The Question of Overpopulation

By Brother Phap Lai

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Question to PV Listening Website — 15 December 2007

Teacher, One of the five precepts asks us not to kill. I am concerned about the effects of overpopulation and historical outcomes such as war. Global warming proponents indicate that the human population is to blame. Some suggest that to achieve a sustainable earth our population must be reduced by as much as four-fifths. The entire earth may be in the balance. If the scientific evidence is accurate what guidance can you give us in avoiding the unthinkable? — Steve

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Dear Steve,

Thank you for your stimulating question and for having the courage to ask it. Many of us keep “unthinkable” thoughts hidden away, or we immediately believe in them without questioning their validity. History provides evidence that these thoughts — whether kept in a vault of shame or expressed philosophically to others — will one day be acted out at the collective level.

Overpopulation is indeed one factor that can build pressure for this to happen. The genocide in Rwanda was fueled by tensions that had built up due to pressure on common land and water resources caused by a combination of increasing population and environmental effects of global warming. The situation in Darfur is similar. Sadly there are people willing to exploit tensions to create division, hatred and fear in the desire for personal power and wealth or to impose an ideology. What can be done?

The environmental pressures our planet faces, of which overpopulation is an integral part, are tearing at the very fabric of the complex and diverse life that makes our experience so rich and beautiful today. Life on Earth is in trouble not in the future but now. It seems we are setting up conditions for a sixth mass extinction event on this planet. In Heat by environmentalist George Monbiot we read that foreseeable rises in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are comparable with those that helped trigger the biggest-ever extinction event, at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago — a period as ecologically diverse as today’s. Computer modeling tells us that with a ninety percent reduction of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2030 we have a two-out-of-three chance to prevent runaway global warming and avert this destiny.

Monbiot then sets about demonstrating, by picking on some key areas such as transportation, household energy use, electricity supply, and some example industries that these cuts could realistically be made while maintaining a good standard of living. Of course the affluent minority would have to change their ways. For example we would need to severely restrain our long distance travel habits but this is surely more palatable than an eighty percent reduction in population. Are we willing to change?

Call for a Collective Awakening

Like you I am deeply concerned about the tendency of humankind to resort to war as a solution to our problems. War is the deepest expression of human suffering and represents a failure to face our difficulties and seek healing in us and between us. What is needed is compassion and brotherhood — a “war-like” effort in which we pull together as one people. Al Gore recently said what is most crucial is a change in the collective consciousness to see the interdependence of all things. Similarly Thay says: “We need a collective awakening; enlightenment can no longer be considered an individual matter.”

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It seems clear that we are already suffering the unstoppable consequences of global warming and many of us will perish. Remaining in denial is not an option. Thay encourages us to accept our situation in such a way that we make peace with it in our hearts. Action taken from this place of peace will then be effective — right action — and is our best hope. But in taking on board the reality of what is happening we need to be careful. There is a tendency to fall into despair and become paralyzed. Unable to hold the situation mentally we try to forget what we know and take refuge in our own busy lives again. Once again we simply hand over responsibility to politicians and experts. However, without an informed and active public, politicians of selfish interest will take advantage. Eventually they will force upon us desperate schemes (backed up by “experts”) that will have more to do with seizing power and will undoubtedly make the situation far worse.

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Dying a Spiritual Death

In your question you refer to a perceived need among some experts to reduce the world’s population by four-fifths in order for humanity to have a chance to survive. Your reference to the “unthinkable” suggests that war and genocide may actually form part of the solution. This thought if not unthinkable should be unconscionable.

At the intellectual level we can get lost in a maze of complex moral questions and believe we have to do the unthinkable for the greater good. More frequently I hear people, sometimes timidly, sometimes boldly, voice opinions that wars and pandemics such as HIV and TB are necessary because we need to reduce the population of people. If we are to think like this then we must be prepared to die and see our children die in the same manner. We all are brothers and sisters sharing this planet. Perhaps we see disease as mother Earth’s mechanism to balance things. It is true, we cannot predict or necessarily control the course of nature but how sad if we think letting or making it all happen over there will help our plight. Disease, famine, and war cause misery and chaos and that will affect us all. Their stability and happiness is our stability and happiness. We inter-are. As soon as there is an “us and them,” an “over there,” in our minds we have lost touch with this truth — the truth of interbeing.

No one would deny that overpopulation is a major issue we face as a global community. However, the idea that reducing the population by four-fifths will necessarily solve anything needs to be examined.

Suppose that we achieved that goal, either by actively killing people or passively turning a blind eye to genocides, the ravages of civil wars, or disease and famine in other countries. Thinking that this would favor the physical survival of the remaining one-fifth is to forget something of fundamental importance — namely that in the process we will all have died spiritually. In Buddhism it is clear that the means cannot be separated from the ends. The so-called ends are defined by the means. Thay makes this clear when he says, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

Staying Connected

The First Mindfulness Training, as well as asking us not to kill, also asks us to “cultivate compassion.” Compassion here is not simply an emotion but is rooted in the Sanskrit word karuna. Thay teaches us that karuna, to be translated properly, needs to convey the meaning of “the capacity to relieve suffering.” Compassion in this sense implies an understanding of the situation, knowing what to do and what not to do to help, along with the willingness and ability to act. Understanding is more than intellectual or practical knowledge.

Ravi Ravindra, Prof. Emeritus of Canada’s Dalhousie University warns us on this point:

The search for truth — when it becomes more and more mental and divorced from deeper and higher feelings such as compassion, a sense of the oneness and the like — leads to feelings of isolation and accompanying anxiety … Then one wants to control others and conquer nature. Much of our predicament arises from this very dedication to truth in an exclusively mental manner.

True insight is always in line with compassion and the truth of the interdependence of all things. This perspective can only be found when one is stable, peaceful, and connected with the heart.

When ideas to control population come up that at first seem abhorrent I suggest taking a long walk and sitting in nature. After calming the mind and enjoying the connection to life, then we are qualified to look into the situation. First we can see the real consequences of our idea if put into action. And in time insight into the situation will allow solutions not seen before to arise. There are always more creative less violent ways of helping.

Collapse of the American Dream

Looking more closely into the problem of overpopulation we might start by reminding ourselves that the U.S.A. population, although only four percent of the world’s, consumes twenty-five percent of the world’s oil supply. Its per-capita consumption of the rest of the Earth’s material resources similarly outstrips that of other countries. It is clear from this fact alone that how we consume is just as important as how many people there are. China’s and India’s consumption is growing fast, a growth that will soon require more than one planet Earth to sustain us. And yet in the vast majority of countries people are poor and not responsible for these phenomena. Ironically when we think of overpopulation we think of the poor in the so-called third world and yet these people’s ecological footprint is virtually zero. If one’s goal is to create a sustainable planet, then one must address consumption as well as population  stabilization.

As a global society we need to turn in a different direction. We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community — sharing resources as opposed to the individual suburban utopia. In our small monastic community in New York, for instance, the cost of food per person is $2 a day. We eat vegan and try to eat local produce. Trips out to shop are also reduced because of communal living.

Collective awakening can gain momentum only with individual actions. To this end, Thay, in his public talks, often takes time to encourage us to reduce our consumption of meat. Thay quotes figures that point out the environmental cost of meat consumption. (See Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, page 72, and the Mindfulness Bell, WInter/Spring 2008). ) If everyone in the U.S. were to reduce their meat consumption by half that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than if everyone were to drive hybrid cars. Seeing vegetarianism as a way out is not new. Albert Einstein said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

Collectively of course we can do a lot more — for instance,

By morally supporting, inspiring and educating each other; making collective commitments (see the environmental initiative sign-up sheet on the Deer Park website), pooling ideas and resources; and speaking as one voice to industry, the media, and politicians. Ultimately we need the political will to implement national and international legislation that will meaningfully reduce our impact and move us into sustainable living. This requires the people’s deep understanding of the situation; politicians of integrity must have a support base.

Sustainable Compassion

Stabilizing human population is one aspect, albeit an important aspect, of the challenge to restore our ecosystem’s stability. In his book Plan B 2.0, Lester Brown presents a comprehensive and budgeted plan to literally “rescue the planet” under five main categories: (1) eradicating poverty and stabilizing population, (2) restoring the Earth, (3) feeding seven billion people well, (4) stabilizing climate, and (5) designing sustainable cities. He argues that to achieve a stabilized population of a well-fed seven billion is possible; his overall budget for 0lan ” implementation is $161 billion. Compare this to the money spent on the Iraq war, estimated to surpass $2 trillion (Harvard Magazine).

Linking the stabilization of population to the eradication of poverty as Lester Brown does is important. Adequate nutrition, good health care, and parental support especially for women, access to family planning services, readily available contraception along with education, these are all affordable and essential to creating the necessary conditions to empower people to make choices about the size of their family. Interestingly much research (e.g., UNICEF) shows that the most effective way to reduce the number of children born is to educate girls and keep them in school. This is a goal we can all help to achieve.

Draconian methods may achieve short-term results but also have unforeseen adverse consequences. For instance, I do not advocate enforcing fertility control measures as in China. It has caused a huge suffering which will be passed on for generations and has arguably not achieved a reduced impact on the Earth (see Collapse by Jared Diamond).

Lasting solutions respond compassionately to the real needs of the people. They come from those who are involved in the actual situation and grounded in love, which cannot be said of either Communist party policy implemented by a police state or IMF capitalist ideology enforced by economic leverage. Lasting solutions usually come from grassroots organizations — from the people themselves. They often require modest funding and only need to be supported by understanding authorities and not be obstructed by them.

Offering Our Gifts

Getting involved in our local community is therefore key. In this way we do not fall once again into forgetfulness or despair but can help inspire hope, especially in the younger generation who inherit our legacy. Finding and building a community of likeminded individuals to work towards this can alleviate our feelings of isolation and fear. In community we find a way to contribute our own special gifts to this cause.

Some reading is helpful. I can recommend the work of environmentalists and social activists Lester Brown, George Monbiot, and Jared Diamond (books cited above), Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World as Self), John Seed, and Paul Hawkens (Blessed Unrest). They help us understand the situation in all its complexity and offer us practical and humane ways to respond to the crisis. Thich Nhat Hanh himself has a wonderful new book on the subject, The World We Have.

Ultimately, the crisis we face is a spiritual one. Developing our own practice of meditation and mindfulness, finding and building Sangha — a community practicing the path of understanding and love. These are the important things to do. Personal practice gives us an inner refuge, a place of stability to go back to. The Sangha becomes a boat on which we can navigate the storm together. Practicing together we cultivate the much-needed insight, inner strength, and spirit of non-fear that we need to respond compassionately to our situation.

Thank you again for bringing up this topic for all of us to reflect on and please know that your practice and deepening insight is important to us all.

Brother Phap Lai currently resides in Blue Cliff Monastery, New York.

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The Collective Bodhisattva

Sisterhood and Brotherhood in the Twenty-first Century

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

If you were to ask me what could save this planet Earth I would say not eating meat, not using fossil fuels — but only if based on sisterhood and brotherhood. Sisterhood and brotherhood come first. Whatever we do we should do as a Sangha, as a community. First we look deeply as a community then we come to a consensus on how we should act, and then we act as a community. Our community wants to establish sisterhood and brotherhood within itself and then within society and in the world. As a monk or nun our community is the one into which we have been ordained. As a layperson your community is your family, your church or local Sangha, and possibly also your work place. Having established brotherhood and sisterhood here, you can also bring sisterhood and brotherhood into the society.

Your spouse, your children, your parents and siblings are all your brothers and sisters. To the best of your ability you can practice looking deeply together, come to a consensus, and act together. Children from five years or seven years old can be encouraged to share their views, listen to the views of others that can be simply expressed, and play a role in family decision-making. Teachers and pupils in the school also practice sisterhood and brotherhood in this way. Sisterhood and brotherhood is not just reaching consensus and acting together. It is also communication: listening deeply and speaking lovingly. We should all train in expressing our sincere appreciation of each other; expressing our regret when we do something hurtful; asking others if we have done anything to hurt them; and expressing mindfully and without blame or resentment when we have been hurt.

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You may say this is wonderful but it is unrealistic. Yet others have done it and you should make your best effort for the sake of the planet Earth. I have faith in it and I will go on singing my song until this body disintegrates — and the song will continue.

About which programmes you will watch on the television, parents share and children share. If we do decide to watch a programme that is not wholesome, it is not the end of the world, but having watched it we share how it affected each one of us. What seeds were watered, how tired or otherwise we felt afterwards.

Our Contribution to a Global Ethic

There are more than 84,000 things we can choose from to do to save this planet Earth from global warming, from toxic wastes, from running out of drinking water — we have to choose for our own community what is realistic. We do as much as we can and we learn from what other communities are doing but we do not force our ideas on other communities. We encourage them to do what is best for the planet in the context of the appropriateness of their own situation. This is the practice of the Third of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, “Freedom of Thought” [see below].

Once we embark on this path, we feel safe. We are living in a time where the challenges are great, but we face the challenge with compassion and resolution. Knowing that we are doing our best we do not despair. Our minds are at peace and if our efforts to save our planet fail, we will accept to offer up the merit of what we have done for a new civilization that could arise millions of years from now. After all, all civilizations are impermanent. In past lives we have died with our civilization and in future lives we shall die with our civilization. The important thing is the heritage we leave behind us with the actions of our body, speech, and mind.

The Mindfulness Trainings are there to guide us. They are our contribution to a global ethic. They are a living reality. They come alive when we bring them into our daily life. Every day new situations will arise for us to find new ways to put the Mindfulness Trainings into practice. When we see the different situations that arise we shall know how to revise the Trainings every twenty years. The cultural and social situation is constantly changing. There are new challenges that arise and need to be faced. The spirit of the Trainings is clear and they need to be appropriately worded in order to help guide us in the new challenges that are arising.

Buddha Shakyamuni said this clearly, “Ananda, the minor precepts should be revised according to the culture and the time.” When Ananda reported this to the elders, they asked, “But Ananda, did the Buddha say what are the minor precepts? Which precepts specifically can be revised?” Ananda said no and as a result no one ever revised the monastic pratimoksha for 2,600 years. Certain avenues have been opened up by technology that can lead to real corruption of the monastic order, but these cannot be dealt with, because the precepts cannot be changed. When the Buddha said minor precepts he said we can add precepts that are needed because of the time and the culture. We can word precepts in such a way that keeps the spirit of the vinaya but gives concrete guidance where it is needed. The major precepts: not killing, not stealing, keeping celibacy, not lying about our attainments. The minor precepts are there to help us observe the major precepts. If we break them we have not broken the major precepts but we may be on the way to doing so. Technological advances such as the Internet, telephone, and e-mail can be means that take us in the direction of breaking the major precepts. The revised pratimoksha that has been recited and practised in Plum Village and affiliated monasteries since 2000 guide us so that we use these things skillfully in a way that benefits society and our community and not for our corruption as a monk or a nun.

Stopping vs. Acting

We can analyse the Mindfulness Trainings according to the three different actions of body, speech, and mind. We can also analyse them according to the two aspects, stopping and doing. Mindfulness Trainings are not just to remind us to refrain from unskillful actions, they also encourage us to replace unskillful with skillful — in other words, to transform unskillful into skillful energy. If we look at the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we see how the First Training is to stop the principally physical action of killing and replace it with action that protects life. It is mainly a Mindfulness Training encouraging bodily action but in a minor way it includes speech and thought action — “I am determined not to condone any act of killing in my thinking and in my way of life.” We condone by our way of thinking and speaking. At this point, mind and speech action are involved.

Here we can digress a little to see how the aspect of doing has gained importance in the wording of the Plum Village versions of the lay Mindfulness Trainings. In the revised pratimoksha the prescriptive aspect of the Trainings is a little more prominent than in the classical pratimoksha, but it is still of comparatively minor importance. Master Chih I, founder of the Tendai school (late 6) was already discussing Mindfulness Trainings in terms of stopping and acting. He discusses the ten wholesome action trainings (dasakusala-karmani.) These ten trainings that belong to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions include three trainings for body action, four for speech action, and three for mind action. The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are a revolutionary continuation of the ten wholesome trainings. The ten wholesome trainings were as follows:

1. Refraining from killing (stopping)
Protecting life (acting)

2. Not stealing (stopping)
Practicing generosity (acting)

3. Refraining from sexual misconduct (stopping)
Protecting the good name, happiness, respectability and commitments of others and oneself (acting)

4. Not speaking falsehood (stopping)
Speaking of things as they are (acting)

5. Not speaking divisively (stopping)
Speaking constructively and to bring about reconciliation (acting)

6. Not insulting or denigrating others (stopping)
Speaking gently, respectfully and with compassion (acting)

7. Not exaggerating (stopping)
Speaking words that give rise to confidence and respect (acting)

8. Not being carried away by craving (stopping)
Living simply (acting)

9. Refraining from anger and enmity (stopping)
Developing compassion (acting)

10. Not holding on to prejudices, preconceived ideas (stopping)
Being open and ready to exchange ideas (acting)

If we examine these ten traditional trainings and their continuation in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, we shall see that the fifty-fifty stopping and acting ratio has been maintained. What is different in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings is the ratio of trainings concerning mind action in comparison with those concerning speech and body action. At least half of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings concern mind action. The tenth training of the ten has become the first three trainings of the Fourteen.

The Six Harmonies

Our next link is the Six Harmonies or Togethernesses — how to live in harmony with each other. If we analyse these six we shall see that one is for the body, one for speech, and two for mind action. The remaining two are for body, speech, and mind. Here are the Six Harmonies:

  1. The harmony of the body, to perform bodily actions that promote harmony (body).
  2. The harmony of sharing – to share equally and according to need, benefits that accrue to the individual or the Sangha (body, speech, and mind)
  3. The harmony of speech – speech to promote harmony (speech).
  4. The harmony of thought – thought that promotes harmony (mind).
  5. The harmony of views – resolving questions by harmonizing views (mind).
  6. The harmony of the mindfulness trainings the whole community practises the same mindfulness trainings (body, speech, and mind).

Thus we see that mind is involved in four of the harmonies, body in three, and speech in three.

The Six Harmonies are guides to practicing sisterhood and brotherhood. It is clear that mind action is the overriding practice.

What is it that our world needs? The happiness brought about by sisterhood and brotherhood. We need mind action to bring this about. One right thought can heal the person and heal the world. We should give greater emphasis to mind because mind action can also be very harmful. Mind action can be violent and destructive both to the thinker and to the world. How we think matters. Thinking produces karma; it is not only bodily and speech actions that produce karma. Right thinking is a basic need in order for harmony, sisterhood, and brotherhood to be possible. Right thinking can make harmony of the bodily action possible.

The Buddha gave the example that a monk sees a bowl that has not been washed. He thinks to himself: “The owner of the bowl must have been called away on urgent business to help someone. Why do I not wash his bowl for him?” Thinking like that he washes the bowl, feeling joy in his heart. Or the monk thinks: “What scoundrel left his bowl lying here, unwashed?!” And feeling irritated he turns his back on the bowl. Or the monk thinks: “It is not correct practice to leave the bowl unwashed, but there are demanding circumstances. I have time now, let me wash his bowl.” This shows how right thinking makes right action possible and the feeling of joy that comes with right thinking.

Right thinking also makes right speech possible. The Buddha gives this example. Suppose you want to say something to someone in a discussion or meeting. The situation could be delicate and you want to have a positive outcome from your words. So, before speaking you stop and ask yourself: “If I were to say this, would it make the other(s) happy?” Having breathed mindfully you can either feel a near certainty that it will bring happiness or unhappiness (in which case you do not say it) or you feel unsure and in this case you do not say it. The harmony of mind is the way of thought that produces harmony. When we are thinking negatively about a person we are mindful of our thinking and change the thought as we would a television channel we do not want to watch. We change the thought for a positive thought about the other person. That is how to practice harmony of thought.

Harmony of views depends on mind action. When we hear an item on the agenda to be discussed, our mind may immediately have a view about that item. There is nothing wrong about that. We can share our view, but we are not caught in it. We listen to everyone who has a different view. We feel happy when we hear a view that is more sensible than our own, and immediately let go of our view. When we have listened to everyone’s view and we still like our own idea, we ask ourselves what it is that we like about it and try to see how we can synthesize part of our idea to arrive at consensus, only maintaining our own view if we see it is a matter of life and death — a real danger to body or mind could exist if our own idea is not heeded.

Letting Go of a Separate Self

When I first came to Plum Village twenty-four years ago, it was not a practice centre as it is now. Thay and Sister Chan Khong sponsored refugees from the boat people who were held in refugee camps. They stayed here until they were ready to go out into French society and work. I, too, was a refugee from England from a difficult teaching job. Since we were not yet a practice centre we made our living by agriculture. We were quite poor if you compare it to our community now. We did not have the money to mend the roof in the Lower Hamlet and it needed mending. Our cultivation of soya beans, colza, oats, and vegetables was important to us as a source of revenue. Apart from that there was only the one month summer-retreat.

My mind was shocked to see that the cultivation was not organic. Thay taught me to practice the harmony of views, which is also to practice the first three of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I was somewhat surprised that Thay did not agree that we must cultivate our land organically and impose this idea on the other refugees. Thay told me: you must sit down together and decide as a community how you are going to cultivate. We did this and I was the only one who wanted to go organic. When I told Thay he said that if I wished I could make a small organic garden, cultivate a few plum trees organically, and see how it worked. If it worked well it would be a good argument for increasing the percentage of organic cultivation. I still feel strongly sometimes about certain matters, but I remind myself to practice harmony of views and the first of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. If we are not careful, something like organic gardening can become an –ism or ideology rather than a collective action by the community for the common good.

In practicing letting go of our views and perceptions, we are practicing letting go of our separate self. There is no single pair of eyes that can see as clearly as the Sangha eyes. Working with mind consciousness we are beginning to work with manas. Manas is the layer of consciousness that lies below mind consciousness. It is not as conscious as mind consciousness. It has an energy of its own that seldom rests. It is the energy of cogitation. This cogitation produces and preserves a separate self idea. Sometimes in deep sleep manas is inactive, no longer producing the idea of a separate self. On awakening it immediately comes into action, preserving the idea of self. We could explain this as a primitive survival mechanism. We need to ask, is survival possible without the idea of a separate self? If we can wake up and follow our breathing without needing the idea of a separate self, we are safe. We do not need any other survival mechanism.

