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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Education for the Present

Transforming a University Class with Mindfulness

Jana  Brooks,  Michelle  Leduc, Angeline  Timmerman

We, the students of Honors course 407, Exploring the Art of Mindful Living, included a football player, biologists, a newlywed, future teachers, a skeptic, a shaman, a comedian, Christians, a cancer survivor, mothers, a vegetarian, a future physician and a ballet dancer. To our surprise, as class began desks gave way to meditation cushions, shoes were given a rest from their owner’s harried strides, and an array of bells beckoned discussions rather than the voice of a professor demanding attention. Term papers were assigned with a twist: each student was to incorporate how mindfulness applied to his or her area of study. The usual PowerPoint presentations and scantrons were abandoned in favor of practicing mindful eating, tea ceremonies, guided meditations, and depicting the concept of interbeing through art. The traditional architecture of the classroom was abolished as we spilled out onto the lawn to practice walking meditation. As our class wound through the yard, our soft footprints became the trails of our transformation.

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Through mindfulness we have begun to learn that we can change harmful emotions such as anger and frustration into positive energies. With the awareness that we possess these feelings, we can embrace them and know that emotions do not possess us. We can choose not to water harmful seeds and instead water the seeds that are positive and compassionate. Recognizing we can choose to do the work to transform our negative feelings, we have also become aware that while we were suffering, we failed to enjoy the pleasures life offers at this very moment.

Realizing that happiness exists in the present moment, our definition of “time” began to take a new form: “time” is simply moments that come and go, but it is what we chose to do with these moments that count. For example, one of the mothers in our class said: “I have two children, ages eleven and two, and through this practice I have realized that my children teach me about being in the moment. When walking to get the mail with my children, they both walk with a meditative stride, studying all that there is to see under their feet. Without their slow pace beside me, I would not have taken the time to stop, breathe, and notice that moss has begun to grow under the red leaves that have fallen from the trees.” One classmate pointed out, “By watering positive seeds in young minds, children will learn to think positively, and those seeds cannot be over-watered in today’s society.” Making the most of the moments that come and go in our lives, we discover the pleasures that exist in the here and the now.

The textbook for the class, Essential Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, introduced us to the concept of “historical dimension” and “ultimate dimension.” We learned that the historical dimension contains our daily stressors: course load, work schedule, and family commitments. By learning to deeply touch our stressors in the present moment, we became aware of the possibility of touching the ultimate dimension.  The awareness of liberation that came with this understanding was one of most meaningful lessons we took from the class.

The pre-med student in our class said, “My mindful practices of breathing, eating and walking have been my remedies for stressful days. It wasn’t until I began to look deeply that I realized these methods are a means of stress prevention.” When students learn that success in life is not about where they are going, it is about how they are getting there, it is the experiences that we have along the way that become important. With the study of the historical and ultimate dimensions, we have begun to realize that by living fully and deeply in the historical, one is able to make contact with the ultimate dimension.

Challenging the typical course offerings that provide students with an education solely for the future, our professor has focused on education for the present. He has given us the opportunity to be heard, exuded the quality of compassion, and shared the concepts every college student needs in order to enjoy the path of life, not the destination.

Enrolling in a Mindfulness course provides an opportunity to find community or as we now call some of ourselves, “Sangha Sisters.” A foundation of intimacy needed for building relationships can quickly be developed when students come to realize that by listening to each other instead of merely the professor, they are able to bond in ways that are not typical in a university setting. Students truly realize the nature of “interbeing” and recognize that their choices and behaviors affect the entire community. Our search for happiness and success that was previously satisfied by achieving an end, has been transformed by the recognition that “happiness is in the here and now.” At the start of the term, our professor led a group of individuals down a single path guided by mindfulness. Now that the term has ended, our single path has diverged into many. What began as a random group of students transformed into an interconnected community unified through the Art of Mindful Living. We breathe, realizing that this is a wonderful moment!

The Art of Mindful Living was an experimental course developed specifically for the Honors Program at Western Oregon University, where Dharma teacher Jerry Braza is a professor of Health Education. Twenty students from various disciplines attended the class, which met twice a week for ten weeks. The course will now be offered regularly within the Health Education curriculum.

The course’s theme was the integration of mindfulness into daily life. Each session began with sitting practice, followed by exploration of such practices as walking, eating, and tea meditation. Students read and shared insights from the book, Essential Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, discussing how mindfulness can be applied to education, sports, medicine, and psychology. A journal assignment required students to reflect on how their “moment by moment” actions impacted themselves, family, friends, and the planet. For additional information on mindfulness and a copy of the course outline see: http://www.wou.edu/mindful

Jana Brooks, Michelle Leduc, and Angeline Timmerman are students at Western Oregon University where they recently completed an Honor’s Course on Mindfulness taught by Jerry Braza, Professor of Health Education at Western Oregon University. Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is also an Order of Interbeing member and Dharma teacher.

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A Winter Peacewalk

Judith Toy

It is the third Sunday in December. As usual, wearing white, I am the first person to arrive at an empty Pack Square in the city of Asheville, North Carolina, while Philip parks the car.

I slowly circumambulate the rounded brick walk below the obelisk of Vance Monument, keeping company with actual-size hog and turkey statues commemorating Asheville’s farming origins. In our new age, the critters are bronze. I begin the process of deep quieting soften the belly, regulate the breath. Notice the brisk wind. I should have dressed more warmly.

Two men and two women cluster across the street in front of the noodle shop—talking with lively gestures the younger couple draped in stark white, head to foot. Will they walk with us? The girl is young and ebullient and spreads her white shawl’s wings like a great peace bird floating about the other three.

Having landed a parking space, Philip arrives looking like a hatted ice cream man, with creamy muffler flowing over his shoulder. Here comes the peace bird and her flock across the street toward us.  Are you walking with us?  Yes, yes.

We introduce ourselves and chat a bit, find these four are from Hickory, a city fifty miles east. And here arrives a lithe Buddhist woman, properly hatted and gloved, from  the Anatasatti Magga Sangha! We begin our slow walk with no signs, no banners. Just follow our breath.

From the corner of my eye, I see two more Buddhists, handsome young men from the Shambala Group, catching up, bringing up the rear. We walk as one body. We are Buddha’s monks without bowls in the ancient Indian city of Maggada. Nine of us. Slow. With dignity. Into the crowd.

I notice the eyes of passersby and imagine what they’re thinking. “Oh my God, those people are weird. I can’t look. Oh no, they’re coming this way. Think I’ll duck into this store and let them pass. Aah, drug burnouts. What a beautiful smile on that one,” and so on.

I hope we don’t frighten folks. A curly headed child is throwing a screaming fit on the far corner. A woman with a red hat and red lips, coming our way, questions us with her eyes. Philip offers her one of our handouts. She takes it and smiles. A storekeeper leaves her shop to place her palms together and bow. We bow back. Two mothers, heads down, children firmly in tow, pass by mutely and quickly, facing away from us. They seem to be stomping. This is when I notice that our own footsteps are silent, like Cherokees in the Appalachian forest.

The curly headed child breaks away from her mother and runs, to stop and stand defiantly, curious, before us. I know she feels our calm and wants to drink it. With a look of apology, her mother whisks her away from the strangers.

Sky so blue. Deco buildings, red tile roof in sun. Philip and I keep step. It is good, this marriage, having this other self. We hold hands. This is our path. Sometimes we lead with both left feet. Sometimes his right and my left. We do not jay walk. At the side streets when the lights change, we feel ourselves wanting to fly across to the other side, but still we maintain our slow pace. A hundred perfect pigeons soar up over rooftops right before our eyes. Suddenly, the sky’s translucent.

In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment…wind bites, hands icy, gut serene. Noticing that I am empty, I am no longer empty.

Motorcycle with cute rider, rock music, passes. Lots of bundled shoppers. It’s Christmas. This moment is the meaning of everything Van Halen, shoppers and gawkers and walking for peace, spreading our peace, gifting ourselves, gifting the world with our pleasure in peace.

We spy our next door neighbor, Rose, leaving the Roman Catholic basilica.   Does she see us?   Does she not want to recognize us? Oh well. We walk gently on the sidewalks, murmur with our feet to the smothered earth below, kiss the mother. Now we enter the door of the warm dark basilica, its candle  wax and incense and faint Gregorian chants. We pass the huge heating vents, feel glad for this sanctuary from the wind. Still walking slowly, following breath, from left to right, we pass before Mary the Mother of God, the candle alcove, the shrine room, and Jesus Himself breathing in Jesus, breathing out Jesus and back to the bright outdoors, past the sacred shops, past the sacred shoppers, past the honking horns and lights and holiday sale signs and brave-hearted dogs on leashes. It is the same in the street as in the church, this harmony of body and mind.

Judith Toy, Chan An Mon, True Door of Peace, lives with her husband, Philip and practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, NC. She is working on a nonfiction book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.

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The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic

By Lynette Monteiro

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Understanding the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana evaded me despite thee tomes I read and the lectures I attended. Then in 1998, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and in the subsequent years struggled with fatigue, pain, and frustration. Refusing to be defeated by this illness, I intensified my meditation practice, changed my eating habits, and took on a regimented exercise program. Despite the positive physical changes, emotionally I remained exhausted and I felt no closer to knowing how to apply the practice of Buddhism to my situation.

The way out began over a coffee at Starbucks. A physician friend cornered me with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living (2) and asked if I would start a clinic to treat our mutual patients using mindfulness skills. I laughed. With barely enough energy to get from one day to the next, attempting this was out of the question. However, I knew that my meditative and doctrinal practice in Buddhism was the stabilizing force in coping with my disorder. Studying the sutras and having a disciplined meditation schedule gave me continual insights to the nature of my mind and its role in managing my illness. I could see the potential benefits and that it would be a way of reaching so many who were suffering. But start a clinic, especially when I seemed to struggle with core concepts? I thought it impossible until I attended a retreat with Chan Huy. He watered the seeds of comprehension for me with his presentation of the thirteenth step of the Anapanasati Sutra: On the Full Awareness of Breathing bringing to my attention three primary tenets of practice: Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.

Suddenly the clinic seemed possible. I became aware that what had been effective in managing my illness was not the physical schedules, the intellectual calisthenics, or the chase after experiences. What had helped me gain ease and composure in my suffering was living as best I could the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. I held no assumptions that any one moment would be the same as another. I was not my illness, I found joy and happiness where I could. Symptoms ebbed and flowed as did mind and its mental formations but I somehow stayed steady.

In May 2003, my partner and I began the Mindfulness Based Symptom Management program, an eight-week course in skilfull living modeled along the lines of the Canadian mindfulness-based program (3) at the Center for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada. The patients who registered were suffering from depression, anxiety, pain from severe physical traumas, and work-related stress. Some were afraid of relapse into depression when they returned to work. Over eight weeks, we planned to teach these patient-practitioners sitting and walking meditation, an understanding of the four foundations of mindfulness, the techniques in the awareness of breathing, and the use of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a guide to symptom management. They would be trained to examine their instincts to wrestle for control over their symptoms. This approach of no-action has been referred to as a paradigm shift from the medical model interventions that emphasize aggressive and often invasive interventions. The course aspirations and curriculum were daunting and ambitious, even more so because the canons of Buddhism had to be rendered into an acceptable secular form. However, we believed that anything less would not be powerful enough to transform their suffering.

We embarked on the program with an understanding that the facilitators and patients were equally practitioners. The tenets of the Five Mindfulness Trainings were listed and became a beacon when the work seemed tedious or not immediately relevant. The core of the course examined the body, emotions, sensations (mind), and thoughts (the most easily accessed and intellectually grasped object of mind) (4). In each class, we practiced the appropriate technique from the Anapanasati sutra (5). In the class dealing with emotions, we used the Theranamo and Bhadekkaratta sutras (Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone/An Auspicious Day (6)), as parables to encourage beneficial engagement with self, other, and the world. The glue that held the whole works together however was the primary tenets of practice– Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.

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Practicing continuously

Without mindfulness skills, we become stuck in the illusion that symptoms are static and permanent, and therefore doom us to eternal suffering. Viewing the situation as singularly determined also results in thinking there is one magical intervention if we could “just do it.” When mindfulness is practiced continuously, we can look deeply into our symptoms and observe as they change in frequency, intensity, and duration. This is the gift of impermanence. It makes us available for many more possibilities and therefore many more opportunities to intervene in a suitable manner. Observing our level of fatigue we can recognize, for example, when jogging is less suitable than walking.

Practicing continuously means bringing awareness to all aspects of the system. We notice not just the segments of behaviors but the dynamic ebb and flow of all behaviors. It permits adjustment of our strategies as we attune ourselves to the impermanent nature of our experiences. When we are engaged fully in this practice, there is no way to “just do it” because there is no “it.” Continuous attention reveals nuances of change that alert us so we can adjust our actions, speech, and thoughts appropriately. It informs us when an intervention is suitable and beneficial; it informs us accurately of the specific signs in our body, which then allows selection of the beneficial and suitable level.

In the Clinic, patient-practitioners learn to adjust their body, speech, and mind to the ebb and flow of the breath. Using the body scan meditation technique, we set up an internal model of “observation, not indoctrination.” (7) That is, we learn to bring our attention to a part of our body, suspending the need to engage in action. We start with the toes, which always gets a smattering of giggles! The giggles turn to awe when we observe how hard it is to bring attention to the toes without twitching them automatically in response. We observe automatic behaviors and notice when we tune out, turn off, drop out of our daily lives. In the first two classes, we befriend our breathing and allow it to teach us the inevitability of change and the simplicity of adjusting to it. Because we breathe continuously, practicing continuously is no longer as imposing or tedious a task as it might have seemed initially.

Being in the present moment

The gift of non-self is the ability to discern the true nature of our suffering. Symptoms inter-are. They arise, endure, and dissolve from a complex interaction of the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. Arising in any single platform, they are empty containing neither intrinsic meaning nor power. However, when we apply our assumptions about an independent self, separation from others and the world, energy is imparted to our symptoms powering them up to debilitating levels. Muscle pain now becomes a harbinger of days in discomfort, even loss of income from lost wages. A limitation in physical activity now means loss of connection with family and friends.

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Grounding ourselves in the moment, we develop the skills to discern the origins of our pain with clarity and confidence. We develop an awareness of the arising conditions that result in our pain, our depression, and our fears. We can locate physical pain in the body, observe the thinking that escalates the meaning of the pain. Like teasing out the threads of a knotted ball of twine, we begin to separate the true nature of the symptom from the pain generated by the story-telling about the symptom. In the next four classes, we become firmly established in the foundation of mindfulness that is appropriate: in the body if the pain is physical, in the emotions if the pain is psychological, etc.  Discernment among the foundations allows the interconnections with the other foundations to generate information, not escalation. As we learn to identify the energy that causes the pain, we can then take steps to find alternative sources of energy.

As patient-practitioners grasp these concepts, the defensive stance to illness changes. The belief that things have to be different from what they are in this moment dissolves. Each moment is just what it is, an occasion. The ghosts of the past lose their potency to enslave us and render us dysfunctional. The ghosts of the future cannot hold us hostage with anxiety, fear, and the threat of failed dreams. The power in our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world can only be realized in the present. At this point, a critical flaw in the organization of current psychotherapeutic interventions comes to the fore. Relapse is not something that we practice at some future date when our symptoms disappear. Every moment is an occasion to prevent relapse into previously unbeneficial behaviors, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts.

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Living in joy

Joy is the realization that suffering is impermanent. Sometimes joy is retroactive, arising only when the craving and clinging to what is not has abated. While experiencing an attack of vertigo, I tried desperately to convince myself that the spinning room was only a mental formation. I recited: Not real, not real, not real. My mind remained resolutely unimpressed with my rhetoric (an object of mind) and joy was not present until my inner ear (body) calmed itself. Like a symphony, timing is everything. To expect joy in the middle of a flare of symptoms is to lose sight of the moment as it is. It throws us back to the illusions and delusions we created to avoid the reality of our suffering.

When symptoms recur despite our greatest efforts, we are given the opportunity to practice looking deeply into our assumptions. The arising of a symptom we thought was well-managed can touch on feelings of being a failure, activate models of helplessness, or even cause us to give up our practice. Looking deeply, we often find we have derived predictive equations relating our efforts to improvement in some linear fashion. Feeling energetic today becomes a promise that tomorrow will offer the same joy. Thrown into the future, we lose the moment of joy in the here and now.

Observing the breath, staying grounded in the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts, patient-practitioners begin to experience the cessation of the craving to make things okay immediately. We recognize that symptoms dissolve and realize that awareness of impermanence enforces letting go. Symptoms become waves greeted, if not with ease, at least with composure and steadiness. With tools of mindfulness, we do know what to do. We acquire the secure knowledge that the symptoms are generated from the essence of who we are in the moment and dissipate as we alter our stance to them. In a single round of breathing in and out, we become evolving beings, intricately tied to self, others, and the world, and know comfort in that unity.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

Throughout the course, the Five Mindfulness Trainings are used to give the skills a firm grounding in ethics and to provide deeper purpose for the practice. Viewing ourselves as worthy of respect, examining ways in which we generate delusions, setting psychological and physical boundaries, addressing ourselves with gentleness, and nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner become the modus operandi of creating skillful lives. As we become confident and stable in our practice, we find ourselves applying these skills in our interactions with others and our environment. In fact, interaction with all aspects of our environment is where the rubber meets the road. However, because suffering renders us somewhat narcissistic, we begin with applying the five trainings to ourselves.

Each foundational lesson is framed in the context of the five trainings. Behaving with respect to our body allows physical self-abusive cycles to be examined and broken. For the patient-practitioners suffering physical trauma this becomes a key to enter the realm of joy and acceptance. Rather than pushing past limits, they begin to accept and respect the body as it is.

Being generous to our body results in resting when needed, treating ourselves to days of silence and enjoyment of treasured activities. Depression and physical degenerative disorders respond well to this training. Rejuvenation becomes the form of continuous practice and symptoms no longer need to flare for attention.

Not exploiting our bodies psychologically or physically permits the building of safety in interactions with others. The target of this training is the anxiety generated from abusive relationships or lack of trust because of abuse. Recognizing and reducing exposure to toxic situations or relationships increases a sense that we are reliable in our assessments and consistent in our responses.

Speaking with kindness when referring to our body changes the sometimes hate-filled inner dialogue that in turn maintains our suffering. Lack of confidence, feelings of helplessness or low self-worth can be transformed through this training.

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Altering the language alters the meaning we give to ourselves of who we are. As self-talk becomes supportive and honestly reflective of our situation, we develop trust and confidence that we can adjust to change.

Nourishing our bodies with beneficial foods and activities allows a sense of well-being. Being with persons who generate joy, feeling encouraged by others practicing healthy lifestyles, and exposing ourselves to a variety of perspectives break up the fixed patterns that signify most physical and psychological suffering. As we limit the input of common myths about being human, we begin to develop a stronger understanding of the reality of being just who we are.

The suffering arising from weak practice of mindfulness in the foundations of emotions, sensations, and objects of mind (in this case, thinking) respond equally well to this application. In fact, the remaining foundations are deeply contained in the foundation of the body and are interconnected profoundly with the body.

At the end of the eight weeks, we have all been irrevocably changed by our contact with each other. At the beginning of the course, the patient-practitioners were asked to list the things they wanted to change in themselves. Usually, the expectations revolved around “cure” or total cessation of physical and emotional symptoms. They want their suffering taken away when they enter7 treatment. Their perceptions of themselves as ones who suffer imply that the suffering means they are flawed and damaged by and because of their symptoms. So, at the start of the course, the craving is to be “normal” by which they mean “without suffering”. When asked if they have changed in ways they had listed eight weeks before, most patient-practitioners say it doesn’t matter anymore. Those expectations written fifty-six days ago are examined and deemed unrealistic, irrelevant, or—best of all—where there was no change, acceptable just as they are. Expectations transform into aspirations. Symptoms are now moments of education in developing skillful means. Self is now a product of an interaction of the four platforms with the moving moment and mindfulness is the mechanism to steady the interaction.

Continuity

Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana reveal themselves in each moment. By practicing continuously, we are able to stay grounded in each moment. Observing the breath, we move through the four foundations of body, emotions, mind, and objects of mind. Skillful means grow as we develop clear comprehension of what is beneficial and suitable action. Understanding the true nature of our illness grows further as we experience being firmly in our physical and psychological domain, cutting through the illusions of what it is not. All symptoms are nothing more than the waves in our ocean of being. In the moments that our practice is strong and stable, we can allow the symptoms of our illnesses to penetrate us as great teachers do and ultimately let them dissipate as waves in the ocean.

Lynette Monteiro, True Wonderful Fulfillment, practices with Sanghas in Ottawa and Montreal, Canada. She is a psychologist in private practice, and Director of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. She bows to teachers Chan Huy and True Body of Wisdom for inspiring the Clinic and assisting in the preparation of this article. Photography by Lynette Monteiro.

1 Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana are called the “Three Dharma Seals.” A teaching offered by the Buddha is considered to be authentic if it has these three characteristics. The awareness of impermanence helps us to see that all things are subject to change. Nothing in the universe is a fixed, unchanging entity. Secondly, the awareness of non-self shows us that all things are without a separate self; everything inter-is with everything else. Thirdly, all things have their ultimate nature, their nature of nirvana, meaning the extinction of all notions, ideas, and concepts concerning reality. For a more thorough explanation of the Three Dharma Seals see Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998).

2 Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living (Dell Publishing, 1990)

3 Segal, Z., M. Williams, & J. Teasdale, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Guilford Press, 2002)

4 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Berkeley: Parallax Press 1990) and the following texts were used by the facilitators to organize the course content

5 Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You are Alive: the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

6 Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

7 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing, p 134

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Murder as a Call to Love

By Judith Toy

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When I smoked cigarettes it was two packs, sometimes three, a day. My record for lit cigarettes simultaneously burning either in ashtrays or in my hand was four. Sometimes I chewed gum, too. Half cups of cold coffee were strewn about my office. I was skinny and nervous.

It was my habit to stay in constant motion. What bogey­man did I think would strike me if I stopped moving, watching television, listening to radio, eating, reading, writing, jogging, paying bills, talking on the phone? Maybe what was living inside of me following the trauma of the murders of three of my family was anger, even rage. I had no lack of confusion, doubt, greed, self-contempt, jealousy, and ego.

If I stopped, I would have to come face to face with my deeply inadequate self.

The murders of my sister-in-law Louise and my two teenage nephews, Dougie and Danny, brought me to my knees. It was October 15, 1990, and looking back, I see that for me and my family, it was the holocaust. Everything normal about our lives had been shattered; our shock and despair seemed too much to bear.

The DNA evidence proved that Louise, Dougie, and Danny’s lives had been cut short by the boy across the street. Eric was a friend of Dougie and Danny, and had ranked in the top two percent of his high school graduating class. Three weeks prior to grad­uation, Eric had dropped out of school and began prowling the neighborhood at night. A year later, he stabbed and bludgeoned my family to death.

Eric’s father was the only neighbor willing to be interviewed by the television reporters after the murders. He was like the movie character Rambo, telling reporters, “We’re going to get whoever did this; we have guns and dogs!” This air of retribution was carried out by a mob of people after Eric was arrested in Florida and extradited to Pennsylvania. When Eric was brought back in restraints in the middle of the night, a waiting crowd screamed, “kill him, kill him!”

Two months later, the trial ended with Eric’s confession. From the murder through the trial and confession, my family and I had lost so much hope, we felt like we were going through life wading under water.

Many months later I came face to face with a Soto Zen monk, Patricia Dai-En Bennage, who was to change my life in two im­portant ways: by teaching me how to stop and enjoy my breathing, and by introducing me to the teachings on mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. That was thirteen years ago.

