Poem: Untitled Poem 2

mb15-Poem2With every breath
I take today,
I vow to be awake;
and everything
I need to do,
I vow to do
with my
whole heart,
so I may see
with the eyes
of love
into the hearts
of all I meet;
to help them
in the ways I can
and touch them
with a smile
of peace.

Dewain Belgard
New Orleans, Louisiana

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Awakened by an Accident

By Robert Reed

I am not always mindful while driving the car, but on this particular morning when I cheated death, the radio was off and I was consciously following my breath, alert to the conditions of the road.

As I headed to work in rush hour traffic at 60 miles per hour, a large white car abruptly changed lanes and crashed into me. No warning and thankfully no time to panic. My car spun out of control and careened across two lanes of traffic (Relax, I said to myself). I was then perpendicular to oncoming traffic in the far left lane (the fastest one) and yards away from crashing headlong into a cement wall when I was hit again broadside directly at the driver’s door. My Toyota flipped over and then there was complete silence. I wondered if there were going to be more crashes or if the amusement ride was over.

A cool, eerie pain on the top of my head made me feel as if I had just been scalped. I was afraid to touch. I remember seeing the shattered glass of the window scattered on the highway. I spit glass, wondered about the extent of my injuries, and watched my legs shake uncontrollably from cold and fright. I tilted my head back on the headrest, closed my eyes, followed my breathing, and waited for the ambulance to arrive.

That my seat belt saved my life was undisputed. What caused unanimous amazement to the State Troopers, ambulance drivers, and the Emergency Room doctor was that I escaped relatively unharmed. Six stitches for a laceration to the skull, a too-small-to-complain-about scrape on the left shoulder, and not one bruise. The car, however, was totalled.

Incredible luck, the gods’ smiling graces, and maybe my relaxed body also helped prevent injuries. I’ve heard that drunks fare better than sober people in accidents due to the fact they do not tense up. Perhaps my meditation that morning just minutes before kissing my wife good-bye helped save me.

Impermanence is one of the articles of faith in Buddhism. That all things change and die is easy to accept philosophically, but when, at mid-life, you are thrown face-to-face with your own imminent death, it finally dawns on you—I too am impermanent! We delude ourselves by thinking that death occurs to others but for ourselves some time in the distant future. We want to forget that death can come to us unexpectedly—even today!

Life is precious and precarious. Accidents wake you to this. I overheard my wife tell friends the next day that, while she gave me a massage, she whispered a prayer of thanks as she touched each bone, muscle, and limb—she was so grateful I was all in one piece and alive.

For a week afterwards, we were especially close. Now the strain of everyday living threatens to dull our senses once again. Our inability to appreciate imminent impermanence is the cause of much suffering. If life is short, then the day-to-day details, such as how we talk to each other, matter the most. Moments of clarity and appreciation come through our practice Reserving a time for sitting meditation every day helps keep us from taking our own and each other’s lives for granted and helps sustain us.

A second grade student of mine sent a get-well card, “Don’t do that again!” That is sound advice. Yet, if I were able to practice the way of awareness more often and thus be more alive, I would like to think that when death does catch up with me, it will not be altogether unwelcome.

I escaped this mishap. Many are not so lucky. One of my closest friends died in a sailing accident 20 years ago. I’ve now lived twice as many years as he did. Miraculously, I was granted just a little more time on this earth. It is my hope that I will live less on automatic pilot, more attuned to the bare essentials, more loving and accepting, less critical and judgmental. Fortunately, major life traumas do not happen to us nor our loved ones every day. But when they do, I think we grow stronger if we listen deeply to what they have to say.

Life is a gift—not just for newborn babies and people who “pull through”—but for everyone. Continuously, we are given life anew. Our challenge is to awaken to and celebrate the everyday wonders.

Robert Reed teaches English as a Second Language to Hmong students in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and practices at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

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Prison Moment, Wonderful Moment

By Sister Chan Khong

Dear David, I wish to be your friend because I know that you are a good person caught in a difficult situation. When we are in a bad situation, we tend to believe that we are the only one who is unfortunate. In fact, everyone has difficulties . Only we may never hear about them. Please remember that being caught in a bad situation is normal. Everyone has to face this. The question is, how can we cope with our difficult situation in beauty and peace? When caught in a bad situation, I too was as unhappy as you are. But I have learned how to be unhappy for only several minutes or a few hours. During that time, I use the art of mindful living to be resurrected and to look deeper in order to see many positive things. Then I discover that, thanks to a bad situation, I have many good opportunities.

mb15-Prison

There is a bodhisattva, an enlightened person, named Ksitigarbha, who goes to living beings in the worst situations and tries his best to cheer them up, to give them inspiration to live, to smile, and to help them get out of their bad situations. Ksitigarbha vows that, “If there is still one living being caught in a hellish situation, I will stay there with him or her until he or she is set free.” I am sure that Ksitigarbha is there with you, like a gentle guard who listens carefully to what you say and kindly helps you in your time of need. Ksitigarbha could be a prisoner himself, but not like other prisoners. While the others live without responsibility, without care, the prisoner Ksitigarbha is the one who lives mindfully, beautifullypeaceful and loving with everyone in the jail. Ksitigarbha could be a social worker—one who really loves, cares, and works overtime out of love, not for salary. Ksitigarbha could be a lawyer, devoted to his client’s cause, really wishing to help, to relieve the suffering of the victims, not for money, but for being helpful and relieving suffering. Ksitigarbha could be yourself when you are peaceful, light, serene, and full of love and care for those around you.

All situations, even desperate ones, change. If we know how to handle our moments in prison with mindfulness, with a very deep look, with the loving heart and the compassionate eyes of Ksitigarbha, we will treasure every moment. People suffer because they do not know that everything changes. The weather is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes foggy, sometimes snowy. We must learn the art of enjoying the sunshine when it is sunny, the rain when it is rainy, the fog when it is foggy. We must learn the art of mindfully enjoying our time. When we play tennis, we play with 100% of our being; when we are with our beloved ones, we enjoy our beloved ones 100%; when we are in jail, we enjoy our time in jail 100%. You must know that this time in jail is an invaluable time for learning if you can be mindful, and look deeply at everything that is happening.

In the past, Thay had an American student who was a devoted peace activist. One day, Thay gave him a tangerine. He ate the tangerine, but his mind was involved with many projects. While eating, he told Thay about them. Suddenly Thay said, “Jim, eat your tangerine!” Jim realized he was not eating his tangerine, but only his projects. He bowed to Thay and then ate slowly, mindfully, enjoying the fragrance and taste of the fruit. My dear David, please live mindfully every moment of your life in jail. Eat and enjoy what you are eating. Don’t let your mind carry you away to sorrow, frustration, and anger.

When you go home, you will enjoy deeply the presence of your beloved mother, father, and sisters, and enjoy every moment being with them. And you will enjoy your own liberty. Many people only regret the absence of their beloved ones when they pass away or are forced to live far away. Often, we live with our beloved ones, but we are carried away by our career, fame, money, and interests. We never have time to really be with him or her, to look into her eyes, her feelings, joys, and pains. We rarely have time to enjoy their wonderful presence.

Later, Jim was imprisoned for burning his draft card. Thay sent him a short note, exactly as he did for you recently, “Jim, your tangerine is still there. I hope you can enjoy your tangerine properly.” After being released, Jim flew to France to thank Thay. He told us, “Thanks to your words, which woke me up, I lived my days in jail deeply. I was no longer frustrated, angered at everything like in the past.” So, dear David, being released today is good, but being released next month is also good, and if they release you next year, it is fine too. Being in jail every day you have a chance to sit still, to look deeply into your feelings, your past experiences, and the roots of your past experiences that led you to this place, so that you can see your future clearly. You can also see and help many people around you. When you are released, you will know how to enjoy the presence of your wonderful family, and your liberty. Then you will certainly be able to go to a retreat with Thay to learn the art of mindful living. But for now, please enjoy your tangerine.

Dharma teacher Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been Thick Nhat Hanh ‘s colleague since 1959. She wrote this letter to a prisoner in California.

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Mindful Lunch

By Lorena Monda

As a psychotherapist for 18 years, I have encountered many people—including myself—who need to heal their relationship with food. Though I have studied and practiced many ways to help this healing come about, I discovered that mindful eating is one of the simplest and most powerful.

At Plum Village, I found eating in mindfulness quite difficult. So when I returned home, I started a “Mindful Lunch Group.” Every Thursday, we gather and eat our lunch together slowly and mindfully, for 45 minutes. It is an opportunity to slow down and just eat. Though we do not talk to each other, we are mindful that we are eating as a community, and we acknowledge each other’s presence. We are aware of our food—how beautiful it is, how it was alive, how it has come from the earth to support our being. We are aware of how much we have in quantity and variety, and of people less fortunate than we, for whom a small portion of what is on our plates would seem like a feast. We are aware of all the elements involved in getting the food from the earth to our plates—sun, rain, soil, farmers, pickers, truckers, grocers, and our own efforts preparing the food.

Members of the group have become aware that Mindful Lunch does not begin at noon Thursday, but in the grocery store while selecting the food, and in the kitchen preparing the meal. Slowing down and paying attention while eating has made some of us aware of how uncomfortable we are to let others see us eat and take time to taste our food and chew slowly. We practice returning to our breathing when we feel uncomfortable and allow ourselves to be fully present.

Afterwards, group members often gather outside to share their experiences. One chronic overeater noticed that she needs less food to feel satisfied when she slows down and is present with herself during the meal. Another member is able to taste his food and feel its effects on his body. He has begun to choose foods that are more supportive of how he wants to feel. Another described the panic she feels while eating, related to stressful times with her family at the dinner table, when she avoided eating or ate very rapidly to keep herself from feeling this panic. She has learned to eat quietly with others who are practicing the same way, and that has left her feeling peaceful.

In the course of our practice, eating has become a sacred, healing act. By eating what is good for us, and eating it in a way that is conscious and supportive, we affirm life. And we are not alone. The earth, the heavens, the farmers, our loved ones with us at the table, and everyone in our Sangha who practices mindful eating are supporting us in our affirmation of being alive.

Lorena Monda, True Perfect Way, lives in Placitas, New Mexico.

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Letters to the Mindfulness Bell

I was first drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching during the Gulf War when a friend gave me Peace Is Every Step. I felt open to the truth of his words because of his work with veterans and because of what he suffered in Vietnam. I felt that if he could make peace in the midst of that fire, I ought to be able to make a little peace in my own life. I continue to draw benefits from the mindfulness retreats I have attended at Omega, and I look forward to more. I feel like I’m in kindergarten practicing awareness and mindful breathing, and kindergarten is not a bad place to be.
Susan Fanti Spivak
Cobleskill, New York

Thank you so much for The Mindfulness Bell! I love the magazine, and it means a lot to us to get it here in Bermuda.
John Shane
Paget, Bermuda

On the morning I was to leave for the Northern California retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh last fall, my favorite human being—friend, teacher, AA sponsor—suddenly began to die. She had been sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 13 years and, throughout that time, she had cancer and was in pain, often near death. Her courage, humility, common sense, and great compassion helped countless people, including others suffering with cancer, alcoholics trying to get sober, and even her doctors and caregivers. I am seldom as clear and centered in decision-making as I was when I gave up the opportunity to be on retreat so I could stay with my friend.

She died the next night of massive pneumonia, her body too weakened to fight it off. Her living will was eloquent and specific in expressing her view of death, and refusing to be artificially maintained beyond the moment when true recovery ceased to be possible. For me, being with my friend while she was dying was a blessing and a valuable exercise in mindfulness, in staying in the present moment.

As I sat vigil with my friend, I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and the many retreatants who were enjoying sitting and walking meditation together. The practice of mindfulness enabled me to be present during this precious time, and I am grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for bringing these teachings into my life.

Susan McCarthy
Taos, New Mexico

Receiving The Mindfulness Bell brings me back to my true self. It enriches the quality of life for weeks and months.
Kim Cary
Massies Mill, Virginia

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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Liberation

By Sister Annabel Laity

The Chinese word for ” liberation” is made up of two characters. According to the Dictionary, of Chinese Buddhist Terms by W. E. Soothill and L. Hodous, the characters mean ” to unloose, let go, release, untie, disentangle, explain, expound.” The Sanskrit words for liberation are mukti, moksha, vinmkti, and vimoksha. Mukti and moksha are translated as ” loosing, release, deliverance, emancipation .” The addition of vi– means “complete,” or “absolute.”

The three concentrations on emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness are also called the Three Doors of Liberation. Liberation is not something which takes place when we reach the end of the road, but in every moment of our lives as we walk, work, eat, and re late to others. Liberation comes through understanding but understanding can only be when the right causes and conditions are present. When mindfulness, the Sangha, humility, openness , and the right time are available then there is a possibility for understanding. Liberation is always liberation from something. If in a moment of irritation or anger, we are able to come back to ourselves and transform that energy into something positive, that is liberation from irritat ion . As we continue to use our concentration to look deeply into the emptiness (non- self nature) of ourse lves and the other, our liberation from anger will be complete. At every moment of the day , we can li berate ourselves from fixed ideas and perceptions by using our breath to stay in the present moment and to be deeply in touch. At that moment we are practicing emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness.

Sister Annabel Laity, True Virtue, has been a resident of Plum Village since 1986. She was ordained as a nun in 1988 and as a Dharma teacher in 1990.

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Tribute to Jeanie Chilcote

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Jeanie Chilcote. Source of Serenity. Sister True Natural Peace. Devoted Dharma student of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. Received precepts from Jack Lawlor. Ordained into the Order by Eileen Kiera on behalf of Thich Nhat Hanh. Enrolled tribal member. Daughter, wife, mother, friend. Thursday she was driving around running errands. Friday morning said she was going to drive back and forth to the camp-out retreat the next week. Friday evening she took to bed. Saturday she went into a coma. Sunday, July 14, Jeanie entered the great mystery peacefully at home surrounded by her family. It had been a one and one half years since cancer was diagnosed.

A pilgrimage to Indochina with our friend Judy had been tiring. She thought with age 55 approaching that she was just getting old and couldn’t handle the rigors of third world travel. She returned a few weeks early. Rest did not restore. The doctor diagnosed inflammatory breast cancer.

Thay walks into the room for a Dharma talk. She sees him and begins to cry. Every time. Every talk. Every retreat.The bond to the teacher with whom she never shared one sentence of direct conversation was deep. On pilgrimage her main goal was to visit Thay’s root temple. During the visit, a monk came out and invited her in for tea. Thay’s picture was openly displayed in the room. The monk’s English was sparse. Jeanie spoke no Vietnamese. Word communication was difficult. It was not needed. She always wondered why of all the tourists walking around he had singled her out and asked her in for tea. At the September retreat in Plum Village, Thay answered the question. The monks can tell practitioners by the way they walk. Jeanie was a practitioner.

Apparently our local medical community had never seen a practitioner. They were amazed at her equanimity. She meditated patiently in the waiting room with never a cross word for chronically late doctors. Always a kind word for all the nurses and “techs.” Infinite patience while she meditated through hours of Taxol and related nasties being dripped into her system. She absorbed all news, bad and good (it was almost always bad) from the doctor with open attention. One day her doctor said, “I’ve never had a patient like you. You are always so calm and present. It must be your religion. I’ve never had a Buddhist patient before.” And Jeanie validated that yes, it was her practice that gave her strength.

Maybe her name should have been Sister All Heart. She loved everyone and everything. Deeply. She constantly fed the birds and animals that visited her yard. Only a floodplain pasture and grove of trees separated her house from the Clark Fork River. There are zoos with fewer animals. Every bird that survived an accidental crash into a window was taken to the vet. Friends and family flowed through her house like water down the Clark Fork. “Jeanie, you are ill. You should rest more. Let the machine take calls. Put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door and nap.” Fat chance. Sometimes her mother would take charge and stand guard. Otherwise it was always spring flood at Jeanie’s.

Until cancer she was always fascinated by the “after death” question. She would pester her friend Rowan endlessly. At first she thought he was holding out on her. When she realized he didn’t know the answer to the question either, she was still angry with him because the question didn’ t interest him. But after the diagnosis she said, “You know, now it isn’t important to me either. All that is important is this moment.”

Jeanie didn’t find the pond until 1992. Her Dharma-webbed feet had gotten pretty desiccated wandering in the desert. But somebody gave her an Eightfold Path class announcement. She got excited. Immediately called up. Enrolled self, daughter Laurie, and friend Joanne. She dived in. She never stopped swimming. In rapid sequence she joined Open Way Sangha, took precepts from Jack at an Open Way retreat, and was in the first “proxy” ordination group in the USA being ordained into the Order by Eileen on Thay’s behalf. She served the Open Way Board for the last several years as Secretary, and this year as “Elder Sister.”

Jeanie gave freely of her love, skills. and insights. She was recruited to work with Alaya, a “Dharma therapy” outreach effort. She was co-creator of the Alaya programs for personal and spiritual growth. She taught meditation classes and helped develop and lead various other groups and classes; including groups called “Eightstepping” in which her meditative tradition was applied in a structured approach to addiction recovery. She knew about recovery . It was one of her practices. She continued this service until her illness precluded involvement earlier this year. Her service legacy lives as others continue to teach and use approaches and materials she helped to develop. Alaya tapes of Jeanie’s work may someday continue her legacy as part of a book.

Thay once told Eileen, “Give everything you have and ask for nothing in return.” Jeanie was master of this practice. Jeanie always gave (to a fault). She never asked (to a fault). Even in death she gave. For the last several months she prepared herself for the passage by working every Sunday morning with our gifted friend Marga. And by her years of faithful practice. “You know,” she would say frequently, “I couldn’t do this wi thout this practice.” She learned to live her life moment-by-moment. She lived life loving and giving as naturally as breathing. And so she returned naturally to the Source of all lovingness with grace, peace, and ease.

Lilah, her mother, misses her. So do her children, Laurie and Craig, and grandchildren, Josh and Kevin. And all her friends and Dharma famil y, we miss her too. It’s lucky that families are like worms with many hearts. We wi ll survive this amputation. But absence of the prototypical working model of the Giant Economy Size Open and Devoted Heart. .. well, that’s not easy to accommodate. We’ll all have to help. Laurie will move in and continue to tend her flowers and feed the birds. As for the people, well, if we look deeply , we will see her in each other’s faces, the light of dawn, morning dew, the bird’s song. Joy and sadness wil l flow together. Our Sister has died . Long li ve our Sister. This article was contributed by members of the Opell Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana, with special assistance from Rowan Conrad, Trlle Dharma Strength.

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Poem: Open Your Eyes

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Open your eyes and see
all the things around you–
the squirrels chasing each other,
the birds flying.
In spring, see the flowers blooming,
in summer make sand castles and go swimming,
in fall, rake and play in the leaves,
and in winter have snowball fights, go sledding,
and make snowangels and snowmen.
Open your eyes and see
all the things happening around you.
See the trees blowing in the wind,
see dogs barking at people on bikes.

Andrew Dahl is in the first grade in Decatur, Illinois. His parents, Lyn and Arthur, are members of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha.

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Trailside Reflections

By Jack Lawlor

There are times we instinctively offer a hand to a friend, and times we reach for a helping hand. I’ve experienced these instincts hiking with friends through a beautiful, ancient bog, known as a fen. As urban refugees from Chicago, we come simply to enjoy the wetland beauty, hiking the trail to kayaks at a broken down dock.

Like life itself, the trail offers some big surprises! If you aren’t careful, your legs may penetrate the bog and you’ll sink to your hips in primordial ooze! When we reach parts of the trail where I’ve lost legs and footwear, I instinctively help others navigate the boundary. Although my friends are ultimately capable of navigating, I offer the benefit of my experience. The instinct is the same when I help a novice into a floating kayak. The craft seems unstable until you slide in. I offer a hand to bolster my friends’ confidence in their own balance and poise, and they, in tum, reach out to me. Spiritual mentoring is much the same. A true spiritual friend humbly offers the helping hand of experience. A good mentor recognizes and nourishes talents already present. The talents revealed may surprise the student! The teacher demonstrates, usually by example, how to build upon these abilities, transmitting confidence in the process.

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Spiritual mentoring relies upon the mentor’s taking time to look deeply into a friend. The mentor’s experience enables him or her to recognize the friend’s aspiration to attain enlightenment and release from greed, anger, and delusion, for the benefit of self and others-in Buddhist terms what is revealed is the student’s bodhichitta.

Bodhichitta is inherent in everyone, and expresses itself daily, though sometimes in timid and clumsy ways. The mentor helps the student develop spiritual practice in mindful and joyfully purposeful ways. With each day of regular sitting and walking meditation, each little success in maintaining conscious breathing, our mentored friend’s confidence grows and his or her bodhichitta blooms into lotus petals of innumerable helping hands. In time, the friend becomes a mentor to others.

Mentoring can be especially challenging for lay Dharma teachers and lay members of the Order of Interbeing. Our daily attention is devoted to the millions of details of running a business or profession thoughtfully, the thousands of concerns of family life, the hundreds of challenges in social service and volunteer work, and the scores of items which must be tended to for a lay Sangha to thrive. Helping a novice kayaker on the dock, I may start daydreaming about these details and find myself in the water! In offering spiritual mentorship to a friend, I must, above all, let go of my projects and relationships and simply be present.

The Seventh Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment, may be our collective mentor! It instills confidence that we need not lose ourselves in dispersion and that mindful breathing will bring us back to the present, to what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing inside and around us. Practicing this way, every day, in the company of a spiritual friend can lead to deep transformation for both mentor and friend.

The reciprocal nature of mentoring is easily overlooked. In nurturing, the mentor becomes vulnerable. My friend’s problems may be unfamiliar territory to me. A good mentor admits when he or she is in unfamiliar territory. At this point, the mentor and student can learn from each other, using the considerable resources of mindfulness practice!

Mentoring can be a duet where both parties learn and come to understand the needs of the other. If the mentor can be honest enough to reveal his or her needs and limitations, miscommunication and false expectations can be reduced. When I take friends through the fen to go kayaking, I don ‘t guarantee they won’t fall in the bog, capsize, or meet their fair share of ticks. But a little care and attention boosts the confidence of even the most squeamish city person entering the wonderful world of the swamp. My friend emerges more aware of the environment and our place in it. The company of novices, seeing this waterlogged world through beginner’s eyes and mind, refreshes me and leads me, too, to new discoveries.

It is the same with spiritual friendship between teacher and student. Perhaps what the mentor can do best is instill confidence that calmness, clarity, and insight are possible. Sure enough, we’ll tum on the non-Buddha channel now and then! But our daily return to mindfulness practices makes transformation possible. Demonstrating these practices day in, day out, in non-glamorous settings, the teacher ultimately liberates the teacher within the student. Each step of the way, the teacher refreshes his or her own experience, drinking deeply from the well of the Dharma, thanks to the genuine aspiration of the student at his or her side.

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, is co-director of the Order of Interbeing and author of Sangha Building. He is afounding member of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois.

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My Father’s Teachings

By Fred Eppsteiner

I t wasn’t easy for my father to age. To see his hair turn grey, his hairline recede, and then gradually disappear till only a few strands remained. To lose the energy of his youth and feel the weariness and discomfort of his aging body. He was both saddened and angered by this “unexpected” turn of events. He mourned the loss of his body, this form he thought he’d always be.

But old age was not the only infirmity my father endured in his golden years. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a degenerative brain disease. I watched as he lost first mucb of his short-term memory, then his medium-term memory, and, finally, his long-term memory began to go as well. In addition, his reasoning and cognitive functioning slowly became impaired. His ability to think, to retain and process information, and to converse became confused and impeded. To these losses, he responded with frustration, anger, and despair.

As I watched these profound changes in my father, I realized I was also viewing the disintegration of his self-concept. His idea of himself that he had mentally constructed for seventy-five years and that he had held together by imagining a permanent self that continues over time, moment-to-moment, year to year, was no longer functioning. His self that had accomplished this and done that, a self that could remember itself, a self that came from here and went there, that was productive-he couldn’t find any of those selves anymore. He became lost and frightened. He didn’t know who he was anymore! And he had lost the ability to recreate a new self to solve this profound dilemma. My father fell into a state of depression, alternating between despair, fear, and rage. It is a common emotional state for people with Alzheimer’s in our culture.

As I lived with him, observed, and listened, I realized something else was occurring. As his cognitive capacity diminished and he slowly got used to his new condition, he began to live more and more in the present moment. The whole apparatus of conceptualization through which he had always related to reality no longer functioned, and he just experienced things directly. I joked with him that be had attained what many meditators and seekers worked so hard for-to do nothing, accomplish nothing. I told him that to spend a day looking, sitting, walking, eating was enough; he was enough just as he was.That it just didn’t matter that he couldn’t remember what he ate five minutes before, or what he did that morning, or even who he was.

