginning Anew. “How did I nourish myself last weekend?” “What do I focus on this week?” In the lessons before a test, students asked for a guided meditation (“I am blooming as a flower”) and after the test, a deep relaxation to let go of all the frustration and excitement. On Fridays, the students reflected on what had happened during the week, how they could relax during the weekend in a good way, and their plans for the next week.

Twice a year there were project weeks in the school, offered by teachers, parents, or students. Twice I offered Meditation Practice according to Thich Nhat Hanh. Students drove every day to my old farmhouse and practiced mindfulness in walking, sitting, washing and cutting vegetables, reading the Five Contemplations and eating, learning gathas and Plum Village songs, and enjoying deep relaxation. They felt they had participated in the best project and were proud to find their photos in the local newspaper.

I facilitated a one-day project, “Zen Is Cool,” with forty students in the biggest room of the school. We sat, walked, explained the Five Mindfulness Trainings, offered a tea ceremony and tangerine meditation, and listened to the story “The Hugging Judge.” We exchanged little red hearts with the promise to give them to someone we loved. We ended with hugging meditation. Their little brothers and sisters received the hearts with astonishment and joy.

Plum Village Retreat

In 2006, I brought seventeen students with me to a twenty- one-day retreat at Plum Village. They committed to a trip without alcohol, cigarettes, meat, McDonald’s, or television during the Football World Cup. The students loved Lower Hamlet. The boys stayed in tents behind the pine and fir trees, and the girls and the two women teachers in tents behind Dharma Nectar Hall among the plum trees.

The students loved Thay and his extraordinary presence. When he addressed them personally, they were proud. They appreciated Sister Jina’s gentle authority, kindness, understanding, and willingness to let them remain together as a group in Lower Hamlet. Sister Chan Khong conquered their hearts by singing songs and lullabies for them in a special audience. They loved her wit, her openness, and her love of young people. They also enjoyed Sister Bi Nghiem’s dry humor and the great care she took of them.

The students loved walking up the hill to Loubès Bernac and looking down on the plain of Duras. They took great pleasure in the mindful swimming lazy day in the lake of Castelgaillard and all the potatoes and healthy pizzas the nuns cooked for them. In front of Thay and all the retreatants, they offered a drama about slowing down. A breakfast with the Jewish group left a lasting impression on them: the sharings and openness, the wishes for recognition of suffering, and the willingness for reconciliation.

Upon return, the students’ parents were aware of transformations in their children’s abilities to be more understanding and loving, to listen, and to practice mindfulness. The students never forgot this wonderful twenty-one-day retreat and continued to participate with joy in walking and sitting at school.

Here are some quotations from the students. Rebecca (11th year) said, “The meditation room is the most beautiful room of the school. There I can focus on my real self and I can let go of everything else. I feel at ease and I’d like to stay there longer.” Anna-Lena (A-level class) shared: “Meditation does you good. You start concentrating on your breathing. You come back to yourself and are aware of your body. Normally I have the problem of thinking too much.” Daniel (11th class) said, “I meditate at home every evening. I’ve noticed that I have become calmer and more confident.”

Meditation became a vital part of normal school life in all its forms. The students learned the tools of coming back to their breath, calming down, and concentrating by letting go of wrong perceptions. Meditation has enriched their lives and given them the opportunity and the hope “for a better future to be possible.”

mb60-Sowing2Cara Harzheim, True Wonderful  Compassion received the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings  in 1999. In 2008 she emigrated from Germany to France. She now lives in Puyguilhem, ten minutes from Lower and Upper Hamlet. She feels she has really arrived and is home living next to Thay and being part of the Fourfold
Sangha.

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Poem: The Gift of Non-Fear

Three Moments on the Way to Dwelling in Equanimity

By Lyn Fine

1: Sumb60-TheGift1nday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village, France.
Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

We are sitting together in the Meditation Hall at the Lower Hamlet.
Listening, we are aware of our breathing.
We are present together.

In the midst of your Dharma talk, you pause.
Quietly, you strike a match.
You touch the flame to a sheet of paper.
Smoke wafts into the air. Flames appear.
The paper is burning.
Now there is only black charcoal ash.

Gently, between the thumb and two fingers of your right hand,
You pick up the charred remains.
“It’s hot,” you say softly, calmly.
On your lips, there is a half-smile.
You hold the black charcoal for an instant.
Then, releasing your fingers, you let the burnt remains drop into the bell.

In mindfulness I watch, aware of my breathing.

Breathing in, I am aware that ancestors are present
Jewish ancestors burning in ovens — here, now
Vietnamese sisters and brothers burning in self-immolation to stop the bombs of war — here, now
wise-woman witches burning at the stake — here, now
churches of African-American brothers and sisters burning in the United States — here, now
ancient trees burning from human forgetfulness — here, now
Breathing out, I do my best to smile with equanimity and compassion — but I cannot — not yet.

Breathing in, I know I am touching seeds of pain and suffering in me from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness — seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief
Breathing out, I am aware that I am unable to smile — nor to cry, nor to cry out. I cannot — not yet.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in
Breathing out, I am aware: conscious breathing is my anchor.

Suddenly, your gentle voice penetrates the clouded-over sky-mind.
“We will put these [charred remains] in the garden,” I hear you say.
Tears come and a half-smile.
Fear has released. The heart opens.

mb60-TheGift22: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village.
Outdoor Walking Meditation

It is Sunday, September 15, 1996.
It is the second day of the Jewish New Year, 5757.
This year at Plum Village, during a three-week retreat,

— “The Heart of the Buddha,” it is called —
We are observing the highest holy days of the Jewish people, in the way that they — or some of them — would observe them.

The seed you planted more than a decade ago has borne fruit.
“To make peace on the planet,” you said at a Reverence for Life Conference in 1982,
“each religious group should observe the most important holiday of each other religious group
in the way that group would observe the holiday.”

For the seed and for the fruit,
And for all the conditions which have allowed the gradual ripening of the fruit
I am grateful.

Now we are walking together in walking meditation.
Hand in hand, we walk through orchards of plum trees in the Lower Hamlet.
The trees are bearing fruit — sweet purple plums.
Our steps touch the Earth gently.
We are embraced by sunshine and blue sky.

Breathing in, I know that sunshine and rain, blue sky and Earth have nourished the fruit
and its gradual ripening
that residents of Plum Village, lay and monastic, have cared for the trees, harvested the fruit, and turned it into plum jam
that children in France gave money to plant these trees so that children in Vietnam could have medical supplies and food
Breathing out, I am aware that present in us in this moment
are all of our ancestors
and all of our descendants
We are the sunshine.
We are the blue sky.
We are the trees bearing fruit.

Here, now, we walk, hand in hand.
We are walking as a community, a Sangha.
We are walking with each other, we are walking for each other.
I walk for you. I know you are walking for me.

“Touching, touching”
“Connecting, connecting, connecting”
With each in-breath, I am walking two steps.
With each out-breath, I am walking three steps.
Step by step I am walking, breathing in, breathing out.
But I am aware that I am not truly present — not yet.

I walk in peace, but the mind goes in a million directions.
The energy of seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness
remains strong.
The mind remains caught
In a net of burnings.

Breathing in, I am aware of regret:
There is sadness in me. I am caught.
Present in me — here, now — are blue sky, white clouds.
But I am not wholehearted. The mind is caught
In the past. The wounds of suffering, still present.

mb60-TheGift3Breathing out, my resolution deepens:
I vow to cultivate mindfulness with determination
I aspire to be fully present to the miracle
of being alive — here, now.
I aspire to open, wholehearted, in joy, to this present moment.

Crossing a narrow plank bridge, we arrive at the pond.
Human beings and trees, we encircle the water.
Together we stand, in the stillness.
Listening.
Waiting.
Breathing in, I am aware: breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware: breathing out.
We hear the silence.

Hearing, hearing.
Breathing in, aware of birds chirping.
Breathing out, aware of leaves rustling.
Jacqueline begins to play her violin — the ancient Jewish melody Avinu Malkeinu.
We sing. No boundary.
Touching Jewish ancestors. No boundary.
Touching all ancestors. No boundary.
For some of us, this moment is the first time
To touch our ancestors.

In silence,
We pick up small sticks and stones, take lint from our pockets.
We name the times when we have missed the mark.
We acknowledge that we have sinned, as individuals and as communities.
By omission and by commission, we have caused suffering.
One by one, and together, we cast our sticks and stones and lint into the water.
One by one and together as a Sangha we transform consciousness.

Breathing in, I am aware of our multiple origins —
We are from Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Israel, Egypt, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark,
Romania, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, England, Spain, the Netherlands,
Canada, U.S.A., Indigenous Peoples, New Zealand, Australia
Breathing out, I realize: not two, not one.

Breathing in, I am aware that in our Buddhist retreat center
We are observing tashlich, an ancient Jewish custom of renewal.
We are observing tashlich as Jews would observe it.
We are observing tashlich as Jews around the world are observing it, on this day.
We are observing tashlich amidst the trees, around a pond.
We are observing tashlich with friends from numerous countries — former enemies.
Breathing out, I know we are returning home, to our true origin and Source.

mb60-TheGift43: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village.
After Outdoor Walking Meditation

Now the walk is over and tashlich too.
We have cast into the water
Our unwholesome states of mind

And those times when we have missed the mark — sinned —
Individually and collectively.
We have deepened our determination
To cultivate wholesome states of mind,
Deep listening, deep looking, and wise action that meets the mark.

A novice monk thanks me for the tashlich observance.
He speaks to me from a place of love.
He speaks to me from the depth of his experience.
I hear what he is saying, and I am very happy.
We breathe together.
I speak softly of the burning of the paper,
Of the seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness
which arose in me, and remained so strongly present.

I speak of the black charcoal remains,
Of your suggestion that we would put them in the Plum Village garden —
“We will put these [charred ashes] in the garden,” you had said —
I speak of the release in me when I heard you say that.
For a moment, we breathe together in silence.
“The ashes have been put in the Plum Village garden,”
My Dharma brother says with a gentle smile.
And I wonder — is it only by chance that I am speaking to the very monk
Who was given the ashes, who himself scattered them in the garden?

So —
Now it is done.
In nurturing soil of love and remembrance and compassion
In a small hamlet in southern France
Burned ancestors, brothers, and sisters, and children
Rest now. Charred remains renew the Earth.
Burned and burners: not two, not one.

A meditation appears:
Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of suffering in me from my [Jewish and other] ancestors —
seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief
Breathing out, I vow, for the well-being of all beings, to transform these seeds
with gentle caring

Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of well-being in me
from my [Jewish and other] ancestors —
seeds of joy, seeds of love, seeds of wisdom
Breathing out, I vow, for the benefit of all beings, to discover and nourish these seeds with tenderness

Breathing in, I touch no birth, no death
Breathing out, I go beyond fear
Breathing in, I touch the Ground of All Being
Breathing out, I know that in this moment I have returned home, to my true self
A smile appears.
The precious gift of non-fear, always offered, has been received.
Thank you, my dear friends, for our observance together.