The act of stopping took courage, because I came face to face with my deeply inadequate self. At first when I meditated, guilt and betrayal and rage floated to the surface. I learned that the only way out of my pain was to let it happen ––to go through it. And on the other side of the pain, I was welcomed into paradise through noticing my breath.

Forgiveness a Breath Away

The breath became the gateway to my heart. Because I have learned to stop, sometimes I have felt my heart as an orb of a moonflower on the garden arbor, opening to the sky. I listen to my heartbeat. I let my heart open like a bud, like a leaf unfurling.

I did not plan to forgive the boy who murdered my family. But after five years of stopping, enjoying my breathing, and re­laxing every day, I was able to look deeply and understand Eric. He was not a monster, but a boy who had temporarily become a beast when he murdered my family. When I forgave Eric, I felt such a surge of relief that I understood why Jesus said, “Before you enter the temple, forgive.”

Through this insight, I knew Eric was suffering intensely for his actions. And I began to understand that the seeds of violence in our society and in his family partly caused the murders. Eric was serving three consecutive life sentences in prison, with no chance of parole. I began to mentally place myself in his prison cell and hold him gently in my arms. I will never know if this helped him. One day he took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his cell. When I learned he was dead, I profoundly mourned his passing.

Gratefully, I turned to the refuge of the three jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Realizing that everything changes and that I will sooner or later lose those I love, I began to deeply appreciate the preciousness of each moment. I began washing the dishes as if each one were the baby Buddha, and looking deeply into the eyes of my grandchildren. I allowed my grief to be absorbed by the earth during walking meditation, and felt the earth give back to me, cool grasses soothing the soles of my sometimes weary feet.

During seated meditation, when emotions arise, I try to notice and stay with them. As a pain or an itch arises, instead of moving or scratching for relief, I try not giving in to the urge, but just notice the pain or the itch. How refreshing, not to move or scratch! One hot July evening while sitting, I felt a mosquito sink its proboscis into my scalp and feed. Welcome, my friend! I guess you deserve to live, too, I thought. There was never any swelling or itch from that bite.

The Voice of the Bell in Prison

My husband, Philip, and I take a bell to a medium security prison to share our practice with young inmates, some of whom had known Eric, the boy who murdered my family. The small bell with a beautiful sound is the centerpiece of our practice together. The noise of slamming metal doors and the prison public address system is the background even as we sit and walk in silence. Upon hearing the sound of the bell we breathe three times, returning to the moment. The men named themselves Fragrant Lotus Petal Sangha, a place of refuge.

Healing Both Families

I called and talked with Eric’s mother. We cried together over the four needless deaths in our two families. She said that in the thirteen years since the murders, mine was the first phone call regarding her son. She and her husband have been so shunned that they have become invisible to their family and neighbors and friends. She thanked me and asked God to bless me for making the call.

The first holy truth of the Buddha is that life constantly of­fers up suffering. Life offered me my deeply inadequate self for transformation. I no longer smoke cigarettes and pace the floors, afraid to stop. In fact, now that I’m walking mindfully on the path of joy, everything in the actual world— the rising sun, the sound of sirens, a crying child, the squealing of brakes, a Mozart sonata, even a war — reminds me to breathe, to breathe in a universe that while full of anguish, will always, always breathe with me.

mb39-Murder2Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, is co-founder of Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This story is excerpted from her forthcoming book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Home

March 28, 2004 – Colors of Compassion Retreat

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb37-dharma1On March 28th, at the end of the three-month winter retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha offered a three-day retreat called Colors of Compassion, for people of color. Three hundred retreatants gathered to practice mindfulness, listen to teachings, and share with one another the experiences of joy and suffering that come from being a person of color.  

This section begins with a powerful talk by Thay, given on the last day of the retreat. Following is a story of a courageous couple who escaped Vietnam as boat people, exemplifying Thay’s famous poem, Call Me By My True Names. Also included is an interview with Sister Chau Nghiem, the organizer and registrar of the Colors of Compassion retreat, and a selection of stories and poems of insight offered by retreatants. 

mb37-dharma2There are white people who live in the United States but still do not feel that they have a home here. They want to leave because they don’t feel comfortable with the economic, political, and military policies of this country. In Vietnam it’s the same. There are those who have Vietnamese nationality but who do not feel that Vietnam is their true home They do not feel loved or understood, and they do not feel that they have a future there, so they want to leave their country.

Who amongst us has a true home? Who feels comfortable in their country? After posing this question to the retreatants for contemplation, I responded. I said: “I have a home, and I feel very comfortable in my home.” Some people were surprised at my response, because they know that for the last thirty-eight years I have not been allowed to return to Vietnam to visit, to teach, or to meet my old friends and disciples. But although I have not been able to go back to Vietnam, I am not in pain, I do not suffer, because I have found my true home.

My true home is not in France where Plum Village practice center is located. My true home is not in the United States. My true home cannot be described in terms of geographic location or in terms of culture. It is too simplistic to say I am Vietnamese. In terms of nationality and culture, I can see very clearly a number of national and cultural elements in me –– Indonesian, Malaysian, Mongolian, and others. There is no separate nationality called Vietnamese; the Vietnamese culture is made up of other cultural elements.

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There are elements of Chinese, French, and Indian culture in me. You cannot take these out of me. If you remove them, I will not be the person who is sitting here. In me there are also cultural elements from Africa, and beautiful elements of Native American culture in me. In my room I hang a dream catcher so I can contemplate my dreams just for fun.

I have a home that no one can take away, and I feel very comfortable in that home. In my true home there is no discrimination, no hatred, because I have the desire and the capacity to embrace everybody, every race, and I have the aspiration, the dream to love and help all peoples and all species. I do not feel there is anyone who is my enemy. Even if they are pirates, terrorists, communists, or anti-communists, I do not have enemies. That is why in my true home I feel very comfortable.

I heard the story of a young Japanese American man who went into a café. While he was drinking his coffee he heard two young men talking in Vietnamese and crying. The young Japanese American man asked them in English: “Why are you crying?” The Vietnamese men said: “We cannot go back to our country, our homeland. The government there will not allow us to go back.” The Japanese American man got upset and said: “This is not worth crying over. Even though you are in exile and cannot go back to your country, you still have a country, a place where you belong. But I do not have a country to go back to.

“I was born and raised in the United States, and culturally I am American. But I feel uncomfortable because Americans do not truly accept me; they see me as foreigner. So I went to Japan and tried to make it my home. But when I arrived the Japanese people told me that the way I speak and behave are not Japanese and I was not accepted as a Japanese person. So, even though I have an American passport and even though I can go to Japan, I do not have a home. But you do have a home.”

Like the Japanese American in the story, there are many young Asian Americans who have been born and raised in the United States, who are American in their way of thinking and acting, and they want to be seen as true Americans, immersed in this culture. But other Americans do not accept them as Americans because their skin color is yellow. They feel sad and want to go back to Japan, Korea, or Vietnam to find their home. They think: If it’s not in America, my home has to be somewhere else. But they don’t fit in with the culture of their ancestral country either. Other Asians call them “Bananas” because though their skin is yellow, inside they are white, completely American. This also happens to African Americans who go to Africa but aren’t accepted there.

This is not to say that white people have found their home and feel comfortable in the United States. Just like Vietnamese people in Vietnam, many people do not feel comfortable in their own country and want to go elsewhere. Very few among us have found their true home. Even though we have nationality, we have citizenship, and a passport that allows us to go anywhere in the world, we still do not have a home.

Life Is Our True Home 

In the Colors of Compassion retreat we have learned and practiced to be in contact with our true home, the true home that cannot be described by geographical area, culture, or race.

Every time we listen to the sound of the bell in Deer Park or in Plum Village, we silently recite this poem: “I listen, I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” Where is our true home that we come back to? Our true home is life, our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place without discrimination, the place without hatred. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret. Our true home is not the past; it is not the object of our regrets, our yearning, our longing, or remorse. Our true home is not the future; it is not the object of our worries or fear. Our true home lies right in the present moment. If we can practice according to the teaching of the Buddha and return to the here and now, then the energy of mindfulness will help us to establish our true home in the present moment.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the Pure Land lies in the present moment; nirvana and liberation lie in the present moment. All of our spiritual and blood ancestors are here if we know how to come back to the present moment. My true home is the Pure Land, my true home is true life, so I do not suffer or seek, I do not run after anything anymore. I very much want all of you who have come here for the retreat, whether your color is black, white, brown, or yellow, to also be able to practice the teaching of the Buddha in order to come back to the present moment, penetrate that moment and discover your true home. I have found my true home. I do not seek, I do not worry, I do not suffer anymore. I have happiness, and I want all of my friends, students, and disciples to be able to reach your true home and stop trying to find it in space, time, culture, territory, nationality, or race.

The Buddha offers us wonderful practices so we can end our worries, our suffering, our seeking, our regrets, and so we can be in contact with the wonders of life right in the present moment. When we have the mind of nondiscrimination, we can open our arms to embrace all people and all species and everybody can become the object of our love. When we can do this, we have a true home that no one can take away from us. Even if they occupy our country or put us in prison, our true home is still ours, and they can never take it away. I speak these words to the young people, to those of you who feel that you have never had a home. I speak these words to the parents who feel that the old country is no longer your home but that the new country is not yet your home. Perhaps you can grasp this practice so you can find your true home and help your children find their true home. This is what I wish for you.

Civilization Is Openness and Tolerance 

If you have only one way of thinking, one way of behaving, then you are confined to the limits of your culture. With your habitual way of thinking, you imprison yourself and you cannot understand the suffering, the difficulties, the dreams of people of other races or other nationalities. You have a view about freedom, about happiness, about the future, and you want to force that view upon other cultures, other nations, other groups of people, and you create suffering for them. You think that everybody has to follow a certain economic model, a certain way of thinking, and only then are they civilized. When you think in this way, you have tied yourself up with a rope, and you cause danger and suffering for yourself and others.

We need to learn to let go and be open to other ways of thinking and behaving. We should not think of ourselves as superior in terms of race, science, or ideology. We have to practice to open our hearts, to learn about other cultures and other ways of thinking and behaving, so we can establish communication with people of other nations. If you were born and raised in the United States you should not let the American culture imprison you. Try to learn about the country your parents and ancestors came from. This will help you develop good communication with your parents and your ancestors; otherwise you may be cut off from the cultural stream that is one of your deepest roots.

Do not think that the culture and education you received growing up in the United States is superior; this is narrow-minded. We have to open our hearts to learn about the cultures of Asians, Africans, Europeans, and others. Europeans think and behave differently than Americans, even though many Americans have European ancestors. When we have a stubborn attitude, caught in the values, culture, and way of thinking of our own civilization, we are narrow-minded and isolated. The United States right now is isolated politically and militarily, and in the way Americans think and respond to violence and terrorism. It is not the same as the way Europeans think and respond. We need to listen to the Europeans and to people of other nations. We need to learn to let go of the view that our way of reacting and behaving is the best. When we are able to practice the Buddha’s teaching and come back to the present moment, we are in contact with our true home. Then we are not narrow-minded, we are not discriminating, and our hearts are open to embrace all races, all cultures.

Tomb37-dharma4 be civilized means to be open-minded, to offer space to others to live according to their views. Civilization is opening our arms to embrace all races, all people, all species; it is not thinking that our race or our culture is superior to all others. If young people can open their hearts wide to learn about their own and other cultures, they will begin to have rich insights. They can help those who are still isolated and caught in their own culture to come together with those from other cultures. This will allow understanding and acceptance to grow, remove boundaries, and heal conflicts.

Speaking to Young People 

If you have a great aspiration to learn about other cultures, to go to other countries and to help people accept and understand each other, you have a very great ideal. With that ideal you will not get stuck in despair, blaming others for your difficulties; instead your life will be very meaningful. I am sharing these words with the young people. Many young people have no path and don’t know what to do with their life each day. So they turn to drugs or alcohol and waste their lives. This is such a pity, because each young person can become a great bodhisattva, a great enlightened being whose deepest desire is to help people and bring together those who are separated by hatred or cultural difference.

Dear Sangha, I don’t want to be narrow-minded. I don’t say that Vietnamese culture is the best. Vietnam has many good things, but also many negative things. Buddhism has many good things, but also many negative things. One shortcoming of Buddhism is that we just talk, talk, talk about Buddhism but we do not practice. We can talk beautifully about nonself but we have a big sense of self, a huge ego.

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I have the capacity to see the good and beautiful things in other cultures and spiritual traditions. My true home is vast, immense. And my two arms can embrace all nations and all religions. I do not hate, I do not have any enemies, even the terrorists and those who wage war on terrorism. I only love them. I just want the opportunity to come close to them, listen to them, and help them to let go of their wrong perceptions, hatred, and violence. I do not hate dictators, communists, or anti-communists. I want to come close to them, help them understand, and let go of the views they are caught in.

There is no hatred in my true home; therefore I have happiness. Even though there is discrimination, violence, and craving in life, I use these things as nourishment for my practice. It is just like a garden: wherever there are flowers there has to be garbage. If you leave flowers for five or ten days they will become garbage. An intelligent gardener will collect all the garbage to make compost and so bring forth an abundance of fruits and flowers. It is not a matter of not having garbage, it is a matter of knowing how to transform garbage into flowers.

Surrounding us are many wonders: the blue sky, the white clouds, the blossoming flowers, the singing birds, the majestic mountains, the flowing rivers, countless animals and birds, the sunlight, the fog, the snow; innumerable wonders of life. The Kingdom of God is here in the present moment, but because we have hatred and discrimination we are not able to be in touch with the wonders of life.

The Buddha teaches us not to be foolish, not to run after the objects of desire: riches, fame, power, sensual pleasure. There are people who have a lot of money, power, fame, and sex, but they suffer endlessly; some even commit suicide. When we listen to the Buddha and come back to the present moment to be in touch with the wonders of life, we become rich, we become free—free from objects of craving—and we have the opportunity to recognize our wonderful true home. If we have found our true home then we will have enough love and understanding to help transform and heal the wounds caused by violence, hatred, and discrimination.

No Enemies 

When I ask: “Do you have a home yet?” you might say: “Not yet. But with this teaching and this practice I can have my home.” It’s true. The teaching of the Buddha is the teaching of dwelling peacefully and joyfully in the present moment. If we know how to come back to the present moment and generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then we will be in touch with the wonders of life. We will have happiness immediately. We will have insights. We will no longer discriminate, no longer be narrow-minded. And we can open our arms to embrace all species, all peoples, and we have no enemies. To have no enemies is a wonderful thing. When we have no enemy, no reproach, no blaming, then our mind is light like a cloud. I have no discrimination or hatred, so my mind is light and I have great happiness. I want you to be able to practice like that so that you have your true home, so that you do not accuse and judge the people who have caused you suffering. Do not look at them as your enemies, but see them as people who need understanding and compassion, so that you can help them. That is the bodhisattva’s way of looking.

We can all have this way of looking: when we are able to look in this way, we can call ourselves the children of the Buddha. To call ourselves children of the Buddha, we need to have the eyes of the Buddha, the eyes of compassion, the eyes of love. “Looking at life with the eyes of compassion” is a phrase from the Lotus Sutra. We use the eyes of compassion to look at all people and see that they are all our loved ones. We can help Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, anyone. Nobody is our enemy.

What Is Your True Name? 

Now I want to ask you a second question: “What is your true name?” Tell me. What name do you feel most comfortable with, most happy with? What are your true names? I have written a poem on this contemplation called “Please Call Me By My True Names.”

mb37-dharma6This poem was based on a real event. There was an eleven-year-old girl escaping from Vietnam with her family and other people. She was raped by a pirate, right on her boat. Her father tried to intervene, but the pirate threw her father into the sea. After the child was raped she jumped into the ocean to commit suicide. We received the news of this event one day in our Buddhist Association office in Paris. It was so upsetting to me that it kept me from sleeping; I felt anger, blame, despair. But if we are practitioners we cannot let blame and despair drown us; we have to practice walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and deep looking.

That evening in sitting meditation I saw myself being born as a baby boy into a very poor fishing family on the coast of Thailand. My father was a fisherman. He had never gone to the temple, he had never received any Buddhist teaching or any education. The politicians, educators, and social workers in Thailand never helped my father. My mother was also illiterate, and she did not know how to raise children. My father’s family had been poor fishermen for many generations —my great grandfather and my grandfather had been fishermen too. And when I turned thirteen I became a fisherman. I had never gone to school, I had never heard of the Buddhadharma, I had never felt loved or understood, and I lived in chronic poverty, persisting from one generation to the next.

Then one day another young fisherman said to me: “Let’s go out onto the ocean. There are boat people who pass near here and they often carry gold and jewelry, sometimes even money. Just one trip and we can be free from this poverty.” I accepted the invitation. I thought: We only need to take away a little bit of their jewelry, it won’t do any harm, and then we can be free from this poverty. So I became a pirate. The first time I went out I did not even know that I had become a pirate. But once out on the ocean, I saw the other pirates raping young women on the boats. I had never touched a young woman, I had never even thought about holding hands or going out with a young woman. But on the boat there was a very beautiful young woman, and there was no policeman to forbid me, and I saw other people doing it, and I asked myself: Why shouldn’t I try it too? This may be my chance to try the body of a young woman. So I did it.

If you were there on the boat and you had a gun, you could shoot me. But shooting me would not help me. Nobody ever taught me how to love, how to understand, how to see the suffering of others. My father and mother were not taught this either. I didn’t know what was wholesome and what was unwholesome, I didn’t understand cause and effect. I was living in the dark. If you had a gun, you could shoot me, and I would die. But you wouldn’t be able to help me at all.

As I continued sitting, I saw hundreds of babies being born that night along the coast of Thailand under the same circumstances, many of them baby boys. If the politicians and cultural ministers could look deeply, they would see that within twenty years those babies would become pirates. When I was able to see that, I understood. When I put myself in the situation of being born in a family that was uneducated and poor from one generation to the next, I saw that I would not be able to avoid becoming a pirate. When I saw that, my hatred, my resentment, my reproach vanished, and I felt that I could love that pirate.

When I saw those babies being born and growing up with no help, I knew that I had to do something so that they would not become pirates. The energy of a bodhisattva arose in my mind, the energy of love. I did not suffer anymore, but I had a lot of compassion and I could embrace not only the eleven-year-old child who was raped, but also the pirate.

When you address me as “Venerable Nhat Hanh,” I answer “yes,” but when you call the name of the child who was raped, I also answer “yes.” And if you call the name of the pirate, I would also answer “yes.” Because they are also me. If I had been born in that area under those circumstances I would also have become the pirate. I am the young girl who is raped by the pirate, but I am also the pirate that rapes the child. And so I could embrace both of them, in order to help not only that young girl but also the pirate. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my two legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am also the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. Those poor children in Uganda do not need bombs, they need food to eat. But here in America I live by producing bombs and guns. And if we want others to buy guns and bombs, then we have to create wars. If you call the name of the child in Uganda, I answer “yes.” And if you call the name of those who produce the bombs and guns I also answer “yes.” When I am able to see that I am those people, my hatred is no longer there, and I am determined to live in a way that I can help the victims, and I can also help those who create the wars and destruction.

So, when people call us African Americans, we answer, “yes.” When they call us Africans we answer,“yes.” When they call us Americans, we also answer “yes.” When people call the names of those who are discriminated against, we answer “yes.” And when they call the names of those who are discriminating, we also answer,“yes”—because all of them are us. Within us are the victims of discrimination as well as the perpetrators of discrimination. When we know that we are all victims of ignorance, violence, and hatred, then we can love ourselves and also love others. We have to practice in such a way that we free ourselves from thinking and feeling that injustice has been done to us, that we are inferior, that we are without value. The teaching of the Buddha can help us to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination that can free us from our inferiority complex. Only when we are free can we help others in the same situation, as well as those who discriminate and exploit. We do not look at them as our enemies anymore, but we see that they need our help because they are also victims of ignorance and of the narrow-minded aspects of their traditions.

In 1966 I gave a Dharma talk at a church in Minneapolis, and afterward I was very tired. I walked slowly in meditation back to my room so I could enjoy the cold, fragrant night air and be nourished and healed. While I was walking, taking each step in freedom, a car came up from behind and, braking loudly, stopped very close to me. The driver opened the door, looked at me and shouted: This is America, this is not China. Then he drove away. Maybe he had thought, This is a Chinese person who dares to walk in freedom in America, and he could not bear it. This is America, only white people can live here. And Chinese people, how dare you come here and how dare you walk with such freedom? You have no right to walk in this way. This is America, this is not China. That is discrimination against nationality, against race. But I was not angry—that was the good thing about it—I thought it was funny. I thought: If he would just pause for a moment, I would tell him, “I agree with you one hundred percent, this is America, this is not China: why do you have to shout at me?”

We know that the seed of discrimination lies in all of us. Once in New York a black woman shouted at me, even though I am also a person of color—only a different color. But because I wore a brown robe and I walked in freedom, she could not bear it. So don’t say it is only white people who discriminate. The oppressed and the oppressors are inside all of us, and our practice is to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination.

So when somebody calls me Nhat Hanh, I answer “yes”; when you call me Bush, I answer “yes”—because Bush is also my name. If you call me Saddam Hussein I will answer “yes”—because I am all of them. I don’t want Mr. Bush to suffer; I don’t want Saddam Hussein to suffer. I want everyone to be happy and free because they are my beloved ones. Right now, living the life of a bodhisattva, I have no enemies because I have no discrimination.

I want all the practitioners who come to Deer Park to practice so you can have this mind of nondiscrimination, so you can rebuild your life and become free. In this way you can help young people, whatever their color, to reach this freedom. Then they will be able to help build their community, and help everyone around them.

Please Call Me By My True Names 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am also the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

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Poem: Form, Formlessness

My one small life is formed
from more than a hundred
million breaths. In, out

I am still breathing. Even
as I count
the only breath
is now.

This heart that is
my only heart pulses
without a break
thousands of times a day
whether I am grateful or not.

Thank you heart.
Thank you breath.

Songbirds ecstatic, clouds
swirl like feathers. Multiplying
cell by cell
I dissolve.

Gratitude is nothing, a breath
nothing
you can keep.
Neither a heartbeat.
Neither this moment, formless,

more powerful than all
our lives. In one
fleeting sigh
a simple feeling
washes through me. Hello
Love, I recognize your face.

By Janet Aalfs

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Janet Aalfs is the poet laureate of Northampton, MA (2003-2005) and the director/ head instructor of Valley Women’s Martial Arts, Inc. She pays attention to her breath in everything she does.

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Poem: How the Dog

is dog white. How he opens himself
to the world each day—every morning

the same—empties himself, then drinks.
How his black pads and variegated claws

click the pavement
exactly in time with the barefoot version

of Ode to Joy and he means it. How in the dignified
winter of his life he’s so willingly

your child. How the dog recovers. How his
heart is an unsealed document and he

writes upon it daily. How inside his small body
is a great hall, a library of smells in which

you’ve been permanently shelved. How the dog
forebears, how the dog goes about doing

the work of dog. How the dog unmirrors you.
How the dog is dog quiet, sprawled

on a pile of clothes. And how the dog allows,
hears violin when you throw yourself

across the bed for effect
whimpering again in that strange

human accent you have. When you’re down
there, trying to tell the dog about your life

how the dog’s best music
is listening.

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By Kelly Parsons

Kelly Parsons practices with the Mindfulness Community of Victoria, B.C. and the Mountain Lamp Community in Washington.

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Poem: Buddha in me

Sometimes I see the Buddha in me
a phrase, a touch, something I see

It touches my heart
And awakens in me
A memory of how to be free
A memory of how to be me

There’s a time the Buddha in me
Comes to surface
As if to say
Remember, life will pass you by
If you forget to stay alive
In this moment
In this place

There’s a time
The Buddha in me
Comes to the surface
As if to see

If I remember

Ariel Blair

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Poet, Peace Advocate, & Goodwill Ambassador Dies

By Norman R. Brown

For Our World*

We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment…
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.

