Moments of Communion

By Connie Nash

mb38-Moments1For years, I’ve been hearing and reading about parents –– mostly struggling mothers and other family members –– talk about their beloved children or loved ones who have ended up behind bars. There are all kinds of reasons given for the arrests and imprisonments along with, in some cases, a parent’s confidence his or her child could not be guilty. Some of the unfortunate were in the wrong place at the wrong time; some had committed an awful act under the influence of drunkenness, drug use, despair, guilt, or in a moment of terrible anger. Some were in prison for an act due to post-traumatic stress from fighting America’s terrible wars in Vietnam or Iraq I.

Several years ago I was attending the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty and was listening deeply to a sister of a death row prisoner whose DNA test proved him innocent of the crime he was convicted of, yet he was still not free. Her life was filled with many complications because of this difficult situation. Although I’d been a friend to family members of inmates for years, all at once it struck me deeply that these same events could occur to anyone, even to my family.

My husband and I adopted three magnificent sons who were fourteen, eight, and four years old when they entered our family. The two oldest had experienced disrupted lives filled with poverty, violence, and loss of parents and friends in Africa, followed by many adjustments to life in the southern United States. The youngest had experienced seven different homes and all manner of other abuses in his early youth. We also have a lovely daughter with an artistic temperament. Whenever I would bring up my concern about how our children would succeed in life, my husband would give me all the reasons our kids would survive unscathed. He made it clear he didn’t think our children had special needs.

Listening at this conference brought up my deep fears and panic about my children’s future, and I began crying. At some point I found myself receiving the balm of deep comfort I had been needing for years from a human rights activist I barely knew. This man just stood there in front of me, completely tuned in, unrushed, undistracted, listening so well. My concerns became his for those few precious moments. His eyes seemed to reflect not only my words but my heart’s agony. He seemed able to feel what I couldn’t articulate. As he listened, I could feel my despair slipping away. It felt like magic.

After I calmed down, he shared that his mother was the inspiration for his deep dedication to human rights and the plight of so many behind bars. Then he expressed confidence that my own mothering would help bring about fruit in each of my children, to help them survive no matter what came their way. He offered me a comforting and healing embrace before we each went our way.

I still wonder often, what will become of all our children, particularly those who are traumatized? Yet, because of those few moments with someone so adept and willing, I am less frightened than I’ve been in years. That experience continues to water my faith and encourages me to work hard for the well-being of all children.

I know many who carry deep pain and are afraid to let it out for fear there would be no stopping the tears. Yet I know that I now have greater empathy and strength for my suffering friends, because my own agonizing fears were expressed and heard.

How many more sons and daughters might we raise who do not turn from fear and pain? Mothering –– even with my four children now out of the nest –– has become ever more urgent and important to me. My desire for a just peace has become my very sustenance, as has my need to work for healing, the abolition of the death penalty, and the ceasing of all war. Not least among that which strengthens me is the power of a few moments of communion, and of feeling truly heard.

Connie Nash is relocating to Asheville, North Carolina. As a disciple of Christ, she has been enriched by the teachings of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh and the deep listening of practitioners.

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Letters

Reader Feedback

What joy to receive in my mailbox today the new Mindfulness Bell! The cover is gorgeous, with a glimpse of the stained-glass window that is shown on the back cover. It makes me very happy to stay in touch with the international sangha in this way.

Marie-Anne Tattevin
Vannes, France
[translated from the French]

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After long delay (the mailroom often offers wonderful opportunities to practice understanding and love) I finally received the Summer [2006] issue of the Mindfulness Bell two days ago (24 August). I was overjoyed to see my drawing in it. Thank you very much! I also appreciate so much your work in getting the magazine out. Each issue is a tremendous source of inspiration and joy for me. Most importantly it gives me a sense of connection to other practitioners. Knowing that other people have similar aspirations and difficulties as I do gives me strength; hearing their methods of practice to realize these aspirations and transform the difficulties gives me direction. Strength and direction help me to be peace, and to share that with those around me.

Breathing and smiling,

Jacob Bowley
United States Disciplinary Barracks
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Words from the Sanghas

The Mindfulness Bell is a place like Plum Village where we meet the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, a place to deepen and to share our practice. In the spirit of enhancing the flow of practice among people in every sangha, we’d like to raise awareness of the Mindfulness Bell and strengthen the connection between the magazine and sanghas. Between October and December 15, 2006, gifts made it possible to offer a one-year subscription to one person in each sangha who agrees to serve as a liaison between the sangha and the Bell. The liaison person would introduce the Mindfulness Bell at sangha gatherings, days of mindfulness, and retreats, and encourage people to subscribe and to submit articles.

As of December 2006, we have connected with sixty-one sanghas in eight countries. While the gift subscription offer ended in December, there may be sanghas that do not yet have a liaison with the Mindfulness Bell; if you’d like to be the liaison person in your sangha, please contact Susan Hadler at WONDC@aol.com.

Here are a few of the e-mail responses to our outreach to the sanghas.

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We received your e-mail at Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas. I would like to volunteer to raise awareness of the Mindfulness Bell. I have a subscription, and benefit deeply from each issue. I read and reread them.

Carlene
South Austin, Texas

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Thanks for the really generous offer. I’m the facilitator for the Putney School sangha and would be delighted to share the Mindfulness Bell with students, faculty and other community members. Maybe we could even get some of the teens to consider writing a piece for the MB!

Jon Schottland
Putney, Vermont

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Although my partner and I are quite familiar with the Mindfulness Bell (subscribed to it many years ago) other members of our sangha are not, and I am sure they will be glad to see it. I did a retreat for activist artists in Ojai with Thây back in 1989, went to Plum Village in 1990, took the precepts in Malibu in 1992, and have been part of three sanghas (one in Venice, California, one in western Massachusetts, and now one on Vashon Island). These teachings have been crucial to my growth and strength through several moves, serious illnesses, motherhood, and my practices as an activist, artist, and educator.

Beverly Naidus
Burton, Washington

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We would like to receive the one-year subscription of the Mindfulness Bell. It´s a great opportunity for us to learn more. We send a weekly newsletter to about two hundred people giving Buddhist information and Thich Nhat Hanh’s texts. There’s also a blog where we post Thây’s texts for discussion. We have also a small Sangha where we meditate and study Thây’s texts.

I think this gift will help us to do this job better. Thank you.

Leonardo Dobbin
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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I facilitate mindfulness meditation in Thây’s tradition at Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples and would be more than glad, honored, and ennobled to be liaison for the Bell. I contributed some words to it once, a few years back — since I live a life of voluntary simplicity and can’t really contribute much money.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to help spread the good news. Please keep up the good work.

Gary Gach
San Francisco, California

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I am a member of Organic Garden Sangha and I would like to be the sangha liaison to the Mindfulness Bell. Today I was the Bell Master for our sangha meeting and reviewed the latest issue of the Mindfullness Bell, which led to some great discussions. This will be a great opportunity for me and I am looking forward to it.

On another note, I have to ask you why the Mindfulness Bell is allowing their message to be sent via Yahoo Groups [via the Order of Interbeing’s OI-Discussion group]. Yahoo isn’t a mindful corporation. They offer the service for free, then sell and use the information that they gather on everyone that joins or doesn’t. Just look at their terms and agreements. One of Yahoo’s biggest clients is the pornography industry.

I have been trying to get the message out that the mindfulness community should have a sanction committee that would approve websites and services offered on the Internet, so the public knows who is really representing the teachings of Thây or looking to cash in on it. The Internet is full of wolves in sheep’s clothing. The OI’s Yahoo Groups are helping to spread good messages but at what cost.

The Mindfulness Bell should run their own groups and Yahoo and Google would pay them to have access to their members.

Larry Lubow
Lomita, California

Editor’s reply: The Mindfulness Bell does not have a Yahoo Group, nor do we have the means to start one on our own. We occasionally use the OI-Discussion and OI-Announce Yahoo Groups to communicate with sangha members; we’d be happy to use another method but that’s up to the OI members who run the groups. That said, we have been using Yahoo Mail at the Mindfulness Bell and we are in the process of changing that. Thanks for the nudge!