The Fourth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings also concerns thought action. It concerns not avoiding suffering. It is the natural tendency of manas to run away from suffering and seek pleasure. In transforming this natural tendency we are mindful of cogitation and can transform manas along with its four mental formations of self — self-love, self-ignorance, self-view, and self complex. Self-love is what makes us feel that suffering is bad and fail to see that suffering is necessary and can also be good. The Fourth Training is to learn to face suffering, accept it, and use it as the mud upon which lotuses can grow. The wording of this Training may also be revised to help us see more clearly the interbeing nature of suffering and happiness.

The transformation of manas does not take place through ideas. In the beginning we hear the teachings on no-self, we meditate on them, and we put them into practice. In order to transform manas we have to practice no-self. What better place than in a practice community? Sitting together, walking together we entrust ourselves to the Sangha body. In the case of personal needs we can bring them to the Sangha body. If the Sangha sees fit and possible the Sangha will help. It is by living no-self that we transform manas. The experience will penetrate down into the deeper levels of consciousness but not the intellectual ideas of no-self.

Education as Key

People have conducted surveys in the United States and Europe to find out what percentage of the population lives in a relatively awakened way — caring for the environment, open to multicultural experience, giving importance to a spiritual dimension in life, living simply in order to have time to share with family and follow the pursuits that nourish oneself, devoting time to helping society, wanting to transform self more than demanding that others transform. What percentage of the population would you think lives this way? Somewhere between seventeen and twenty percent. People such as this are open to a global ethic. They want to live in an ethical way but are not interested in political or moral authorities. When we talk of a global ethic we are talking of something that does not belong to any particular creed or faith but can be accepted by anyone whether he has a creed or not. Such people can easily accept the precepts of the Order of Interbeing.

mb51-TheCollective2We are living at an exciting time when our world can either make a turn for the better or continue down the hill for the worse. Let us stand at the junction and direct the traffic by our compassion and inclusiveness and especially by our right thinking. Education will help more than political or moral authority. Education is to discover, to make known, and to participate. In some schools now children participate, growing and cooking their food in the school garden. It is not only children who need education, we all need it, and it is quite possible to educate without imposing our ideas on others. You can tell your children that they cannot watch television or eat junk food but they might go to their friends’ houses and do just that. The question is how to communicate about toxic foods and allow the children to discover for themselves what is harmful for their minds. Some parents have succeeded in following this middle way.

Education takes place in the framework of the Sangha of sisterhood and brotherhood. If parents are able to educate their children in how to watch television healthily, that is because they have the support of Sangha friends and because the children are able to attend retreats and Days of Mindfulness where there is a children’s programme. We educate each other through the wonderful practice of Dharma discussion. What could be more beautiful than the scene at large retreats of many small groups sitting in circles and listening deeply to learn from each other?

Enlightenment is no longer (or was it ever?) an individual matter. The only way we can proceed is as a collective — a Sangha body. We wake up and help others to wake up together. We are a collective  bodhisattva.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, resides in Waldbröl, Germany where she is helping Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

THE FOURTEEN MINDFULNESS TRAININGS

  1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

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. 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.

  1. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment to Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

  1. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

  1. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering

Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.

  1. The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Simple, Healthy Living

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, we are determined not to take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying. We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need. We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, or any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness.

  1. The Sixth Mindfulness Training: Dealing with Anger

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognize and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger.

  1. The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment

Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness.

  1. The Eighth Mindfulness Training: Community and Communication

Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. We will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

  1. The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will not spread news that we do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten our safety.

  1. The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

  1. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood

Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.

  1. The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.

  1. The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. We will practice generosity by sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. We are determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. We will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.

  1. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: Right Conduct

(For lay members): Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, we must be aware of future suffering that may be caused. We know that to preserve the happiness

of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with respect and preserve our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.

(For monastic members): Aware that the aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of worldly love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated by the coming together of two bodies in a sexual relationship, but by the practice of true understanding and compassion. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our life as a monk or a nun, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body or to look upon our body as only an instrument, but to learn to handle our body with respect. We are determined to preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.

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Buddhist Enough Haiku

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Sangha/No Sangha haiku
Are we a Sangha
or just a group of friends? Such
questions: words, mere words!

Sangha haiku
Sangha is where you
find it: music, books, the woods,
communing together.

Suchness haiku 2
No gurus, chants, rites,
no lineage. We touch the
earth: free-range Buddhas

Kill the Buddha haiku
A letter comes back:
Sorry, these haiku are just
not Buddhist enough.

— Charles Suhor

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Intersein-Zentrum

Ten Years of Practice in Community

by Karl and Helga Riedl

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The Intersein-Zentrum, a practice and meditation center in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh, is celebrating its tenth anniversary! This means ten years of concretely and continuously building and maintaining Sangha.

After living in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and this way of life. In May 1999, together with the late Karl Schmied, we founded a residential community in the southeast corner of Germany — the Intersein-Zentrum (Interbeing Center).

Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, living under the same roof in the spirit of the Six Harmonies. Over these past ten years, quite a number of people have been inspired by the practice of Thay and happy to share this lifestyle. For some of them, after months or even many years, different priorities emerged and they went on their way — enriched, happier, and with more clarity. Others have stayed with us for as long as nine years. Today we are ten residents sharing our joy and love for the Buddha-Dharma.

The Four Foundations

The first foundation for a Sangha is to be deeply inspired by the Dharma and the practice of Plum Village.

Together with two other friends we moved into a renovated building in early 1999. At the beginning we felt quite lost in that big house, which can host as many as eighty-six people apart from the family retreats, when we host over one hundred people. The four of us began right away with the same schedule that is used in Plum Village: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, etc. One of the principles of our small Sangha from the very beginning has been to never, even in difficult and pressing situations, put the practice aside or skip scheduled activities. There was and still is a lot to do for a small group of people — running a big center and many retreats, being there for guests, implementing fascinating ideas and projects. However, before beginning a new task, we always ask the question: “Is it in accordance with the practice and our schedule?”

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The second foundation for a Sangha is that through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increases and radiates out.

Living in a residential community, sharing all activities, applying the Six Harmonies, and having only a common income from retreats and guests is a special and demanding practice in itself. The most important practice — and this holds true even for a non-residential Sangha — is to regularly come together and share. To share means to allow everyone to express their joy and their difficulties, inspire others with their insight, and ask for support and understanding. This fosters communication on a very deep level. Furthermore, it is important to be clear about organization, tasks, positions, and the decision-making process, to agree on the structure, and to expose and clarify misunderstandings.

The third foundation for a Sangha is to keep communication alive and open and to make sure the structure is transparent and clear for everybody.

Sharing also means sharing the practice with others — giving and serving. In this way we realize how much we can let go of our self-concern and how well we are rooted in the practice. Once a month we offer a retreat — generally from five days to one week— where we introduce people to mindfulness and different Plum Village practices. Refreshed and with new insight, they return to their families and workplace and when they come back, they report on their experiences: “Just knowing that you are practicing all year round gives us a lot of support and trust.” Most people come back again and again, staying for longer periods to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Each summer we offer a retreat for families, which is one of our most important. We stay connected with most of the families for many years, and we can observe with great joy and confidence that they are applying what they have learned and heard.

The fourth foundation for a Sangha is to have a common public activity and responsibility. Within this field we can express the fruit of our practice and we have the opportunity to respond to the actual problems people are facing today.

As a Sangha we are living and practicing in a non-Buddhist environment and it is very important to establish good relationships with our neighbors. Our connection with the nearby villages, which are deeply rooted in Christianity, is friendly, warm, and openhearted. Schoolteachers come here every year with their classes to experience our way of life and even the Catholic priest has visited us several times with his congregation.

The Acceleration of Wisdom

Last year we initiated a winter study and practice training that will run for three years in a row. This arose from seeing the needs and difficulties of practitioners and especially wanting to give those who are deeply motivated the opportunity to enhance and deepen their understanding. Observing the participation and enthusiasm of quite a number of people gives us the confidence that this training corresponds much to the needs of our time. This is another important aspect of a Sangha — to study and deepen the understanding of the Dharma practice and to be able to explain it to others.

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We have many Italian friends from Plum Village who come regularly to the retreats we lead in Italy. They have observed over many years the development of the Intersein-Zentrum in Germany. They felt much inspired by how this lay practice center is organized and how the practice is kept alive, so after several years of preparation they are on the way to manifesting a residential practice center in southern Italy. Those who feel committed to living in a residential community are coming here to be trained and some members of our center will go there and support them at the beginning. It is very important for a Sangha to establish a good relationship with other Sanghas, so we can learn from our cultural diversities and open up to each other.

The emphasis in our tradition is the practice of mindfulness and so it is quite natural that we take care of our bodies and our environment. In our center we serve vegetarian food that is based on the principles of Ayurveda and the Chinese five elements; we get protein from a rich variety of beans and nuts. We offer classes in yoga and chi gong. Furthermore we have solar water heating and a very modern wood pellet stove for heat, a large composting pile that we have turned into a beautiful vegetable and flower garden, and a biological sewage system. We are very concerned about driving and we have more than one car-free day. All these different activities are expressions of our practice and they are seen by our guests as examples that they can take home and apply directly in their daily lives.

When we look back over these years, we see that all the difficulties we have faced were indeed “wisdom accelerators,” as Thay calls them. We gained much understanding of the difficulties faced by people who are practicing the Buddha-Dharma in the West, a culture that is deeply materialistic. We continue to learn a lot and to experience more than ever a deep trust in the Three Jewels — while using our modern tools and language that people in the twenty-first century can understand and apply.

Helga Riedl, True Wonderful Loving Kindness, and Karl Riedl, True Communion, were ordained as Dharma teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994. Their spiritual path began in Poona, India, with Baghwan Sri Rajneesh in 1980 and in 1985 they started Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition. They also studied the Theravada tradition in monasteries in Sri Lanka and Thailand and the Tibetan Gelug tradition at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Pomaia, Italy. It was there they met Thay in 1992 and shortly after followed him to Plum Village.

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Letter from the Editor

mb52-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

As you may know, our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was hospitalized after the retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts for treatment of a chronic lung infection. Thay has recovered well and as I write this he is teaching at the retreat in Deer Park Monastery. But he was unable to attend the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, eerily titled “One Buddha Is Not Enough.”

“Dear friends,” Thay wrote from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, “if you look deeply enough, you will see me in the retreat, walking with you, sitting with you, breathing with you. I feel clearly that I am in you and you are in me.” The nine hundred participants, after feeling everything from dismay, frustration and anger to sadness and grief, experienced the truth of Thay’s words . Everyone’s practice deepened tremendously. (I was pleased to learn later that very few people actually left the retreat.)

By the end of the retreat, several long-time practitioners — including monastics — told me that this was their best retreat ever. Here in Colorado we have been fortunate to have had two monastic retreats, in the summers when Thay did not come to the US. So we know what incredible Dharma teachers we have among our monks and nuns. This was one of the blessings of this retreat — we had the great fortune to hear some voices we normally do not get to hear. Thay Phap Niem gave a powerful Dharma talk on no birth no death; Sister Chau Nghiem, Thay Phap Dung, Sister Tue Nghiem and others gave memorable talks; and a panel of lay and monastic Dharma teachers did a masterful job of answering questions.

Thay continued in his letter: “In this retreat, you will witness to the talent of the Sangha: you will see that Thay is already well continued by the Sangha, and the presence of the Sangha carries Thay’s presence. Please let me walk with your strong feet, breathe with your breathing lungs and smile with your beautiful smiles.” This is our summons to carry Thay with us always. I believe that our Sangha is vibrant and powerful enough to ensure Thay’s continuation, a continuation in beauty. The Colorado retreat was proof of that.

Please send us your stories and photos from the U.S. tour as soon as you can; we will feature some of them in our upcoming issues.

However, I am sad to say that I will no longer be editor of the Bell. I am moving on to other adventures, starting with a course in storytelling at Emerson College in England. Editing our Sangha’s journal has been a joy and a privilege.

Allow me to express my deep gratitude to all who contribute to making this magazine a reality: our talented staff, David Percival, Helena Powell, Brother Phap Dung, Sister Annabel; and wonderful volunteers Barbara, Matt, Judith, Elaine, Brandy, Richard, Peggy. It has been an honor to work with you. And to all who have participated these past four years — writers, photographers, subscribers, donors — I bow to you all. It’s been a delightful journey. I will miss you very much, but I will continue to enjoy you through these pages — and you may see one of my stories now and again.

May you be well in body and spirit. May you meet adversity with courage and grace. May you rejoice in the love that surrounds you always.

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Helping Obama, Helping Others

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Responding to questions from lay friends on June 13 during the Path of the Buddha retreat, Thay spoke about supporting President Obama and assisting those in need across the globe.

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Helping Obama

Many of us are very pleased to have Obama as president of the United States of America. I have not seen any politician like him who knows how to use loving speech, to speak in a humble way. The presence of Obama also tells us of the presence of a group of people who agree with him — not only Americans but also Europeans, Africans, and Asians. This is very important.

Obama, with his good intentions and his nonviolent approach to the problems of the planet, did not just happen. In the past forty or fifty years many of us have been working ceaselessly to sow the seeds of peace, reconciliation, and preservation of the planet. Sometimes we have felt that the work has not brought any results. But then the increased suffering and despair helped to wake people up and to see there is another way to deal with conflict in America and the world.

On Obama’s inauguration day, we felt hope. We want Obama to succeed; whether we are Americans or non-Americans we have invested in him and we are afraid that he will not succeed. In order to help him, we have to organize ourselves. We have to strengthen our Sangha, and the Sangha in America. Wherever we are, we can always do something to help. Obama may not call his team a Sangha but it is a Sangha. If not they are not capable of preserving their compassion, insight, and determination, they will not be able to help Obama, and then Obama will disappoint us.

I think President Obama doesn’t need to come to Plum Village and follow a retreat; he got his training somewhere in his own way. He used the word “mindfulness” in his inauguration, and in his speech at Cairo University he used “beginning anew.” He said, “I want to have a new beginning with Islam.” He knows how to use loving speech. Maybe he does not need formal training but he needs a strong Sangha surrounding him and helping to support him.

Helping Others Across the Globe

We all want to help people in Tibet and Burma and other places throughout the world. Forty thousand children die every day because of the lack of food and nutrition. Many of us are aware of that; and yet not many of us do anything to help. How can we reach out and help these children who are dying? How can we reach out to our brothers who feel left alone in the struggle for democracy and independence?

The problem is that we are so busy. We are running to get what we want. We have no time, no energy: that is the main obstacle. How can we rearrange our lives so that we have time to help our brothers and sisters who are caught in difficult situations?

We should liberate ourselves from our too-busy lives. We have to reorganize our lives, individually and collectively, in order to be with each other in a more intimate way.

We can begin with Sanghas. Members of a Sangha belong to society and have jobs, family, community, aspirations, and plans. But we still find a way to come and sit together for twenty-one days. If other people make an effort they can do the same. Imagine for twenty-one days all the cars stop. We don’t eat the flesh of animals. We enjoy the fresh air, the song of the birds. We allow our bodies to release tension; we listen to the sound of the bell. We cultivate brotherhood and sisterhood. We are truly making peace within ourselves, making peace with the environment and with one another. If 500 people can do that, other groups can do it also, whether they are Christians, Muslims, or Jews.

What we do here we are not doing for ourselves alone. We do it for everyone. We show people that another way of life is possible. They can release their habit energy, slow down and begin to change so that they have more time for themselves, for their family, for members of their Sangha. And then naturally problems like those concerning the hungry children, the environment, Burma, Tibet, will be more easily solved.

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Letter from the Editor

mb53-LetterFromEditorDear Thay, dear Sangha,

It is with deep gratitude that I write this letter to you. Gratitude for the honor of editing this much-loved magazine; gratitude for every writer, artist, volunteer, and supporter who brought this issue to life; gratitude for your hands holding these pages. I’m indebted to Sister Annabel, the senior editor, for her discerning wisdom; to each prior editor whose mindful steps created a path to follow; and to Janelle Combelic, whose patient assistance was a clear and guiding light.

Our local Sangha, the Heart Sangha in Santa Cruz, California, recently hosted a weekend retreat, led by Dharma Teacher Wendy Johnson and writer Maxine Hong Kingston. One of the themes was “moving from war to gratitude.” Maxine told us about a group of young soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and formed a writers’ group. “They had faith that writing would bring them home,” she explained. She showed us a small book of poetry with a rough, scratchy cover, which the veterans had created. They’d cut up and boiled their uniforms and used the remains to make book covers. As a Sangha, they transformed their suffering: their war clothes became book jackets; their pain became poems.

This issue offers powerful stories about the transformation of suffering into love. Heartfelt stories in “Death and Dying” show us how mindfulness, kindness, and Sangha building can nourish us through the uncertain terrain of loss. “Mindful Living” includes stories about transforming busyness and distraction into mindfulness at home and at work.

“Miracle of Sangha” offers stories from the Estes Park, Colorado retreat. This retreat was just one of several in the 2009 U.S. Tour. From Massachusetts to Colorado, and California to New York, practitioners gathered by the thousands, strengthening the collective energy of mindfulness. The Estes Park retreat was unique—the largest retreat ever conducted by monastics without Thay’s physical presence, it demonstrated that each of us is a continuation of our teacher, and that many beautiful flowers can blossom when “over one thousand Thays” practice joyfully together.

“Embracing Vietnam” calls our attention to the young monastics who were forcibly removed from Bat Nha Monastery in September 2009. Dear friends, please do everything you can to support our Vietnamese sisters and brothers. Look at page 18 to find out how to help. And enjoy the essay about Maitreya Fonds, a German organization enriching children’s education in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us he wouldn’t want to live in a place where there is no suffering, because there would be no compassion. The Mindfulness Trainings encourage us to spend time with beings who are suffering, “so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.” May the stories in this issue show us ways to transform war into gratitude, suffering into peace. May they help our hearts to open and to love.

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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In the Eyes of the Sangha

By Soren Kisiel

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“Thay…will not be coming to Colorado.” My friend’s words were carefully chosen: neutral, to lessen the blow.

Volunteering at the Order of Interbeing sign-in table, I heard those words before most people. Some of the Dharma teachers had been informed, and I found myself privy to their whispered conversations.

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My first thought was for Thay’s health. But once it had been explained to me that he was in good hands and didn’t seem to be in danger, disappointment came to me in such a rush that my head swam. I thought of my wife’s efforts, single-parenting for a week so I could be here, and of the money I’d spent to get here. I would be ordaining in the Order of Interbeing at this retreat. But without Thay? What would that mean? Could one be ordained without Thay?

A line was forming at my registration table. “If you can’t practice nonattachment here,” I whispered to myself, “where can you?” I took a few breaths, found a smile, and continued signing people in.

the morning sun
brightens the mountainsides
whether my heart is light or not

Thay’s letter was read to us, and the monastics forged ahead with the retreat. I decided: this retreat would be all about my practice. My disappointment began to lift. I could make the best of the opportunity by practicing fervently. I was here.

Then something happened. As the monastics began to share with us, in the Dharma talk and private hellos: there was our teacher! There was Thay, right before our eyes! His teaching, his understanding, his gentleness, so carefully transmitted to our monastic brothers and sisters. We were dazzled with how diligently they’d learned, and I was filled with gratitude for their efforts. In return we all sat a little straighter, practiced a little deeper. More people practiced mindful walking after that first Dharma talk than I’d seen at any other retreat.

Within a day or so, as we became used to seeing Thay in each monk and nun, we began to look for him in every one of us. And there he was. In each person’s eyes, in each smile, in each gentle step. His presence permeated the retreat. Something very precious was taking place. We all felt it. We discussed this in our Dharma groups. Here was interbeing, right before our eyes. Thay and the Sangha were one and the same. We and the Sangha were one and the same. Here was Thay, present with each of us, in each of us.

Suddenly I felt lucky to be at this retreat. The Sangha was crystallizing into a glittering diamond. It was developing confidence in itself, in its strength and ability to support, to carry on. How fortunate to be here for that—to be a part of this magical and precious teaching.

When I shared my feelings with Brother Phap Hai, he joked, “Oh, great. When Thay calls tonight, I’ll tell him you’re glad he’s not here.”

my brother
is listening
I can see myself in his eyes

When I first came to the practice eighteen years ago, I was living on my own in Sri Lanka, and the practice for me became wrapped in a sort of lonely romance. It wasn’t something I wanted to share with others; it was my own pursuit, meaningful, intimate, and private. I practiced alone.

After more than a decade of this style, I found Thay’s teaching, and it turned my practice on its head. Thay stressed Sangha, community, to a degree that I found startling. My mentor for ordainment, Rowan Conrad, tells a story of first arriving at Plum Village in the late 1980s. “You think you are here to see Thay,” he reports Thay saying, “but that is a misperception. You are here to see the Sangha.”

Once that seed was planted, Sangha became key to my practice as well, its support taking me to depths I hadn’t imagined possible, teaching me that compassion was every bit as important as wisdom. My practice began to bloom, but as one blossom in a wide field of flowers.

without a sound
a dewdrop
has fallen into the lake

As my ordination into the Order of Interbeing approached, to my surprise I found myself feeling that Thay’s absence made a sort of sense. I missed Thay that morning, and wished he were there to be a part of it. On my way to the Dharma hall, I sat on a bench to quietly thank Thay for all I was learning. In my heart I sent my ordination to Thay as a get-well gift. But as I took this step into the community, I knew the only individual that had to be there was me. Me, and the Sangha.

“You think you are here to ordain with Thay,” I said to myself, “but that is a misperception. You are here to ordain with the Sangha.”

The Be-In celebration that evening was filled with light and love and joy. We had seen something in one another and in ourselves. The energy of our smiles filled the room to bursting. The bears in the hills, I’m quite certain, could hear our laughter.

dragonflies
dazzled with one another
—late summer in the Rockies

The first time I wore my brown jacket at the retreat, shortly after ordination, a woman stopped me and asked me to instruct her in walking meditation. I was thrilled at the opportunity to share.

After some initial guidance, we walked together. “Picture lotuses blooming in each footstep,” I told her quietly, paraphrasing Thay. “You are leaving a path of lotuses behind you.”

She breathed deeply at the image and smiled, eyes wet. I knew in that moment she saw Thay in me. And, in that moment, I could too. Gratitude flooded through me, deep and strong. And my eyes, too, filled with tears.

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mb53-InTheEyes3Soren Kisiel, True Land of Serenity, was ordained last summer, and is part of the Deer Park Dharmacast team. His home Sanghas are the Open Way and Flowing Mountain Sanghas in Montana.