We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment…
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.

We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment…
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.

Stop, be silent, and notice…
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures.
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.

We need to be.
Just be.
Be for a moment…
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting,
Like children and lambs,
Never judging or vengeful

Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray,
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.

mb38-Poet1The internationally acclaimed poet, peace advocate, and Muscular Dystrophy Association National Goodwill Ambassador, Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek, or “Mattie” as he’s nationally known, died on June 22, 2004 in Washington, D.C. He had been hospitalized since early March with complications related to the disease that impaired most of his bodily functions.

Stepanek, of Rockville, Maryland, had dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that impaired his heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and digestion, and caused muscle weakness. Mattie was hospitalized many times over the years. He navigated around his home in a wheelchair he nicknamed “Slick,” and relied on a feeding tube, a ventilator, and frequent blood transfusions to stay alive.

Mattie was the author of five volumes of poetry, three of which reached the New York Times’ best-seller list. He became a beacon of hope to the millions of adults and children who have been inspired by his words, making him one of the best-selling poets in recent years. His admirers include Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and former President Jimmy Carter.

Despite his physical condition, the effervescent and playful philosopher was upbeat, saying he didn’t fear death. His work was full of life, a quest for peace, hope, and the inner voice he called a “heartsong,” which he explained as “our inner beauty, our message, the songs in our hearts.” He explained, “My life mission is to spread peace to the world.”

After the September 11, 2001 tragedy, Mattie wrote the poem to the left.

Mattie advised that, “Poetry is a great way to express your feelings and life experiences so that others can understand and get through the same situation. We all have life storms. We need to celebrate that we get through them, instead of mourning and waiting for the next one to come along and wipe us out again. Remember to play after every storm. Celebrate life no matter how bad it seems. Life is a gift, and there’s always something beautiful that you can find. We have to make the best of life and do what we’re meant to do. Everyone has a special song inside their hearts. If you believe you can be happy, then you, too, will hear your song.”

Mattie was thirteen years old at the time of his death. He was the recipient of several awards, including the 2002 Children’s Hope Medal of Honor and the 2002 Verizon Courage Award. President Carter, in eulogizing Mattie, said, “I have known kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers. But the most extraordinary person I have ever known was Mattie Stepanek.”

Contributions in Mattie’s name may be made at: www.mdausa.org or sent to MDA Mattie Fund, P.O. Box 66002, Tucson, AZ 85728.

Go to: www.mattieonline.com for links to purchase his poetry.

*For Our World copyright, April 2002, “Hope Through Heartsongs,” page 49, ISBN 0-7868-6944-5, Hyperion Book.

Norman R. Brown, Disciplined Patience of the Heart, belong to the SDGLBT Buddhists Sangha in San Diego. He is event coordinator and registrar at Solidity Hamlet, Deer Park Monastery.

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Poem: It Is Enough

By Emily Whittle

mb40-IsItEnough1

This apple by itself
would be enough—
its crisp white center
bearing just the right balance
of tart and sweet,
garnished with the faint scent
of flowers.
But there is more!
There is the music
of water
cascading over rocks.
There is bee balm and mountain laurel.
There is a cool breeze
playing with the trees,
sending shape-shifting clouds
speeding across the sky.
Next to me,
facing the river,
is my beloved,
eating the other half
of the apple.
Far away,
barely audible,
the low rumble of thunder
warns of an approaching storm.
Savor,
savor this moment.
It is enough.
It is more
than enough.

Emily Whittle, True Wonderful Happiness, lives and practices in Red Springs, North Carolina. She is a frequent contributor to the Mindfulness Bell.

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The Maidens and the Crone

By Janey Gieber

We traveled with Sister Chan Khong and the monastic brothers and sisters in Quang Tri province to visit schools and projects supported by the Order of Interbeing.

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Turning off the main highway, the driver took us down a small country road as the sun was just beginning to rise. He pulled over and parked. “Where are we going?” I wondered. “There is only jungle here.” We filed off the bus and began to stride mindfully down a narrow, muddy trail, dutifully following Sister Chan Khong. It was raining torrentially. The blue plastic raincoat I’d bought in Hue at an outdoor market was keeping the wet off my clothes but not out of my shoes. I looked down at my trudging feet, ensconced in mud. At that moment I understood the meaning of, “Present moment, wonderful moment.” I felt completely alive in every cell of my body, and understood more fully the unifying energy of going as a Sangha.

Gongs and drums began to sing loudly, and we were drawn into a clearing where a beautiful temple and schoolhouse stood. Villagers greeted us with huge smiles. We entered the little schoolhouse and the children sang “Breathing In, Breathing Out” with angelic voices, their hands making the accompanying gestures. As Sister Chan Khong explained that we were in the village of Thay’s mother, tears came to my eyes as I remembered my own mother, who had died only a few months before.

I remembered the jewelry made by a Sangha sister, Carrie, from our Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington. “Maybe I should get it out now to give to the children,” I thought. I noticed a dozen young ladies standing beside me. I tapped one girl on the shoulder and motioned for her to step toward me. I handed her a bauble of green and pink beads with a dragonfly pendant. She giggled and gasped as I attached the pin to her blouse.

After I had handed out the last one, I noticed a flurry of energy at the back of the crowd. An old woman pushed to the front to join the circle of maidens. Dark eyes boring into me, she unfolded her hands toward me, placing them inches from my chest. This four-foot ten-inch, hundred-pound crone commanded my attention!

Deep-set, wizened eyes with a glint of wildness were set in a tiny wrinkled face. Her hair, surprisingly brown with just a touch of gray at the temples, was tied in a peasant scarf. She smiled at me, her mouth filled with blackened teeth, some missing. “I don’t have any more. I gave the last one away,” I said regretfully, knowing she couldn’t understand English. Once more she poked a girl’s jeweled chest with her finger, then my chest, and finally her own. I panicked. Then I caught a glimpse of the mala bracelet of amber-colored beads on my right wrist, the one I’d received during the ceremony in which I’d expressed my aspirations to join the Order of Interbeing. Receiving the mala had touched me so deeply that I hadn’t taken it off since. Taking her hand in mine, I rolled the mala from my wrist and gently placed it on hers.

She lifted her hand, looking at the mala, looking at me, looking at the maidens. Then she stretched out her arm, bent her wrist and displayed her bracelet to the maidens and villagers watching. Spiraling playfully in a circle like a princess revealing royal jewels to her audience, she embodied both the maiden and the crone.

As we prepared to leave, the crone followed me to the bus, standing at the door to hug me and kiss my hand. I looked into her eyes and saw her love and gratitude. I kissed her hand in return, grateful that she had helped me transform a piece of my grief from my mother’s passing and led me to a deeper understanding of the nature of interbeing.

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Janey Gieber, Inclusive Intention of the Heart, practices with the Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington.

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Hurricane Gathas

By Ruth Kaplan

Breathing in, I see my fear.
Breathing out, I return to the present moment.

Breathing in, I see my attachment to my life and possessions.
Breathing out, I see the truth of impermanence.

Breathing in, I do what I can to protect myself and my property.
Breathing out, I remember that my most valuable possession is peace of mind.

Breathing in, I am grateful for time and resources to prepare for the storm.
Breathing out, I feel compassion for those who are not able to prepare.

mb41-Hurriane1

This exercise can be adapted for use with any fearful situation, especially natural disasters. So often, by remaining in our fear of the future, we forget that we are okay in the present moment. Our fear then expands to fear of loss of possessions, and we calm ourselves remembering that all possessions, including this precious body, are impermanent. This can then give us the equanimity to do what is reasonable and possible to protect ourselves and our possessions, without fear. But even as we go about making preparations, we can return to our true selves, and maintain peace of mind in the present moment. Finally, it helps to remember that many others are in similar situations, but without the ability to prepare, or the trainings to help them maintain peace of mind. If we cultivate loving kindness and compassion for them, it helps us as well to be less fearful. After all, just as with hurricanes, so often we are fearful and prepare for something that never actually occurs. So if we use it as an opportunity for practice, our actions are not wasted.

mb41-Hurriane2Ruth Kaplan, Subtle Lake of the Heart, lived on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and wrote these gathas while preparing for Hurricane Cindy, which missed her area. She has since moved to Austin, Texas, and practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha.

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

mb42-dharma1Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.

In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.

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In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.

But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.

If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.

I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.

A Logical Proposition

I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.

I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.

Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.

I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.

If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.

It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.

The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.

Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.

The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.

The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

The Power of Right Thinking

We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.

In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.

“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.

If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.

The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.

The Territories of the Mind

A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.

But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.

When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.

But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.

To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.

In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.

Being on Automatic Pilot

We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.

Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.

Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.

You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”

You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.

There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.

Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.

The Way Out of Depression

We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.

Whenmb42-dharma3 you come to a house and you want to meet someone in the house, you ask, “Is anyone home?” And if someone said, “Yes,” then you’d be happy. You don’t want to go to a house where there is no one.

Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.

If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.

The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.

A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.

The Key to the Door of Happiness

In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.

When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.

There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

A New Year’s Resolution

Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”

The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.

If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.

At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”

And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.

What Is Right View?

Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.

So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.

What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.

The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.

Tasting the Wonders of Life

There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.

While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.

While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.

The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.

Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.

Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.

As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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Healing All Moments

A Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

By Jill Siler

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The Vietnamese monk seemed to float onto the stage. He put his palms together and bowed his head. Then smiling, he folded his legs, effortlessly sank to the floor, and settled on a small round cushion.

“Dear friends,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, “this moment heals all moments.” I didn’t understand that at all, but I loved listening to the gentle, earnest way in which he spoke. The dharma talks, or teachings, were being given in a huge tent where hundreds of people sat on the floor in front of him; some sat on little cushions called zafus, some sat wrapped in blankets, and some sat on chairs further towards the back. We’d gathered here for a five-day, silent retreat to study with this world-renowned Zen teacher.

“The Buddha often taught about the importance of slowing down,” he continued in his beautifully accented voice, “of stopping all thoughts so that we might enjoy present moment awareness.”

Whatever. I have things to do and places to go. I have a staggering list of things that must get accomplished for me to even keep afloat, let alone make progress.

“This wonderful present moment,” he said again, smiling like he was really happy about it.

Present moment, my foot. That’s not going to solve my problems.

My husband was pouring our retirement savings into his boat and in denial about it. I was taking radioactive medication and my hair was falling out. I felt like throwing up all the time, my knees hurt, and my teenage daughters were careening through the hellrealm years of their adolescence. These were the elements creating my present moment.

But then he said that by practicing this simple idea, this sutra—and a sutra is a sacred teaching—suffering could be relieved and we could experience a greater capacity for joy. Well, I’m all for less suffering and greater joy, so my interest was sparked. He said that it takes practice to bring ourselves into the here and now, but that we should try it when we find that anguish or discomfort has risen in us. He said if we become mindful of our thinking and look deeply at the nature of what caused our personal sorrow we can begin to heal or unravel it.

Whatever. I could not unravel ill health or my husband’s boat.

Thich Nhat Hanh put his palms together and closed his eyes. He took a breath: slow, slow, in and out, and the room got quiet as a night sky. He asked us again to remember this simple teaching, from the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone”: Do not pursue the past, for the past no longer is. Do not chase the future, for the future is yet to come. By looking deeply at life as it is in the here and now, happiness is attainable.

Well that was it. I had personally hoped for something with a little more kick to it.

At the end of his two-hour talk, he asked us to take our cushions and blankets back to our rooms because it might rain and the tent leaked. I really liked where my zafu was placed. I was very close to Thay and knew chances were slim that I’d get this close tomorrow. The retreat was being held on the side of a mountain in Vermont and it seemed senseless to drag my cushion back down the mountain and haul it up again in the morning. I peeked out at the cloudless evening sky and decided to just push my cushion against the tent pole behind me and leave it there. When almost everyone was gone, I furtively arranged my cushion and slipped out of the tent.

People were scattered over the mountain, moving with mindful attention; walking with slow deliberate steps. The whole scene was so reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead that it struck me as ridiculous. I felt no reverence for any of it and I thought I might leave early.

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Giving It a Try

That night, back in my room, it was time for me to take more medicine. I dreaded it because I knew it kept me feeling sick. As I stood at the sink, filling my glass with water, I began to notice that I felt really uncomfortable. This is what happens to me when there’s no TV, no one talking, and no distractions. I become more aware of what’s going on inside. I considered what Thay had said about looking deeply at our suffering instead of running away from it. The discomfort, I found, was fear. I got so sad, that I believed I could feel my heart aching. I was really scared the medicine wouldn’t work and I might die. I wanted to see my daughters find happiness. I wanted to be an old woman. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends or be brave. I wanted to be alive and figure it all out.

This is suffering, I decided, so maybe I should try that present moment thing.

I considered the sutra; look at life as it is in the here and now. Don’t chase the future.

I took a breath and tried.

The present moment sucks, I thought. I’m really depressed. I took another breath and tried again.

In this moment, I discovered, I’m okay. Actually, I’m good. I’m not nauseous. I’m not dead. I’m okay. Actually, as I thought about it some more, just right now in this moment, I’m getting well. I’m good.

It worked! This little monk might be onto something. Reality was still reality, but the suffering part, the mental anguish had passed. Very cool, I decided. Maybe I’ll stay.

All Is Lost

Two o’clock in the morning: thunder is cracking over the mountains so loudly that the window shakes. The rain pours down with such shocking intensity that as I stand by my window weeping, I can’t see five inches into the lightning-illumined night.

All is lost.

The retreat is ruined for me. My blanket and my zafu are in the tent getting soaked. What is wrong with me? Why am I such a mess? I came a thousand miles to listen to this guy and when he tells me to take my cushion, I think I know better. It’s too cold to sit in the tent with no blanket and I don’t want to sit with the tourists on chairs in the back. I hate myself. I hate this retreat. I want my zafu and blanket dry: I want to do this night over.

I get back in my bed and listen to the rain pound against the roof. I kick the blankets, moan, and blow my nose. I roll over, kick the blankets, and roll over again. I think of Thay’s words… life as it is in the here and now. Right now my zafu and blankets are getting soaked, I wail to myself, the soul of misery. Tomorrow will be ruined and the next day. I bet it takes a month to dry out a zafu.

Practice not chasing the future, I remind myself. I take a breath and try again.

In this exact moment, I am here in this bed; nothing hurts. I am not hot or cold or dirty or hungry. Though the heavens are crashing over me and rain is pouring down on everything, I am dry and warm and safely inside. Tomorrow will bring what tomorrow will bring. Right now there is absolutely nothing I can do about that.

I did this for a while and began noticing that I felt downright cozy. I slept peacefully till the br-r-ron-n-nng of the morning bell called us to meditation.

In the tent again, my zafu and blanket were waiting for me, dry and warm. I wondered how much of my life I’d spent worrying about things that wouldn’t even happen. I wondered how many times I’d traded a moment of peace for a moment of suffering.

Vacuum Meditation

A few months later, I was vacuuming my house. A huge mirror hangs on one of the walls. As I worked, I whined and grumbled to no one. “Geez! Look at this. Gross! Stupid dog. Why do I even bother? Sheez!” I was bent over, sucking up some dog hair, and I happened to glance at myself in the mirror. I saw how I’d aged and as I looked at my face, I saw my mother looking back at me. I saw how like her I’d become, not just physically, but the same style of complaining and negativity. In that instant, I saw how I carried my mother and my grandmother’s habits into my daughters’ lives. I saw how I could change that and suddenly, I knew that in that specific moment, I was healing all moments. I was healing the past of my ancestors and the future of my daughters and granddaughters.

I turned off the vacuum cleaner and set it down.

With palms pressed together, following my breath, I touched the present moment and thanked my teacher.

Jill Siler, Calm Calling of the Heart, founded the Miami Beach Sangha after this retreat with Thay as a direct result of Thay’s request that she either find a sangha or center to practice in, or start one.

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The Better Way to Live Alone in the Jungle

By Terry Masters

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The Buddha taught:

“…I want to tell you that there is a wonderful way to be alone. It is the way of deep observation to see that the past no longer exists and the future has not yet come, and to dwell at ease in the present moment, free from desire. When a person lives in this way, she has no hesitation in her heart. She gives up all anxieties and regrets, lets go of all binding desires, and cuts the fetters which prevent her from being free. This is called ‘the better way to live alone.’There is no more wonderful way of being alone than this.”

from the “Elder Sutra”*

Last spring I lived alone deep in the jungle of Peru in a hut near the Amazon River. My hut sat on stilts and had screen walls, hand-hewn plank floors, and a thatched roof. There was no electricity so I had no refrigerator, no lights, no radio, no fan, no telephone. No washing machine, sink or toilet; no running water at all unless you count the Yanomono River which ran a few yards from my hut.

It was the Yanomono River that taught me the better way to live alone.

During the day I gave reading lessons to children in a little jungle library, and in exchange for my dinner, at night I taught English to the mozos—the guys who worked at the tourist lodge about forty minutes by dugout canoe from my hut.

The first evening, after working at the library, I gathered the supplies for my English class, put on my rubber boots, got my paddle, and walked through the jungle to the muddy riverbank where my dugout was tied to a tree root. I began paddling to the lodge just as the sun was setting. The river, and even the air around the river, was gold and pink, purple and orange and red. It is a wonderful thing to be in––not under, but inside––a sunset in the jungle in Peru.

I paddled slowly under a tree of sweet-smelling, lilac-colored flowers. Many of the flowers had fallen into the river, so I was gliding in golden, lavender-petaled water. The air was soft and warm and smelled green.

Women and men bathed on the riverbank. They smiled and waved at me as I passed.

“Hola Señorita!”

“Hola amigos!” I called back. “Buena noche, ¿no?”

As I paddled around a curve, naked children from the village swam out to play “Sharks Attack the Gringa.” They splashed me––as sharks will do when confronted with a gringa in a dugout canoe––and I cried out, “Ayudame! Ayudame!” (“Help me! Help me!”)—as gringas will do when confronted with a river full of ferocious fish.

When I arrived at the lodge, I was still smiling. I ate my dinner and gave an English lesson to my new Peruvian friends. At 9:00, when I was ready to paddle home, the darkness in the jungle was so thick that I could only see the top of my paddle and the front of my dugout canoe.

There was no moon. The stars filled the sky; a few were reflected in the river. I smiled, anticipating gliding back home through a dark peaceful river of silver starlight and purple flowers.

But as I left the lodge, I realized that although I could see the starry sky above and specks of starlight in the river, I could not see the riverbank, nor could I see where I was in the river. I peered into the darkness. I saw nothing.

My Peruvian friends had told me to stay in the middle of the river–– if I got too close to the bank, things in the trees could get into my canoe. I didn’t ask what things. I imagined them, though: fifty-foot anacondas, canoe-sized caiman, monkeys, bats, frogs, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes—I imagined every jungle critter known to man or woman jumping, flying, falling, crawling, or slithering into my canoe.

I got lost: the river “S”ed and I “Y”ed into a tangle of tree roots and vines. I had to paddle my way backward out of a little creek, back into the Yanomono again. I stared into the darkness trying to see where I was and what was around me. I saw nothing.

My heart began to race. I couldn’t get my breath. I began to paddle frantically through the river, bumping into the right bank, then the left.

A bat flew past, brushing my face with its wings. I squealed.

Mosquitoes buzzed my ears, bit my arms.

The sounds from the rainforest grew louder: frogs especially, but birds too, and other jungle animals I couldn’t name. I had to get home!

I peered anxiously into the darkness, trying to see what was out there, looking for the bank of mud in front of the path to my hut, looking for the tree root that was my port, looking for anything familiar. I could see nothing.

I passed under a low hanging branch and something fell from the tree into my hair. A tarantula! A huge tarantula! A huge hairy jungle tarantula!

I paddled fast, desperately slapping the water with my paddle. My arms, my shoulders, my whole body was tense. I gasped for a breath.

And then a voice from somewhere inside whispered, “Stop.”

I stopped. I took a slow breath.

I lifted my paddle from the water and let my canoe drift.

I stopped telling myself jungle stories. I stopped my Tarzan drama. I just stopped. Stopped and took a long slow breath.

Then another. And another. And another.

Finally, I forced a little smile.

“Hola, rio.” I whispered. Took a breath. Let it out.

“Buena noche, ¿no?”

The sounds of the jungle softened. The stars brightened. The river slowed.

I lifted my paddle and gently dipped it into the soft starsparkled river. I pulled it slowly through the calm waters.

Breathing in, I know that I am here, now. (Dip the paddle, pull the water, glide.) Breathing out, I know that I am now here. (No longer inventing scary jungle stories.) In…. here.

(Not thinking about the English lessons I just gave; not planning how to get up the muddy slope when I get home.)

Out….here. (Dip, pull, glide.)

Here in this present moment.

(New trees above me, new stars. New water below, new fish and mud and snakes. The air I now breathe is not the air of my last breath.)

Here in this wonderful moment. (Dip, pull, glide.)

After a while I saw some white tree trunks that looked familiar and dipping my paddle in, pulling back easily, I glided slowly toward them. I had arrived. I was home.

“Try living like that,” the Yanomono River said. “Thanks for the dharma talk,” I smiled.

The next day it rained most of the day. About an hour before sunset, when the rain had stopped, I took a small bucket to my canoe to bail out the rainwater. I also expected to bail out that huge tarantula that I had shook from my hair the night before.

There was no tarantula. In the rainwater, in the bottom of my dugout canoe, a small purple flower floated.

During the months I lived in the jungle, I became friends with the trees that lined the banks of the Yanomono River and familiar with its “S” turns. I came to know the sounds of the jungle and its smells. I recognized the reeds on the left that meant the river was going to wind to the right; the wide space overhead that meant I was to go straight; the cluster of white-barked trees that meant I was getting close to home; the hoarse frogs that meant I had arrived.

Aware that I was surrounded by friends—the river, the stars, the trees, the sounds, the smells—I was no longer so afraid. In fact, most of the time I was awed by the majesty—by the miracle—of it all.

It was the Yanomono River, deep in the jungle of Peru, that taught me The Better Way to Live Alone.

mb42-TheBetter2*The “Elder Sutra” as well as the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone” can be found beginning on page 234 of The Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. Both are the subject of Our Appointment with Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, which also includes his beautiful commentary on them.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, lives in Austin, Texas where she practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha. She has just returned from another month teaching English in the jungle of Peru.

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Carts & Koans

By John Beaudry

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I was standing on a narrow sidewalk, bent over, putting a small bandage on a cut my sandal keeps making in the top of my right foot.

The bus that would take us the remaining distance to the island and the temple had not arrived yet. So I had bought some bandages from the small store next to the bus stop.

Standing on the sidewalk, I put my foot on the store step, bent forward and concentrated on ending the little pain that had been present since early that morning when we had begun our journey from the city to the island.

On the first part of the journey, I had been focused on the koan I always carry in my mind. The strain of pushing against the barrier of the koan, of trying to close the space between it and my mind, merged with the irritation of the cut. The pain intensified the always-present feeling that I lacked sufficient ability to break through the barrier of the koan, that breaking through was impossible. Still, I held onto the koan as fiercely as I could.

Now, I finished attaching the bandage to the foot, checked it—and then realized that there was a head next to mine that also seemed to be looking at my foot. I straightened up to see an old, weathered woman standing next to me, bent over forward past a ninety-degree angle, with her hands clasped behind her back. She was trying to pass through the space between the store wall and me and was bent over because she could no longer stand up straight. I took my foot off the step, opening the space wider for her to pass through.