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Letters

Thank you so much for sending me the Winter/Spring 2007 issue of the Bell, which had my poem “No Windows” inside.

I’m in a very difficult state because my mother passed away from cancer on March 3rd. I was devastated and in shock. My mother recently had major surgery to remove the cancer from her spine, and we all thought that she was doing fine. Well, that was not the case. The cancer came back and spread very rapidly.

I am utterly devastated! The pain of her passing was so intense that I’m surprised to still be here. She was my biggest supporter and a solid friend. She was silent whenever I did bad things, but was quick to applaud my good actions. And most of all, my mother was so patient. She had uncanny patience and suffered the wounds of life in calm silence.

That evening [after I got the sad news] I received in the mail a postcard from Editor Janelle Combelic in which she encouraged me to keep writing. Well, that little postcard really meant a lot to me because I really felt like dying, just giving up.

My mother’s passing from cancer has awakened me spiritually. I can see life, its depth and meaning, so clearly now. Life is sacred, all life, and know that I’ll never harm another person or living thing ever again. This world is so deceptive and most of us take so much for granted: our families, our bodies and intellect, the air and vegetation — all existence! Hearing that my beautiful mother had died caused me to be “convicted” in the court of life. I saw how selfish I’ve been all these years. How inconsiderate and insensitive to the sanctity of others. I grieved on my prison bunk and saw how special it is to be a human being and the responsibility it entails. Yes, we should smile and laugh, but life is not a meaningless game. It is dear, to be cherished.

The most difficult thing for me to deal with is all the pain and worry I caused my mother. I silently blamed her for when I was hit by a car when I was five years old, which left me with a permanent facial disfigurement. I never verbally told her that I did, but mothers just know, and I think that what happened to me also weighed heavily upon her heart. I would give anything in the world right now to be able to put my arms around her and to tell her: “Mom, what happened to me was not your fault, and I was so wrong to lay the blame at your feet. I love you so much, Mom!”

I hope that she is free from all suffering and pain. And I believe that she is!

I am so grateful to the Mindfulness Bell, and yes I’ll continue to write and send my poetry. I read every word and I love the pictures! Thank you!

I send you peace and love.

Malachi Ephraim
Arizona State Prison
Florence, Arizona, U.S.A.

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I was wandering my way through the river of life that is the world wide web on a journey of serenity when I found the uniqueness and personal liberation that is your site and magazine. I enjoyed your creative and supportive environment. Your pages are a gateway to the self that allow the viewer to experience your genuine heart and indelible presence.

There is an honesty and truth that radiates throughout your pages. I found everything interesting and appealing and I celebrate your journey. I enjoy absorbing the environments I explore and after exploring yours I am enriched by its imagination and creation. I wish you the healing power of mindfulness and a realm of infinite possibilities where your spirit can roam freely.

Micheal Teal
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

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Words from the Sanghas

“Generosity is contagious,” writes Susan Hadler in response to Leonardo’s message, below. The sangha liaison project that she helped initiate last fall continues to grow and bear surprising fruit. If your sangha doesn’t have someone serving as liaison to the Mindfulness Bell, please contact Susan at wondc@aol.com. Here are a couple messages she received recently.

I’d like to thank you again. I’m doing what I promised. I’m talking about the magazine, sending texts  translated into Portuguese to 200 people every week and encouraging them to subscribe to the magazine. It was a precious gift and I decide I’ll do the same. I’ll choose some people of our Sangha and give them a one-year subscription to help them the way you did to me. The magazine it is a refuge to me where I can be in touch with all Thay’s students worldwide. It gives me strength to deepen my practice.

Leonardo Dobbin
(True Peace of the Heart)
Verdadeira Paz do Coracao
Brazil

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Just to let you know that Singing Bird Sangha is alive and well in Tucson, AZ. We are currently taking time each week to focus on the study of sangha and, as part of that, to include the articles from the Mindfulness Bell. On Sunday, March 11th, we will spend our entire study time inviting individuals to relate to the larger group something from an issue that has caught their attention. Following that I am hoping to encourage our members to contribute photos, poems,or articles about practice and about how sangha particularly has shaped their lives. With this in mind it would help if I could include upcoming submission dates.

Barbara Rose Gaynor
Resourceful Calm of the Heart
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.

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Editor’s reply: We read submissions all the time and try to get back to writers quickly.  Deadlines for our three issues per year are July 1, November 1, and March 1. We’re especially looking for submissions to the Heart to Heart section — 500 words on the Third Mindfulness Training (July 1) or the Fourth (November 1). We also need essays and photos from the Vietnam trip — or anything else that moves you and deepens your practice. Send to editor@ mindfulnessbell.org. Thanks for writing!

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We love to receive your letters! We enjoy compliments and we benefit from constructive suggestions. Please e-mail editor@ mindfulnessbell.org or write to Mindfulness Bell, c/o David Percival, 745 Cagua S.E., Albuquerque NM 87108, U.S.A.

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Confined in Anger, Freed in Love

By Jacob Bowley

I was confined in the summer of 1999, twenty years old and more a prisoner of my own deep inner fears than the walls around me. Wrapped up in the great speed of the world, I had been able — with the help of drugs and alcohol — to maintain in my mind an impressive illusion of control. Here in prison the reins were clearly not in my hands; I knew no way to keep up my speed. Forced to stop, or at least slow down, I had to face the bitter truth: my will did not rule the world. This disappointment was too much for me to contend with day after day so I closed my eyes in anger. I would rage against the whole world until it consented to the perpetual gratification of my senses.

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By the beginning of 2001 the institution was not pleased with my method of seeking fulfillment. They expressed this sentiment by giving me an extended stay in segregation. I knew the stay would be for only five or six months, so I saw no reason to change and quickly got into more trouble. At this point they told me I would stay in the hole for three years. My party stopped. This was no game. I could feel the anger oozing out of me, reverberating in my little cell and gaining strength. We looked at each other, my anger and me, and I knew it would destroy me.

While in the depth of this personal hell I came across a few pages about Buddhism. Strangely, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find any ground on which to cut Buddhism down. What I read seemed to be simple common sense.

Truth Cuts to the Heart

I read that life contains suffering. I found this to be an insultingly obvious statement, and yet there it was, in black ink; I had no way to deny it. This was not metaphysical speculation or theological proofs, here was something which cut right to my heart. I could clearly experience this in my own life and see it in the lives of those around me.

I read that suffering has a cause. That cause is not the outside world but is within; it is ignorance and clinging. Not the outside world? This had my full attention. I was putting so much energy into the delusion that with enough effort I could bend the world to my will — could it be possible to just change myself? The prospect of putting this burden down gave me, for the first time, the courage to acknowledge how large the burden was.

I read that the burden could be put down: if the causes of suffering are not, the suffering is not.

Finally I read that there is a path leading out of suffering. I needed to learn more about this path.

That summer and fall I immersed myself in new and exciting Eastern philosophy, ideals of compassion, and graded paths to enlightenment. Amazed by the deep and lucid wisdom I found in these teachings I nurtured a whole-hearted intention to realize their virtue. Slowly I began to experience the strength, healing, and freedom found in kindness and love.

Gradual changes were noticed by the institution and they responded by allowing me to return to the general population early. It was November 2001, and despite the excitement of moving out of segregation I was scared. I knew that the true test of my resolve to change would come when I returned to my friends. I came out of the box strong in intention, but weak in appreciation of the importance of practice. I held on to my new ideas but did not continue to meditate or study. Compared with the solitude of the past year, all the new ways to spend time provided a rich and stimulating life.

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The sponsor of our Narcotics Anonymous group, Tyrone, says “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” The opposite is also true. I was acting my wholesome thinking and intentions into the back of my mind. My way of living systematically hardened my heart, but I didn’t notice the gradual loss of my freedom until I got into a fight over being called a name. How bitter it was to find myself bound once again in anger and rage! The anguish of this prison cut deeper now that I knew a small taste of peace.