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The Buddha of the Future

By Trish Nelson

In 2007, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Thich Nhat Hanh quoted Master Lin Chi: “Don’t come to me for your enlightenment!” I was a little stunned to hear him say that. You can imagine how I felt at the Colorado retreat two years later when he was not there at all.

Thich Nhat Hanh is made of non-Thich Nhat Hanh elements. This is the teaching of non-self, and we all got to practice it at the Colorado retreat––like a kid who had just lost the training wheels from her bike, and didn’t know if she was going to wipe out or keep flying down the hill. Non-self means a flower could not be without the sunshine, the water, the earth. Likewise, Thich Nhat Hanh could not be without his students, without the practice, without the community that supports the practice, or without the beautiful earth that is always nurturing the practice through her beauty and freshness.

Facing the absence of our teacher, who turned eighty-four in October, helped prepare us for what it will be like when his form passes. We have been told by him, “All forms are impermanent.” Yes, but, don’t leave us! We saw together that although all forms are impermanent, the seed of awakening is in every one of us. And just as we carry our blood ancestors in our DNA, we also carry our spiritual teacher in our heart.

It has been said that the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, is not an individual but a community. If so, it is certainly a community of people practicing to live in the present, transform their own suffering, and help awaken others. It is a community of people who care about each other. Letting their own light shine, and being a light unto themselves, they also make light for the rest of the world.

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Trish Nelson, Compassionate Understanding of the Heart, practices with the Santa Cruz Heart Sangha after relocating from Oregon to Northern California.

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Mourning My Daughter

By Janice Rubin

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The evening I was scheduled to facilitate our Sangha sitting, I learned that my younger daughter had committed suicide. I had planned to talk about cultivating joy, read from Thich Nhat Hanh’s 20th anniversary edition of Breathe, You Are Alive!, and do a guided meditation from The Blooming of a Lotus on the joy of meditation as nourishment, and I did. It was my way of beginning the mourning process.

I am the convener of the Practice Community at Franklin Lakes, and I have felt wonderfully supported by my Sangha. When I finally acknowledged the reality and finality of my daughter’s act, I was able to tell my sisters and brothers in the practice that I was having a difficult time dealing with her death and I knew they understood. Sharing and writing about my experience has freed others in our community to talk about their life-altering experiences with suicide. One spoke of the effect of her mother’s suicide on her when she was five years old. Another told of her daughter’s several unsuccessful attempts to end her life.

I was no stranger to loss and abandonment. When I was five, the only person who I thought loved me unconditionally, my favorite uncle, abandoned me. My mother died when I was in my teens, and I was left with an indifferent father who had little interest in me, or later in my children, his only grandchildren. More recently, I felt strongly the loss of the person who established our Sangha ten years ago, and with whom I was co-leader the past few years, when he left the area. But surviving the death of a child by suicide is like nothing I had ever experienced and I’m not sure I will be able to come to terms with it during my lifetime.

At this time, I tell people my consolation lies in the fact that my daughter is no longer suffering the excruciating feelings of unworthiness engendered by the extremes of bipolarity. I also tell them it is comforting to know that because of her generosity, the lives of many people have been saved or extended because they received her organs and tissues. I say these things, but I don’t feel consoled or comforted.

I speak to her dear husband regularly—he needs a compassionate, nonjudgmental listener—and I learn more and more about the suffering she experienced and visited on others. I sometimes cry for days after we talk, but I will be there for him as long as he needs me, as I would have been for my daughter, if she had let me.

Every day a dozen things bring her to mind. I see her as her husband found her when he came home from work—in the driver’s seat of her locked car in the garage with a hose hooked up to the exhaust and taped in the passenger window—and I cry.

People remark how strong I am because I did not miss one sit of our Sangha or any of the classes I teach, and because I have not collapsed and given up on life. I do not feel strong. I feel incredibly weak and vulnerable, but I believe that without my Sangha to sustain me I would not be in as strong a position as I am.

I know that over time I will continue to feel better able to deal with my grief; that by continuing to practice watering the seeds of the good memories of my daughter, I will feel less sad when I think of her; and that, as in the past, I will find solace in my own island as I continue to be faithful to my practice. I know that she is part of the matter of the universe and that I have only to look into my hand to always find her. Until these thoughts become the feelings of my heart, my loss will be real and I will miss her every day.

mb53-Mourning2Janice Rubin is the convener of the Practice Community at Franklin Lakes. She is a former journalist and the author of  Looking Back, Moving On: Memoir as Prolog, and Four Lives: Despite the Odds.

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No Enemy, No Duality

Thay’s Celebrating Hanoi’s Anniversary

By Susan O’Leary

mb54-NoEnemy1Within weeks of the final official dispersion of the Bat Nha monastics, Thay presented us with two powerful teachings: Bat Nha: A Koan and Celebrating Hanoi’s Anniversary. The koan asks us to look deeply, to become determined to penetrate its meaning by reading and remaining with the experiences, perceptions, and questions of five people touched by Bat Nha. The Twelve Proposals—based not in Zen stories but in ethical action—can also be pivotal teachings for Thay’s students as we practice engaged Buddhism in the world. Strong, fearless proposals grounded in the thousand-year-old wisdom of Zen Master Van Hanh, they remind us to return to our roots as refuge when acting. They call for compassion and generosity, ethical study and leadership, global care and stewardship, and true ecumenical religious freedom.

The koan and the proposals are close teachings of the Bat Nha era. In the koan story of the communist government official, Thay refers to the 1,000-year anniversary of the founding of Hanoi.

Reading them together and remembering in our hearts the loving, concentrated actions of the Bat Nha monks and nuns, might shed light for practitioners on the Tenth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, a sometimes difficult training to resolve.

The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

Just as the personages of the koan kept questioning, we might also ask questions like these in reading Thay’s proposals:

  • Am I taking a clear stand against oppression and injustice?
  • Are my actions grounded in inclusiveness, non-fear, and nonduality?
  • Is my action an action or reaction? Does it demonstrate that I do not see others as separate from myself?
  • Does my action arise from an inner freedom of compassion and understanding?

Thay’s writings of this era remind us to be engaged in the world while having no enemies. To find the beauty as we breathe and walk in moments of suffering. An engaged Buddhist political action resides in non-fear and non-duality. It is grounded in kindness and inclusiveness, and does take a stand. The action itself manifests the teachings.

Susan O’Leary, Deep Confidence of the Heart, practices with the SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the author of several books and essays.

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Media Reviews

mb54-BookReviews1Who Am I in This Picture? Amherst College Portraits

With Brett Cook and Wendy Ewald
Amherst College Press, 2009
Soft cover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

Who Am I in This Picture? documents a community art project conducted by Sangha member and artist Brett Cook and photographer Wendy Ewald at Amherst College in 2007 and 2008. The college was the setting for a massive experiment in cultivating new forms of knowledge and consciousness through portraits and interviews with staff, faculty, and students. The book follows Cook and Ewald’s intimate work with eighteen members of the college community in contemplative, educational, and creative exercises that focused on learning. The project acted as a multicultural process of community building and resulted in six 12-foot by 30-foot portrait triptychs mounted across the Amherst College campus, as well as an exhibition at the Mead Art Museum.

The artworks themselves—each of which portrays a student, staff member, and faculty member—were generated by Ewald and Cook, with participation from students in Ewald’s seminar “The Practice of Collaborative Art,” members of the campus and western Massachusetts communities, and the subjects of the portraits. The six triptychs combine photographs, painting, and words in striking ways. The fact that the artworks were made by thousands of participants endows the pieces with great power. Each portrait is a reflection of the community, not unlike a Sangha. As our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “The one contains the all, and the all contains the one.”

In a spirit of inquiry, the subjects of the portraits reflected on questions that they themselves generated about being a part of the Amherst College community. The questions are very thought-provoking: What does the term “learning” mean to you? How has your life journey helped you to determine what learning means? Who/what has been your most influential teacher? Is it possible to learn everything about yourself? Does being educated make you happier? Do different cultures learn differently? How should a teacher define success? This is a mere sample of the questions posed by this project. As I reflected on these questions and the stories of the portrait subjects, memories of my own experiences at college arose. I also contemplated some of these questions in relationship to my experience as a member of the Sangha and the Order of Interbeing.

I appreciated the sentences that each subject wrote by hand on his or her own portrait. After reflecting on the questions above and many others, each person came up with a phrase that encapsulated his or her experience or understanding and wrote this on his or her portrait in big letters. Some of the sentences read: “You can’t be invisible or you will miss out.” “I feel the loneliest when I am not learning anything.” “I use people’s names so they know that they matter.” “I feel like I was taught to learn by listening.” “I am so much the people who are around me.” “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.” “Am I any different from the guy around the corner who knows everything about a ’67 Bonneville?” “When people aren’t educated, they can’t hold their governments accountable.”

The book beautifully documents the project from start to fi with lovely photographs and fascinating interviews with the artists and members of the community. I feel very inspired by the community building that took place at Amherst through this contemplative project.

mb54-BookReviews2Child’s Mind
How Mindfulness Can Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed

By Christopher Willard
Parallax Press, 2010
Softcover
128 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Did you know the words meditation and medicine are derived from the same Sanskrit word for “inner measure”? This is a pivotal gem from Parallax’s new book on mindfulness for kids. Indeed, mindfulness practice is good medicine—for both young and old.

A great resource book for teachers, doctors, mindfulness practitioners, therapists, parents, grandparents, and all who work with the young, Child’s Mind is chock full of ideas and sensory exercises for centering children in the Here and the Now. Beginning with the premise that children are the embodiment of beginner’s mind and therefore a fertile field, Willard lays out exercises for “child-sized attention spans and the diverse sensory learning styles of children.” Backed by solid and extensive research, the author builds a case for the advantages of meditation in general, and then tells how meditation specifically benefits children and other humans. Among other perquisites, Willard notes, mindfulness strengthens one’s ability to adapt, increases concentration, and reduces reactivity.

“Because the purest water flows from closest to the spring, I try to use original meditation techniques that have been well-practiced through the years. These include adaptations of grown-up practices from respected meditation teachers East and West that I have integrated with contemporary research.”

Citing world experts like Jack Kornfield, Sigmund Freud, John Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of my personal favorites for children, Maureen Murdock (Spinning Inward), the author begins with the premise that an adult who practices mindfulness is capable of passing the skill to children. He offers a definition of and introduction to mindfulness, methods adults can employ to establish their own practice, and methods for teaching meditation and mindfulness to kids.

Part II of the book offers Meditations for Mental and Emotional Well-Being, to transform or calm the effects of depression, anxiety, psychological trauma, impulse control, and the autism spectrum in children. Subsequent chapters deal with specific childhood issues such as sleep deprivation and test anxiety. Part III provides resources and program ideas. The book ends with a comprehensive bibliography.

I am reminded of a tender time a few years after the 1989 revolution in Romania, when my husband Philip and I introduced the mindfulness bell to a group of orphans we were teaching there. One morning, a fifteen-year-old girl came to class with bandaged arms because she had used an open tin can to slit her wrists. The other children, mostly teens, were visibly upset. The room felt chaotic. We called for a translator, and in the ensuing confusion, Olivia, a lame young woman, limped to the front of the room, gingerly picked up the mindfulness bell in her shriveled hand and invited the bell. The sound calmed us all.

Here is the medicine of mindfulness—the rich offerings of Child’s Mind, a handbook that holds no less potential than the children of the world.

mb54-BookReviews3jpgTogether We Are One
Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating Our Connection

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Available June 2010
Parallax Press

Together We Are One offers profound and socially relevant teachings from retreats for people of color with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha. This new book is a distillation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, interwoven with personal stories from a diverse group of participants of color. Addressed are such questions as:

  • How can we find our true home and feel we belong, whoever and wherever we are?
  • What are the different experiences of people of color in our Sanghas?
  • How can we and our Sanghas welcome and embrace more diversity?
  • How can we apply Buddhist insights to help heal the suffering of separation, discrimination and prejudice?

If you are interested in relating with more wholeness and celebration to all aspects of your identity, and making the treasures of your ancestors more available to you and your descendants, this book is for you. It includes original drawings, poetry, and a new and expanded version of Touching the Earth to our Land Ancestors, created during the people of color retreats.

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Mindfulness Bell Survey

By James Schaan and Natascha Bruckner

As a key step in our efforts to transform the Mindfulness Bell, we conducted the first-ever MB reader survey. Our purpose was to discover who our readers are, how they feel about important aspects of the MB, and what they’d like to see in the magazine. The survey was conducted online and targeted to three groups: current subscribers, past subscribers, and potential subscribers.

The survey helped us understand who our readers are and their desires for both the content and style of the Mindfulness Bell. For many questions, the results showed us what we expected to see. There were also a number of surprising responses. Here are a few examples of each:

Not Surprising:

It appears there are more girl Buddhists than boy Buddhists. At least, more girl Buddhists responded to our survey. Feel free to draw the conclusions you prefer.

The number of articles, breadth of content, and frequency of the Mindfulness Bell are about what our readers expect.

The majority of survey respondents would like to see more articles written by or about Thay and the monks and nuns.

The great majority of respondents feel that subscriptions are donations to the Mindfulness Bell that help spread the Dharma and Thay’s presentation of the teachings of the Buddha, and that the subscription price is about right.

Surprising:

Responses across all three survey categories showed us that the majority of our current, past, and future readers practice individually rather than as Sangha members. Knowing this, we will continue to offer tools and insights for individual practice, as well as encouragements and guidance for Sangha building.

There is a migration of past subscribers and a majority of online respondents who only read the Mindfulness Bell online. However, all three survey groups responded that they want the print version of the magazine to continue. In order to support the flow of resources to continue MB in print form, we will add a secure donations page to our website, www.mindfulnessbell.org.

The vast majority of readers feel a very strong connection with Thay and the monastics. We were not surprised that these feelings of affinity existed, but we were surprised by the strength of those feelings. As we continue along our path with our readers, we will address methods for helping people feel more deeply connected with the core practitioners of the Order of Interbeing.

The results showed us that we are on the right path. We also have opportunities to transform, and to help our readers have the best experience possible with our magazine. And when we say “our,” we mean “our” as in yours, too. Your subscriptions, donations, writing, artwork, volunteer support, and deep listening/reading bring this publication to life. The Mindfulness Bell is a meeting ground for the maha-Sangha. Together, we can all ensure it is a place of collective awakening.

If you’d like to learn more about the survey, please email editor@mindfulnessbell.org. To answer the survey questions in writing, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Mindfulness Bell, c/o David Percival, 745 Cagua S.E., Albuquerque NM 87108. Contact us if you are interested in volunteering for the Mindfulness Bell by helping with the website, fundraising, copy editing, or staffing a booth at a retreat.

The Mindfulness Bell survey was conducted by James Schaan, Most Gentle Goodness of the Heart, a marketing and business development professional, and Elizabeth Hospodarsky, Compassionate Connection of the Heart, an organizational leadership and development training professional. They live in Tucson, Arizona and are members of Singing Bird Sangha.

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Migrating into Happiness

By Robin Lee Schiff and Joost van Rens

Robin: Yesterday evening we were lying on the smooth sunwarmed road that winds its way down the mountain at Deer Park Monastery, watching the moon rise over the crest of the ridge, enjoying the coolness of the evening after a hot sunny day. As we listened to the coyotes calling to each other, we both felt a deep sense of happiness, marveling at the way our life has been unfolding. Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

Joost: We have been visiting Plum Village since 1997 and Deer Park Monastery since 2002. Over the years it has become clear that we are happiest when we are spending time at the monastery with the monks and nuns, being part of the fourfold Sangha. We began to notice after each retreat that our priorities shifted effortlessly into deeper harmony with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and that making conscious decisions and choices to create positive change became much easier. In 2004, toward the end of the nine-week winter retreat at Deer Park, Robin looked deeply in meditation and resolved to change our lifestyle in such a way that we would spend at least three months each year at Deer Park. She called it a ten-year plan, and said, “I don’t know how it will happen; I only know that within ten years we will be doing this.” I readily agreed. In the end it took us only three years to accomplish this goal.

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At Home in the Netherlands

Joost: I worked for almost twenty years as a medical doctor in a non-profit center in a poor neighborhood in The Hague, where I saw thirty to forty patients a day, most of them immigrants. I was also politically active in the health-care field because most of the health problems of my patients were poverty-related. I used all the tools I had learned in Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery to deal with the high levels of stress at my work: mindful walking in my office, conscious breathing during and between consultations, loving speech and deep listening with patients and colleagues. I hung pictures of Thay on the wall as mindfulness bells, and I tried to treat each patient as if he or she were my mother, father, sister, or brother. But I was also in the habit of drinking one to two Belgian beers after work to be able to relax because I would come home tense and exhausted. During the 2004 winter retreat I engaged in several weeks of deep self-inquiry, well supported by Sangha friends, as to why I liked to drink. At the end of the retreat, Robin and I undertook the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided afterward to give up alcohol completely. Within a year after I stopped drinking, it became very clear to me how high and unsustainable the stress levels were at work. This realization catalyzed me to change my life.

mb55-Migrating3Robin: I teach tai chi as a form of mindfulness meditation. In our studio at home in The Hague, employees of UN agencies participated in classes, as did lots of other people who read the brochures I left in public libraries, bookshops, and natural food stores. Joost and I hosted weekly Sangha mindfulness mornings as well.

I have had a daily practice of sitting meditation since I was sixteen years old, but Thay’s book Old Path White Clouds inspired me greatly and led me to change to a Plum Village style of practice, particularly after our first visit to Plum Village in 1997. The advice given to me then by Sister Gina was to spend less time sitting and to try to take meditation off the cushion and into every aspect of my daily life. This has been enormously healing and transformative for me, closing the disturbing gap that had widened over the years between my “spiritual” life on the cushion and the rest of my experiences. Each time we came back from Deer Park we noticed that we were less attached to our worldly possessions. It was becoming clear that our true happiness was not dependent upon these things. In 2005, our son Seth graduated university and landed a contract teaching English in Japan. Knowing that Seth could now earn his own living catapulted me into a phase change, which I describe as the end of the nesting instinct. I saw myself as a bird flying out of the nest and into the immense blue sky.

Joost and Robin: After a year of research, planning, number crunching, and deep looking, we were ready to commence the process of selling our house and other possessions, quitting our jobs, and leaving the Netherlands. Our plan was to live six or seven months per year in Australia or New Zealand, where Joost could work as a roving medical doctor. (This is possible because there is a great shortage of doctors in rural areas in both countries.) We would have no fixed base but would move from location to location, wherever doctors were needed.

Joost: Both of us come from families that play it safe in making life choices. We noticed fears arising, triggered by the unconventional choices we were making. We both had to recognize, embrace, and find ways to transform these fears, step by step, as we developed and implemented our plans.

In August 2006, Robin began fixing up our house to put it up for sale the following spring. We started giving away our furniture, library, music CDs, clothing, beds, kitchenware, bicycles—everything—to our families and to friends who were planning to start a Buddhist retreat in England. It took a year to mindfully divest ourselves of all the possessions we had previously cherished. We each left the Netherlands with forty kilograms of possessions. Leaving my family behind, especially my 85-year-old father, was especially poignant because my mother had died just three months before. I taught my father to use Skype, and we now speak on the phone or Skype every two days. We keep in close contact—via Skype—with our son, who is now twenty-six years old and studying law. The other emotional hurdle was fi   a new home for our twenty-two-year-old black cat, Zumbro. As of this writing, Zumbro is still alive and thriving with a couple of our friends in Amsterdam.

At Home Wherever We Are

Robin: Each work assignment in Australia and New Zealand comes with a temporary house and the use of a car. We never know what kind of house it will be until we arrive. People ask us if it is difficult to have no home of our own, but the practices of mindful walking and breathing have helped us to be at home wherever we are. We have stayed in many remote rural locations all over Western Australia and New Zealand, and usually by the time we have unpacked our bags we feel at home. The amount of time we remain in each location averages about five weeks.

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Joost: While I was working in the Netherlands, it felt as though my work never stopped. Now I know that each year I will spend at least three months at Deer Park Monastery. Even though working in rural areas can be very challenging, I have much more joyful energy for my work. We also have considerably more free time to appreciate the beauty of nature and to feel gratitude for our relationship.

Robin: Every day during our first year in Australia, I would imagine, before I started eating breakfast, that one of the trees I could see from the table was Brother Phap Ho, one was Brother Phap Dung, and one was Sister Faith or Sister Tue Nghiem, or whichever monastic arose in my thoughts. Now, two years later, the trees themselves seem to have so much presence, I no longer need to attach images of monastic friends to them to feel as though Sangha is all around me!

Joost: The frequent changes in our work and living environments help us to stay fresh and to practice “beginner’s mind;” they also encourage us to reduce our possessions even more, since we have to carry everything wherever we go. I have worked as a GP in many different types of practices, this year mostly in impoverished Maori towns. Robin works as our part-time manager to organize work assignments, contracts, tickets, housing, insurance, visas, etc. She also swims daily and teaches tai chi and meditation.

Robin: People often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult for you when Joost goes off to work and you are in a new place?” My natural attitude is that in each new place, some special opportunity will arise for me to learn something new, and/or to teach somebody who really wants to learn what I can offer. I only have to be present and aware to see the opportunity, to enjoy it, to give and receive. Of course, our new lifestyle has brought up new and different challenges. Visa immigration rules and medical board regulations change without warning, so we have to adjust our plans often. Fear comes up for us in these situations; but as we gain more experience by solving each predicament, we gain more confidence in being able to find workable solutions.

Joost: We are usually able to keep in contact with friends and family. Sometimes one of us experiences feelings of loss and loneliness when we are in a very remote place without internet or a good telephone connection. We sit with these feelings, let them come up, and hold them gently as if they were crying babies. Because we are a Sangha of two people, we are able to support each other well.

Life has become a journey. Deer Park has become our home base. Since we changed our life in 2007 and are now coming to Deer Park every year for three months, our practice has deepened and our happiness and understanding have been nourished. Each year we make new friends in the constantly changing Sangha at Deer Park, and our capacity to live happily in the present moment grows.

Robin: Friends ask us, “How long do you think you will keep doing this? When will you settle down somewhere, and where?” I tell them, “We’ll wait and see! Life is full of so many surprises; I figure we’ll just know these things when the time comes.”

Joost and Robin: This year when we came back to Deer Park, it felt as if we had been away for a couple of weeks instead of nine months. We just stepped back into the river of the Sangha.

mb55-Migrating6Robin Lee Schiff, Full Awakening of the Heart, was born in 1955 in Brooklyn, NY. Joost van Rens, Compassionate Action of the Heart, was born in 1958 in the Netherlands. They practice three months of the year with the Deer Park The rest of the year, they travel and practice together as the No Coming No Going Sangha.