And gradually my father began to change, to soften, open, and accept. A complicated man for much of his life, he became simpler and more direct. A man of some hardness and emotional distance, he became much softer and loving. He would constantly tell us, his family, how much he loved us and would ask us to love him. He would want to kiss us and to have us kiss him. A man who would always fall asleep when my mother took him to a classical music concert was now in love with music and dance. And every concelt and performance he went to was always “the best one ever.”

I want to relate a little story that happened two years ago. My father would come to our meditations, sit and listen, and the people in our Sangha got to know him. One day, one of the men told me that when he had greeted my father before the sitting, my father had asked him, “Lee, do you love me?” Lee, who is sixty-six, told me this anecdote with tears in his eyes. In his whole life, he said, never had a man asked him that question, and it had touched him deeply.

I also watched as my father became a child again (or perhaps one he never was). All his higher cortical functioning, his social training, his adult self-consciousness fell away. He could be impulsive, inappropriate, spontaneous. A man who was never known for his sense of humor, and certainly never the clown, now delighted (sometimes mischievously) in making people laugh, in being a buffoon at times. Music would play, and he would just stand up and dance by himself, impervious to the judgment of others. Like a child, he thought he was always terrific!

For me, the son as caregiver, I had to constantly reaffirm to my father that it’s all right not to remember, not to think, analyze or judge; not to retain any information for more than a brief moment. Yet, on the other band, I had a very strong concept, supported by fifty-plus years of experience and memory, of who and what my father was, and should be. I had to deal with my own judgment, evaluations, selfconsciousness, and often embarrassment as I watched my familiar father disappear and become someone totally different from all my prior concepts about him. I had to learn to accept, to let go and to love my father in the most challenging and unusual way of my life.

Then, unexpectedly, came death. My father, who had never had a heart problem, had a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. My brother, sister, and I came to New York to be with him and my mother, and to aid in some decision-making about a course of medical intervention. The doctors gave him six months to a year to live. There he lay in cardiac intensive care, hooked up to endless tubes and monitors, and all he wanted to do was “go home” or as he said, “just let me get up and I’ll come right back.” And then he died. One minute alive and then, all the vital signs disappeared one by one on the monitors. There, before my eyes, he exited his body, he was gone. The doctors and nurses all disappeared and we were alone with him. Holding him, stroking him, kissing him. Expressing our gratitude to him for all he had given us in this life and wishing him well on his journey. We stayed with him for several hours, his face serene, his body becoming colder and colder. For thirty years I’ve studied and practiced the Buddha’s teaching, and yet never so clearly had the truth of impermanence, of birth and death, of death and deathlessness, of change and changelessness, so directly and clearly been pointed out. In that hospital room with my father, mother, brother, and sister, a palpable sacredness emerged, a profound experience of Dharma that brought my palms together in deepest gratitude.

Several days later, my father was cremated. We took his ashes to his family plot in Queens, New York and dug a hole by the graves of his mother and father. Lighting incense and chanting the Heart Sutra, his wife, children, and grandchildren each put a spoonful of his ashes in the hole, said good-bye, and wished him a speedy and auspicious rebirth.
Your body, cold to my touch.
Your face, peacefully at rest.
The candle’s wick, all burnt up.
Shakyamuni’s Truths, totally revealed.
With moist eyes, I receive your final gift.

Dharma Teacher Fred Eppsteiner, True Energy, was 52 and his father, Larry Eppsteiner, was 80 when he died. Fred is a psychotherapist in Naples, Florida.

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The Seasons of Practice

By Eileen Kiera

I return to mindfulness of my breath as to a prayer-not prayer as supplication, but as a willingness to be open to what is unfolding in each moment. With conscious breathing as a foundation, we welcome whatever comes. Resting in the stillness of our breathing, we welcome the things we want and the things we don’t want, the things we generally choose to push away, deny, or ignore. Whatever presents itself, we are able to be here in trust. I’m reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 16th century Christian monk, who said he practiced the presence of God. In each moment, he came back to trust whatever presented itself to him. He gave himself into relationship with each event or person who came to him as if God breathed with him.

Even as I sit at my computer, writing these words, I’m given the opportunity to practice. My ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, asks me to put her hair in a bun. My first thought is to send her away, imploring her not to disturb me. But I return to my breathing as if to prayer and choose instead to be with her. As I brush her thick, black hair, I am touched by her sweetness and beauty. I feel my love for her, and the preciousness of this fleeting moment together. When we have finished, I am more present than before to my writing, and she goes off, happily singing a little song to herself.

Mindful breathing adds weight and potency to the simple things in our lives, and allows us to touch the depth of mystery, the deepest rhythms that are present in even the most ordinary things. In spring, I love the sight and scent of tender, pink apple blossoms. In summer, the fruit, hidden in green leaves, attracts deer and Steller’s jays to our yard. In autumn, the crisp, frosted apples are filled with the most delicious, sweet juice. In winter, the apple trees stands bare of leaves and fruit, as if dead. Year after year, I marvel at this ordinary cycle of life. It is a rhythm, like the ebb and flow of the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the coming and going of my breath-the rhythm of life and death that surpasses our thoughts or understanding of life and death. And we live in the midst of this mystery every moment, with each breath.

I was touched by this mystery recently as I sat with a friend who lay dying. After sharing some memories of times we had spent together, ordinary events now filled with poignancy, I sat with him in silence. My breath seemed most ordinary, but it brought me in touch with the presence of the mystery, which you might call the presence of God. I was not looking for anything or making any effort to understand what was happening. Rather my breath was like a silent prayer of opening and trusting. In a few moments, I noticed that my friend and I were breathing together, our chests rising and falling at the same rate, slowly, peacefully. He reached out and took my hand, as old friends do. And I knew that we were both moving in the midst of the unknown, accepting even this. Being with each other, loving each other, as we had over many years, was enough in that moment. And I think it is enough in every moment, when we practice as prayer. We fall in love with everything that life gives us. We enjoy this day.

Dharma teacher Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, teaches mindfulness throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp Community, a group of people dedicated to creating a rural practice center in the Pacific Northwest. They have purchased 40 acres in the mountains of northern Washington State, and are currently raising money and planning for the first stages of development.

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Breathfully Taking Care

 By Therese Fitzgerald

After months of zazen practice at San Francisco Zen Center, I asked my teacher Richard Baker-roshi, “Do I really have to count my breath?” “Yes,” he responded with unmistakable solemnity. I had friends who managed to count hundreds of breaths forwards and backwards, and others who described staying home just enjoying their breathing in zazen posture. So I kept putting myself in the “bamboo rod,” as Suzuki-roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind–trying to learn what for me was a somewhat elusive practice.

Ten years ago, I acknowledged to Thich Nhat Hanh that paying attention to my breathing was mostly an experience of getting in touch with constriction in my abdomen and chest. Thlly asked me, “Is there any time you enjoy your breathing?” I thought for a moment and responded, “Yes, when I’m floating in the ocean, in a pond, or even in the bathtub.” “Why do you ever get out of the bathtub?” he asked wide-eyed, opening his palm.

Now as I sit up in bed writing while my husband sleeps next to me, I realize I am enjoying my breathing alongside of his breathing. At times-sitting at my office desk looking out the window, lying under a tree, standing at the dish sink-I find myself simply and happily being conscious of my breathing. The concept and practice of stopping, samatha-stopping at the sound of the telephone bell, having a friend ask, “Are you enjoying your breathing?” or stopping for formal meditation-has helped me notice my breathing throughout the day and notice whether it is long or short, relaxed or constricted. Stretching out in the prone posture is the most conducive for my relaxed breathing, and floating in a warm body of water, especially salt water, always gives me the most enjoyable breathing experience.

And then there are times when I have really needed to “take refuge in the island of self’ by practicing conscious breathing. This practice was my constant companion, for example, throughout the ordeal of my beloved brother’s recovery from a brain injury accident, starting with six weeks in a coma. The breath proved to be my strongest link with the present moment. By returning to my breath when any thoughts of the past or the future could have overwhelmed me, I nurtured my strength to stay with my brother through the coma- which was fairly unnerving, as he was both completely familiar to me and yet far, far away in another universe. Walking meditation in the halls of the neuro-unit sustained me in my contact with less-than sensitive medical staff and anxious visitors. I remember one visitor pleading with me, “Tell me it’s gonna be all right.” I breathed and spoke from a place of calm conviction, “He’s alive. Let’s be grateful and be with him as he is right now.”

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I had to leave midway through the coma, knowing that it would be several weeks before I could see my brother again. My father and I had just visited a facility for severely-damaged brain injury survivors. As I entered my brother’s hospital room, I was choked up with sorrow and dread. Tears threatened to disable me from sitting by his side and helping him as he struggled to tear at the feeding tube. I called on the practice of putting breath to song and sang “Breathing In, Breathing Out” with as much spirit as I could gather. My calm was restored, and my sister, who arrived to take care of my brother, was heartened.

Years later, I continued to process the lessons from this experience. While practicing walking meditation at Plum Village one year after the accident, my sadness almost overwhelmed me. I remembered Thay’s advice to me just months after the accident when I found it difficult to practice walking meditation on the beautiful streets of Prague, as all I could think of was my brother’s inability to walk at the time. Thay had responded, “Walk for your brother.” As we started out on the path along the Plum Village sunflower fields, I poured my loving concentration for my brother into each step, while I maintained awareness of my breathing. A song/mantra emerged from that walk which expresses what I continue to learn from the radical awakenings my brother opened up for me:
I didn’t know how precious life is,
until I saw you lying there.
I must have forgotten how precious life is,
and then I saw you lying there.
I couldn’t believe how precious life is,
as I watched you lying there.
And then I practiced taking care,
taking care of you lying there.
And now I know how precious life is,
 how very precious life is.

I tum to this mantra when I need to come back to my breathing and deepen my perspective.

It seems so simple: mindful breathing helps us be present for the preciousness of life. The trick is “remembering to remember” the practice that helps us stay present. We help ourselves by carving out time to sit and walk mindfully every day to develop the “habit” of stopping and being with the breath. And yes, counting the breath, gatha practice, guided meditations, or some other means of being fully aware of our breathing, can be the vehicle which facilitates our practice so that it is there for us to call on when we need it.

Dharma teacher Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, practices swimming meditation and mindful breathing in any body of water above freezing.

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The Gift of the Bell

By Leslie Rawls

Editing this issue of The Mindfulness Bell, I have been able to focus on my breath as a reality, not as a habit. The habit is when the bell rings, I stop and breathe, counting my breaths. If I’m not with my breathing, stopping and counting is empty recitation-like children saying the Lord’s Prayer without understanding the meaning. On occasion, I have been aware that I want to count my breath and get back to work. That’s just counting; it’s not breathing. I become aware of the urge to get it over, and that helps me come back to real awareness.

Working with these articles has helped me remember what a gift it is for the phone to ring or the computer bell to chime. Not because it takes me away from work, but because it reminds me to breathe mindfully. When I am truly present, my conscious breathing extends beyond the sound of the bell. I am able to carry it steadily. I am grateful for my breathing because when I practice conscious breathing deeply, it brings me into this moment. And, a half-smile really does bloom on my face effortlessly.

Leslie Rawls, True Enlightenment Country, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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All That Has Breath

By Adele Macy

Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Thay’s words seem so simple. At times, reading such simple words, I find myself searching for some extraordinary revelation. This intellectual hunger usually crops up when I feel overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities  and emotional demands. Then, I enjoy retreating to my room to ponder the riddles of the masters or read a good novel. I find great value in studying the Dharma, not being content with the comfortable grooves in my mind that think the ordinary is nothing extraordinary. Times of quiet study are like an in-breath before the out-breath of busy activity. These days, I have no books or poetry to protect me from the reality of having my critically-ill brother living with me. Charlie is suffering from every kind of lung disease imaginable plus several other serious and very painful ailments. I have had to put away my books and my “best laid plans,” and practice deep listening and compassion for a person whose every shallow breath is a challenge. Charlie has been pumped full of steroids for years just to stay alive. He is now at a stage where he is ready to let go, but doesn’t quite know how.

Charlie enjoys simple things, like watching me cook my exotic dishes and especially eating them. He laughs, watching out the window as our very determined basset hound pulls me down the street on our daily walk. He loves laughter and has a beautiful laugh that’s rich and wholesome. Many days, Charlie forces himself to laugh; he knows it’s better than any medicine. He grieves the loss of his 14-year companion, Lena, who recently died of lung cancer and the quick passage of their short journey together, spent hard and fast.

Recently, I took Charlie up the Blue Ridge Parkway-a glorious stretch of road winding through the North Carolina mountains. Charlie could not enjoy it, though he tried. His vision is going, and he couldn’t see the beautiful fall colors covering the mountains. Everything is a blur to him. On the way home, he broke down sobbing and told me that he felt like a mountain was sitting on top of him. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment. I can do the first part, but when I’m with Charlie, sometimes the smiling is difficult. I can breathe deeply, aware of the transforming effect, the peaceful joy of this body that lives, this blood that courses with the rhythm of all things. Why must my brother be deprived of this essential gift? How can he find this peace?

A couple of weeks ago I went on my monthly retreat in the mountains. I woke at 6:30, not wanting to waste a moment of this precious time. I had only one day before returning home to Charlie, who can’t walk five feet without having to sit down and rest. I kept busy all morning, building my fire, preparing breakfast, and straightening up. I reminded myself to stop and smell and listen and watch, but only for a minute because things weren’t quite right for zazen.

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My Christian background led me once to a little book called The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a monastery cook. At times when the bell rang for prayers and chanting in the chapel, Brother Lawrence continued working in the kitchen. When asked why he didn’t attend the sacred rituals, Brother Lawrence replied, “It makes no difference whether I am here cooking or in the chapel. God is present in all things at all times.” That book was my first lesson in mindfulness. Thay, like Brother Lawrence, reminds me that awareness is a moment-by-moment process that nurtures deep joy and compassion. I remind myself that there is no preparation required for deep listening. Preparing my breakfast is deep listening.

If I put my ear to the ground, I can hear the earth’s heart beating. The spaces between all things are breaths. The spaces between words, the coursing of the river, the whispering leaves moving to the great breath of the wind. All is air and movement and cells multiplying between breaths. Even the imaginary line I draw between myself and others is a breath.

My brother cannot breathe with ease, hike in the woods, or bend to the ground to listen to the earth’s heart beating. If I breathe mindfully when I’m with him, maybe I’ll hear the river moving in his labored lungs. Maybe if we both listen, old Grandfather Tree, our childhood friend, will remind us that even the slow-running sap of the old, tired tree nourishes the leaves that feed the soil that catches the rain that fills the liver that rests in a pool where a child drinks. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Such profound wisdom in those simple words.

Adele Macy, Liberation of the Source, works with elderly people and practices with the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness in North Carolina.

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Poem: We Sit Still

we sit
still
on cushions, pillows, or pads.

we hear
stomachs grumble, crows call,
heaters switch on, heaters switch off,
clocks tick, trees grow.

while a soft voice reminds us
who we really are
our minds romp about the day,
or long to curl up
on our cushions
and sleep.

but we smile at our minds
as at children tumbling off a sled
or oil dancing in a scorching pan

still we sit
one year later
none of us quite sure, then, of what is
this Sangha.

we still sit
relearning who we are
when we are not our personalities.

we sit still
searching this shore
with blinking eyes,

knowing
we need a kindred circle
to touch
this sparkling moment.

– Sally Ann Sims

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Poem: The Ambivalent Nature of Healing

Report from Sonoma, April 1995

At the bank a week after the shooting
it’s business as usual; you couldn’t tell
any but daily life has ever gone on here.
That night I heard about it: felt only
shutting down, a muffled distant metal chung!,
and nothing, not free to be impressed by death
nor life, nothing; but in the next days, found
I couldn’t walk near: a force of sadness larger
than two men I didn’t know bound me like a spell.
In time, my own dead made their ways through to say
at last, ”Nothing you need do for us. Keep going.”

I went to the woods where I grew up
one last time too many. Last fall this was.
The woOds are gone, completely gone. Once
tweilty miles out, not changed in thirty years,
sudclenly cedars and hucklebenies, beaver ponds,
bo~ and deer trails, the riches of my first world,
gone to housing tracts, middle-class streets,
poles, wires, lawns, people from somewhere else
having no idea what was there; all gone. They
were babies; now they need a place to live.

In the winter I went back to Binh Dinh province,
to my old AO, to the place where the sounds come from
that;charge my ears with trouble out of time.
I went to say goodbye to ghosts of men
I’ll always love, but can no longer carry.
I found no trace, no ghosts, no floating memories
of the spirit we lived in then; found everything above
and below that ground under vigorous use of the ones
who live there now. The fugitive past I went to meet
is bqried and put to rest under twenty-five years
of busy life. It’s been that long.

The lesson keeps coming back,
the hardest one: the locus of loss
is my eyes, not the bystanders, not the land.
Not those lost

Can’t take nor bring any of it back,
can only be in present tense
must live, must continue living daily.
It’s alright.

-Ted Sexauer

Reprinted from What Book!? (Parallax Press, 1998). Ted Sexauer is a member of the Veteran Writer’s Workshop, West Coast Group, which meets quarterly at Sebastopol, California.

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Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people’s suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say things you don’t like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn’t want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man’s stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, “Good­ness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don’t know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

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Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, “My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful.” He said, “Okay,” and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don’t practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn’t allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it’s like sitting on thorns. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

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Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That’s not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call “energy number two.” The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of … , you don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don’t stop, if you don’t become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 

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This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Opening My Heart to the Catholic Church

By Viktoria Rendes

If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian, or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha s spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.
From Teachings On Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Practicing with Lotus Buds Sangha on Wednesday nights has become a sacred ritual in my life. My spirit is nourished by the Dharma talks. The quiet sitting and walking meditation with my sisters and brothers firmly grounds me and helps me be present to myself and others.

We all struggle at times to find meaning in “simply” being alive, in our breath, in our daily interactions with each other. Yet at some point, all of us have experienced the joy of being in the present moment, letting go of the past, and not being pulled into the future. The importance of being in the present moment is also part of the Christian tradition. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will take care of itself.” I have found this lesson to be deceptively simple, and so difficult to learn. How many times have I been obsessed with the “destination” and failed to understand that on the journey, I am already there? Humming “/ have arrived, I am home, In the here and in the now” helps me feel grounded in the present.

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As a child, I was baptized into the Catholic Church. My formative years were spent in Austria, a Catholic country. I was sent to the local school, for all intents and purposes, a Catholic school. We prayed in the morning, were taught religious education by the parish priest and the nuns, took part in church-run activities for children, sang in the church choir, and went to mass on Sunday. Life revolved around the parish church and I was happy. But in my teenage years, I began to question the need for organised religion. All I could see was the church’s many mistakes. I saw the church as a bastion of repression; I failed to see that within the tradition, there were also people working for justice and peace. By my mid-teens I only went to church to see the boys I fancied. In the vernacular of the time, “We went to church to search.”

After 22 years, I have returned to church to search, but this time, it is a different kind of search—a search for my spiritual roots, stillness, meaning and fellowship. The Wednesday night meditation sessions and retreats have offered me stillness, meaning, and fellowship, but deep down, I was cut off from my roots. What motivated me most strongly to take that first tentative step was the celebration of Christmas, which in the Catholic tradition is filled with joy, wonder, and the most beautiful rituals. My three-year-old daughter was old enough to want to understand Christmas, yet this society offered her only a shopping mall experience. So, I took her to church.


The sixth Earth Touching: In gratitude and compassion, I bow down to my ancient spiritual roots. I see myself as a child, sitting in church or synagogue, ready for the sermon or ceremony—Yom Kipper, Holy Communion. I see my priest, pastor, minister, rabbi, and the people of the congregation. I remember how difficult it was to be there and to do things I did not understand or want to do. I know communication was difficult, and I did not receive much joy or nourishment from these services. I felt anxious and impatient. Because of the lack of communication and understanding between my spiritual family and me, I left my rabbi, my pastor, my synagogue, my church. I lost contact with my spiritual ancestors, and became disconnected from them. Now I know there are jewels in my spiritual tradition, and that the spiritual life of my tradition has contributed greatly to stability, joy, and peace of my ancestors for many generations. I know those who practice my spiritual tradition were unsuccessful in transmitting it to me, to us. I want to go back to them to discover the great spiritual values in my tradition, for my own nourishment and the nourishment of my children and their children. I want to connect again with my ancient spiritual ancestors and get their spiritual energy flowing freely to me again. I see Moses, Jesus, and so many others as my spiritual ancestors. I see teachers over many generations in these traditions as my spiritual ancestors, and I bow n to all of them in the present moment.

Bowing down deeply and letting these words touch my heart, I have been able to take another step along my path and open my heart to the Catholic Church. What surprised me most, however, was that the church was there ready to receive me. I was rather apprehensive that first time I returned. In the beginning, I sat self-consciously, aware that I had forgotten much of the ritual. Then I let go and listened. I saw people get up and read from the Bible. The priest read from the Gospel and then brought it alive by making it relevant to our lives. There were clear parallels between what he was doing and the Dharma talks on Wednesday nights. Coming from different traditions, both were giving the same message. I could not help but express my gratitude to Father John afterwards.

Since then, I have gone regularly to church while continuing with the Wednesday night meditation. One never fails to enrich the other. I am still not fully reconciled with the Catholic Church, but I have faith that this reconciliation will take place in the not-too-distant future.

Thanks to the Buddha’s teachings, I have been able to make an important step, but still the journey remains. May each of my footsteps be grounded in the present. May I walk the path with peace in my heart.

Viktoria Rendes, Stability of the Source, lives in Australia. She practices with the Lotus Buds Sangha.

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Poem: Comment Prendre Soin De Soi

(How to Take Care of Ourselves)

Le temps passe et je suis
reconnaissant.
A chaque pas dans ma vie, je
deviens prudent.
Quand j’ai quitte ma mere,
j’avais dix sept ans.
Ma mere m’a dit en pleurant :
“Tu vas la-bas,
n’oublie pas
de bien prendre soin de toi”
Moi en pleurant,
lui repondant,
Oui maman !
Le temps passe et j’ai beaucoup
appris en grandissant,
Que chaque moment present,
Est le plus merveilleux moment,
On doit savourer chaque instant,
toutes les bonnes choses nous
entourant,
ici et maintenant.
Retourner a notre respiration
consciente,
est une technique puissante,
pour apprivoiser le monde et
etre reconnaissant,
en retrouvant
sa propre souverainete
dans ce monde tracassant.

Time passes and I am grateful.
At each step of my life, I become
careful.
When I left my mother, I was
seventeen years old
My mother told me, crying:
“You are going over there,
don’t forget
to take very good care of yourself.”
I, crying, answered
“Yes, maman!”
Time passes and I have learnt
much
while growing up,
that each present moment
is the most wonderful moment.
We must savor each instant,
all the good things surrounding
us,
here and now.
To return to our conscious
breathing
is a powerful method
for taming the world
and being grateful,
finding again
our own sovereignty
in this troubling world.

mb26-TheBest2by Chan Ngo
(Vinh Nguyen)

English Translation by Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin

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Transforming Companionship

By Lynda Schaller

I have a dear friend with whom I exchange frequent letters, but visiting each other is not often possible. As I drove to our last get-together, I thought about the fact that I usually feel dissatisfied after our visits. “Over already? Did I miss something? But I want more!” Being together is so precious. I recognized that I was usually not mindful in our time together, and I vowed to be different this time.

I arrived early for the visit, and took the extra time to walk mindfully, breathing and enjoying a spectacularly lovely day—the beautiful sky, the sunshine, and the view of surrounding fields and hills. When my friend arrived, I was relaxed and much more present to the experience of being together. I remembered to stop and breathe periodically, soaking up our companionship and appreciating my friend’s presence. Our time ended with a mindful hug.

It was a richly satisfying visit, and while it would have been delightful to have more time together, what we had was sufficient. Since then I have even felt less frustrated that we don’t see each other more.

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My friend also does some mindfulness practice. Maybe on our next visit, I will suggest that we practice together. I can’t imagine a better way to get the most out of our companionship than being completely present to each other.

Lynda Schaller lives in an intentional community in Gays Mills, Wisconsin.

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The Smile or Freedom

By Shalom

About seven years ago, I was caught up in some frustration with my then seven-year-old daughter. She was sitting on the bed, and I was standing in the doorway of her room. I was very cross about something she had done and pouring forth a great torrent of words. My view of the world at this moment was probably as wide as a pinhead! As I went to take a breath to pour forth more of my parental wisdom, the seed of mindfulness that I had been cultivating for some years on my cushion suddenly sprouted a wonderful new green shoot! Instead of a further outpouring of words, there was the realisation that I had just breathed in. Awareness bloomed—I was suddenly and absolutely in the present moment. I simply breathed out… and in and out… no more words, just breathing and looking deeply.