Taking Refuge in the Practice

I turned for refuge to the practice, this time not in the isolation of the hole but right in the midst of my crazy world. I faced my habit of trying to maintain a certain image in front of my peers; I faced the deep fears at the root of this habit, and I chose instead to heal. The progress was slow and cautious, but there was peace in every step.

I met a wonderful spiritual friend early in 2004. Matthew Tenney is a living Dharma talk and he shared an infectious happiness with all of us here. He didn’t spend a lot of time engaging in the intellectual speculation and analysis regarding the practice that I wrapped myself in; rather, he introduced me to Thay’s teaching and to the true miracle of mindfulness in daily life. I had read about the importance of cultivating this obscure quality of mindfulness, and I was trying. But until now the methods appeared vague and overwhelming. Thay offered very concrete and simple ways that allowed practice to become a reality of my life.

One day, not long after meeting Matthew, I shared with him a yearning that had been percolating in my heart: I would like to be a monk after I was released. He asked “Why wait? Why not live that ideal right here, right now?” The aspiration to do just that has been the center of my life ever since, a center from which peace, stability, and freedom increase every day.

Witnessing the impact these qualities have on the emotional tone of this environment, and on the hearts of people who live here, gives me the strength to continue. It seems a long time ago that someone said of me, “Man, you can feel the hate radiate off that guy.” Today it is a quiet comfort for my heart to know that I no longer radiate pain and suffering to others, and that there is freedom in love.

Jacob Bowley received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, along with Matthew, long-distance from Brother Phap Bi on January 12, 2006, “a kindness,” writes Jacob, “ which brought tears to my eyes.”

Jacob is incarcerated in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; this essay was written for the Mindfulness Bell and submitted by his father, Freeman Bowley.

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Letters

Prison Dharma

About 50 copies of each issue of the Mindfulness Bell go out to people who are incarcerated. Their heartwarming letters remind us why we do this work.

Another year has passed and once again the Mindfulness Bell has offered to extend my subscription for the new year. I am truly grateful for the offer.

Yes, I would very much appreciate the opportunity to receive the Dharma via the Mindfulness Bell for an additional year.

We have a very small Sangha here at Gulf C.I. and we are able to gather once each week on the recreation yard. Each issue of the Mindfulness Bell we receive is passed around and becomes the topic of many discussions and fuel for our practice.

I send many thanks and our best wishes to everyone who in any way helps to bring the Dharma to others, and especially to those who share via the Mindfulness Bell.

Humbly yours,
Patrick L. S.
Gulf  Correctional Institution
Wewahitchka, Florida

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Hands in the lotus posture and bow to all at the Mindfulness Bell staff.

I am in receipt of the complimentary card gift subscription that you send me. It’s difficult to find the right words to express all that I feel by your generosity. The only thing that I do know is that I am very very grateful for your kindness and by giving me the privilege of receiving the beautiful insights that the magazine brings. You all are doing a wonderful thing by your donation of the Mindfulness Bell to us incarcerated seeking the truth of the teaching of the Buddha.

You will never know how much you all have helped me. Thanks!

Yours in the Dharma,
Fabio V.
Union Correctional Institution
Raiford, Florida

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I very much enjoyed the articles in the Mindfulness Bell. I loved reading about Thay’s home in Vietnam and the practice people are doing both there and around the world and it strengthens my mindfulness practice. I have very much enjoyed and loved the poetry in the middle of the Bell. Also I would like to thank you for giving a complimentary gift subscription and was wondering if you could send me another year’s worth. It is very much read and I loved every issue.

Good karma,
Guy W.
Skyview Prison Unit
Rusk, Texas

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I pray this letter finds all of you happy and well!

I am writing to express how truly thankful I am to receive the Mindfulness Bell. I do not know who my benefactor is — I certainly am in no position to afford your publication — but be assured that it gets quite a lot of use here! There are 330 men in this building and I share and talk with quite a few men here the different articles and poetry. Please let my benefactors know that they are in my thoughts and prayers!

I pray for all of you and to your continued success! Be happy and at peace!

Edward T.
Chuckwalla Valley State Prison
Blythe, California

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Viet Nam or Vietnam?

Occasionally we get feedback that we should be more respectful of Vietnamese culture and write words, especially place names, the way the Vietnamese do. (Unfortunately, we don’t have the capability to print all the accents.) With so many contributions in this issue pertaining to the Sangha’s Vietnamese trip, I sought advice. Who better to ask than Sister Annabel, who is expert in Sanskrit and has translated Thay’s books from Vietnamese into English? Sister Annabel responds: When we write Ha Noi or Viet Nam without the appropriate accents it already ceases to be Vietnamese. Unless you are going to write using accents, I suggest that you write Hanoi, Vietnam, Saigon.

Sister Annabel, Chan Duc

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War, Conflict and Healing

A Buddhist Perspective

By Ha Vinh Tho

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According to the first of the five precepts (panca sila) given by the Buddha to his lay disciples (upasaka):

“Lay students of the Buddha refrain from killing, put an end to killing, rid themselves of all weapons, learn humility before others, learn humility in themselves, practice love and compassion, and protect all living beings, even the smallest insect. They uproot from within themselves any intention to kill. In this way, lay students of the Buddha study and practice the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.” (1)

Even though all religious and spiritual traditions agree to condemn the destruction of life, and although the precept “do not kill” is one of the most universally recognized ethical rules, war and violent conflicts remain an ever-present reality in the history of mankind. For this very reason, it is of utmost importance to reflect on ways to prevent conflicts, to alleviate suffering once conflicts have occurred, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing in post-conflict situations.

The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

The objective of this presentation is to show how the practice of Engaged Buddhism can contribute to the construction of the defenses of peace in the mind.

Developing the Great Compassion

I work in the field of humanitarian action; I train young people to help civil populations, war prisoners, the wounded and the sick in situations of war, armed conflict, and natural catastrophe.

Although neutrality and impartiality are the very guiding principles of true humanitarian action, it is often difficult to maintain this attitude when confronted with the harsh reality of violent conflict. To refuse to take a stand and to maintain an attitude of neutrality can be perceived as a lack of courage or lucidity. Indeed, how not to take sides for the weak against the strong, for the victim against the perpetrator?

I will argue that meditation on the universal law of interdependence, on non-self and on the nature of suffering, is the foundation of the Great Compassion which allows us to develop an attitude of neutrality which is not cowardice and of impartiality which is not indifference.

In the current world situation, characterized by the confrontation of cultures, religions and civilizations, it is more than ever necessary to develop non-attachment to opinions and to wrong perceptions. The Buddha teaches skillful means allowing lifelong learning, and an attitude of tolerance and authentic opening.

I recently acted as a mediator in a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and one of the participants explained:

“Our problem is that there are two competing narratives for one and the same situation.”

Not only is there a competition over land and resources, but there is a competition over the interpretation of reality. Each party is convinced, and wants to convince the world, that his story is the true story.

Each time one is confronted with violent conflicts, one can observe this phenomenon — the two sides have competing narratives, competing stories. And each side sees itself as the “the good guys” versus the other side perceived as “the bad guys.” Most armies are called “Defense Forces”; for instance the German army during the Second World War was called “Wehrmacht,” German for “Defense Force,” and on the buckle of the belts of the soldiers was written “Gott mit uns”: “God with us”, or “God on our side.”

I don’t know of any state that calls its army “Aggression Forces” — the aggressor is always the other side. The demonizing of the other side is a recurring phenomenon in any conflict; otherwise, how would it be possible to kill and maim the so-called enemy, if each one was fully aware that the other is just like oneself?

To give another example, during the Rwandan genocide, the actual physical violence had been prepared through intense radio propaganda by the “Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines” (RTLM) that was broadcasting slogans like: “Kill all the cockroaches,” referring thus to the moderate Hutus and to the Tutsis.

These few examples show clearly that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

But how can we build these defenses?

The Reality of Suffering

In his first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” Lord Buddha began by explaining the Four Noble Truths, and the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering (dukkha). Because of this, some people who do not understand the deeper meaning of the Dharma think that Buddhism is a pessimistic world view that emphasizes suffering over joy, and only sees life as a burden best gotten rid of. But this is a very superficial view; the Buddha acknowledges suffering in the same way a doctor acknowledges illness: in order to cure it.