July Moon

We lie in silence on the warm road
As the full moon slips above
The great hidden mountain
Its light penetrating and spreading
Like the Dharma in the Western world
And dear brothers and sisters
Our communication is perfect
–David Percival, True Wonderful Roots

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Mindfulness in Social Work

By Sheila Canal

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Breathing in, I am aware of feeling irritation.
Breathing out, I am aware I am being manipulated.
Breathing in, I know I am working with someone on meth.
Breathing out, I understand what to do and what not to do.

I work at the State of Oregon’s Department of Human Services, Self Sufficiency. We provide Food Stamps, medical benefits, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, historically known as welfare. We see many people affected by drug addiction, physical and mental disabilities, domestic violence, and homelessness, and some who are recently unemployed due to the recession.

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Working with methamphetamine (meth) users consistently produces a feeling of irritation in me. When I notice this feeling, I remember that meth users are controlled by their drug, and I relax my irritation. Meth attacks the nervous system and brain. Addicts are not free, and they often behave in ways we characterize as criminal in order to maintain their habit. Awareness of the causes of my irritation enables me to sink into a well of compassion, and allows me to work with these users effectively, with healthy boundaries. Their presence in my office, rather than in prison, shows some hope for these individuals and their families.

My fellow workers are truly my Sangha. We see each other daily, more than we see our children. We rub up against each other as we interpret state policy and help people find the means to relieve their hunger and become self-sufficient. In the process, we build teamwork, communicate honestly, and work through conflicts. We are from diverse backgrounds and spiritual orientations, from atheism to evangelical Christianity. We take time during staff meetings to share who we are in the moment. We are a happy community, and from this place, we are able to meet our clients with a high level of service.

Mindfulness supports my work with clients, helping me to focus on their strengths rather than their needs or barriers. This strength-based approach helps each person see the positive aspects of their lives. We talk about their suffering in terms of concerns and motivators, and we base case management plans on their strengths. Because strengths are at the forefront, compassion overcomes pity and we become equals; each person, especially the client, contributes to action steps that will generate self-sufficiency.

A memorable example occurred one afternoon when a coworker asked me to see a particularly angry client. A homeless Vietnam veteran, he had only a bike, a dog, and a camping spot in the mountains. Extremely angry that he hadn’t received his Food Stamps, he had our totally competent, unflappable receptionist absolutely unglued. David, the receptionist, was so upset by the vet’s insults about his Peruvian accent that he made a mistake, further escalating the situation.

I was asked to intervene. Incidents involving prejudice frequently water my seeds of anger. This time, I had to embrace my anger with mindfulness. Sensing the staff ’s wish for a decrease in verbal abuse, I knew I had to avoid contributing to it. I agreed to see our friend. After taking a little time to breathe, I calmly and respectfully invited the veteran into my cubicle to sit. He told me exactly how the system was screwing with him. Without interrupting, using eye contact and nonverbal cues, I listened to him with my full attention. I acknowledged his anguish and injustice. He became calm, and then spoke of his life and needs. Together we addressed what was preventing him from getting his stamps, and he left calm and satisfied, with access to food. He remains memorable to me because my Buddha nature spoke to his Buddha nature, and we saw each other.

When mindfulness is strong, touching suffering each day by serving the poor and the homeless has its own rewards. Along with helping the hungry get food, I can relieve the anxiety of parents by helping them get health insurance for their children, child care subsidies, and training. The Mindfulness Trainings support my work and keep me whole and grounded. Being present in the moment—walking mindfully through the office, stopping and breathing when the telephone rings, breathing mindfully as often as possible—alleviates frustration and overwhelm, and restores me. I can bring my whole presence to my work and make my work my practice.

mb55-Mindfulness3Sheila Canal, True Spiritual Understanding, met Thay and the Sangha at the Retreat for Environmentalists in 1991. She is a member of  the Many Rivers OI Stewardship  Council in southern Oregon.

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The One Who Bows

By Ann Moore

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One day in January 2010, my friend and Dharma teacher Joanne Friday called me and shared that she had a significant birthday coming up, her sixtieth. Westerners are used to celebrating every birthday under the same zodiacal sign; but under the Chinese astrological calendar, one’s birth sign recurs only every sixty years. Joanne had been born under the sign of the metal tiger. Her sixtieth birthday marked the only recurrence of her birth year that she would ever likely celebrate, and celebrate she intended to do, being filled with gratitude to all of her non-self elements for the fact that she would be celebrating at all.

“I plan to have a potlatch,” she told me, explaining that this is an event where the hostess gives gifts to the guests. “I have received so much,” she said. “I want nothing for my birthday but to give back.”

The woman is delusional, I thought, as the words of the Apostle Paul came to mind—“being poured out like a drink offering.” Joanne was always pouring herself out, giving and giving back, but when had we ever given anything to her?

I first met Joanne in August 2007 when she oriented me to the practice and welcomed me to Thay’s retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. What joy was in my heart the day I arrived at my first Sangha gathering to find that Joanne was the Dharma teacher! Then in March 2008, Joanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. About the time she received this diagnosis came the news that her mother was dying. While Joanne was visiting her mother, twenty of us met in a Sangha home to offer the Ceremony to Support the Sick, and afterward each of us shared how Joanne had touched his or her life. How beautiful and refreshing it was to eulogize the living!

Joanne underwent a year of cancer treatment: two surgeries, life-threatening chemotherapy, and radiation. She scheduled her treatments around our twice-monthly gatherings at her home, facilitating one Day of Mindfulness on a Saturday after spending Friday night in the emergency room and another after undergoing surgery on a Thursday. She attended a weekend retreat in Cape Cod only a couple of hours after receiving permission from her doctor to travel. At one meeting she spoke wistfully of missing Thay.

“A potlatch,” I thought wonderingly, after Joanne’s phone call. Joanne wanted to give on her birthday, so surely the loving thing to do was to let her give. But her phone call planted a seed in my brain and reminded me of the beauty of those shared eulogies. I visualized a scrapbook filled with loving tributes from many people, together with funds enabling Joanne and her husband Richard to spend three weeks at Plum Village. After consulting with Richard, I went to work.

Into cyberspace went an invitation to send a card bearing testimony of a transformation catalyzed by Joanne, to contribute money for the trip if feasible, to share the invitation with any who might be interested, and to keep the project secret from Joanne. We would present the scrapbook and trip funds at the February mid-month meeting, one week after Joanne’s potlatch and three days before her actual birthday.

Before long I was swamped with contributions: people sent money, cards, and even letters of gratitude to me for giving them this opportunity to express their love and appreciation for Joanne. “Here is my check—thank you so much for asking!” My positive seeds were receiving so much nourishment; I was like a pond in danger of eutrophication! Affirmations from complete strangers left me in awe of the distance an action travels to come to fruition.

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Joanne made the February meeting a joyful expression of gratitude for her sixtieth birthday. She invited Clear Heart Sangha to a festive dinner, cooked by her, which included foods from the garden tended by Sangha members. After dinner, thirty-seven people congregated for sitting meditation. Joanne had planned a tea ceremony, with cookies and chamomile tea, to follow the meditation. As tea was poured, she gave a discourse on love, and everyone was invited to share something of significance to him or her, such as a poem or a song.

At the end of our sharing, I presented Joanne with the scrapbook and an envelope with a business card reading, “Shamatha Travel” (shamatha means stopping, calming, resting, healing). Inside was a mock travel brochure featuring Plum Village, the European Institute of Applied Buddhism, and the destination of your dreams, with Avalokiteshvara as the agent to call. Also in the envelope were two simulated airline tickets, together (coincidentally?) with the amount of money I had estimated the trip would cost!

Joanne couldn’t have been happier or more surprised. She spoke of how much she had missed Thay and kept repeating, “I just can’t believe it.” Referring to her discourse during the tea ceremony, she said, “And I thought I had something to tell you about love!” I told her what a gift it was to us to be able to offer her this tribute. She agreed that this was clear from the joy on everyone’s face.

During the planning and realization of this gift to Joanne, I felt strongly that it was not my project and that I was acting as a conduit for Sangha energy. I am left with a sense of happiness and humility at having been instrumental in the realization of a vision; gratitude that I was able to be open for the project to unfold and fall so “perfectly” into place; a sense of interbeing with the greater Sangha community; a deepened commitment to the aspirant process; and a sense of new spaciousness now that the project is behind me.

Yes, but, Joanne says, the lesson is that you simply cannot give without receiving; you simply cannot receive without giving; giver and receiver inter-are—which seems to perfectly paraphrase the familiar gatha:

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to
are both, by nature, empty.
Therefore the communication between them
is inexpressibly perfect.

Or, in the words of Joanne as she looked out at the gathering: “I am looking at all my non-self elements, and I am gorgeous!”

mb55-TheOne3Ann Moore, Skillful Acceptance of the Heart, is an Order of Interbeing aspirant practicing with Clear Heart Sangha in Matunuck, RI, and the New London Community of Mindfulness in New London, CT.

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One Recipe at a Time

By Eve Heidtmann

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“What’s for supper?”

It’s a question that comes up with a sense of hopeful anticipation just about every day. For some of us, answering that question became more complicated at the 2007 Deer Park retreat when Thay told us the Buddha’s parable of Eating the Son’s Flesh. He spoke of the connection between the livestock industry and global warming. It became clear that the food we put on our plates today has everything to do with the world our children will face in the future. Thay planned to adopt a plant-based (vegan) diet and was asking his monasteries and retreat centers to do the same. We were invited to help be the change.

Several friends from my Portland Sangha were with me when we heard Thay’s call. We were touched by his words and wondered what we could do. Changing one’s diet can seem daunting. Habit energies are strong, especially where food is concerned. Food is close to the heart, comforting, and closely connected with family memories. The idea of giving up our favorite foods was tinged with feelings of sadness and loss. Could we really do this and feel good about it?

Joy Was the Essential Ingredient

As I thought about all this, I began to see a practical solution. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to make a sweeping decision to turn away from what was familiar. Maybe instead we could simply explore plant-based cooking and see what satisfactions might be found there. I had a head start on this. My family had begun a vegan diet two years earlier for health reasons. I had started then with low expectations: how could a meal be satisfying when the basics were missing? But I had been delightfully surprised! Checking out vegan cookbooks and trying one recipe after another, I discovered many novel combinations and wonderful new flavors. In fact, I really preferred eating this way. Perhaps I could help others see the possibilities, one recipe at a time.

I suggested to my Sangha that we could share recipes, with the goal of helping each other cut down on animal products. My suggestion went out to our Engaged Buddhism group and soon there were a dozen of us in an email circle, some with recipes to offer and others looking for ideas. Before long we were meeting for potlucks, tasting each other’s culinary experiments, and telling our food stories. After many months, our ever-growing recipe collection became unwieldy. I asked my son Evan if there was a way to store it online. Voila! He created a homemade website for us. Because we had discovered that joy was the essential ingredient of our project, the name of our website became “The Joy of Mindful Cooking.”

Healthy Recipes, Healthy Earth

Having a website has been both a learning experience and a lot of fun! The site has allowed us to organize our recipes in different ways. When you visit our website, you can click Browse Recipes to find a list of main dishes, salads, desserts, and so on. If you click on a category heading—for example, Main Dish—you will see brief descriptions of all the recipes in that category. Another approach, if you have something on hand you want to use up, is to click Find a Recipe, then enter your ingredient and call up all the recipes that include it. You can also search for recipes best suited to a particular season. If you are wondering about reducing the animal products in an old favorite recipe, just click on Common Substitutions to find suggestions for plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy, and eggs.

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The website also gives us a place to recommend books and films, talk about food issues, and help answer kitchen questions. The Five Contemplations appear on the Home page, reminding us of our purpose every time we look there. The About Us page explains the origin of our project. Thanks to our website, our original Portland email circle has grown to include thirty-five cooks in six states who are interested in knowing about recipes and hearing news of our project. Anyone who would like to join our email list is welcome. Just click on Join the Mailing List and fill in the spaces to start a user account. Please don’t be dismayed that it won’t register you instantly: our project is still homey and needs a real person (me) to push buttons to get you in. Of course, you don’t need to register to use the recipes or explore the site.

Our Portland group is still gathering around the table every few months. We talk about whatever is on our minds about food, which means everything from how to use an immersion blender to the obesity epidemic to the problems caused by giant food corporations. We pass around cookbooks and talk about local volunteer projects to feed those in need. Most of all, we swap recipes and encourage each other in our efforts to live in closer harmony with the earth.

Next time you wonder what’s for supper, come visit our website and have what we’re having. With gratitude to Thay for getting us started, we offer our recipe collection to everyone along with our hopes for a joyful cooking experience and a sustainable future for all the world’s children.

mb55-OneRecipe4Eve Heidtmann, Natural Outreach of the Heart, is a member of the Thursday Night Sangha in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and son. She works as a private tutor for children. The Joy of Mindful Cooking can be explored at www.mindfulcooking.org.

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Curried Red Lentils with Barley or Rice

A quick, easy, and satisfying soup.

Ingredients
1 cup red lentils
1/2 cup barley or rice 6 cups water
1/2 c. chopped onion
1-2 cloves minced garlic
One potato, skin on or off, cubed (optional) 3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. minced fresh ginger root (or powdered ginger) 1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 & 1/2 tsp. curry powder (Madras suggested) 1 tsp. cumin

Instructions:
Simmer the lentils, barley or rice, onion, garlic, salt and spices in the water about 20 minutes. Add the potato cubes and cook 15 or 20 more minutes. Just before serving, add a little chopped tomato and/or cilantro.

An original recipe contributed to www.mindfulcooking.org by Faith Arsanis.

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Relationship as Engaged Buddhism

By Nathaniel Vose

Of the different forms of activism I’ve practiced in my life, the most transformative, perhaps, is the relationship activism I practice with my partner, Liz. Our partnership acts as a microcosm for our relationships with all beings. We practice to nourish not only the happiness of one another but also the happiness of the world. It is very real, engaged Buddhism.

My grandfather, an educator and Methodist minister, was a mentor to me. I once asked how he and my grandma had made it through fifty-five-plus years together. He offered me his sage counsel: “Every morning you can sit down at the breakfast table and look across to your partner and say, ‘Why did I marry her? She is not what I really wanted,’ or you can say, ‘Wow, how lucky I am to have her here to share this life with!’ The choice is yours.”

With mindfulness, I have realized that I do have the power to choose my own reality. When I was new to the practice, I focused on suffering. But I came to discover that suffering is only one of thousands of Dharma doors. Without sunshine, we will not have lotuses. Mindfulness gives permission to relish joy in relationship.

Liz and I practice Beginning Anew on each new moon. We practice hugging meditation in the morning and share appreciations before we go to bed at night. Our mindfulness rituals create a container for transformation and when we feel their fruits, we only want to practice more! That is why I see our relationship as a practice center. It brings us home to ourselves and we become each other’s mirrors and mindfulness bells.

Right Relationship with Sexuality

Mindfulness helps in practicing with sexual energy. I grew up feeling ashamed of my sexuality. In my experience, sexuality was often used as a weapon or status symbol. I remember walking down the halls of high school, being taunted with names like “fag,” and listening to guys talk about their latest sexual escapades. I went through puberty during the advent of pornography on the Internet. It fascinated and confused many of us young people. Luckily, other seeds were watered in me, and I was able to channel my energies into music, theatre, sports, and supportive friendships.

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Upon receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, sadly, I found myself condemning my sexuality as I tried to emulate my brother and sister monastics. My misunderstanding pitted me against my self, my body, and others. I’ve learned that committed relationship and the Mindfulness Trainings are manifestations of true love; both work to push suffering up to the surface so it may be healed. Inevitably, my mindfulness practice and relationship invited me to come into right relationship with my sexuality, embracing these intense energies with care. My partner, the trainings, and Sangha provided protection and antidotes to fear and confusion.

Although sexual energy contains no suffering in itself, my habit of contracting around it can create hell on Earth. Holding this energy with mindfulness, I feel a natural respect and love. Sexual energy puts me in touch with my capacities of generativity and creativity. How amazing that this energy of vitality and creativity is alive in me! “Breathing in, I recognize sexual energy as a wonder of life! Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I let it expand throughout my body, nourishing my cells with life. Breathing out, I relax.” Working with the energy in this way helps me give birth to my self, my ancestors, and future beings anew in the present moment. Mindfulness is the essence of true intimacy. Cultivating appropriate attention, I connect with the vital and creative source of life.

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mb56-Relationship3Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and female friends have taught me about masculine and feminine principles. This empowers me with a sense of inclusiveness. “Breathing in, I recognize I have both masculine and feminine within me. Breathing out, I feel solid and whole.” Both mother and father are in me; nothing is lost. Understanding this, I can relax and approach Liz with my wholeness.

Two Hands of the Same Body

I have found that true love has no limits. Partnership has taught me the necessity of cultivating self-love in order to love and nourish Liz. Similarly, it has taught me that love is more powerful than I am. Many times, Liz becomes prajnaparamita herself, and her love allows me to accept myself to an extent I did not know was possible. Gradually, I am able to love better. The wisdom of non-discrimination works like this. Liz and I are two hands of the same, greater body.

Recently, Liz and I decided to start a couples’ Sangha. The challenges our relationship brings to the surface made us realize that it is not an individual matter, nor is it a two-person matter! It is bigger than us. It involves the transformation of endless ancestors, causes, and conditions. That is why we need Sangha. Understanding relationship as engaged Buddhism, we honor its potential for individual and collective transformation. It is truly a potent and nourishing form of activism!

mb56-Relationship4Nathaniel Vose, True Land of Compassion, works as a chaplain and lives in Oakland, CA with his partner Liz Turkel, Radiant Commitment of the Heart.

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Living Dharma

By Miriam Goldberg

mb56-Living1For me, the Indonesian retreat closed with the sunrise meditation walk, Dharma talk, and formal lunch at Borobudur the day after the retreat officially ended.

We walked stone pathways lined with images depicting the Buddha’s life and all the sutras. Every curve of tree, leaf, person, and smile which hadn’t been damaged revealed the uniqueness of each carving, singular, nuanced, yet connected in the truth they described and the commitment of hundreds of artisans and visionaries who supported this creation over time. We sat atop this celebration of the Buddha, his Dharma, and Sangha while the sun rose and the world emerged from the mists below.

Sitting on a short platform, Thay gave a Dharma talk, a tree to his right, and in the distance, Borobudur, like a teeming city springing from the large stupa in the center: Buddha consciousness overflowing into the world. Thay spoke of real Sangha, the community that practices and lives the Dharma. He said that a Sangha is alive when it practices the Dharma. When the Sangha truly practices, the Dharma is alive. And where the Dharma is alive, the Buddha lives.

At lunch, Thay sat calmly with his and other monastics, brown robes by saffron and red. His brief introduction included: during formal lunch, enjoy the Sangha and enjoy your food. Just that is enough. Receive the mindfulness of the Sangha, the community that practices love and understanding, that dwells in the present moment free from the delusive mind’s preoccupation with better than, less than, and equal to, that knows the interbeing nature of existence. And be aware of your food. The living Dharma, simple, practical, accessible.

The Action of True Love

Thay’s Dharma talks at the retreat also revealed the simplicity of the living Dharma. In one talk, he described true love as an action, not a noun. He said, “True love never brings fear. It always brings understanding.” In very practical terms he revealed the four brahmaviharas—the qualities associated with true love—as actions for our lives.

Maitri, loving kindness, is the capacity to open and offer happiness, loving as a friend. Thay emphasized, “Intention is not enough. We need to know right action, how to bring love to another person and help them be happy,” through presence, being available, fresh, solid, calm, and spacious. As action, karuna, compassion, is the capacity to remove suffering and give relief. Thay said, “If you do not understand the suffering, you cannot help.” We need to look deeply and listen with compassion. Mudita, “the love (which) brings joy,” can be cultivated as we actively celebrate joy in ourselves and others. Upeksha, unqualified loving, is the non-discriminative wisdom of interbeing. “It is being willing to have the experience that your suffering is mine,” with no distinction between lover and loved. Thay’s own presence, soft, flowing, clear, embodied the inclusive awareness of Buddha nature, Dharma and Sangha, radiating the living Dharma which nourishes and offers true love to all.

Going as a Sangha

Reflecting on Thay’s words, I realized in addition to his example and teachings of living Dharma, I had witnessed many throughout the retreat, in monastic and lay practitioners. The living Dharma found a unique expression in the International Delegation (ID). This eclectic, disparate group of about thirty participants from five countries, spanned several generations, including a few Dharma teachers, long-time practitioners, and some newcomers who discovered the retreat on Facebook.

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Most of the ID landed in Jakarta the day before the retreat and bused together in hours of slow, rainy rush hour traffic. When we arrived, we shared flashlights and helped each other find our beds through the maze of buildings dedicated to retreat housing. The next morning, as we oriented ourselves to the facility and nearby town, Dharma teacher Peggy Rowe gently and consistently introduced the other Dharma teachers to us, so we could honor Thay’s lineage and its holders, blending respect and inclusiveness as we met each other.

The retreat was dense with practice: sitting, walking, silence, mindful exercises, Dharma discussions, and deep relaxation. We had to balance self-care within group activities. Peggy encouraged mindfulness of body wisdom, to honor when it needed to rest, to move, to relax. Gentle presence rather than rigid practice became the norm.

Gestures of offering Kleenex, sharing herbs, letting on where the nearest ice cream could be bought, and sharing smiles of recognition refl and generated kindness, compassion, inclusivity, and joy. An atmosphere of kind attention developed as members of the ID met irritation and cranky comments with deep listening and kindness, asked questions instead of ignoring silences, and demonstrated a willingness to meet others. Beginner’s mind became more available, the mind guided by freshness, not prejudices of the past or attachment to ideas. It encouraged spontaneous responses to who was participating, who was hovering, who was oblivious, who was suffering, who was joyful. We lived the inclusiveness of “going as a Sangha,” demonstrating that when we do that consciously, every moment becomes the living Dharma, filled with the actions of true love. With these ten days together, including the retreat and the half day at Borobudur, the ID Sangha body was well tended, warm, vital, and trusting, fertile soil for Sangha wisdom.