In that moment the blindness of my habitual responding simply fell away. I was at home in myself, no longer lost in some story I was creating. As I stood there, simply breathing with awareness, I began to also really see this other small person in front of me—no longer the image daughter of my mind but a vibrant full colour live other human being! It was very quiet for a few moments, quiet in the room and quiet inside me. Can you understand it when I say that in that moment there was a new me looking at a new daughter? In the spacious and quiet mind there was an awareness of this fragile young girl sitting with head lowered, not speaking, not looking, not being seen and not being heard.

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A new and softer voice arose from within me as I told my daughter that I could see now that something was wrong for her and that she didn’t seem able to look at me. I said that I wished I had been calm enough to notice that earlier and I was sorry that I had not. Gently, I invited her to take her time and when she felt ready and able, to lift her eyes and take a peek at me … to just see that I am her mother and that I loved her. In such a space, the truth can reveal itself safely.

My daughter raised her eyes, and without blame or anger she simply said, “Mummy, I am afraid of you.” This, my friends, was a most painful and shocking revelation to me—and yet I also recognised it as a liberating truth. Breathing in and embracing my grief I heard this truth—without self-hatred or blame—simply breathing with compassion and gratitude. My daughter was finally safe enough to let me in to her world, and I was awake enough to accept that it was a different world than the one I had been living in.

I had always been so proud of the fact that I didn’t hit my child, and I worked very hard at being a good mother, which of course I had been. However in the busyness and in the conceptualising of “good mother” I had quite lost the ability to simply be and see her and myself as we really were. In the following moments there were no more words. My daughter saw my tears and felt recognised. She came into my arms, and as I looked down into her shining and miraculous, tear-stained face, I remembered the baby I had held to my breast seven years earlier. A baby who had looked up into my eyes with this same tender and trusting love. How long it had been since I had seen her! The space had opened for the healing of a habitual way of responding that had been the mark of many generations of women in my family. A seed of mindfulness had set us, and future generations, free.

My daughter is now a teenager. We have our challenges, but the seed of mindfulness has grown steadily. It stands now as a strong and stable tree, blossoming and yielding much sweet and nourishing fruit.

The cultivation of mindfulness and learning to look deeply into ourselves and into the hearts of others can bring a lot of relief within us and in the world around us. Let us practice conscious breathing together and nourish the seeds of awareness in each other. When we see with clarity and spaciousness, we have the experience of waking up, a smile is born in the garden of our hearts, and manifests in our speech and in our actions. It is a true smile from a mind clear and spacious. It is the smile of freedom.

Shalom, True Auspicious Land, is a parent, therapist, and teacher. She leads Mindfulness Retreats in New Zealand, and has taught in Europe and the United States.

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Dropping My Worries

By Leah Matsui

The plans for my trip to America were jampacked: a seven-day mindfulness retreat with Amie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald, three days with my beloved aunt in Florida, and a meeting with my mother—the first in 24 years. I anticipated Florida as a high point—Aunt Helene and me drinking iced tea under the palm trees and reminiscing about my darling stepmother who died last January. It was a great scenario of peace, reconciliation, and comfort, especially for me. A perfect plan for happiness.

Imagine my shock when the day before my departure, I received news that Aunt Helene’s only daughter had just had surgery for a malignant brain tumor! A second surgery would take place the day I planned to arrive in Palm Beach. My plans flew out the window.

Ironically, a few weeks before I had spoken about wanting to become a “big river” as the Buddha taught, with the capacity to absorb and transform suffering with ease. But in this moment, with plans dashed, I was a tiny stream inundated by a storm of emotions. As I sat in front of the Buddha in our living room, my mind whirled. “Should I go straight to Florida? Cancel the trip? Who can help us? Can my cousin survive? Can my aunt survive? Can I survive this suffering?” One decision was made for me—no part of the bargain air ticket from Japan could be changed. My aunt said, “Come anyway, Leah.” But there was a chance she would be out of the state, consulting with specialists when I arrived.

Out of the confusion, I realized that the three Jewels —Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—are on-call 24 hours a day, but that it was up to me to make the call. First, I would be at a retreat. After the retreat, I could contact our teacher the Buddha, or Dharma brothers and sisters if things became turbulent. So I felt ready to go and meet whatever circumstances arose. The only meditator in my family, I planned to go as a “good Buddhist.” Maybe I could be a “Compassion Distribution Center” in the midst of crisis. Maybe my practice could help others.

Many things worked favorably for my cousin, and when I landed in Palm Beach, my aunt was waiting. Luckily, as soon as we hugged at the airport, my preconceived notion that I was on a “mission of mercy” disappeared. I was able to hug my aunt in the present moment. I was able to be myself and she felt just like herself in my arms.

Aunt Helene and I have been talking about feelings since I was three and she was sixteen. Now, forty years later, we were together in Florida, talking and listening from the heart. Anchored in the present by conscious breathing, I was able to relax my grip on how things “should” be. I felt joy and gratitude for my aunt’s smile, the melon pink sunset, and the fact that my cousin had survived this day. Before bed that night, Aunt Helene and I practiced hugging meditation.

Early the next morning, I sat in meditation. Then, walking into the Florida dawn, I met a wild jackrabbit. My aunt prepared “American Bagels” for breakfast—a real treat. I gave her a Japanese Shiatsu hand massage. Later, my cousin called. She was out of intensive care and very upset. She was losing big clumps of hair. We talked, and for me, it was one of the deepest interactions I’ve ever had with her. She asked for a hat. “Please,” she said, “so I won’t be embarrassed in the hospital.”

That afternoon, my aunt and I went hat shopping. It was tough for me as we started out. I have always admired my cousin’s beautiful hair. On this shopping trip, only the present moment could offer peace. “When you live a long time, there are a lot of ups and downs,” my aunt told me. We found the perfect hat in a surf shop, and then enjoyed some delicious iced tea.

Nothing that day went according to my “plans” for happiness, but for me it was the best day and the worst day at the same time. There was no need to be the Buddhist of the family or to hand out any prepackaged compassion. My aunt and I took turns, each sometimes embodying terror or equanimity. We were both in touch with plenty of genuine peace during the storm.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the conditions for happiness are right before us. He often stresses that “happiness is being fully alive in the present moment.” I have always been moved by the possibilities this teaching offers. But until recently, it has just been an idea. We each study and practice the Dharma at our own pace. On this trip, it was my turn to really practice dwelling deeply in the present and letting go of worries and plans.

Looking back now, I see that expectations gave in to reality, and with that came fear and confusion. The surf was up, the waves were rough, but the anchor of the present held me firm and stable. On the retreat, Arnie Kotler had quoted Dogen-zenji: “Every day is a good day.” And so it was for me. Thanks to the Buddha’s teaching, I was able to open up to the present, and enjoy the gift of three wonderful days in Florida.

As of June 2000, Cousin Alicia is back home, a joyful wife and mother of two. Officially cancerfree, to me, she is more beautiful than ever. May all beings be protected and safe.

Leah Matsui, True Light of Awakening, practices with the Sazanami Sangha in Kumamoto, Japan.

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Poem: Smiling with My Pain

I feel the pain.

It hurts.
It hurts very much.
I want to smash something, someone, anything.
It hurts.
It hurts very much.
Rage and anger boil within me.
It hurts.
It hurts very much.
I feel inadequate, useless, pathetic;
After all it’s only pain.
But it hurts.
It hurts very much.

I stop.

I breathe.
I breathe in the stale rank air which surrounds me.
I begin to calm, to slow down.
I begin to know that I am breathing.
As I breathe in,
I know I am breathing in.
I greet the air.
As I greet the air,
It tastes sweet and fresh.
It tells me of newly mown meadows
and mountain valleys.
I continue to breathe;
Each breath being
As if it were the first new beautiful breath of my life.

I hurt.
I hurt very much.
But I begin to feel safe.
I begin to smile.
My fixed, clamped, teeth part,
Just a little.
The tip of my tongue gently
brushes my
awakening mouth.

My numbed, compressed lips open.
They move and begin the forming
of a very small, fragile smile.
My hard, staring eyes begin to
soften.
They crease around their edges.
They open.
I begin to see.
I hurt.
I hurt very much.
But now I know everything will be
all
right.

As my smile continues to find its
way,
And my breath brings peace and
calm,
So my shoulders drop.
My tense, aching muscles ease.
As my smile mingles, merges
and lovingly takes hold of my intolerance,
anger and frustration,
So love, peace and understanding
arrive.
I take a long, slow, beautiful breath,

And let my mind dwell on something
good and wonderful.
I forget that I hurt.

I sense the love, joy, happiness and
laughter
Of my brothers and sisters in the
Dharma, gathered round the long
tables;
In the warm steamy kitchen,
Purposefully wrapping earth cakes in preparation for the New
Year’s celebrations.
I feel the strength of the green
banana leaves,
As I carefully wrap them round the
sticky rice, and tie them with
string.
I hear the laughter of my brother as I get it all wrong,
And he shows me,
Again,
How to wrap the rice.
As I touch this beautiful moment,
So I open,
And am filled with the wonder and joy of my life.
I forget to forget that I hurt.

With the love and understanding that my breath and smile
have brought,
I acknowledge and greet the deep hurting pain in my body.
I smile with my twisted, locked,
muscles at the back of my tongue,
That hurt so much.

We speak together with love and
understanding.
I smile with the hard, creased up I
knot of muscle at the base of my I
spine,
That is trying to pull me out of I
shape and is the cause of so much
pain.
I hurt.
I hurt very much.
But now I know I hurt.

As I open to my pain,
To the joy and wonder of my life,
So I remember the sound of a
teacher’s strong, clear voice.
I repeat the words that I know so
well: “My mind and my body are
one.”
The words travel to the very centre
of my being,
Like the music of a beautiful bell.

With all my wrong perceptions—I know I am my pain.
With all my wrong perceptions—I know I am the cause of my pain.
We are one, as I understand, as I do not understand.
I know that I hurt.
I hurt very much. I
But I do not hurt at all. I

Rupert Wilson 
Hungerford, England

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The Man with the Golden Horse

From a Vietnamese Song

There once was a young knight who rode a golden horse in many directions, looking for his lover. Early each morning, he mounted his horse and rode until sunset. He crossed rivers, forests, and mountains in his search. His mind was so anxious for the seeking, full of dreams about the date he met his lover. His clothes became tatters; the golden coat of his horse turned dingy and dull, but he continued to ride. Each day, the poor man rode until his body was exhausted. He rode through jungles and across rivers. But still, he could not find what he was looking for.

One day the knight came to a high mountain—so high that he could not see the top. A large river flowed at the foot of the mountain, blocking his way. It flowed slowly, peacefully, and beautifully. The knight sat down on a big rock beside the river. He looked at the water reflecting the blue sky, the white clouds, the rocks, and green trees. For the first time, he really saw the beauty of nature, and everything seemed new.

The young knight’s desperate longing to search for his lover vanished. He looked at his golden horse. The horse shook itself, and transformed into the lover he had sought for so long. Suddenly, the young man realized that riding on reality, he was looking for reality, but only when he stopped seeking, could he truly encounter reality.

You are what you’re looking for.
—Thich Nhat Hanh

This story is shared by Dieu Lien, True Long Lasting Joy, who practices with the Mindfulness Practice Community in Toronto.

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Practicing with Kyrre

By Svein Myreng and Eevi Beck

We sat down to meditate for the first time in weeks, and it felt wonderful. Then we heard small, unhappy noises from our baby boy, Kyrre, crawling on the floor next to us. Seeing Mom and Dad sitting still and withdrawn, was quite scary. Practicing mindfulness with a child is different from what we had expected, and different from all ideas we might have had of practice. It is difficult to find time for yourself, and we often have no time for sitting meditation, or are too tired from waking up repeatedly at night. Yet, we need the support of formal sitting more than ever, and are learning to create time for it.

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Kyrre draws us straight into the present moment, time and again. He lives fully in the present, and when he needs us, there is no saying, “I’ll just finish reading this article first.” We have to let go of what we are doing and be there for him. Of course, sometimes we have to have him wait, such as when we’re holding a hot pot, or putting soiled nappies in the wash. On such occasions, Kyrre is usually patient with us, if we don’t overdo it. So we try hard to be there without delay if we can, so when we really need to, we can ask him to wait.

The wonderful thing is that he’s there for us too, fully present. This has had impacts I (Eevi) could not have imagined. One day I couldn’t work out why he didn’t settle in at the breast. He was in a good position, and I wanted him to get on with it so I could turn to something else afterwards. Suddenly I saw that his little frowning face was my face. I knew I was sitting still, but when I felt my brow, it was all frowned up. And sure enough, as soon as I returned to my body, relaxed my face and other tensions, his unease evaporated and he sucked happily away. I learned then to check my own agitation whenever he seemed inexplicably restless!

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Letting go is, of course, one of the main parts of the practice. Holding on—to desires, fixed ways of doing things, opinions, and our self-image—keeps us unfree. Kyrre helps us let go by demanding our presence, by needing us—and by changing so fast. By the time we both felt confident changing his nappies on a changing table, he soon started moving about so much that we were afraid he’d fall down. In the end he did, and we moved nappy changing onto the floor, and later, to our laps. When Kyrre started crawling, we moved all dangerous objects out of his reach on the floor. Then he started standing, and we had to move the same objects out of his new and higher reach. One day, he could open drawers for the first time. These changes, commonplace for all parents, demand pretty constant mindfulness just to avoid accidents.

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A more demanding exercise in letting go comes from seeing the stress caused to Kyrre and to us by filling up our days and weeks with too much programme. Time and again we have to make a conscious effort to protect periods of doing nothing.

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The tremendous love that appeared in us when Kyrre was born, is something I (Svein) would never have been able to imagine. The main part of our practice is, in a way, to let this love be expressed. So the challenge isn’t so much staying mindful. For this, we now have our own little “Thay” to teach us each moment. The challenge is to find a balance between listening to the toddler’s needs and wishes, and retaining a sense of rhythm to the day. This is not always easy.

One thing we have succeeded in, is to make a small ceremony before each meal. We light a candle, and sing a short verse of grace before we start eating. It’s wonderful to see Kyrre’s face light up in joy when he sees us light the candle or hears the song. Our simple ceremony gives him a sense of security and familiarity. We also use it away from home. On trips, we sing grace quietly before feeding him. Once, Kyrre got upset, when we joined another child in singing a different song: We had not been mindful that we had already lit the candle and were in the middle of his ceremony!

Stopping and looking at a tree is a healing practice during a busy day. Tonight, on a light Norwegian summer evening, we introduced Kyrre more closely to some trees near our block of flats. He was completely absorbed, touching a fir tree and then a birch, looking at an ant, … ? He was radiant with a deep, quiet joy.

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One aspect of our practice is to impart values and practices that are good for him and the world. We use cloth diapers, better for his skin as well as the environment. They take a bit more work, but folding nappies is an excellent meditation practice. The calm rhythm of repeated movements makes a break from rushing between chores. By choosing the convenient solution, disposable nappies, dishwasher, etc., many of us deprive ourselves of calming and centering work. With a baby, this kind of work is extra important. We have chosen not to have a TV set—a decision we are very happy with. We have read enough about the impact of television on the human body and mind to feel that it is a pretty dangerous device. (We think and hope our computer is less so!) Visiting friends or relatives who have a TV, we see Kyrre’s attention getting sucked into the TV screen. It’s virtually impossible to make him look away from it. We are aware that it may be more difficult to always keep him away from TV, but we hope the good seeds we plant now will have their influence.

We are aware that we are privileged—without money worries (because we try to live simply) and living in Norway, where people work less and get better social support than in many other countries. For instance, we had a one-year parental leave of absence from work, with 80 percent pay, dividing the free time between us.

Another privilege that means a lot to us is having Sangha meetings at our home every Thursday. Eevi and Svein take turns meditating with the others and being with Kyrre, and for the conversation after sitting, Kyrre joins the group. Though the Dharma discussion becomes less concentrated, this is a very joyful time for all, and we feel like Kyrre has an extra family

All the letting go brings lots of old knots to the surface, and challenges our habit energy. To take care of the irritation and selfishness that appear when we are tired from waking up several times a night for several nights running, or when Kyrre poops five minutes after we last changed his nappy and we need to make it for the subway—those are the great challenges of practice. The old “mindfulness virtues” are important: to recognise and acknowledge what you feel and accept it, even when it’s irrational anger against your beloved child. Then, it’s possible to breathe a few times so the anger can disappear, or ask your spouse for help.

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Admitting our weaknesses—without self-judgment— may be most important of all. So many times I (Eevi) feel I am failing—as parent, as practitioner, and as an example for Kyrre. My practice from before he was born taught me the invaluable lesson that such feelings are never the whole picture. Just try again. And this life-transforming lesson is one I have been able to keep practicing. The practice helps us not lose faith when we fail to live up to our ideals. “A Zen master’s life is one continuous mistake,” said Dogen. A parent’s life is, too!

And Kyrre is a perfect mirror. We project onto him reactions that can only stem from ourselves. As he can’t talk yet, our communication, though rich, is limited to the concrete and to general moods. We may catch ourselves thinking he’s impatient or irritated with us, only to see that it’s our own mind, our fears we see. This year has opened our eyes to how habitually we project onto others. When our fear and insecurity doesn’t intrude, we see him more clearly as he is.

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Living with and through these challenges, we find it’s crucial to keep communicating. We do the Beginning Anew ceremony when possible, and try to take time for each other. It is difficult at times, but very important. During this period of too little sitting and too little sleep, some of Thay’s practices get a whole new meaning—the Four Mantras, the teachings on Right Speech, and the Five Awarenesses for married people. More than ever before, we feel part of a family lineage, grateful to the previous generations and committed to give Kyrre as much love and joy as possible. This is such a joyful time, taking care of our precious little son and of each other.

Now, Kyrre is even comfortable with us sitting a little in meditation—if we remember to smile!

Eevi Beck, True Compassionate Practice, and her husband, Dharma teacher Svein Myreng, True Door, live in Oslo, Norway. Their son, Kyrre, was born in May 1999. Svein’s book, Plum Poems, was published by Parallax Press in 1999. Svein is at home with Kyree, while writing a book on meditation. Eevi works as a computer scientist.

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I Embrace the Sky

By Erica Shane Hamilton

Sometimes, I don’t know how I managed to survive those few months in the north of France. At times, I thought death might be better. Every morning around five, I woke up to intense pain in my side. I had to go to the bathroom, where I experienced more pain with the passing of digested food through my ulcerated intestines. I would try and focus on the power of my body to heal as I felt the pain. But inevitably, I would cry as I saw that I was losing more and more blood. I would try and go back to sleep, but often I woke to go to the bathroom six times in one morning.

It was so difficult to eat or enjoy my food during that time. Food symbolized pain and the less I ate, the less pain I would feel. I started to feel like a ghost of my former self. Three years ago, I could bench-press 90 pounds, climb rocks, and run five miles a day. During each episode of ulcerative colitis, I lost a little more weight, and in France, I found myself weighing less than 48 kilograms, 106 pounds, atrophied and weak, with barely enough energy to get out of bed. A French doctor prescribed steroids to avoid hospitalizing me. They were a mixed blessing. They kept me from wasting away, but had awful side effects, causing insomnia and exacerbating my emotions to the point that I felt manic-depressive. The day I left for Plum Village, I started to feel better. The e-mails I wrote during the past 5 months chronicle my recovery in France and how mindfulness helped me maintain my health and enjoy my life. Here is a sampling.

24 March 2000

I would love to eat vegetables and legumes right now, but I can only crave them. Sometimes I cry when I see lots of veggies at the store that I can’t eat; especially today because I found a great health food store that had beautiful, fresh, organic veggies. It was so nice tonight just to be able to cut them and cook them up, and savor their taste in the broth. So, in my honor, and in honor of the long-awaited spring we are welcoming, please go out some time this week and savor some veggies and fruits. You know, my favorite meal of the day is breakfast because I get to eat a banana. The rest of the day it’s plain rice, plain pasta, eggs, soy milk, tofu, fish, a slice of bread (at least that is the best in the world here). I can’t even have that much salt because it makes the meds harder on my kidneys. And its been two months like this…. Enjoy your veggies!

28 April 2000

I am doing GREAT as far as my health. Plum Village was the medicine my soul needed! In fact, I will return on May 3 for another few weeks. The healing energy at Plum Village is absolutely wonderful. Immediately, we felt a sense of peace. I remember watching the sunset that night, through the orchard, thinking, how happy this piece of earth is—the birds and animals and trees love this place! Frankly, I was a little scared that I would not be able to hack it—the mindfulness and so much time meditating. But as the days continued, I started to really groove with it.

At first, the reaction of people to the sound of the bell or the clock or the kitchen phone was funny to me because everyone stopped. It was like “freeze frame.” But I began to look forward to those bells because they gave me the opportunity to return “home” and to feel a deep sense of relaxation. Even today, in Brussels, when a bell rings, Liza and I stop and breathe. I was heading in this direction already, before Plum Village. But it accelerated my love of life one hundred fold. I have experienced so many beautiful moments in the last three weeks and now feel ready to experience beautiful moments and lots of love—for myself and for others—for the rest of my life!!!

Sure, occasionally, the weather changes, so to speak, and I get a little down or I get stuck in my head. But I gently witness these emotions and try and understand what is underneath, that is the teaching of mindfulness. And I go back into my body and see how it feels with the emotions. It is all part of caring for myself and I have not felt this centered in years, or perhaps ever. I am going back to really practice mindfulness more, so that when I do start work or school once again, I will enjoy my life and take things in stride and pay attention to my body and health. I recommend this sort of retreat for everyone, it is not really religious, even though there are monks and nuns (the most beautiful, joyous, warm people), but it’s kind of like a summer camp for learning how to enjoy life.

25 May 2000

I am writing from San Sebastian, Spain! Yes, I know, I lead a rough life these days, at la playa! It is so gorgeous here. I love the combo of mountains and sea! When last I wrote, I was in Brussels, getting ready to go back to Plum Village for a few more weeks. When I returned, I learned that Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) would be staying in our hamlet for the month of May. I was incredibly fortunate to have experienced his teachings firsthand morning, noon, and night as he attended our sitting meditations, walking meditations, and many meals. I would like to share some of my experiences with all of you … in the short time I have left at this Internet cafe.

One morning, after we sat and did a brief walking meditation, Thay gathered us around family style and spoke softly. “You are a star,” he said, raising his eyes on the word star.”… and no less than that. When you walk mindfully, you are all stars circulating in harmony. How beautiful you are. You can celebrate life by walking in this way.” And I thought to myself, “I am a star— hee, hee.”

Another morning, we had a lot of guests from Christian backgrounds and Thay tried to gear his teaching towards them. “The Kingdom of God is now or never. You can touch the Kingdom of God with each step you take.” Even though I did not quite jive with the lingo (I probably would use Universe of Love instead of Kingdom of God), it was a turning point of sorts for me, as the rest of the day I reminded myself, “Now or never. I have the opportunity to experience the love in this moment right now, the love all around me and within me.”

I think of it kind of like being at a good show, whether performing or in the audience. Say you have to go to the bathroom during the show, but you don’t want to get up because you might miss something. Well, that show is your life and going to the bathroom is getting lost in your thoughts. Reminding myself of this has helped me feel so much joy, feel so lucky to be alive, and feel healthy in a simple, single moment.

My birthday was incredible, perhaps the most blissful day of my life!!! I ate veggies and dessert all day to ensure a healthy and sweet year (and to enjoy them). It was also the Buddha’s birthday and day of ordination in which twelve sisters and brothers became monks and nuns. The ordination ceremony was amazing and touching; seeing twelve souls so committed was like watching a marriage to the Sangha (community). It was a truly wonderful birthday. Thanks again for all of the prayers, blessings, and birthday cards, they have been a sure part of my healing process.

8 June 2000

I am back in the U.S., how strange indeed. I’m going through a bit of reverse culture shock. But I enjoy being back, especially to better communicate with those of you here. And now, I’m in D.C.—yoooohooooo— staying with my wonderful friend, Cleary, whom I have known a dozen years. But, I don’t want this e-mail circuit to end. You are my sounding board and you helped me through a really rough time of my life.