 

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

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, is from New York City and now lives in Berkeley, California. She received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in 1994.

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Such Treasure

Gratitude for Plum Village Practice

By Chan Ngo Nguyen Duy Vinh

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I would like to offer some memorable milestones for Plum Village’s 30th Anniversary celebration. Though my capability for remembering is reduced due to my growing age, my mind is able to go back as far as 1966, when I received a small booklet entitled A Rose for Your Pocket (Bong Hong Cai Ao) from a high school classmate. I was only eighteen years old and I was studying in Quebec City at that time, far away from home. My mother was still alive when I left my country and she died a few years later. My mother lived in Vietnam and we often communicated by ordinary snail mail. We didn’t have Skype or email as we do today. Sometimes I missed her a lot. We all miss our beloved ones when we are far away from them.

While I enjoyed every word of the booklet written by Thay in Vietnamese, the love toward a mother described so vividly in the booklet was like a glass of cold water poured onto my head. I was “awakened” by Thay’s writing. Thay wrote about his mother, and I could relate to it. I felt some regret that I hadn’t known how to fully appreciate my mother’s sweet presence when we were together. Far away from home and from her, I realized I was so stupid for not letting my mother know more often how much I loved her.

I didn’t think of this author, Thay, again until 1984 when I had a chance to be in France, attending a scientific conference in Toulouse. At the end of the conference, a friend of mine offered to drive me to Plum Village as he had to visit his family not far from Duras. This was my first encounter with Plum Village. I wasn’t well prepared as I didn’t know what the practice of mindfulness was all about. It was all new to me and I was culturally shocked.

My first encounter with Plum Village was a challenging one. Eating in silence, walking in silence, sitting in silence, doing almost everything mindfully in silence. And there was no coffee for our breakfast meal in the morning. I found it a bit hard and I even thought of quitting. But somehow, my mind told me to persist and I stayed. On the fourth day, I suddenly tasted a kind of peaceful feeling I hadn’t tasted before. And this was the beginning of my long journey with Thay’s teachings and my Sangha practice thereafter.

I attended almost all Canadian retreats led by Thay between 1985 and 2005. In 1987 I began practicing regularly with the Maple Village Sangha in Montreal, and around 1991, together with some new friends in the Sangha, we founded the Ottawa Pagoda Sangha. This small Sangha has undergone many ups and downs but we have survived the waves of change. Today, supported by a strong and dedicated core group of OI and non-OI members, this Sangha holds regular weekly sessions and monthly days of mindfulness. Its activities can be seen on www.pagodasangha.org.

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Although my struggle with my old “bad” habits continues, and it happens from time to time that I derail from the right track, I can firmly tell you that we are in good hands with this practice. Mindful living has allowed me to attain some sort of a balance in my life and this way of living continues to protect me in various ways. My challenges have ranged from teaching large groups of university engineering students to driving in busy and dangerous streets in Yaounde (Cameroon). The challenges included giving talks in front of a crowd and performing choir songs in front of a large audience as well as dealing with some adverse moments in my life. For example, one time I had a very bad reaction to an antibiotic treatment the doctor gave me after a minor surgery. I was admitted to the emergency room in the hospital. Mindful breathing allowed me to be in control of my feelings and I was able to be at peace despite the very hectic moment. Another time, we encountered severe flooding in the basement with a broken water pipe during a harsh winter night of -25 degrees Celsius. It was very cold and windy. Mindful breathing allowed me to undertake urgent repair actions without panicking.

Nowadays, I’m able to live more and more in the present moment and to be more and more at peace with whatever I’m doing. Of course the struggle continues, but thanks to all my Sangha friends who provide guidance and support, I am evolving each day with all these blessings.

I present my deep gratitude to Thay and the Fourfold Sangha as one of the Plum Village songs resonates in my mind: You have given me such a treasure, I love you so…

Chan Ngo (Nguyen Duy Vinh) lives in Ottawa, Canada and practices with the Ottawa Pagoda Sangha. He received the Lamp Transmission from Thay in 1994 in Plum Village.

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Joyfully Together Mindfulness Practice Centre

A Beautiful Lotus in Malaysia

By Yeshe Dolma

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Together Mindfulness Practice Centre (JTMPC) in Shah Alam, Malaysia, in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village. The ceremony took place during a Wake Up retreat for young people and was led by Brother Phap Kham, who is in charge of guiding Plum Village in Asia, Sister Linh Nghiem, and eighteen other Plum Village monastics from Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong.

The Plum Village tradition in Malaysia started when Sister Linh Nghiem and a handful of other organisers led the first retreat at the Chempaka Buddhist Lodge in Petaling Jaya in 2006. Sister Linh Nghiem also gave a public talk at the Kota Kemuning Buddhist Centre. Two years later, in 2008, Brother Phap Kham and a few monastics held a four-day retreat at the Chin Loong temple in Rawang. Brother Phap Kham and others came again in 2009 to sponsor a family retreat, for the first time including children in the programme. That retreat took place at the Chin Swee temple in the Genting Highlands. Brother Phap Kham and other monastics also conducted the first Day of Mindfulness on November 21, 2009, in the Shah Alam Buddhist Society (SABS) Building. Since then, a small group of people from Kota Kemuning have organised a monthly Day of Mindfulness at the SABS.

In September of the following year, the Buddhist community in the Kota Kemuning region helped bring Thay and seventy monastics to Malaysia. The Zen Master’s visit was a big event made possible by many selfless people from eight different Buddhist organizations. Many people benefited from Thay’s teachings and some were inspired to build Sanghas in different parts of the country. Soon after his visit, the Joyfully Together Sangha was formed. Friends from all over the Klang Valley came to practice with us. Early in 2011, the Sangha acquired a two-story building in Kota Kemuning and turned it into the first permanent Plum Village practice centre in Malaysia.

We meet every Sunday at the Joyfully Together Mindfulness Practice Centre. On the first and third Sundays, we have family programmes, which include children. The Jataka tales are acted out by the children. On the second Sunday, we have Dharma study and read from Thay’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. We have our Day of Mindfulness on the fourth Sunday. The fifth Sunday is a Lazy Day when we do housecleaning for the centre.

Thay’s visit also resulted in the formation of a second Sangha. In January 2011, the Gentle Waves Sangha started in Penang/Ipoh for people in the northern region of our peninsula. In the same year, our first Malaysian nun, Sister Nga Mi, was ordained a novice in the tradition of Plum Village.

Slowly and steadily, we are building our Fourfold Sangha in Malaysia. May each of us strive to remember to breathe mindfully, to take gentle steps on our Mother Earth, and to live mindfully in the present moment. May the teachings of the Buddha and Thay, together with the Sangha, benefit people from all walks of life throughout Malaysia.

mb62-Joyfully2Yeshe Dolma, Living Joy of the Heart, is a member of the Joyfully Together Sangha in Shah Alam, Malaysia. She has led and organised Days of Mindfulness for the Gentle Waves Sangha in Ipoh/Penang,Malaysia, since January of 2011.

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Letter from the Editor

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, Editor-NB

I love reminiscing. Tell me a story that starts with “I remember when…” and you’ll have my full attention. I especially treasure recollections like the ones in this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. Although they are stories from many years ago, they serve as lanterns that light up the present moment with understanding.

In this special issue, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Plum Village and honor our beloved teachers. We bow deeply to Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and the many monastics and lay teachers who uphold the practice with joy, love, and wisdom. This collection of stories shows how our teachers make the way clearer by walking ahead of us, holding up the torch of awakening, illuminating the path of practice.

We honor those who have made Plum Village possible for all of us, and also those who have established practice centers and Sanghas all over the world. As  Sister Thoai Nghiem eloquently shares in this issue: “It is the image of an ancient tree that suddenly produces a fragrant flower. How I love this image! The fruits of meditation practice, of daily enlightenment from Thay, have been inherited. And the fragrance will be spreading in countless directions, even if the tree grows against the wind, and regardless of storms.”

Because an anniversary is a time to bow to our ancestors, I’d like to acknowledge the Sangha sisters and brothers whose love and labor have made the Mindfulness Bell possible. Heartfelt gratitude goes especially to Arnie Kotler, Therese Fitzgerald, Carole Melkonian, Yael (Ellen) Peskin, Maria Duerr, Leslie Rawls, Barbara Casey, Peggy Rowe Ward, Janelle Combelic, and Judith Toy, among many others. We thank each of you for creating and sustaining this publication—a gift of the living Dharma and a testament to our collective transformation.

As we honor our lineage and appreciate the many gifts we’ve received, may we put these gifts to service for the benefit of all. May we translate our understanding from the past into loving-kindness today. May our mindfulness and compassion, forged in the crucible of suffering, become a lamp that brightens the way for others. All around us, numberless beings need help—whether it’s food, shelter, medicine, or a listening ear. May we use the presence and love we’ve generated in our practice, both to transform our own suffering and to be here for others in need. 

The Mindfulness Bell is a joy to co-create. I truly hope it is a joy for you to read. Please consider making a donation to support production costs and help us send free subscriptions to prison inmates. And multiply your joy by giving gift subscriptions this holiday season.

May these offerings deeply benefit you and all beings. With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

 

 

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

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Ancient Tree, Fragrant Flower

By Sister Thoai Nghiem 

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They’re always beautiful, the good old days. Each time someone asks me about the old days, I am perplexed, saying “umm” and “ahh,” but once I start, I often run out of time. Our memories, when we touch them, vibrate as a musical note echoing in the vast silence.

I can see the images of those days…

Plum Village Memories 

Those days, our beds were slats of wood placed on four bricks in a cement-floor room with unpainted walls, without a heater, and the winter wind freely slipped in, freezing cold.

Those days, everyone was wearing a pair of wooden clogs because everywhere was muddy. Some lay practitioners, after returning home from Plum Village, would try to look for a pair of clogs because they thought it was a fashion at Plum Village. Some left with a chunk of mud as the village token. On the day when Lower Hamlet had to lay gravel on the path around the dining hall so that firefighters’ trucks could drive there according to the law, I looked at the new white path reflecting the sunshine and felt like I had just lost something very precious. It was a little bit like civilization had come to a remote rural area, and I became someone who missed the good old days.

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Those days, Dharma talks in the Lower Hamlet were given in the dining hall. Every fifteen minutes, teacher and disciples stopped to breathe and listen to the clock chime. The stove was placed at the end of the hall. Anyone who cooked could secretly chop and peel vegetables if they were not spotted by Thay.

Those days, the kitchen in Upper Hamlet had a top level, which was the dining hall. Going there to eat or for Dharma sharing, when standing up, you would have to bend your head since the pillars and rafters were so low.