Dharma Rain

We boarded the bus for the stormy ride back from Borobudur to Yojakarta and tried to settle ourselves from the intensely full morning and the buzzing vendors who profited from our excitement. Peggy stood at the front of the bus with the microphone. She said, “We have just been charged by Dharma rain. It is vibrating in us and around us, like the rain falling here. We have an opportunity to sit together in silence and receive this nourishment. Deep into our bodies. To share it with our ancestors, without whom we would not be experiencing this moment. To offer it to the generations to come. To extend it to the world we live in in this moment. Absorb it deeply, and share it fully. Otherwise it will disperse through us in our old patterns of chatting, of shopping, of getting irritable and grumpy, of planning, of daydreaming, of depression, of distraction.” We breathed in and out. A quiet depth opened as our collective practice absorbed the gifts of the morning and shared their merit through interbeing and mindful presence.

An hour later, sitting in the front seats of the bus, we saw the effects of the continuing downpour: motorcyclists intently walking their bikes through thigh-high water; two men unloading garbage from the back of a small truck stuck in a hole while water swirled above its wheels; one-and-a-half-foot-high streams gushing down narrow cement streets. When we were invited to come forward and share with the group a Dharma moment, a child’s song, a joy to nourish the heart, the Dharma was expressed through each of us, both in heartfelt offerings and in deep listening. Attention was on love, not fear. The Sangha was living the Dharma, the Dharma was alive, and Buddha nature was present. I feel great gratitude to the Dharma lineage in the Order of Interbeing, and the gift of living Dharma shared by Thay, his Dharma teachers, and his Sangha.

mb56-Living3Miriam Goldberg, True Recollection of Joy, is a psychotherapist who lives in the Santa Cruz mountains with her husband and practices with Heart Sangha.

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Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

Every one of us is trying to find our true home. We know that our true home is inside, and with the energy of mindfulness, we can go back to our true home in the here and the now. Sangha is our true home.

In Vietnamese, the husband calls the wife “my home.” And the wife calls the husband her home. Nha toi means my house, my home. When a gentleman is asked “Where is your wife?” he will say, “My home is now at the post office.” And if a guest said to the wife, “Your home is beautiful; who decorated it?” she would answer, “It’s my home who decorated it,” meaning, “my husband.” When the husband calls his wife, he says, “Nha oi,” my home. And she says, “Here I am.” Nha oi. Nha toi.

When you are in such a relationship, the other person is your true home. And you should be a true home for him or for her. First you need to be your own true home so that you can be the home of your beloved. We should practice so we can be a true home for ourselves and for the one that we love. How? We need the practice of mindfulness.

In Plum Village, every time you hear the bell, you stop thinking, you stop talking, you stop doing things. You pay attention to your in-breath as you breathe in and you say, “I listen, I listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” My true home is inside. My true home is in the here and the now. So practicing going home is what we do all day long, because we are only comfortable in our true home. Our true home is available, and we can go home every moment. Our home should be safe, intimate, and cozy, and it is we who make it that way.

Last week I had tea with a couple who came from the United Kingdom. They spent two weeks in Plum Village, with the monks in the Upper Hamlet. The lady said, “It’s strange. It’s the first time that I’ve lived in a place where there are hundreds of men and no women, and I feel very safe in the Upper Hamlet. I have never felt safe like that.” In the Upper Hamlet she was the only woman, and she felt very safe. And if she feels safe, the place is her home, because home should provide that kind of safety. Are you a safe place for him or for her? Do you have enough stability, strength, protection for the one you love?

And the gentleman said, “The last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.” That is because of the work of Sangha building. When you build a Sangha, you build a home for yourself. And in that place, you feel at home, you feel at ease, you feel safe. If you don’t feel safe within yourself, you are not a home for your own self, and you cannot provide your loved one a home. That is why it’s very important to go back to yourself and make it safe for you and for the ones you love.

If you feel lonely, if you feel cut off, if you suffer, if you need healing, you cannot expect to heal by having a sexual relationship with another person. That cannot heal you. You will create more suffering for him, for her, and for yourself. In the Third Mindfulness Training, we learn that sexual desire is not love. And without love, sexual activities can only bring suffering to you and to the other person. Loneliness cannot be dissipated by sexual activity; you cannot heal yourself by having sex. You have to learn how to heal yourself, to be comfortable within, and then you begin to create a home. Then you have something to offer to the other person. The other person also has to heal, so that she will feel at ease, and she can become your home. Otherwise, what she has to share is only her loneliness, her sickness, her suffering. That cannot help heal you at all.

Three Kinds of Intimacy

There are three kinds of intimacy. The first one is physical and sexual. The second is emotional. And the third one is spiritual. Sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy. They go together. And if spiritual intimacy is there, the physical, sexual intimacy will have meaning and will be healthy and healing. Otherwise it will be destructive.

Every one of us is seeking emotional intimacy. We want to have real communication, mutual understanding, communion. In the light of Buddhist practice, you have to listen to your own suffering. There is suffering inside of you, and there is suffering inside of the other person. If you do not listen to your own suffering, you will not understand it, and you will not have compassion for yourself; and compassion is the element that helps you heal.

The first thing the Buddha talked about is the suffering inside. Many of us are fearful. We don’t want to go back to ourselves, because we believe that we will encounter the block of suffering inside, and that we will be overwhelmed. Instead, we try to cover it up by means of consumption. We consume food, we consume music, we consume many other things, and we consume sex. But that does not help. That is why the Buddha proposed that we go home to ourselves with courage, in order to recognize and listen deeply to the suffering inside. We can use the energy of mindfulness, generated by conscious breathing and walking, to embrace it tenderly. “My suffering, I know you are there. I am home. And I will take care of you.”

There are times when we suffer but we don’t know the nature of the suffering. Our ancestors, our parents may not have been able to transform their suffering, and they have transmitted it to us. And now, because we have encountered the Buddhadharma, we have a chance to recognize it, embrace it, and transform it for ourselves and our ancestors, our parents. “Dear ancestors, dear father, dear mother, I have received this block of suffering from you. I know the Dharma, I know the practice. I will learn to recognize this block of suffering that has been transmitted to me, and with love I will try to accept and to transform it.” You can do it out of love. You do it for your parents, for your ancestors, because we are our ancestors.

According to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, unless you listen to your suffering, unless you look deeply into your suffering,and embrace it tenderly with your energy of mindfulness, you cannot understand the roots of your suffering. When you begin to understand the roots of your suffering, suddenly the energy of compassion, of understanding, arises. And understanding and compassion have the power to heal. By embracing and listening to your suffering, you bring about understanding and compassion. And when the nectar of compassion is born in you, you suffer less, you feel less lonely. You begin to feel the warmth within yourself; you are building a home inside yourself. The Buddha recommends that we build a home inside, an island within ourselves. Be an island unto yourself. You’ll feel comfortable, you’ll feel warm, and you can be a refuge for the other person too.

When you have understood your own suffering, your own loneliness, you feel lighter and you can listen to the suffering of the other person. Your suffering carries within itself the suffering of your ancestors, of the world, of society. Interbeing means that my suffering is in your suffering, and your suffering is in my suffering. That is why, when I have understood my suffering, it is easier for me to understand your suffering. When you understand someone’s suffering, that is a great gift that you can offer to him or to her. The other person feels for the first time that she is understood. To offer understanding means to offer love. And understanding another person is not possible without understanding self. Home-building begins with yourself. Your partner too builds a home within, and then you can call her your home, and she can call you her home.

In the Upper Hamlet, we build a Sangha as our home. You build your family as a Sangha too, because Sangha means simply “community.” The most noble task is to build a Sangha. After enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha taught us was to look for elements to build a Sangha. A Sangha is a refuge for ourselves and for many people.

So we go home to ourselves, we listen to the suffering inside of us. We embrace our pain, our sorrow, our loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. And that kind of understanding, that kind of insight will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter, we begin to feel warmth and peace inside. And then when the other person joins you in building home, you have an ally. You are helping him and he is helping you. And together you have home. You have home in yourself, you have home in him, in her also. If that kind of intimacy does not exist, then a sexual relationship can cause a lot of damage. That is why  earlier I said that physical, sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy.

Between the spiritual and the emotional there is a link. Spirituality is not just a belief in a teaching; it is a practice. And the practice always brings  relief, communication, transformation. Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in his or her life. Without a spiritual dimension in our life, we cannot deal with the difficulties that we encounter. We should have a spiritual practice, a Dharma life. We learn how to put the Dharma into practice. With that kind of practice, we can deal with the difficulties we encounter in our daily life.

Your spiritual practice can help you a lot in dealing with your emotions, helping you to listen, to embrace your own suffering, and to recognize and embrace the suffering of the other person. That is why these two forms of intimacy inter-are. You know how to deal with a strong emotion, like fear, anger, despair. Because you know how to do that, you can feel more peaceful within yourself. That spiritual practice helps you build a home within yourself, for your sake and for the sake of the other person. That is why emotional intimacy cannot be separated from spiritual intimacy. The three kinds of intimacy inter-are.

Reverence for the Body

Sexual activity without love is empty sex. It is prevalent in our society and is causing a lot of suffering for our young people. If you are schoolteachers, if you are parents, you should help your children and your students to avoid empty sex. Empty sex is bringing a lot of damage to their minds and their bodies. Damage will emerge later on in the forms of depression, mental disorders, suicide. Many young people don’t see the connection between empty sex and these physical and mental disorders in themselves.

What happens in the body will have an effect on the mind and vice versa. Mind relies on the body to manifest and body relies on mind to be alive, to be possible. When you love someone, you have to respect not only her mind but also her body. You respect your own body, and you respect his body. True love should have the nature of reverence, respect. In the Asian tradition you have to treat your spouse with respect, like a guest. And in order to respect her, you have to respect yourself first. Reverence should be the nature of our love.

In my country, parents are proud to introduce their child to a guest. The guest will usually ask, “Do you love your father, your mother?” The child says, “Yes! I love my father, I love my mother.” The next question is: “Where do you put your love?” The child has been instructed to answer: “My love, I put it on my head.” Not “in my heart,” but “on my head.” When a monk is about to put on his sanghati, the saffron robe, for a ceremony, he’s holding his sanghati with reverence, the same as when handling a scripture. If you approach the monk and you bow to him, and if he does not find any decent place to put his sanghati, he will put it on his head because this is a noble place; it is like the altar. That is why in Vietnamese good manners, you should not touch the head of another person if you don’t know him or her well. This is one of the sacred places of the body, because the head is the altar to worship ancestors and the Buddha.

There are other parts of the body that are also sacred that you should not touch. It’s like inside the Imperial City, there is the Purple City* where the family of the king lives. And you are not supposed to go in that area. If you do, they will arrest you and cut off your head. In a person’s body there are areas that are forbidden to touch. And if you don’t show respect, if you touch that part of the body, you are penetrating the Purple City. When a child is sexually abused, she suffers, he suffers very deeply. Someone has violated her Purple City and she did not have the ability to protect herself. There are children who have been abused at the age of eight, nine, ten, and they suffer very deeply. They blame their parents for not having protected them, and their relationship with their parents becomes difficult. Then their relationship with their friends and their future lovers will also be very difficult. The wounds are always there.

Sexual abuse of children is overwhelming. It is said that in the U.S. from five to fifteen percent of young boys are abused sexually and from fifteen to thirty-five percent of little girls are abused sexually. That’s a lot. And when a child is abused like that, she or he will suffer all her life from many things, because her body hasn’t been respected.

In school, and in the family, we need to teach them to respect themselves, to respect their own body, and to respect the body of the other person. If you are religious leaders, if you are politicians, if you are parents or teachers, if you are educators, please think about it. We can learn from the teaching of the Buddha to organize our life in the family, in the school, in society in such a way that we can be protected and our child will be always protected.

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

We said earlier that sensual pleasure, sexual desire, is not love, but our society is organized in such a way that sensual pleasure becomes the most important thing. To sell their products, corporations create advertisements that water the seeds of craving in you. They want you to consume so that you will develop a craving for sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. What we need is mutual understanding, trust, love, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy. But we don’t have the opportunity to meet that kind of deep need in us.

There are women’s fashion magazines that tell us that in order to succeed, you have to look a certain way, and use a certain product. Many young people in our society want to have cosmetic surgery in order to meet that standard of beauty. They suffer very much, because they cannot accept their bodies. When you do not accept your body as it is, you are not your true home. Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. Your body is a kind of flower, and flowers differ from one another. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. If you can accept your body, then you have a chance to see your body as home. If you don’t accept your body, you cannot have a home. If you cannot accept your mind, you cannot be a home to yourself. And there are many young people who do not accept their body, who do not accept who they are; they want to be someone else. We have to tell young people they are already beautiful as they are; they don’t have to be another person.

Thay has a calligraphy: “Be beautiful; be yourself.” That is a very important practice. You have to accept yourself as you are. And when you practice building a home in yourself, you’ll become more and more beautiful. You have peace, you have warmth, you have joy. You feel wonderful within yourself. And people will recognize the beauty of your flower.

Mindfulness is the kind of energy that can help you to go home to yourself, to be in the here and the now, so that you know what to do and what not to do, in order to preserve yourself, in order to build your true home, in order to transform your own afflictions, and to be a home for other people. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete way of practicing mindfulness. In the Buddhist tradition, holiness is made of mindfulness. And mindfulness brings within itself the energy of concentration and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight make you holy.

Holiness does not exist only with celibacy. There are those who are celibate but who are not holy, because they don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. There are those who live a conjugal life, but if they have mindfulness and concentration and insight, they have the element of holiness in them. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise it will be very  destructive. A sutra describes the moment when Queen Mahamaya was pregnant with the Buddha. Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant whose trunk was holding a lotus flower. The elephant touched her with the lotus flower and entered into her very, very softly, and she was pregnant with Siddhartha. That is the way they describe a sexual relationship, in the palace before Siddhartha was conceived: gentleness, beauty. Sexual intimacy should not occur before there is communion, understanding, sharing on the emotional and spiritual level. And then the physical, sexual intimacy can also become holy.

To practice Buddhism as a monk is always easier than to practice as a layperson. There is a Vietnamese saying: to practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a layperson is much more difficult. So to refrain from all sexual activities is much easier than to have a sexual relationship. To have a sexual relationship in the context of mutual understanding and love, you need a lot of practice. Otherwise you create suffering for him, for you, for her.

There is a woman doctor in Switzerland who came to practice in Plum Village. She had suffered several times because of relationships. Since she was young, every time she was asked to have a sexual relationship with a man, she felt she had to say yes even if she did not feel ready, because she was afraid. Many teenagers in our time feel that way. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, they don’t feel ready for it, but they do not dare to say no, because they are afraid to be looked upon as weird, as abnormal. They don’t want to be rejected; they want to be accepted. That is a psychological fact parents and teachers have to be aware of. We have to tell the young people that they can learn to say no when they are not ready, when they are afraid. Otherwise they will destroy their body and their mind. Please listen to the young people, be compassionate, help them. We have to help them find skillful ways to say no.

When she came to Plum Village, the woman from Switzerland learned skillful ways to say no. In her last relationship, she was able to say no. She said, “I need you, my beloved. We need to understand each other. I need your presence. I need someone to help me when I have difficulties, to understand me.” They spent one year and a half together without having a sexual relationship. And when we went to her country for a Dharma talk, she proudly introduced her husband to us. Their relationship was wonderful, very successful, because she was able to say no until she was ready, and together they could build the kind of relationship that is lasting.

* In China and Vietnam, the Imperial City contained an enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City.

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Orange, Maroon, and Brown

Please Call Me by My True Colors

By Brother Chan Phap Tu

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My precious master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Please call me by my true names.” This is a very interesting saying. When I look into myself, sometimes I don’t know which name is my true name! Currently my name is Brother Chan Phap Tu, which means “True Dharma Son.” Sometimes the brothers and sisters in Plum Village like to call me “Dharma Death” because “Tu” has that other meaning, “death.”

My other true name is Tenzin Donpal, a Tibetan name. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave me this name when I received novice ordination in Dharamsala, India, in 2008. Another one of my true names is Nyanabhadra, which was given to me by my first ordination master, Venerable Dharmavimala, in Indonesia in 2007. My master’s lineage is from both the Myanmar Theravada tradition and the Mahayana tradition from Guang Hua Monastery in Putian, Province of Fujian, People’s Republic of China.

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In Touch with Islam

I grew up on a small island near Sumatra, Indonesia. My ancestors came from Fujian Province in mainland China, so my blood is Chinese and my passport is Indonesian. I’m the seventh of eight children. Both of my parents passed away when I was four years old, and my elder brothers and sisters took care of me. My eldest brother had to continue my father’s business, and my eldest sister had to take over my mother’s duties in the kitchen. I remember my sister crying day and night; she was young and wished to continue her studies, but she could not. After completing high school, I pursued my bachelor’s degree in West Java. I was so excited to study more and more in order to repay my family’s kindness. I earned a diploma in Information Technology and a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science.

In Indonesia, the majority of people are Muslim. Naturally, growing up there, I had a lot of opportunities to be in touch with Islam. Even now I appreciate Islamic teachings so much. For me, the five prayer times that are part of every day are a kind of meditation. Whenever I hear the call to prayer from the loudspeaker of the mosque, I stop and breathe deeply at least three times to come back to myself.

In Touch with Buddhism

When I was in fourth grade, I encountered the teachings of Theravada Buddhism for the first time. I was so inspired by the story of Siddhartha sitting beneath the bodhi tree! I liked to read it again and again. The image of Buddha under the bodhi tree has been beautiful to me ever since I was small.

During my university period, I spent a lot of time working as a volunteer in a Buddhist monastery, where I participated in many retreats, seminars, Dharma talks, and workshops. I liked to read about, learn, and practice several traditions, such as Theravada, Zen, and especially Vajrayana. I keep my heart open to accept that these are all the teachings of the Buddha. I believe the Buddha never claimed himself as Theravada or Mahayana or Zen or Vajrayana, and I believe that he is made up of all these elements.

Working as a volunteer in the monastery watered the seed of monasticism in me, but this seed was not strong enough at that time, and I continued working as a computer engineer for almost six more years.

Encountering the Masters

Dagpo Rinpoche recommended that I go to Dharamsala to study Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy. Thanks to him and his guidance, I had the opportunity to be ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama. During the ordination ceremony, His Holiness was telling us a few jokes and making us laugh, but at the same time, the jokes contained deep teachings. He said, “You are my student now, and you have to follow my instruction,” and he listed such instructions as keeping a calm demeanor, eating simple vegetarian foods, and wearing our robe properly wherever we went. Then he said, “Except in a very dangerous situation that threatens your life. For example, when I was fleeing from Tibet, I had to dress in such a way that nobody recognized me, so I could run out easily.”

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I spent almost three years in Dharamsala, the state of Himachal Pradesh, and the North of India. I was so happy to study and practice at one of the best Tibetan Buddhist institutes in Dharamsala. I received many different kinds of knowledge and practices. Whenever H.H. the Dalai Lama gave a teaching at Namgyal Monastery, the institute would declare a special holiday for us so we could attend the teaching.

In 2008, my first ordination master, Venerable Dharmavimala, asked me to go to Hanoi to attend the Engaged Buddhism retreat led by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. I was reluctant to go because I liked Tibetan Buddhism, but I revered my master so much that I flew from India to Hanoi just to attend the retreat. During the retreat, our group facilitator, Sister Dinh Nghiem, arranged for us to meet with Thay, and he invited all of us to Plum Village.

I returned to Dharamsala to continue my studies. When Thay and the Sangha visited India in 2008, I had an opportunity to meet with Sister Chan Khong, and she wrote me a letter to help me obtain a visa to attend a three-month winter retreat in Plum Village. After attending the retreat, I knew that “nothing is more important than brotherhood and sisterhood.” I learned that on the path of practice, I should not be a superhero because I would surely evaporate without a Sangha supporting me, especially a Sangha that lives in harmony and practices mindfulness.

Now I have been in Plum Village for more than two years. Time has passed by so quickly! Last year, Thay and the Sangha were in Indonesia and conducted a five-day retreat in West Java and a peace walk at the world heritage site of Borobudur in Central Java. One evening at the foot of Borobudur, Thay said to me, “Thay Phap Tu, you have to kneel down and make a great vow to renew Buddhism in Indonesia.” I burst into tears but tried to wipe my eyes and hide my tears. I will always remember this vow in my heart. I know that not only are Buddha and Jesus brothers, but Buddha and Prophet Muhammad are also brothers!

My True Colors

If you really want to call me, please call me by my true names. I have to answer, “Yes.” Even though I’m a Buddhist monk, I’m fully aware that I’m made of non-Buddhist-monk elements. Yes, I’m a monk from a Zen tradition, but when I look into myself I see a Muslim; I see myself wearing an orange robe as a Theravada monk; I see myself wearing a maroon robe as a Vajrayana monk; and I see myself wearing a brown robe as a monk from Plum Village. From orange to maroon to brown, I’m not afraid of what color will manifest next because I have found my true color in the here and in the now. I hope you do too!

Brother Chan Phap Tu, True Dharma Son, lives in Plum Village.

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Ancestral Insights

By Sister An Nghiem

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I sat here at this same lotus pond in New Hamlet just a few short years ago and wrote my letter of aspiration to become a nun. And here I sit again, this time writing a letter to Thay and my friends, a letter that shares what I will call an “ancestral insight.” During my time as a monastic here in Plum Village, many of my most treasured moments have been the realizations of these deep insights.

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In monastic life, form and conformity are an important part of our practice. One of the expressions of form is the mode of dress we assume. Luckily, we wear simple robes, and on occasion the nuns wear head scarves. I’ve always admired my dear sisters when I’ve seen them with the head scarves and robes as they are literally dressed head to toe in brown—the color of the earth and a reminder of our link to those who work the land and live a simple life. Their beautiful round faces glow with joyful smiles beneath heads wrapped in the earthen color.

Yet, when I looked in the mirror and saw myself with the same scarf, I didn’t see—I couldn’t see—the same beauty. In fact, what I saw was not beautiful at all. It was disconcerting, to say the least; I felt I looked funny and out of place. Of course, I continued to wear my scarf despite this view, and thought, “Well, maybe I just have to get used to the way it looks.” But after more than a year, my view didn’t change, and I couldn’t get used to the way I looked in the head scarf. I began to look deeply and ask, “Why do my sisters look so nice, but I don’t?” I tried tying it on in various ways in hopes of improving the look of it, but this didn’t seem to help either.