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Suffering can be a powerful way to develop compassion and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, the Fourth Training addresses this reality:

Awareness of Suffering— Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help me develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, I am determined not to avoid or close my eyes before suffering. I am committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so I can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy. (2)

I would like to share an experience that I had some years ago, and that helped me understand in a more concrete way the reality of this Mindfulness Training. During a peace conference, I heard a lady from Northern Ireland tell how her sister had lost her son in a terrorist attack, and how, soon after, the man who had killed her nephew had also been shot dead. The mother of the young man who had been killed decided to visit the mother of the one who had killed her son, not in order to seek revenge, but to console her. She said:

“Only a mother who has lost a child can understand another mother who has had the same experience.”

These two women started a powerful peace movement in Northern Ireland that was instrumental in bringing about the Good Friday Peace Agreement that stopped a violent conflict that had been raging for decades.

In the same way, in Israel and Palestine there is a movement called the Parents’ Circle; all members of this circle have lost a son or a daughter in the conflict. I have had the privilege to facilitate meetings of the Parents’ Circle. It is a deeply moving experience to see how these people have transformed suffering into compassion. They have been able to overcome the natural striving for retaliation and revenge and to come together, united by their common experience of a terrible loss, to share a message of peace and reconciliation. When they meet, they share their stories, the memories of their lost children, but out of this grief they draw strength, energy of love and compassion, and a strong will to bring an end to war and to violence. Whoever listens to them can only be deeply moved because they speak from the depth of an experience that no theory or abstract ideal can match. They have discovered through their own suffering the reality of the Buddha’s saying:

“Hate is not overcome by hate; by love (metta) alone is hate appeased. This is an eternal law.”

The Realization of Interdependence and Non-Self

From the point of view of conflict prevention and peace building, interdependence and non-self are the most important tools that Buddhism has to offer. What I have called the problem of competing narratives is always based on the false assumption of a radical, unbridgeable difference between me and you, between my community and your community.

At first sight, good and evil, right and wrong, victim and perpetrator seem to be completely separated realities; we may think that if we get rid of the negative, only the positive will remain. But interdependence or, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing, is the realization of the interconnectedness of all life. The more we become aware of the reality of interbeing, the more we realize our shared responsibility for the state of the world. On one hand, this can seem like a burden; on the other, it makes us conscious that we are not passive onlookers, but that we can do something to bring about transformation and healing. I would like to quote venerable Thich Nhat Hanh who shared a powerful example of this insight:

“One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years.”3

If we awaken to the reality of interbeing and non-self, we awaken to the wisdom of non-discrimination. This is the wisdom that can break the barrier of individualism; with this wisdom we see that we are the other person and the other person is ourself. The happiness of the other person is our own happiness, and our own happiness is the happiness of the other people, plants, animals, and even minerals.

This is not only true on a personal level; it is also true for communities, countries, religions, and civilizations.

“Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhism elements. If we look deeply we can see that the elements of non-Buddhism have made Buddhism… It’s exactly the same as a flower. A flower is made from non-flower elements; the sun, the clouds are not flower, soil is not flower, water is not flower. The self is made of non-self elements. It is the same with the other religions.” (4)

The more this insight can become not a mere theory, but an actual experience, the more we can realize that the so-called enemies are always part of a common interdependent reality. And if we strive for the freedom, the peace and the happiness of our own community, the only way to achieve it is by protecting the freedom, the peace and the happiness of the other community. This is true between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Tutsis and Hutus, between Tibetans and Han Chinese.

This is also the key insight that helps us to be neutral and impartial without being indifferent. I have personally struggled with this dilemma more than once, and I would like to share an experience that had a transformative effect on me.

The first time I visited a detention center, I went to meet with security detainees in a military prison. I spent most of the day having interviews with the detainees and met with dozens of men. I was listening to one story after the other, stories of violence, of fear, of injustice, of hatred, of despair. Taking all these stories in my heart, it was easy to feel a lot of compassion with them and, on the other side, to feel anger arising against the soldiers who had all the power, the weapons, the authority. At some point, I was taking a short break in the courtyard, resting from the intensity of the encounters, from the stench and the claustrophobic atmosphere in the prison cells, when a young soldier came to sit next to me. I felt he wanted to talk to me. He was very young — most soldiers are very young, war is always about elder men sending out young men to do things that they would not do themselves. I asked his age and he was several years younger than my own son. He began to tell me about his life before the military, he told me about journeys he had taken, countries he had visited, and he also said that he was active in his community, helping teenagers who had problems with their families. He told me that after the army, he wanted to study education and do something useful for the youths. I felt he wanted to show me another side of himself, he needed me to see beyond the uniform he wore and the machine gun he carried. After we had talked for a while, he suddenly asked me: “Do you think I am a bad person?”

The question touched me deeply. I realized how easy it is to perceive only the soldier, the one having the power and oppressing the prisoners. In a flash, I realized that if the causes and conditions had been different, I could have been the one with the machine gun and he could have been the humanitarian worker. And I could not be absolutely sure that if I had been the one with the weapon, I would have not been more cruel and harsher on the prisoners than he was. So I told him very sincerely: “No, I don’t think you are a bad person, I understand that you are in a situation that is not easy, just try to do the best you can. ”

Meditation and Mindfulness

True insight into the nature of suffering, interdependence, and non-self can bring about peace, reconciliation, and healing, but it cannot come from intellectual reasoning alone. It needs to be nourished by life experience, by mindfulness in everyday life, by meditation.

Meditation is not about turning away from reality and dwelling in an illusionary inner peace, ignoring the suffering that so many people and other living beings experience day after day.

Meditation is looking deeply into reality as it is, both in us and around us. It is training ourselves not to react immediately with sympathy or antipathy: I like, I dislike, I want, I don’t want, I grasp, I reject.

But rather to create an open space, free of judgment, free of notions and preconceived ideas, allowing reality to unfold and reveal itself in our heart and mind. By doing this, insight and compassion arise naturally, effortlessly, for they are the very nature of our deeper being.

  1. Upasaka Sutra, Madhyama Agama 128
  2. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press
  3. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bantam, 1992
  4. Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village, France

mb50-War3Ha Vinh Tho, Chan Dai Tue, is half-Vietnamese, half-French. With his wife of thirty-eight  years, Lisi (both Dharma teachers ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh), he founded the Eurasia Foundation for the development of  special education in Vietnam. Tho is the head of training, learning, and development in a humanitarian organization whose mission is to protect the lives and dignity of  victims of  war and internal violence.

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Letters

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

I was introduced to mindfulness during a training course at work several years ago and I have found that it has helped to transform my life. I am an artist and an art therapist and I now use mindfulness meditation a great deal with my patients. Often I begin with a mindfulness meditation and then I encourage the patient to draw their observations.

I read your story, “A Peaceful River” (Summer 2012), as the clouds were rolling past my small studio window. I became absorbed in the sky and the clouds as I reflected on your words and felt inspired to paint. My painting shows my orange mug, full of tea reflecting the clouds as they float past. Underneath the blue sky I have pasted small pieces of torn-up newspaper which were from an article that troubled me. It was about the environment and the loss of trees through constant development in England where I live. I visualised the issue attaching itself to the clouds and knew that this too, like the clouds, would pass.

Thank you for your inspiring story and for the other encouraging stories in the Mindfulness Bell.
Withnewfound peace and joy,
Michelle Edinburgh
Solihull, England

mb61-LetterToEditor Dear Mindfulness Bell friends:

I recently received my first issue and am thrilled to be brought into the circulation of your mindful readership. Keeping a mindful awareness and positive perspective here in prison is difficult but with the inspiration and support of works by Thich Nhat Hanh, IT CAN BE DONE one breath at a time. Enclosed is a compilation/composition of mine that was recently inspired by my meditation on the depths of “aimlessness.” Thanks for all you do for all of us and please know how we in prison already have the elements for happiness within us but we need frequent reminders not to try too hard. 