As she walked slowly past and away, I watched her, trying to see the cause of her present condition. The effect of her past struggles had been to push her dangerously beyond the limit of her physical ability. Past suffering had led to present suffering.

Her hands were the highest point on her body, resting way down her lower back almost directly over her legs. Those hands, I speculated, had carried baskets of vegetables, or worked rice fields, or pulled loaded carts behind her. In that moment, though, the hands’ purpose was to provide balance for walking, and to keep the arms out of the way: If she unclasped her hands, her arms would hang down in front of her legs, dead weight with nothing to support them. So, she held her arms and hands as far back as she could and let her legs carry them.

She reminded me of the old men and women in Seoul, where I live, who pull rustic, wooden carts behind them, collecting loads of cardboard and other recyclables, often piling them high above their heads. To me, the weight of the load looks like a lot more than they can handle, pulling the carts up resistant hills, down obstacle-filled alleys, through dangerous street traffic.

When I’m out walking the back road in the mornings, pushing against the barrier of the koan, I pass the cart pullers, often walking in the opposite direction. As we approach each other, their physical struggle is obvious. But there is something else as well, something underneath or behind their suffering that eludes my perception. What is it? In the moment we pass each other I try to cross the space between my understanding and their experience, and I fail.

They walk bent forward, arms behind, hands holding on tightly to the metal bar.

Walking at a slow, determined pace, the cart pullers seem to be concentrating only on the essential: a firm grip, the next step. Looking straight ahead, apparently undistracted by sights and sounds around them, and appearing to rely on intuition to find what they are looking for, they pull against the weight of their load. Are they really that single-minded in their purpose?

To me, their work seems possible only for people of greater physical ability—stronger, younger people. Month after month, on hot days and cold days, they walk their path. It may be that some dare to pity them. But, looking closely at them and seeing what they do, in those fleeting moments, I rediscover compassion and renew awe in my life, the same experience I had upon seeing the old woman who seemed to be looking at my foot.

Connecting to the Source of Compassion

After the old woman passed out of sight the bus came. And soon after that we crossed over the bridge to the island and arrived at the bottom of the road that led up to the temple. We walked up the steep hill at a slow but determined pace, and I noticed as we walked that the bandage was holding, protecting the cut.

At the top of the hill we passed through the old stone temple gate, headed for the main Buddha Hall, went in, and as we always did upon first arriving at a temple, performed the bowing ritual. As I bowed before the statue of Buddha, the weight of the koan, the weakness of my ability, and the strength of the barrier all bowed with me.

After a last bow, I stepped out of the temple door, putting my left foot in my sandal. And as I bent down to check the condition of the bandage on my right foot, I thought of the old woman at the moment when she had passed between the store wall and me. But this time I saw the moment clearly; this time I could see into it as it expanded in my mind.

The moment deepened until it merged with my whole being. In that one moment that seemed to extend forever, I saw deeply into the simple and awesome truth of the moment when the old woman passed between the wall and me, and at the same time into the mystery of the cart pullers.

This moment merged with that moment in a birth of clarity, and I connected to the source of my compassion for them, and my awe. I understood: There are people all around me who are doing the impossible. And in that moment I shared their burden, their suffering and their strength. There was no space between us.

Intuitively, I turned my head from the bandage on my foot to the direction the old woman’s head had appeared from—and saw the smiling face of a monk who was walking toward the Buddha Hall to welcome us. I slid my right foot firmly into the sandal, stood up straight, clasped my hands behind my back, and walked slowly forward to meet him.

John Beaudry has taken the precepts but continues to search hermitages deep in the Korean mountains for an old master to take as a teacher. He lives in Seoul.

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Book Reviews

mb43-BookReviews1The Energy of Prayer
How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2006
155 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

When Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “You are a cloud,” this sounds very poetic. What he means is that our bodies contain cloud elements,  a fact that science cannot dispute. Taking the same no-nonsense approach to prayer in his new pocket-sized book on the subject, our dhyana master begins with the facts. In the book’s introduction, Larry Dossey, M.D., writes that there are currently 200 controlled experiments “in humans, plants, animals, and even microbes” suggesting that the energy of prayer can affect another individual or object, even at great distances.

But does prayer really work? In the first chapter, Thây offers readers the story of a double healing through prayer—a boy’s skepticism is healed at the same time that a woman’s brain tumor disappears. Reading this book proves what I, too, know, as I once healed completely from fibromyalgia and stomach ulcers through prayer. I have been present in the dharma hall when Thây requests that we “send energy” to someone who is sick or dying. We do not ask for the person to be healed; we simply send our concentrated, loving energy, sometimes long distance. And we know this has its effect, just as the moon has an effect on the earth.

Prayer is not meant to be a wish list; it’s a state of being. The secret is to pray with a mind of no attainment. While our teacher gives us many classic chants and prayers to choose from, as well as an appendix with exercises in meditation, he tells us that prayer can be realized not only in words, but in action. This is important especially for those who think they need “an answer” to prayer. The prayer itself is the answer. Prayer transforms the pray-er.

One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s greatest pedagogical gifts to the world has been tying East to West, Judeo-Christian to Buddhist practice. We need not drop our Judeo-Christian roots; our mindfulness practice makes us more sincere Christians, more deeply reverent Jews. In two of his watershed books, Living Buddha, Living Christ, and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, the author marries Christian and Buddhist practices. For me one of the most exciting chapters is Thây’s discourse on the Lord’s Prayer, which I’ve been praying for six decades.

Love is reflected in love. With “And forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors,” Thây exhorts us to pray in such a way that we “go beyond birth and death.”

What is prayer, then, but a raising of the mind and heart to God? And who is God but our very interbeing, the eternal flame that illumines everything, including the cloud. Our meditation and daily mindfulness practice is prayer. So prayer is a lightening and a lifting up. “We will lift her up [to God],” says the Christian. “We and God are not two separate existences,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. I know this to be true.

mb43-BookReviews2Mindful Politics

Melvin McLeod, editor
Wisdom Publications, 2006
Paperback, 304 pages

Reviewed by Svein Myreng

In the introduction to Mindful Politics, editor Melvin McLeod writes, “This is a handbook, a guide, a practice book, for people who want to draw on Buddhism’s insights and practices to help … make the world a better place.” A long-time Buddhist practitioner with a background in political science, McLeod has gathered 37 prominent Buddhist teachers, writers, and practitioners for this book.

At the core of mindful politics is the importance of stability and calm and how Buddhist practitioners can make this contribution to politics, especially in connection with anger and conflicts. In his essay, Roshi Bernie Glassman states: “I don’t believe in a utopia of non-conflict. Whatever you do is going to create conflict in some ways and peace in other ways.”

Also central to the book is Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice on understanding and compassion in all walks of life—familiar teachings to Thay’s students, but well worth re-reading. These are teachings of an uncompromisingly radical nature; just look with fresh eyes at a statement like “Compassion is our best protection.”

Other contributors bring perspectives from their own traditions, with Vajrayana and Zen perhaps a bit overrepresented. Buddhism is not monolithic. At times, however, the book’s perspective feels a bit too narrow, tipping the scale with people who are popular authors in U.S. Buddhism right now. For instance, I miss the fearless words of an Aung San Suu Kyi, or the old-time political commentary of Gary Snyder.

Especially interesting to me are the articles on racism and economy. Sulak characterises “free market fundamentalism” as “akin to other kinds of fundamentalism.”

Rather than GNP, Gross National Product, Jigmi Y. Thinley, Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs in Bhutan, suggests we use GNH, Gross National Happiness, as an alternative for measuring real weath. Thinley suggests four vital elements to GNH: “(1) sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, (2) conservation of the environment, (3) preservation and promotion of culture, and (4) promotion of good governance.” I would like to read more on these topics.

I write this review as a Dharma teacher, a father, and someone who wishes to make a positive contribution to the world. Though my wife and I try to live a simple, non-harming life and protect our son and ourselves from the greed-and-speed society, it is difficult. We neither wish nor are able to live in a cultural cocoon. We want to influence society, even in a small way. Mindful Politics is definitely helpful in this respect. It makes me think more deeply about aspects of my life and society.

Three Poetry Books

Reviewed by Susan Hadler

Something wonderful happens when we slow down and take the time to wake up to our bodies, our minds, and the world around us. We see things in the light of interbeing. We are able to touch the true nature of reality. The poets whose work is reviewed here devote themselves to noticing and connecting deeply with life in the present moment. They’ve put into words their experiences of delight and transformation and insight. It is a joy to find so many images that bring together the historical and the ultimate dimensions.

Fruits of the Practice

By Emily Whittle
Self-published, 2004
222 E. 5th Ave., Red Springs NC 28377
Soft-cover, hand-bound, 25 pages

The author of this beautiful earth-brown hand-bound book is a gardener of the heart and mind. Trained as a fine artist, primarily in book arts, Emily has taught all aspects of book making, and she brings her skills to the construction of this book. Her poems offer delicious fruit ripened in the sunshine of awareness. Playful images and fresh connections abound, this one from “A Break in the Weather”: “After seven days of rain, dawn serves up a new day, round as an egg, sunny-side up,” and this, the opening line of “Zafu”: “My church is a round cushion.” Still other poems astonish us with reality, as in the last line of the poem entitled “You Asked About My Anger”: “Even with remorse it takes a long time before the birds come back.”

Most of all, the poems live as stories of life on the path of awareness, bright with surprise and clarity of insight and transformation. Here, from the first poem in the book, titled “Origami”:

Watch this!
A square of paper
folded
on itself
becomes a crane. . .
When my spirit lies
flat and limp,
a lost scrap
under my heart’s table,
I must bend
and stretch,
touching all my corners.
Aha!
I see the tiger
emerging already!

mb43-BookReviews3Bird of the Present Moment

By Pamela Overeynder
Plain View Press, 2005
Soft cover, 79 pages

A sense of belonging, “each thing to every other,” infuses the poems in Bird of the Present Moment with the beauty and truth of nature; grasses “flowing nowhere in great waves,” and oaks that “go gladly with the wind,” and this from “Hillside Theater”: “The sun takes its final bow and melts down into the rock. Then like a child who doesn’t want to sleep, it peeks upward just before the chill.”

There are poems that declare the narrator’s delight in simple things like swimming “comfortable as a fish” and in brushing her teeth “to the rhythmic sound of crickets.” Other poems, like “Bird Island,” state in elegant simplicity what the poet knows from connecting deeply with herself and the present, in this case terrifying, moment:

What slowly seeps into both of us during
this longest night. . .
is the irreducible and indestructible truth
that the present moment
is all the life we have.

mb43-BookReviews4Gateways: Poems of Nature, Meditation and Renewal
A Self-Guided Book of Discovery

By Sylvia Levinson
Caernarvon Press, 2005
35 pages

Each of the 15 poems in Gateways is like a dharma sharing that opens mind and heart. The poems come from stopping, Levinsontells us in the introduction, and attending to life around and within. A withered fern offers a “meditation of resting.” During walking meditation a young monk “places a finger below a single droplet [and] waits for it to fall.” Sitting in the quiet of early morning, a finger traces “a sifting of pollen that has settled like powered sugar on the blue bowl”; ordinary experiences brought to life with attentiveness and shared as poems.

The poet is our guide to what may lie unnoticed, yet is alive within us right now. She does this by introducing each poem with a short prose description of the discovery that inspired the poem. Before “What Feeds My Soul,” she writes, “Things all around us can give moments of pleasure and peace.” Here, a fragment:

Yesterday, it was the little redheaded bird
that lit on my balcony and poked its beak
among the sweet alyssum.

Last month, the bowed head of a classical
guitarist
suspended over his instrument,
waiting as the final note disappeared. . .

After each poem, the author poses questions. For this poem, she asks the reader, “What ‘something’ takes you out of the routine and mundane and feeds your soul?” Opposite each written page is a  lined blank page, space for the reader to try writing poems of her own.

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Heart to Heart

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

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Letters to a Suicide Bomber

Dear Beloved One,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love and hope,

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

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Dear Friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

Murray Corke

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Dear Sirhan,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In friendship,

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

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Dear Brother, Dear Sister,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love and compassion,

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

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Dear Suicide Bomber,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear Friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deadlines, Hanging Out, and Spiritual Practice

By Charles Suhor

mb44-Deadlines1It wasn’t until late in my career that I saw connections between my spiritual practice, deadlines, and deep listening to colleagues and friends. It wasn’t until retirement that I linked all of those things to what’s commonly called “hanging out.”

In the Workplace

My job was a traffic jam of timetables for meetings, reports, and publications. There was always something overdue and a dozen things that seemed unlikely to be completed on schedule. I was deputy director of the National Council of Teachers of English, a group with 70,000 members and a staff of about eighty. Part of my work was absorbing discontent for the boss and interpreting both sane and silly organizational policies for constituents and staff members who had questions or problems. It wasn’t a rat race, but it surely was a race.

But the work was enjoyable, and it was solidly in the realm of right livelihood. This was a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving teachers and improving classroom instruction. Daily meditation and contemplative reading helped to bring mindfulness to the everyday clutter of work. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words were instructive: “During the moment when someone is consulting, resolving, and dealing with whatever arises, a calm heart and self-control are necessary.”

Even so, in the rush of things I often sensed a lack of easeful presence when working one on one with colleagues. When a co-worker came to my office, I often had a vague feeling that something else was looming on the horizon. I felt a need to address the matter at hand with intelligent dispatch so we could both move on to other tasks, like talking to someone at a party and being tempted to look over their shoulder to see if anyone more important was in the room.

This habit was broken when we got a new CEO. He would stop whatever he was absorbed in when I came to the door, invite me in, and sit for as long as I needed to talk through the matters at hand. More importantly, his relaxed demeanor gave the impression that nothing was more urgent than discussing my concern. Even when rejecting a proposal, he did so with a full sense of presence and no hint of a dismissive attitude.

This helped me question a deeply ingrained idea in our culture, the notion that my train of thought will be irretrievably broken if interrupted.

Ego alert! How important to the rumblings of the universe are my treasured ideas? And how hard is it, really, to get back into the flow of paperwork if I put it aside to talk to a real human being? I was surprised to find that it wasn’t all that difficult. You just do it. The idea of my train of thought was just another habituated mental shackle to avoid acknowledging that I didn’t want to be disturbed. With right effort I could simply stop the train and reboard it after talking to a colleague.

As it turned out, when I set the work before me aside I was happy to be released from it for a while, and I welcomed my colleagues wholeheartedly. I felt better, and the good feeling resonated with them. I moved from a sense of forbearance during these visits to feelings of freedom and loving kindness. And I was reminded of something I already knew. I liked these people, and I hadn’t been fully participating in the pleasure of their company. I could rest in the insight of Taizan Maezumi Roshi: “Deadline after deadline? There is no deadline! Each moment is a beginning as well as an end, not a goal or deadline set up by someone else.”

mb44-Deadlines2In Retirement and at Leisure

Obviously, “hanging out” isn’t a technical term. We all recognize it as something like open-ended conversation with others in a leisurely setting, either with no agenda or a general intention to talk about things of common interest as they occur.

For decades a busy family and professional life left me with little time for the kind of hanging out (except within the family circle) that I did in college and my early working years. Yes, there can be some grand, stolen moments and hours during the work year. You book a no-agenda lunch with a close friend and enjoy the spiritual high of intensive talk. You hang out with colleagues at the hotel after a twelve-hour day of conventioneering and unwind with friendly banter.

My leisure time in retirement opened new opportunities for hanging out. Conversations can go on, loosely knit, with no inclination to glance at the watch or mentally rehearse the next appointment. This isn’t limited to spending time with family and friends. If you’re a hobbyist, it’s hanging out at your favorite store and getting deeply into your common interests with a stranger. Or it’s the simple wonder of meeting someone new in a coffee shop, striking up a conversation, and learning something about a topic you didn’t think would interest you. I came to recognize that the camaraderie in these chance encounters resembled the feeling of welcome in office visits and the after-hours hanging out with colleagues during my work years.

Hanging out is not the same as “frivolous speech and idle chatter” that the Buddha cautioned against. When conversations are vain and superficial, our inner state is at first discomfiting, then painful. But the airy content of hanging out isn’t mere vacuous banter. Hanging out, like all talk in which compassionate engagement is the starting point, is experienced as a kind of background music for metta, the sending of loving intentions. With mindfulness, you become readily aware if the conversation drifts towards gossip, competition, manipulation, or other dissonance that unsettles the noble intention of right speech.

A Householder’s Skillful Means

The Buddha distinguished between the regimens of the monk and those of the householder, whose practice also embraces family life, livelihood, and interaction in the larger society. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says, “Lay persons will have more need for affectionate small talk with friends and family, polite conversation with acquaintances, and talk in connection with their line of work.”

I believe that hanging out is a householder’s skillful means, similar to a balanced work ethic, creative sex, and serious engagement in public discourse. The peace of connecting with each other through verbal interchange at work and at leisure is worthy of lay people’s special attention and cultivation. Granted, as householders we’re less likely to be able to associate daily with devotees and other guides to spiritual development. On the other hand, when we hang out we can look for, or often trip upon, the center of transcendence in a stranger. If that sounds unlikely, pull up a chair, friend, and we’ll talk about it for a while.

Charles Suhor lives in Montgomery, Alabama, “a place well-suited for the practice of engaged Buddhism,” and where he convenes a weekly meditation group at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

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Zen Noir: Mindfulness in Moviemaking

By Marc Rosenbush

Zen Noir began about thirteen years ago, when I was sitting in a Japanese Zen temple in Chicago. It was about 4:30 in the morning, and I was facing a row of fellow meditators and watching their heads bob up and down as they tried not to fall asleep and slide off their cushions onto the floor. Just then, a strange thought suddenly occurred to me. “What would happen if one of them just keeled over, dead?”

Of course the literal answer to this was that we’d all rush over to see what happened and then call an ambulance. But at that moment, for whatever reason, I found myself thinking in non-literal terms, thinking about the Buddhist view of death and how it differs from the way we usually think about death in the West. Here we’re taught that death is fundamentally unnatural, something that may happen to other people but is certainly not supposed to happen to us. So we obsess about youth and undergo painful plastic surgery and hide our old people away, all to avoid having to face our own mortality.

mb44-Zen1

There it was, the germ of an idea. I’d write a movie about a Westerner who has to confront the reality of death. And that was when the second idea suddenly popped into my head: why not make him a detective?

At last it all clicked: I’d write a mystery that takes place in a Zen temple, in which the detective must solve a koan that can’t be solved with logic or reason or any of the detective’s traditional Western tools. Instead of a murder, he’d have to solve the mystery of death itself.

Deep stuff. But it would also be funny. I’d adapt some traditional Chinese dialogs between Master and Student, which always felt like comedy routines to me anyway…

Student: Help me. Do something. Help me still my mind.

Master: Okay. Give me your mind.

So I started writing, and at first it went well. The characters were interesting, the jokes were working, and the message was…

Hmm. I stopped writing. For nearly four years. Something was missing. I knew I had a great, funny, intellectual idea for a film, but I kept feeling there was something more I could bring to it.

And that was when three things happened that changed my life forever:

  1. I got divorced.
  2. I lost a lot of money on a large project.
  3. I discovered the books of Thich Nhat Hanh and came to Plum Village for the first time.

The divorce and the financial loss had left me in a deep depression, but Thây’s teachings and the simple but powerful practices I learned in Plum Village changed me in some very profound ways:

  • A conversation with Sister Annabel helped me understand how to fully engage with my own suffering and see that it was something I felt, but that I was not that feeling.
  • Thây’s dharma talk about flowers and garbage helped me to better understand that the cycle of birth and death and transformation are all part of a single endless process that’s to be celebrated, not feared.
  • A story in Sister Chân Không’s book Learning True Love helped show me what living in the present moment is truly all about (this story even ended up in Zen Noir in a modified form, but you’ll have to see the movie to find out which story I’m talking about).
  • An older monk whose name I never learned helped me put my own suffering in perspective and become more aware of suffering in the world.

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Back home, as I began to incorporate the practice more deeply in my daily life, I found myself happier, more grounded, easier to be around, and less likely to get upset about the challenges I encountered.

And I began to write Zen Noir again.

The suffering I’d experienced and the transformation I’d undergone brought a much more personal, emotional flavor into the writing, and helped me discover what the film would really be about: impermanence and how Buddhism helps us understand and deal with it.

I won’t bore you with the long, slow process of getting the film made and distributed (independent filmmaking is a koan in and of itself), but suffice it to say the process was a constant test of my own mindfulness practice and required a lot of stopping and breathing as chaos swirled around me. In any case, many years and film festivals and awards later, Zen Noir is finally out in the world, doing what a movie is supposed to do, making people laugh and cry and learn and grow.

I’d like to share one last story to give you an idea of how Thây’s teachings and the lessons I learned at Plum Village are affecting people through the film.

At the Rhode Island International Film Festival, a woman in her seventies came up to me after the screening. She touched my arm and told me that she knew nothing about Buddhism, but that her husband had died just a few months earlier, and somehow watching Zen Noir helped her feel better about it. She then hugged me and thanked me and went on her way.

I’d like to pass that hug and that thanks on to Thây, Sister Chân Không, Sister Annabel, the monk whose name I never learned, and to all my friends and teachers at Plum Village, Maple Forest, Deer Park, and elsewhere. You are as much the authors of Zen Noir as I am and I bow humbly in appreciation.

Zen Noir opened in select U.S. cities in September 2006, and the DVD will be available in early 2007. For screening dates and locations, or to join the mailing list, visit www.zenmovie.com.

Marc Rosenbush, Elucidation of the Source, is an independent filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

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The Wonderful World of Gathas

By David Percival

mb45-TheWonderful1

The mind can go in a thousand directions,
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a cool wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.

If your path is like mine, you often find your mind jumping into the future, back to the past, fabricating ridiculous situations, and taking you to places you don’t want to go. Before you know it your path is littered with boulders of fear, anger, despair, frustration, and forgetfulness.

Thay tells us that the practice of Plum Village is to come back to the present moment and take care of the situation. Wherever we are — at home, at work, driving, gardening, at a meeting — we can use the energy of mindfulness to bring us back to ourselves, to the present moment. One powerful resource available to all of us is to make use of gathas throughout our day. Gathas are short poems or verses that we can recite, regardless of where we are, to help us return to the present moment and to dwell in mindfulness. Monastics in Thay’s tradition practice gathas throughout their day.

As Thay says, “when we practice well, the gathas are with us continuously and we live our whole lives in awareness.” Gathas allow us to focus our mind, making it possible to almost instantly return to ourselves. Gathas help us to stop our relentless running, to slow down, to enjoy life in the here and now. While we enjoy walking, sitting, washing the dishes, turning the compost, we can stop our wild thinking; then we see the wonders of life in the present moment.

At my first retreat in the late 1980s, Thay taught us the following gatha, strongly suggesting that we memorize it:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

I did what Thay suggested and I will carry this gatha with me always. It is a continuous source of peace and calm.

Dwelling in Mindfulness

In June 2006 at the Breath of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, Thay told us to use gathas and poetry to help us dwell in mindfulness throughout our day. For example, early in the morning, standing in front of my altar, I start every day as follows:

Waking this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Start by memorizing a few short gathas (see sidebar). Then add more, including longer ones. Notice the rhythm of the lines: recite the first line as you breathe in and recite the second line as you breathe out, and so on. When you are stuck in traffic, waiting in the queue at the bank, walking down a hallway at work, or going to the restroom, recite this gatha:

I have arrived (in-breath)
I am home (out-breath)
In the here (in)
And in the now (out) (repeat all four lines)

I am solid (in)
I am free (out) (repeat two lines)
In the ultimate I dwell (in)
In the Pure Land I dwell (out) (repeat two lines)

You will be able to sit, stand, or walk at ease. You can calm yourself, you can smile at the chaos around you, and you will be able to continue what you are doing in a focused mindful way. Then, when you find your mind going off in another direction, pull another gatha from your gatha storehouse.