So, let me tell you all about “ze hussukt de munkt.” Last week, while I was visiting family, my aunt, a Jew-for-Jesus Baptist, was wearing a T-shirt that said “I LOVE JESUS” real big. My grandfather, an atheist, did not really like her wearing the shirt in the primarily Jewish condo that they live in. He thought it cheapened her religion but she said it was her right to clothe herself as she saw fit (both good points). Well, a few days later, she brought it up again and my Grandfather said, “Ze hussukt de munkt,” which means in Yiddish, roughly, that she reminded herself of something that happened in the recent past. It is something we all do, yet sometimes it is tough to come back and be present. Sometimes, I find myself thinking about conversations I had earlier in the day or the day before, replaying them, and wondering if I said the “right” thing (as if there is a right thing). But when I catch myself in “ze hussukt de munkt,” I go back to my breath and, if possible, try and find the “smiling, caring, loving energy.” (I know that sounds hippie/New Age, but it is what I feel when I am real focused on the present). And then I feel how wonderful that energy is in comparison to whatever silly thought I had. But, if I can’t go back fully to that energy with my breath, I know that something in the conversation either provoked an uncomfortable feeling or an uncomfortable question (like, “what if s/he is perceiving something that is true for me too?”). And then I use the Dharma tools.

“J’embrasse ma colere avec beaucoup de tendresse, comme un bebe.” During the Francophone retreat at Plum Village, Thay made this statement. It means, “I embrace my anger with lots of tenderness, like a baby.” You can substitute your emotional flavor of the day into that sentence. It ain’t easy, I know. But the process helps me to be honest with myself and to know more of who I am. So, when I do breathe, and go back to myself, I am going back to a solid force full of love and joy. Like I said, sometimes joy is part of other things. I will leave you with a sparkler poem I wrote at Plum Village.

Yesterday
A butterfly waved her wings
beside me.
Gleaming from her flight
she flashed me with orange,
reminding me of fire
as something cracked
deep within.
I felt a buzzing
with this element.
I thought was lost
in times of uncertainty
and sadness
Pop!
it went in my belly.
A sparkler,
like I used to wave
on the 4th of July.
Pop!
and the glitter
streamed through my blood
with euphoria,
giggling.
“See, you remember me.
I am your sparkle.
You light me again
with each fully belly laugh,
each gaze of wonder at the cosmos,
each shimmer of passion for yourself.
I am here,
always ready
to be ignited.

7 July 2000

This week’s e-mail is about freedom, something I strive to have and something we just celebrated here in the U.S. It has been a rough week for me as a friend and I drove to Atlanta and back with a Ryder rental truck full of my stuff over the holiday weekend. I don’t think I have recovered from the twelve-hour drive back on Tuesday. And it has been very difficult to practice being mindful, even though the Still Water Sangha of Takoma Park helped rejuvenate me for a spell. As they taught at the day of mindfulness in Oakton, Virginia a few weeks ago, it is very difficult to be mindful when you are physically exhausted. And I know that is not healthy….

“Am I taking on too much?” I ask myself. First, moving back to the States, then to D.C., finding an apartment, searching for a job with benefits (so I am covered for my ulcerative colitis—welcome back to the U.S.), trying to heal dynamics within my family, meeting people, dating … Is taking on too much my habit energy creeping up on me?

I told the Still Water Sangha about how I see the Dharma (teachings of mindfulness) as a sort of mindfulness bell that allows me to stop and decide whether I want to continue my present course of action or change it. And so I look to Thay’s teachings as this bell, to remind me that I have a choice, that I am as free as I want to be.

Attachment to things around us and within our consciousness. “It is important to look deeply to get the freedom you deserve. We cling to our suffering, we are afraid of losing our suffering.” said Thich Nhat Hanh. And so I ask myself, what suffering am I holding on to? What wrong perceptions do I have that are keeping me from being free?

Do I perceive myself as more alone, or needing to be more alone, or disconnected from what I know? Or falling out of the practice? It is actually the Sangha, being connected to others practicing mindfulness, that helps me be free, including all of you, and your support.

At Plum Village, I often felt really full. I was so joyous and happy so much of the time and I told one of the nuns about this once and I said, “But I’m supposed to be empty, right?” And I can still hear the echoes of her voice as she said, “When I completely hear the birds singing and smell the scent of the flowers and feel the wind and melt into it, that is when I truly feel empty.”

As I was walking to the subway this morning, I saw the rays of the sun beaming through the clouds and I felt empty of the suffering and free again as I sank into the feeling of myself connecting to everything around me.

And so I end my story by acknowledging the wonderful gift of practicing mindfulness. Every day I embrace the sky and everything it contains— the clouds, the rain, the sun, and the oxygen I take into my lungs with each breath. And everyday I wake up and smile, thankful for everything that I am able to experience in each day. The biggest changes for me since those first few months in France are that I am healthy now and I have fallen in love … with my life.

Erica Shane Hamilton works as a Conservation Associate for the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. She practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community, the Still Water Sangha of Takoma Park, Maryland, and the Virginia Mindfulness Center in Fairfax, Virginia.

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Looking Deeply at Well-Being

By Sister Steadiness

Entering the Full Moon Hall, I bow my head, my two hands holding my alms bowl. The floor is cool. With gentle steps over the lavender cushions, I find an empty seat. My body is at rest, seated on my cushion. The bright light from outside draws my gaze toward the altar, a long, low table covered in deep purple cloth. The sight of the fruit arrangement nourishes my eyes. The pineapple balanced on avocados and oranges reminds me of a small Sangha, willingly supporting each other.

During this retreat, we are 350 persons practicing mindfulness together. We support each other with our presence and the collective energy generated by our conscious breathing, smiling, and peaceful steps. When we come together like this, we are like the fruit arrangement, forming a harmony out of our differences. The spiky leaves of the pineapple and the smooth, firm skin of the avocado balance each other. Each fruit rests in suchness side by side with the other fruits, creating one harmonious whole.

Finishing my meal, I look at my empty bowl. My belly is full and my hunger is satisfied. I rest in this feeling for some time, recognizing it is a pleasant feeling. I am aware of the many elements that have brought this food to me, such as the loving work of the gardeners, the shoppers, and the cooks who have prepared this meal, and I am grateful.

I prepare to leave the hall, but rest some moments longer by the low window at the back of the hall. The warm sunshine spills in the open window. I sit on the cool floor, content with the protection of the inside, yet receiving the fresh air of the outside. In this moment, I recognize a feeling of well-being present in me. It is a slow, opening feeling. In it is freedom from fear and space to explore. Having identified the feeling, I have the opportunity to look deeply at it. What has nourished my feeling of well-being?

Shining the light of awareness on my mind, I see that while I enjoyed the midday meal the mental formation of inclusiveness was cultivated in me. With my eyes and in my mind, I had contacted a member of the community, who contributed to this feeling of inclusiveness through our interactions of the previous days. I had remembered working together, and suddenly became aware that over the course of several weeks, I had developed a view that made me feel separate from her. Something in my heart felt blocked and prevented me from embracing and accepting her. Recognizing this feeling of separation, I practiced stopping my thoughts and my body to dwell peacefully in the present moment. I relaxed my body and followed my breathing. Stopping restored a feeling of equanimity and calm.

Once I felt fresh, I allowed myself to see and to hear the other person as if for the first time. I listened to her as a cloud listens to a flower, without judging or reacting. As I listened, the habit of forming a view about her continued to arise, but I did not feed it. I let it rise and fall, and when acceptance and understanding grew stronger than the other thoughts, I smiled to myself. I saw that my own perceptions made me feel separate and unable to accept her—not anything from outside. As I consciously put my views aside, she revealed many positive qualities, and I felt thankful to her for her trust and patience with me.

Dwelling in the feeling of well-being, I saw that it was nourished by the elements of inclusiveness, deep listening, releasing of views, and being penetrated by the Sangha’s collective energy of mindfulness. I rose to leave and bowed my head to all the bodhisattvas in the Dharma hall, each a flower ready to share his or her suchness with the cloud in me.

Sister Steadiness lives in Plum Village.

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Language of the Heart

By Paul Tingen

Out beyond ideas o/wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field.
/’II meet you there.
When the soul lies in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
Rumi

Imagine for a moment that you’re on a peace mission in another country with a few Sangha members, speaking to people who live in the area. Suddenly someone in the audience jumps up and yells at you: “Murderer! Assassin!” Before you know it, most of your audience have joined in, and the situation becomes threatening. How would you feel? What would you do? Breathing and smiling alone may calm you, but may not be enough to calm the anger in the crowd. Most of us would be deeply grateful for a strategy to defuse the situation, and more importantly, to connect with the hearts of the people in the audience. Such a strategy exists, can easily be learnt, and has been proven to work. In the real situation described above, the technique was so effective that the person holding the talk was invited to share a holy meal with the very person who first shouted “murderer!”

A few years ago, peace mediator Marshall Rosenberg experienced this very outburst during a talk in a Palestinian refugee camp. In response, he used Nonviolent Communication (NYC), or Compassionate Communication-a practice of mindful speech and deep listening. NVC is also known as “a language of the heart,” or “giraffe language,” because giraffes have the largest hearts of any land animal. Giraffes also have long necks with which they can more easily see future consequences of their actions, and pea-sized brains that make it impossible for them to make heady analyses, criticisms, blame, shame, and judgments of their unfortunate counterpart, the jackal. In NVC, the jackal symbolizes habit energies of criticizing, blaming, and shaming that undermine even our best intentions.

Dr. Rosenberg, an American psychologist who studied with Carl Rogers, developed Nonviolent Communication as “a process that strengthens our ability to inspire compassion from others and respond compassionately to others and ourselves.” Rosenberg noticed that certain people stay centered and loving in the face of the most challenging circumstances, even in a society that routinely expresses needs through coercive and controlling thinking and  language-blame, criticism, shame, and punishment. According to Rosenberg, this jackal approach is a “life-alienating form of thinking and communication,” and the root of the immense suffering and violence that plague our planet. In a similar vein, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “If you have a gun, you can kill a dozen people; if you have an ideology and try to enforce it, you can kill millions.”

Meditation is one way of quieting the noisy judgments of our rational mind. Thich Nhat Hanh calls meditation our “appointment with ourselves.” It is an opportunity to listen to ourselves, to listen to our heart, to practice compassion and deep understanding. Considering Thay’s emphasis on relationships, families, communities, and reconciliation, one could call his path “a practice of the heart.” My contention is that this “practice of the heart” and NVC’s “language of the heart” are delightfully complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Like mindfulness practice, Rosenberg’s “giraffe” language is simple and very powerful. In developing this practice, he looked deeply into the nature of the way we habitually think and communicate. The result, NVC, offers a radical and hopeful alternative for communication that fosters understanding. And like Thay’s teachings, NVC strongly emphasizes non-duality, not taking sides, and reconciliation. The giraffe-jackal duality that NVC appears to create is illusory, useful only to meet needs for learning and clarity. In the end, there are no jackals, only giraffes with a language problem.

The practice of NVC does away with coercive and controlling language-words like right, wrong, too this or too that, should, ought, and so on. When I first encountered NVC, I realized that during my years of spiritual training, all I’d done was extend the limits of “wrong” behavior that I was willing to look at with compassion and understanding. I still felt that there were right and wrong behaviors, and I still labeled people and their behavior in critical ways. In contrast, NVC recommends eradicating every sense of rightdoing and wrongdoing, encouraging us to go all the way and not even judge murder or the destruction of our environment as wrong. We can immediately sense the enormous ramifications. For most people, this feels like a terrifying leap. How can we protect our freedom and safety, and peace and the beauty and richness of our planet, if we cannot say that cutting down rainforests, murder, or selling weapons is wrong? But by not judging, NVC does not condone these actions. Instead it offers a powerful language with which we can express our likes and dislikes, our values and our needs, in a non-coercive, non-blaming, nonviolent way–one that is likely to be much more effective in creating the understanding and change we seek.

NYC employs three techniques to cultivate powerful, loving speech. First, NVC encourages us to explore how our feelings relate to our needs, and not to events around us, as we may first believe. Secondly, it encourages us to recognize human needs as universal, divine qualities that all human beings share. And thirdly, NYC distinguishes our needs from “specific, doable, here and now requests.” From these premises springs a common language of the heart that all human beings share and understand. This “giraffe language” is a way of connecting and communicating with the Buddha nature in ourselves and others.

To explain how NYC works, I need to spell out the fundamentals of giraffe language. It may seem a little bit complicated at first, and as with any new language, we must practice to become fluent. Once we get it, however, giraffe language will feel more natural than the habitual jackal language of blame, shame, and punishment.

Classic giraffe language employs four basic steps: observe, name feelings, identify needs, and make requests.

1) Observe. Identify what we see in purely descriptive language, without evaluation or interpretation. In mindfulness practice, Thay also emphasizes the importance of double-checking our perceptions, urging us to ask, “Am I sure?”

2) Name Feelings. Get in touch with how we feel in the present moment, and name pure feelings. “I feel rejected,” or “I feel misunderstood” are feelings mixed with evaluations, and unhelpful. Instead, name heart feelings such as: sad, hurt, frustrated, happy, skeptical, resistant, touched, serene, mindful, intrigued, relaxed, open, scared, or optimistic. Simply naming our feelings without evaluation is also an aspect of our mindfulness practice—one of many practices that are complementary with NVC.

3) Identify Needs. Identify the immediate need causing our feeling. For example, “I feel scared because my safety feels threatened,” or “I feel joyful because of the appreciation I’m getting,” or “I feel frustrated because I’m not getting respect.”

4) Make Requests. Ask for a specific action that is doable right here and now. This offers a practical opportunity for creating heart-connection and making each other’s life more wonderful. It is a bridge that connects people.

In real life, the practice may sound something like: “When I hear you screaming, I feel scared, because I’m not getting the safety I want. Please would you lower your voice?” Note that the speaker does not use any judgmental language, such as that the person screaming is “wrong,” or “too loud.” The speaker simply expresses his or her own feelings and needs, and follows it with a specific, doable request. Or giraffe language could be: “When I see you smile  at me, I feel warm and touched, because it meets my need for being seen and appreciated. Could you tell me how you feel when you hear me say that?”
mb28-Language

Note that giraffe grammar always puts “I” with “I” and “you with “you.” I feel something because I want something, and you feel things because you want something. A giraffe never believes that her feelings are caused by someone else’s actions, or that he can cause someone else’s feelings. A giraffe has two choices of expression: honesty, i.e., expressing her own feelings and needs, or empathy, i.e., hearing the other person’s feelings and needs regardless of how they are expressed. In contrast, jackal puts “I” in relation to “you,” e.g., “I feel scared because you’re shouting,” or “I feel warm because you’re smiling at me.”

When Marshall Rosenberg was called a murderer as he addressed the Palestinians in a refugee camp, he responded with empathy. He realized that the speaker’s exhortations might have had something to do with his American nationality, and the fact that the night before, tear gas canisters stamped with “Made in the USA” had been shot into the camp. Rosenberg explored the speaker’s feelings and needs: “Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?” The man shouted more angry words in response. Rosenberg remembers, “Our dialogue continued, with him expressing his pain for nearly twenty more minutes, and me listening for the feeling and need behind each statement. I didn’t disagree or agree. I received the man’s words not as attacks, but as gifts from a fellow human, willing to share his soul and deep vulnerabilities with me. Once the gentleman felt understood, he was able to hear me as I explained my purpose for being at the camp. An hour later, he invited me to his home for Ramadan dinner.” Rosenberg was able to practice compassionate listening and loving speech with the angry man because he was able to hear the man’s needs, and because he did not immediately try to fix things by suggesting practical solutions.

Separating the expression of needs from the expression of requests for solutions opens up the common ground of our needs-needs for air, food, shelter, sleep, empathy, love, compassion, understanding, connection, community, etc. A request seeks help with solutions, here-and-now action. Arguments and wars do not begin because people  disagree about needs, but rather because of the way people go about getting their needs met. If we can see the universal need of another person, we may begin to recognize his or her humanity.
It is sad how often we communicate our needs through a pointing finger, rather than an outstretched hand. NVC does not call this jackal behavior wrong, but points out that blame and judgment are tragic ways of expressing our unmet needs. Someone who uses jackal language is in pain and need. Recognizing this makes compassion and connection with the poor jackal- our own or someone else’s-not only possible, but necessary.

NVC, like mindfulness practice, emphasizes focus on present moment feelings and needs. Rosenberg says, “Spend more than five words on the past and the chances that you’ll get your present moment needs met diminish with every word.” The crucial question for a giraffe is always “What is alive in you or me in this moment?”

Like Thay’s teachings, NYC also recommends that we stop when we notice anger arising in us, and wait until we are sure that we can respond from a point of our choosing. It recommends that we use this stopping to watch the “jackal-show” in our head our angry tapes of judgment and blame-and to identify the feelings and needs that underlie our anger. Stopping is the core of our mindfulness practice, and conscious breathing is our wonderful vehicle. We can use this practice to look deeply, and identify our feelings and needs, meditating on the seeds of our anger. Once we have transformed our  anger enough, once we are in touch with our Buddha nature again, we can use giraffe language to express what we see, feel , and want. When we are ready, we communicate our feelings and needs. As Thay has said, our anger melts like snow in the sun when we have true understanding of a situation or a person. NVC makes the same point: When we are able to look deeply and connect with the human suffering that underlies another person’s actions, our anger often vanishes. Sometimes, however, my anger does not disappear even when I understand the other person, and now this is a sign for me that I need to look deeply into and express my feelings and needs. Usually I need empathy and understanding.

For me, giraffe language embodies the Fourth Mindfulness Training, and the Eighth and Ninth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order Of Interbeing: “Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. … We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

Thay often stresses the importance of engaged Buddhist practice. NVC hands us a language for peaceful engagement. Combining NVC’s “language of the heart” with Thay’ s “practice of the heart” gives us powerful instruments for transformation of ourselves and our relationships, and enables us to contribute to the well-being of communities and the world.

Paul Tingen, True Artist of The Heart, can be emailed at paul@tingen.co.uk. Marshall Rosenberg has written a book on the practice of NVC: Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Compassion (PuddleDancer Press, ISBN: 1-892005-02-6). More information about NVC is available from the Centrfor Nonviolent Communication website: www.cnvc.org, or by phone: (800) 255-7696.

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Poem: Plum Blossom Poem

As bees
attendant to blossom,
we come

wedded to spring rain
and white petals;

soft step
among the orchard

the green clover
and thick, green grass.

The finger that sows the seed
is the root
our bodies, taut trunks
bear down
in earth
as seed and fruit

then reach upwards again
as branches
as blossoms unfold;
Open up thy hands
to receive the gift
of this, our Sun
and Father.

Slipping into the white blossom
the long tongue of the bee
reaches to the very roots

touches the seed
of rainwater,
suckles the petaled sun
and gathers nectar
on its honeyed tongue
to feed. itself,
its hive
and its young.

Yet the gift is wish less; it is
without purpose.

The honey bee pollinates
what it does not mean to plant:
Apple seeds, bloom in trees, in
raindrops,
And yes sometimes bees.

Just so do we
by our constant care and effort,
nurture ourselves
The finger that sows the seed
is the root
and impregnate joys

in others’ nest unknowing.

At our table
As our hands lift food from our
plates
they fill wooden crates
full of apples.

We are the harvest hands
who this morning rise to pick
the fruit of loving kindness and
giving
in living generosity,

singing at once
the selfsame harvest song;

In feeding ourselves
we feed others

In feeding others
we feed ourselves.

Chan Phap Tue
(inspired by the plum blossom festival, spring 2000)

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Inclusiveness and Acceptance

By Svein Myreng

I had mixed feelings when Thay introduced a new translation of the third paramita as “inclusiveness.” This paramita had previously been translated as “patience” or “forebearance.” I could relate to patience. I could meet a difficult experience in my life, such as illness or painful feelings, and then I could stay with the feelings without trying to push them away. My patient waiting was rewarded when the feelings – sooner or later – would change into something else. With this practice I often was rewarded by learning something about myself. I knew the value of patience as I had frequent practice through illness.

Thay’s way of seeing the third paramita is more radical. I think he’s saying: “Live your life fully even when it’s not pleasant.” I remember a practitioner at Plum Village saying to Thay, “You say present moment, wonderful moment, but sometimes the present moment isn’t wonderful at all. It’s very painful.” Thay replied something like this: “It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it is still wonderful.” This is a deeply non-dualistic attitude. Thay often reminds us that the pleasant experiences depend on the unpleasant ones. If we don’t know hunger, we can’t really enjoy eating. If we don’t know illness, we can’t appreciate our health. By including the difficulties, we open our hearts. There is no separation between what is and what we would wish to be. In contrast, patience implies that I accept the difficulties but hope things will change. This creates separation between our present experience and our desired experience. We are still not at peace.

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After having major heart surgery in 1997, I had a period with intense pain and frequent moments of depression and fear. I cried frequently when I was depressed. When fear was in my mind, I was really afraid. I was almost like a child, physically helpless and direct and in the moment with my emotions. Only to the smallest degree was I burdened with thoughts of how I, as an experienced practitioner ought to react. Looking back, I realize this is the practice of inclusiveness. I experienced life vividly, and in the moments when I was not depressed or afraid, I experienced fully the joy of being alive. I savored each small accomplishment. It was a rich time.

The contrast is clear between this situation and experiences where I search for ways to blame myself or others. Ironically, I find myself falling into blame more frequently with smaller difficulties. When I judge a situation as unpleasant or difficult, I start looking for ways to change it, or make sure it will never happen again. Judging a situation in this way, and then finding someone to lay the blame on, I harden myself and remove myself from a direct experience of life.

Married life has provided me with insights about this pattern in myself. I have seen how  mixed ideas of how something “should be done” easily leads to blaming. When two people come together with different ways of looking at what it means to live as a family, how to do household work, and raise children, there are ample opportunities for blaming. It can be very hard even to see that my way of doing something isn’t the only one, let alone actually letting go of my preference. When something goes wrong – the toddler throws a temper tantrum, dinner is delayed or burned – it’s so easy to think that it must be because my partner handled the situation in a different, less skillful way than I would have done.

People who are married within our tradition receive “The Five Awarenesses” to read together at every full moon. The Fifth Awareness is a strong reminder that blaming and arguing are destructive: “We are aware that blaming and arguing can never help us and only create a wider gap between us.” The point about the wider gap is important. Judging and blaming creates separation, preventing us from seeing both the situation and the other person(s) involved with clear, compassionate eyes. Reading the Awarenesses makes me more aware of the patterns which lead to this way of being. I can observe myself more clearly, apologize when I see that I am unfair, and rejoice in the times when I act responsibly without blaming.

Inclusiveness is easy when life is pleasant. It is including the things we don ~ like that is the challenge. When we don’t accept a trying situation, again we create separation and conflict. Acceptance doesn’t mean being passive or condoning injustice. Acceptance is to calm down inside, and see the situation clearly. Sometimes, this leads to change quite naturally. At other times, we see that we have to just be with the situation as it is. We may find we can have space in our hearts for difficult situations or people, or we may find this just too difficult. Our limits vary according to our well-being at a given moment. Sometimes, we have to accept the fact that we aren’t accepting of the present moment.

We often judge a difficult situation by making a fixed image of it and comparing this image to an ideal. This is too simple. Even a difficult situation contains elements that are joyful, but the fixed image makes it impossible for us to see them. Thay’s poem about the tree that’s dying in his garden is about this. Even if one tree is dying, there are other trees that are alive and beautiful. By looking only at the dying tree, we make the situation much worse than it needs to be. By changing our perspective a little, it is easier to have an open, inclusive attitude. We can develop our ability to change perspectives through practice.

We also blame ourselves. When something goes wrong, it must be because someone made a mistake – perhaps it was me? Often, we are quick to blame ourselves before others blame us. Blaming can be a very intricate business. Behind the tendency to blame, there are fixed opinions of what is the “Right Way” and behind the fixed opinions, we often can find fear. The little child within us who was afraid of being blamed, the self-image that we keep on gluing together, these are the fearful ones. Can we meet them – in ourselves and in others – with acceptance and tenderness?

When we don’t accept ourselves, we create a separation between the way we are right now and the way we think we ought to be. I’ve been surprised to see how harshly I can judge myself. However, when I am able to embrace my humanness fully, I experience real peace, because the conflict between reality and ideal disappears. I can also be the garden with many beautiful trees even if one of them is dying.

Many spiritual teachings, including teachings of Buddhism, are focused on helping people change themselves, which support our tendencies to not accept ourselves as we are. Thay’s teaching is revolutionary as it deals with living in a good way right now and not trying to change into someone else. Instead of striving to reach a future promise of self-improvement or even enlightenment, Thay’s teaching deals with no striving at all. The beautiful paradox is that precisely when we don’t strive, a real change can come about quite naturally.