Trying Too Hard

Consider the lilies of the field: How they grow.
They neither toil nor spin.
The Tao abides in non-doing.
Yet nothing is left undone.
Buddha taught that there is no need to
Struggle to be free.
The absence of struggle is itself freedom.
Be Still and Know that I Am God.
How hard could it be?
Still….

Blessings & Peace,
Rob Becker
Danville, Illinois, U.S.A.

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I wanted to pass on my appreciation for a recent story in the Summer 2012 issue of the Mindfulness Bell. In June 2012 I became a new mom. In the early weeks I struggled with my role as a mom. Then I read Sister Trang Moi Len’s “Mama, Today Is a Special Day.” Through my tears that is. Her words helped me reconnect to Thay’s teachings and find the strength and courage to love my baby daughter. Thank you for such a wonderful publication and for the reminder to find our true selves. 

Warm regards
Vanessa
Chirgwin Massachusetts, U.S.A

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Dharma Talk – The Different Faces of Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Teachings on the Dimension of Action of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion from the Universal Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra

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When the bodhisattva named Inexhaustible Mind heard the name Avalokitesvara, he asked the Buddha, “Why did that bodhisattva get such a beautiful name?” The Buddha replied, “Because the actions of Avalokitesvara can respond to the needs of any being in any circumstance.” Then Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind asked, “How does this bodhisattva enjoy being on this Earth? How does he enjoy walking and contemplating and going about this planet?” The word used in this question is a verb that means you relax and enjoy yourself. Answering that question, the Buddha talked about the way Avalokitesvara spends his or her time on this planet.

We all have time to spend on this planet and the question is whether we enjoy it or not. What are we doing? Do we really enjoy our time sojourning on this planet? Do we carry a lot of luggage, making it feel too heavy to enjoy our time here?

Avalokitesvara is a manifestation and any manifestation has to be situated in time and space in the historical dimension. The Buddha Shakyamuni manifested himself as a prince, as a practitioner, as a monk, and as a teacher. His manifestation lasted eighty years. We are also manifestations. We manifest ourselves in the historical dimension and there are things we want to do and we want to enjoy what we do.

The Interbeing of the Historical and the Ultimate Dimensions 

Everything has its historical dimension as well as its ultimate dimension. In the ultimate dimension we are in touch with the essence, the substance, the ground of a person or a thing. In the historical dimension we get in touch with the appearance or the form of something or someone. If we speak about a bell, the substance that makes up the bell is metal. The form of the bell is a manifestation from that ground. So in the historical dimension you can see the ultimate dimension. We also carry with us our ground of being. It’s like a wave that manifests herself on the surface of the ocean. The wave is also the water and touching the historical dimension of the wave deeply, you touch the water, her ultimate dimension.

Yesterday there was a question about God. Our friend asked, “I thought that there is no God in Buddhism. Why is Thay speaking about the Kingdom of God?” It’s true that in Buddhism we do not talk about God but we do talk about nirvana, the ultimate dimension. If God means the ultimate dimension, the foundation of all manifestations, then there is God in Buddhism. Our ground of being is the nature of no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We call that “nirvana”, the ultimate. If you understand God to be the ultimate, to be the foundation of every manifestation, then we can speak about God. If by God we mean an old man with a beard sitting in the clouds and deciding everything for us, we don’t talk about that God.

The Dimension of Action 

What is the purpose of a bell? How does the bell serve? The bell offers sound for us to practice. That is the function of the bell. This is called the dimension of action. We all have this third dimension. Although we carry within ourselves our true nature we also enjoy manifesting ourselves through our jobs and activities. The Buddha Shakyamuni wanted to do something, that is why he manifested himself. The bell wants to do something, that is why she has manifested herself as a bell. There is something we want to do, in our current manifestation. The dimension of action is connected to the dimension of history, and the dimension of history is very much linked to the dimension of the ultimate.

Our body in the historical dimension may have a beginning and an end but our body in the ultimate dimension is indestructible. It is our Dharma body. Our body in the historical dimension is the body of retribution. The form and manifestation of our physical body is a result or retribution of the lives of our ancestors and our own way of living and being in the world. While using this body of retribution we can practice touching our Dharma body. Everyone has a Dharma body and if you can touch your Dharma body you are no longer afraid of birth and death. The moment the wave realizes that she is water, she is no longer afraid of being and nonbeing, birth and death. As water she doesn’t mind going up and going down. She can ride freely on the waves of history without fear. The role of the bodhisattva in the dimension of action is to help people to touch deeply their ultimate dimension because once you have touched your ultimate dimension you lose all fear of birth and death. You realize that this manifestation is just a continuation. Before this manifestation you were already there in your ancestors and after this manifestation disintegrates you will continue in your descendants and in all forms of life.

The Universal Door 

The twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is called “The Universal Door Chapter.” This chapter is about the dimension of action of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The Universal Door refers to the kind of practice that can respond to all situations of suffering in every place and in every time. This chapter is about love, and Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of love and compassion.

Amb32-dharma2valokitesvara is translated as Quan Tu Tai or Quan The Am in Vietnamese. Quan means to observe, to look deeply or to recognize. In Sanskrit this word is the same as vipasyana, to look deeply. Vipasyana goes together with samatha, or stopping and concentrating. You select a subject, you stop and concentrate on that subject and you look deeply into it. It may be your anger, your despair or a difficult situation you find yourself in. Tu Tai means freedom. Thanks to looking deeply you get the freedom you need. In the Heart Sutra the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara found out that everything is empty of a separate existence. Upon having that realization he became free from all afflictions. The Am means the sounds of the world. Quan The Am is the one who looks deeply into the sounds of the world.

Living beings express themselves in different ways. Whether they express themselves well or not, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can always understand them. If a child doesn’t have enough words to express herself the bodhisattva is still able to understand the child. If the person expresses himself in spoken language or in bodily expression the bodhisattva also understands.

Avalokitesvara has the power of manifesting herself in so many forms, and she is capable of being present everywhere at the same time. When you go to a temple, whether it is in Vietnam or Tibet or China you might have a chance to see a statue of a bodhisattva with 1,000 arms. Each arm holds an instrument. One of her hands is holding a book; it may be a sutra or a book on political science. Another hand is holding a bell. Another hand is holding a flute or a guitar. And a bodhisattva of our time may hold in one hand a computer. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book there is an English translation of the verses of this chapter made by Sister True Virtue. In this translation the bodhisattva is called a she. And in Asia many people think of Avalokitesvara as a she. But in fact the person can be a he as is explained in the sutra. The bodhisattva can manifest herself as an artist, a politician, a musician, a Dharma teacher, a gardener, a little boy, a little girl, even as a millionaire or the head of a big corporation. If the situation needs his or her presence she will be there in the appropriate form to respond to the situation. Compassion can take so many forms.

Cultivating Compassion 

“Whoever calls her name or sees her image, if their mind is perfectly collected and pure, they will then be able to overcome the suffering of all the worlds. When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” 1

Calling the name of Avalokitesvara may give rise to something in your mind. Your mind becomes concentrated, mindful, calm, and lucid. If you call her name in such a way that your mind becomes still then you will be able to overcome your suffering. Evoking the name of Avalokitesvara is one of the ways to allow understanding and compassion to be born in our hearts. When something or someone can offer you freshness, joy, and loving kindness, the image of that person becomes the object of your contemplation. Every time you think of her or of him, suddenly the elements of compassion and understanding are born in your heart and you can overcome the suffering you are experiencing at that moment.

A place can also embody compassion and understanding. Suppose you come to Plum Village and you enjoy the beauty of the nature and the lifestyle. When you leave, every time you think of Plum Village you have a pleasant feeling. That is the meaning of mindfulness or contemplation. The object of mindfulness is the image or the sound that can inspire us and can produce the element of understanding and compassion in us. It is not just devotion. We should not invoke the name of Avalokitesvara or visualize the form like a machine; doing that will not provoke any calmness or mindfulness. To evoke the energy of Avalokitesvara is the practice of calming and concentrating our mind to bring back the nectar of compassion and understanding in us. That practice can help us avoid all kinds of dangers.

Avalokitesvara can also manifest himself in many names. The message of Jesus is love. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” Avalokitesvara may say, “I am the Universal Door.” We all have our Avalokitesvara, of different names and forms. What is essential is that that name can help us to calm down and to make understanding and compassion possible.