So I continued to ask this question, sitting and walking with it. And one day, when I looked in the mirror, a stunning answer came. I didn’t see myself; I saw Aunt Jemima! Aunt Jemima, just like on the maple syrup bottles and the pancake boxes of yore—that infamous trademark depicting a stereotypical African-American woman with her head wrapped in that bandana, smiling, with wide bright eyes. And the memories came flooding back, memories of days from my youth and growing up in the south, in Washington, DC. We were taught to have disdain for this cultural icon, and if we dared to wear a scarf like this as young girls, we were ridiculed and called “Aunt Jemima” in the most condescending way.*

We didn’t want to have anything to do with Aunt Jemima, least of all look like her! When I was a very young girl in the late ’60s and ’70s, there were clearly defined (though unspoken) ideas of what a young African-American girl should look like, and it definitely was not Aunt Jemima. We were somehow taught in silent ways that this important link to our history of slavery, racism, and discrimination in America was to be shunned. The mockery that was perceived when we were labeled or looked upon as icons such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Stepin Fetchit, Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben’s rice, Rastus of Cream of Wheat, and others, only brought upon us shame and confusion.

As a young girl, I could only see the shame and “ugliness” of these icons. It is only with hindsight, the insight of mindfulness, and the daily practice that I was able to see the confusion, pain, and false sense of security which manifested as a result of this particular view. I realized in an instant, with that image of Aunt Jemima reflected back at me in the mirror, that we held what I know now to be a wrong view. Any view that causes us to see ourselves as separate is a wrong view. I realized that as a child, I had shame and fear about something I didn’t quite understand. Isn’t it interesting how our cultural icons affect us, without us ever really knowing it?

And in this wonderful instant of insight I embraced my Aunt Jemima: the Aunt Jemima in me and that is me. I exhaled, felt deep release, calm, stillness … and beauty. How could I have seen her as anything other than myself? Shunning Aunt Jemima was like shunning myself—no wonder I felt disconcerted and disconnected.

Today, I don’t deny the cavernous pain and suffering that these images and what they represent evoke in all of us, but I have learned the value of embracing them and the pain and suffering that lies in my very own DNA. I am embracing, accepting, and gradually transforming these for myself, my parents, my greatgreat-great-great-great grandma Mary who was a “house” slave, and my grandmother, Grammy Nanny, who worked as a domestic in an antebellum mansion in Millwood, Virginia, until very near her death at eighty-nine years of age just over twenty years ago. She cooked, cleaned, managed the household and raised two boys, who wept like babies at the funeral of their beloved Nana. For all of us and all of you, I share and embrace these memories and insights toward transformation and healing.

Thank you Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit, and all the others. Thank you all for being there.Your stereotypes represent countless real people who, through perseverance, courage, and the sheer will to survive and live, did what was necessary so we—all of us, your descendants—could be free and here today. And with the art of mindful living, we can learn to embrace all parts of our ancestral history and ourselves, because in reality we are not separate but one, and part of the same continuum.

When I look in the mirror now, I sometimes still see my old friend Aunt Jemima. But with this powerful new insight, I know not to fear, not to hate, not to have shame. Instead I have awareness, smile, and say: “Hello Aunt Jemima! I know that because you are there, you are one of the conditions that made it favorable for me to be here today … wrapped in a beautiful brown robe, with a headscarf that frames a beautiful round brown face, glowing and smiling happily.”

*Wikipedia says it succinctly: “The term ‘Aunt Jemima’ is sometimes used colloquially as a female version of the derogatory label ‘Uncle Tom’. In this context, the slang term ‘Aunt Jemima’ falls within the ‘Mammy archetype’, and refers to a friendly black woman who is perceived as obsequiously servile or acting in, or protective of, the interests of whites.” [The term was used especially during the time of slavery and the “Jim Crow” era.]

Sister An Nghiem (Sister Peace) was born and raised in Washington, DC, arrived in Plum Village in June 2006, and ordained in September 2008. She currently lives in Plum Village. Her interests include reading, organizing retreats, and traveling with the Sangha to share the Dharma and “bring it on home” to where the rubber meets the road.

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Small Is Beautiful

Old Path Sangha Turns Ten!

By Valerie Brown

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“Building a Sangha is very healing for the world.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

On a rainy, cloudy Saturday afternoon in October 2009, friends of Old Path Sangha (OPS) gathered for a Day of Mindfulness and to reflect on a milestone: the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Sangha in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The theme of our anniversary celebration was “Healing the World, One Sangha at a Time.”

Old Path Sangha began as Old Path Zendo, which was founded by dedicated Order of Interbeing (OI) members Judith and Philip Toy. The Toys followed the traditions of Thich Nhat Hanh and also had a strong and elegant sitting practice in the Rinzai tradition. I loved chanting the Heart Sutra in old-fashioned Japanese, a practice that has continued at OPS even to this day.

When the Toys decided to retire in North Carolina to be closer to their family, I vowed to keep weekly meditation practices going at the zendo. Without hesitation, I moved out of my home in a nearby town in western New Jersey and moved into the zendo, located in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse on sixty acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The next year was spent hauling wood from the woodshed to the living room to keep a fire going when the Sangha came for sitting practice, clearing cobwebs, dusting, scrubbing floors, and preparing snacks—all to make whoever showed up feel at home. It was simultaneously exhausting and gratifying.

During that year, I received a deep and profound lesson about “protecting the Sangha.” I learned to look deeply at, and to overcome, my resistance to being committed to the Sangha. I realized that commitment—staying with the good and the bad and accepting the way things are—was one of my biggest issues. I felt torn by the competing obligations of home, work, family, school, and the Sangha. In learning to be there for the Sangha, I learned how to be there for myself and others. I learned the joy of giving, and I also learned the necessity of sometimes saying “no,” knowing that preserving my energy was an act of self-love. Initially, I found this hard to do; my needs for space and rest seemed at odds with the Sangha’s survival. I realized, though, that I could be a better Sangha member and a healing force in the Sangha by respecting my limits and not judging myself; that self-love, at times the hardest thing, is the practice of love.

After a year of juggling graduate school, family obligations, and a full-time job as a lawyer-lobbyist, I moved out of the old stone farmhouse and back into my home in western New Jersey.

Finding Home 

Once I moved from the zendo, it was time for our group to transform. We took the name Old Path Sangha and began to look for a home. We found our new home in tiny St. Philip’s Episcopal Chapel, located next to a beaver pond and wetlands in the small artists’ community of New Hope. The chapel hosts an eclectic mix of groups, including the Beaver Pond Poets, AA, a Bible study group, and many others. Our relationship with St. Philip’s and the current vicar, Rev. Peter Pearson, is a living example of its motto, “Radical Welcome.” Once planted at St. Philip’s, our Sangha, a tiny seed of hope, slowly began to grow.

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We come to the Sangha with our very busy schedules, family obligations, and full-time careers. Despite the ups and downs we have faced over the years—divorce, career changes, sickness, the deaths of parents and other family members, and the general stuff of life—we hold fast to the belief in the healing power of a community united by love. We recognize that we support the Sangha and that the Sangha supports us. We cherish the teachings, knowing that the fruit of the teachings is an open heart and mind.

We have relied on the practice of Beginning Anew to resolve small and large conflicts that threatened to tear the Sangha apart, promoting understanding, the root of love. We have studied the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to develop our understanding of and compassion toward ourselves and others. At each Sangha sitting, we share Thay’s inspirational words from his many books, and find this especially helpful when one or more of us faces life challenges. As a Sangha, we have attended five-day, weekend, and day-long retreats, building community and togetherness. We have shared many, many Sangha potluck gatherings to strengthen our bonds of friendship.

Although we remain small, we have nurtured connections with area Sanghas, hosting days of mindfulness throughout the Delaware Valley. We are part of an interfaith community in Bucks County and have participated in interfaith events with other religious organizations. Some of our members have realized their aspirations to serve the wider Sangha by becoming OI members. The work of building the Sangha garden, much like cultivating a vegetable and flower garden, has been slow and steady, attending to the very foundations of the Sangha: understanding and compassion.

Over and over, we have agreed to recommit ourselves to the Sangha, to come together to practice understanding, peace, and compassion, not just in our weekly sessions, but in our jobs, with our families, and with others. Over and over as a Sangha, we have recommitted ourselves to live our daily life in mindfulness. That tiny seed has grown into a healthy plant with deep roots and vibrant green leaves that has sustained Sangha members, visitors, the New Hope community, and area Sanghas. We have transmitted positive seeds of our practice to all we come in contact with, friends and strangers alike.

The Buddha of the Twenty-First Century 

At our tenth anniversary celebration, Dharma Teacher David Dimmack remarked that a Sangha is “revolutionary.” OPS has indeed brought about a revolution in the way our Sangha members act, speak, and think.

OPS, like any family, has been through many changes. People have come and gone. There were times I thought our small, newly formed group would not survive. There were times when the Sangha felt too tiny to survive. I worried that my energy level and the energy of other members were not up to the task of sustaining a Sangha. I worried that the many competing obligations of family and work would overwhelm our desire to practice in community. Settling in the tiny artists’ village of New Hope, the Sangha seemed unlikely to find others interested in practice.

In coming to accept the smallness and fragility of the Sangha, I have come to understand those parts of myself that are similarly small and fragile. The effort of sustaining a small, fledgling community of practice has allowed me to look directly at my fears, my aspirations, and larger societal messages that say “bigger is better.” In tending OPS, a tiny Sangha in a tiny chapel in a tiny artists’ community, I have been nurtured in very big ways by the support of the Sangha.

Thay has said that the Buddha of the twenty-first century may manifest as Sangha. Our Sangha, a tiny yet dedicated core group of members, comes together to practice mindfulness as a community of love, peace, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Building a Sangha takes time. Ten years is just the beginning for Old Path Sangha. It is a lotus flower to our community and to the world.

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Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in Philadelphia.

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Discovering the Roots of Buddhism in Vietnam

A Journey of Healing, Hope, and Coming Home

By Anne Woods

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We walked slowly, silently, mindfully in the moist morning heat, following the dirt path through the ancient gate to the sisters’ hall. Bowing to the Buddha, we found our relaxed and upright position on the brown cushions, grateful for the cool touch of the ceramic tiles beneath our feet and the light breeze offered by an occasional electric fan. We sat quietly, side by side with the sisters, as waves of powerful emotions washed through us. The video recorder clicked on…and there was Thay, his familiar voice saying, “You have arrived. You are home.”

Practicing with the brothers and sisters at our root temple, Tu Hieu, we enjoyed this deeply nourishing Day of Mindfulness on day six of an incredible twelve-day journey through Vietnam. On our first day, we had gathered together in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon to share our aspirations and apprehensions before venturing uncertainly into the Saigon traffic to pay tribute at the monument to Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself in 1963 to call the world’s attention to the persecution of Buddhists under the Diem regime. This powerful and moving experience was just the first of many as we traveled together from southern Vietnam northward.

Twenty-one of us in all, including our beloved Dharma teachers Chu Chan Huy and Trish Thompson (Chan An Dinh, True Concentration on Peace), and our gracious and tireless guide Phuong, became the White Cloud Sangha. Even as we enjoyed morning sitting, exercise in the parks and Dharma sharing, we were skillfully guided through temples and pagodas, old and new, receiving both formal and informal teachings from Chan Huy on the temples’ connection to our lineage and their role in our traditions. Through Chan Huy’s gentle humor, insight, and skillful translations, the thread of our lineage tracing back through the centuries became real, tangible, and a part of us.

Aware that our tradition embraces both the teachings of Master Lin Chi (“nowhere to go, nothing to do”) and the practice of engaged Buddhism, Trish facilitated visits to centers where amazing work of healing and transformation is underway. We laughed and danced with the young clients at DAVA (the Danang Association of Victims of Agent Orange). We savored a lunch of fresh mushrooms grown and picked that morning by women at Mushrooms with a Mission, a program that works with disabled survivors of land mine accidents, with female-headed households, and with ethnic groups in Quang Tri province. We rolled up our pant legs in solidarity with new friends at the Mine Action Visitor Center as part of the “Lend Your Leg” campaign. We were inspired by the hard and loving work of so many to bring a brighter and more peaceful future to this beautiful country that suffered foreign occupation, oppressive rule, and war for so long.

Along the way, we experienced the deep peace of Tu Hieu, the exhilaration of reaching the summit of Yen Tu, the joy of singing the Heart Sutra at Truc Lam Tri Duc pagoda, the awe of standing in temples dating back to the early centuries of the last millennium, and so much more; but most of all, we experienced the love and support of one another, forever the White Cloud Sangha.

Anne Woods, True Collective Spring, practices with Quiet Harbor Sangha in Rye, New York, and with the brothers and sisters at Blue Cliff Monastery. She is a yoga and martial arts instructor and especially enjoys teaching karate to the brothers and sisters at Blue Cliff. 

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The True Musician

An Interview with Sister Trai Nghiem

By Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai

 

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Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai interviewed Sister Trai Nghiem at Plum Village in the spring of 2011.

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Question: Were you always a Buddhist, you and your family?

Sister Trai Nghiem: By birth, yes. But not practicing. In Japan, we call it “funeral Buddhism.” Most people go to the temple for the first time when someone in their family dies, for a funeral.

I was twenty-eight when my mom died from cancer. I had contemplated death and impermanence before, but it’s completely different when somebody close to you is actually dying. The comfortable world that I was used to was falling apart. It was really her death that brought me to Buddhism.

Q: As a professional violinist, how has your music motivated you?

TN: I wanted to create something beautiful and to see how far I could reach as a violinist in the world of classical music. I wanted to be part of a world-class orchestra and I enjoyed the years I traveled and performed as a member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It was truly a beautiful experience.

Q: Did you have doubts about how far music could take you?

TN: When I was in college, I came across the following quote by Plato: “It is not he who produces a beautiful harmony in playing the lyre or other instruments whom one should consider as the true musician, but he who knows how to make of his own life a perfect harmony in establishing an accord between his feelings, his words, and his acts.” These words shook me violently, as I knew in my heart that I was not the true musician that I wanted to be. Even though I was enjoying a successful career and a lifestyle I had dreamed of, I was feeling stuck. The only way out was to completely let that go. When I decided to ordain as a nun, and was cleaning up my apartment, I found Plato’s quote again. This time his words brought me a smile. I still keep that piece of paper with me.

Q: What brought you to Plum Village?

TN: When I was younger, I saw beauty in fighting and going against the flow. But when my mom died, I ran out of energy to fight, and I decided to just let myself be carried in the flow of life and see what would happen. At that time, Thay’s books came into my life and they brought me a lot of comfort. I came to Plum Village for the first time in the winter of 2007 and I immediately felt at home.

Q: Did it feel like a paradise?

TN: To be honest, I couldn’t stand the practice songs, like “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” at first. And when I heard the monks and nuns chanting, it was so out of tune! But there was something else. There was this sweetness and warmth.

Before Plum Village I went to some zazen meditation sessions and yoga retreats. But it seemed that we were all caught up in ourselves, in our own pursuit of whatever we were trying to attain. And at Plum Village it was just a bunch of people living simply, being kind to each other, just like the way human beings are supposed to be. I fell in love with it.

mb58-TheTrue3Q: With the songs, too?

TN: Not immediately… but then I realized that this was my practice and saw that I needed to practice letting go of my judgmental, analytical, and cynical mind in order to just enjoy the present moment. Today I realize that the practice songs are one of the most clever methods of practice in our tradition. The moment I find myself in a foul mood, a song like “Happiness” comes to my rescue. Because we sing the songs every day, they are embedded in our store consciousness and become available whenever we are carried away in forgetfulness. Knowing their powerful “medicinal” effect, now I sing songs wholeheartedly with the gestures and everything.

Q: What attracted you to becoming a nun?

TN: I was always interested in some kind of spiritual life. But I could not imagine letting go of this wonderful life as a professional musician. I also didn’t want to disappoint people around me. I had a consultation with a sister on my first visit to Plum Village and she said, “You don’t need to think about it now, because when the moment comes, you will know.”

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Three months later, there was a retreat in Rome, and luckily I happened to be working in Italy so I went. On the last day of the retreat I was taking a train back to my work, and got a phone call from Japan, saying my father was very ill and was hospitalized. So I cancelled my work and went back to Japan to be with my father.

That summer, my father passed away. I had a lot to take care of around his death as well as with my work. I felt like I was running and running and could not stop. I knew that I could not go on like this for too long without damaging myself completely. I decided to be compassionate with myself and signed up for the Winter Retreat. I told myself, I don’t need to do anything, just let myself rest. Every night I’d sit in the Buddha Hall for a long time, alone. I wanted quietness. No music, no talking. After about a month of living with the sisters in New Hamlet, I knew this was it. The question, “Do I want to quit my job and become a nun?” was no longer there because I was already on the path even though my head was not yet shaved.

Q: What happened to your relationship to your music when you became an aspirant?

TN: One night I was sitting and I understood for the first time what it means to have “nowhere to go, nothing to do.” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m actually letting go of all the things that used to mean so much to me.” I had had no desire to listen to music since I arrived at Plum Village, but suddenly I had a desire to listen to a Brahms symphony. In my bed, I turned on the iPod and tears kept flowing. I realized, this is the world I was living in, and I have never appreciated it the way I could have. This incredible world of music had been with me since I was five. And now I was listening to the music and it touched me in a completely different way. I knew that the music was in me, but at the same time I was already standing outside of that world I was so used to. I knew there was no going back. I realized how lucky I had been my whole life to have music to take refuge in and to guide me.

Q: Do you see a similarity between being a musician and a monastic?

TN: Very much so. The Sangha is like an orchestra. Each member has a unique role and is irreplaceable. There is a percussionist who may play only one note in the entire symphony, while the violinists are playing the whole time without any rest. We’d never think of complaining that it’s not fair because that’s what makes the music so beautiful. To live happily in the Sangha, we also have to accept that each person has his or her own role. Some work more hours than others, but that’s just how it is. We suffer when we get caught in the complex of equality. When the orchestra is in harmony, we hear the sound of the orchestra as a whole, as one big instrument. If you heard the individual sound of each violinist in the orchestra, it wouldn’t be pleasant. We melt our individual sounds into the collective sound, so that there is no longer the distinction between “my sound” and “others’ sounds.”

One time, Sir Colin Davis, a wonderful English conductor, said during a rehearsal, when things weren’t quite jelling together: “Whoever tries to prove himself right is a terrorist!” Miraculously, we played in perfect harmony after this proclamation. Each member of an orchestra is an artist in his or her own right, yet when we try to convince others how it should be done, it never works. This teaching can very well be applied to Sangha life. In order not to create suffering for myself or others, I need to monitor my thoughts constantly, to see if I am caught in my own ideas.

If Sangha is an orchestra, Thay is a conductor. A skillful conductor never tries to control the musicians. He just lets the orchestra play. That’s exactly what Thay says to us all the time: “Di choi!” The literal translation is “go play!” It can also be translated as “go hang out and have fun.” Thay, just like a skillful conductor, trusts the Sangha, and based on that trust, he can bring out the best in each member of the Sangha. A layperson asked me once why Thay travels with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour. I said, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra. We inter-are.”

When the whole Sangha is sitting together in the morning, it’s like an orchestra tuning up before a concert. I never tried to play the violin without tuning. Why should it be different with my body and mind? If I start out a day by tuning myself with the Sangha, the whole day is so much more harmonious and pleasant.

Q: You’ve lived and worked in many countries, and it seems like you led a very independent lifestyle, choosing your own schedule. The Sangha has a more mannered and restrained lifestyle. How does that feel?

TN: I used to have an idea about what it meant to be a monastic. I told my colleagues that I was quitting this traveling lifestyle and going into a quiet monastery in France, and for the first two years I wouldn’t go anywhere. And suddenly Thay says, okay, you’re going on tour. And I thought, this is not very different from what I was doing before. That’s what makes Thay a Zen master, because as soon as you get caught in your idea of how things should be, he will give you the Zen ax with a smile. I was caught in my idea of what monastic life as a novice was, a quiet life, out in the countryside, tending the vegetable garden.

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Actually, the practice doesn’t depend on outer form at all. It’s not what you do but how you do it. If I choose to be fully mindful when traveling and going out on retreats, I can make progress on the path. If there is no mindfulness, it’s a waste of time to be sitting, walking slowly, and studying sutras, even in a monastery. No matter what I do, whether cooking, cleaning, studying, or traveling, I remind myself to be mindful and enjoy doing it.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a novice?

TN: It’s like being a protected baby in a family. There are so many older brothers and sisters who can teach and guide me in different ways. I enjoy having the space to make mistakes. I have the habit energy of wanting to achieve something, so I’m practicing to let go of my idea of what it means to be a “good nun.” There’s a kind of collective idea of what a good monastic is, just as there is a collective agreement of what a good musician is. If I try to become “a good nun,” I will get stuck in the same place where I got stuck as a musician.

Since I was small, everything I did, I did quite well. So I still have the feeling that whatever I do, I should be able to do well. Even though I am aware of this habit energy and am carefully monitoring it by recognizing the motivation for my actions, it’s still there on a deeper level and is the cause of some basic underlying stress.

Q: Is pride an issue for you? Does it manifest sometimes as feeling superior towards others in the community?

TN: It manifests with self-disgust. It’s probably one of the most shameful things to admit. But a superiority complex is nothing more than another face of an inferiority complex. They are like two sides of one coin. Whenever I notice the complex of inferiority manifesting, I tell myself, “You ARE enough.”

I am happy to acknowledge that in the fifteen months since I became a nun, I’ve reduced my level of judgment and criticism towards myself and other people greatly. Having negative thoughts like judgments is a great waste of precious energy. Just as I take care not to waste natural resources like water and food, I also try to conserve my own energy so it can be used for something more beneficial. As a result, I feel much more relaxed than before and many people have shared with me that they notice the difference. Thanks to the Sangha, one thing I have learned so far in my novice life is this: being kind is so much more important than being good at something.

Q: Do you have any aspirations?

TN: To be happy. I didn’t always have a good relationship with my parents, but after they passed away I realized how much unconditional love they gave me. Whatever they did, I feel the only thing they wanted was for me to be happy. But because I was not able to recognize it until they were gone in their physical form, I had this regret; I wanted to make them happier, to do something for them. Now I know the way to pay respect to my parents is to just be happy. I’m practicing with and for my parents.

After their death, I’m so much more in contact with them. This sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like they’re guiding me in every moment. I really feel their presence a lot more than I used to. If I don’t know what to do, I take refuge in my parents and let them do things. If I listen deeply, they always guide me to the right direction. I really feel that my parents brought me to this point in my life right now. And not only my parents, but all my ancestors—blood, land, and spiritual ancestors. And that includes all the wonderful musicians I have encountered in my life, like Bach and Mozart.