If you do a lot of walking meditation, either slow or fast (for exercise), you will note the built-in rhythm of walking and the gatha adapts well to any kind of walking. For example, with fast walking, my rhythm is four steps to each stanza:

In (in breath, four steps)
Out (out breath, four steps)
Deep (in, four steps)
Slow (out, four steps)
Calm (in, four steps)
Ease (out, four steps)
Smile (in, four steps)
Release (out, four steps)
Present moment (in, four steps)
Wonderful moment (out, four steps)

Or, with slow walking use one step per line. For me, fast walking is a very mindful practice and I try to do it in the present moment, enjoying the blue sky, the flowers, the insects, the birds, and my faster breathing.

A gatha is a poem, a song (see A Basket of Plums), and a guided meditation. They are the same and used in different situations. For example, with “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” I sing or chant it to myself as I walk, as I drive, as I work in my garden. The rhythm of walking, weightlifting, and working adapts well to the stanzas.

A Gatha to Cool the Flames

How often anger creeps into my mind! What a pernicious little seed it is, suddenly sprouting at the slightest provocation. We need to recognize and embrace our anger. When anger arises, stop — do nothing. Let the flames cool. Use a gatha to come back to yourself. Smile at your anger.

Angry in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes and look deeply.
Three hundred years from now
where will you be and where will I be?

Finally, we can take existing gathas and adapt them to our individual situations – change some words, add your own lines. And, as Thay instructs us, write your own gathas. Encourage your children to write gathas. Ask your sangha to write and share gathas.

Sitting by the Garlic

For example, gardening is a major part of my life, a true meditation, a place to dwell happily in the present moment, a practice of non-self, impermanence, and interbeing:

Walking in my garden
I touch the present moment.
I am the flower.
I am the cloud.
I am the butterfly.
I hold some compost in my hand
And touch the essence of the Buddha.

Sitting by the garlic
the turtle moves under the mulch.
The beauty of life surrounds me.
Breathing in, I sit with impermanence.
Breathing out, I smile at the flowers.
Breathing in, I enjoy this moment.
Breathing out, there is no place to go.

The bits and pieces of our lives may seem routine and mundane – getting up, bathing, going to the bathroom, cooking, eating, washing dishes, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, being with friends, gardening, working, driving, etc. The joy of the practice is doing everything in mindfulness, no matter how routine, because all these little things when put together equal our lives. This is what we do. The practice is now or never, with what we do and where we are. We can experience the joy of moving through our days in freedom and with equanimity, walking with peaceful steps and looking at all beings with our eyes of compassion.

The day is ending and our life is one day shorter.
Let us look carefully at what we have done.
Let us practice diligently, putting our whole heart into the path of meditation.
Let us live deeply each moment and in freedom, so the time doesn’t slip away meaninglessly.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he makes the desert bloom. He practices with the Rainbow Sangha and he keeps the Mindfulness Bell circulating.

Resources for Gatha Practice

All of these are by Thich Nhat Hanh unless otherwise noted, and all are available from Parallax Press (www.parallax.org).

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: A beautiful short book with 49 gathas, featuring Thay’s commentary on each one.

Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training: This book is not just for monastics but is for everyone. It begins in Part One with 68 gathas.

Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices: A basic resource for our personal and sangha practice. See the section on gathas, pp. 37-41.

A Basket of Plums (ed. Joseph Emet): Gathas as songs; songs as gathas.

The Blooming of a Lotus – Guided Meditation Exercises for Healing and Transformation: While some of the meditations are very long, others are shorter and consist of familiar gathas.

The Energy of Prayer – How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice: See Appendix 2, “Buddhist Prayers and Gathas,” pp.145-155.

Thay occasionally brings gathas into his other books. Some examples: Touching the  Earth– Intimate Conversations with the Buddha, pp. 23, 71, and 72; No Death, No Fear, pp. 43 and 80. In The Path of Emancipation there is a beautiful explanation of “I Have Arrived, I am Home,” pp. 28-31, as well as a discussion of “In/Out, Deep/Slow,” pp. 115-119, and comments on “Being an Island Unto Myself,” pp. 181182.

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an excerpt of a talk at the Sandy Beach Hotel in Da Nang on April 10, 2007. Thay spoke in Vietnamese to an audience of intellectuals and answered some fascinating questions from the audience. 

Thich Nhat HanhMost of us think that happiness is made of fame, power, money. Every one of us wants to have more power. We want to have more fame and money, because fame and money give us more power. We keep believing that when we have more money, fame, and power we’ll be happy. I have met a lot of people with great power, with a lot of money and fame, but their suffering is deep. They are so lonely.

William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company in America, is the fourth generation of the billionaire Ford family. He came to practice with us in our practice center in Vermont. I offered him the gift of a bell, and I taught him how to invite the bell each day. He told me stories of millionaires and billionaires in America who have a lot of fear, sadness, and despair.

mb46-dharma2Who has more power than the President of the United States? But if we look into the person of President Bush we see he’s not a happy person. Even President Bush doesn’t have enough power to take care of all the problems that confront him. He’s so powerful — he has a great army, a great amount of money — but he cannot solve the problems in Iraq. He can’t spit it out and he can’t swallow it. You’re very lucky that you’re not the President of the United States! If you were the President of the United States you would not sleep all night long. How can you sleep when you know that in Iraq your young people die every day and every night. The number of American young people who have died there has gone up to more than three thousand. In Iraq — in that country that you want to liberate — nearly a million have died. The situation in Iraq is desperate.

The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the people with the most power feel that they never have enough power, and this is true. We believe that if we have power, we will be able to do what we want and buy what we want. We can buy a position, buy our enemies, buy anything. If we have power in our hands, we can do anything we want. We have to re-examine that belief, because in reality, I have met people who have great power and money and fame, and who suffer extremely.

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

In Buddhism we also talk about power. But power in Buddhism is very different; it is a kind of energy that can bring us a lot of happiness and bring a lot of happiness to others.

In Eastern philosophy and literature, we talk about the spiritual path. Each one of us has to have a spiritual direction in our lives. Whether we are business people, politicians, educators, or scholars, we should have a spiritual dimension in our daily lives. If we do not have that spiritual dimension, we cannot take care of tension and despair, or the contradictions in our mind. We can never establish good communication with our co-workers, our family, our community. Each one of us must have the power of the true spiritual path.

In Buddhism, we talk about the three powers that we can generate through our practice: cutting off afflictions, insight, and the capacity to forgive and to love.

The first one is the power to cut off our afflictions — to sever our passions, hatred, and despair. If we cannot cut off passion and hatred, we cannot ever have happiness. We can learn concrete practices to do this. Once we sever the ties of passion and hatred that bind us, we become light and free and spacious. If we have passion and hatred we suffer — both men and women, you have experience with this. We cannot eat, we cannot sleep; that is hell. So the first power is the capacity to cut off afflictions.

The second power is the power of insight — in Buddhism it is called prajna. It is not knowledge that we have accumulated from reading books or learning in school. Knowledge can be beneficial, but it can also become an obstacle. In Buddhism we say that the only career of a practitioner is insight. The insight of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — what we call enlightenment — has the capacity to cut off afflictions and to generate the noble sentiments of compassion, loving kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity. That’s our only career, to give rise to insight. Once we have insight we can unravel our afflictions and help others to take care of their difficulties very quickly, just like a medical doctor. You only need to listen to the symptoms and you’ll be able to make a diagnosis and give the appropriate treatment.

mb46-dharma3The third power in Buddhism is the capacity to forgive. When we have the capacity to accept and to love, we do not have reproach or enmity. That love manifests in the way we look, in the way we speak. When we look with the eye of compassion and loving kindness, when we speak loving words, we are the ones who benefit first of all. In the Lotus  Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks at all beings with compassion. Looking at all beings with the eye of compassion is a wonderful way of behaving like the bodhisattva — without reproach, without hatred. And the person that we are looking at in this way feels forgiven and loved. We can help others to be liberated from ignorance and from the traps they are caught in.

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

When we have these three powers — the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to accept, love, and forgive — then fame, money, and power become wonderful tools. It is then that the more money we have the better, the more power the better, because they become means to help people, to enhance life. Buddhism does not accuse or judge people who want to become rich or successful in politics or business, but while you’re pursuing these things you should have a spiritual dimension. We must behave on a foundation of love, insight, and wisdom.

In the time of the Buddha, Anathapindika was an example of this kind of businessman. If you are a business person or a politician and you have love and compassion, then you become a bodhisattva. You have the capacity to cut off your passions and your hatred; you have insight to help resolve problems at your work; you have the capacity to accept and forgive people’s mistakes. You have a lot of power — spiritual power.

As Buddhist teachers we should not abuse our power. It is not because you are the abbot of a temple or the eldest in a temple that you have power. It is because you have the capacity to cut off afflictions, to forgive, and to love. It’s not because you are the abbess or the teacher that people listen to you, it’s because of your love and compassion.

In the political or business arena, the power of the owner or the leader has to be based on the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to love and forgive. Then you use your position skillfully and the things you do will not cause dissension. If you do not generate these three virtuous powers, power and money will corrupt everything, including the life of the owner or the leader. That is why spiritual direction is very important.

The Greatest Success 

The Buddha taught that we do not have to hurry towards the future to have happiness; we can be happy right now and right here. The greatest success is to live with love right in the present moment. We have the time to take care of ourselves. If we have pain, tension, irritation, and agitation, we suffer and naturally we cause others to suffer, including our loved ones. That is why we have to have time for ourselves. Then we’ll have time for our family and our community.

Come back to the present moment, do not allow the future to occupy all your energy and time. That is a very important principle from Buddhism. To come back is not easy, because we have the habit energy of running towards the future. Stopping that momentum, coming back to each step, to each breath — that is the basic practice. By living each moment of daily life, living in a way that is deep and free, we can be in touch with the wonders of life.

In a practice center, the basic practice is to use the breath and the steps to bring us back to the present moment. For example, when you listen to a bell you stop all your thinking and speaking and you come back to your breath. You breathe and you bring the mind back to the body, you are truly present in the present moment. In our daily life there are a lot of times our body is here but our mind is wandering in the past and the future. Our minds are not truly present in the body and we’re not present for ourselves. How can we be present for our loved ones, for our wives and husbands? These practices are very practical and clear, and they’re not difficult if we have the chance to begin.

I would like to leave the rest of the time so that you can pose questions related to the topic that we discussed today. Thank you for listening.

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

Man from audience: First, I’m very surprised when your disciples still keep their religion. For example, if they are priests or pastors or ministers, do they keep their religion? Second, I know that besides being a monk, you are also a scholar. I have read a few of your writings, and I see that you have done work to spread and explain Vietnamese Buddhism to the world, just like Master Van Hanh (1). How have you contributed to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism as a scholar?

Thay: Back when Christian missionaries came to Vietnam, they often tried to convert the Vietnamese people and force them to give up their tradition to embrace the new religion. This caused a lot of suffering.

mb46-dharma4When we had boat people dwelling in refugee camps in Thailand or in other countries, there were also missionaries. They wanted to help those boat people and also tried to lure them to follow their religions. It’s a great pity to force somebody to lose their roots. That is why when we bring Buddhism to Westerners, we tell them, “Do not give up your religion; you can study Buddhist practices to help you take care of your difficulties of body and mind and to learn great love and compassion. You do not have to lose your root religion, because we don’t think that’s the best way.”

In the West, there is a great number of young people who leave their Christian religion because that tradition does not provide the practices that people need today. A lot of people give up their religion and many of them come to practice with us. I have told them, “Once you practice with us, you can go back to help renew your own tradition and religion.” If a country does not have a spiritual foundation, that nation will not endure. So the Westerners see that Buddhism is very inclusive, accepting all and embracing all without denying other traditions.

In Buddhism, we call that spirit of inclusiveness equanimity or non-discrimination. It means that we embrace all. If we say that you have to leave your religion so that you can take refuge in the Three Jewels — that’s not very Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. That is why we have been able to help the pastors and ministers. In their hearts they still love their religion, but they practice wholeheartedly because in Buddhism we have very concrete practices to help them take care of their tension and stress, and help them to help people. If we hold that only our religion has the right view, and other religions do not have absolute truth, this will cause war. Buddhism does not do that.

When we organize retreats or have public talks in the West, many thousands of people come to listen to me, but they’re not Buddhists. Most of them come from a Christian or Jewish background. Sometimes I give a teaching in a church and more people come than at Christmas time, because they see that Buddhism is very noble, very open. It is inclusive and non-discriminative. Moreover, now scientists find inspiration in Buddhism because they see interdependence and emptiness; these teachings attract a lot of scientists to Buddhism.

The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.

You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and whose mother was a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.

In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning  the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.

Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That’s why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.

When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?

Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils. That is something I can share.

The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties (2) they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.

If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new Dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.

We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.

Question: Thinking About the Future

Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to reexamine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.

mb46-dharma5The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.

What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.

In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.

Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.

Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.

We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.

Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.

To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.

People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.

The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.

That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

1 This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.

2 The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.

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

Sitting in the Spring Breeze

The Sangha in Vietnam, February–May 2007

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In a letter from Hue, Brother Phap Lai wrote, “Tomorrow the Sangha flies and will land in Hanoi for the final leg of this 2007 ‘Sitting in the Spring Breeze’ Vietnam trip.”

These sketches from monastic and lay participants give us a glimpse into the power and beauty of the Sangha’s historic journey to Vietnam with Thich Nhat Hanh.

Brother Phap Lai continues, “So far the ancestors, patriarchs and Vietnam’s present-day Sangha have been taking wonderful care of us, opening the door for the Dharma, for Thay and the Sangha to touch the hearts of so many people. The trip continues harmoniously although there is plenty of diplomatic work going on behind the scenes to help it be so. Thay is tired at times but you seldom know it as he shines, offering his best each and every day. At ease connecting with the old and new generations of Vietnam, whether it be monastics or devoted congregations of women, intellectuals, politicians or business people, Thay disarms folks with his warmth and humor.”

Flow

When I fi st stepped out of the airport of Ho Chi Minh City, I thought I would never survive crossing the amazing flood of motorbikes. How could I imagine the great lesson I would learn by first being forced to jump into this phenomenon, and then by looking deeply into it. This experience is all about the collective and individual management of constant change, of confidence and the vital importance of connection and absolute awareness of the present moment — “Go with the flow!”

—Dagmar Quentin

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Ceremonies to Heal and Transform

In Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] the first of the three “Great Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All to Untie the Knots of Great Injustice” was conducted at Vinh Nghiem Temple. The second of these took place in Dieu De Temple in the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue, which, as a battleground between the North and South, suffered terribly with many thousands of civilians killed. Thousands of lay people came to both Vinh Nghiem and Dieu De Temples over the course of the three-day ceremonies. Many Sanghas in the West as well as those in Vietnam who were unable to come conducted their own ceremonies in their own centers and homes.

The three days included daily Dharma talks by Thay in which he particularly encouraged us to generate wholesome, forgiving, and loving thoughts, and to purify the three karmas or actions of body, speech, and mind. Thay shared about the practice of beginning anew, even for those who have committed the worst of bodily actions. If we know how to begin anew and purify the mind of wrong thinking, then like a phoenix rising from the ashes we can free ourselves from the complex of guilt and despair to become a true bodhisattva. Thay also read several times “Prayers and Vows to Be Expressed During the Great Requiem Ceremony,” which set the spiritual intention and offered a common aspiration for all [see page 16].

In Saigon, ceremonies were led by Master Le Trang, Abbot of Vien Giac Temple, whose concentration and wholehearted intention as well as his expertise in chanting and mudras enriched the event tremendously. Each day it seemed he donned a different and more elaborately embroidered sanghati. For the opening ceremony Thay was persuaded to wear the dress reserved for the highest master. After that Thay was happy to return to wearing his own simple sanghati.

As well as the dress many of the ritual instruments and other ornamentations are rarely if ever used, instead being preserved as precious antiques, relics of the tradition. Traditionally dressed musicians playing the old instruments — percussion, a single stringed box guitar, and a reeded woodwind horn — accompanied the chanting master and the processions in general. Monks also sounded conch horns at various stages of the procession. The musicians were able to continuously follow, build, and crescendo with each nuance of the chanted texts for the whole three days. Their contribution was magnificent. The second evening ended with a grand procession of monastic and lay people to set thousands of candles in origami lotus flowers floating down the river along with our prayers and vows for those who were killed in the Vietnam war. In Hue a similar event had our whole sangha board a flotilla of large tourist boats and after some time traveling upstream we congregated to set the lighted candles on the Perfume River while chanting. The image of hundreds of floating candles emitting their soft light could not fail to touch our hearts and the onlookers from the bridge.

In Saigon, the entire floor area underneath the Buddha Hall was converted into a maze of altars draped with golden yellow fabrics. Incredible artistry went into decorating many altars, each with their own bodhisattva, some fierce looking, some gentle. Part of this was an inner sanctum that served as the main area for the long chanting sessions. During these sessions only monastics could enter in order to generate and maintain the high level of concentration necessary. Lay people followed these on a big screen outside but at various points the chanting master would lead a procession outside to the temple gates and back. Outside the inner sanctum altars held food offerings and lists of hundreds of loved ones with the date they were killed in the war. After the very final chanting of the three-day ceremony at 2:00 a.m. all the decorations, altars, papier-mâché statues made especially for the Grand Requiem Ceremony and the lists of countrymen and women who died were burned together as an offering.

With the support of the monastic and lay community of Saigon and the cooperation of government officials, the ceremony that took place in Saigon was a major success. Mass ceremonies of this scale and intention are a unique occurrence in Vietnam. It is not surprising they are controversial — they bring up past suffering and require acknowledgment that great injustices were suffered on both sides. It has not always been possible to attain the official acceptance of a ceremony that acknowledges that people suffered unspeakable injustices on both sides and that asks that we pray equally for all without any discrimination across the old divides of geography and ideology, man and woman, civilian and the army. Imagine previously warring nations coming together in this spirit and one begins to understand the significance of these ceremonies, the potential healing but also the obstacles in the mind that prevent them from taking place.

—Brother Phap Lai

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A Miracle at Bat Nha

In the magical mountainous region described by Thay in Fragrant Palm Leaves near the town of Bao Loc, Lam Dong province, about six hours north of Saigon, is Bat Nha Temple. Sadly, much of the ancient rainforest once inhabited by tigers has been cleared for coffee and tea plantations. Many in this region form the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. A long tradition of trust has developed between these indigenous people — some of whom ordained at Bat Nha — and our community, thanks to long-time funding for social projects from Plum Village. Arriving in Bat Nha, we were hosted by some three hundred young monks and nuns, nearly all under twenty-five, who were ordained as novice monastics under Thay since the last Vietnam trip in 2005. At that time the Abbot Duc Nghi, a devoted follower of Thay, offered the temple to Thay and the Sangha. Since then, with funding from the Western Sangha via Plum Village and lots of dedicated work from the Sangha and local people, many new buildings have sprung up including a very large Dharma hall, the Garuda Wings Hall, and two residences for the hundreds of newly ordained.

The first major event held in Bat Nha on this trip was a four-day residential retreat for lay people. Prior to the retreat the limit of those registered had been set at 2000 but by the evening before we had more than 4000 names registered. After hearing that a full bus of people from Saigon (six hours away) had been turned back by the monastery guards because they weren’t registered, Thay made it clear he did not want to turn away anyone who had come for the Dharma. But numbers were growing and where to house everyone? As planned the big new hall was used as one dormitory but many more had to fit in than was first intended. For instance, the football field with the help of acres of tarp was transformed into a dormitory for 1000. From the first day the cooks say they prepared for 7000 but there were as many as 10,000 people on the Sunday of Mindfulness. Considering the huge number of people attending everything went extraordinarily well. The registration team kept their cool, practicing mindfulness and compassion, and all who came found a place to sleep and go to the toilet! The cooking teams of Bat Nha’s brothers and sisters along with local supporting lay friends performed daily miracles preparing three good meals a day for everyone. Forty lines for food provided a good flow and everyone was able to eat together in families at one sitting.

—Brother Phap Lai

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Phuong Boi Ordination

Our time together on this trip has given the monastics of Plum Village and the centers in the United States and our young brothers and sisters in Vietnam a chance to meet. In Bat Nha we enjoyed drinking tea, making music, working together, two rather serious games of soccer and the odd dramatic downpours from broody evening skies.

The last week in Bat Nha included a five-day Grand Ordination Ceremony given the name “Phuong Boi” (Fragrant Palm Leaves). It included transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to 100 monks and nuns and forty lay practitioners, all Vietnamese with the exception of our German brother Kai presently living in Hanoi. There was also a ceremony to transmit the ten novice precepts; it is always an exciting and heart-warming day when a new family of novice monastics are brought into the Sangha. We now have the sweet young Sandalwood family of eighty-nine young novices in our fold. An age range of 15 to 25 limits the numbers although there were some exceptions.

Fifty-three bhikshus [monks] and fi y-four bhikshunis [nuns] were ordained by a special envoy of Venerable Monks who came especially to form the official presiding Ordination Committee. The Lamp was transmitted by Thay to twelve new Dharma Teachers.

—Brother Phap Lai

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Receiving the Lamp Transmission

Several of you asked me before I left about my gatha. It really started to come together when we visited a beautiful waterfall near Bat Nha. I sat there watching the 200-meter-tall streams of water falling and felt so peaceful and calm. Then I saw this old, kind face in the rock, smiling mischievously to me! I had to laugh back. My father [OI member Al Lingo] was one attendant for the Lamp Transmission, Sr. Dao Nghiem, a younger sister from the Persimmon family, was the other. I shared a little in Vietnamese at the beginning and cried quite a bit. I spoke mostly about my gratitude to Thay and the Sangha, and about my monastic path as a journey of self-acceptance. I sang “Amazing Grace” at the end.

This is my gatha:

A face in the wet rock smiles to me
Wise, loving eyes twinkle with laughter
Everything I need is already here
I am totally at ease
Before I was born, my work was already accomplished
At every stage of manifestation we are complete
There is no final product. No progress needs to be made.
You don’t have to change!
Just be yourself, love yourself
It is the only way to make progress.
Let go, fall without fear
Like the waterfall, dancing its endless dance of freedom.
Wheeee!

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Bowing to the Mystery

Following Thay and the monastics our Western delegation moves into the An Quang Temple in Saigon. We are greeted by Vietnamese men and women in the same grey temple robe we are wearing on this trip. Again a woman bows to me, her hands folded in front of her heart. I stop and return the bow. As we both straighten up and look at each other, she has tears in her eyes — and me too. How old is she, seventy, eighty years maybe? What may she have experienced during the war? Who does she see in me? What do I represent? I allow myself not to know, as I so often do on this trip. I practice simply trusting that Thay’s wish to bring healing and transformation to Vietnam will be fulfilled and that wondrously I can make a tiny contribution to it.

—Heike Mayer

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Treasure of Healing

I was so moved by the chanting and Grand Requiem Ceremonies in Saigon. Many of us had powerful experiences of connection and healing and reconciliation. I touched my own ancestors in a new way during the last night of eight hours of straight chanting. I felt their presence and their happiness, even those I never knew. I also felt connected to the many land ancestors throughout the history of the U.S.—all the injustices and tragedies they suffered, from the decimation of native peoples, slavery, to the many wars. I invited them to come into the space we created for healing, for peace. I was surprised that I could sit still for so long, peaceful, concentrated, and present. The monks who led the chanting and all the thousands of people practicing with us outside the hall at Vinh Nghiem temple created a powerful atmosphere of transformation. Afterwards, instead of feeling tired I was energized by this rare and precious event.