Those days, in the Violet Cloud building, only Thay’s room was unchanged. It used to be the cow shed. Sister Tu Nghiem’s room is a common room now; Sister Hieu Nghiem’s is Sister Chan Khong’s now. The office was a library, and the rest of the upstairs space was for storage of miscellaneous things and/or straw.

Those days, each summer, Vietnamese would be heard all over the Lower Hamlet, where there was a festive atmosphere. Wooden slats and bricks were carried from here to there to build beds. At the end of summer, a row of plastic containers full of soiled bed linens was waiting to be washed by hand. Often I jumped inside the container to wash by feet.

Those days, almost every week, Thay would teach us chanting and ho canh. However, nine out of ten people would chant in different melodies.

Transforming Mind and Body 

Those days, Thay constantly introduced new practices with which we hardly could keep up. Our personal practice was still not good enough, so Thay had to find out new practices to help us transform our mind and body.

Those days, Thay organized a Dharma festival. When each person heard his or her name called, he or she had to go in front of the Sangha, breathe in and out three times, and pick a small piece of paper with a topic from the bell. Then that person had to talk about the selected topic for ten minutes. Some were freaked out, a few were quite articulate, and others burst into tears.

Those days, Upper Hamlet only had one blue van for shopping. The side door would not close properly. It was very nice to sit in there because when the van climbed uphill, the door would slowly open, allowing the wind to blow in, just like boarding a xe loi in Vietnam (very similar to a rickshaw, being pulled by a motorbike instead of a person).

Those days, Lower Hamlet only had an old car, donated by uncle Cao Thai. Sister Hieu Nghiem was the only driver since no one else could drive a manual car.

Those days, I wandered around the whole day in the forest because the schedule was very relaxed except on a Day of Mindfulness. In the autumn I picked apples and hazelnuts and gathered wood for the fireplace in the dining hall. In the spring I hung a hammock under the plum trees and fell asleep.

Those days, all novices wore grey robes. Thay loved the memories of his novice time, so one day Thay came into the meditation hall wearing a grey robe.

Those days, bikkhus wore brown robes. Bikkhunis and novice nuns could wear only brown robes during retreats. When there was an announcement on the board about putting on sanghati, the sisters would ask each other what color robe to wear.

Those days were nearly twenty years ago. I was still very clumsy; it took me nearly half an hour each time I shaved my head. I was still up and down due to little-things-that-seem-to-be-very big happening in the Sangha. I still got very excited like a child receiving a gift each time I had a chance to play/be with Thay. I still worried about Thay’s fragile health because I was such a baby stumbling on my feet. I still anxiously wondered how Plum Village would be without Thay.

Those days, Thay talked about Vietnam, or the root temple, or the traditional protocols from when Thay was still a novice, without expecting that one day he would be able to set foot in his homeland. And I sat there, listening with a soft heart. I loved Vietnam, loved those intelligent novices who were very keen in learning and practicing, loved my beloved Dharma sisters and brothers whom I had never met, and who were trying to preserve the Buddhist conduct in Vietnam.

Inheriting the Fruits

Now, Thay has been able to go back to our homeland, although his returns were full of difficulties and challenges. I too have gotten to know Vietnam. I was there for more than four years, living in a traditional temple and being close to the root temple.

Now, Plum Village has turned thirty years old. Ten years is long enough for a child to mature; thirty years is sufficient for a newborn baby to become a well-established adult in society. And the children of Plum Village—Upper Hamlet, Lower Hamlet, New Hamlet, Maison de l’Inspire, Deer Park, Green Mountain, Blue Cliff, Magnolia Grove, EIAB, AIAB—although being born in different times, have already started to stand firmly on two feet, self-sufficient and contributing peace to the world.

In the early days of Thay’s Dharma tours, Thay was assisted by just a few lay and monastic Dharma teachers. Today, Thay’s presence is inseparable with the image of a big Sangha and retreats with approximately 1,000 attendees. Not only has Thay conducted Dharma tours, but our young Dharma teachers have also been to many different places to provide teachings. Additionally, various centers have organized many retreats. In recent years, both the Wake Up movement, which has introduced mindfulness to young people in schools and universities, and health retreats have developed strongly and have been very well received. And our very young novices have played a really active role in this work.

At this present time, Thay continues to generate new insight. For many years, the tree of wisdom has flourished and has been fruitful. Now, at the age of eighty-five, Thay has still not stopped. Thay would like us to be solid on the path to renew Buddhism. Thay would like us to bring Thay into the future.

mb61-AncientTree3It is the image of an ancient tree that suddenly produces a fragrant flower. How I love this image! The fruits of meditation practice, of daily enlightenment from Thay, have been inherited. And the fragrance will be spreading in countless directions, even if the tree grows against the wind, and regardless of storms.

Sister Thoai Nghiem resides in New Hamlet, has been with Plum Village since 1993, and likes to take care of the gardens.

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Twenty-two Years of Plum Village

By Paul Tingen  

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My first visit to Plum Village, twenty-two years ago, is still as vividly engrained in my memory as if it happened last week, probably because it was packed with surprises, ranging from the eyebrow-raising to the jaw-dropping. I arrived in Lower Hamlet on a warm evening in July 1990 during the Summer Opening. The first person I encountered was Shantum Seth, who looked rather splendid in his Indian outfit and who seemed to be the only one who had an overview of what was happening. As I put my ruck- sack down, I asked him where I could sleep, and he replied, “You can put your tent anywhere, or sleep in a room.” I looked around for where I could pitch up my tent, but Shantum’s next question stopped me in my tracks. “You want to join the evening meditation? It starts in half an hour.”

I’d just hitchhiked from London and was tired, but I was also eager for my first experience of what Plum Village was about, so I said yes. Half an hour later I sat in the Red Candle Hall, puzzled by the fact that we were facing the wall and not one another, and impressed by the sound of the big bell. The session turned out to be a guided meditation on death, with phrases like: “Breathing out, I see my dead body festering.” The whole meditation was a visualisation of the process of one’s own corpse decaying until it turned to dust. I was shocked. Some part of me guessed that this was about training our minds to get used to the idea of physical death and to chip off bits of the big rock of our fear of death, but at the same time, as a horror show of images paraded through my mind, I thought, “Are these people morbid or something? Have I ended up in the clutches of some crazy religious sect?”

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears2Fateful Decision 

The fact was, at that point I knew nothing about the practice. The reason I was in Plum Village was that a few months earlier, in April, I had attended a talk by Thay in London. At that time a series of mostly New Age talks was held every Monday night in St. James’ Church, near Piccadilly Circus. I was on a spiritual search for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and I also had a lot of suffering that I didn’t know how to transform, so I went every Monday night, looking for answers. I had no idea who Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong were. After everyone had taken their seats, Sister Chan Khong sang to us and explained the practice of the bell, and there was a lot of stopping, going slowly, and breathing. I recall thinking, a bit impatiently, “This is going to be a long evening.” I looked at the exit and considered going to a local café to have some cake and coffee and coming back later to meet some friends. Then Thay came forward, and from halfway down the church he looked like he was thirty-five years old. Add his gap-toothed smile, soft voice, and extremely simple language, and I remember thinking, “Who is this young upstart and what does he know?” My decision to delay my exit for coffee and cake for a few more minutes turned out to be one of the most fateful of my life.

Ten minutes later I was hooked. Not long afterwards, I started to cry. I cried for the rest of Thay’s talk. When I occasionally looked around me, I saw that at least half the people in the audience were actively weeping. Thay’s talk was extraordinary, and as he kept talking, I realised that there was a wealth of experience, wisdom, depth, and insight behind his very simple words. The main thing I recall is that I was deeply touched by his attitude toward suffering. He acknowledged suffering with compassion and without judgment. It was okay to suffer. Thay showed a way that accepted and embraced suffering with tenderness, but he also offered a way out of suffering that was light, simple, and delicious. As he talked I kept being stunned at how much of what he said was common sense. I recognised everything he said as obvious life truths, yet I’d never heard anyone formulate them before. At that point I had an inkling that I’d found my teacher, and to this day my life is separated into the time before and the time after that April evening.

Naturally, when I found out that Thay had a centre in the south of France, one of my favourite areas in the world, I decided to go. And so a few months later I found myself sitting in the Lower Hamlet Red Candle Hall with horror movie images running through my head. I didn’t immediately plan my exit, but I did go to sleep with mixed feelings. The next morning we all went to Upper Hamlet for Thay’s Dharma talk, which was in the Transformation Hall. The Summer Retreat was attended by perhaps two hundred people, and while most fit in the hall, a couple of dozen listened under the linden tree. Thay was only five minutes into his talk when I experienced the same feelings I had had in London a few months earlier. I was deeply touched, and the doubts that had arisen the evening before fell away. He was indeed my teacher. I had arrived.

A New Direction

Life in Plum Village in 1990 was very different than it is now—for starters, the schedule. I remember that we got up at approximately 6:30 a.m. and began practice at 7:00 a.m. Morning practice consisted of the round of sitting-walking-sitting meditation, followed by sutra reading with sometimes a bit of chanting. Breakfast started at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. Thay’s Dharma talk was planned for 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., but because he took so long to casually stroll towards the hall, while chatting with people on the way, he often didn’t start until later. Thay’s Dharma talks often were long, so lunch tended to be at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., after which there was rest time. Walking meditation was usually at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., and after dinner there was another sitting-walking-sitting meditation session beginning at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. (I invite those with better memories than mine to correct these times if I haven’t got them quite right.)

In addition to Thay, there were only three other monastics living at Plum Village: Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Jina (who was still walking around in very striking black and white Japanese robes). Thay and Sister Chan Khong were very available and approachable. Thay would chat with loads of people, particularly before his Dharma talks. Very early on during my stay, he heard me playing my acoustic guitar under the linden tree, and he approached me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar in the meditation hall before the Dharma talk, to calm people down and keep chatting to a minimum while they waited for him. I was very happy to oblige, and it was the beginning of a whole new musical direction for me. When he arrived thirty to forty-five minutes later, he’d sit next to me, listening and waiting for me to finish my piece, after which we bowed to each other and I left the stage.

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It was fairly easily organized in those days to have tea with Thay, and during this occasion I remember being struck by seeing Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving among the five books on his bookshelf. Sister Chan Khong was also very approachable, and I regularly sat next to her in an old Peugeot 505, mostly driving between Upper and Lower Hamlet. I have no idea why we went up and down so often, but it gave me a chance to talk about what was bothering me. She was always very present, and many of her pearls of wisdom are still with me today. I was practicing in an esoteric Christian tradition at the time, and in response to my feeling uneasy about the Buddhist aspects of Plum Village she replied, “You don’t need to feel this is your home; just relax and regard it as a hospital for you to heal.” To my question about how to stay mindful when playing rock and roll on my electric guitar, she advised, “Just breathe before you play, and breathe again after you play.” Simple, and no judgment. She also told me, “Don’t think about what’s bothering you all the time. Breathe and focus on other things, and then, when you’re no longer thinking about it, a solution will suddenly pop into your head.”