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“When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” How can we understand this statement? If you are pushed into a pit of fire and you know how to be mindful and to recollect the powerful energy of Avalokitesvara then the pit will be transformed into a cool lake. The cool lake is inside and it is also outside.

In the same chapter of the Lotus Sutra we read, “If there is a person who is a victim of ignorance and that person knows how to be mindful of the great compassion of Avalokitesvara then he will free himself from ignorance. If a person is a victim of anger and she knows how to practice mindfulness of the great energy of Avalokitesvara then she will be free from her anger.” We have to understand all of these verses in that spirit.

Sometimes a whole nation is plunged into a pit of fire made of anger. Imagine how big that pit of fire must be. If you know how to be mindful of compassion, and of Avalokitesvara who is the symbol of compassion and understanding, then you will calm yourself down. You will be able to see more clearly and your anger will subside. After September 11th, I recommended that America engage herself in the practice of stopping, calming and looking deeply to see what to do and what not to do to respond to the situation with compassion and lucidity. This is the action of Avalokitesvara.

Drawing Dangers into Ourselves 

In the Universal Door Chapter we read about many dangerous situations such as: caught in a fire, caught in a flood, caught in a war, caught in a situation where we suffer so much. Usually we believe that dangers come from the outside. We do not realize that most of the dangers we are afraid of come from within us and not from some objective situation. When you do not have a clear view, a right understanding of reality, you create a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and danger. When you have the element of anger, delusion, and craving within yourself, you draw danger into yourself. You create your own suffering. The practice of compassion, the practice of deep looking helps you to be lucid, to be loving, and that lucidity and that loving kindness is a protection from all kinds of dangers.

It is clearly stated in the sutra that if you are caught in a situation of anger and you know how to produce mindfulness of love then you will be free from that situation. If you are caught in the situation of delusion and you know how to practice mindfulness of compassion then you can get out of that situation. That is the Universal Door.

The Fierce Bodhisattva and the Gentle Bodhisattva 

Is it possible to carry a gun and yet remain deeply a bodhisattva? This is possible. When you enter the gate of a temple, you see the statue of a very gentle bodhisattva on your left, smiling and welcoming. But looking on your right you see a figure with a very fierce face, holding a weapon. His whole face is burning. Smoke and fire are pouring out of his eyes and his mouth. He is the one who has the capacity to keep the hungry ghosts in order. Every time we organize a ceremony to offer food and drink to the hungry ghosts, to the wandering souls, we need to evoke the bodhisattva with the burning face (Dien Nhien Vuong) to come and help. The hungry ghosts only listen to him because he has that fierce, “You behave, otherwise you will get it!” look. He is a kind of Chief of Police bodhisattva. That is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. So when you see someone carrying a gun, you cannot necessarily say that he or she is evil. Society needs some people to carry guns because there are gangsters, there are people who would not behave if there were no one embodying strict discipline. It is possible that someone carrying a gun can be a real bodhisattva because the bodhisattva of the burning face is a real bodhisattva, a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. It is possible for the director of a prison or a prison guard to be a bodhisattva. He may be very firm with the prisoners but deep inside of him there is the heart of a bodhisattva. Our job is to help prison guards and police officers to have a bodhisattva heart.

Today there is a police officer here; she took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1991. She knows a lot about the suffering of members of the police force in America. You are supposed to be a peacekeeping force but sometimes you are looked upon as the oppressors, as a symbol of violence. There is violence, there is suppression in society and you have been appointed to keep the peace. It’s very hard to do your job if you don’t have enough skillful means. If you don’t have enough understanding and compassion, a lot of anger, frustration, and despair may grow within you. Then it is possible that you can become the oppressor. The door of your heart is closed. No one understands you; they look upon you as an enemy. There is no communication between you and the world outside that you are supposed to serve. So the suffering of the police may be immense, the suffering of prison guards may be immense. They don’t enjoy their job and yet they have to continue. Avalokitesvara must appear in their midst and try to open their hearts. Avalokitesvara says that you can carry a gun, you can be very firm, but at the same time you can be very compassionate.

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If you play the role of a tender bodhisattva, you have to have real compassion and understanding in you. Usually the First Lady, the wife of the Prime Minister, the wife of the President or the Queen, should play the role of the tender bodhisattva, the figure of a mother, a gentle sister caring for the sick and the poor. While her husband is doing things like conducting the army, conducting war, the First Lady plays the role of a tender bodhisattva. But if she is a real bodhisattva her action will not be just a decoration, she will manifest real compassion and real understanding.

If you have to play the role of the fierce, burning face bodhisattva, even if you carry a weapon and demonstrate your firmness, you have to have a tender heart and deep understanding. If you look for Avalokitesvara only in a nice appearance, you will miss her, because she can manifest herself in all kinds of forms. She can manifest herself in all kinds of bodies: as a child, as an adult, as a judge, as a mother, as a king, as a schoolteacher, as a businessman, as a politician, as a scientist, as a journalist, or as a Dharma teacher. So you have to look deeply in order to recognize Avalokitesvara.

The Eye of Understanding 

The ten thousand arms of the bodhisattva are needed because love can express itself in many forms with many kinds of instruments. That is why every arm is holding a different instrument. But if you look closer, you see that in each hand there is an eye. The eye signifies the presence of understanding. Very often by loving someone we make that person suffer because our love is not made with understanding. The other person may be your son, your daughter, or your partner. If you don’t understand the suffering, the difficulty, the deep aspiration of that person, it is not possible for you to love him or her. That is why you need an eye for your arm to really be an instrument of compassion. It is important to check whether your loving has enough understanding and compassion in it. You can ask for help. “Darling, do you think I understand you enough? Do I make you suffer because of my love?” A father should be able to ask his son, a mother should be able to ask her daughter that question. “Daughter, do I make you suffer because of my lack of understanding? Please tell me so that I can love you properly.” That is the language of love. If you are sincere, your daughter will tell you about her suffering and once you have understood you will stop doing things that you thought would make her happy but really make her suffer. Understanding is the substance with which you can fabricate love.

Transformation Bodies of Avalokitesvara 

Several of us are acting like bodhisattvas with several arms. We are taking care of members of our family, and we also participate in the work of protecting the environment and helping the hungry children in the world. We think we have only two arms but many of us are present a little bit everywhere in the world. You can be at the same time here and in a prison. You can be at the same time here and in a far away country where children suffer because of malnutrition. You don’t have to be present with this body because you have other transformation bodies a little bit everywhere. And that is why it is very important that you recognize your transformation bodies. When I write a book I want to transform myself into thousands of me in order to go a little bit everywhere. Every book of mine becomes one of my transformation bodies. I can go to a cloister in the form of a book; I can go to a prison in the form of a cassette tape. Each of us has many transformation bodies. That is what the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara does. She can manifest herself in so many bodies. Being a bodhisattva is not something abstract; it’s something concrete that you can do.

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When I was young I read a book written by a French tourist who went to Africa and enjoyed hunting tigers in the jungle. He didn’t believe in God. One day, late in the afternoon, he got lost in the jungle. He didn’t know how to get out; he began to panic. He wanted to pray for help but because he didn’t believe in God he had never prayed before. In his panic, he said, “God, if you really exist, then this is the time to come and rescue me!” There was some arrogance in his way of praying. Right after he said that, there was some noise in the bush and an African gentleman appeared wearing nothing but a loincloth and thanks to that person the Frenchman was saved. Later in his book he wrote an ironic sentence that showed he was not very grateful. He said, “I called for God but only a Negro came.” He was not able to recognize God in the person of a native African. He didn’t know that the “Negro” who came to him was God, was Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. You have to be very awake in order to recognize the beautiful bodhisattva in an unfamiliar form.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara might be very close to you. You may be able to recognize her in the here and now and yet you are looking for him or her in the clouds. Compassion does exist; understanding does exist. It is possible for us to cultivate the energy of compassion and understanding so that the bodhisattva can be with us all the time in our daily life. Then we will be well protected.