Sister Chan Khong told us many monasteries brought out statues and artifacts for the ceremonies that had not been publicly displayed in years — national treasures held in secret for preservation. Many sanghas joined to host this event, unprecedented in Vietnam on such a large scale. I feel so grateful to Thay for holding his vision. In the West, we have so many unhealed, misunderstood, unacknowledged wounds. If only we had taken time to be with the suffering of the Vietnam war, to recognize and heal it, the war in Iraq would never have happened.

–Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Kitchen Mindfulness

I was on a cooking team at Tu Hieu for working meditation. In the kitchen as we made breakfast starting at 3:30 a.m., the energy was peaceful and calm, everyone still sleepy and soft. Everywhere in Vietnam we cooked with wood. One of my favorite jobs was to sit in front of the stove fanning the fire. I did whatever task I was given, finding each enjoyable. Many lay people came to help—even lay men cooking along with women! Once when we were making lunch, we ran out of things to do at 9:00 a.m. so we all sat in the dining hall and taught each other songs until the food arrived. Just being together, the smiles, the care, we weren’t really there to work, yet everything happened as it needed to and the meals were always on time.

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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A Chorus of Grass Birds

Today, after sitting meditation we practiced walking meditation through the peaceful temple grounds of Thay’s root temple in Tu Hieu. We gathered to sit silently in a circle on the same grass where he played as a child monk. I was four feet from Thay — just breathing, smiling, joyous — a treasure I will never forget. Then he delighted us all — picked a wide blade of grass, put it in

his palm, and suddenly impishly blew, making grass sound like a bird — gleeful as a boy! This started a chorus of monks and nuns chirping with their own grass leaves, a veritable bird chorus! A light private moment, a glimpse into the playfulness of a forever young 82-year-old poet.

—Harriet Wrye

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An Offering of Shoes

During the last powerful evening of chanting in Hue, I was really present for myself, for my inner child, and for the many who died in the war, seeing them healed, happy, restored. When the monks blessed the rice and threw it into the crowd, people began to push and shove us, trying to get some of the rice. They believe if they make soup from rice blessed in such an important ceremony, any sick person who eats it will heal. So I got up from quiet sitting to become a bodyguard for the chanting monks! Holding back the rowdy crowds, I’ve never seen my sisters so tough.

My shoes stolen, I walked barefoot in the mud among fallen food offerings to burn paper tablets on the ancestral altar, ending our ceremony. Many of our shoes were taken that evening. One barefoot brother casually said, “It was an offering”!

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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“Each of My Steps Is a Prayer”

Upon touching down in California after the Vietnam pilgrimage I felt like I had been put through the wash, then spun partly dry. As a dietitian it’s easy for me to say there was a lot to consume as we went from Ho Chi Minh City to the north in a short time. I see that it took all the ingredients of Vietnam’s wars, including over six million deaths, to have conditions necessary for a compassionate teacher to conduct extraordinary ceremonies of reconciliation and healing. Concurrently, many of us pilgrims were advancing our own personal transformations by leaving our cozy, familiar world to join in one or more of the journey’s segments. My personal experience in several Great Requiem Ceremonies untied my own knots of great injustice. This seemed to be so for others I talked with along the way. We were fortunate to be Thay’s supporting cast during his epic reconciliation and healing production, students and teacher practicing in the spring breeze of Vietnam.

Everyone’s effort, using a solid-as-a-mountain practice, helped transform the government’s distrust of Thay’s sincere intention to help the situation in his homeland. It was amazing to be at dozens of talks, at retreats and ceremonies with tens of thousands of Vietnamese. For most, it was their first glimpse of Thay, the mysterious, most venerable who transforms the suffering of the West and East. To observe Thay’s presence and focus while big crowds bowed, chanted and touched the earth before him was unforgettable and humbling. Westerners who posted words and images during the 2005 trip inspired me to share pictures and a blog. The teacher in me wanted to help sangha friends and family stay tapped in as events unfolded. As a final offering to the Sangha, I produced a 42-minute video, “Each of My Steps Is a Prayer” — words Thay used to describe his practice — presenting sounds and images of transformation and beauty in Vietnam. I am donating the video to the Sangha as a way to raise funds for Vietnam’s monastics.

The video is currently in English and works on NTSC DVD players; a version formatted for European PAL players is also available. Please send two checks or money orders, one for a tax-deductible $13.00 donation made out to “UBC Deer Park” and the other $3.00 for shipping made out to “David Nelson,” to: David Nelson VN07, 4360 Jasmine Avenue, Culver City, California 90232. Make sure to include your shipping address. Or contact David at rezdog_latte@hotmail.com for information.

—David Nelson

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Poem: Rising Steam

mb46-Rising1Steam rises from the water
On a cold winter day.
The past is past,
But always in the present.
This moment contains:
My grandfather mining for coal,
My father in the War,
My son’s life,
My son’s death,
The birth of Jesus.
And yet I am just breathing
And sitting here.
This moment contains the future
From now on
Determining its way.
And yet I am just breathing
And walking here.
As I breathe
The steam,
Once the snow,
Once the ocean,
Rises, now on its way
On a cold winter day.

—Stan Voreyer

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Letting Go

 

By Roberta Schnorr

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Sweat.

I am bathed in sweat.

The temperature has gone up ten degrees since breakfast. I have put on more clothes: a long sleeved “Haz-Mat” suit, huge rubber overshoe boots, and three pairs of gloves (nitrile medical gloves, covered by dishwashing gloves, covered by leather work gloves). A respirator conceals my nose and mouth; goggles cover my eyeglasses. Each breath smells and tastes like old rubber tires. The stale moisture from my lungs accumulates. My glasses fog. Time to move.

To manage these giant boots I learn to pick up each foot a little higher. I take smaller steps; I am conscious of each step. The crotch of my jumpsuit goes to my knees. The legs are long, the body loose and baggy. Sitting, kneeling — and especially getting back up — requires mental planning. Climbing a stepladder in floppy boots and a baggy suit is a new exercise. Once, I almost fall, trying to descend too quickly. I catch myself, regroup, and take it one step at a time. I make certain both feet are on the floor before I pivot or walk away.

My tools are a hammer and a short pry bar. I find that I am able to wrap my thickly gloved fingers around these, and possibly, use them. Time to work.

I am in New Orleans in July. It has been nearly two years since Katrina washed away those old, tired levees. It is not Cajun food or jazz that beckons, but a wish to help drain the stagnant pool left by disaster and neglect. Here I stand, inside my Haz-Mat suit, boots, goggles and triple gloves. I am like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz.

I Am Melting!

But somehow, I am okay. It seems my fears about my ability to tolerate the heat were unfounded. I am not nauseous. I have no headache, no migraine aura. I am really okay.

I am working with a team of eight people — adults and teenage youth. We are “gutting” a house. Our instructions are simple: all paneling, sheetrock, tile, molding, doors, insulation, carpet, and linoleum must go. We must find and pull every interior nail. All that will remain are two-by-four studs and subfloor.

Three of us begin in a small bedroom. We learn how to negotiate this job and coordinate our movements in the confined space. We work without talking, silenced by bulky respirators.

Everywhere I turn, I notice the water stains on the walls — about twenty-four inches above the floor. This marks the peak — where the floodwaters crested and stood after filling this home. As I pull Sheetrock from interior closet walls I find a barrette and a Barbie doll shoe. I think of my daughters and the bedroom they shared when they were small. This barren space was once a little girl’s room. I picture her, playing with her dolls, trying to sit still while her mother does her hair; sleeping snugly in her “big girl” bed.

It is hot. We take a break every hour. When one of us stops to rest, we tell all the others. We lay down our tools, remove our respirators and gloves, and gather in the backyard. We pull cold water bottles from the cooler and pass them around. We settle under a little shade — on coolers and storage boxes. As we sit and drink the best water we have ever tasted, we notice each other, and more. Sometimes there is a gentle breeze. We are grateful.

Among our little group are friends, and also, new acquaintances. Here we sit, bound by shared effort on this modest, water-stained house. As we huddle in the meager shade, I am struck by what I experience with my new teammates. There is no need to fill the space with chatter. We talk. We listen. We are still. Words or silence — it feels just right.

Working Meditation

I notice, even on my first day, that I find a rhythm and unfamiliar satisfaction as I plug along. The old walls give up Sheetrock easily — except for the six to eight inches near the floor. Real wood baseboard — four inches high — is snugly fastened around each room’s perimeter. I try prying the baseboard from the studs. It does not budge. I kneel down for a closer look. At the bottom of the baseboard is quarter round. A closer look reveals more— carpet strip — a flat strip of wood that fastened the edges of wall-to-wall carpet.

After some experimentation, I figure out how to get under one end of the carpet strip. I use the straight end of my pry bar and hammer, removing the strip three or four inches at a time. I return to my starting place and position my pry bar (the curved end this time) on top of the quarter round, near the baseboard. I hammer down on the curve of the bar and the quarter round gives. Working in tenor twelve-inch sections seems best. Finally, I approach the solid wood baseboard. I move steadily from one two-by-four stud to the next, inserting the curved end of my pry bar, hammering (down) then prying (up), hammering and prying. At some unpredictable point the length of baseboard gives. Long sections come loose.

I realize how different this feels from my usual mind states. I am focused, fully present — not daydreaming or racing to reach some imaginary goal. Occasionally, my mind wanders. I think about an unfinished project that awaits me at home. Each time, I catch my thoughts, let go, come back. I will give it my full attention when I get home. I realize that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am fully engaged with the task at hand. It seems I am able to be just here, hammering, prying and sliding along. I am not fighting the repetitive work and slow progress — I am pulled into a friendly, rhythmic pace. I work with, not against this old house, coaxing her along, as she slowly surrenders her handsome wood trim.

One day, as we pull Sheetrock from the ceiling, we discover what seems like miles of corner bead, a strong metal trim that forms and sustains the corner joints. Working overhead on a shaky stepladder, it presents a new challenge. I change my method, pulling down all of the Sheetrock first. Blown-in insulation spills out, covering my head and shoulders. I press forward, exposing the

relentless corner bead. I try force. I try pulling. Finally, I concede to its strength and seek its pattern. The corner bead is nailed every three inches. I can free only three inches at a time. I accept this truth and focus on one nail, then another nail.

Something shifts in this moment. The struggle is over. I use my claw hammer — insert at the point of the nail and push away. One by one, the nails come free, often with a single push. As with the baseboard, I find my rhythm, and I am right there, nail after nail, foot after foot of corner bead — like me — just letting go.

An Unexpected Retreat

In New Orleans, in the house of a woman I will never meet, I discovered long, silent hours to be with myself, working mindfully, staying present. I was surprised that in this place, my mind did little wandering, but tuned in, moment by moment, to the present. Here, I did not think about tasks or outcomes, discovering satisfaction as I became one with the process — accessing an unfamiliar rhythm as I pulled sheetrock and molding, freed corner bead, shoveled debris, or pushed a wheelbarrow.

Time with people I hardly knew was pleasant, tranquil. We came together every hour, for cool water and rest. At midday, we traded items from simple box lunches. We talked. We listened. We sat in silence with our weary breath.

In this time far from home, doing unfamiliar work, I was, for many moments, present — to myself, to others. Present — to my experience — right here, right now — in someone’s stripped house in New Orleans.

Romb48-Letting2berta Schnorr lives in Central Square, New York with her husband Dick and teenage daughters Grete and Molly. She is an education professor at SUNY Oswego.  In July, 2007, Roberta and Grete traveled to New Orleans with members of a Lutheran church to assist families whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

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Dharma Talk: History of Engaged Buddhism

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanoi, Vietnam – May 6 -7, 2008 

At the beginning of the seven-day English-language retreat in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a rare glimpse into his early career. This excerpt from two Dharma talks reveals Thay as a teacher, social activist, and prolific writer – and revolutionary advocate of Engaged Buddhism, also called Applied Buddhism. 

In 1949 I was one of the founders of the An Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, and I taught the first class of novices. The temple was very simple, built of bamboo and thatch. The name of the temple was actually Ung Quang. A Dharma teacher came from Danang, the Venerable Tri Huu, and we both built Ung Quang temple. The war was going on between the French and the Vietnamese resistance movement. 

Five years later, in 1954, the Geneva Accord was signed and the country was divided into two parts: the North was communist, and the South was anti-communist. Over one million people migrated from the North to the South, among them many Catholics. There was a lot of confusion in the country. 

At the Ung Quang temple from time to time we received French soldiers who came to visit us. After Dien Bien Phu the war with the French ended, and it was agreed that the country should be divided and the French would withdraw from the country. I remember talking to the French soldiers. Many of them came to Vietnam and died in Vietnam. 

A Fresh Look at Buddhism 

In 1954 there was great confusion in the minds of people in Vietnam, especially the young people – monks, nuns, lay practitioners. The North was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the South, president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was trying to run the country with another kind of ideology called “personalism.” It seemed that the ideological war had begun. 

Buddhism is a very ancient tradition in Vietnam, and most of the people have a Buddhist seed in them. Mr. Vu Ngoc Cac, manager of a daily newspaper, asked me to write a series of articles about Buddhism. He wanted me to offer insight as to the spiritual direction we should take in order to deal with the great confusion in the country. So I wrote a series of ten articles with the title, “A Fresh Look at Buddhism.” 

It is in this series of ten articles that I proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism — Buddhism in the realm of education, economics, politics, and so on. So Engaged Buddhism dates from 1954. 

At that time I did not use a typewriter, I just wrote in the oldfashioned way. And they came and they took the article, and the article was always printed on the front page with a big red title. The newspaper sold very, very well because people were very thirsty. They wanted spiritual direction because confusion was so huge. 

Rose Tea and Fresh Corn 

That series of articles was published as a book later on. Not long after, I visited Hue. Duc Tam, who had been in the same class as me at the Buddhist Institute, was the editor of another Buddhist magazine. His temple was on a small island in the Perfume River, Huong Giang, where they grow a very tasty kind of corn. He invited me to stay a few weeks in his temple. Every morning he offered me tea with a kind of rose — it’s a very tiny flower, but it smells nice when you put it in the tea. Every day we did walking meditation through the neighborhood, and we bought some fresh corn. He nourished me with rose tea and fresh corn, and he wanted me to write another series of articles on Engaged Buddhism! [laughs] 

In fact, I wrote another series of ten articles with the title “Buddhism Today,” which was also on the theme of Engaged Buddhism. This series was translated into French by Le Vinh Hao, a scholar who lives in Paris. The title he took for the book is Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme. 

In 1964 when I visited America to give a series of lectures, I met Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and I gave him a copy of Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme; he wrote a review. 

Buddhism That Enters Into Life 

In 1963-64, I was lecturing on Buddhism at Columbia University. The struggle led by the Buddhists for human rights ended the regime of President Diem. Maybe you have heard about the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself with fire, and who drew the attention of the whole world to the violation of human rights in Vietnam. That was a completely nonviolent movement for human rights. When the Diem regime fell, I was asked by my colleagues to come home and help. 

So I went home. I founded Van Hanh University, and I published a book called Engaged Buddhism, a collection of many articles I had written before. 

I think this is the first time you have this information. [laughs] 

This is the beginning of 1964. I had written these articles before that, but I put them together and published under the title Engaged Buddhism, or Dao society. Di vao cuoc doi. Cuoc doi here is “life” or “society.” Di vao means “to enter.” So these were the words that were used for Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam: di vao cuoc doi, “entering into life, social life.” 

Six months later I produced another book, Dao Phat hien dai hoa, “Buddhism updated,” “Buddhism renewed.” This is the Chinese — Buddhism made actual, the actualization of Buddhism. So all these terms, all these documents, have to do with what we call “Engaged Buddhism.” And after that I wrote many other books – Buddhism of Tomorrow. [laughs] 

But at that time already, my name was banned by the government of the South, the anti-communist government, because of my activities for peace, calling for reconciliation between North and South. I became persona non grata. I could not go home anymore, and I was in exile. 

So my book, Buddhism of Tomorrow, could not be published in Vietnam under my name. I used a montagnard’s name — Bsu Danlu. You may wonder where that name came from. In 1956 we founded a practice center in the highland of Vietnam called Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery, Phuong Boi. We bought the land from two montagnards, K’Briu and K’Broi. The name of the village where the Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery was situated is Bsu Danlu. 

Wisdom in the Here and Now 

I continued to publish my books in Vietnam with many other names. I wrote a history of Vietnamese Buddhism in three thick volumes and I signed the name Nguyen Lang. So although I was away from the country thirty-nine years, I continued to write books and some of them were published in Vietnam under different names. 

As we have said, the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy! 

Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now. 

A Fresh Take on the Four Noble Truths 

We can speak about Engaged Buddhism in terms of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is dukkha, ill-being. Traditionally Buddhist teachers have spoken of the First Noble Truth in this way: old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, separation from those you love is suffering. Leaving all those you love; wishing for something but never obtaining it. But these are old ways of describing the First Noble Truth. Now as we practice mindfulness we have to identify the kind of ill-being that is actually present. First of all we know there is a kind of tension in the body, a lot of stress. We can say that suffering today involves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, violence, broken families, suicide, war, conflict, terrorism, destruction of the ecosystem, global warming, etc. 

We should be fully present in the here and the now and recognize the true face of ill-being. 

The natural tendency is to run away from suffering, from ill-being. We don’t want to confront it so we try to escape. But the Buddha advises us not to do so. In fact he encourages us to look deeply into the nature of the suffering in order to learn. His teaching is that if you do not understand the suffering you cannot see the path of transformation, the path leading to the cessation of suffering. 

All of us know that the First Noble Truth is ill-being and the Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. Without understanding the First you never have the opportunity to see the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. 

You should learn to come home to the present moment in order to recognize ill-being as it is; and as we practice looking deeply into the First Noble Truth, ill-being, we will discover the Second Noble Truth, the roots or the making of ill-being. 

Each of us has to discover for himself or herself the cause of ill-being. Suppose we speak about our hectic life — we have so much to do, so much to achieve. As a politician, a businessman, even an artist, we want to do more and more and more. We crave success. We do not have the capacity to live deeply each moment of our daily life. We don’t give our body a chance to relax and to heal. 

If we know how to live like a Buddha, dwelling in the present moment, allowing the refreshing and healing elements to penetrate, then we will not become victims of stress, tension, and many kinds of disease. 

You can say that one of the roots of ill-being is our incapacity to live our life deeply in each moment. 

When we have a lot of tension and irritation in us we cannot listen to the other person. We cannot use loving speech. We cannot remove wrong perceptions. Therefore wrong perceptions give rise to fear, hate, violence, and so on. We have to identify the causes of our ill-being. This is very important work. 

Suppose we speak of suicide, of broken families. We know that when communication becomes difficult between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, people are no longer happy. Many young people fall into despair and want to commit to suicide. They don’t know how to handle despair or their emotions, and they think that the only way to stop suffering is to kill oneself. In France every year about 12,000 young people commit suicide, just because they can’t handle their emotions like despair. And their parents don’t know how to do it. They don’t teach their children how to deal with their feelings, and even school teachers don’t how to help their students to recognize and hold their emotions tenderly. 

When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions. Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed. 

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism. 

So looking deeply we can see the making of ill-being, the roots of ill-being, by recognizing ill-being as the truth and looking deeply into its nature. 

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of ill-being, which means the presence of well-being — just as the absence of darkness means the presence of light. When ignorance is no longer present, there is wisdom. When you remove darkness, there is light. So the cessation of ill-being means the presence of well-being, which is the opposite of the First Noble Truth. 

The teaching of the Buddha confirms the truth that well-being is possible. Because there is ill-being, well-being is possible. If ill-being is described first in terms of tension, stress, heaviness, then well-being is described as lightness, peace, relaxation – la détente. With your body, breath, feet, and mindfulness you can reduce tension and bring about relaxation, lightness, peace. 

We can speak of the Fourth Noble Truth in very concrete terms. The methods of practice enable us to reduce tension, stress, unhappiness, as seen in the Fourth Noble Truth, the path. Today’s Dharma teachers may want to call it the path of well-being. The cessation of ill-being means the beginning of well-being — it’s so simple! 

From Many Gods to No God 

I would like to go back a little bit to the history of Engaged Buddhism. 

In the nineteen-fifties I began to write because people needed to have spiritual direction to help them overcome their confusion. One day I wrote about the relationship between religious belief and the ways we organize our society. I described the history of the evolution of society. 

First, our society was organized in groups of people called tribes. Over time, several tribes would come together and finally we set up kingdoms, with a king. Then the time came when we had enough of kings and we wanted to create democracies or republics. 

Our religious beliefs had been changing along the way. First of all, we had something parallel to the establishment of tribes — polytheism, the belief that there are many gods and each god has a power. You are free to choose one god to worship, and that god will protect you against the other gods and the other tribes. 

When we form kingdoms, then our way of belief changes also — monotheism. There’s only one God, the most powerful God, and we should worship only one God and not many gods. 

When we come to democracies, there’s no king anymore. Everyone is equal to everyone else, and we rely on each other to live. That is why monotheism is changing to the belief in interdependence — interbeing — where there is no longer God. We are fully responsible for our life, for our world, for our planet. I wrote things like that during the time I was trying to build up Engaged Buddhism. 

Birth of the Order of Interbeing 

In 1964, we established the Order of Interbeing. The birth of the Order of Interbeing is very meaningful. We need only to study the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in order to understand why and how the Order of Interbeing was established. 

At that time the war was going on very fiercely. It was a conflict between ideologies. The North and South each had their own ideology; one side was Marxism-Leninism, the other, personalism and capitalism. Not only did we fight with ideologies imported from the outside, but we also fought with weapons imported from the outside — guns and bombs from Russia, China, and America. As Buddhists who practice peace and reconciliation, brotherhood and sisterhood, we did not want to accept such a war. You cannot accept a war where brothers are killing brothers with ideologies and weapons imported from the outside. 

The Order of Interbeing was born as a spiritual resistance movement. It’s based completely on the teachings of the Buddha. The First Mindfulness Training — non-attachment to views, freedom from all ideologies — was a direct answer to the war. Everyone was ready to die and to kill for their beliefs. 

The First Mindfulness Training: “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones…” 

This is the lion’s roar!

“Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.” 

The teaching of the Buddha from the Nipata Sutra concerning views is very clear. We should not be attached to any view; we have to transcend all views.

Right View, first of all, means the absence of all views. Attachment to views is the source of suffering. Suppose you climb on a ladder, and on the fourth step you think you are already at the highest level. Then you are stuck! You have to release the fourth step in order to be able to get up to the fifth step. To be scientific, scientists have to release what they have found in order to come to a higher truth. This is the teaching of the Buddha: When you consider something to be the truth and you are attached to it, you must release it in order to go higher. 

The basic spirit of Buddhism is non-attachment to views. Wisdom is not views. Insight is not views. We should be ready to release our ideas for true insight to be possible. Suppose you have notions about impermanence, non-self, interbeing, the Four Noble Truths. That may be dangerous, because these are only views. You are very proud that you know something about the Four Noble Truths, about interbeing, about interdependent origination, about mindfulness, concentration, and insight. But that teaching is only a means for you to get insight. If you are attached to these teachings, you are lost. The teaching about impermanence, nonself, interbeing, is to help you to get the insight of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. 

The Buddha said, “My teaching is like the finger pointing to the moon. You should be skillful. You look in the direction of my finger, and you can see the moon. If you take my finger to be the moon, you will never see the moon.” So even the Buddhadharma is not the truth, it’s only an instrument for you to get the truth. This is very basic in Buddhism.

War is the outcome of attachment to views, of fanaticism. If we look deeply into the nature of the war in Iraq, we can see that it is also a religious war. People are using religious belief to back up the war. Mr. Bush was supported by many [right-wing Christian] evangelists. The resistance fighters and the terrorists in Iraq are backed up by their Muslim belief. So this is somehow a religious war. Peace cannot exist if we maintain our fanaticism concerning our views. 