Svein Myreng, True Door, is a Dharma Teacher who lives in Oslo, Norway, with his wife, Eevi Beck, and their two-year-old son, Kyrre.

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Welcome, Diya Nandini Seth!

A letter from the proud father, Shantum Seth

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When we first told Thay and Sister Chan Khong that Gitu was expecting a baby, they were so happy. With a big smile Thay said, “the baby has received the Dharma, the Pure Dharma,” and hugged Gitu. We spent the first few months of the pregnancy in Plum Village. Thay gave us a teaching on how we were participants in the life of this new being and not to get caught in the concepts of “mine” and “ours.” Occasionally, he would ask Gitu if she was talking with the baby and suggested we read sutras to her, especially the Lotus Sutra . One day he asked us to play a role playing game, in which Gitu played herself and I played the role of the fetus. It allowed me to touch the growing baby and the sensations and feelings of the expectant mother with a heightened awareness and understanding.

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After six months we returned to India to be with our parents. A healthy baby girl was born in New Delhi on the 17th of March 2001 (St. Patrick’s Day, much to the delight of our Irish friends, including the godmother, Sister Jina). She was 3 kilos (6.6 Ibs) in weight and 49 cms in length. When I saw her a few moments after the birth, she already had her bright eyes wide open, and had a mop of black hair on her head.

At a naming ceremony a month later, where all of Gitu’s and my family were gathered, she was given the name Diya Nandini. Diya is an offering of light (usually in the form of an oil lamp in a clay container), and Nandini means delightful. It is also another name for Ganga (the river goddess) and Durga (the goddess who is often depicted riding a tiger and killing demons).

She is truly a delight, and besides teaching us the art of feeding, burping, and cleaning nappies she is already a mindfulness teacher. When we are in her presence, we are called into the present. If our mind wanders when we are with her, she can pick it up and lets us know. Being with her makes us realize in a more real way that not only we and our parents were babies like her, but so were Thay and the Buddha.

I arrived in Upper Hamlet a few days ago to prepare for Gitu and Nandini ‘s arrival. We will be with the Sangha for a few months, before returning to India for the winter. Even before her arrival here, there is the feeling that Nandini is a Sangha baby. She should arrive by the time the first lotuses bloom.

Shantum, True Path (Satya Marg), and Gitanjali, True Spiritual Harmony, live and practice in India and in Plum Village.

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Dharma Talk: Cultivating Compassion, Responding to Violence

A Dharma talk offered by Thich Nhat Hanh

Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley, California
September 13, 2001

Thich Nhat Hanh and 80 monks and nuns began the public talk with a ceremony to send the energy of peace and compassion to all those who were suffering from the events of September — those who had passed away and those who were presently struggling to survive; the families and, friends and the whole world that was deeply affected by the violent actions in New York City, Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania on that day. 

The ceremony began with an in­cense offering. Usually the incense is offered facing a Buddha altar but in this moment Thich Nhat Hanh chose to face the audience, showing that all of humanity can be an altar worthy of respect. Holding the stick of incense in two hands, Thich Nhat Hanh offered these opening words:

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Let us please offer humanity the best flowers and fruits of our practice: lucidity, solidity, brotherhood, understanding and compassion. Breathing, I am aware that most of us have not been able to overcome the shock. We are aware that there is a tremen­dous amount of suffering going on, a tremendous amount of fear, anger, and hatred. But we know deep in our heart that anger and hatred cannot be responded to with anger and hatred. Respond­ing to hatred with hatred will only cause hatred to multiply a thousandfold. Only with compassion can we deal with hatred and anger.

In this very moment we invoke all of our spiritual teachers, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, to be with us helping us to embrace the suffering of America as a nation, as a country, to embrace the world as a nation, as a country, and to embrace humanity as a family. May we become lucid and calm so that we know exactly what to do and what not to do to make the situation worse. We know that there are those of us who are trying to rescue and to support and we are grateful to them.

There are those who are crying, who are suffering terribly in this very moment. Let us be there for all of them and embrace them tenderly with all our compassion, with our understanding, with our awareness. We know that there are many of us who are trying to see to it that violence will not happen again. We know that responding to hatred and violence with compassion seems to be the only path for all of us.

Let us bring our attention to our in breath and our out breath. Those of you who find it comfortable to join your palms, please do so as we offer this incense to all our spiritual teachers and we ask them to support us in this very difficult moment.

Opening the Door for Communication 

My dear friends, this summer in Plum Village where we live and practice, there were about 1,800 people who came and practiced with us during the Summer Opening and among them were a few dozen Palestinians and Israelis. We sponsored these lovely people, hoping they would have an occasion to practice walking mediation together, to share a meal together, to listen to the Dharma and to sit down and listen to each other. They were young people ranging from twenty-five to forty years old. They spent two weeks with us. They participated in all activities with us, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma talks, everything. At the end they came up and gave a report to the whole community. It was a very lovely report. Only two weeks of practice had helped them to transform very deeply. We looked up and we saw a community of brothers and sisters. “Dear community, dear Thay, when we first came to Plum Village we couldn’t believe it. Plum Village is some­thing that does not look real to us because it is too peaceful.”

In Plum Village, our friends did not feel the kind of anger, tension and fear that they feel constantly in the Middle East. People look at each other with kind eyes, they speak to each other lovingly. There is peace, there is communication and there is brotherhood and sisterhood. That did not seem real to them. One member of the delegation wrote to me and said, “Thay, we spent two weeks in paradise.” Another person wrote to me before leav­ing Plum Village and said, “Thay, this is the first time that I believe peace is possible in the Middle East.” We did not do much. We just embraced our friends who had come from the Middle East as brothers and sisters. They learned to walk mindfully with us, to breathe in and out mindfully with us, to try to stop and to be there in the present moment to get in touch with what is pleasant, nour­ishing, and healing around them and within themselves. The practice is very simple. Supported by a practicing Sangha it was possible for them to succeed and to feel that peace and happiness could be touched within each of themselves.

The basic practice is to do everything mindfully, whether you breathe or walk or brush your teeth or use the toilet or chop the vegetables. We try to do everything mindfully, to establish ourselves in the here and the now in order to touch life deeply. That is the basic daily practice. On that ground our friends learned to practice listening deeply to the other people. We offered our support because many of us are capable of listening with com­passion. We sat with them and we practiced listening with com­passion in our heart. People had the chance to speak about their fear, their anger, their hatred and despair. They felt for the first time that they were listened to, they were being understood and that could relieve a lot of suffering within them.

Those who spoke were trained to speak in such a way that could be understandable and accepted by the other side. We have the right and the duty to tell everything within our heart. With the practice of mindful breathing we try to say it in a calm way, not condemning anyone, not judging anyone. Just telling the other side all the suffering that has happened to us, to our children, to our societies, all our fear and our despair. We learn to listen deeply, opening our heart with the intention to help the other people to express themselves. We know that listening like that is very healing. Two weeks of practice of deep listening and using loving speech brought a lot of joy, not only to the group but to all of us in Plum Village. Before going back to the Middle East, our friends promised us that they will continue the practice. On the local level, they will organize weekly meetings where they can walk, sit together and breathe together, sharing a meal and listen to each other. And every month they will have a national event to do the same. We promise that we will offer our support.

We know that the practice of compassionate listening and the practice of loving speech can bring us a lot of relief from our suffering. We can open the door of our heart and restore commu­nication. This is a very important practice. We suffer and we do violence to each other just because we cannot understand each other’s suffering. We believe that we are the only people who suffer. We think that the other side does not suffer. We believe that they only enjoy our suffering. That is why the basic practice of peace is the practice of restoring communication. For that we should use deep listening, compassionate listening and kind and loving speech. It would be very beneficial to set up an environ­ment like the one in Plum Village so that this kind of loving speech and deep listening could be possible.

Negotiations for Peace 

When you come to a negotiation table you want peace, you have hope for peace. But if you do not master the art of compas­sionate listening and loving speech it is very difficult for you to get concrete results. In us there is an obstruction of hatred, fear and pain which prevents us from communicating, understanding one another and making peace.

I beg the nations and the governments who would like to bring peace to the Middle East to pay attention to this fact. We need them to organize so that peace negotiations will be fruitful. They should know that creating a setting where the practice of restoring communication can be done is a very important factor for success. They may have to spend one month or two just for people to listen to each other. We are not in a hurry to reach a conclusion or an agreement about what to do for peace to be possible. One month or two months is nothing. With the practice of deep listening and kind and loving speech it can dissolve a lot of bitterness, a lot of fear and prejudice in the hearts of the people. Then when people are capable of communicating with each other, peace will be much easier.

I remember a number of years ago when I went to India and had the opportunity to meet with the chairperson of the Indian parliament, Mr. Narayan. We discussed the practice of compas­sionate listening and kind speech in the congress. He was very attentive to what I had to say. I said, “Mr. President, maybe it is good to begin every session with the practice of mindful breath­ing. Then a few lines could be read to bring awareness into everyone’s mind, such as: ‘Dear colleagues, the people who have elected us expect that we will communicate with each other deeply using kind and respectful speech and deep listening in order to share our insight. This will enable the congress to make the best decisions for the benefit of the nation and the people.’ It may take less than one minute to read such a text. And something like the bell of mindfulness could be used. Everytime the debate is too hot, if people are insulting each other and condemning each other, then the chairperson may invite the bell of mindfulness inviting everyone to breathe in and out — breathing in calming, breathing out smiling — until the atmosphere of the congress becomes calm. Then the one who is speaking is invited to continue his or her speech.”

Mr. Narayan was very attentive to what I said. He invited me to come back and address the Indian parliament on that issue. Ten days later I was leading a retreat of mindfulness in Madras and someone brought me a newspaper. There was an article an­nouncing that the President had set up a committee on communi­cation for the parliament, to develop the practice of deep listening and loving speech in the congress. In that committee different parties were represented and also the Prime Minister was included. Mr. Narayan is no longer the chair of the parliament because he has become the president of India.

I think we may like to write our senators and representatives so that in the U.S. Congress they may try to practice deep listen­ing and loving speech. I would like to vote for those who have the capacity to listen and to use loving speech. I would suggest that in the Senate and in the House of Representatives there should be a committee on deep listening and loving speech. Not only should they listen to their own colleagues in the Congress but also they should listen to the suffering of people in their own country and to the suffering of people a little bit everywhere in the world. It is not easy to listen with compassion. The quality of deep listening is the fruit of practice. If we don’t train ourselves it is very difficult to listen to the other person or people. We know there are many couples who can not listen to each other. There are fathers who are incapable of communicating with their sons and daughters. There are mothers who are not able to talk to their children, even if they want to very much. They deeply wish that they could communicate with their daughter and their son or their partner but they can not do so. They may be determined to use loving speech and compassionate listening. But without training they may give up after just a few minutes of listening or trying to tell what is in their hearts. The blocks of pain and anger may be so big and important in their hearts that as they continue to listen, what they hear touches and waters the seeds of anger, of violence and of despair in them. They are no longer capable of listening anymore, even if they have a lot of willingness to do so.

For the person who is determined to speak with loving kind­ness, we know that goodwill is there. But as she or he continues to speak, the block of suffering, of despair, of irritation and of anger are touched in them. That is why very soon their speech will be full of judgment, blaming and irritation, and the other per­son cannot bear to listen. If we do not train in the art of compas­sionate listening and loving speech we cannot do it. But if we have a great determination, then five days may be enough to restore communication between the other person and ourselves. In the case of our Palestinian friends and our Israeli friends, two weeks was enough for them to understand and to accept each other as brothers and sisters. Two weeks was enough for them to have hope.

The Secret of Listening

The secret of success is that when you listen to the other person you have only one purpose. Your only purpose is to offer him or her an opportunity to empty his or her heart. If you are able to keep that awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can sit for one hour and listen even if what the other person says contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations and bitter­ness. You can continue to listen because you are already pro­tected by the nectar of compassion in your heart. If you do not practice mindful breathing in order to keep that compassion alive you lose your capacity of listening. Irritation and anger will come up and the other person will see it and he or she will not be able to continue. We have the awareness that listening like this has only one purpose: allowing the other person a chance to empty his or her heart. If we are capable of keeping that awareness alive dur­ing the time of listening then we are safe, because compassion will always be there if that awareness is still there.

We do not try to correct the wrong perceptions of the other person while listening. We just say, “I am sorry you have suf­fered so much.” Later on, maybe in a few days or weeks, we will find an appropriate occasion to offer some information to help the other person or people correct their perceptions. But we do not try to correct all of their misperceptions at one time. Truth heals, but it should be released in small doses over time, like a medicine. If you force the other person to drink all the medicine at one time, he will die.

I am sure that all of us here know that hatred, anger and violence can only be neutralized and healed with one substance. That is compassion. The antidote of violence and hatred is com­passion. There is no other medicine. Unfortunately, compassion is not available in supermarkets. You have to generate the nectar of compassion in your heart. The teaching of the Buddha gives us very concrete means in order to generate the energy of com­passion. If understanding is there, compassion will be born, and understanding is the fruit of looking deeply. Do we have the time to stop and look deeply into our situation, into the situation of the other person, into the situation of the other group of people? If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, by our uncertainty, by our craving, how can we have the time to stop and to look deeply into the situation? How can we look into our own situation, the situation of our beloved one, the situation of our family, of our community, of our nation and of the other nations? Looking deeply we find out that not only do we suffer, but also the other person suffers deeply. Not only our group suffers but the other group also suffers deeply. If that kind of awareness is born we will know that punishing is not the answer.

Our Basic Practice

All violence is injustice. We should not inflict that injustice on us and on the other person, on the other group of people. The one who wants to punish is inhabited by violence. The one who enjoys the suffering of the other person is inhabited by the energy of violence. We know that violence cannot be ended with violence. It is the Buddha who said that responding to hatred with hatred can only increase hatred by a thousandfold. Only by responding to hatred with compassion can we disintegrate hatred. What should we do in order for the energy of compassion to be born? That is our practice every day. How to be nourished by the nectar of compassion and the nectar of understanding? That is our basic practice.

During the war in Vietnam we suffered terribly. And yet our practice allowed us to see that our world is still beautiful with all the wonders of life available. There were moments when we wished there would be a cease-fire for twenty-four hours. if we were given twenty-four hours of peace we would be able to breathe in and out and smile to the flowers and the blue sky. And even the flowers have the courage to bloom. Twenty-four hours of peace — that is what we wanted, badly, during the time of war.

When I came to the West in 1966 to call for a cessation to the war I was not allowed by my government to go home. Suddenly I was cut off from alI my friends, my disciples, my Sangha in Vietnam. I dreamed of going home almost every night. I would wake up in the middle of the dream and realize that I was in exile. During that time I was practicing mindfulness. I practiced to be in touch with what was there in Europe and in America. I learned to be with children and adults. I learned to contemplate the trees and the singing of the birds. Everything seemed different from what we knew in Vietnam. And yet the wonders of life were avail­able there. To me the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha is always available even if suffering is still there. It is possible for us to touch the Kingdom of God in our daily life and to get nourishment and healing so that we will have enough strength and hope to repair the damage caused by violence and war. If we do not receive nourishment we will be the victims of despair. That was my awareness.

During the war in Vietnam the young people came to me many times and asked. “Thay, do you think there will be an end to the war?” I could not answer them right away. I practiced mindful breathing in and out. After a long time I looked at them and said, “My dear friends, the Buddha said everything is impermanent, including war.”

Touching Suffering 

Let us practice peace and bring hope to the nation and to the world. To me the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. The Pure Land is not a place where there is no suffer­ing. I myself would not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. Because I know without suffering we will have no chance to learn how to understand and to be compassionate. It is by being in touch with suffering that we can cultivate our under­standing and our compassion. If suffering is not there, under­standing and compassion will not be there either and it will not he the Pure Land of the Buddha. It could not be the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. My definition of the Kingdom of God is the place where there is understanding and compassion. The Pure Land of the Buddha is the place where there is understanding and com­passion. We know that to cultivate understanding and compas­sion we need to be in touch with suffering.

In Plum Village we have three hamlets. In each hamlet there is a lotus pond. Every summer when you come you will see beauti­ful lotus flowers. We know that in order for the lotus to grow you need mud. You cannot plant a lotus on marble. You have to plant it on mud. Looking into the beautiful and fragrant lotus flower, you see the mud. Mud and lotus, they inter-are. Without one the other cannot be, that is the teaching of the Buddha. This is be­cause that is. Suffering is needed for understanding and compas­sion to be born. It’s like garbage and flowers. Looking into a flower, you see that a flower is made only of non-flower elements: sunshine, rain, the earth, the minerals and also the compost. You can see that the element garbage is one of the non-flower ele­ments that have helped the flower to manifest herself. If you are a good practitioner, looking into the flower you can see the gar­bage in it right in the here and the now, just as you can see the sunshine and the rain in it. If you remove the sunshine from the flower, there will be no flower. If you remove the rain from the flower, the flower cannot be there. If you remove the garbage from the flower, then the flower cannot be there. Look at the beautiful lotus flower. If you remove the mud from it, it cannot be there for you. This is because that is.

Our practice is to accept suffering and to learn to transform suffering hack into hope, into compassion. We work exactly like an organic gardener. They know that it is possible to transform garbage back into flowers. Let us learn to look at our suffering, the suffering of our world, as a kind of compost. From that mud we can create beautiful, fragrant lotuses — understanding and compassion. Together we can cultivate the flower of understand­ing and compassion together. I am sure that everyone has had the feeling that the Kingdom of God is somewhere very close. The Pure Land of the Buddha is also close. All the wonders of life are there.

Nourishing Peace and Joy 

mb30-dharma2This morning I picked up a branch of flowers on the path of walking meditation and I gave it to a monk who was on my left. I told him. “This belongs to the Pure Land of the. Buddha. Only the Pure Land of the Buddha has such a beautiful branch of flowers. Only the Kingdom of God has such a miracle as this branch of flowers.” The blue skies, the beautiful vegetation, the lovely face of your child, the song of the birds, all of these things belong to the Pure Land of the Buddha. If we are free enough we can step into the Kingdom of God and enjoy walking in it. It is my practice to enjoy walking in the Kingdom of God every day, to enjoy walking in the Pure Land of the Buddha every day. Even if I am aware that suf­fering is there; anger and hatred are there, it is still possible for me to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. I can tell you that there is no day when I do not enjoy walking in the Kingdom of God.

Every step should bring me peace and joy. I need it in order to continue my work, my work to build up more brotherhood, more understanding, and more com­passion. Without that kind of nourishment, how can you continue? Going back to the present moment, become fully alive. Don’t run anymore. Go back to the here and the now and get in touch with the wonders of life that are available for our nourishment and healing. This is the basic prac­tice of peace. If we can do that we have enough strength and joy to help repair the damage caused by the war, by violence and hatred, by misunderstanding. And we will know exactly how to live our daily life in order not to contribute to the kind of action leading to more discrimination and more war, to more violence. Living in such a way that we can embody peace, that we can be peace in every moment of our daily life. It is possible for everyone to generate the energy of peace in every step. Peace is every step. If you know that the Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, why do you have to run anymore?

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In the Gospel there is a parable of a person who discovered a treasure in a field. After that he got rid of everything in order to buy this field. When you are able to touch the Kingdom of God, to get in touch with the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now, you can very easily release everything else. You do not want to run anymore. We have been running after the objects of our desire: fame, profit, and power. We think they are essential to our happiness. But we know that our running has brought us a lot of suffering. We have not had the chance to live, to love and take care of our loved ones because we cannot stop running. We run even when we sleep. That is why the Buddha advises us to stop. According to the teaching, it is possible to be happy right in the here and the now. Going back to the here and the now with your mindful breathing and mindful walking, you will recognize many conditions of happiness that are already avail­able. You can be happy right here and now.

You know that the future is a notion. The future is made only with one substance, that is the present. If you are taking good care of the present moment, why do you have to worry about the future? By taking care of the present you are doing everything you can to assure a good future. Is there anything else to do? We should live our present moment in such a way that peace and joy may be possible in the here and the now — that love and under­standing may be possible. That is all that we can do for the fu­ture.

When we are capable of tasting true happiness and peace. it is very easy to trans­form the anger in us. We don’t have to fight anymore. Our an­ger begins to dissolve in us because we are able to bring into our body and into our con­sciousness elements of peace and joy every day. Mindfulness helps us not to bring into our body and into our consciousness elements of war and violence. That is the basic practice in order to transform the anger, the fear and the violence within us. 

Mindful Consumption 

The Buddha spoke about the path of emancipation in terms of consumption. Perhaps you have heard of a discourse called The Discourse on the Son’s Flesh. In that discourse the Buddha described four kinds of nutriments. If we know the nature of our food, if we are aware of what we are consuming every day, then we can transform the suffering that is inside of us and around us. I would like to tell you a little bit about this discourse. I wish to translate it and offer concrete exercises of practice.

The first kind of nutriment the Buddha spoke about is edible food. He advised us to eat mindfully so that compassion can be maintained in our heart. He knew that compassion is the only kind of energy that helps us to relate to other living beings, in­cluding human beings. Whatever we eat or drink, whatever we ingest in terms of edible food should not contain the toxins that will destroy our body. He used the example of a young couple who wanted to flee their country and to live in another country. The young couple brought their little boy with them and a quan­tity of food with them. But halfway through the desert they ran out of food. They knew that they were going to die. After much debate they decided to kill the little boy and to eat his flesh. The title of the sutra is, The Son’s Flesh. They killed the little boy and they ate one piece of that flesh and they preserved the rest on their shoulders for the sun to dry. Every time they ate a piece of flesh of their son they asked the question, “Where is our beloved son now? Where are you, our beloved son?” They beat their chests and they pulled their hair. They suffered tremendously. But finally they were able to cross the desert and enter the other country.

The Buddha turned to his monks and asked, “Dear friends, do you think the couple enjoyed eating the flesh of their son?” And the monks said, “No, how could anyone enjoy eating the flesh of their own son?” The Buddha said, if we do not consume mindfully we are eating the flesh of our own son or daughter.

This body has been transmitted to us by our parents. If we bring into it poisons and toxins we destroy this body and we are eating the flesh of our mother, our father and our ancestors. If we destroy our body by unmindful eating and consuming we eat the flesh of our son and daughter and their children also. UNESCO reported that 40,000 children die every day because they do not have enough to eat. And many of us overeat in the West. We are eating the flesh of these children. We have been using a lot of wheat and oats in order to fabricate meat. The way we raise animals for food is very violent. We destroy Mother Earth. Eat­ing can be very violent.

Report on U.S. Resources

I have a report on how we use our land and water and for­ests in the United States of America for food.

Land: Of all agricultural land in the U.S., 87% is used to raise animals for food. That is 45% of the total land mass in the US.

Water: More than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. for all purposes is used to raise animals for food. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat. That is 25 versus 2,500 gal­lons of water. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat eating diet requires 4,000 gallons of water per day.

Pollution: Raising animals for food causes more water pollu­tion in the U.S. than any other industry. Animals raised for food produce 130 times the excrement of the entire human population, 87,000 pounds per second. Much of the waste from factory farms and slaughterhouses flows into streams and rivers, contaminat­ing water sources.

Deforestation: Each vegetarian saves an acre of trees every year. More than 260 million acres of the U.S. forests have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat. An acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. The tropical rain forests are being destroyed to create grazing land for cattle. Fifty-five square feet of rain forest may be cleared to produce just one quarter pound burger.

Resources: In the U.S. animals raised for food are fed more than 80% of the corn that we grow and more than 95% of the oats. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on earth.

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent. We are eating our mother, our father, and our children. We are eating the Earth. That is why the Buddha proposed that we look back into our situation of consumption. We should learn to eat together in such a way that compassion can remain in our hearts. Otherwise we will suffer and we will make ourselves and all species around us suffer deeply. A Dharma discussion should be organized so that the whole society can sit down together and discuss how we produce and consume food. The way out is mindful consump­tion.

The Second Nutriment

The second kind of food that the Buddha spoke about is sensory impressions. We eat with our eyes, our ears, nose, tongue, body and mind: our six sense organs. A television program is food. A conversation is food; music is food; radio is food. When you drive through the city, even if you don’t want to consume you consume anyway. What you see, what you hear is the food. Magazines are food. And these items of consumption might be highly toxic. An article in a magazine or a television program can contain a lot of violence, a lot of anger, a lot of despair. We continue to consume these poisons every day and we allow our children to consume these toxins every day. We are bringing into our consciousness a lot of poisons every day. The seeds of violence, of despair, of craving and hatred in us have been nour­ished by what we consume and have become so important. The country is getting angrier and angrier every day.