Four Skillful Means for Embracing Living Beings

How does the bodhisattva act in order to help living beings to overcome their suffering and to realize their ultimate dimension? We speak of four skillful means used by the bodhisattva, in the dimension of action, to embrace living beings. They are: (1) making offerings, (2) using loving speech, (3) doing things to benefit the other person, and (4) “doing the same thing” or becoming one with the people you want to help.

Offering the Gift of Non-fear 

There are three kinds of gifts spoken of in Buddhism: material gifts, the gift of the Dharma, and the gift of non-fear. When you offer things to people, you are practicing compassion and you also open the way for reconciliation and healing. Giving her some beautiful music can help her to relax while listening. Giving him a book on the Dharma may help him to deal with his difficulties. The Buddha said when you are angry with someone and you are capable of giving him or her something, then your anger will die down.

The most precious gift that Avalokitesvara can offer us is the gift of non-fear. People are afraid of losing their identity, of dying, of becoming nothing. When you give the kind of teaching and practice and insight that helps people touch their ultimate dimension, they lose all their fear. But you need to have that gift of non-fear within you in order for you to be able to offer it to others.

Perhaps as a child you have played with a kaleidoscope, a very simple, wonderful toy. I have a few in my hut. In it there are loose bits of colored materials and two mirrors at one end that show many different patterns. Each pattern is a beautiful manifestation. If you turn it a little bit, that manifestation will be replaced with another manifestation. Every manifestation is beautiful. As a child, you don’t regret when one manifestation replaces another. The manifestations also, no matter how beautiful they are, do not feel sorrowful when they give their place to the next manifestation. The child just enjoys the changes without any regret because the next manifestation is as beautiful as the current one. There is no fear, no regret because all manifestations have the same ground, the little bits of colors in the kaleidoscope. The ground of all manifestations is always there. If you can touch the ground, you don’t mind the changes. You are not caught by this body, you know this is just one manifestation. You are ready to manifest in another form as wonderful as this one.

The Loving Speech of a Bodhisattva 

The second skillful means is to use loving speech. You can be very firm and uncompromising, and still use loving speech. Loving speech can convey your feeling and your idea to the other person better than shouting at them, blaming them, or being sarcastic and sour. A bodhisattva should be able to use loving speech.

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I would like to return to the example of the police bodhisattva. Seeing the way people react to the police, the police officers’ hearts harden every day. They feel very isolated; they feel they are victims of society. So the police bodhisattva can propose that the community of police officers organize an open house. They will prepare food and beverages and will invite the neighborhood to come and hear the story of the life of a police officer. You can tell them, “When I set out in the morning carrying my gun and going to the street, my spouse does not know whether I will come home safely because there is so much violence in society. Although we carry guns we can be killed or maimed by other people. So we start our day with fear, with uncertainty; we don’t know what will happen to us during that day. Our task is to impose order, but maybe we will be victims of violence on the street. If we do our job with anger and fear in us, we cannot do it well. That is why we suffer as police officers. We really want to help but we suffer very much. When we go home we cannot offer joy and compassion to the people in our home because it was so hard during the day. If there is no happiness in our home, we are not nourished.”

Then members of the community will have more understanding and compassion for you. Communication is possible. There can be collaboration between the police officers and community members. There must be a way out of even the most difficult situations. The way out is through listening with compassion and using loving speech. Once communication is restored we have hope and suffering will be lessened.

The third skillful means is to do things that benefit the other person. From your actions the other person feels safer and has more opportunities for a happy life. Showing people how to receive training to obtain a job, how to increase their family ‘s income, how to improve their health or have more security, are examples of the kinds of action that benefit people.

The Skillful Means of “Doing the Same Thing”

The fourth skillful means is, you become one of them. You look like them, you wear clothes like them, and you do exactly what they are doing, in order for them to have a chance to learn the path of understanding and love. That is the action of the bodhisattva.

Nowadays there are so many youngsters who belong to gangs. Each gang may have thirty or forty members, each with a leader. In order to help transform their hearts and minds, you have to transform yourself into a gang leader. You look like a delinquent but you are really a bodhisattva because that is the only way to approach them. You have to talk like them, you have to behave and wear clothes like them in order to be recognized and accepted, then you can begin to help transform their hearts. That is called the practice of “doing the same thing.” That is what Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can do. So in the prisons you can manifest yourself as a fellow prisoner and you become the bodhisattva among prisoners. In the police force, you have to manifest yourself as a police officer, and you play the role of bodhisattva in order to bring about relief, understanding, and compassion.

A Bodhisattva in Prison 

There is a nun who is a student of mine who has spent a lot of time in prison. When she was young she had the opportunity to study English literature in a university in America. She ordained as a nun in Vietnam. She was imprisoned because she participated in activities to promote human rights. During the time she was in prison she practiced walking meditation and sitting meditation every day, although her cell was very small. Thanks to the practice she remained calm and fresh; anger and despair were not able to seize her. She was able to help the other prisoners. Other prisoners had a lot of anger that showed on their faces when they interacted with the prison guards. But she was treated well by the prison guards, not because she was a nun, but because she had the compassionate look of a practitioner. She was smiling and fresh that is why they didn’t worry about her.

The fact is that while being in prison she was not a victim of anger and despair. She was able to make use of her time there, like a retreat. She didn’t have to do anything ,just enjoy the practice. She grew up spiritually during her time in prison. Instead of transforming her prison cell into a pit of glowing embers, she transformed her dwelling into a cool lotus pond because she knew the practice of mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. If we find ourselves in a situation like hers and we know how to practice the Universal Door of mindfulness and compassion, then we will not suffer and we can help people who are in the same situation. We can also help people like the administrators and prison guards.

Praising Avalokitesvara 

“From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms: the Bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death, free from all afflictions. Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable. Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers. The willow branch in her hand, once waved, reveals countless Buddha lands. Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers. I bow to her, to see her true presence in the here and now. I offer her the incense of my heart. May the Bodhisattva of deep listening embrace us all with great compassion. Homage to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.” — Verses of Praise from the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

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In this chant praising Avalokitesvara you begin to see that the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has a deep understanding of your situation, of the situation of the world. And she is able to convince you with her great eloquence to follow the path of understanding and love. She is free from the dust of craving, anger, and delusion. Her nectar of compassion can heal all kinds of sickness whether it is depression or cancer. The best kind of medicine is compassion. Without compassion it is very difficult to heal. You need compassion from the inside and from the outside. The light emitted by him or her sweeps away all kinds of dangers. You draw dangers into yourself by your craving, hatred, and delusion. But because you have the light of compassion, you can dissipate and be free from all of these dangers.

The bodhisattva holds a willow branch in her hand. When she waves it she reveals countless Buddha lands. The Buddha land is right here, right now, but because we are deluded and caught in our anger we don’t see the wonders of life, the wonders of the Pure Land in the present moment. We need her to use a willow branch in order to reveal it to us. She dips the willow branch into the nectar of compassion and as she spreads it, she transforms suffering into joy. With the nectar of compassion you can do everything. You can transform death into life, despair into hope. It is possible for you to cultivate the nectar of compassion like a bodhisattva. With her pink lotus flower she creates a multitude of practice centers. There are many practice centers in Germany, in England, in America, and in Israel. You are an arm of the bodhisattva; you are establishing Mindfulness Practice Centers everywhere. I bow my head; I praise her, I praise compassion, and I offer the incense of my heart. Please manifest yourself in the here and the now for us.

The Ten Virtues of Avalokitesvara: The Five Contemplations and the Five Sounds 

“Look of truth, look of purity, look of boundless understanding, look of love, look of compassion, the look to be always honored and practiced.”

If you want to know the nature and the practice of Avalokitesvara, you should be aware that she practices five kinds of contemplations: of truth, purity, great wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness. The first contemplation comes from the definition of her name, Quan, meaning looking deeply into the truth of reality. You have the capacity to distinguish the true from the false, the beautiful from the ugly.