Lotus in a Sea of Fire 

In 1965 I wrote a small book on the war in Vietnam, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, published by Hill and Wong in America. The war in Vietnam was raging, it was an ocean of fire. We were killing each other; we allowed American bombers to come and destroy our forests, our people. We allowed weapons from China and Russia to come. But Buddhism was trying to do something. Those of us who did not accept the war wanted to do something to resist the war. 

Buddhists did not have radio or television stations. There was no way for them to express themselves. 

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I do not accept this war,
let me say this one more time before I die.  

These are lines in my poems.

Our enemies are not men. 

Our enemies are hate, fanaticism, violence. Our enemies are not men. If we kill men, with whom shall we live?

The peace movement in Vietnam badly needed international support, but you could not hear us over there. So sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to tell you that we didn’t want this war. Please help stop this war, this killing of brothers by brothers! Buddhism was like a lotus flower trying to survive in an ocean of fire.

I translated the book into Vietnamese, and an American friend in the peace movement helped bring that book to Vietnam. The book was printed underground and many young people tried to circulate that book as an act of resistance.

Sister Chan Khong, who was a professor of biology in Hue University, brought a copy to Hue for a friend. She was arrested and put into prison because she owned one copy of that book. Later on she was transferred to a prison in Saigon.

The School of Youth for Social Service

Young friends came to me and asked me to publish my poems about peace. They called it anti-war poetry. I said okay, if you want to do it, please do. They collected about fifty or sixty poems of mine on this topic and submitted them to the government of South Vietnam. Fifty-five of the poems were censored. Only a few were left. But our friends were not discouraged and they printed the poems underground. The book of poetry sold very, very quickly. Even some secret police liked it, because they also suffered from the war. They would go to the bookstore and say, “You shouldn’t display them like this! You should hide them behind the counter!” [laughs]

Radio stations in Saigon, Hanoi, and Beijing began to attack the poems because they called for peace. No one wanted peace. They wanted to fight to the end.

In 1964 we also established the School of Youth for Social Service. We trained thousands of young people, including monks and nuns, to go to the countryside and help the peasants rebuild their villages. We helped them in four aspects: education, health, economics, and organization. Our social workers went to a village and played with the children and taught them how to read and write and sing. When the people in the village liked us, we suggested building a school for the children. One family gave a few bamboo trees. Another family brought coconut leaves to make a roof. Then we began to have a school. Our workers did not receive a salary. After setting up a school in the village, we set up a dispensary where we could dispense rudimentary medicines to help the people. We brought into the village students of medicine or a doctor and tried to help one or two days. We also organized cooperatives and tried to teach people the kind of handicrafts they could do in order to increase the income of the family.

We have to begin with ourselves, from the grassroots. The School of Youth for Social Service was founded on the spirit that we don’t need to wait for the government.

A New Youth Organization in Europe 

We trained many young people, including young monks and nuns. Finally we had more than ten thousand workers working from Quang Tri to the south. During the war we helped sponsor more than ten thousand orphans. That is part of Engaged Buddhism — the young people.

This year we intend to set up an organization of young Buddhists in Europe: Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society. So many young people have come to us, to our retreats in Europe, America, and Asia. Now we want to organize them. They will use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their practice, and they will engage themselves into society — to help produce a healthier society, one with more compassion.

If my friends here are inspired by the idea, then please, when you go home, invite the young people to set up a group of Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society.

Last month we went to Italy, and we had one day of practice with the young people in the city of Napoli [Naples]. The five hundred young men and women who came to practice with us loved it! They are ready to engage in the practice of peace, helping to produce a healthier, more compassionate society.

Our young monks and nuns will also be involved in that organization.

Foundation of an Institute of Applied Buddhism 

We have also set up a European Institute of Applied Buddhism. I hope that during this retreat, Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, will offer a presentation on the Institute of Applied Buddhism. We shall have campuses in America and Asia also. Everyone who has successfully completed the three-month retreat in Plum Village or Deer Park will be given a certificate of completion issued by the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

The Institute of Applied Buddhism will offer many interesting courses. You might like to help organize a course in your area; we will send Dharma teachers. One example is the twenty-one-day course for young men and women who are preparing to set up a family. There they learn how to make their conjugal life into a success.

There will be courses for those who have been diagnosed with AIDS or cancer, so that they can learn how to live with their sickness. If you know how to accept and live with your sickness, then you can live twenty, thirty more years.

There will be courses for businesspeople, for school teachers, and so on.

This kind of certificate will help you to become an official Dharma teacher. One day you might be inspired to become a Dharma teacher, to go out and help people, to be a continuation of the Buddha.

Nowadays we are using the term “Applied Buddhism,” which is just another way of referring to Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel. 

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

Awakening to Life

Two Stories by Dzung Vo

mb65-Awakening1

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

Just One Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

mb65-Awakening4Opening, Opening, Now

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

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

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

ordination day
opening, opening, now
universe is here

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Sangha as Refuge

The Dharma of Caring for Alison K.

By Lauren Thompson

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I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the Sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in Sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by her family situation. She was living alone; her parents had both died years earlier; she had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in Sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the Sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of Sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during Dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a Sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for Dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, and we spent hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition worsened, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger.

What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

Blessed… Blessed… Blessed

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the Sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the Sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

Living in the Moment

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the Sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with Sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

The Most Beautiful Gift

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”

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As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.” “I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

To the Other Shore

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the Sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how Sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore — it carried Alison, and it carries me still.

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Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

mb50-Sangha3Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir of her experiences with Alison K.

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Poems by Bill Menza

Sisterhood and Brotherhood
Everyone is my teacher.
Everything is the Dharma.
Look for the miracles,
The magic words,
Of understanding and love.
Make friends with yourself,
Speak from your heart,
Practice limitless non-self interbeing.
Your only career is the realization of  perfect understanding,
Imperfections accepted.

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So Just Be
Your hopes and desires,
Your expectations
Bring tension and stress.
There is no peace.
You look for happiness
With old thinking
So it cannot arrive.
You want one thing,
And the world
Gives you something else,
Thus your present moment wonders
Are taken away.
So just be
With your out-breath.

Bill Menza Sarasota, Florida

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Meeting Sadaparibhuta

By Susan Hadler

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Sometimes we meet someone whose Buddha nature shines so brightly that they are like a lamp showing us the way ahead. My Aunt Elinor is that kind of luminous Buddha. She is a form of the bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, Never Disparaging.

Elinor was sent to a mental hospital in 1936 when she was twenty-three years old and the mother of a two-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter. We know now that Elinor had postpartum psychosis, a condition that is treatable. It’s likely that Elinor recovered within several years. And yet she stayed in the mental hospital system for the rest of her life. Her husband died of a heart infection the following June and the children were raised by his sister. Elinor was abandoned by everyone in the family until it was said that she had died.

A Life in Institutions

Elinor was my mother’s oldest sister and I grew up wondering who she was and what had happened to her. Until I counted the number of grandchildren in my grandfather’s obituary, I didn’t know that she had children. When I found her married name I began to look for her, hoping to find where she was buried so that I could bring her flowers.

I searched for many years. Last year I found Elinor alive in a nursing home in Canton, Ohio. She was ninety-four years old and had spent the past seventy-two years in the mental health system, including forty-two years in the mental hospital, sixteen years in a group home, and fourteen years in the nursing home.

Even before I met her, I saw Elinor’s Buddha nature. During a phone conversation, the social worker at the nursing home told me, “Elinor calls the nurses Mother and some of them call her Mother. The others she calls Dorothy or Margery.” The social worker was surprised to learn that Dorothy and Margery were the names of her sisters.

Elinor made everyone around her into family! She embodied the quality of kshanti, all-embracing inclusiveness. As Thay explains in Peaceful Action, Open Heart: “When our heart is large enough, we can be very comfortable, we can embrace the sharp, difficult thing without injury.” Elinor taught me that if I could see everyone around me as my mother, my children, if my heart were large enough to include everyone, I would feel happy and safe and live without the burdens of judgment and fear.

 “Will You Be Kind to Me?”

The week after tracing Elinor, my husband and I drove from Washington, D.C. across the Appalachian Mountains to visit her in eastern Ohio. I immediately recognized her white hair and blue eyes, so like Mother’s. She was sitting in a wheelchair at the table eating dinner. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. She stopped eating for a moment and looked intently at me. Then she offered to share her dinner. A little later she said, “Do you love me? Will you be kind to me? My mother loved me and she treated me like she loved me.”

“Hello, Sadaparibhuta,” I thought to myself. “You speak directly to my heart. You’ve protected and preserved your heart through the long years without family to visit or support or care for you. You know that love is the most important quality and you call forth love in me. I bow to you.”

When Elinor finished eating, she picked up her napkin, shook it out, and folded it with complete concentration. Two people who lived in the nursing home were arguing, the TV was on, a person was moaning behind us, and another person was listening to the radio. Elinor’s response was, “Quite a chorus.” In the midst of the noise and chaos, Elinor accepted the life around her just as it was and she seemed to accept herself as well. When she was tired, she folded her head into her arm and slept. When I rubbed her back too hard, she told me, “That’s awful!”

I enjoyed sitting with Elinor. I felt free to just sit and be present. There was no pressure to please or entertain or even talk. Elinor reminded me that the heart of practice is acceptance. It’s so easy to struggle against the way things are, big things like illness and death, everyday things like traffic jams and frowns. With Elinor at that moment, all was well.

Elinor put her hand on top of mine and I enjoyed the soft warmth. She had long thin fingers that could reach octaves on the piano. When Elinor was young, she was a pianist and played the piano on the radio. “I heard that you play the piano beautifully,” I said. “Yes. I do play the piano. I play Let Me Call You Sweetheart and You Are My Sunshine.”

She nurtured her spirit with music for many years. And she gave music to everyone around her. “When she first came here, she’d walk over to the piano every night after dinner and play for us.

Elinor has a lovely voice and sings often,” the nurse said with a smile. “Everyone here loves Elinor.”

Accepting What Is

How did she manage to keep her heart open and her spirit alive? She had no family. She lived without hearing her children’s laughter. She owned nothing and wore what was handed to her. She ate what was given. She lived without privacy. She wasn’t able to walk down the street for a cup of tea. She was not bitter or angry, although she did not suffer fools. Her life was not cluttered with things she didn’t need. “I don’t want anything at all,” she wrote on a sheet of lined paper clipped into a blue binder. She had little choice except how she related to herself and to those around her. She learned to live beautifully with herself and others. I take strength from the way Elinor survived so well with so little, that she kept what was most valuable — her heart and her music. She was a Buddha in her simplicity, her affection, and her sense of interbeing.

mb52-Meeting2I found the group home in which Elinor had lived for sixteen years after the mental hospitals were emptied of patients in the mid-seventies. “Yes, I remember Elinor,” said the woman who ran the home. “The day she came here she walked up the front steps and when I opened the door she held out her arms and called me Mother! She endeared herself to me … She loved to sing!”

Elinor was my teacher. She showed me how to be aware of love, to give and receive the energy of love, to give space for love to exist and to ripen. I became aware of what cut off the flow between us, things like needless questions and extraneous comments. Elinor spoke out of her true nature and not as I might have wished or expected. That encouraged me to be less concerned about results and more aware of what was true within and around me. Elinor always responded to love and affection. “I love you,” I told Elinor. “That’s the way it should be,” she said.

mb52-Meeting3Elinor’s mother passed away suddenly when Elinor was sixteen, and her father, who could have signed her out of the hospital when she recovered from the post-partum psychosis, never came to take her home. “I love my dad,” she said. “I always will.” This too is Sadaparibhuta’s nurturing love, even in the midst of betrayal and rejection. I come from a family that tends to end relationships when pain or shame overwhelms love. When I think of Elinor, I am aware that when the seed of love has grown small or been lost in the face of fear or hurt, I can find that tiny seed, and with nurturing, it will grow strong again.

mb52-Meeting4A Family Reunited

In July I asked Elinor, “Do you have children?” “Yes,” she said. “I have two and I love them very much.” That was the permission I needed to search for her children. I was able to find them, and Elinor’s daughter and granddaughter came right away to visit her.

In January Elinor took her last breath. The weekend of her memorial service, Elinor’s family and four of my siblings met for the first time. During the service I read a passage from the Bible: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Tears fell as I read, knowing that Elinor was and is the love that bears all things, endures all things.

Before I began to practice, before I found the Sangha, I would have fallen into sorrow and seen Elinor’s life as an unbearable tragedy. Belonging to a Sangha that is supportive and affectionate, I am more aware of the energy of love even when it springs from the muddy ground of a life lived in a mental hospital.

Sitting with Elinor enlarged my heart. The weeds of mystery and tragedy and fear withered as Elinor watered seeds of love and simplicity and interbeing. What an amazing surprise to find that the person who the family abandoned is the one who restores our lost connections and the love that goes with them.

mb52-Meeting5Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington MIndfulness Community in Washington, D.C.

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Poem – Map of a Garden: You Are Here

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I float above my personal atlas to
Find a new garden.

I draw contour lines and color fields
Let them fill in like growth rings
The way I imagine the
Landscape of a poem and make
A poem-map, compass rose
Pointing inward and out.

From toothbrush to bedtime story is
The map of a lucky child’s day
The map of “Smoke Maker” has
Six directions, a veil and a blindfold…

Saffron page after saffron
Page of projections
Territories common and rugged
As stones foliate and fade

I lay pins on the new
Map of the new garden:
A pin for sun
A pin for grapes
A pin for lilacs
A pin for ladybugs

You Are Here

The map of my garden
On this private meridian
Has a pavilion with cushions
A fountain with peacock-green tiles
A path from one to the other

Three pins for honeysuckle and pleasure
I am here at the intersection of
Here and Now

Where golden rose and jasmine
Replace the noxious
Weeds of disturbed places
Where clarity of sky
Prevents its falling.

— Esther Kamkar

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Every Waking Moment

By Mariann Taigman

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I was so excited to be in the presence of Thay for the first time. I knew that it would be a unique and loving experience. I made a beaded pouch that I was hoping to place in Thay’s hands as a gift, in gratitude for all that he had taught me over the years and for opening his heart to all of us.

Like all of us who heard the news, I was saddened and concerned when I heard that Thay was in the hospital. However, fairly quickly, I looked at it as an opportunity to “be in the moment,” as Thay has taught us all to be. It was also a good lesson in not being attached to expectations. I decided that I would give the beaded pouch to one of the monks or nuns to give to Thay. I made a vow to myself that first night that I was going to “be in the moment” every moment during the retreat and experience it all for what it was, however it unfolded.

It was my first retreat, and I had no idea what to expect. What an amazing, wonderful, peaceful and loving journey I had the pleasure of experiencing! This retreat far surpassed anything I could have begun to imagine. It was six of the best days of my life, with the exception of the day I met my soulmate and best friend, who also happens be my husband.

Throughout the retreat, I continued to be amazed at how quiet 900 people could be. When we were all doing sitting meditation together, you could hear a pin drop. I found myself frequently gazing at the altar and the beautiful words, “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” All of us were there to help expand that statement.

We all know how challenging it is to apply the teachings to our daily life, but I am beginning to incorporate them into my work and personal life. One example was a difficult meeting that I had the other day. I work with children with special needs, and this meeting was with parents, their attorney, and the school district team. I was feeling stressed about it in the days prior to the meeting. That morning, I did a sitting meditation and a walking meditation. I practiced mindful walking as I approached the building where the meeting was to be held, and watched my breath.

The meeting started out with some friction, but then it transformed. The facilitator had a very calm demeanor. I focused on watching my breath go in and out. When it was my turn to talk, I realized that I was talking slower than I normally do and was much more thoughtful before speaking than I ever have been before. The magic of the Sangha, Thay’s teachings, and my daily practice all were contributing factors. I felt very good after leaving the meeting, and it has given me renewed hope that I will be able to apply the teachings to my every waking moment…if I just remember to be mindful…and watch my breath.

mb53-Every2Mariann Taigman is an occupational therapist who works with children with special needs. She has been following the Buddhist path for the past twenty years.

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Dharma Talk: The Long Arm of the Fourfold Sangha

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dharma talk at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism
June 11, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

During the war, Thich Nhat Hanh was moved to find an appropriate and beneficial way to bring the teachings and practices of the Buddha directly to the real suffering of the people. In 1966, the Tiep Hien Order, or Order of Interbeing, was founded when Thay ordained three women and three men (including Sister Chan Khong, at that time a layperson) as the Order’s first members. Thay invited these first ordinees to become the foundation of his vision of a fourfold Sangha of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen committed to studying and practicing the Bodhisattva path by living the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings. Today there are over 1,000 Order members worldwide and thousands more who have been inspired by the Tiep Hien Order and its Mindfulness Trainings.

Jeanne Anselmo,
True Precious Hand

Dear Sangha, today is the eleventh of June 2010. We are in the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in the Great Compassion Temple. The Institute is also called the No Worry Institute. Today we are going to hear a teaching about the Order of Interbeing.

When we wear the brown jacket, the brown robe of a monk or a nun, we have to manifest that spirit, the virtue of humility. We do not say that we are worth more than someone else, better than someone else, that we have more authority or power than someone else. We have a spiritual strength. That spiritual strength is very silent; it makes no sound. It is the silence of the brown color. When lay people put on the brown jacket, they should put it on in the spirit of humility; the spirit of the power of silence.

The Meanings of Tiep

 In English we say the Order of Interbeing, but the words are Tiep Hien in Vietnamese. The word Tiep has many meanings. The first meaning is to accept, to receive. What do we receive, and from whom do we receive it? We receive from our spiritual ancestors the beautiful and good things, understanding, insight, and virtue. We receive the wonderful Dharma, the seed of insight. The first thing an Order member needs to do is to receive what the ancestors have transmitted.

Sometimes our ancestors transmit, but we do not have the capacity to receive the transmission. For example, we can learn from the way Thay invites the bell. Thay invites the bell in such a way that the sound flies up into the sky. But sometimes even after two or three years some of us still cannot invite the bell properly. It’s still very sharp and astringent, or muted and obstructed.

If you practice watching Thay or an elder brother or sister, you will know how to invite the bell. When you are close to Thay and your elder brothers and sisters, you can learn a great deal from them. You can receive very quickly from them.

The way that Thay stands and walks is also a transmission. You just need to observe, and you can receive from the Buddha, from the ancestors, from those who have gone before. And sometimes we receive from those who are younger than us. What we receive is our heritage. This heritage is not land; it’s not money; it’s not jewelry. It is the heritage of the true Dharma. We have to ask ourselves: How much have I received? The ancestors really want to transmit, to give to us. But because we don’t have the capacity to receive, we let down the person who gives. We are not kind to the person who gives when we don’t receive the gift. So learning is a matter of receiving. We have to be there to receive, to learn. When we have received we can continue the ancestral line. Therefore the first meaning of Tiep is to receive.

Once we have received, we use it. We nourish it. Then we can be part of the continuation of the Buddha, of the ancestral teachers, of Thay. A child who is loyal to his parents or grandparents can receive direction from them. A student who has loyalty to his teacher is one who continues his teacher. We have to receive the aspiration and the practice of the Buddha, of the ancestral teachers, and our own teacher of this lifetime.

The third meaning of Tiep is to be in touch with. What do we have to be in touch with? We have to be in touch with the present moment, the wonderful life that is present in us and around us. The birds sing. The wind soughs in the leaves of the pine. If we’re not in touch, our life is wasted. When we are in touch we are nourished, we are transformed. We grow, we mature. Being in touch also means being in touch with the suffering in our own body and our own person, the suffering in our environment, in our family, and in our society. Then we will know what we need to do and what we should not do in order to transform this suffering.

On the one hand, we need to be in touch with what is wonderful, because that will nourish us. And on the other hand, we have to be in touch with our suffering so that we can understand, love, and transform.

The first meaning is receive. The second is continue. The third is to be in touch with, to be in contact. That is what is meant by the word Tiep.

The Meaning of Hien

Hien is the second word. It means the thing that is present. What is present? Life, paradise, our own person. Tiep Hien is to be in touch with what is happening now, here, what we can perceive now, in the present moment.

What are you seeing now? The Sangha, the pine trees, the drops of rain. Be in touch with them. And also we have to be in touch with the suffering in our lives. We cannot stay in our ivory tower with our dreams and our intellectual thoughts. We have to be in touch with the truth, the wonder of the truth. This is the Dharma door of Plum Village, living peacefully, happily in the present moment.

The word Hien also means to realize, to put into practice, to make something a reality, make something concrete. This allows us to have real freedom. We do not want to live a life of bondage, a life of slavery. We want to be free. Only when we are free can we be really happy. Therefore we want to break the nets or the prisons which keep us from being free. These prisons are our passion, our infatuation, our hatred, our jealousy. Just like the deer who gets out of the trap and is able to run freely, the monk or nun who practices is like a deer who is not caught in a trap, who is able to avoid all the traps and jump or run in any direction.

There is a very short sutra, just two sentences, that describes monastics as like the deer who overcome all the traps and are free to go where they like. As a monk or a nun, as a layperson, we are all disciples of the Buddha. We do not want to live a life of bondage. We want to be free. So we need to practice. Our daily practice liberates us. We are not caught in fame. We are not caught in profit. We are not looking for a position in society, for some authority or power. What we are looking for is liberation and freedom. That is realization. So Hien means to realize, to manifest.

Another meaning for the word Hien is to make appropriate. To update, to make suitable for our society here and now. So it is also important for us to be aware and responsible for offering the Dharma in a skillful way, appropriate for our society and our time.

Engaged Buddhism

With all these meanings of the two words, Tiep Hien, how can we possibly translate it into English as one or two words? We learn all the meanings from the Vietnamese (which have their root in Chinese), and then in English we just say Order of Interbeing. From this deeper understanding we know the direction of practice of the Order of Interbeing. We know that it means Engaged Buddhism, Buddhism that enters the world.

Engaged Buddhism means going into life. The monastery is not cut off from life. A monastery has to be seen as a nursery garden where we can put our seedlings. When those seedlings have grown strong enough, we have to bring them out and plant them in society. Buddhism is there because of life. Life is not there because of Buddhism. If there was no life, no world, there wouldn’t be Buddhism.

We have Buddhism because the world needs Buddhism. Therefore our practice center can be seen as a nursery garden in which there are the right causes and conditions for us to raise to maturity the small seedlings. Once they have been made strong enough, they are brought out and planted in the world, in society. So our training and our practice in the monastery are preparation to go into the world.

In Vietnam people started to talk about bringing Buddhism into the world as early as 1930. When Thay was growing up he was influenced by this kind of Buddhism. He knew that in the past Buddhism had played a very important part in bringing peace and making the country strong. He learned that Buddhism prospered in the Le Dynasty and the Tran Dynasty, and that the kings practiced Buddhism. Buddhism was the spiritual life, the spiritual force, the Dharma body of a whole people. The first Tran king, Tran Thai Tong, had a deep aspiration to practice by the time he was twenty. He was able to overcome great suffering with the practice of beginning anew. He wrote books about Buddhism which are still available today. His book called “The Six Times of Beginning Anew” proves that, although he was a king ruling the country, he was able to practice every day, offering incense, touching the earth, practicing sitting meditation six times, each time for twenty minutes. I don’t know if President Obama can do the same. As a ruler or a politician we should not say, “Oh, I’m too busy. I don’t have time for sitting meditation, for walking meditation.” If a king can do it, we cannot make the excuse that we have too much work, that we don’t have time to practice.

 

Applied Buddhism

Engaged Buddhism has been in our tradition for hundreds of years. We are not a new movement; we are only a continuation. When we understand what is meant by Tiep Hien, our process is very easy. And Engaged Buddhism leads to the next step, which is called applied Buddhism.