It was also Sister Chan Khong who at one point tapped me on the shoulder and gently asked, “Why don’t you join the walking meditation?” As a left-leaning young man who had been strongly influenced by the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, I had a strong habit energy of rebellion and non-conformism, and didn’t immediately join in with all the practices. The immense tolerance in Plum Village was therefore a godsend for me. For example, for more than a year I refused to bow. Once someone gently asked me why and then appeared to happily accept my answer. There was no pressure to do anything or be anything other than myself. This gave me the space to discover for myself what bowing is about, and when I realised that honouring the Buddha in the other person is a very beautiful practice, I could bow from a place of total authenticity. To this day, bowing is an important practice for me that feels completely comfortable and genuine.

I felt that Thay and Sister Chan Khong personally took me under their wing and opened doors for my Plum Village experience—Sister Chan Khong with her compassionate listening and wisdom, and Thay in encouraging me to follow the new musical direction I had taken. Until my first visit to Plum Village, I was involved in making rock music, but it never felt quite right. With Thay’s encouragement, more and more acoustic guitar pieces came rolling out of me, and I eventually realised that this was my true musical voice. I recorded parts of my first CD in Plum Village in 1993, something that Thay personally made possible, saying that he wanted the community to be able to support artists.

Presence of Compassion 

Until I (temporarily) moved to the U.S. in 1999, I travelled several times a year from England to Plum Village, and every time I arrived I noticed changes that were not to my liking. For example, the wake-up time became earlier and earlier; there were more people, more buildings, and stricter practice; men and women were separated between the hamlets; and gradually Sister Chan Khong and particularly Thay became less available to laypeople. Every time I initially thought, “Oh, no!” And yet, every time, this reaction dropped away within hours as I noticed that the energy of the practice and the presence of compassion and understanding were the same as the last time I visited.

However, as the morning wake-up time became earlier and earlier, I did become a morning meditation truant, eventually abandoning that practice altogether. I could barely function for the rest of the day when I did attend. And after my first child was born in 2002, and sleepless nights became the norm, I learned to grab every second of sleep that I could.

And then, one summer morning in Upper Hamlet a few years ago, I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went to the big meditation hall, arriving fifteen minutes early for the morning meditation. A few people were already there, and I sat down far away from them, in a quiet corner where I expected to have a lot of space to myself. I had just settled in my meditation when I heard someone enter the hall, move slowly in my direction, and sit down right beside me. I wondered who would choose, out of all the free places in the hall, the seat immediately to my left. I glanced sideways. It was Thay.

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears4Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of a book about the electric music of Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

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Summer Camp of the Pure Land

By David Lawrence 

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Getting to Plum Village was not easy. I had a strong desire to go, but the prospect of leaving my many activities created doubts that I would actually be able to make the trip. Yet the anticipation of being with the greater Sangha and deepening my practice helped me to say yes.

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My flight arrived late at Charles de Gaulle Airport and was followed by a crazy bus ride into Paris. I frantically tried to find the right railway station for the TGV and then transfer to a smaller train that took me to Ste Foy. Finally, I remembered Thay’s words to the exhausted and impatient traveler: “Continue to breathe and smile.”

At Ste Foy, I was greeted by a very kind monk who understood how tired I was. Our trip to Upper Hamlet was quiet and reflective. As we approached Plum Village on a narrow tree-lined road, I saw the sign in Thay’s calligraphy: You have arrived, you are home. The words were very comforting after my long trip. I took my first real breath in quite a while.

Throughout the Summer Opening, I deeply enjoyed the delight and laughter of children playing, held in safety by the community. I loved sharing meals outside. The chiming clocks, announcing breathing opportunities every fifteen minutes, became my bells of mindfulness. Practice flowed with fun and ease. At the end of each day, I would lie down in my tent feeling totally content and ready for sleep. I wondered: Could this be the Summer Camp of the Pure Land?

Kindred Spirit 

Retreatants came to Plum Village for a minimum of one week. Many came for the full four-week period of the Summer Opening. It was extraordinary how quickly we all became a Sangha family. People left Plum Village on Saturday and it was always a very emotional time. Much of the Sangha would come to say goodbye. We practiced hugging meditation and shed a few tears as friends boarded the bus. People waved out of the windows until the bus was out of view. Shortly after they left, new people arrived and the process of deep connection started over again.

Almost every day, I saw a man who I knew was a kindred spirit. Whenever I saw him, we both stopped and looked at each other in a profound way without any self-consciousness. I never actually met him in the “normal” way. There was no need to know anything about this person, where he came from, or who he was, and no need to connect in any other way. In the act of bowing deeply, there was self-recognition and deep knowing.

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Among the many connections I made, two special people stand out; they helped me see more clearly during my stay in Plum Village. Thay Giac Thanh was a senior monk in charge of practice in the Upper Hamlet. He had a large smile that lit up his whole face. I was privileged to be invited to his hut for tea and have wonderful playful conversations. He was soft and joyful and also could be like a tiger. His combination of sweetness and strength was extraordinary. I will always be grateful for his friendship. Thay Doji, a French Zen monk who had practiced in Japan for many years, helped me in my times of doubt. He was solid as a mountain. I bow to his willingness to share his experiences and insights in a deep way.

A Space of Freedom

Once each week, we had a lazy day. It was a day to do anything we liked. We could sleep all day, meditate, go for a walk, or be with friends. There was no schedule. Some of the Sangha would gather under the large linden tree in the Upper Hamlet, enjoying the sunshine, gentle breezes, tea, silence, or quiet conversation.

Thay said in a Dharma talk that the lazy day was the most difficult day of the week for Westerners. How often do we allow ourselves to truly be lazy, without any agenda? It was a real practice for me to let go of thinking about doing something better and anticipating what was next. Yet it was so simple and pleasurable to just sit and let the moments pass, one after another. This feeling of being content, just being and breathing, was new. A smile came from a deeper part of myself.

Plum Village had a strong current of insight generated by mindfulness and it was always available if I turned to it. What magic it was to see things from a space of freedom and not of fear. Sometimes I would go and look over the hillside at the sunflower fields. I would close my eyes and then open them after some moments, and I understood that the inside was the same as the outside. The concept of interbeing became an experience.

mb61-SummerCamp4David Lawrence, True Land of Harmony, lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife Marianne Benforado, Awakened Lamp of the Heart. Chuli, their sweet doggie companion, gives them daily Dharma lessons in living joyfully. The Heart Sangha of Santa Cruz is their practice community.

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More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

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My Beloved Teacher

By Chan Luong

My teacher was a famous writer in Vietnam. The Buddhist and non-Buddhist young people of my generation knew Thay by his renowned book, A Dialogue with Young Adult.* Over fifty years ago, he called for reform in Buddhist practice in Vietnam and focused on the essence of the teachings rather than the manifold forms. I see him as a revolutionist monk.

Thich Nhat Hanh Many people talk about the enlightened beings of our century. My comment is the common Vietnamese saying: A teacher like Thay appears only once every few hundred years. Like other great beings, Thay has embodied compassionate living throughout his life. Since the day he founded the School of Youth for Social Service in 1964, Thay and Sister Chan Khong have ceaselessly reached out to people who suffered during and after wartime. Many of us already know about Thay’s books, his teachings, and his influence on numerous lives. I would like to share with you some of my fondest memories of Thay.

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 The Mindful Way

One time, during a retreat in the early days of Plum Village, some of us young people spent an afternoon with Thay, collating pages of a book for binding and publishing. After he had explained how to carry out the task, we all followed Thay around a large table, picking up pages and putting them together to complete the book. Thay walked slowly and mindfully with great ease. At the end, we realized the number of books each of us had collated was less than Thay’s. With surprise and wonder, we asked Thay how that could be. Thay gently smiled to us and said it was simply because he had more experience than we did. I thought how sweet he was! However, this experience helped me to understand that with practice, one can be mindful and productive at the same time.

During the time when I was fortunate enough to be Thay’s assistant in the Lower Hamlet, I saw how Thay spoke, taught, and played with young people. They were happy and delighted, and they adored Thay. There was never a wall between this most venerable monk and the youngsters. I felt the communication between them was deep, and Thay could easily transmit his teachings directly to them. They were called “mini OI members.” I have worked with teenagers for over twenty years as a clinician. If I have been able to help them make changes in their lives, I attribute it to the loving, compassionate, and mindful way that Thay has taught me. I know that I need to keep the light of mindfulness and compassion shining and learn ways to take care when the light dims.

One year when we celebrated Christmas at Plum Village, the monastics and laypeople spent hours creating the festive occasion. Tables were beautifully decorated with leaves and dried flowers. Food was abundant. Thay mindfully walked to the table to invite the bell marking the beginning of dinner. Then we suddenly noticed him calmly holding a big spoon to invite the bell, as the inviter was not available. There were no reprimands, no interruptions of the celebration.

I thought Thay felt that his lay students may be a little shy about their compassionate actions in life. One day, in a question and answer session, Thay responded to the big question, “What is compassion?” He simply said: “Compassion is like when you are inside your home, warm and comfortable with a cup of hot tea in your hand. It is cold and dark outside. You hear a calling, put the cup of tea down, and walk out in that cold, dark, and windy place to help.” Thay’s words have profoundly affected my ordinary and humble life as an OI member.

Those of us who live “down under,” far from France, often receive a special treat before our departure from Plum Village: having tea or walking with Thay. Moments of sitting or walking meditation with Thay remain fresh and vivid in my memory. When we walk beside him, we feel his presence; his energy of mindfulness is so powerful that peace emerges in us.

Life-Changing Pilgrimage 

In 1988 I went to India with Thay and a delegation of just over thirty people. We arrived at the Lumbini Motel in a remote village after a long and dusty trip. The showers didn’t have hot water. I managed to get some help from motel staff and carried a bucket of hot water to the shower room. When I accidentally crossed paths with Thay, he gently asked me where I had found the hot water. I offered to fetch some for him. But he quietly said, “Thay already had a shower with cold water.” We had all forgotten to look after our teacher, but still he had kind words for us.

While in India, we pilgrims followed Thay to Vulture Peak. Every day we walked up the mountain, listened to Thay’s Dharma talks, and watched the sunset together in silence. Gazing into the distance with my mindful breath, I felt the beauty of the sunset flow through me, and I didn’t need it to last forever. We also felt the presence of the Buddha on Vulture Peak through Thay’s words. Since that day, when I encounter difficulties in life, I silently say, “Namo Shakyamunaye Buddhaya” to get in touch with the Buddha in myself.

One day, others were busy at the Indian market or resting, and I sat with my teacher on the rocks. We enjoyed the silence together. Unexpectedly, Thay said, “Just breathe, dear.” Thay’s gentle words left a deep imprint in my mind. Years later, I read the book Breath By Breath. The author, Larry Rosenberg, commented that Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I have watched my breath [for] over fifty years [and it has]…only grown in interest.”