The second contemplation is the contemplation on purification. Like a cloud in the sky, she has to purify herself so that when she becomes the rain, the rain will be pure for the sake of the world. To be a cloud floating in the sky is wonderful, but it is also wonderful to be the rain falling on the mountains and the rivers. To become the snow on the top of a mountain is also wonderful. To be a drink in a glass of water for a child is also wonderful. So water can manifest herself in many forms and every form is wonderful. That is why bodhisattvas are not caught in one form of manifestation, in one body. We know that this manifestation is linked to the next manifestation in terms of cause and effect.

If the cloud is polluted then the rain will be polluted also. That is why, while being a cloud you purify yourself so that when you become the rain you become very pure, delicious water. You know that there are many clouds that carry within themselves a lot of dust, a lot of acid. The clouds that hang over big cities are quite polluted. When they become snow the snow is not clean; when it becomes rain, it can carry a lot of acid and destroy the forests. So while you are a cloud try to practice self-purification so that when you are transformed into snow and water you will be more beautiful. By self-purification, you help with the purification of the world.

We know we draw dangers to ourselves because of the way we look at things and because we have craving, anger, and delusion in us. That is why self-purification, learning to look deeply to remove our anger, our craving, and our delusion is to remove danger. Especially when you touch the ultimate, you are no longer afraid of anything.

The third contemplation is the contemplation on the great wisdom, maha prajna paramita. The object of your contemplation is not just knowledge, but the great wisdom that has the power of bringing you to the other shore, the shore of safety, the shore of non-fear, the shore of well-being.

The fourth contemplation is the contemplation on compassion, the energy with which we can embrace all beings whether they are sweet and lovable or unkind and cruel. The fifth contemplation is the contemplation on loving kindness, the energy that is the opposite of what we feel towards an enemy. When we contemplate on loving kindness we feel our association and friendship towards all beings. We should practice contemplation of these five objects.

The Five Sounds of a Bodhisattva

“Sound of wonder, noble sound,
sound of one looking deeply into the world,
extraordinary sound, sound of the rising tide,
the sound to which we will always listen.”

This verse in the Universal Door Chapter speaks about five kinds of sounds that characterize the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The five sounds are the sound of wonder, the sound of he or she who understands the world, the noble sound, the sound that is powerful like the sound of the rising tide, and the sound that surpasses all sounds in the Locadhatu, the mundane world.

First is the sound of wonder: you yourself are a wonder, the tree in the front yard is a wonder, the Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder, and the galaxy is a wonder. You should listen in such a way that you can hear the sound of the wonders. Otherwise you are living in a dream. You are in the kingdom of wonders and yet you are not in touch. That is why you have to listen. You listen to the mountain, you listen to the flower, you listen to the birds, you listen to yourself, and you become aware that everything is a wonder.

The second sound is the sound of he or she who practices looking deeply into the world. The Buddha is described as “he who deeply understands the world.” All of us who are friends, disciples, continuations of the Buddha, do the same. We try to look deeply into the world in order to understand better. That is the meaning of meditation. To meditate is to have the time to look deeply at what is there. And looking like that we come to understand the world, to understand ourselves, and we are free from afflictions, from making mistakes.

The third sound is the sound of nobility. There are sounds that are heavy, that carry a lot of craving, a lot of despair. But when you are a practitioner you are on a path of self-purification and the sound you emit every day becomes finer and finer, because every cell in your body, every mental formation in you is on the way to self-purification and transformation. That is why the sound emitted by our cells becomes more and more noble. That is what happens with the bodhisattva; her sound is a wonderful sound, that is high and noble. If you are mindful and concentrated, you can tune in to that sound for your pleasure, for your transformation, and for your healing.

The fourth kind of sound is the sound of the rising tide. When I was a student at the Buddhist Institute I invited other students to produce a newsletter for the students of the seminary and I proposed the title, “The Voice of the Rising Tide.” But because we wrote so many radical thoughts, later on we were forbidden to continue with our publication. The sound of the rising tide is very powerful. If you can tune in to that sound, you receive transformation and healing. That sound can embrace and take away the sounds that are vulgar, that are low. The fifth kind of sound is the sound that can transcend all the other sounds of the world. The Locadhatu emits the sound of the world, while the sound emitted by the bodhisattva reveals to us the Dharmadhatu, the realm of ultimate reality, the Pure Land.

When you practice being aware of Avalokitesvara, you get in touch with these five kinds of sounds and these five kinds of contemplations. This is the essence of Avalokitesvara. Avalokitesvara is not the name of a god. Avalokitesvara is a real person having real qualities characterized by these five contemplations and five sounds.

Compassion Like Thunder

“Strength of Thunder, Calmness of Clouds
Heart of compassion like rolling thunder,
heart of love like gentle clouds,
water of Dharma nectar raining upon us,
extinguishing the fire of afflictions.”

The element of karuna, of compassion, is like thunder. Compassion is not something soft, it is very powerful, like thunder. The element of maitri, of loving kindness, is like a wonderful great cloud causing the rain of the Dharma to fall down like nectar, extinguishing all the fire of afflictions. You have two images, the thunder and the cloud. When these two things come together, it produces the compassionate Dharma rain falling down, extinguishing all kinds of afflictions.

Taking Refuge in Holiness

“Contemplation on Holiness:
With mindfulness, free from doubts,
in moments of danger and affliction,
our faith in the purity of Avalokita
is where we go for refuge.”

In every moment, dwelling in mindfulness without any doubt, we have great confidence in the power of compassion and understanding. Avalokitesvara becomes the object of our mindfulness, of our recollection. Even in danger or dying, you maintain that kind of awareness because Avalokitesvara is a holy entity, a saint. Wherever there are the elements of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, there is the element of holiness. Avalokitesvara is a holy person and if we make him or her into the object of our mindfulness, we get the element of holiness in us. That is why we don’t have to be afraid of dangers anymore, even prison or death. She is the element of holiness and she is our refuge and our protection. That is the next to the last verse.

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Looking at All Beings with the Eyes of Compassion

“We bow in gratitude to the one
who has all the virtues,
regarding the world
with compassionate eyes,
an Ocean of Well-Being
beyond measure.”

The last verse says, fully equipped with all kinds of merits, she is capable of looking at living beings with compassionate eyes. I think this is the most beautiful sentence in the whole Lotus Suta. Use the eyes of compassion to look at living beings. When you understand the suffering of the other person, you can accept him or her and suddenly compassion flows out of your eyes and you will help that person to suffer less. Using compassionate eyes to look at living beings is the most beautiful practice. You have a compassionate eye; the Buddha eye has been transmitted to you. The question is whether you want to make use of that eye.

The merits are accumulating into an infinite ocean. Merits can also be translated as happiness or well-being. You cannot describe the great ocean of happiness. Happiness is made of one substance, called compassion. That is why in cultivating compassion you cultivate happiness for yourself and for the world. Happiness is described not in terms of pounds or kilograms but in terms of oceans. Our happiness accumulates and becomes an infinite ocean. We touch the feet of the bodhisattva with our forehead to express our deep gratitude and respect.

On the Gridakuta Mountain where the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra, Shakyumani was playing the main role, the role of the Buddha, and Avalokitesvara played the role of a bodhisattva. But in many sutras we have learned that Avalokitesvara became a Buddha a long time before and is a fully enlightened person. Yet coming to the Gridakuta Mountain, he played the role of a disciple of the Buddha. This is a kind of play because if there is a teacher, there must be students. If there are students, there must be a teacher. So you take turns in order to be a teacher or a student. Some time later you will become a teacher and I will be your student. This is the tenth door of the Avatamsaka Sutra. It’s like a formation of wild geese in the sky. If the leader gets tired, he slows down and lets another lead. Sometimes you play the role of the leader, sometimes you play the role of a follower and you don’t discriminate at all, you are equally happy. With that we can conclude the Universal Door chapter and we know that Avalokitesvara has played the role of the student very well. But if we look deeply into her personality, her action, her wisdom, we know that no one can surpass her in terms of compassion and understanding.

From Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh on June 9th, June 14th, and June 15th, 2002 during the twenty-one day Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village, France. Transcribed and edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Steadiness.

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1 “Discourse on the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma: Universal Door Chapter” found in Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2000). All following quotes in this article are from the same source unless noted otherwise.

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