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There Is a Purpose

By Melissa Addison-Webster

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“The love of the Buddha is possible.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Youth Retreat at Plum Village, 2010

Even before my spinal cord injury, I had a history of driving irresponsibly. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I put my parents’ car in the ditch twice and had my license suspended for twenty-four hours for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was young and arrogant and thought I was invincible.

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On June 9, 2000, my friend Lorena and I drove to a nearby town to buy groceries. We went out for lunch and drank some beer. Back at Lorena’s place, we smoked pot, and I invited her to my place for dinner. Before heading home, I drove to the liquor store and bought Old Milwaukee, just like my dad always drank. It was a rainy spring day. I turned onto a back road. The rear wheels of my truck skidded on the loose gravel, but I drove on. Then my mind went blank, and I have no memory of what happened next.

When I regained consciousness, I was in an emergency room. The first thing I asked was if my boyfriend Sam was there. He was. Then I asked the doctor, “What is my diagnosis?” He stated frankly, “You’ve broken your neck and you’ll never walk again.” I wept uncontrollably. Sam stood over me, unable to even hold my hand because of my critical condition.

My friend Lorena had saved my life. She was driving ahead of me, and when she noticed that I was no longer following her, she turned around to find out what had happened. She found my truck in the ditch, slammed up against a driveway, and me trapped inside with my leg caught in the steering wheel. I had smashed the driver’s side window with my head and pushed out the frame with my neck. I yelled, “I’m going to go, I’m going to die!” I felt I was about to leave my body and I was terrified. Lorena physically held my energy in my body and reassured me I would survive. The fire department arrived and extricated me from the truck, and I was airlifted to a hospital in Edmonton. I was twenty-two years old.

Learning to Survive

I had sustained a major burst fracture at the seventh cervical vertebra (C7), and the medical team decided the C7 needed to be fused to the neighboring vertebra to stabilize it. The only neurosurgeon qualified to perform the surgery was away at a conference, so I had to wait twelve days before undergoing surgery. I felt trapped in a horrible dream that wouldn’t end. What had I done to myself? Why had I not learned my lesson about impaired driving? How was I going to survive?

A wonderful nurse named Irena helped me get through those weeks in the hospital. She was a Buddhist, and she kept telling me, “Change is constant.” I had been intrigued by Buddhism since learning about it in my eleventh grade religion class, so I gladly accepted her prayer beads and wisdom. She also wrote out the mantra “Om mani padme hum” for me. She told me that by chanting this mantra, I was invoking the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Irena was the first of many people whose gifts helped me begin to wade through my suffering.

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After close to a month in acute care, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where I spent four months learning how to feed and dress myself, how to catheterize myself, and how to slide my body from my wheelchair to my bed and back again. My mental outlook on life was extremely bleak, and I started taking antidepressants to get through the darkness.

One day I was sitting alone in the physiotherapy room asking myself, “What is all this about? How can I be experiencing so much loss?” I heard a gentle, quiet voice telling me, “There is a purpose. There is a purpose.” I didn’t mention this experience to anyone because I was already having enough problems coping with reality.

My relationship with Sam was getting worse, so I made the difficult decision to leave him. I felt so much shame and self-blame for how everything had turned out. I told people I was leaving to go to university in Ontario, and I moved in with my parents.

Healing Trauma

Going to university was good for my mind, and it spurred me to become an activist. I began protesting for proper accessible parking signage at the university. The protests made the local papers, and soon after that, the university put up some signs. I was so happy! I began to see how nonviolent forms of direct action could create social change. At the same time I began organizing with antipoverty groups in the city.

As I worked for external social change, I also began exploring internal personal transformation. I started sessions with an energy worker named Lilli Swanson, who practices Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, which helps to heal past trauma, and she encouraged me to join her meditation group. Although my mind raced constantly in the beginning, I began to notice and wonder about the peace I felt within my body. Every morning when I woke up, I lit a candle and sat for fifteen minutes, and slowly I began to learn how to calm my mind.

In 2006 I entered a graduate program in Disability Studies in Toronto. On October 11, I was rushing to a talk by Stephen Lewis, a Canadian diplomat and social justice activist. I quickly changed lanes on a one-way street, and another driver crashed into the front of my van. The driver’s side window was smashed, I was covered in glass, and it was raining. Fortunately I was near Lilli’s house, and she came to help me. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, went through medical tests, and relived much of the trauma of my earlier accident, except this time I had a talented healer to help me get through much of the suffering. I realized that I carried deep unresolved trauma from the first accident; in a strange way, the second accident created an opening to release some of that trauma.

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I tried to go back to graduate school but was feeling extremely anxious and unwell. Due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I was not able to sleep. Soon I was trapped in enormous fear and constant paranoia. At Christmas I decided to withdraw from the program, and I moved back in with my parents again. I needed to take time to heal and mourn my spinal cord injury.

A Purposeful Life

For some time, I had been longing to practice with Thich Nhat Hanh. I deeply revered his work as an activist and peacemaker. I had been given some of his books and had found them wise and accessible. In October 2007, I drove to a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery and received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which have become my roadmap for living a more purposeful life.

On the drive home, my moods were up and down. One moment I was overjoyed to have practiced with a teacher who worked so diligently for social justice and peace. The next minute I swung back to my old thinking patterns. I felt I could not love myself after I had received and ignored so many warnings about drinking and driving. Because of my recklessness, I had lost the use of 85% of my body. I hated myself.

I began practicing with True Peace Sangha in Toronto in 2009. The Sangha has supported my healing by being a place of refuge. I have been able to cultivate a stronger foundation of mindfulness by meditating with other people, and this has allowed me to handle my difficult emotions with more compassion. Whatever emotion I share, whether joy or sorrow or even despair, I always feel loved and held by the Sangha. With the help of a fellow Sangha member, I went to Plum Village for three weeks in 2010. This pilgrimage was a wondrous gift, and I returned to Canada with much less fear in my body and more joy in my heart.

I am learning forgiveness because I can feel it radiating from the hearts of Thay and the monastics. Thay says we cannot just have a willingness to forgive. We have to begin to see and understand the suffering within ourselves and other people. Only then is true forgiveness obtainable.

To nurture self-forgiveness, I have found guidance from Avalokiteshvara. Chanting to her and asking her to come into my heart, I have been able to cultivate more self-compassion. Through mindfulness I have learned to witness my inner narrative. For a long time, my very first thought every morning was that I had destroyed my life and didn’t deserve love. Through my meditation practice I have learned to calm these thoughts and work through my self-hatred. Meditation has increased my ability to be present. Cultivating happiness by dancing and going to the dog park is part of my practice. Making art and journaling also relieves a great amount of pain. Living according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and practicing Touching the Earth nurture my self-forgiveness, as well.

I deeply understand that suffering is purposeful. I had to give up the ability to walk to finally be able to look at my attachments, begin to find true love, and work toward the path of liberation. Even if I could change what happened to me, I wouldn’t, because I carried enormous sorrow within me and was unfulfilled in my existence. My injury has been a wonderful catalyst. Through my transition I have learned to be tremendously thankful for what I had previously taken for granted: mobility, living in a peaceful country, just being alive.

Walking Melissa, as well as inner child Melissa, is still within me, with her wholesome seeds of love, compassion, and joy. I am slowly learning that self-love comes through forgiveness and that I am worthy of love.

The biggest gift I give to myself is to deeply embrace and make friends with my grief. Although it may feel as though I have a vast ocean of sorrow to paddle across, I know mindfulness will keep me afloat and eventually carry me across to the shore.

mb63-ThereIs5Melissa Addison-Webster, Boundless Light of the Heart, practices with the True Peace Sangha in Toronto, and is a social worker, activist, and performance artist. Presently, she is completing her studies to become a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist, and enjoys spending time with her cat, Nina, and gardening.

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A Handful of Rice

The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation Fund 

By Elizabeth Hospodarsky 

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“Don’t worry if you feel you can only do one tiny good thing in one small corner of the cosmos. Just be a Buddha body in that one place.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh

From the time the Buddha began to teach, members of the fourfold Sangha have engaged in the practice of dana (giving) by sharing time, talent, and money to help spread the Dharma and meet the needs of the community. This tradition continues today. The practice of giving—cultivating the spirit of generosity—is one of the foundations of the Buddhist path. Thich Nhat Hanh and the monastic community inspire and guide laypeople to transform our suffering and the suffering in the world, and we express our gratitude by providing support to meet monastics’ basic needs, assist with their charitable work, and share the Buddha’s teachings.

Sister Chan Khong tells a story about when she lived in Vietnam during the war and worked tirelessly to feed the hungry. She would go from house to house, asking for just a handful of rice to help feed the children. When a head of household heard what she was doing, he would often offer her a small amount of money—much more than just the handful of rice she had asked for. She would kindly refuse, and ask each person in the household, even the cook, for a dollar. By the time she left the house, she would have ten dollars—much more than the amount that was originally offered!

Sister Chan Khong, Thay, and the monastic community still feed hungry children in Vietnam. They share the practice of mindfulness and compassion with thousands of people every year at practice centers all over the world. They transform lives.

A Spiritual Family

I often marvel at how fortunate I am to have experienced the transformative teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I am sure you feel fortunate, too. Twenty years ago, my heart was not filled with love and happiness, but with great despair. I even thought I might be better off dead. My family loved me, but they were not able to water my seeds of happiness and well-being. Fortunately, I was blessed to meet Thay through his books, and over time attended retreats, found my local Sangha, and joyfully joined my spiritual family. Thay’s loving kindness allowed me to transform my own suffering, misperceptions, and anger into joy, peacefulness, and compassion. And now, as a recent ordinee into the Order of Interbeing, I feel firmly planted in the fertile soil of the Sangha, where seeds of happiness are watered every day!

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The truth is that Thay and the Buddha saved my life. Like many of you, I hold profound gratitude for Thay, our monastic brothers and sisters, and the worldwide Sangha for providing this loving and compassionate community.

I am so happy to know that people in our community share my feeling of gratitude and have created sufficient conditions to ensure the continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and work around the world. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated monastic and lay volunteers working together to provide the material means to teach the practices of mindfulness, loving speech, and deep listening throughout the world.

TNH Continuation Fund

This past summer, throughout Thay’s North American tour, Sister Chan Khong, Brother Phap Dung, Brother Phap Hai, Sister Peace, Jeanie Seward-Magee, Denise Nguyen, Laura Hunter, Harvey McKinnon, and I happily shared this new fundraising effort with those who attended retreats, public talks, and days of mindfulness. We invited people to join the Continuation Fund by becoming monthly donors. The response was overwhelmingly positive. People expressed relief that the financial needs of the fourfold Sangha were being addressed, and joy in showing their gratitude and thanks to Thay.

Now we invite you, a core supporter and practitioner, to join us in the Continuation Fund by making a monthly gift. It’s easy to do, and it will benefit you and many others around the world.

Your dana supports:

Blue Cliff, Deer Park, and Magnolia Grove Monasteries. Many of us have experienced deep joy and peacefulness at one of these beautiful practice centers. The monastic brothers and sisters give us focused and insightful instruction in the Dharma, which we then put into practice as we endeavor to live mindfully in society. Your support will help supply the necessary resources to maintain the practice centers, make urgently needed improvements, and meet the growing demands of attendees.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching around the world. Every year, Thay and the fourfold community travel extensively to offer retreats and share the message of mindfulness and compassion with many different groups of people, including politicians, educators, environmentalists, business leaders, and children. Contact with new audiences helps grow our community and broaden exposure to mindfulness practice. Your kind gifts will allow this outreach to continue, and will create scholarship opportunities for people who would otherwise be unable to attend retreats.

Monks and nuns in Thailand and Vietnam. Many brothers and sisters are doing essential work while living in primitive conditions. Your support helps the monastics meet their own basic needs so that they can continue to help the poor and share the Dharma with Thai and Vietnamese people.

Online Dharma sharing and publications. Many people are not able to attend retreats and do not have access to a local Sangha. However, through Internet Dharma talks, podcasts, videos, books, and journals, millions of people are able to touch the Dharma and learn about mindfulness. If there is a way to communicate the Dharma, we are doing it.

A Joyful Act of Service

The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation is governed by a foundation board consisting of monastic and lay members. A committee of advisors assists the board by providing technical expertise and strategic thinking. The TNH Continuation and Legacy Foundation works under the guidance of the governing board of the Unified Buddhist Church. By working together mindfully with the goal of easing suffering in the world, everyone involved strives to fulfill the aspirations of our ancestral teachers to spread the Dharma with thoughtfulness and love.

In the coming months, a primary goal for the foundation board will be to assist individual practice communities in assessing needs for their physical and operational continuation, so that each one continues to be a favorable, appropriate place to live and practice. The board’s other primary goal will be to ensure that all organizational, technical, and regulatory needs are met, so that asking for and receiving gifts is a joyful and valuable act of service for all members of our Sangha.

I hope you will join me and many others by becoming a member of the Continuation Fund. We are interconnected and need to support each other. I hope that you will feel joy in knowing that your handful of rice, added to everyone else’s, is enough to bring peace and ease the suffering of innumerable beings long into the future. Your monthly gift—no matter how small or large—will help ensure the continuation of our monastic communities, our collective mindfulness practice, and the peace advocacy of Thay and the fourfold Sangha. Join us by returning the enclosed brochure (see page 24), or by signing up at www.plumvillage.org/ giving.html.

mb63-Handful3Elizabeth Hospodarsky, True Ocean of Attainment, humbly serves on the TNH Continuation and Legacy Foundation Board. She also works with environmental nonprofits to help protect animals, plants, and minerals in the U.S. and Canada. She lives with her husband and two children in Tucson, Arizona, and practices with Singing Bird Sangha.

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Applied Ethics

Education for Teachers

By Richard Brady

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“I haven’t felt this good about being a teacher in a long, long time.”
— Teacher from Belgium

“I gained the insight during the retreat that no one can make me happy except myself.”
— Teacher from Germany

“My insight from this retreat: I thought about the specialness of food. When I would eat a piece of bell pepper, I would normally think, ‘Ah, a piece of pepper, I already know that taste and form.’ But now it occurred to me that in fact, each bell pepper is a new, different one and each bell pepper is only eaten once, however much it might resemble the former and future peppers that I eat. The same of course is true for rain droplets or a smile of a person you know: each one is unique.”
— Teacher from Holland

This was some of the feedback from participants in the Applied Ethics Stage I course at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism last summer, when I was privileged to assist Sister Annabel and Sister Jewel in teaching. I had sent Sister Annabel a copy of my book, Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, to use as a resource for this pilot course, and then offered to help in person. Having read the description of the Stage I course, which can be found on the Plum Village website, I knew that taking care of the teacher was its focus. I was happy to receive the course schedule a few weeks beforehand from Sister Jewel, and to see that it was very similar to a weekly schedule for a Plum Village retreat: daily Dharma talks related to personal practice, a question and answer session, a lazy day, exercise and working meditation in the morning, total relaxation in the afternoon, and evening programs.

Twice, we focused on teaching children. We had the good fortune to attend one of Sister Jewel’s classes with local children, and we devoted one evening program to bringing mindfulness into the classroom. Other evening programs were Total Relaxation, the Five Touchings of the Earth, Beginning Anew, presentations on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and a tea meditation. The morning meditation with the monastic community included sutra reading, Touching the Earth meditations, and a Five Mindfulness Training transmission ceremony. We also practiced eating meditation, walking meditation, and afternoon meditation and sutra reading with the monastic community.

The experience of the twenty-five participants was deep and transformative. Held by the practice of the monastic Sangha, our group formed its own Sangha; we shared suffering and joy, wisdom and play. Participants took the teachings home inside of them to share with their students.

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Like the EIAB, Plum Village, Blue Cliff, and Deer Park will also offer courses or retreats for educators in the future. However the number of educators who will participate in these courses can only be a tiny percentage of all teachers. Besides size limitations, the monastic settings of these courses will be problematic for many teachers. Nevertheless, it was the monastic setting of the EIAB course that helped create the conditions for deep learning to take place. I wondered how Thay’s teachings would be able to reach a large number of students.

A Resource for All

In early November, Order of Interbeing member Rob Wall and I attended a symposium, Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative Teaching and Learning, at the Garrison Institute in New York State. Thanks to Meena Srinivasan, who submitted the proposal but was unable to attend, we had the honor of presenting a poster on Applied Ethics at a ninety-minute Marketplace of Ideas session. In this session, posters were presented by representatives of many groups offering mindfulness to youth. Creating our poster for this special opportunity, we sought a direction that would embody Thay’s teaching. We didn’t want Applied Ethics to be seen as one more approach competing with those already in existence.

We saw that just as Thay’s teachings have nourished many Buddhist teachers, Applied Ethics can nourish the many existing approaches that bring mindfulness to education. Courses like the one at the EIAB can be a resource for all leaders in the mindful- ness in education movement and their colleagues. They can deepen their practice of the teachings in a monastic setting, and translate them into language that will work for their students. The heading of our poster read:

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Applied Ethics
We are here for you

The poster displayed the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the EIAB course schedule, quotes from participants, a photo of the smiling members of the group, and a schedule of future events for educators in Plum Village and London with Thay.

Wearing our brown OI jackets, Rob and I conversed with the many interested folks constantly gathered around our poster. People told us that they’d read Thay’s books for years. Some had been with Thay at public lectures or retreats. Thirty people signed up to get more information on Applied Ethics. Most of these indicated an interest in attending courses or retreats at one of Thay’s monasteries and were enthusiastic about the possibility of events in the U.S. Nine purchased copies of Thay’s new book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children.

How wonderful it would be for leaders from all areas of the mindfulness in education movement to practice together at Blue Cliff, Deer Park, Plum Village, and the EIAB.

mb59-AppliedEthics3Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, received the Lamp Transmission in 2001 to work with young people. He lives in Putney, Vermont, where he practices with the Mountains and Rivers Mindfulness  Community.

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Dharma Talk: A Peaceful River

By Thich Nhat Hanh

New Hamlet, Plum Village
January 26, 2012

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Dear Sangha, today is the 26th of January, 2012. We are in the Full Moon Meditation Hall of New Hamlet.

Today’s gatha from the sutra we are studying says that all of us contain a stream, and we don’t have a separate self. The gatha is as follows: Living beings is the name of a continuous stream and all phenomena as the object of perception are only signs. Therefore there is no real change of birth into death and death into birth and no person who realizes nirvana. (1)

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There are two things this gatha is teaching us. First, we don’t have a separate ego, a separate self, and second, everything comes from our perceptions, everything is an object of our perception. There is no one who attains nirvana, because if there is no separate self, then who will do that? At first we think we have to choose: either we are in the ocean of death and birth, and then we suffer, or we are in nirvana so that we don’t have to suffer. But after that we have to go further in our understanding. We have to see that birth and death is nirvana. If we are deeply in touch with birth and death, then we are in touch with nirvana. These two things are not separate; because of that, there is nobody in the stream of birth and death, and there’s nobody to go to nirvana. So we don’t have to do anything. We don’t even have to practice.

I wrote a poem about a stream, a little stream that begins at the top of a mountain. When the rain comes, it becomes a river. Many small streams come together to form the river, and the river flows down the mountain. We are describing a very young river. We are like this young river. When we are young, we are excited and we want to go very fast. Youth is always like that. We always want to attain something quickly. We all go through that stage; some have already gone through it, some are doing it right now. We want to attain something, we want to finish something, we want to go somewhere.

There are some young monks who very much want to become venerable elders quickly, so they act very serene, just like an old venerable one; they act older than their age. And there are some old monks who just want to wear the monastic robe of the novice monks so that they can look young.

So the young river was dancing and singing as he ran down the mountain quickly. He was very enthusiastic, and of course on the way he saw other streams and they all mingled together. We can see clearly that one stream, one river does not stay separate; it merges with many different streams as it travels. And our stream of life is the same: every day we have so many inputs, entering us all the time. If what enters into us is nourishing, that is good. But if what comes in is not fresh, it can make the stream of life not very good. Listening to the Dharma talk this morning is a nourishing input and helps us grow. The talk can contain insight and compassion. If we can absorb all of those little rivers within the Dharma talk, then our river later on will be very clear.

But also we have outputs. As the river flows down the mountain, it both takes in and gives out. For example, the river has to share some of the water with the grass. When the river arrives at the plains, there is no steep slope, so the river slows down. This happens to us as we grow older. We’re not excited; we have more peace. We have the ability to see what happens in the present moment because we have slowed down. When the river flows to the field it becomes a more peaceful river, and it has become larger, like the Fragrant River in Hue, the Red River in North Vietnam, the Mekong River, the Amazon River, the Mississippi, the Ganges.

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The Cloud Is Impermanent

When the river slows down, it has time to reflect many colorful clouds. Clouds have many, many colors. Then the river starts to become attached to the clouds: “Oh, that cloud is so beautiful! Ah, that cloud is also beautiful!” And the river runs from one cloud to another cloud.

We, too, are a river; we’re a stream of water and we become attracted to that cloud, that image. We become attached to many exciting, colorful, and interesting things. But the nature of everything is impermanent, including the cloud. Now the cloud is here, but in the afternoon it will move on. As the clouds disappear, you run from one cloud to another cloud, trying to hold on. We, too, run after this or that project, after another beautiful woman, another handsome man. We feel some emptiness in our hearts and we are like a river running after a cloud. But the truth of the cloud is impermanence. Its nature is to disappear. We lose our breath running after this cloud, then another cloud, and then because we have that feeling of emptiness inside, we feel lonely.

Then one day the river is so sad, missing the clouds, and she has no desire to live. The sky is empty, there is no cloud to run after, nothing for us to run after. So the river wants to die. She wants to commit suicide, but the river cannot kill herself. It is impossible. A stream must continue; it cannot stop running.

And it is the same for us. We are a river of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We say we can kill ourselves, we can commit suicide. But we can never do this because we will just appear in another form. So we have to run in a way that the stream becomes larger and larger, more and more limpid, more and more beautiful, and go in the direction which makes life more beautiful. The river was so empty and so lost, but she has to come back to the river, back to herself.

Already Enlightened

For the first time the river listens to herself. When she listens at the edge of the river, and hears a little lapping of the waves, that is like the sobbing of the river. But looking deeply, suddenly she will see that, oh, this little wave on the side of the river is also the cloud. And I, the big river, am already a cloud. I have all the clouds in myself. I have all my projects in myself, all the dreams in myself, all the aims in myself.

The nature of the river is a cloud; the nature of the cloud is a river. Because they are both made of water. You are already water. Why do you run after water? You are already what you are running after. That is the first insight of the river.