The word applied is used in a secular context. We use it like it is used in “applied science” or “applied mathematics.” For example, when we talk about the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—we have to show people how they can apply the teaching of the Three Jewels. How can we practice taking refuge in the Three Jewels? Just reciting “I take refuge in the Buddha, Buddham, Saranam, Gacchami” is not taking refuge. That is just announcing that you are taking refuge. In order to take refuge, you have to produce the energy of concentration, mindfulness, and insight. Then you are protected by the energy of the Three Jewels. When we practice “I come back to the island of myself, to take refuge in myself,” we have to practice breathing in such a way that we produce the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. When we practice like that, we produce the energy of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and then we really are protected by the Three Jewels. As members of the Order of Interbeing, our practice must be solid, so that whenever we have difficulties, we know what to do to get back our equanimity, our balance, our freedom, our solidity. One of the methods is taking refuge in the Three Jewels.

At universities in the West, you can now get degrees and doctorates in Buddhism. This kind of Buddhist study is not applied Buddhism. You can be fluent in Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, and in all the different teachings of the two canons, but if you get into difficulties and don’t know what to do, your Buddhism doesn’t help you.

We need a Buddhism that will help us when we need it. When we teach the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Five Powers, the Five Faculties, and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, all these teachings have to be applied in our daily life. They should not be theory. We can teach the Lotus Sutra very well, but we have to ask ourselves: how can we apply the Lotus Sutra to resolve our difficulties, our despair, our suffering? That is what we mean by applied Buddhism. If you are a Dharma teacher, as a monk or a nun or a lay person, your life has to be an example of the teachings. You only teach what you yourself practice.

When we lead a Dharma discussion, when we give a Dharma talk, it is not to show off our knowledge about Buddhism. We just teach those things which we are really practicing. If we teach walking meditation, we have to practice it successfully, at least to some extent. If not, then we should not yet teach it. There are people who don’t need to give Dharma talks, but are very good Dharma teachers, because when they walk, stand, sit, and lie down, they are in touch with the Sangha. They’re always in harmony, peaceful, joyful, open. That is a living Dharma talk. These people are precious jewels in the Sangha. These people are not just monks and nuns. There are also lay people practicing very well, very silently, and the monks and nuns respect them very much.

Because our destiny is to bring applied Buddhism to every situation, we really need Dharma teachers. Therefore, the Order of Interbeing is an arm that stretches out very far into the world. The number of Order of Interbeing monks and nuns is not enough. We need Order of Interbeing laypeople also. The lay Order members are the long hand of the fourfold Sangha that stretches out to society. We need thousands of lay Order members to bring the teachings into the world.

With our brown jacket which represents our humility, which represents the power of our silence, we have to build a Sangha where there is no competing for authority or for power. Where there is brotherhood and sisterhood. Where we look at each other with loving kindness.

This is something we can do. If we are in harmony with each other, if we have brotherhood and sisterhood, we can do it. The fragrance of our Sangha will go far, and Thay will be perfumed by that fragrance. That is our work.

I hope that in the future we will be able to organize long retreats for Order members so they can strengthen their practice, strengthen their aspiration, strengthen their happiness, and fulfill the obligation which the Buddha has transmitted to them. We have to receive it and we have to realize it. That is what is meant by Tiep Hien, to make it a reality.

If our Sangha in the West is not yet a place where people can love each other, then we are not yet successful. Who takes responsibility to make the Sangha a beautiful Sangha with brotherhood and sisterhood, worthy to be given the name of Sangha? That is us, only us, as members of the Order of Interbeing. In our local Sangha, we can do that. We should not say, “Because that person is like that I can’t do it.” We have to say, “Because of me; my practice is not very good. Because I don’t have enough humility, because I don’t have enough of the strength, the power of silence, that is why we can’t do it.” Our destiny is to continue to receive, to be in touch to the best of our ability, and to realize the transmission of the Buddha.

Each member of the Order needs to have a fire in her heart which pushes us forward and makes us happy. Whether we are sweeping the floor for the Sangha, cooking for the Sangha, watering the garden for the Sangha, cleaning the toilet for the Sangha, we’re happy because we have the energy, we have the aim. The aim is not fame, profit, or position. The aim is the great love, wanting to be a worthy continuation of the Buddha, of our teacher and our ancestral teachers.

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Practicing in Uncertain Times

By Bethany Klug

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Uncertain economic times can bring up difficult emotions and challenge our practice. Mindfulness practice can decrease our stress and help us see opportunities that we might otherwise miss. Here are a few tips to keep our practice on track.

Dwell in the present moment. Certainty is a notion that causes suffering, as all things—even human-made things like companies, stock markets, and jobs—are born, change form, and die. This is impermanence. Dwelling in the present moment increases our awareness of how things change, and lessens our surprise or shock when they do.

Let go of external definitions. We suffer when we define ourselves by our job or possessions. If we lose them, we feel worthless. Identifying with our job or possessions prevents us from being happy and free. Letting go of external definitions of ourselves and enjoying the fullness of the present moment, we can lose our job, possessions, and even everything we cherish, and still be happy and free.

Nourish peace and joy. Often, letting go means confronting difficult feelings and perceptions. We must be sure to nourish our peace and joy to avoid feeling overwhelmed. This could be as simple as appreciating birdsong in the morning or fireflies at night. How is it possible to enjoy anything in difficult times? The Buddha taught that the mind is a field of seeds where wholesome and unwholesome states exist side by side. We make unwholesome seeds stronger by giving them the wrong kind of attention, such as obsessing or worrying over them. Tough emotions invade our consciousness like a pop-up window on a website. By returning our attention to our breath and a more neutral feeling—such as the freshness of the morning—we can close the pop-up window and shift to a more wholesome mind state. Once we feel stronger, we may consciously re-open the pop-up and look more deeply into the feelings that arise from it.

Empower yourself. We may feel powerless amidst the news of plants closing, the Gulf oil spill, and home foreclosures, unless we recognize that the economy is a manifestation of our collective mind. Since our thoughts and actions create our economy, they can change it for the better. This is empowering. Each of us can pick an area of the economy we’d like to improve and change our relationship to it. For instance, I don’t like the impact of industrial agriculture on our health or the planet’s, so I buy my food from local organic farmers and grow a garden. Last year I built a root cellar, stocked it with squash and root vegetables, fermented vegetables, and canned using low temperature methods. I didn’t need to shop for vegetables until March.

Looking deeply into the Fifth Mindfulness Training, mindful consumption, helps us see ways to create a more equitable and sustainable economy. We have the power and the responsibility to change our situation. If we don’t, who will?

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Be sure to practice! When life gets stressful, it’s easy to resonate with that stress and do things that make it worse. Instead of taking a mindful walk after dinner or attending a Sangha gathering, we might watch bad economic news on TV, becoming so consumed in fear and anxiety that we miss that fact that we’ve eaten a bag of chips or cookies—leaving us more depressed and five pounds heavier! With deep intention and awareness we can turn off the TV or other source of bad news, and do what nourishes our happiness, peace, and joy.

Many years ago, my teacher, Brother Chan Huy, suggested the profoundly beneficial practice of reciting the wake-up gatha each morning upon rising and the gatha on impermanence before going to sleep. The wake-up gatha helps us touch joy and affirms our aspiration to live in an awakened way before our feet even touch the ground. The gatha on impermanence reminds us that another day has passed, and encourages us to reflect on our practice “so that life does not drift away without meaning.”

Wake-up Gatha
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

Gatha on Impermanence
The day is now ended.
Our lives are shorter.
Let us look carefully,
What have we done?
Noble Sangha, with all of our heart,
Let us be diligent,
Engaging in the practice.
Let us live deeply,
Free from our afflictions,
Aware of impermanence,
So that life does not drift away without meaning.

mb55-Practicing3Bethany Klug, The Practice of True Emptiness, convenes the Heartland Community of Mindful Living along with her husband David, True Wonderful Lamp (pictured). They reside in Kansas City with their spiritual director, Shanti the Cat.

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The Freedom of True Love

By Keri R. Hakan

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I believe that freedom can be found in true love. My husband and I dated for about ten years and then were married for eight. He passed on in July 2010 from pancreatic cancer. In our eighteen years together, we taught each other a great deal about life and love, without the intention of doing so, but by simply respecting, accepting, and caring for each other in good times and in “bad” times. Our connection was a bond that intertwined us and made us stronger as individuals and as a couple.

I was in my early twenties and in college when we met, and Paul was slightly older. The first time we ever saw each other, there was an instant attraction and connection. When we started dating, I was pleasantly surprised by how respectfully he treated me and how safe I felt with him.

A few years into our relationship, Paul got very sick and almost died from a rare, benign tumor in his intestines. This condition came on without warning in a man who had not had so much as a sniffle in the time we had been together. I would go to my classes and then head to the hospital to sit with him. Paul was my first serious relationship and I loved him, but I was not sure how to handle this situation. The beautiful, intelligent, talented musician that I knew was now lying in a hospital bed being prepped for surgery and waiting to find out if this tumor was cancerous. This was not the “happily ever after” future that I had romanticized, read about, and seen on television. This was messy, crazy life. Was I ready for this? Was he? Yes, as it turned out, we were.

At My Side

He recovered from that illness, but it was a precursor of what was to come. In February 2007, five years after we were married, I suffered a brain abscess that almost killed me and left me with serious side effects. My left leg, arm, hand, and foot were almost useless for several months, and I required a lot of therapy and assistance. Paul was at my side the entire time. The only time I felt confident that I would recover was when he was with me. He had to take care of everything, including me, as well as go to work each day. He did it. Every morning he got me out of bed, dressed me, took me downstairs, and made sure I took my medicines and ate breakfast. Then he went to work. He came home on his lunch break to check on me and eat with me. He did this for a year.

I felt very guilty that my young husband had to take care of me this way, but whenever I said anything about that, he would stop me and assure me that he knew I was getting better every day because he could see it in me. When he would tell me that, I believed it. He loved me in my weakest physical and emotional states. He did not see a woman who had lost all her hair, had a huge incision on her head from brain surgery, and was unable to do the simplest human tasks, like walk normally. He saw his wife, the woman he loved. For this love, respect, and compassion I am extremely grateful, because they are the reason I was able to recover.

The Love of My Life

When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2008, it seemed like a nightmare or a horrible joke that was being played on us. Were we being tested? Paul was my rock. How could this be happening? I questioned it all the time, not wanting it to be reality. One night, a dear friend said to me, “Keri, you know that you can handle this; you do know that, don’t you?” I did not know it at the time. My own health ordeal was one thing, but now the love of my life was being threatened. This was an entirely new ball game.

Paul and I sat down together and had several deep, meaningful conversations about what this meant for us and how to deal with it. We made the conscious decision together to be positive, no matter what happened, and to believe in each other. We set our compasses and moved forward into these new rough waters together. Paul entrusted his life to me. He allowed me to take care of him as I saw fit. I mustered everything I had learned about being seriously ill and recovering, and applied to Paul many of the same elements that he had used during my illness. He realized he had to take care of himself and deal with past situations that had festered in him emotionally. He began practicing Tai Chi and qigong and doing other self-awareness work that included being present, releasing the past, and not being concerned with the future. Meditation helped him attain the ability to live in the present moment.

A Sea of Freedom

I also began these practices, and the release that came from practicing mindfulness meditation was like a tidal wave washing away negative energies, worries, and fears. The sun shone brightly through any clouds at those times, as it does for me today. We both marveled at how in touch we were with our bodies and the energies that flowed through us, especially when we concentrated on our breathing.

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In the hospital during Paul’s last weeks on earth, I recited the guided meditation “In, out, deep, slow; calm, ease, smile, release; present moment, wonderful moment,” several times to help him relax and fall asleep. It was the only thing that worked. I believe that because of meditation practice, Paul lost the fear of cancer and death, and realized that there was more beyond his diseased body. We both made the connection between our emotional states of mind and our illnesses, and believed that our bodies and minds were one, as Thay says. Much freedom came to us from living and loving mindfully.

Our illnesses taught us that the love and happiness we shared for so many years was a special connection that not everyone experiences. We appreciated each other and the life we had in us every day, and living mindfully in the present moment helped us to do that. Paul taught me that no matter what is going on, there is room for opportunity, compassion, love of one’s self and others, gratitude, and joy.

We loved and lived these past two and a half years with gusto and with cancer, and it was brilliant. True love and the realization that we were living it allowed us to swim in a sea of freedom that can only be described as divine. Even now, after Paul’s passing, that gift continues to warm my heart and mind and enrich my being.

Keri R. Hakan is thirty-seven years old. In early 2010, she and her husband started meditating with The Heartland Community of  Mindful Living Sangha in Kansas City, MO. She recently relocated to Portland, OR.

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Touching the Master

By Aparna Pallavi

 mb56-Touching1“Go back and take care of yourself. The wounded child in you needs you. Your suffering, your blocks of pain need you. Your deepest desire needs you to acknowledge it.”

Each word touched my hurting heart like a tender dewdrop. My whole being ached with the desire to see the writer of these beautiful words—to see the radiant smile on the back cover of his book, Teachings on Love. It was the middle of the night. Unable to remain in bed, I got up, turned on my computer and opened the Plum Village website. And it hit my chest like a hammer, knocking my breath out entirely. Thich Nhat Hanh was coming to India! And to Nagpur, the city of my residence! Had ever a human wish been fulfilled so dramatically!

On October 9, 2008, in the huge marquee at Nagaloka Buddha Vihar, something beautiful happened even before I saw Thay. Sister Chan Khong, leading a team of monastics, was approaching the marquee. My daughter, then barely eleven, cried, “Mom, look what that beautiful grandma is doing!”

Through some misunderstanding, the women posted at the entrance to perform traditional Indian welcome rituals were trying to put flowers on the old lady’s feet instead of scattering them in her path, as is customary. It was a clumsy gesture, but the tiny old woman magically transformed it by bending down to receive the flowers in her hands and putting them on her head in a spontaneous, childlike gesture of joy and gratitude. I’d never seen a simple gesture radiate so much visible, felt beauty before.

When Thay appeared, I found myself leaving my seat and following him to the dais, pulled like a child to an ice cream cart. I stood within feet of Thay, my elbows on the dais, hoping the camera in my hand would help me look less foolish to the sedate audience.

A serene song of piercing loveliness, which I’d never heard before, started playing in my heart the moment I saw Thay. But coiled with it was a terrible, aching sense that this would be over, and soon. My practiced hands were feverishly snapping pictures. A part of me was madly determined to capture this moment for eternity. But the song was still strong, and when the monastics started chanting sutras, the melodies blended effortlessly.

For a long moment during the chanting, Thay very deliberately turned his gaze full on me, where I stood. My heart leapt, but at the same moment my hands, as if on cue, rose and poked the old camera at him. And just then, the camera folded up right under his gaze, its batteries exhausted. I was torn between intense ecstasy and intense anxiety, and now, in addition, an urgent sense of utter stupidity. Camera gone, there was nothing to do but to gather the blessing of that gaze, which miraculously stayed on me for another long moment, looking into my fragile human eyes, so inadequate to the task.

Then the disappointments began. When Thay spoke, I recognized the words from the books I had read. During the two-day workshop, I could hardly see or hear Thay through a throng of more than a thousand people. His translator, whom I knew, laughed at my request for a five-minute talk with Thay. On the last day, I cried in the bus back home.

I rationalised that it was stupid and sentimental to have hankered for a flesh-and-blood encounter with someone as busy as Thay, like a teenager for a movie star. It’s stupid to go to a guru at all. The truth is all in the books, so why bother? But a tender, trusting part of me was deeply ashamed and confused. Had my yearning been sentimental and stupid? What intangible quality had I been looking for in Thay’s presence? What had caused this tangible feeling of let-down that was eating away at me?

For weeks, a child inside me cried inconsolably.

For many months, I continued to read Thay’s books, and tried to practice walking, sitting, and eating meditation, and mindfulness. But given the old habits of my mind, progress was slow. I was frustrated that I had no master or Sangha to help me. I was torn between the desire to seek help and the fear of further hurt. If contact with a living master had failed to help me, how could I trust lesser mortals?

A Rare State of Being

Almost a year and a half after Thay’s visit, I chanced upon a book by a contemporary seeker, which described his efforts to be with his guru, not seeking his attention, but just absorbing his radiance from a distance. The book inspired me to confront my pain directly. Had I gone to Thay with the wrong expectations? What had I expected the brief encounter to achieve? The only time in my life I desired something with my whole being, my wish was fulfilled with near-miraculousness. And yet I was so full of secret misery.

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The more I tried to look deeply into these questions, the more the memory of that ethereal song knocked at my heart, the clearer my beautiful vision of Sister Chan Khong putting flowers on her head became. I was surprised at how fresh and flower-like these memories still were. I allowed myself to look at my memories full in the face, and one afternoon realization burst upon me. These memories had been the whole point of my yearning—the music that had throbbed through my entire being in the presence of Thay, the radiance of Sister Chan Khong’s simplicity that had touched my eyes like a benediction. In these moments, I’d been given the most precious gift. I’d had an opportunity to share the being of these two precious people. I’d been allowed a glimpse of a rare state of being, to see, to know for myself, beyond all doubt, that such a state is possible.

And how I’d fought against the gift! I’d nearly missed Thay’s living presence due to my preconceptions, my egoistic clinging. The only moment I’d been fully alive to the magic of his presence was the moment when my camera failed and I looked into his eyes. But for that, I’d have missed it altogether.

When this simple realization came, it was as if a huge block of stone embedded in my heart had been removed. Practice and life are much more serene and smooth when you wholeheartedly trust something than when you are carrying a pinprick of doubt. Once I allowed myself to fully trust that day’s memories, it became easier not to get carried away by the mechanical habits of my mind.

My progress is still slow, but steadier, as if my energies are flowing together instead of fighting each other. There are times when, in moments of deep calm, the memory of Thay’s penetrating look or Sister Chan Khong’s beautiful gesture (the latter framed in a kind of sunlit halo) come back to me, refreshing me, strengthening me, touching me with a benediction as fresh, as fragrant as the day when they really happened—perhaps even more so now, when I am fully present. My conflict about whether or not to seek a Sangha has been resolved in an unexpected manner. It has disappeared altogether, taking both the “to be” and the “not to be” with it. I am neither seeking nor not seeking. I am just practicing, as Thay puts it, with a rock, with a flower ….

mb56-Touching3Aparna Pallavi is a social activist, journalist, and organic farmer who lives in Nagpur, India, with her husband and daughter. She works for the environmental magazine Down to Earth.

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A Monk: To Be or Not to Be?

By Brother Phap Kinh (Dharma Meridian) 

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I stepped onto the monastic path relatively late, although the seeds were present at an early age. At age fifteen, a group of friends and I meditated together. When that group disbanded, I continued (for the next thirty-five years) meditating twice daily. At age twenty, in 1978, I studied in Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, India. During my stay, I visited many holy Buddhist sites, though I found mostly ruins. I was looking for my Sangha all along, but I could not define it then.

I discovered mindfulness in 2006 at a psychiatric hospital in Paris where I worked. My introduction was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Total Catastrophe Living, which inspired me to practice some mindfulness techniques. Upon finishing the book, I received an email from a friend in the U.S. informing me that an eighty-yearold Vietnamese monk was coming to Paris to lead a peace walk. I wasn’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s name, but later discovered that Thay had written the preface to Kabat-Zinn’s book!

The Paris peace walk changed my life. As Thay and the Sangha began walking, I knew I had found my teacher and community of practice. I began attending the Paris lay Sangha and, two months later, attended my first weeklong retreat in Plum Village.

No grass grew under my feet. In 2007, I joined the historic tour of Vietnam with Thay. At Bat Nha monastery, I received transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Everything I did with the Sangha seemed inexplicably familiar, and I began to wonder whether monkhood was somehow in my future—but soon found obstacles.

I learned that the maximum age for monastic ordination was twenty at Bat Nha and fifty at Plum Village—and I had just turned fifty. Regretfully, I accepted that I would probably not become a monk in this tradition. I took consolation as an active member of the lay Sangha in France, and clearly saw the applicability of engaged Buddhism in my work at the hospital.

On my way home from Vietnam, I met a venerable Vietnamese monk who asked me why I had come. I told him that I had been traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh. He then predicted I would be wearing brown within two years. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but before I had a chance to inquire, he disappeared. Did he believe that I would become a monk? At Bat Nha Monastery? It all seemed like a dream, and impossible.

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Back in Paris, a group in my Sangha started studying the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I found these precepts extremely inspiring. Half of us in the group decided to become aspirants for the Order of Interbeing (OI). Things were moving quickly, but I felt ready. In 2008, I asked for a sabbatical leave to attend a number of trips and retreats.

It still wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would follow the monastic path. At the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India, I heard Thay say, “It is now or never.” His words resonated with me, and I was ordained as an OI member on that trip. I did not necessarily see monastic life as the next logical step. The venerable monk’s prophecy that I would be “wearing brown in two years” was fulfilled with my OI jacket. During the 2008-2009 winter retreat, I often asked myself what more I could do for myself and for the world as a monk. The answer was not clear.

I sat with this question. It was my koan. It wasn’t something I could think my way through. Thinking about it seemed to drive me crazy. It was a matter of the heart. During this period nothing I initiated came about, yet conditions for things that seemed impossible, such as getting so much time off work and getting ordained so soon as a lay OI member, came together. This was a wonderful apprenticeship in non-pursuit and letting go.

The Bodhisattva Path 

Clarity finally came during a retreat in June 2009. I confided in a number of brothers, both monastic and lay, who served as mirrors for me and helped me recognize my fear. I took refuge in the Sangha, and practiced looking deeply and following my heart. By the end, I realized that there was no going back to my old life. I had already moved on, and my past now belonged to a former life. I spoke to a number of monastics about my intention, and found the courage to make the decision that would free me from all worldly obligations.

That decision took tremendous courage. I had never felt so afraid in my life, beyond all reason. But what was I so afraid of? Making a monumental error? Letting go? Inadvertently abandoning my right livelihood and personal bodhisattva path?

Giving up everything even at the great risk of not being accepted into the monastic Sangha? I loved my job, my Sangha, and my life in Paris. I had nothing to run away from, so why would I uproot myself in such a way? Most of the people I knew outside of my Sangha (and even some inside the Sangha) found the idea puzzling, if not mad.

Making the decision was the hard part. Once I did, there was lightness and ease as everything fell into place. Since ordaining, I have never doubted or regretted my decision and do not miss my former life. The great fear vanished. Fear is, after all, only a mental formation. It can be paralyzing, but mental formations that are not fed shrink.

Why did I choose to become a monk? This is my aspiration: I hope and intend to continue on the bodhisattva path of relieving suffering in the world, but I have much to learn in order to go beyond the horizons that I knew before, in my work and in my life. I also have to learn from my own experience of transformation at the base, for myself, my family, and for my ancestors. I have observed that the most credible and inspiring monastics are those who speak from personal experience and live their path. I probably could have studied the Dharma and transformed many of my afflictions as a lay practitioner, but now I am free to dedicate my whole life to it. I am confident that in time, my vocation of relieving suffering will take other forms, and I will be more effective, being solidly grounded both in the Dharma and my personal monastic experience. To my delight, I am feeling younger and younger since ordination, as if the fifteenand twenty-year-olds in me who wanted to embrace the Dharma have finally found what they were looking for, despite all obstacles.

I don’t know where the Dharma will take me and what the Sangha will call me to do. I don’t think much in those terms. I have faith in the Triple Gem, and know that I am on the right path.

Brother Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Christopher currently lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born and grew up in Juneau, Alaska, and spent most of his adult life in Paris. He loves hiking, singing, cooking, poetry, and the Dharma.

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