That pilgrimage to India with Thay changed my life forever. While traveling on a full moon day, we stopped so that Thay could recite the precepts. There were no candles, no table. Thay gathered some Bodhi leaves and rocks to make an altar under the tree. With some simple incense, he conducted the most beautiful ceremony I ever attended. That experience taught me that we could create something beautiful with our mindful energy, and that without mindfulness, ceremonies could become empty rituals.

A Rare Combination

Our teacher is a rare combination of a great poet and a venerable monk. Therefore his teachings are profound, yet gentle, loving, and compassionate. His teachings and ways of organising have never been doctrinaire. Many of us feel like we have come home when we hear him talk.

Thay is a kind teacher, and he sees that the teachings of impermanence and non-self are not easy for many of us to practice. His insight about the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is incredible. Thay says that without impermanence, a young plant cannot grow into a tree, a child cannot grow to be an adult. Personally, I had never heard anyone talk about impermanence in that way before. His Dharma talks about non-self are very clear. He helps us see the ultimate dimension of life through the historical dimension, leading to the ending of our suffering.

Thay can be fierce in his teaching. He has told us many times that he doesn’t like us to be like parrots that repeat words they do not understand or like empty husks of grain that practice outer forms and have no substance inside. He’s also a sweet and loving teacher who wants to know whether each Plum Village hamlet has enough firewood and food for winter days.

Thay sees interbeing in all things. He often tells us that each of us is a flower in the garden of mankind; each kind of flower has its own beauty. If you are a chrysanthemum, a daffodil, an orchid, or a rose, be a beautiful chrysanthemum, daffodil, orchid, or rose; do not strive to be a different kind of flower, making yourself unhappy. He also says a garden is beautiful because it has different kinds of flowers.

Many practitioners may still seek the bliss of entering Jhana, detached moments from the world. But I love my teacher’s incredible “stillness in action,” a testament to his solidity and deep peace. Larry Rosenberg writes, “Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage draws on both Theravada and Mahayana teaching. He more than anyone else demonstrates the importance of bringing breath awareness into daily life, of staying awake in the midst of all our activities. He is unrelenting in his teaching, and it took such a strong message to get through to me.” Such a message is as vital to us, Thay’s students, as it is to Larry.

Lightness Fills My Path

Plum Village has grown so rapidly; nowadays, even when you stay on a retreat, you only get a glimpse of Thay. As he is approaching his senior years, everyone contributes to protect and preserve Thay’s energy for the Dharma. The new generation of practitioners may not have as much teaching of mindfulness directly from Thay as in the early days.

We know that Thay is growing in years, and we know deeply the universal law of impermanence. I remember that one year, at the end of a June retreat for OI members in Plum Village, Thay conducted a simple closing ceremony. Afterwards, we all stood up and offered a lotus flower with our joined palms as our way of saying goodbye to Thay. While Thay slowly walked out of the hall, suddenly, in that solemn silence, a voice arose: “We love you, Thay.” I thought that loving voice spoke for all of us that day.

* Noi Voi Tuoi Hai Muoi

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Mai Than-Trong, Chan Luong, became an OI member in 1988 and ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. She was one of the founders of the Lotus Bud Sangha based in Sydney, Australia. Mai is currently a semi-retired senior psychologist in Sydney.

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plum Village Smiles

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

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

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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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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Dharma Talk: The Day I Turn Twenty

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

mb31-dharma1Dear Sangha, today is the 13th of December 2001. We are in the Dharma Nectar Hall, at the Lower Hamlet, during the winter retreat. The committee, working on the book for the twentieth anniversary of Plum Village has asked me to talk about the history of Plum Village so that they can include it in the book. There are so many stories to recount that I don’t know where to start!

 

The Six Umbrella Pines

We found the Lower Hamlet on the 28th of September 1982. Before this, we had found the Upper Hamlet. When we went to take a look at the Upper Hamlet, I liked it immediately, because it was beautiful. I saw the path that could be for our walking meditation, and I fell in love with it at first sight. However, Mr. Dezon, the land owner of the Upper Hamlet, did not want to sell it. He loved that piece of land very much; he could not let it go. We understood this, since he had been a farmer there for a long time. After a few days, we found the Lower Hamlet. Having purchased the Lower Hamlet, we still wanted the Upper Hamlet. Therefore, we continued to pay attention to what was going on up there. That year, there was a hailstorm that destroyed all the owner’s vineyards. He got angry and put it on the market for a very high price, not to have more money, but so that he would not have to sell it. In spite of the increased price, we bought it, because we liked the land so much. As a result, we had the Lower Hamlet first, then after a few months, we had the Upper Hamlet as a part of Plum Village. In previous years we held the summer retreat in the Sweet Potato Hermitage in the North of France. It was, however, such a small center that we could not receive many meditation students. As a result, we came to the South to look for land and establish a practice center that could receive more people.

mb31-dharma2We decided to open Plum Village to the public right away during our first summer, in 1983. Thus, from the winter of 1982 to the summer of 1983, we had to work a lot. At the beginning of 1983, we began to plant some trees in the Upper Hamlet. The first trees we planted were six umbrella pine trees with the help of a local farmer. The land in the Upper Hamlet was full of rocks, so we needed his machine to dig holes for the trees . We put a little bit of cow manure in the bottom of each hole before planting the trees. It was raining on that day and everybody was soaked. Afterwards, I got sick and stayed in bed for three weeks. Everybody was worried. Fortunately, after a while I could get up and eat some rice soup.

In those days, we did not call it Plum Village, we called it Persimmon Village which was the name of a practice center the School of Youth for Social Service and the Order of Interbeing had planned on building in Vietnam, so that their members could come to practice and nourish themselves. In the 1950s, we had the Fragrant Palm Leaves center in the highlands of Vietnam, in Blao. You would know about that center if you have read the book Fragrant Palm Leaves. However, the School of Youth for Social Service wanted to have a center closer to the city. When I wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness, I also mentioned the idea of founding a practice center called Persimmon Village. Eight years later, we managed to find the Lower Hamlet and our vision came true. We had thought of planting persimmons but we realized that it was not practical, so we planted plum trees instead. We were still naive, thinking that if we planted many plum trees, we could have enough income to support ourselves. We were not horticulturists, so we did not do very well. We have enjoyed more plum blossoms than plums.

The name Plum Village is beautiful, so we changed it from Persimmon Village to Plum Village. In reality, we had only planted a few dozen persimmon trees, but we had planted 1,250 plum trees. Many of those first plum trees that we planted were bought with the pocket money given to us by children who came to Plum Village. The children were told that in seven years the plum trees would give fruits; those fruits would be dehydrated and sold, and that money would be used to help hungry children in Vietnam or in other poor countries. Many children saved their pocket money in order to plant plum trees. Sometimes the children would combine their pocket money to plant a plum tree. It cost thirty-five French francs to plant a baby plum tree. We planted 1,250 trees because that was the number of the original monastic Sangha of the Buddha.

In May of 1983 we held our first Summer Opening with 117 practitioners. We did not yet have the practice of touching the earth or the daily practice with gathas, meditation poems. However, we already had sitting meditation, walking mediation, tea meditation, and consultations. There were not yet monks and nuns, so I had to lead all the practices from the beginning to the end, from A to Z. I had to walk around and correct people’s sitting posture, straightening each person ‘s back and neck. During our first summer retreat, Westerners came to practice with Vietnamese people. In the second Summer Opening, there were 232 people. In the third 305, the seventh 483, and in the ninth there were 1030. In 1996, 1200 people came for the summer retreat and in 1998, there were 1450 practitioners. In the year 2000, the number increased to 1800. Of course, not all 1800 came at the same time. Some came for one, two, or three weeks, and some came for the entire four weeks of the retreat. There were also those who li ked it so much that after four weeks they asked to stay on longer. People also come throughout the year to practice with us. In the first few years, Western practitioners stayed in the Upper Hamlet while Vietnamese and Asian practitioners stayed in the Lower Hamlet so they could enjoy traditional dishes of their homeland.

The Atlantic cedars, which you see in the Upper Hamlet, were also planted during the first year. They were just four feet tall then. They took a long time to grow, but the more they grew, the more beautiful they became. They will be very beautiful in three hundred years. There are two different varieties of Atlantic cedars; one is a smoky gray color, and the other is a silvery blue. When we do walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet, we start at the linden tree. As we pass the Transformation Meditation Hall, we see the Atlantic cedars on the right. They are already so beautiful. I often look at a tree and see it as a monk or a nun who is growing strong in Plum Village. I stop to offer praise, this young novice is doing quite well because that cedar has grown healthily and beautifully. Twenty years have passed, and they are now grown – no longer four-foot high baby cedar trees. In Plum Village, many other things have grown up as well. Not only the monks and nuns and lay practitioners have grown up, but our methods of practice have also matured like the cedars.

The Signless Nature of Plum Village 

In 1983 , standing on the hill I already saw that all the plum trees were in flower, whitening the whole land. That was the sight in the ultimate dimension. Within four years, when the spring arrived, the plum trees really did blossom so beautifully. Every April, we organize the Plum Blossom Festival, with tea, cookies, singing, and poetry. In Plum Village, we have two flower festivals: One is called the Plum Blossom Festival, and the other, the Daffodil Festival. In the Upper Hamlet at the end of March, thousands of wild daffodils bloom in the Dharma Body Forest. We organize a Daffodil Festival and about half a month later, we have the Plum Blossom Festival in the Lower Hamlet. If you come to Plum Village in April you will be able to participate in the Plum Blossom Festival, which is beautiful and poetic.

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Now Plum Village also includes the New Hamlet, which is the Loving Kindness Temple, the Hillside Hamlet and the Gatehouse. Near Upper Hamlet we also have Middle Hamlet and West Hamlet. Many are surprised when they come and see that Plum Village is not what they had imagined. For example, we had forewarned a delegation of practitioners from the Buddhist Association of China before their arrival to Plum Village, saying that we had only trees and cow barns that have been converted into meditation halls and living quarters. We had told them this many times, but when they arrived they were still surprised. They had not expected that Plum Village could be so poor, simple, and rustic. Each one of us has a different understanding of Plum Village.

Novice monk, Brother Phap Can, grew up and studied in Germany and came to Plum Village to be ordained. Last year, he went back to Germany with a delegation from Plum Village, and he discovered a new Germany. During those years that he lived in Germany, he had never been in touch with the Plum Village Sangha there. This time going back, he encountered a large number of Vietnamese and German people following the practices of Plum Village. There were Dharma talks, where 3,000 and 7,000 German people attended. There were walking meditation processions with many hundreds of German people walking together. Returning to Germany, he discovered a completely new Germany. Plum Village exists in Germany, but he had never seen it during the seven or eight years he had lived there. We have to find the truth with the eye of signlessness. Plum Village elements exist everywhere; they exist in our own hearts.