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When a child finishes elementary school she has watched about 100,000 acts of violence on television, and she has seen 8,000 murders on television. That is too much. That is the sec­ond kind of food that we consume. We consume thoughts of despair. We consume ideas of craving, of hatred, of despair ev­ery day. The Buddha advises us to be mindful, to refuse the items that can bring craving, despair, hatred and violence into our con­sciousness. He used the image of a cow with skin disease. The skin disease is so serious that the cow does not seem to have any skin anymore. When you bring the cow close to a tree all the tiny living beings will come out and suck the blood on the body of the cow. When you bring the cow close to an ancient wall, all the tiny animals living inside the wall will come out and suck the blood of the cow. The cow has no means for self-protection. If we are not equipped with the practice of mindful consumption we will be like a cow without skin and the toxins of violence, despair and craving will continue to penetrate into us. That is why it is very important to wake up and to reject the kind of production and consumption that is destroying us, destroying our nation, and our young people. Every one of us has to practice. As parents, as schoolteachers, as film makers, as journalists we have to practice looking deeply into our situation and see if we are creating violence every day and if we are offering that not only to the people in our country, but also to people around the world.

The Third Nutriment 

The third nutriment that the Buddha spoke of is volition. Volition is what you want to do the most, your deepest desire. Every one of us has a deepest desire. We have to identify it, we have to call it by its true name. The Buddha had a desire; he wanted to transform all his suffering. He wanted to get enlightened in order to be able to help other people. He did not believe that by being a politician he could help many people, that is why he chose the way of a monk. There are those of us who believe that happi­ness is only possible when we get a lot of money, a lot of fame, a lot of power, and a lot of sex. That kind of desire belongs to the third category of food spoken of by the Buddha.

The Buddha offered this image to illustrate his teaching: There is a young man who loves to be alive, he doesn’t want to die. And yet two very strong men are dragging him to a place where there is a pit of burning charcoal and want to throw him into the glowing embers so he will die.

He resisted but he had to die because the two men were too strong. The Buddha said, “Your deepest desire will bring you either to a place where there is happiness or to hell.” That is why it is very important to look into the nature of your deepest desire, namely volition. The Buddha said that craving will lead you to a lot of suffering, whether there is craving for wealth, sex, power, or fame. But if you have a healthy desire; like the desire to protect life, to protect the environment or to help people to live a simple life with time to take care of yourself, to love and to take care of your beloved ones, that is the kind of desire that will bring you to happiness. But if you are pushed by the craving for fame, for wealth, for power, you will have to suffer a lot. And that desire will drag you into hell, into the pit of glowing embers, and you will have to die.

There are people everywhere in the world that consider ven­geance as their deepest desire. They become terrorists. When we have hatred and vengeance as our deepest desire, we will suffer terribly also, like the young person who has been dragged by the two strong men to be thrown into the pit of glowing em­bers. Our deepest desire should be to love, to help and not to revenge, not to punish, not to kill. And I am confident that New Yorkers have that wisdom. Hatred can never answer hatred; all violence is injustice. Responding to violence with violence can only bring more violence and injustice, more suffering, not only to other people but suffering to ourselves. This is wisdom that is in every one of us. We need to breathe deeply, to get calm in order to touch the seed of wisdom. I know that if the seed of wisdom and of compassion of the American people could be watered regu­larly during one week or so, it will bring a lot of relief, it will reduce the anger and the hatred. And America will be able to perform an act of forgiveness that will bring about a great relief to America and to the world. That is why my suggestion is the practice of being calm, being concentrated, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already in us, and learning the art of mindful consumption. This is a true revolution, the only kind of revolution that can help us get out from this difficult situation where violence and hatred prevail.

Looking Deeply 

Our Senate, our Congress has to practice looking deeply. They should help us to make the laws to prohibit the production of items full of anger, full of craving and violence. We should be determined to talk to our children, to make a commitment in our family and in our community to practice mindful consumption. These are the real practices of peace. It is possible for us to practice so that we can get the nourishment and healing in our daily life. It is possible for us to practice embracing the pain, the sorrow, and the violence in us in order to transform.

The basic practice is to be aware of what is going on. By going back to the present moment and taking the time to look deeply and to understand the roots of our suffering, the path of emancipation will be revealed to us. The Buddha said, what has come to be does have a source. When we are able to look deeply into what has come to be and to recognize its source of nutriment you are already on the path of emancipation. What has come to us may be our depression, our despair and our anger. We have been nourished by the kinds of food that are available in our market. We want to consume them. It is not without reason that our depression is there. We have invited it in by our way of unmindful consumption. Looking deeply into our ill-being, the ill-being of our society and identifying the source in terms of con­sumption — that is what the Buddha recommended. Looking deeply into our ill being and identifying the source of nutriment that has brought it into you — that is already the beginning of healing and transformation.

We have to practice looking deeply as a nation if we want to get out of this difficult situation. And our practice will help the other nations to practice. I am sure that America is very capable of punishment. You can send us a bomb; we know you are very capable of doing so. But America is great when America knows how to act with lucidity and compassion. I urge that in these days when we have not been able to overcome the tremendous shock yet, we should not do anything, we should not say anything. We should go home to ourselves and practice mindful breathing and mindful walking to allow ourselves to calm down and to allow lucidity to come, so we can understand the real roots of our suf­fering and the suffering of the world. Only with that understand­ing can compassion arise. America can be a great nation if she knows how to act with compassion instead of punishment. We offer peace. We offer the relief for transformation and healing.

Building a Spiritual Alliance between Vietnam and the United States 

The trade agreement between the United States and Vietnam has been approved by the Congress. It is my deep wish that the American people and the Vietnamese people can be spiritual al­lies. We can practice compassion together. Vietnam and other countries need development, but we also badly need spiritual growth. That we can do together. We have been able to offer mindfulness retreats for war veterans. We have been able to visit prisons in America and to offer the practice and bring hope to the people in prisons. We have offered retreats for peace activists, psychotherapists, and people who work for the environment. We are trying to be your allies in spiritual growth. We know that without a spiritual dimension we cannot really improve the situa­tion of the world. We come together, like tonight, as a family in order to look deeply into our own situation and the situation of the world. There are things we can do. Practicing peace is pos­sible with every step, with every breath. It is possible that we practice together and bring hope and compassion into our daily lives and into the lives of our family, our community, our nation and the world. 

Concrete Steps That America can take to Uproot Terrorism 

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

The proposal in brief:

Following are concrete steps that could be taken by the U.S.A. to uproot terrorism and to ensure the peace and safety of the American people and of people in nations around the world that are in relationship to America. The foundation of the whole pro­cess is communication, listening to the difficulties and experi­ences of those involved and using that understanding to inform our actions.

The first step of the process is to listen to and understand the difficulties of American people. A national Council of Sages could be created. The national Council of Sages would be com­posed of people who have experience in the practice of reconcili­ation and peace making and who are in touch with the suffering and the real situations of people in America. This national Coun­cil of Sages would function as a support for the American govern­ment and the Congress by offering advice and insight as to how to reduce the suffering of people within America.

Secondly, an international Council of Sages would be formed to create a forum for listening to the difficulties and the real situ­ations of groups and nations who are believed to be the base for terrorist activity towards the U.S.A. The understanding gained from listening and looking deeply into the situation would be the foundation for implementing concrete strategies to uproot the causes for terrorism and to begin to take actions to heal the wounds of violence and hatred that have been inflicted on the parties involved.

1. The Practice of ListeningNon 

A Council of Wise People (sages) could be formed to prac­tice listening deeply, without judgement or condemnation to the suffering of people in America. Representatives of people in America who feel they are victims of discrimination, injustice and exclusion should be invited to express themselves before the Council of Sages. People who experience exclusion may include poor people, minorities, immigrants, homeless people, Jews, Mus­lims, the elderly, people with HIV/AIDS and so on.

The Council of Sages should be made up of non-political people who have lived closely with and understand the suffering of the above mentioned people. This practice of deep listening (or compassionate listening) should be conducted in an atmo­sphere of calm and non-fear. It could last from five to eight months or longer. These sessions could be televised so that the Ameri­can people could participate in the practice. The practice will be a success if the concerned people are able to describe their fears, their anger, their hatred, their despair and their hope.

The question could be asked, “What concrete steps can the American Congress and government take to reduce the suffering of the people living in the U.S.A.?” Representatives of diverse groups in America could answer this question with details in the presence of the Council of Sages. After which the Council of Sages could make a presentation to the American government and Congress offering insight into the current situation and con­crete recommendations based on what they have heard from the representatives and their collective wisdom.

Result of the practice: Even before the government and Con­gress begins to do anything to reduce the suffering, a relief will already be obtained, because the people who suffer, for the first time, will feel that they are being listened to and are being under­stood. This practice can already inspire respect on the interna­tional level, because other nations will see that America is ca­pable of listening to the suffering of her own people.

We can learn from the experience of other countries such as South Africa where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to heal the wounds of apartheid. The Commission was headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and received the support of both blacks and whites as a legitimate forum for understanding and reconciliation to occur. Televised sessions were organized where members of the different racial groups were able to listen to and to be heard by each other, bringing the tangible result that blacks and whites could begin to find a way to coexist peacefully and respectfully together in South Africa. This is a concrete example of the powerful effect that direct and compassionate com­munication can have on a national and international level.

2. The Practice of Non-violent Communication 

In interpersonal relationships we know that open and caring communication is essential for a healthy relationship. On the national and international level honest and non-violent communi­cation is also essential for healthy and supportive relationships to exist between members of a society and between nations.

Following is an example of how the government of the U.S.A. might address the people and countries who are believed to be the base of terrorism:

“You must have suffered terribly, you must have hated us terribly to have done such a thing to us (the September 11, 2001 attack). You must have thought that we were your enemy, that we have tried to discriminate against you and to destroy you as a religion, as a people or as a race. You may believe that we do not recognize your values, that we represent a way of life that op­poses your values. Therefore you may have tried to destroy us in the name of what you believe in. It may be that you have many wrong perceptions about us.

“We believe that we do not have any intention to destroy you or to discriminate against you. But, there may be some things that we have said or done that have given you the impression that we want to discriminate against you or to destroy you. We may have taken actions that have brought harm to you. Please tell us about your suffering and your despair. We want to listen to you and to understand your experience and your perceptions. So that we can recognize and understand what we have done or said that has created misunderstanding and suffering in you.

“We ourselves do not want to live in fear or to suffer and we do not want your people to live in fear or to suffer either. We want you to live in peace, in safety and in dignity because we know that only when you have peace, safety and dignity can we also enjoy peace, safety and dignity. Let us create together an occa­sion for mutual listening and understanding which can be the foundation for real reconciliation and peace.”

3.The Practice of Looking Deeply 

Looking deeply means to use the information and insights gained from listening to the suffering of others to develop a more extensive and in depth understanding of our situation.

A safe and peaceful setting should be arranged for represen­tatives of conflicting groups and nations to practice looking deeply. An international Council of Sages facilitated by spiritual leaders could create such a setting and help conduct the sessions of deep listening and deep looking. Plenty of time should be given to this practice. It may take half a year or more. Sessions of deep looking should be televised so that people in many parts of the world can participate and gain a deeper understanding of the experience and real situations of the participants.

This practice should be conducted as a non-political activity. Therefore, it should be supervised by humanist, humanitarian and spiritual leaders who are known to be free from discrimination and partisanship.

Countries representing the six continents (Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Australia and Pacifica, and Eu­rope) should be invited to sponsor and support this practice.

4. Political, Social and Spiritual Solutions to Conflicts 

Negotiations for peace, reconciliation and mutual coopera­tion between conflicting peoples and nations should be made based on the insights gained from this process, namely deep lis­tening and mutual understanding in order to maintain the peace and safety of all nations. People from various sectors of society in the involved countries should be able to participate in each step of the process by expressing their insights and their support for a peaceful resolution.

Military and political leaders could also participate in these processes by listening to the representatives of various peoples from the nations that are in conflict. But priority would be given to listen to those voices that are not represented already in the decision making processes of the involved nations, for example, citizens who are not military or political leaders. These might include schoolteachers, spiritual leaders, doctors, parents, union workers, business people, artists, writers, children, social work­ers, experienced mediators, psychologists, nurses and so on.

By taking these steps America will show great courage and spiritual strength. If America is capable of such acts of listening and understanding she will be making a great contribution to the peace and safety of the whole world. America will be acting in the spirit and with the support of her forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln who made great efforts to pro­mote democracy, mutual respect and understanding among peoples of different backgrounds and beliefs, for the peace and security of everyone.

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Acting and Mindfulness

an interview with Jeffrey King

Interviewed by Barbara Casey

Jeff, what led you to become an actor? 

When I was a senior in high school I got into a drama class because the physical education class I wanted to be in was closed, In the drama class I started to feel a kind of release, a contact with something really deep, a feeling of being a conduit. The only way I knew to continue to follow that feeling was to act. And still that’s the reason I do it, to experience that kind of heightened and widened awareness. It ·feels like, having been introduced to an experience that was so necessary and essential in my life, I just followed it.

When were you introduced to mindfulness and how did that become your practice?

Acting was my practice long before I had any understanding of what mindfulness practice was, because it afforded these moments of opening, of heightened awareness. Following the same impulse as when I started acting, I began reading books on Buddhism, which I did for a long time, thinking that was the practice. Then I realized that reading wasn’t affecting my life the way it would be if I actually did the things that I read about. So I went to the Zen Center in Los Angeles and I asked to learn to sit. Then I met Christopher/Caitriona Reed and I started sitting with her and became more aware of Thay and his way of approaching practice and that seemed more in tune with what felt right for me. There was much more interaction with nature and there was a feeling of real contact with the world, and a feeling. that when you’re sitting you don’t try to keep things out, you let things be and you observe them. That really drew me.

How has the practice of mindfulness affected your acting?

It’s made acting easier. An actor needs to go in the direction the story or the character goes. But there’s a freedom within that to allow the moment to be as it is; this is what’s happened for me over the past several years. I’m less interested in making moments happen a certain way because I’m much more aware that the audience and I, the other actors and technicians are all creating our world in this time we’re together.

Acting is much less stressful than in the past, and the special moments that used to come up once in a while are now more like one big long moment. I’m more often not thinking of something else when I’m on stage; I’m just listening to what’s happening and breathing. One night I was doing Life Is a Dream and I had a thought that wasn’t involved in the play and I just noted it, like I would if I were sitting; I said “thinking” and came back to the moment. I was actually experiencing the play as a meditation. It makes me more free and spontaneous and willing to accept whatever’s happening within the context of the play.

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Jeff plays a featured role in Life Is a Dream, one of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s plays this season. Written in the 16th century by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, a Brazilian Catholic priest, the play is a strong and direct message of how mindfulness can transform the life of a person who is suffering through awareness of the preciousness of each moment. Two speeches by Segismundo, the main character, reflect this awakening:
Segismundo:
I’ll dream the dream of courts and kings and drums
and swords. But this time I will know it. A dream
– but this time I will know that it is happening.
This time be aware of it – be mindful of the
moments as they pass – and this time I will be
there for the living of them. Knowing from the
start it all shall pass away will take away the fear
– take away the few; and ease the pain.
There. There. I feel it – a pair of steel gloves
-lightening themselves around my heart. Hot
blood rising in my throat. I can see it. Red and
smoking – I can look it in the eye. It is not me. It
is anger – not a part o.l me. Not me. It is a dream.
It is a dream. It is a dream. Let it go. Let it go. I
can see it. I can let it go.

Jeff, being an actor is a performance art and usually involves projecting some sort of ego; is that a hindrance to the practice of mindfulness?

If I’ m trying to get something personal out of acting, I fall on my face because it precludes being really alive and present. And when my ego is out of it, it happens spontaneously. I’m doing Merry Wives of Windsor right now, and to do comedy I have to be so awake for the audience and present in the moment. If I’m thinking, “I’ l look better this way or that way,” the moment is gone.

Tell us a little bit about your current play, Life Is a Dream:

It’s been very important to do this play because it exemplifies the central understanding of my practice, and that is, if you wake up in this moment, you are totally free. Part of this is learning to stop clinging to the past without forgetting the past. This is what happens to the main character, Segismundo; after being kept prisoner and being treated badly, he’s freed and made the prince. His first reaction is to hang on to what’s happened to him and to react out of that pain and he does unskillful things, he kills a man. So he’s put back into his captivity and then through some awakenings within the story he’s freed again and comes to genuinely forgive those who have put him there because he is now free to be alive right this moment. Part of that comes through his understanding that we dream the reality that we inhabit and we dream the identities that we possess. For him and for the character that I play, there is a spiritual awakening that has to do with release and with presentness.

It feels like right livelihood to be doing this play because 600 people a day come and see it and they are affected by it, they consider whether it’s possible for someone to be treated that way and then to forgive those who did it to him. And it’s a way of broadening my own practice and my own sense of compassion and generosity in the world.

How does being a member of the Order of Interbeing influence your acting?

Taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings was very important to me, because getting up in front of the community and saying, “This is how 1’m going to live” was really powerful. Over the course of time and coming to understand what the Order was about, it seemed like a way to deepen, to be an example within my Sangha, to my family and to myself. The Mindfulness Trainings feel like a natural way to live; they support me to be a natural person. In reciting them, I often see that I haven’t studied and practiced one very well, and that’s okay, because I will do it in the next two weeks. They support everything that 1’m trying to embody. I share a dressing room in the theater with thirty guys and the talk can get kind of raw. Sometimes I just write a number “4” and put it up on the wall, and I see it and remember, 1’m free to be mindful of my speech down here. That’s very helpful and I thin.k it influences everyone in the room without my even saying anything.

If there are mindfulness practitioners who have a desire to act, what would you say to them?

If they really want to, they should just do it. If you are practicing mindfulness, then you are already way ahead of the game with acting because good acting is the embodiment of mindfulness. Performing can be a wonderful way to drop off a lot of constrictions about who you think you have to be. It’s a very free place on stage; when you see someone acting who is really alive, they affect you. It doesn’t matter where you are doing it,just walk onto a stage and breathe, walk out the door and breathe, it’s the same life, it’s just very free.

Jeffrey King, True Awakening of the Dharma, is an actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife and two children, and sits with the Community o/Mindful Living, Southern Oregon.

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Bicycle Meditation

By David Percival 

For most of us, the commute to and from work is a daily reality. I am fortunate to be able to bicycle to work, weather permitting, which in New Mexico is most of the time. Unfortunately, I think it is safe to describe the streets of most of our cities as not being bastions of mindfulness. Furthermore, most streets and roads have been designed for cars, not bicycles. You can be entering a battleground of inattentive, careless and sometimes hostile drivers, narrow roads full of holes and glass, and the occasional vicious dog. Yet, it is a joy to leave the car in the garage, enjoy the peace and cal m of an empty road in the early morning before the heat of the day takes over, go through a quiet neighborhood, and do your small part to lessen congestion and pollution.

First, plan ahead, especially if you have just started riding. Get a map and plot the safest, most direct route. Avoid, when possible, riding on major highways and busy main streets during the rush hour. Imagine trying to be mindful on a heavily traveled main street during the evening rush hour when you end up too close to cars parked on your right and vehicles are rushing by you on the left.

As you leave your house in the calm of a peaceful morning, understand that this situation could change in an instant. Leaving your driveway is an important time to be mindful of the present moment, to be aware of where you are and of your surroundings, and to focus on what you and others are doing this moment. As you get ready to leave, stop for a moment and take a few seconds to breathe. Concentrate on the task at hand: to get from your house to where you work happily and in one piece. Be aware that at any moment you may suddenly find yourself in a sea of unmindful drivers in large metal objects that could cause you harm.As in others situations, when you bicycle it is easy to be lost in your thoughts, worrying about the project you have to complete at work, or wondering if your children are safe at school. Be totally aware you are riding your bicycle, not thinking about home, work, or problems. Riding your bicycle is the most important thing in your life at that moment. Being mindful and in the present moment has never been more important.

You may think at first that the constantly changing pace of bicycling does not lend itself to mindfulness. It is frantic at times, when you are trying to wind your way through rush hour traffic, make it up that long hill you are unable to avoid, or wait for the traffic to clear so you can cross a busy street. Yet, like most things we do, bicycling is made up of a series of changing rhythms. And, as in sports or other aerobic activity, bicycling is a wonderful opportunity to observe and monitor your breathing. Indeed, bicycling is a working meditation, where your breath can be uncomfortably obvious at times, particularly when you reach the top of that long hill.

As you change gears, note the changing rhythm of your pedaling. Listen to the rhythm of the cracks in the road. Follow the rhythm of your heart as it talks to you. Note the ever changing rhythms as you proceed down the street, going slower, faster, stopping, starting, easing into traffic, moving out of the way of other vehicles. If your breath is fast on a hill, note that your breath is fast; when it slows down on a flat stretch, note that it is slower. With eyes wide open, concentrate on the constantly changing rhythms of your breathing. On your daily ride when your mind starts slipping away, keep coming back to the reality of the present moment. As thoughts come to mind, be aware of them, then let them go.

Events happen fast on roads and highways and often there is no time for reflection. You must react with an instant mindfulness.

Continue to bring yourself back to the present with your breathing, to your little moving space on a city street. Your awareness of your space and what is around you and what is just ahead is your protection. Be in complete awareness by watching the changing rhythms of your breath. Thay says in The Miracle of Mindfulness, “Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise – this is mindfulness.”

Make things that you see or hem” along the road be beacons of mindfulness: stoplights, stop signs, church bells, factory sirens, trains, buses, bus stops, familiar landmarks you see everyday such as parks, playgrounds, gardens, statues, towers, antennas, unusual buildings or special trees. Let them all be Buddhas, bells of mindfulness. Come back to your breath as you see these friends; smile as you go by.

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Often, you can’t avoid crossing a busy street; you have to wait for traffic to clear and your movement is halted. Take a moment to rest, slow yourself down, observe the neighborhood, note your heartbeat, check on the rhythm of your breathing at the moment, breathe in and out and smile at the passing traffic, note the rhythm of the endless stream of passing cars, and then carefully move across the street when it is safe.

As you move along the streets of your city, continue to smile at passing cars and people in their yards. Smile and wave your thanks to drivers who allow you the right-of-way. Observe the unmindful, careless intensity of some drivers intent on getting somewhere at any cost. Smile compassionately at them and let them go.

Beware of the seeds of your anger. These seeds are in us and can sprout instantly, sometimes at the slightest infraction. Anger can grab us and throw us into a profoundly unmindful state and lead to distraction and forgetfulness. New riders, especially, have to learn not to cling to anger and frustration which can put us in danger. Anger while bicycling is often a knee-jerk reaction to an object on the road or another person’s mindlessness and forgetfulness. I have found myself angry at a pothole, a puddle, a broken bottle, at other people’s anger, and other equally insignificant things. I have driven for several city blocks with no recollection of doing so because of being taken over by my anger.

After many year of riding, I have trained myself to tum it all around, to let the potholes, the puddles, the broken bottles, the unmindful drivers, and the angry dogs be flashing beacons of mindfulness. These beacons transmit an instant message to me: let the feeling go and return to mindfulness. Remember, the driver that cut you off is gone; the pothole that jarred your brain is behind you; the obnoxious dog ran off. Let your negative angry thoughts do the same.

I have also found that keeping a half-smile on my face is of great importance. It is very difficult to be angry when I am smiling. Sometimes I do as Thay has suggested and make a contract with my pathway to ride mindfully the entire distance. Another way to stay mindful is to make up a gatha and recite it at regular intervals, such as:
I am riding the path of mindfulness.
I am riding the street of peace.
I am riding the road of understanding.

Now when I ride, when seeds of anger or frustration do appear in my consciousness, through continuing practice they dissolve almost instantly and are gone. It is possible to immediately come back to myself.

Allow the rhythms of your breathing and your mindfulness to be your protection during your daily bicycle commute or any other time you are riding. And, by the way, wear a helmet, go with the traffic, follow the rules of the road, use lights at night, and keep a smile on your face.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a founding member of the Rainbow Sangha. He was ordained into the Order of Interbeing at the San Diego retreat in August.

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Ask the Dharmacarya: How do you practice in your Workplace?

Chan Huy – Montreal, Canada

I am back to work after a two-year sabbatical. I am an engineer, a construction project manager for a federal department in Canada. I work with a team of consultants, architects, engineers, contractors and in-house resources specialists. This team changes with each new cycle of the work project.

I went back to work primarily because I needed the income, but I feel very happy at work, much more than I was before the sabbatical. When I was at work before, I would think of the good time I could be having doing something else, and that is what made me unhappy. Thay’s teaching on the Here and Now is a key to my happiness at work. Yes, I am very happy when on retreat with the monks and nuns, or meeting with Sanghas or doing social work. But I can also be happy wherever I am when I am not caught in the idea that I could be somewhere else, doing some other more “glamorous” world-saving work.