Coming to Plum Village with a camcorder does not necessarily mean that you can record Plum Village. Plum Village is not a Vietnamese temple that is set up on European land. In Plum Village, we see the Indian culture, the Chinese culture, the Vietnamese culture, and the Western culture. When we look at Plum Village carefully, we see that non-Plum Village elements exist in Plum Village. Consequently, Plum Village is also an object of meditation. The deeper we look into it, the more clearly we see it. Otherwise, looking at Plum Village, we only have a superficial and vague notion about Plum Village. If we look at it deeply, we see that Plum Village is also unborn and undying.

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A few years ago, when we went to visit the Jeta Grove in India, one of the places where the Buddha lived, we found that the Jeta Grove Monastery was no longer there. A group of Japanese archeologists came to excavate the area, and they discovered remnants of many large monasteries adjacent to one another, buried under the earth over time. They could identify the places where the monks slept, the Buddha hall, the teaching hall, and so on. Yet, we know that the Jeta Grove has never died, because when we go to other countries like Japan, China, Korea, and Tibet we see that the Jeta Grove is still there in its new forms. Thus, the true nature of the Jeta Grove is that of no-birth and no-death. Plum Village is the same. For example, if tomorrow Plum Village is closed down, and people build large shopping malls in the Lower Hamlet and the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village will still be there in its new manifestations everywhere, especially in our hearts. When we come to Plum Village, we must look at it deeply to see its nature of no-birth and no-death; we must see the reality of Plum Village beyond all forms.

Old Path White Clouds 

The first years during the Summer Opening, I stayed in the room above the bookshop in the building near the Linden tree in the Upper Hamlet. We had very few rooms then, and I had to share the room with four or five children. They slept with me and at night they sprawled out on the floor. I thought that children needed to sing; that chanting alone was not enough. I intended to write the song, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life … ” for the children to sing. In the afternoon we did sitting in the mediation hall called the Bamboo Hall. The walls are made of stone. Facing a big block of stone, the tune for the song came to me. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life,” then “Namo Buddhaya.” I thought to myself, I am here to do sitting meditation and not to make up songs. Let’s continue it after the sitting meditation. However, after a few minutes, the music returned to me. I thought, if it’s – going to be like this, I may as well compose the song now. So I continued writing that song and, after the meditation, I recorded it in order not to forget it.

I remember at that time I was also writing the book, Old Path White Clouds. We did not have central heating yet, only a wood stove in the room and the weather was very cold. I wrote with my right hand and I put my left hand out over the stove. I was very happy writing that book. From time to time I would stand up and make myself a cup of tea to drink. Every day the few hours I spent writing was like sitting with the Buddha for a cup of tea. I knew that the readers would have much happiness while reading the book because I had so much happiness while writing the book.

Writing Old Path White Clouds was not hard work, it was an immense joy. It was also a time of discovery. There were sections that were, to me, more difficult than others. One section was when the Buddha first gave teachings to the three Kasyapa brothers and received them as disciples. There are some documents that say that the Buddha had to use miracles to do it, but I didn’t want to retell that he did it with miracles. I wanted to show that he did it with his compassion and understanding. The Buddha has a great capacity of understanding and compassion so why would he have to use miraculous powers? I had a strong faith that I would be able to write the chapter in that light. That was the most difficult chapter for me to write in Old Path White Clouds, but eventually I succeeded.

The second most difficult chapter was when the Buddha went back to visit his family after having already becoming enlightened. He was still the son of his parents and a brother to his siblings. I wished to write in a way that would retain his human qualities. The way he took the hand of his father upon their meeting, the way he related with his younger sister, with Yasodhara and Rahula was very natural. I could only write in that way because I felt the ancestral teachers were supporting me. In reading Old Path White Clouds, we find that Buddha is a human being and not a god because that is precisely the aim of the author, to help the readers rediscover the Buddha as a human being. I tried to take away all the mystic halos that people ascribe to the Buddha. Not being able to see the Buddha as a human being makes it difficult for us to approach the Buddha.

Blossoms of Awakening 

I became a monk in Vietnam. I grew up in Vietnam. I learned and practiced Buddhism in Vietnam. Before coming to the West I taught several generations of Buddhist students in Vietnam. But I can say that I realized the path in the West. In 1962, at Princeton University, where I came and learned more about the history of religions, I began to have many deep insights, flowers and fruits of the practice. If you have read Fragrant Palm Leaves you will see that my going to Princeton was like going into a monastery. It was far from all the pressing demands of the current situation in Vietnam. I had much time to do walking meditation, assisting the maturation of insights that had not yet ripened. I wrote the book, A Rose for Your Pocket in the summer of 1962. It is a very simple book but is in fact the fruit of awakening. It is in this book that the practice of “dwelling happily in the present moment” is first described. Each of us has a mother. A mother who is as fragrant as the “fragrant banana” or delicious as sweet rice or as sweet as sugar cane. Aware of those qualities of your mother, do not live superficially with your mother but live with full awareness. We need to live in a way that does not cause the wonderful things of life to slip right through our fingers. We need to live deeply with each moment in the present. This is what is contained in that little book. A Rose for Your Pocket can be considered as the first blossom of my awakening. And since then, that insight has just continued on its path of deepening.

The shortest and most profound Dharma talk I can give is “I have arrived, I am home.” Only six words. And this morning, I shared with Sister Chau Nghiem that, “I have arrived, I am home” can be considered as the Dharma Seal of Plum Village. Any Dharma talk, any teaching which goes against the spirit of “I have arrived, I am home” is not truly a teaching or method of practice of Plum Village. That Dharma seal was first expressed in that little book, A Rose for Your Pocket.

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In 1974, while I was working for peace in Paris I wrote the book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I wrote it out of love for my monastic and lay students who were working in Vietnam in the dangerous circumstances of wartime. I wrote it for young social workers in Vietnam, monks and nuns and lay people. After that book was written I sent it to Vietnam to be published and over here I thought that our friends who had supported the work of calling for peace could also enjoy the practice as it was expressed in that book. So it was translated into English. This is a book that teaches us how to dwell in the present moment and to live mindfully with awareness of what is happening within us and around us. Between the writing of A Rose for Your Pocket in 1962 and The Miracle of Mindfulness in 1974, there was twelve years during which I wrote and published many titles. In those twelve years you can recognize the progressive change in my way of looking at things. That was the process of the blooming of a lotus.

In my life of practice I have had the opportunity to bring Buddhism back to the stream of the original teachings of the Buddha. Before coming back to the original stream of teachings, I already had the insight into dwelling happily in the present moment. Once back in the stream of the original teachings, that insight was experienced fully and with more clarity.

The book The Miracle of Mindfulness was published by Beacon Press and up until now, more than two decades later, this book is still in print and continues to sell very well. The Miracle of Mindfulness is a mediation guide that you can use if you want to share the Plum Village style of practice with people. Those of you who have not read The Miracle of Mindfulness should find a copy and read it. It has been translated into at least thirty different languages.

The meditation of mindfulness is the basic practice of meditation in Plum Village. Mindfulness means dwelling in the present moment to become aware of the positive and negative elements that are there. We should learn to nourish the positive and to transform the negative. Twenty years of Plum Village has helped me to learn so much and has helped the Sangha of Plum Village to grow up so much.

Going as a River 

In May 1966 when I left Vietnam I did not think I would be gone long. But I was stuck over here. I felt  like a cell of a body that was precariously separated from its body. I was like a bee separated from its hive. If a bee is separated from its hive it knows very well that it cannot survive. A cell that is separated from its body will dry up and die. But I did not die because I had gone to the West not as an individual but with the support of a Sangha’s visions. I went to call for peace. At that time our work in the areas of cultural development, education, and social development had strong momentum. We had established the Van Hanh University, a University for Higher Buddhist Studies, the School of Youth for Social Service, the La Boi printing press, and the weekly newspaper Hai Tri eu Am (The Sound of the Rising Tide.) We also had a campaign calling for peace within Vietnam. I went with all these things in my heart so I was not in danger of drying up. If I had gone as an individual, looking for a position, for a bit of fame then I surely would have dried up. The life and death issue is Sangha building. That is why I began building a Sangha with the people who were helping me do the work of calling for peace. The people who helped me were pastors, priests, professors, high-school students, and university students. I met with them, befriended them and invited them to join the path of service for peace.

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From 1968 until 1975 I established and lead a delegation in Paris of the Vietnamese Buddhists for Peace. During this time, many young people came and volunteered to help us. They would work, and at lunch time we offered them a simple meal. After dinner they stayed on to practice sitting meditation. Along with sharing the practice of sitting meditation with the young people, we also shared how to practice walking meditation, deep relaxation and singing. When we were working for the Delegation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in Paris, we organized sitting meditation sessions for Western practitioners in Paris once a week at the Quaker Center on Vaugirard Boulevard. By offering the practice to the young people who came to help with the social work and the peace work, many seeds were sown. This may be one reason why many young people came when we first organized the Summer Opening in Plum Village.

When I was in touch with individuals and communities who were very concerned about peace and social work, I saw that they had difficulties. After working for a period of time, they became divided, they grew tired and abandoned the cause. Thus, meeting with any organization or any individual, I shared with them my methods of practice. Before we had the Sangha gathered together in one place, we already had the Sangha as individual elements in many places.

Pastor Kloppenburg of Bremen, a Lutheran pastor in Germany, was someone who loved me very much. He initiated and organized occasions for me to give talks calling for peace everywhere in Germany and he helped me translate and publish the book, A Lotus in a Sea of Fire in German. He also provided material support for me to send to Vietnam so the School of Youth for Social Service could continue its work of service. He helped me to organize the peace talks in Paris. In Holland, there was Minister Hannes de Graff of the Dutch Reformed Church and he supported me immensely. On the path of calling for peace in Vietnam I made many friends in the religious circle, in the human rights circle and with the younger generation.

When we first established the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, we faced many difficulties, such as getting residential permits, finding enough food to eat and clothing to wear. During that time, our headquarters was small but housed so many people. There were nights when Sister Chan Khong, who had been a professor at a university in Saigon, had to ask to sleep overnight at a restaurant because we ran out of sleeping space. Instead of buying regular rice at a supermarket, we bought the cheaper broken rice, usually sold as birdfeed, from the pet store. One day the man who was selling the broken rice asked us, “Why do you come and buy so much rice? You must have a lot of birds in your house.” And we said, “Yes, many, nine in all, and each one is very big!” And we showed with our hands how big those birds were. But our life was full of happiness. I found a place to teach and I received one thousand French francs as a salary every month. Other people in the delegation also had to find work. Sister Chan Khong used to teach mathematics and tutor young students to add to our income.

There was a period when I took a course on printing as a trade. I am still a good printer and can bind books quite well. I always printed and bound books in mindfulness. I have printed several dozen books and I have bound thousands of books. At that time La Boi, the printing press of Vietnamese books, had not yet moved to the United States and we did the printing in France.

In all the years of my exile from Vietnam, I have never felt cut off from my Sangha in Vietnam. Every year I compose and send manuscripts to Vietnam and our friends in Vietnam always find ways to publish our books. When they were banned, the books were hand-copied or published underground or published under different pen names.

There are still many people in our Sangha who sleep in a sleeping bag. Sister Chan Khong still sleeps in a sleeping bag. In Plum Village I used to sleep on a very thin mattress on a plank of wood on top of four bricks. That fact does not prevent me from being happy. I have never wanted to build a luxurious, beautiful monastery here. When I am able to sell my books that money has been used to bring relief to the hungry and to victims of the floods in Vietnam.

From being like a cell that had been separated from my Sangha body in Vietnam, I was able to practice cloning and not only did I not dry up, like a bee separated from its hive, from a cell I have become a body. And that body became the Sangha body as we see today. The important factor is that we need to go with our heart full of our Sangha, then we will not dry up and die. I have said the other day that if you have come to Plum Village, you have to take home with you no less than Plum Village in its entirety. Bringing Plum Village home, you will be able to survive longer. The teaching and practice of, “I have arrived, I am home” always complements the teaching of, “going as a river and not as a drop of water.” If you are a drop of water then you will evaporate halfway, but if you go as a river you will surely reach the ocean. I have never gone as a drop of water. I have always gone as a river.

Responding to Suffering 

When mb31-dharma7we were working in Paris, the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation was able to sponsor more than 9,000 orphans resulting from the Vietnam War. We didn’t support the building of orphanages but we tried to find relatives of the orphans to unite them. We would send twenty-five French francs each month to those families to buy food and school supplies for the orphans. At that time I was very busy with different work, but every day I also spent some time to translate the files on the orphans. I was given twenty files of orphans each day. The files were made and sent to us in Paris by our social workers in Vietnam. There was a photograph of each orphan, the name of the father and the mother, and how the father and mother died. We had to translate these files into English, Dutch, French and German to find sponsors for each chiId. I used to hold up the file with the photograph of the child. Looking at the face of the child, I would smile and breathe. The energy of compassion would come up in me and my heart was full of love. Then I would be able to translate them easily,  the translation was very poignant because there was a lot of love and compassion flowing out of my pen. There was a Danish lady who was so inspired to help us with the program for orphans that she took a course to lean Vietnamese. Her Vietnamese was good enough to help translate the files.

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In 1975 when the Americans left Vietnam and the North took over the whole of Vietnam, our Sangha in Paris retreated to a hermitage in the countryside of Paris, Sweet Potato Hermitage, where we had gone every weekend to rest and renew ourselves. At Sweet Potato Hermitage, I wrote the books, The Moon Bamboo and The Sun My Heart and the second and the third volumes of The History of Vietnamese Buddhism. Sweet Potato Hermitage is still there. We should organize a pilgrimage there one day as a fun outing. It is near the forest of Othe. It is very beautiful and the climate is colder than Plum Village.

During this time at Sweet Potato Hermitage, from 1975 till 1982, Sister Chan Khong and a number of others in the Sangha organized relief work for the refugees, the boat people, who were escaping Vietnam at that time. We rented three boats, The Leopold, The Roland and The Saigon 200. We used these boats to transport the boat people on the ocean. Our aim was to pick them up on the ocean and to secretly take them to other countries like Australia. Once, we rescued five hundred and fifty people on our boat but our underground work was exposed. Both Sister Chan Khong and I were driven out of Singapore because we had secret headquarters there. The reason why our work was exposed was because some journalists were scouting for news. If this had not happened the refugees we rescued would have been taken to Australia to be processed as immigrants sooner. But instead, we had to turn them over to the United Nations High Council on Refugees. Those boat people had to stay in refugee camps for three, four or five years before their cases were finally reviewed and processed for immigration . So unfortunate!

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Before Sister Chan Khong left Vietnam to come and help me, she worked energetically and in high spirits with the School of Youth for Social Service. She has been present with me from the beginning of 1968 until now, supporting all the work for peace and social work. Since 1968, she has constantly worked, never once having the idea of giving up or surrendering. Of course I have had many other friends and many other disciples, but some have given up because there are many dangers, difficulties and obstacles on the path of calling for peace, human rights and building up Sanghas. Because of their difficulties, either personally or from the environment, others have abandoned the cause. But Sister Chan Khong has always accompanied me from the beginning to the end with great dedication.

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A Meeting of East and West 

The difficulties that we encountered in the process of establishing Plum Village were the problems that the Buddha also had but there were also new difficulties. We have benefitted from the experience of many previous generations of practitioners and we have also grown and learned from the difficulties of our own time.

One difficulty that the Buddha had a little of and we have had a lot of is the differences between cultures. Our Sangha is made up of twenty or more different nations and cultures. Plum Village is not a Vietnamese temple set up in Europe. It has roots in Vietnam but it has also had to grow and be appropriate for the environment in which it is growing. When we bring plants from Vietnam and we plant them in the West they do not grow the way they would in Vietnam. When we grow mustard greens in France they grow thorns, which would never happen in Vietnam. We have to know how to adapt to our surroundings and we have to know how to absorb the beautiful things from the cultures around us. Sometimes people from both the East and West come to Plum Village and find forms of practice that are not suitable for them, because they carry expectations that Plum Village will be like their respective cultures. But it is a combination of both. When a person from Asia hangs clothes out to dry, they hang the trousers lower than the shirts and the two legs have to be hung close together. It would be very strange for an Asian person to see them hung up any other way. If we use a normal bowl to feed the cat an Eastern person can never accept that. The bowl that the cat eats out of should be different from what humans eat out of. When a Western nun cooks, putting all her heart into cooking, a Vietnamese nun may look at the food and go somewhere else to eat instant noodles. This makes the Western nun very unhappy. This happens every day in Plum Village. So the cultural gap is there and it brings difficulties. It is not anyone’s fault, it is just differences.

If you want to offer something you have to have that thing in order to offer it. In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition there are many jewels. But if we want to offer them we have to have them within ourselves. We have to put our roots down in our own tradition very deeply. We must put our roots down in our educational tradition, our ethical tradition, our cultural tradition, and in our spiritual tradition in order to be able to share them with others. We have to keep the most beautiful things in our culture to be able to offer them to others. The most beautiful and precious things I have received are not something I can ever take out of me. I can bring them out and share them, but how can I share them if people cannot accept them? In the process of sharing the practice we have to learn to understand the culture and the environment of the West. We have to present our own jewels in the way that is appropriate to the Western way of thinking.

There are two things necessary to transmit the teachings we have received. We have to have things firmly in ourselves and we have to understand the culture of the people we are offering the teachings to. If we don’t understand anything about the language or the behavior of the Western people how can we offer these things? There are teachers from the East who come to the West who have jewels from their own cultures but they have not understood the Western culture and so there is no way they can transmit their jewels to Western people. You have to understand Western culture and then you can share the jewels of your tradition. In these last thirty-five years I have learned so much in this process.

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I have not only learned from Westerners but I have also learned from the East. In the light of Western culture I have seen the beauties of the East in a way that I had not recognized before. Before I was only able to see 70% of the beauty of Vietnamese culture. But now under the light of Western culture I can see 90% or more of the beauty of Vietnamese culture. I have learned from the place where I am teaching and also from the place where the jewels came from. When Western friends come to Plum Village they also have to have their roots in their own culture and in their own spirituality. Then they have something to share with us. It is not that they are hungry ghosts, wandering around and that they have nothing to offer to us. If they have put down their roots in the Western culture and they come here they will have something to offer us. And because we are open we can receive from them and both sides will profit. The most basic condition to have a successful exchange between peoples of different cultures is for each person to have his or her roots firmly established. This is a process that takes place year to year and Plum Village is still in the process of learning these things.

Renewing Buddhism in Asia 

Plum Village has contributed a great deal not only to Buddhism in Europe and the United States but also to Buddhism in Vietnam and other areas of Asia. In did not have monastic disciples in Plum Village I would not have been able to write the book, Stepping into Freedom. It is a handbook that shares practical guidance and requirements for a novice. The book that is currently being used by novices in Buddhist countries was written over 400 years ago. I sensed that it was outdated and no longer appropriate. I sat down with my disciples to compose Stepping into Freedom, which has thirty-nine chapters on mindful manners instead of the original twenty-four. This new handbook includes mindful manners on such areas of practice as how to use a computer in mindfulness and how to facilitate discussions about the Dharma. The ten mindfulness trainings (novice precepts) are also presented in a very complete, practical and beautiful way.

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If we did not have the monastic Sangha here we would not have been able to offer to Vietnam the daily chanting book, written in modern Vietnamese, which many temples are now using. (Most traditional chanting books used in Vietnam are written in old or Sino-Vietnamese, which most people do not understand.) We now have a book for reciting the Bhiksu and Bhiksuni precepts in Vietnamese, English and French as well as the Grand Ordination ceremony in Vietnamese, English and French. While teaching the monks and nuns in Plum Village we have been able to write and publish many reference books that temples, meditation centers, and Buddhist universities in Vietnam and other countries in Asia can use and benefit from. For example, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, a book on basic Buddhism as taught to monks and nuns, is being used as course material in many Buddhist institutes in Vietnam by young Dharma teachers.

We have also created a four-year training program for monks and nuns. Upon completion, monastics are capable of organizing retreats and leading Days of Mindfulness. After being a monk or nun for five years you can be a candidate for receiving the transmission of the Dharma lamp to become a Dharma teacher. In Plum Village we have three kinds of Dharma teachers: monastic Dharma teachers, lay Dharma teachers and honorary monastic Dharma teachers. During the Winter retreat 2001-2002 we had the Lamp Transmission Ceremony in which thirty monastic and lay practitioners. About seventy monastics and thirty lay people have received the Dharma Lamp in Plum Village and have led retreats all over the world. There are also numerous honorary monastic Dharma teachers who received the lamp at Plum Village and are teaching in Vietnam.

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In Plum Village during the winter retreats, the monks and nuns have the benefit of long courses which allow deeper learning. For example, we have had retreats on the living traditions of Buddhist meditation, on Plum Village practice, on the Southern and Northern transmissions including the major sutras like the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Flower Adornment Sutra and on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Shastra. The material from some of those retreats has been transcribed and made into books and monastics in Vietnam have benefited from them. Thus the practice and study of monks and nuns in Plum Village has contributed a great deal to the study and practice of Buddhism in Vietnam, Europe and America.