Each morning I practice waking up slowly with the smiling gatha, mindfully walking to the bathroom, mindfully brushing my teeth, and I enjoy a ten-minute morning meditation. I give myself a lot of time to drive to the office and I often use Thay’s gift to us Quebecers. Our license plates say “je me sou viens” (I remember) and Thay suggested that we breathe and smile whenever we read a license plate.

In the office, I practice with the electronic bell of mindfulness that rings every fifteen minutes on my computer. I have Thay’s calligraphy and other images of practice on my wall and a small Maitreya Buddha statue on the top of my computer screen that smiles at me. I practice walking meditation going to another office or to the washroom. I take fifteen minute breaks twice a day in a nearby garden with a waterfall and usually have my lunch alone in silence. Silence at work is very nourishing.

The work-place can be a wonderful lab for transformation. Thay said that monks and nuns in a monastery are like stones that collide against each other and shape themselves round. It is the interaction between them that helps to perfect them. We can also take that practice into our work-place where there can be frequent collisions between seeds of many kinds manifesting: fear, courage, jealousy, anger, anxiety, and so on. I practice greeting, embracing, and looking deeply.

I recently discovered that right livelihood is doing the best you can with what is in front of you right here and now. I remember Thay’s answer to a retreatant who was unhappy because he was working in the atomic warfare industry. Thay encouraged him to bling his mindfulness to this work: “You can do much better there than someone without mindfulness,” he said. With mindfulness, we can discover new meanings in our work and we can bring a difference to our field of work and to the world.

Eileen Kiera – Washington State

I’m a housewife and I spend a lot of my time doing the sorts of things a housewife does: cleaning house, cooking dinner, cooking breakfast, making lunches, shopping, petting the dog, feeding the cats. In fact, the vast majority of my time is spent like that. And sometimes when I’m chopping vegetables or making a meal, I’ll be overwhelmed with gratitude for being able to cook food for the people I love.

I think when we’re doing working meditation, the way of practice is: chopping the vegetables with our full presence and in that way, we are feeding everyone. Or cleaning the cushions with our full presence and in that way, we are taking care of everyone. When we do the dishes, we wash the dishes with nothing in between us and the di shes, complete relationship with the dishes, one with the dishes. In doing that, the dishes are cleaned for everyone. The act of coming back to the present moment is an act of love. That’s all we need to do. Come back, be awake. It is in that way we enter the path of love. And why do we do this? As John Dryden said, “Love is love’s reward.”

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Chan Huy, True Radiance, received the Lamp Transmission in 1994. Coming from a family with four generations of Thay’s students, he lives and guides Sang has in Montreal, Canada and throughout North America.

Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, has been the guiding Dharmacarya of many Sanghas in the Pacific Northwest for the past ten years. She lives at the rural retreat center Mountain Lamp Community in northern Washington with her husband and daughter. This talk was excerpted by Barbara Casey from a talk given March 21,20001 at a retreat in Camp Indianola, Washington.

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Poem: Untitled Poem 4

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This morning
I awoke
Feeling that I had lost my smile
Not knowing where to look
Not remembering where I had left it.

I sat
On the sofa
Breathing in and breathing out
And gradually I found my smile.

First I heard it carried on a mighty, icy wind .
Then I saw it stretched in the shadows
Of skeleton trees across the snowy yard.
Then I fe lt it on my face
Where I had left it the night before.

by Mike Ellis, Calm Relaxalion of The Heart.
He lives and practices in Windsor; Cnnecticut.

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Poem: Open Heart Surgery

I cannot tell you about the sunrise on the Sound today
About the fiery sky
and the half moon directly above me,
shining her bright benediction.
There’s no way I can describe
the comfort of the silent mountain in the distance.
And the way the mist rose off the still waters
or the sound of the gulls’ call through the morning air.
I had to close my eyes
to still the weeping of this humbled heart.

And when it seemed the glory was waning,
as glories do,
the eagle came,
to catch her breakfast in the waters
before me.
I cannot explain how it felt to belong
to this wonder.
As  I walked slowly,
the sun rose over the hills,
drying my salty tears.

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In days to come,
when I am world weary,
I will have the joy
of that bright sky in me.
When I am uncertain
and blown about by winds of change,
I will have that solid mountain
to ground me.
When words cause confusion
instead of understanding,
I will have that bird song
to soften and ease me.
When I am tossed
and torn with worries and wild thoughts,
I will have that peaceful water reflecting the gentle moon.
And when I am fearful,
I will borrow the confidence and clear-seeing
of that eagle.

I can tell you that
If I am struck blind tomorrow
this sunrise will be what  would have wanted to see today.

by Barbara Casey
November 11, 2001
Camp Indianola, Puget Sound

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Poem: The Question

Fleeing solitude
on the melting tar road,
I turned to words,
and was invited into silence.
Right away,
oaks cooled the cross-breezes
and leaves chanted
of a vast tenderness.
The view down the valley
was nothing special,
it wouldn’t stop traffic,
but I could not move,
and yielded,
and sank.
The answer was here.
“Field, haystack, forest, hedge,
why are you so beautiful?
Why do you break my heart?”
Our last walk here,
is it too precious for words?
“Because you are here.”
“Because you stopped.”
“Because you saw me.”
“Because you asked.”

by Caleb Cushing
(written about an experience he had on the last lazy day of the Eyes of the Buddha Retreat in 2000)

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Ask the Dharmacharaya

Playing Sports? Is it Mindful?

By Richard Brady and Peggy Rowe

Dear Dharmacharyas,

My name is Ethan Flint. I am nine and 3/4 years old. My dad is in the Sangha in New York City. I wanted to know your opinion about playing in a sports league, like soccer or baseball. Do you think it is just a way of occupying myself or is it a good thing because I have a lot of fun in it.

My dad and I are reading Old Path, White Clouds and that got me thinking about what things could occupy my mind in a bad way.Sincerely, Ethan Flint

Understanding What Makes Sports Fun

Dear Ethan Flint,

Thank you for the important question you raise about participating in sports leagues. It is clearly stated and, I believe, contains the beginning of an answer in your last sentence. You don’t want to occupy your mind in a bad way. How can you tell if sports or anything else is a bad way to occupy your mind? One thing to look at is how you feel while you are doing the activity. You have fun playing sports. But don’t stop here. Why do you have fun? For some people sports are fun because it gives them a chance to show off or to win. Their fun is based on the impressions they make or the results they achieve, and it depends on their doing or their team doing better than others. All the players involved cannot share this kind of fun. On the other hand, some people like the connection they feel with friends on their teams, or they like physical exercise, or they like to develop their skills. This kind of fun is always available to them and to all the other players. So I’m saying that having fun isn’t reason enough to play on sports teams. Understand that fun and be sure that you feel good about it!

Fun may be an immediate effect of playing sports. There are also long-term effects. Your question makes me wonder whether you may be thinking of them. Perhaps you and your dad have already talked about karma, the principle that everything you think, say, and do now will affect the future. Playing sports affects the future. So does doing schoolwork and spending time with your family. Doing these things affects your future and the future of others. It is impossible to know what the effects will be. The main thing you have to go on is what is happening right now. Playing sports is providing you fun. What kind of challenges and opportunities for growth is it providing? How is it affecting your relationships with other kids? With your family? Very likely there are other important questions about sports participation to ask yourself. These questions may be as difficult to answer as ones about the future. But you do not seem to be a young person who shies away from difficult questions.

What I am trying to describe here is mindfulness of the present moment. As you ask questions and become more aware of what your present moment holds, you will probably find that your sports participation has both positive and negative aspects. The better you understand what these are, the better you will be able to choose how much and how you will participate, and what you learn from investigating this question about sports will serve you well as you encounter similar questions throughout your life.  Good luck.

Many smiles, Richard Brady

What Seeds Are Being Watered?

Dear Ethan,

Thanks for asking this great question. This is important. I am impressed that you have the courage to ask brave questions like this one. One thing I heard in your question was “is this the best use of my time in the precious gift of a human lifetime?” The only person who can ask and respond to this question is you, so that is good news.

Your question also addresses how you occupy your mind while you play. What is important is not whether to play or not play sports. What is important is how you occupy your mind while playing sports. It is about how you practice being human while you play.

If you practice soccer or baseball and water seeds of anger, frustration, jealousy, and violence, then this is not a good use of your time. If you use the team experience to practice with these seeds and to water seeds of mindfulness, support, caring, and Sangha building, then this is a good use of your time and your mind.

A soccer team and a baseball team are forms of Sangha. Being on a team is a wonderful opportunity to practice community building and to practice creating harmony and awareness.  At Plum Village there are volleyball nets, basketball hoops and soccer balls.  Many of the brothers and sisters enjoy playing together, exercising their bodies and sharing happiness in this way.

Thay has said there is no way to happiness–happiness is the way. It is good to know what you like. It is good to know what makes you happy.

Peggy Rowe

Peggy Rowe, True Original Vow, lives at the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, CA. An artist, author, and educator, she finds joy in swimming, dancing, and playing with her dog, Reggae.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness in Education Network. He teaches high school math in Washington, D.C.

Please send us your question for “Ask the Dharmacharya.” We will feature different Dharmacharyas each issue. Send questions to: mindfulnessbell@sbcglobal.net

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Sacred Clowning

An Interview with Didier Danthois

By Barbara Casey during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village in June 2002

Barbara: Didier, how did you create and develop the idea of sacred clowning?

Didier: For me the “sacred” added to clowning is a way to celebrate the eternal quality of our human nature, and ultimately, to share that eternal aspect through the art of clowning.

Barbara: How does the sacred part express itself in the clowning?

Didier: It connects with the clowning because of the way we prepare, the way we tune into ourselves, where we come from with our clown. This work is not about acting. It is about coming home to the present moment. We are interested in touching the quality of this moment. For example, how you feel, how you are, just now, as you are sitting, touching the floor, a cushion next to you. What is around you, and between us as we speak? All those nuances of experience are moving through us in this moment; maybe the shyness

I feel as I speak with you, or my joy. To honor all those qualities as a shared reality, as a ground to inspire us into creativity. An authentic improvisation is born, just from being present, open, receptive; not from an act. You are here, I’m here, and I feel that, and from there, a dance can start to happen. Sacredness to me is connected to honoring that essence of coming home to ourselves and each other.

Doing nothing is the main point for me when I work with people. Sometimes I have people who have had years of drama training and I ask them to do nothing and it is very hard for them. To be on the stage and just be, with your heart open. Do nothing, just feel. Unless we can do that, we cannot touch the truth about our relationships, our true connection to space, to the universe. All performances or work we do with patients in health care settings is based on that attitude. Trusting, being in the now, listening, letting ourselves be touched, rather than coming with an idea to fill up the gap when nothing appears to be happening. True creativity can only come from silence, from not knowing.

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Barbara: So when you offer this, what is your hope? That people come into this space with you?

Didier: I would say I wish to meet people. I don’t hope that they meet me, because hope is an attitude which provokes certain reactions. We create an open space where we just intend to meet the other. And that means we might be rejected. If we meet our fears as they are, and don’t try to change the outside situation, or want something different, then there is the potential for transformation. In that attitude, we come to essence, by simply not expecting things to be a certain way, and engaging from a true emotional response to what is there.

And then, of course, we use our skills in movement to magnify what we feel. So we develop dance, we develop mime. We enter imagination and play mindfully. In mime, the essential point is to come to the essence, to the heart of a movement. We can come to essence through feeling, through being here now. So it’s another way to look, and that has been a great key in the way we work as sacred clowns.

This way of working came to me ten years ago, after working extensively with people with special needs. For eight years I worked with blind performers on stage, with people who had Downs syndrome and learning difficulties, people who are often considered to be unable to do anything. I worked with one completely blind lady, and in the show we had to cross the stage running. She saw nothing, and her hand was resting on my hand, and the weight of her hand was like a leaf. She had total trust. At one point we had to jump together, leaping across the stage. We could have run into the wall! I’ve really learned about trust from those students. They taught me so much. Working with them, putting performances together, rediscovering the true meaning of being present, not expecting something. They taught me how in putting the performance together, they were not bothered about the end product. I was, they were not! I went through a lot and over the years they showed me that actually each step is a gem, nothing is separate. Everything is part of the beauty unfolding.

I remember there was a beautiful man, about twenty years old, in a group of people with Downs syndrome. One day he shared a dream. And I took the whole group into creating the reality for his dream. The power of his dream was a teaching and a mystery, so we entered it. All the participants in the workshop created a magic story out of this dream. It was so moving. I was nearly crying by the end of it, it was pure, there was no ego. I did my best to have enough openness not to try to modify but to follow and serve that dream, to open and let go. These people took me back to what celebrates life and the eternal aspect of love and nature.

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So how can we bring that quality to the population of supposedly “normal” people, like you and me? And that is where I look for the answers. What was the essence of that experience? Innocence, potency of feeling, presence, authenticity, very little thinking, and joy and fun. A lot of this attitude was coming from play. How can we resurrect play? How can we be in the present, how can we be in touch with our feelings? Then one day I discovered a man called Lex Van Someren who was teaching something called ‘The Dancing Clown.’ So I started training, and soon I was very involved in the humor of the clown and the ability to play with everything that creates it, which is your sadness, your joy, your depression, your wanting to hide behind the corner. All those qualities are not to be separated. The clown is about restoring the full picture. It is expressing opposite energies. One of the names for the clown in the North American Indian tradition is “contrary.” He has the ability to touch on what is not expressed, on the repressed, to bring back to life, to mirror to the society what has been forgotten.

Barbara: It’s like the court jester.

Didier: Yes. It is the same. The clown is to bring back what is left behind.

Barbara: Big job!

Didier: That’s a big job. So the courses we do, we reawaken that ability to get in touch with the present moment. Working with inner listening, rather than outer, and watching the breath, feeling the breath through the whole body.  And I apply that literally to movement. If you want to expand your mind right to your fingertips or your toes, you can do that. And then we get in touch with beauty. Your movement becomes magic because you are opening your consciousness to touch the air, to tickle the air, with your fingertips, or your toes. Then wonder is there and also innocence. We are touching innocence, which means spontaneous, unprepared actions. Those movements are the result of inner listening, of bringing back the sense to their inner source.

Barbara: When you go to a hospital, when you enter that space, how do you help to create safety for those people? How do you connect? Do you begin to express what you feel in the room? I always had a fear of clowns because there is a spontaneity there and a call for interaction, but I didn’t feel safe because I didn’t know what their motive, their agenda was. How do you create safety?

Didier: Another aspect which we train to develop as part of mindfulness is compassion, to really feel the other as much as yourself, and to move into action in response to the other with care. We learn to sensitize that muscle by practicing compassion. Breathing in, dissolving your own resistance, your own blocks, your own fears. And breathing out, offering care to the other. We practice that for each other as a team of clowns, and then for the patients or audience. We practice this weeks in advance as part of daily warm-up, which means the clowns, the artists, already feel relieved of a lot of fear and feel more creativity, more ease, more love. Something has been prepared on the invisible level. We include the staff, the patients, the whole surrounding in our preparations.

I feel this is a very important part of the way we work. And many people feel quite inspired by this way of working because it brings more understanding, more openness from the people we share with, whether it’s a hospital, or a street improvisation.

It touches people. And we are able to share some of the values we’ve forgotten in our society, like silence, stillness, expressing true feelings. Being in places where normally nobody stops. We use simple things of nature to share our experience. We smell a flower, then offer it to someone. This art is about stopping in order to experience the here and now. Sometimes we go into slow motion. A group of five, six clowns in slow motion, walking next to each other. Traveling, but not going anywhere. Enjoying being the Fool, being aimless. This is what I call “Fool at Heart”, the Fool who expresses a response from his heart, or her heart.

Barbara: Tell me about how you work in teams.

Didier: We work in groups with street improvisation and in parks. A landscape of clowns comes together, relating to the space, celebrating nature. This summer we are having a gathering of about thirty clowns. We are working with a group of children in Germany, and are going to create a magical journey of clowns through a garden. So we will lead the children into different mime-clown scenes, really connecting to nature. That’s one example of what we do together.

Another aspect of the work is stage performance. Every year we have a retreat in Scotland, and we offer a performance in a Tibetan monastery there. We offer a whole week of training at the end of the retreat and we also have a performance with the monastics. It’s so beautiful!

We also have a more committed aspect of clown training for the work we do in hospitals. It requires being very grounded in meditation, and true motivation to want to share something from your heart. The nurses are often over-worked and very stressed. You come as a clown, with your joy, playing music, and maybe invite a patient to sing, or play, opening the joy muscle. I have worked with groups of nurses, and through that I have realized how much compassion they have, but so often, they didn’t have enough support to help them integrate challenging experiences. After nursing a dying patient, they might have to rush immediately to the next one. No space, no sharing time, never.  So slowly, something tightens in their heart. But of course, their compassion is still there, underneath all the stress. As a result, the nurses might sometimes feel annoyed with the clowns, or at other times relieved to see them.

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Barbara: How do you deal with that?

Didier: I’m a true Westerner, very independent, and I have a lot to learn about being part of an organism. That’s why I’m here in this retreat, and I have a lot of pain to clear. My family and my background never gave me a positive experience of being part of a group. And now I realize the next step for this work has to be in a Sangha, so we can be supported in our values. The teaching of this three-week retreat is just like pouring honey into my brain and my heart, and I’m clearing up so much pain of never having lived in a true family. Here we have a true family. Thay inspires me so much about Sangha building, and how we can celebrate the sacred, the true values of human life. But as soon as we touch those wonderful golden aspects of life, we release a whole cloud of suffering that’s been there for years and years, so we are still very much beginners on the path. How can we hold the sacred view in a society that is not seeing it? That is the challenge. That is why I am here.

Barbara: How many clowns do you work with?

Didier: There are eighteen trained clowns. Clown Care & Co. is composed of two groups in England, (in London and Bristol), and there are other Sacred Clown groups emerging in Holland, and Germany, (in Munich and Frankfurt).

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Barbara: Didier, can you give me a specific example of seeing someone transformed or touched when you were clowning?

Didier: We’ve been working with the elderly in a Jewish center, with people between 65 and 100 years of age. It’s a big place, 300 residents, and we’ve been working with teams of clowns and it has been quite beautiful. The residents often say they are bored, watching TV all the time. Some are depressed, waiting for death not having much hope for anything else. Discretely we find a way, maybe over two weeks, to turn off the television. Then three, or four, of us may just mime how we see the residents we are visiting. I might sit there and wait a bit, copying their posture, just being there, breathing, making some eye contact, Not expecting anything in particular – the whole work of clown care is not to expect, but to trust, and doing nothing is doing everything, just being there. And then we can just make a little movement, and very soon there’s a kind of mirroring happening. They start to move, I will start to move slowly, and I start to play some music, singing an old Jewish song they have known in their childhood. We hum the melody, and they start to sing the words.  And as they sing the words, some joy comes into their body, and we encourage a little movement, just connecting to their neighbor, letting go of their feelings of isolation. So it builds up slowly from things that are meaningful to them.

We’ve had many who started to sing with us so loudly and full of energy. We might have two clowns who start to dance in the middle, softly, to the music. If someone is totally withdrawn, which can happen particularly with dementia, we might just start copying them, or for example touch their hand, to bring back the mind into the body. We have to feel how far we can go without disturbing their sense of security. So that’s how we work, we invite slowly, and we engage, in a very careful way, with music, mime, mirroring their feelings, in a true way until we open the door for a possible exchange.

Our mind/heart is a mirror. As you become a mirror, you are remembering yourself, especially when you are old and a bit lost in your mind. Here you are, and you’re fine as you are. And this true meeting is a stepping stone for playing creatively. Then we can start to relate to the invisible, as we touch empty space, letting an expansion arise from the meeting. It’s to expand our mind to a possibility that there is something more than you and me here. This is also the role of the clown. We are entering the invisible. As we enter this realm, something happens in the feeling, in the mind, and it has surprising qualities, it can transform. We start to relate to the invisible.

Barbara: That really helps me understand how you work and how the human process happens, the gift of being together, and the gift of presence. Didier, is there anything that you could offer to the rest of us, of how we could bring this sense of play into our lives, in our interactions with others?

Didier: What touches me so much is looking at beauty. What is beauty? And where does beauty come from? If you move and there’s beauty in your movement, anybody can be touched. Beauty is simply bringing the breath into the movement, and letting ourselves be touched. We often say we have to do something to express ourselves, but actually, to have an attitude of listening and letting ourselves be touched by what is, that is real beauty. The air as you move, the floor under your feet, all those things are the ground for beauty, a kind of beauty that gives joy, and costs nothing. What is art? Art is being simple. Like William Blake says;

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

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It is there. And if we can just really enjoy a flower, or a little shadow on the floor, or some dust in the air, you can enter it. We are very free already when we bring our minds to the smallest things. Developing mindfulness into an art form is the most wonderful gift. The clown is a master at coming back to being

truly human, embracing the sadness and the joy, so they unite and become one. This is the full spectrum, the full rainbow, sadness and joy, there is a quality of reverence in that experience, and it also becomes a potential for play. It is very simple. It is the practice of coming home, being touched and touching. In my performances I don’t work with things completely set, there are just little landmarks, and between them I connect with the audience. The audience is creating the performance with me. We are engaging and sharing a creative moment together, and it’s a mystery. And if we can hold that mystery, then we have true magic. The interaction of opening the space and holding it together, the not-knowing, is really a beautiful interconnection.

Barbara: I’ve been touched, by you allowing yourself to be touched.

Didier: Yes! Right. To not know, and hold it there. You know, hold it right now, just here — I don’t know what I am going to tell you, I’ve lost the track of it.

Barbara: [laughs]

Didier: Just enjoy it!

Barbara: Right!

Didier: You know, if I can just enjoy it, it’s okay.

Barbara: Right, right. It’s interesting how much discomfort there is, in that moment, for most of us.

Didier: Exactly. In that moment, I’ve lost the track. I can panic. Or I can enjoy it. Then we stay together and just trust each other. If you are on stage, with an audience before you, and you fill up the gap, then at that moment you are truly lost. If you are lost, you have also lost your audience. You have lost the inter-dependence. So it’s very important to not panic, but rather to rest there, and not judge the experience.

Instead of performing, we learn to be in the moment, and when nothing is there, just breathe! As soon as you have this attitude as the ground, you are never lost. You are always free, and you are always in total connection with your surrounding and the people present.

[plane flies overhead, making a lot of noise.]

I just lost what I was saying then, and I felt, okay, just felt it, [exhaling long], and I didn’t lose you. But in that moment, it would be easy to fill up the gap with doing.

Barbara: Right.

Didier: This is where we lose track.

Barbara:And especially, if you had kept going with what you were saying, ignoring that sound, you would have lost me, because it’s all happening right there, and we were in it together.

Didier: Yes.

Barbara: – and we need to be authentic with it.

Didier: Exactly.

Barbara: I’m going to try that. When I lose my train of thought, instead of trying to get it back, I’m going to enjoy that moment, that place.

Didier: Creativity is never lost then, because with this attitude, we will be touched, if we remember to trust.

Barbara: Sometimes losing your train of thought is a very good thing, because it takes you back into your store consciousness. And when you feel that the ground underneath you drops away, what you feel is where you really are—you’re coming from a much more authentic place then, a place in the moment.

Didier: Yes, exactly. It is a very important key. And often with art, we are frightened to become, to do, art. We are frightened to dance, especially in the West, everybody is more or less terrified to express themselves. At school, you’re asked to do a drawing, you have half an hour, and you try to do it right, yeah? You have never been told how to touch the magic. I never learned those things at school. I learned the opposite. I was beaten up at school.

Barbara:You just learned how to be judged.

Didier: Exactly. And also to judge myself. So one of the basic things to re-learn is to trust, and in doing nothing, we can let ourselves be touched. To touch the magic is entering that space of letting ourselves be an instrument. This is where art is born, I think true art. And if we can share some of our feelings in this way, in a park, in the middle of nowhere, this is very important. In the middle of a British railway station, there are three clowns, expressing just that. And very quickly, you have many people who stop, because they have been waiting for something to stop them for a long time. The clowns do slow motion mime, and it’s very beautiful to watch, because it’s not a movement from an idea. It’s a movement coming from being very present. It can touch deeply.

I’ve been very involved with teachings from the East. And now I am feeling and exploring where our roots are for mindfulness in the West. Where is it hidden, that understanding of being in the present moment? The archetype of the Fool is a very important Western archetype. Jesus was a Fool. There is so much of that Fool quality in his teachings. Many times here in Plum Village, when we are eating together in mindfulness, I feel that I’m eating with Jesus. It comes not as a thought, it comes like a feeling or a memory. To touch some essence of the Fool is very important. The clown is born from that. The role of the Fool in spirit as an archetype is extremely important, in resurrecting simplicity and joy, the pleasure of being in the moment, touching life, all of nature, in a very simple way.