The Relationship of Teacher and Disciple 

Early on I trained several generations of monks and nuns in Vietnam. I looked after the young monks and nuns with all my heart and thought taking care of them was enough and that I didn’t need to have disciples of my own. When I came to the West I still had that idea. Then one day I saw clearly that if I don’t have a direct teacher-disciple relationship, the practice of the disciple would not deepen. When I taught the students in meditation centers in North America and in Europe there was a link, a relationship of teacher and disciple. But after I left the relationship weakened and therefore the students never really matured in the practices I offered. The students did not practice the teachings offered continually and ceaselessly because of the lack of the teacher-disciple connection. After that I decided that I would have monastic and lay disciples. I saw that the relationship between teacher and disciple is very important, not only for the disciple but for the teacher as well. I have learned a lot having disciples living and practicing with me.

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The relationship with my students, which is direct and continuous, has helped me to see the ways of teaching which can most likely ensure success. It brought together the teachings and practice, of the mindfulness trainings and fine manners, so that the teachings and practice are not separate from each other. Through the course of teaching and our practice as a Sangha, we have been able to produce wonderful Dharma doors which lay and monastic people can use. For instance the idea of the Sangha body, the Sangha eyes, Shining Light, touching the earth and the second body system are the fruits and flowers of our practice here in Plum Village. They are not only used by monks and nuns but also by lay people. The presence of monks and nuns in Plum Village has brought me much happiness. The basic reason is their commitment for their whole life to the practice and their determination to go on the path of our ideal together. In Plum Village, monks and nuns vow to live together as in a family for the rest of our lives.

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In the past I also taught several generations of monastic disciples but I was never as happy as I am now as teacher and disciple live together and practice together. Every day I find ways to transmit to my disciples all that I have realized for myself, like the first banana leaf transmitting and sending nourishment to the second and third leaves. The happiness which monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles and twinkling eyes. I don ‘t know if they were so beautiful before they became monks and nuns or whether they became beautiful afterwards. Or is it just because I am like any other father and mother that I see my own children as more beautiful than other people’s children? But I do see them as beautiful, whether they are from North America or Europe or from Asia.

I think some of you must agree with me. Just a few hours after the ceremony for transmitting the novice precepts their faces are so much more radiant, their two eyes more bright and their smiles fresher. That has to do with their determination, their commitment, and with the precepts’ body. Sitting with the monks and nuns to drink tea or to have Dharma discussion, to talk about happiness in the present and the future is one of the things I like doing best of all I spend a lot of time with the monks and nuns and that time brings me a great deal of happiness.

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When monastic and lay disciples do something wrong, clumsy or unskillful that brings about difficulties and suffering the Sangha should help them. I have learned over thirty years not to use my authority as a teacher to resolve conflicts. We have to use awakened understanding and love. This has to be applied both in the East and in the West. If we do not do this we will not be successful as a teacher. Often our disciples cannot see the mind and heart of their teacher. We have to be patient. They think that their teacher’s heart is as small as a peanut. We think that Thay does not allow us to receive the precepts because he is punishing us, because he does not love us. We do not know that our teacher’s deepest desire is to see his disciples grow and to become big sisters and brothers for all our little sisters and brothers, to take our teacher’s place. The more they can do that the happier Thay is.

Therefore, the teacher is someone who has the capacity to allow his students to make mistakes. We have to learn from our mistakes. When we are a teacher we have to have the capacity to see all of our disciples as our continuation. We have to help everyone to grow up. We don’t just want to support one or two of our disciples. We want everyone to grow up like all mothers and fathers want all their children to grow up. If we are an older brother or sister in the Sangha we have to look after every younger brother and sister equally. If we do that we already have begun to be a teacher. If we know how to love all our disciples with equanimity, then when we officially become a teacher there is no reason why we should not be successful.

I really want there to be lay people practicing with the monks and nuns in all of our monasteries, to be a bridge between the monastic community and the lay people in society. We can really call these lay people upasika (lay disciples who have received the five mindfulness trainings) because they are close to the monks and nuns. With deep understanding, they will then have the capacity to hand on the insights and the happiness of the monastic Sangha to the community of lay people at large. There are many lay people in the Order of Interbeing and that is one of the reasons why we have made progress in developing the Order of Interbeing and sharing the practice in so many places. They are not like other lay people because they have received the fourteen mindfulness trainings. The fourteen mindfulness trainings are like a bridge which connects the monastic community to the lay community.

The Order of Interbeing began in 1962 with six people. Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chi Mai were among the first six core members of the Order. Today there are more than 700 members of the Order of Interbeing and they are present all over the world. Now we want to establish lay communities led by lay people like Intersein in Germany led by three lay Dharma teachers and Clear View in Santa Barbara, California led by two lay American Dharma teachers. We hope in the following years of the twenty-first century that there will be many similar lay centers led by lay members of the Order of Interbeing. We also hope there will be many Mindfulness Practice Centers set up to offer a secular practice of mindfulness without religious overtones. In these centers, people from any belief can come in order to comfortably practice, without fee ling they have to abandon their root religion and convert to a new religion.

Buddhism Beyond Religion 

When I was last in China I met with the vice minister of religious affairs. We offered his department a calligraphy saying “The Spiritual Dimension.” My idea was that although China is developing and strengthening many aspects of their society: the economy, education, the arts, and politics, the people still suffer if they lack the dimension of spirituality in their lives and activities. Giving support to Buddhism so that Buddhism can contribute to that spiritual dimension will help people in China suffer less.

Last winter the School of Medicine of a university in Geneva asked me to come and speak about the human brain. They have organized a week-long symposium on the brain and are gathering neuroscientists and brain specialists to offer illumination on this topic. I am not a brain specialist, but they invited me because they want to have the spiritual dimension represented. Also I was invited to contribute to the international conference of politicians and business leaders of major enterprises held at Davos, Switzerland. Neither am I a businessman, so why do they invite me? Because they see that the business people and those in politics do have suffering, worries and fears, and they feel the need for the spiritual dimension. The medical school in Harvard has also invited me to give a Day of Mindfulness for doctors and medical researchers. The spiritual dimension is called on to bring relief to people’s suffering, anxieties, and fears in all fields.

Monks, nuns and lay practitioners have to bring Buddhism out of its religious context, presenting Buddhism as a source of insight and a tradition of practice, to be able to share it with, and serve, the world. We have to bring Buddhism into prisons, schools, hospitals, and police headquaI1erS so the people in these areas can live a life with more ease and less suffering. Therefore we need to learn how to offer methods of practice that can be used in all sectors of society, without the limitations of being a religion.

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Looking at the scope of the Plum Village Sangha’s activities we can see that the practice of mindfulness in daily life has been able to reach many sectors of society. We host retreats not only in Plum Village but also in other countries of Europe, America, and Asia. We have had many retreats for families, where parents, children and teenagers practice together. We have hosted retreats just for young people in the United States, Australia and Europe. We have had retreats for psychotherapists in America and Europe. We have had retreats for war veterans, environmentalists, doctors, nurses, teachers, peace activists and business people. We have brought the practice into prisons. This year the Mind/Body Institute of the School of Medicine at Harvard University wants me to come and receive an award. They say our retreats have helped heal many people and greatly relieved their suffering. We are not doctors nor are we psychotherapists but our retreats have brought rejuvenation, joy and hope to thousands of people. They want to affirm that fact with an award. This is an indication that we have been able to surpass the limits of religion and enter the main stream of society.

The Seed has traveled far 

In the process of Plum Village growing up we have been able to modernize the methods of learning and practicing Buddhism. Our teachings have been received easily, enthusiastically and happily. Whenever we have a retreat, people from different religions practice together without any discrimination. Our methods of practice seem to be applicable for many schools of Buddhism as well. Whether practitioners come from Japanese Zen meditation, Korean meditation, Vipassana meditation, or Tibetan Buddhism they all come to practice together and feel at ease in our retreats.

Business people, who have participated in a retreat held in Plum Village for business people, reported that a few months after the retreat they still continue to have more insight into what they have learned. The seeds that were planted in the retreat continue to sprout bit by bit, offering deeper understanding. They now know more clearly what path they should take and what path they should not take. We have been able to present the teachings in such a way that young people and Westerners can understand them, accept them and apply them. That is quite an achievement of Plum Village, but it is not the work of one person alone or just the work of a few years. It is the work of thirty-five years that includes twenty years of Plum Village and the work of the entire Sangha.

We have been able to present the five mindfulness trainings in non-Buddhist terminology. The five mindfulness trainings are very true and very deep expressions not only of Buddhist teachings but also of the practice of Buddhism. The five mindfulness trainings are presented as a very concrete way of practicing mindfulness and not as restrictive commandments. We have also presented the fourteen mindfulness trainings as the essence and the practice of Buddhism. Many people who do not call themselves Buddhist like to recite the fourteen mindfulness trainings. We have established more than 800 local Sanghas all over the world. In large cities like London there are over ten Sanghas, within city limits. Small towns also have their Sanghas. In Israel there are Sanghas of Plum Village. In Australia, in Germany there are many Sanghas. In Vietnam there are numerous temples and Sanghas following the mindfulness practice of Plum Village. Other centers in the West also practice Plum Village practices. If you do not see these manifestations, about 800, all over the world you have not seen Plum Village.

One day while sitting in London during a retreat, I was very moved to receive letters from practitioners in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have never set foot in Scotland but the practitioners wrote thoughtful letters about their practice and about their Sangha there and shared their happiness. I was interested in Edinburgh because I had a friend who was a monk and he went there to study. He was sent to Colombo to study Buddhism but after several years he was sent to Edinburgh. He studied anthropology for several years there and then he went back to Vietnam. But he did not leave any trace. I have never been to Edinburgh but the seed of Plum Village had gone to Edinburgh and it has grown up in the soil there. That is something that surprised me and made me very happy. That is just an example of one of the many places I have never been to but the seeds of Plum Village practice have flown there. Here in France there is a kind of plant called pissenlit, the dandelion. When the dandelion plant ripens it turns white. The seeds are at the base of the white petals and the wind carries these seeds very far, maybe tens of kilometers. In the same way the seeds sown by Sanghas of Plum Village have spread very far. They have traveled into prisons, into Catholic cloisters, into schools, families, hospitals and communities in many places around the world and they will continue to go far in the future.

Harvesting Every Moment 

Yesterday Fei-Fei, a lay practitioner living in Plum Village, asked me, “Thay you work so hard, have you yet harvested the fruit that you want?” I responded, “My dear, what else do you want Thay to harvest? Every moment of my daily life is a moment of happiness, is a harvest. As I sit with you now and teacher and disciple drink tea together, it is not to achieve anything. When we drink tea together we are already happy. To give a Dharma talk is already happiness. To do walking mediation with my disciples is happiness. To organize a retreat is happiness. To help practitioners be able to smile is happiness. What more do you want me to harvest?” Our work should be happiness. Our practice is “dwelling happily in this moment.” Every Dharma talk I give has to reflect the Dharma seal of Plum Village, “I have arrived. I am home.”

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