Barbara: I was a fairly happy child and fairly happy adult, and then at a certain point I started feeling like I lost my playfulness, that a lot of my life was spent doing things I didn’t want to do, and I wasn’t very happy. I wasn’t seriously unhappy, it was just that a lot of what I was doing was not really play, not really fun. And I started looking at that. Where did that happen? Whydidthathappen? AndIfeelthattodayyouhaveledmeback into exploring play and being in a group, a Sangha, that plays together. And I think that the Fool is the one who has the ability to stop everything and play. That’s so needed because we have this idea that when we grow up, things have to be hard, and we have to work all the time, and we have to let go of childish things, and so we lose ourselves.

Didier: Yeah! We lose the sense of play.

Barbara:Yeah! And we lose our heart, we lose ourjoy. And it’s very sad when there are children who have lost that.

Didier: It’s very sad. It’s a big concern I have about play and children, and what is happening to them. I mean, what we are doing? We are taking away all drama in school, all physical education, and in England, they are selling playgrounds because they want the space to build buildings. This is absolutely mad. And the computer world has taken over the children’s world. They play not with people, they play with machines and in the computer games they learn to kill each other. This is very serious, if we realize that play is the beginning of spiritual understanding, the root is starting there when a child plays with another, in trust and not knowing.

Play, to my mind, is bigger than the individual. It is taking us on a journey of creativity. It is the first step in a perception of something beyond my individual self. And we learn to respond to emotions, to each other as we play. If we don’t let the children play in this way, what are we going to have in fifteen years? This is very serious. I have put together a questionnaire for school teachers to express what they feel is happening with our children, because the curriculum has become entirely academic.

We must become aware of the importance of play for the sake of the children. This is really the focus I have now for the work, to really bring awareness to the importance of play, as the birthplace for spiritual understanding.

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Didier Danthois first trained in clowning and circus skills twenty years ago at the Fratellini Circus School in Paris. He studied Expressive Dance, and performed with Amici Dance Theatre Dance Company for five years. He is also a certified Biodynamic Psychotherapist and group facilitator. He trained in clowning with Lex Van Someren. Didier has been inspired by the teachings of the Buddha for the last ten years, first through his root teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, and then by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He works towards creating an art which celebrates the beauty of authenticity, compassion and the interdependence of all things, and all people. Didier is the founder of Fool at Heart, School of Sacred Clowning, and teaches, performs and directs in England and abroad. He is presently involved in establishing ‘ClownCare & Co.’, an organization bringing Sacred Clowning into healthcare settings.

For future events, contact Didier at 32 Rosemary Avenue, London N3 2QN England  Tel: 020 8343 0255 E-mail: ScSacredClowning@aol.com

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is a managing editor for the Mindfulness Bell.

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Dharma Talk: Knowing We Have Enough

A Dharma Talk by Sister Annabel
At Maple Forest Monastery, June 25, 2002
Photography by Jan Mieszczanek

This is enough, I know it well.
This is enough, I don’t need more.
The call of the bird
In the bleak gray sky
Is the bright pink rose in a sea of green.
This is enough.
I thought I needed more
But now I know I am so rich.
My teacher, my Sangha,
Are precious jewels.
Every moment a gem, alive or dead.
Health and sickness are precious gifts,
Doors of the practice for all to learn.
The great living beings are always there
To guard and to guide and bring us home.
You are enough, you know it well.
No need to do more, just come back home!
All that you want is already there,
Breathe and take a step to see your home!

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Dear Sangha, today is the 25th of June in the year 2002, and we are in the Buddha Hall of the Maple Forest Monastery.

This morning I tried to find a new way to walk up to the Buddha Hall from where I was sleeping, and I lost myself in the heart of the forest! I was thinking, that I should not arrive in time for the sitting meditation that morning and maybe not even for the Dharma talk! I would go a certain distance and then I would have to turn back because the path was blocked by many wild rasp-berry brambles. Suddenly, my mind became very still. I did not know why, it just happened like that. I looked  up,  and  I  saw  the  Buddha Hall. I was just below it. That experience showed me that I often think that what is going on in my mind is disconnected from what is happening in the world. I perceive something outside of my mind. But now I see that the Buddha Hall is also in my mind, and the Buddha Hall symbolizes quiet and peace. When my mind is quiet and peaceful, then the Buddha Hall manifests itself. The hall was so beautiful with the white roof against the blue sky and the sun shining on it through the trees.

Dear Sangha, the practice of tri tuc in Vietnamese, means knowing we have enough. This has become a Buddhist practice, but in fact it was taught by Confucius. Confucius said that the important thing is to know that we have enough. The expression used by Confucius has the Chinese word tri meaning to know, to have understanding, or wisdom. Knowing when we have enough is wisdom. As long as we think that we do not have enough, we shall not have enough. When we know that we have enough, we have enough.

As a Buddhist practitioner, whether monk, nun, layman, or laywoman, knowing enough is an important part of the practice. In the Christian tradition when people take what is called the vow of poverty, it also means knowing enough. This practice belongs at least to Confucianism and Christianity as well as to Buddhism. It is a practice that our world needs very much at this moment.

Knowing enough is not just knowing enough materially – which is very important – but knowing enough spiritually and emotionally, too. Knowing that we have enough materially is based on knowing that we have enough emotionally and spiritually. Often it is an emotional need which craves more material things. Our craving comes from the feeling of insecurity rather than from a material need. That is why we have to practice mindfulness of our emotions in order to reach the root of our desire for material things. I wrote a very simple song about knowing enough. (see above)

When I feel discontent I need to look deeply at my discontent in my daily life. To do this I practice sitting still. As I sit still I begin to feel satisfied with the richness of my life. It is a very gray day with no sunshine, and I could think that the gray sky is not enough, and I need to have the sunshine. I hear the bird call through the sky, and I see that the gray sky is quite enough. The gray sky holds the call of the bird. And although the sky is so gray, there’s a pink rose, it’s very bright, and the grass is very green. The gray sky shows up the pink rose and the green grass. So I feel grateful for the gray sky. Looking deeply I see that the blue sky is always behind the gray sky. So I say to myself, “Well, this is quite enough.”

My thinking in the past made me say, “I need more.” But now I understand that I’m a very rich person already. I have an enlightened, awakened person to be my teacher, to show me the way. I have the Buddha, and all the ancestral teachers. I have my Sangha. It’s the most precious thing. One reason why my Sangha, my teacher, and my ancestral teachers are so precious is because they have taught me to be able to dwell in the present moment. The present moment becomes a most wonderful gem. Every moment is a gem.

The Treasures of Sickness and Death

I could think that when someone I love dies, I don’t have enough, because I have lost the person I love. But when I live deeply the present moment, I know that without death I cannot possibly be alive. When you walk through the forest, and see the dead leaves making room for the green leaves, it is so clear. In Australia, in forests of a special kind of eucalyptus, the seeds will only open and the new trees will grow when they are subjected to intense heat. So the forest fire makes the new forest possible. Without death there cannot be life, for death is something very precious. Death is a precious gem.

In my Buddhist meditation I have learned to look deeply into my fear of death, sickness, and old age. When I say that health and sickness are precious gifts, it’s because so many people who have come to me and have been sick have told me that it is the most precious thing that has happened to them. When we stand on the outside and we look in, without the experience of the people who tell us that, we say, “How can they say that ill-health is the most precious thing?” But that is what people have said to me. When I have been sick I have always been happy to be well again. Having been sick is an opportunity for me to appreciate good health and a wonderful opportunity to begin anew my life anew.

In the past people said that children have to be sick with measles, mumps, chicken pox, to develop an immunity to these diseases and not contract them when they were older when it would be much more serious. Today scientists have developed vaccines so that it is not necessary to go through the sickness in order to be immunized. Since scientists have seen the suffering they have compassion and do not want it to continue any longer. Without suffering there cannot be compassion and without compassion there cannot be happiness. When we know how to practice when we’re sick, then sickness can become a very precious gift. Although the experience brings us painful feelings we learn so much about ourselves and the great beings are always there to guard and to guide and to bring us home.

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Faith in the Great Beings

I have faith that there are always great beings, the bodhisattvas, and I have that faith partly because I’ve recognized that in myself and all members of my sangha there’s a bodhisattva.  The doctors in Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, are bodhisattvas. They do not confine themselves to helping people in their own country, but go to the countries where there’s the least medical supply, the least favorable circumstances for curing disease. There are also teachers without frontiers. Somewhere in the world there are always great beings who can show me how to love and understand. In myself there is also that great being, although it has not yet flowered fully.

You Are Enough

You are enough, you know it well! We think that we are not enough yet. We have to be something better. We have to go somewhere, do something in order to be enough. We don’t think we are enough just as we are. Not only do we have to know that this is enough, we have to know that I am enough, or you are enough. That is also a kind of wisdom.

In Buddhism one of the doors of liberation is called wishlessness or aimlessness. It means I know that I’m enough. We have the tendency to think, “If I could do more I would be enough, I would be better. I have to be doing more all the time!” But no, we have to say that I am enough already. You don’t need to do in order to be enough. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do, right now. We’ve been taught, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But our teacher in Plum Village says, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Our teacher has also told us how to look deeply into what is called our habit energy. My habit energy wants me to do something, to do more. He asks us to look where that habit comes from. It partly comes from what we have been taught and it is also handed down to us from our ancestors in our consciousness.

Transforming Our Habit Energy

In Buddhism we say we do not only receive our body from our ancestors, we also receive our consciousness, because our body and our consciousness interare. Our consciousness is part of our body and our body is part of our consciousness. We inherit so much more than our bodies from our ancestors. We inherit habit energy and consciousness. Maybe our habit energy to do something comes from a time when our ancestors needed to work very hard. If I imagine that I have come from Europe to New England, and I was one of the first settlers, I would probably have to work very hard in order to be able to have enough to survive. I have to plant this, I have to store this, I have to prepare this, in order to have enough for the winter. So taking care of the future in order to survive would become a very important internal formation with me. In times of suffering and stress, we create internal formations, knots in our consciousness, which we can hand on to future generations if we don’t know how to untie those knots.

Here is an example. Plum Village is our practice center in France. Every year there is a retreat that lasts for a month. Many, many families come and practice together, children and parents. We teach the children, “When you’re angry, don’t say anything, don’t do anything. Just breathe deeply, because if you say or do something you may regret it afterwards.” Some of the children, especially those who have come every year, learn how to do that. When they feel anger come up in them they can close their eyes and breathe deeply. Closing the eyes is an important point, because as long as you look at the person who is making you angry, it waters the seed of your anger. So you close your eyes, close your ears, close everything, close your thinking, just breathe.

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In one family, the young boy had many difficulties with his father. This difficulty probably arose because his father came from a different culture than the culture the boy had been brought up in. His father had the tendency to be angry whenever the boy fell down and hurt himself. The son would say, “ I can understand my father being angry if I do something wrong, but I can’t understand my father being angry when I have done nothing wrong.” He thought that a good father would take pity on him and help him when he fell down. So he had a strong internal formation about his father.

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One day at the retreat the boy was with his younger sister. She was playing in the hammock with another little girl and the hammock tipped and they fell out. When his little sister hit the ground she cut her head and it was bleeding. The brother was standing nearby and he saw all this, and he felt very angry. He wanted to shout at her, “How stupid! Aren’t you big enough to know better?” But fortunately, he had learned to shut his eyes when he was angry. He breathed, and he walked away from the scene. He thought the best thing he could do was move away from the scene while other people took care of his little sister.

He walked into the forest slowly, he looked into his situation to realize the truth of what was happening, and he saw that this anger was his father’s anger. He didn’t want to be angry, but he was angry because he had inherited that habit energy. He then realized that the reason his father was angry with him when he fell down was because his grandmother or grandfather used to be angry with his father when his father fell and hurt himself. No one in the family had yet managed to transform this habit energy. The young boy saw that if he was not careful, when he had his own children, he would be the same, and after him his children would continue to be the same. If he could transform this habit energy in himself he would not have to hand it on to his own children. He also wanted to talk to his father about the understanding he had come to that day. When he was able to talk to his father he was able to become his father’s friend.

With mindfulness practice we can undo the knots we receive from our ancestors.   When we undo those knots we do it not only for our self, but we do it for our ancestors, because our ancestors are still alive in us, and we are their continuation. It is a simple, and essential part of our practice.

There’s no need to do any more in order to be enough. We can undo the knots of always having to be doing something. We practice for our ancestors, but we also do it for our descendants, for our children and our grandchildren. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do.

When we can be with nature, we realize how precious it is, and we automatically take good care of our environment, preserving nature. Every morning before breakfast in the Green Mountain Dharma Center Sister Susan sits outside contemplating the mountainous scenery. It does not matter what the weather is like; rain, snow and wind may come but she is still there. For her that is a time of being. She is there for the mountains and the mountains are there for her. Someone who is as close to nature as that will never take thoughtless measures which will harm the environment. Our ancestors, who had more time to be, did not behave thoughtlessly towards the environment. When we are too busy to be with nature we do not recognize how precious it is, and therefore we are not in a position to preserve the ecology of our planet earth.

Where is My Home?

You don’t need to do any more. Just come back home. A Plum Village motto is, “I have arrived, I am home.” You might like to ask, “Where is my home?”

One time the Brahmins in India came to the Buddha and they said, “In our religion we aspire to live with the Brahma, the creator-god. Can you teach us how to do that?”

So the Buddha asked them a question. He said, “What are the qualities of Brahma?”

They answered, “The qualities of Brahma are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.”

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The Buddha told them, “If Brahma is practicing loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, and you want to live with Brahma, you will have to do the same. When you practice loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity you will already be living with Brahma.” These four qualities are called the Brahmaviharas the abodes of Brahma, and that is the address of Brahma.

The Buddha also has the qualities of compassion, love, joy and equanimity. The address of Brahma is also the address of the Buddha. In a place where these qualities abound we feel completely secure and our true home is where we feel secure. To help us develop love and joy we have to practice mindfulness. To practice mindfulness is to be able to live the present moment with deep awareness.

The Greatest Security

We have a deep insecurity. It makes us feel that we are not at home here and now, that here and now is not safe. We have to invest in the future. We have to safeguard to make sure that the future is okay, and then we’ll be secure. We sacrifice here and now for security in the future. If we look deeply at the world as it is, is there really any security? Can we guarantee our security for the future? Can anyone guarantee that security? If we look deeply we see they can’t. Do you know anybody who doesn’t die? We tell ourselves maybe, “Oh, I won’t ever die!” Do you know anyone who’s never, ever been sick? I think it would be difficult to find that person. Is there anybody who doesn’t day by day get a little bit older? All these things hap-

pen. They are the truth. They are the reality. We have to accept that.

With mindfulness we recognize that, “All that I cherish, everyone I love, is of the nature to change, and we cannot avoid being separated from each other.” That’s true. Nothing is secure. We know we have to be separated from our loved ones, and when we meditate deeply like that, it has a very positive effect. It is not negative at all. The positive effect is that we see that our loved ones will not be always be here, and so we love them even more.  We do our best for them today because we know that tomorrow may be too late.

When we practice the meditation on loving kindness we aspire first of all, “May I be happy, peaceful and light in my body and my spirit. Then we meditate: “May the one I love live in safety and security.” Finally we aspire: “May the one who has made me suffer be happy, peaceful and light in body and in spirit. We wish for all beings that they live in safety and security, because we know that is our deepest desire. We see clearly that if it is my deepest desire to be safe and secure, it must be the desire of other beings. Even of the tiny little ant.

The other day an ant crawled onto my toothbrush. I was not very happy with that ant. I wanted to clean my teeth, but there was an ant caught up in the bristles of my toothbrush! Probably there was something sweet in the toothbrush. So I banged my toothbrush rather hard to knock the ant out, and the ant fell out of the toothbrush and was quite dizzy. The ant went around and around in circles as if it was dizzy. I looked at that ant and I suddenly remembered that that morning when I woke up I had said a little poem to myself, and that poem had gone something like,

Morning, noon, and night,
all you little insects,
Please look out for yourselves.
If by chance
I happen to step on you by mistake
May you be reborn
in a pure land of great happiness.

I suddenly thought, I said that poem this morning and what did I do here? Knocked the ant till it became dizzy! I looked at the ant and I breathed on it, saying the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and the ant said to me, “Did I really deserve to get a knock on the head like that, for crawling onto your toothbrush?” When I heard the ant say that, I had to say, “Of course you didn’t deserve it at all.” It’s very clear that even the little ants want to have safety and security. So I make a deep wish, “May all beings be in safety and security.”

The chant on happiness goes, “Although there is birth, old age and sickness, now that I have a path of practice, I have nothing to be afraid of.” The greatest security is the practice of mindfulness. I am secure because I know what I am doing, so that I’m less likely to have accidents. But accidents can always happen, even if I know what I am doing. That is part of my karma, part of the fruition of my actions, that things will not always go right. But, since I have the practice, even when things go wrong I have a kind of security. That is the security that I wish for all beings to have.

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Enjoying Conscious Breathing

That is my home, the practice of mindfulness, to be in the here and the now. If I can enjoy my breathing, I am in my true home, my Brahmavihara, my Buddhavihara. Why do I practice conscious breathing? Is it because the teacher says I have to? Is it because the Buddha says people have to practice conscious breathing? Is that why I practice it? Or do I practice my conscious breathing because I enjoy it? I feel that conscious breathing is to be enjoyed.

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One time when some of the monks were not practicing correctly, the disciple Ananda said to the Buddha, “They practice the wrong path that has brought them much suffering and brought the Sangha much suffering.” The Buddha said, “Ananda, did no one tell them how to enjoy their breathing?” Because the Buddha had so many disciples, he could not be with them all.  It was up to the eldest students like Ananda to show the younger students how to enjoy their breathing.

When we enjoy our breathing we do not expect a result in the future, because we already have the result right now. It is the same with our mindful steps; stepping into the present moment we have the result right now. We enjoy it right now. All that you want is already there. Breathe, and take a step, to see that you’re home.

This is enough. We see everyone we love, and everything we cherish as very precious, because we know that it will not always be there. As far as relative time and space are concerned they will not always be there. With conscious breathing we look even deeper and we recognize our loved ones in new forms. They just change their appearance, like the water. You may say, “Oh, my dear cloud, you’ve gone,” but in fact the cloud is still there in the rain. You go to the lake in the early morning when the sun begins to rise, you see the mists are evaporating from the surface of the lake, and that is yesterday’s rain going back to be today’s cloud again. No increase and no decrease is the teaching of the Prajnaparamita and that is why what we have is enough.

Sister True Virtue (Sister Annabel) is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Jan Mieszczanek practices photography in her homeland of Poland. She says, “I met Thay one lazy, warm and sunny day. I was sitting in my garden and I was reading Peace is every step. That was a five years ago. Today I take a lot from Buddhism. I try to help the people around me, including myself, my two daughters, and my grandson to find happiness.”

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Drinking Tea

Savitri  Tsering

There are times in my day that my actions are like ritual moments that help me remember to come back to the present moment. Some of those critical times are when I ride my bike to and from work, when I go for a walk at lunchtime and, most important to me, the time in the morning when I sit and drink tea with my partner, Tsering.

At our house we serve Indian sweet tea – now well known throughout the world as chai. Drinking chai became a habit of ours prior to our meeting. Tsering grew up in India and he has done this since childhood.

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And I have had chai drinking come in and out of my life since my first trip to India in 1984. Most anyone you meet who has traveled a while in India will tell you of significant moments they have spent over a hot cup of chai. Most likely they were sitting inside a shop which resembled a large hole in the wall, sitting with locals, breathing in the steam and holding the hot cup as though for a moment one held in their hands the nectar of the gods.

When Tsering and I get ready to go to work in the morning, making the tea is an integral part of our preparation to leave the house. When I come to my cup of chai, often I am behind schedule and need to head off to work shortly after. Our time drinking together is very important to both of us. If one of us has the day off we still get up to drink tea together before the other has to leave. Sometimes when I have to leave very early in the morning to go to a meeting in Milwaukee, I will make the tea and then go up to our bed and sit and drink it while Tsering sleeps.

When the tea is ready, one of us brings it to the table – the location of where we sit varies with the season. And for some time the tea sits. Steaming hot, cooling and letting us know the moment to drink is coming soon. When I am able to take the tea in my hand, there is a shift in my consciousness. I become more present. I become more aligned.

I feel the treasured jewel of life and the present moment in my hand. I feel the warm cup and the heat of the hot liquid enter into my body through my hands. This warmth spreads and touches my whole being, bringing me in contact with the joy and realization that I am here again, another day. Lucky to have the chance to sit and drink tea, lucky to have this moment of quiet and rest before I head out into the world.

The knowledge of impermanence sits with me too, holding this warm cup. I become aware that time passes, that my dear Tsering sitting next to me won’t always be here as he is today. That thought makes me pause and look at him with the great love I have for him and appreciate the fact that for this moment, this day, he is here and I can touch that.

I know, holding the cup in my hand, that I cannot stop the pace of time – soon the cup will be empty and I will need to go.

That this moment, even though it is treasured, cannot be clung to and that circumstances in the future may prevent me from being able to enjoy this pleasure in the future.

In this cup, I can find the whole universe. The cup of tea puts me in contact with the world – tea plantations far away, spices grown in other countries, milk from cows in Wisconsin.

In the cup I hold are the friends and family I have shared  cups of tea with before; in the cup I hold are friends I have drunk tea with that have moved or passed away; in this cup there is sunshine, blue sky and earth.

When I drink the tea, I can know that I am not alone. Most times I am with my partner and that is dear to me. But there are countless people from countries all around the world drinking tea too, finding a moment to sit and drink. There are countless others coming in contact with a hot cup of warmth that soothes something deep inside of them, something that needs comfort and warmth, something that provides them with nurturing during a difficult moment or during a quiet time.

This tea drinking is so important to Tsering and me that when we travel to visit family, we take what we need to make our tea. We have purchased tea for other family members so they can drink it too. We have created a recipe so that it can be repeated in the same manner that we do each morning. When we traveled to Spain our tea and cups came with us. When we go camping our tea and cups join us. Perhaps it is symbolic of our intention to bring ourselves fully into our lives. I am not sure. It could just be a warm and cozy habit.

As I sip the tea, I feel the joining of my mind and body. I am here with the tea. The tea and I inter-are. The tea, Tsering and I inter-are. Our lives and the lives of others in that moment interare. We are touching the miracle of life in that moment.

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We talk about our day ahead. We talk of friends and family. We talk of hopes and dreams. We sip our tea. We feel the warmth. We hold the present in our hands. We sit in silence. We sit with the slurping noise. The sound of blowing, cooling the hot liquid and the sip, sip, sip. We note the color of the leaves outside, the squirrel running up the tree.

When the cup is empty I feel satisfied and ready. I feel grateful and full. I have appreciated this encounter and can move into the next moment with peace and satisfaction. I vow not to leave myself behind. Body, mind and spirit are one, moving into my day.

Savitri Tsering shares, “I have been part of SnowFlower Sangha in Madison Wisconsin since its beginning. I work in the area of public health.  I greatly appreciate the deep feeling of connection and community that Sangha gives to our lives.”

Two Recipes for Chai

Savitri’s Chai:

We use tea that is available at most Indian food stores. Buy Brooks Red Label tea and Lipton’s Green Label tea. Mix together in 1 to 1 proportion. For the spices, we usually use cardamom but you can use also use ginger, cinnamon sticks or ground cloves, in any combination.

For 3 cups of chai:

5 green cardamom pods 1 1/3 cups of water,
teaspoons tea mixture<
green cardamom pods (ground with a mortar and pestle) Boil the tea and Add 1 2/3 cups of milk (at least 2% milk, for a real delight use whole milk organic milk is best).

Bring to a boil again. In Indian chai stalls they let it come to a boil, lower the heat, boil again three times.

Add sugar to taste. And drink with joy!

Helena’s Chai:

2 cups water
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon black tea
1/2 teaspoon descoriated cardomon seeds, or 10 green with skin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper corns 1 thin slice ginger root
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
optional: pinch garam masala, or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Add spices to the water in saucepan over a moderate heat until it comes to a boil. Allow this to slowly boil for about 5 minutes. Add the milk to the saucepan and bring back to a slow boil. When mixture begins to boil, lower the heat and allow it to simmer for a few minutes to reduce the volume by 1/3 and condense the milk. Remove from the heat and add the tea, let this steep 3-4 minutes and strain. Sweeten to taste.

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