In Buddhism we have three doors of liberation. (2) One of the doors is aimlessness.You don’t need to aim for anything.You don’t need to go anywhere. The third door of liberation is aimlessness. The second door is signlessness. The first one is emptiness.

Aimlessness means that you don’t need to aim for anything; you are what you are searching for. When the river realizes that she’s water, and that the cloud is in her because she is also water, she has no aim to run after, and she’s in peace. And it’s the same with us: we run after the Buddha, we run after satori, enlightenment. You don’t need to run after enlightenment; you are already enlightened. Where you are, steadily there, peaceful, clear in your mind, you are already what you are searching for.

When the river has found that deep vision, he runs peacefully and arrives at the ocean, which is also water. Wherever you are, you are already water. When conditions change and there is too much heat, you become water in the form of vapor, in the form of a cloud. Then as you flow peacefully as a river, there are plenty of clouds. But the river has no desire to run after the clouds because the river knows that all these clouds are himself. He doesn’t need to run after all these beauties, all these attachments. The river realizes that he is cloud.

And that night when the river realizes she is river, she is cloud, there is no discrimination between cloud and water vapor and water. That night there is a big enlightenment of cloud, moon, river, vapor, water, and they come together for walking meditation. They are together; they are one. They manifest in different forms, but they are one. They have already reached the door of liberation, aimlessness. They are not confused by the signs of their forms, and they experience non-self, interbeing. They are one.

Nirvana in You

We see the wonders of every second, of every minute. The sunshine is so beautiful. The Sangha is so beautiful. We are a river; we must run. Why do you think you can kill yourself? You cannot kill a river. The river continues to search for a way to continue. That is your practice. You only need to practice like that. You don’t need to learn thousands of sutras.You just walk on the Earth, really be with the Earth, be with the sun. The Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder. You are one.

The Earth is a great bodhisattva, the sun is a great bodhisattva. We cannot be different, we cannot find a better bodhisattva. You need only to practice like this; it’s enough. When you can walk mindfully, deeply, be one with the Earth, be one with the sunshine, be one with the universe, you can see that every step brings you to that great reality. So all your doubt will be removed.

In reality, there is nothing lost, nothing increased. Losing here, increasing there, you can see that nothing lasts. So our brother is lost, but he appears here, there, and in yourself, in many other people. Don’t try to find nirvana far away. You can find nirvana in you, in the present moment. Nothing is born, nothing dies.

Everything is no-birth, no-death, no increasing, no decreasing. We see the world of suffering and we see the world of enlightenment, because we are dualistic in our view. If you can touch the world of beauty in the world of ugliness, then you can touch the world of suffering in the world of enlightenment. The world of enlightenment is within the world of suffering. Don’t think that enlightenment is different from ignorance. From ignorance you can get enlightenment. You have to see that in suffering there are quite a lot of elements to help you reach enlightenment.

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We have to learn to take care of our suffering in order to change, to transform, to be liberated. So when we have suffering, we have to suffer together. Don’t suffer alone. When you suffer alone you cannot find the way out. But if we suffer as a Sangha, together, we will find a way out. I’m very happy that I have you all together with me. I have gone through many difficult situations, but you are there, and we all work together for transforming our pain.

So like the river, don’t try to run after clouds. What you are running after is already here in you. The water is in you; the cloud is also water. It is not a promise of the future. Heaven is here and now. The Kingdom of God is now or never. You can stay where you are, not running after anything. You have to practice, “I have arrived, I am home.” That is our anchor. It means we dwell peace fully, happily, here and now.

I vow to bring my body, my mind, my action, and my speech to end all the war, the quarrels, and bring understanding and love to everyone. That is our duty. It’s our mission. Our mission is to bring understanding in life—to ourselves first—and then together, to one another. We try to bring understanding to close friends, to beloved ones both near and far away. We dwell peacefully, mindfully, in the present moment, in order to protect our beautiful green planet, and we vow to see the interbeing of everything in order to transcend the signs, the appearance. In this way we touch reality.

You have to be aware that every word influences the whole Sangha. Every bodily action influences the whole Sangha. When you think something, it influences the whole Sangha. You are a cell of a body. You have to think in a way that brings happiness and purity to the Sangha. You have to speak in a way that brings purity and understanding to the Sangha. We have to act in a way that brings understanding and beauty to the Sangha in order to create the Pure Land. To truly arrive, not to be carried away by appearances, to transcend the signs. You love me—it means you love you. You love you—it means you love me.

Applied Buddhism is the way to touch reality, in order to see that birth and death are only doors by which you enter and leave. It looks like you are born, it looks like you die, but really you are born every second, you are dying every second.

So, friends, don’t think that this body is just you, because you are a river. This river continues to flow and to flow. And if it stops here, it will appear on the other side.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong; edited by Sister Annabel and Barbara Casey.

1. Gatha 44 from the Yogacarabhumishastra by Acarya Asanga

2. The Three Doors of Liberation:

Emptiness: Interbeing; the realization that we are empty of a separate, independent self. When we practice eating meditation, seeing the cosmos in our food, this is the practice of emptiness.

Signlessness: Not getting caught in the appearance or the object of our perception; not being limited by the form: i.e., seeing that the cloud and the river are the same in essence, both made of water.

Aimlessness: The realization that we already have Buddha nature, that all the elements for happiness are already within us. The practice of aimlessness is the practice of freedom.

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

Both Far and Near

Dharma Gaia in New Zealand 

By the Dharma Gaia Core Community

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Winter Retreat, 4 a.m.

Low in the east a bright Venus
lifts the dome of sky
just as the Milky Way
has spilled herself through it.

The womb of breathable darkness
draws you in, while frost crystals
catch the moonbeams
and snap the light into tiny sparkling fragments
filling the body with stillness.

Step outside
the breath shoots up in a gasp of cold.
Ears ring and sing and the body fills
with vibrant early morning frost.

That’s when the stillness empties you of everything.

Forest, pond, building with sloping crystal hat,
and gardens,
they know how to pray. Standing still
naked in the moonlight and translucent frost
unashamed and prideless
in their beauty.

You too are like this but you do not see it.

There is nothing more you want … nothing you just breathe.
Your breath is a prayer.

In terms of the physical distance, The Centre of Mindful Living in New Zealand is probably the Sangha farthest away from Plum Village, and yet that distance shrinks to nothing in the time it takes to breathe one conscious breath. There is never loneliness or isolation.

The Centre, commonly known as Dharma Gaia, is located in beautiful countryside, flanked by a tranquil harbour and a majestic mountain on the Coromandel Peninsula, about two hours’ drive from the cities of Auckland and Hamilton. From throughout New Zealand, people come here to connect with the practice. They contribute their physical energy, financial support, and most of all their commitment to practising and building the companionship of Sangha by offering regular mindfulness weekends and retreats.

Most people who visit Dharma Gaia are deeply touched by its peace, simplicity, and profound beauty. But Sister Pho Nghiem always emphasises that our true beauty is our love for one another and our dedication to practising as a Sangha. That is what has sustained us for over eighteen years and will go on sustaining us.

In the early morning, we give ourselves over to the Earth, walking peacefully together. We walk the land in silence and stillness, aware of the generosity of many friends who offer energy, funds, and support, which maintain and nourish this island of peace and presence. Our feet are their feet; our steps an offering of gratitude to them.

Sunshine, fresh air and green banana leaves dance.
Stream and birds sing the harmonies.
Citrus are beginning to golden
and the aromatic fragrance of their leaves
heralds the freshness and cool beauty
of the Dharma Gaia autumn.
The Sangha body is everywhere.

Like Plum Village, but on a much smaller scale, Dharma Gaia hosts many people from all over the world. Those of us who live here know it is a deep blessing to have the chance to provide this haven for the constant flow of visitors. We listen and learn from those who come here, and we have the chance to be in touch with the life of the wider community in all its various joys and challenges.

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Many who come are young people searching to find their place in the world and the right way to live. They stay for a week, a month, and sometimes longer, helping in the gardens, building bridges over the stream, clearing new walking paths, and enjoying the fruits of community and mindful living. Many of them have not heard of our practice before coming here, but later go on to seek out Sanghas in their own countries, or to visit Plum Village in France and other centres in Europe and the USA. In a few weeks’ time, Sangha members will fill the Centre as we take time to share from the winter fruits, complete the Rains Retreat, and receive deep nourishment from our practice together. Wonderful!

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When the first draft of this article was written, we in New Zealand were stepping lightly into spring. The nights still had that sharp bite and the early morning air was wonderfully fresh. In spring here, the forest gently releases so many forgotten fragrances that rise up out of the sleep of winter. Our Kowhai trees bloom in magnificent splendour, their flowers falling like soft golden rain, and the days are filled with song as tui, bellbird, kereru, fantail, bees, insects, and countless other beings wake up to the glory of renewal.

Some months have passed; the season changed and changed again. Now the fullness of summer retreats is also receding and we mellow into the changing colours of autumn leaves. How strange and wondrous it is to contemplate that as you read this article in the northern hemisphere, your late winter days are edged with the promise of the spring. Bowing to the wonder of our planet and her seasons, we close by sharing this deep and precious gatha Thay offered to us in the winter of 2004.

The seed is sown in the auspicious earth
Now is the occasion to enjoy the spring
Day and night dwelling peacefully in touching the earth
Everywhere flowers open, lighting up the true mind

This article is offered in honour of two dear Sangha sisters: Aletia Hudson, who passed on December 8, 2011, and Shirley Morris, who passed on March 25, 2012.

The Core Community of Dharma Gaia consists of Sister Pho Nghiem, Doris Drinkwater, Anton Bank, Jeannine Walsh, Mark Vette, Caitlin Bush, Benni Bonnin, and Kim Morresey. For more information, see www.dharmagaia.org or email peace@dharmagaia.org.

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Entering the Stream Down Under

By Ettianne Anshin

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I practice with seveerral Sydney Sanghas and have visited Nhap Luu (Entering the Stream) Monastery three times in the last eighteen months. This monastery is a two-hour drive from Melbourne and twelve hours ffrroom Sydney, Australia. Since their arrival two years ago, the original three monastics—Sisters Thuan Tien, Luong Nghiem, and Can Nghiem—have been joined by Sister Tri Duyen from Brisbane and a novice, Nguyen Ha, from another tradition in New Zealand. I would like to share with the larger Sangha a little of my experience of the changes occurring at this monastery.

The conditions here at the beginning were probably similar to those in Plum Village about thirty years ago. For example, the monastery had no electricity or permanent buildings other than the meditation hall. However, each year the conditions have become a little easier and the Sangha acquires a greater capacity to tolerate them. This is the third winter retreat for the sisters at Nhap Luu, and I have witnessed a subtle and substantial transformation.

Last year, a member of the Sydney Sangha, with the help of friends from Melbourne, installed a beautiful wooden floor in the meditation hall. Also, Brother Ian Roberts sold his property adjoining the original monastery to Unified Buddhist Church of Australia, so the sisters now have a comfortable home with indoor plumbing. The sisters’ house, named “Peace House” by Ian, has magnificent views of the lake where there are ducks, wild geese, and black swans. The house has a loft with huge windows where the sisters can listen to talks, meditate, and work at the computer. The meditation hall and Peace House now have solar panels for electricity, which should offset the energy used at the monastery. The Sangha can use Peace House as an accommodation for retreats, too.

The bush setting at Nhap Luu is exceedingly tranquil, and the Sangha has created many beautiful paths for walking meditation. Each day we see kangaroos, wallabies, hares, and possums that have many young. The possums come every night to eat from the hands of the sisters, and indeed the wildlife has become quite used to the Sangha. The kangaroos, hares, and wallabies eat near the buildings and allow you to walk close to them. They are fond of eating the flowers that the sisters grow. In the warmer months we can see the rare echidna (a spiny form of anteater) as well. As I write, I can hear kookaburras and crows calling, and we observe many other native birds, such as robins, magpies, and eastern rosella.

Growing Community 

Nhap Luu is an extensive property that requires much work from the sisters. Sangha members come for weekend stays and sometimes longer. The Sangha in Melbourne is quite small, although recent efforts to promote the monastery locally have seen some new friends joining. Some members of the Sangha have been helping to run a monthly market stall, and their efforts are bearing fruit as they make contacts within the local community. The Melbourne Sangha has been of considerable assistance to the sisters, giving both physical support and help with administering the centre. Many have been generous with time, skills, knowledge, and financial assistance.

The sisters have become more involved with the local community. They’ve taught high school students about taking care of their suffering, helping them to transform. They’ve also done chaplaincy training, so they can assist when needed.  At Vesak, they celebrated with other monastics from the State of Victoria and the community, and led a guided meditation. They’ve also joined the Australian Sangha Association for monastics. The monastery now has a blog and a Facebook page to keep the community informed, and there is a bookshop for visitors to purchase Plum Village merchandise.

Tomorrow a group of ten community members will visit from a nearby information centre to join in a Day of Mindfulness and learn about our practice. This monastery is in a quite rural area of Victoria with many generations of farming families; it will be interesting to see their reactions to a very different culture transplanted into this community.

Last September and October, two brothers visited from Plum Village. They led retreats and gave talks here and in Sydney. Thay Phap Hai and Dharma teachers Kenley Neufeld and Karen Hilsberg have been providing a superb program of online teaching for lay friends, Sangha builders, OI aspirants, mentors, and Dharma teachers in training. Meanwhile, UBC Australia has been accepted as a sponsoring body for monastics, and in early 2013, Nhap Luu will welcome seven more sisters—six originally from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam and one who has Australian citizenship. A lay friend has been tremendously helpful, sharing her expertise and assisting with immigration paperwork and office administration—more hands to lighten the load.

I have been helping Sister Can Nghiem with her English comprehension and pronunciation, while she in turn has been helping with my Vietnamese. Sister Luong Nghiem has been instructing me on the bell, and I am tremendously grateful to her and all the sisters for their guidance, sumptuous food, and warm smiles during my stay.

The conditions are basic at Nhap Luu, but the environment is quite beautiful. As I sit and write, I watch the sun set and I hear the crickets singing against the background of a new moon. We hope to see many visitors come, support the monastery, and help us to bloom.

For more information about Nhap Luu Monastery, visit www.nhapluu.blogspot.com or find Entering the Stream Monastery on Facebook.

mb62-Entering2Ettianne Anshin, True Auspicious Path, lives in Sydney, Australia and practices with several Sydney groups, including the Lotus Bud Sangha. She works part-time for The Buddhist Council of New South Wales, coordinating the Schools Religious Education program, and consults on community development projects.

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Together Online

By Thuy Cu and Alipasha Razzaghipour

Thuy: The idea of having an online Sangha came to me when visiting Plum Village in April, 2011. I was lucky to have a one-hour consultation with Brother Phap Ung during my stay in the upper Hamlet. I shared about Sangha building, the problems we were facing in our local group, and how to stay connected with people who couldn’t practice with our Sangha due to travel distances or family circumstances. Brother Phap Ung suggested using the Internet to bring the Sangha to the people, adding that it had been done before. A seed was planted.

Ali: In early 2011, I had a strong desire to practice with a Sangha. Our local group was meeting once a month, but this wasn’t enough for me. My mind focused on finding others in this tradition. One option was to sit online. I wasn’t sure if the energy of brotherhood and sister- hood could be cultivated online, but I had an idea that it might work.

Thuy: Six months later I met my Dharma friend Ali during a retreat in Sydney. We had known each other for a few years, but hadn’t had much contact, as we practiced with different Sanghas. On the last day of the retreat, Ali and I went for a short walk, sat atop a big rock above a waterfall, and enjoyed the beautiful view overlooking the forest. We shared our experiences with Sangha, our visions and ideas of how things could be, and what the tradition meant to us. It turned out that Ali also had been thinking about establishing an online Sangha.

Ali: When I spoke with Thuy at the October retreat, I felt very uplifted. I knew if there were two of us, probably more people would be interested. In the meantime, I set up a site (peacefulpresence.org) to support people looking to establish a local Sangha. We could use the material (songs, talks, guided meditations, etc.) from this site to get started.

Thuy: At the beginning, it was hard. Our first meeting online didn’t go so well, as Skype was unstable and we found it unnatural. We switched to Google+ and worked out a Sangha program of sitting, singing, watching a teaching, and sharing.

Ali: After the first few attempts, I noticed the experience was very transformative—not too dissimilar to a local group. This was encouraging, but not many people were joining. Dozens of people were following the group in Google+, but no one actually had a regular practice. Fortunately, Thuy assured me that if we continued practicing, others would come.

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Thuy: Before long, Chi Tri and Uncle Les came along. Suddenly our group became whole. We actually knew them already, having attended retreats together, but as we began to meditate together online, a strong bond formed. Now it feels like we are siblings, coming from different branches, but actually from the same tree. We are able to sit together, listen to Thay’s talks, share from our hearts, practice touching the earth, and sing songs. We have laughter and deep sharing, and silly times as well. Together, we feel we are walking the right path, as so much happiness and joy come in these online meetings. Others have joined us—Dharma friends from Blue Mountain and Paris, and others from Poland and Germany. We now have two online Sanghas, Heart Sangha and Stillness Sangha.

Ali: As part of the journey, I came across an online group, Plumline, in Thay’s tradition. I spoke with the founder, Elaine, and realised it was probably better to receive the support of Plumline than to go it alone. When we first met, the Plumline family had two groups; now there are nine.

Thuy: Ali suggested we extend our online practice to thirty minutes of silent meditation, daily. When you sit in a meditation hall with a Sangha, within the silence you can feel the collective energy supporting you. The same is true online. I didn’t realize this until Ali went away for a work trip. It was lonely sitting by myself, but whenever Ali had time to join me (even if it was at 3:00 a.m. in the U.S. or 3:00 p.m. in London), I felt his presence and the energy he brought to the sitting.

Ali: Practicing online will never be the same as being there in person. However, it does have some advantages. I tend to travel quite a bit and the online Sangha allows me to stay connected with the group. Yesterday I sat with our group while in London; next week I’ll be joining from Hong Kong. We have yet to discover all of the ways we can connect online. One day, for example, we might be able to sit with the monastics as they practice morning and evening meditation.

Thuy: I think about this online group quite often. Ali is moving to London next year and you never know what’s going to happen. But I have high hopes for this group, knowing it’s a little branch of a huge plum tree, and each of us is a flower blossoming; when the conditions are right, the fruits will appear. Thanks to Thay, a line of plums is growing online.

mb62-Together3Alipasha  Razzaghipour, True Fluent Energy, co-founded Plumline Heart Sangha with Chan Tru Lac (Thuy) in January 2012.

 

 

mb62-Together4Thuy Cu, Chan Tru Lac, member of the Lotus Bud Sangha since 2001, co-founded Plumline Heart Sangha with True Fluent Energy (Ali).

 

 

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How to Join Our Online Sanghas

Below you will find steps to join us online. However, please remember that no matter how wonderfully we connect through social media, Sangha is not about the mechanics. We are there to meet and to learn from each other. We hope the mechanics will fade into the background over time, so we can focus our attention on the Sangha practice. We hope online Sanghas can lead to the formation of many new spiritual friendships, a very precious gift.

Mechanics

The technology our online Sangha uses is Google+ Hangouts. It’s free, and up to nine people can join simultaneously. It has some useful features, such as being able to watch a talk by Thay while still seeing everyone else in Hangout. Since it’s a Google product, many people already have a login. They can talk with one another between Sangha meetings. Moreover, Google+ Hangouts is available on mobile devices, so people without computers can join, too.

You need an invitation to join one or both of our online Sanghas. You obtain one by joining the Plumline group on Google+.

Once every four to five weeks, we open our Sanghas to those who have joined Plumline. We ask that you follow our guidelines, explained below.

Joining Plumline

Follow these steps to join us:

  • Install Chrome as your Internet browser (google.com/chrome).
  • Go to plus.google.com.
  • Search for “Plumline.”
  • Click “Follow” on the Plumline page.
  • Accept the invitation when you receive it (this may take two weeks or so).
  • Click “Join” (big blue button at the top) to log on to plus.google.com
  • Give Google permission to install the software (you only need to do this once).

Guidelines for Joining Our Sangha Meetings

We hope that our Sangha meetings will be an important place for us to support each other, no matter where we live. To do this, we request that people engage fully with us, refraining from other activities (e.g., eating, browsing the net, etc.), while in Hangout. We ask that people stay for the entire Hangout meeting. When we are practicing together, small noises can get amplified; therefore, please mute your audio (unless you’d like to speak).

Keep your video switched on. We look forward to meeting you in Hangout.

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More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

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The Spirit of Non-Self

Living in Sangha Paradise 

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

A mist thickly covers the forests and mountains of Deer Park Monastery. The entire practice center is embraced by an atmosphere of stillness. The activity bell wakes all from slumber at exactly 5:00 a.m., followed by reverberating sounds of the Great Temple Bell in front of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. The powerful sounds of the bell, harmonizing with the light and flowing voice of a sister chanting, enhance the peacefulness of a new day.

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Today is the fourth day of a five-day retreat, “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” for people who speak Vietnamese. In the tranquil atmosphere of the morning, the Sangha queues up to get a packed breakfast in preparation for hiking up the misty mountain and enjoying their first meal of the day.  About 500 monastic and lay friends practice walking meditation along the winding path. When the Sangha reaches Elephant Peak, some people are, perhaps, surprised to see Thay already seated in meditation with    his attendants. Standing here, one faces an ocean of clouds that covers an area of the city of Escondido. It feels as if one is hovering among the clouds of a faraway land of enchantment. It is truly a Zen experience to be in the spaciousness of earth and grand open sky. Everyone finds a comfortable place to sit among the huge flat rock formations that have been here for hundreds of years.

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After practicing sitting meditation for half an hour, I slowly open my eyes to see that the sun has risen and made the sea of clouds appear even clearer. The Sangha begins eating breakfast in silence. After some time, Thay shows me a cluster of tiny ants carrying crumbs dropped from our rice cakes. They carry their food in just one direction. Some ants move rice cake crumbs or potato skins many times larger than themselves. Sometimes two or three ants clutch one piece together. Thay compassionately gives them some more food that they can bring back to their nest for the colony to enjoy.

Thay tells me to take a photo of these ants. I do so and feel curious about where they are taking these provisions and how big their colony is. I follow their trail and feel pity to see how small they are, because they have to carry food so much larger than their bodies. Their paths wind up and down the rock surface. Some lose their balance and topple over due to their heavy load. I just let them be and don’t interfere, as if I were not there. My observation takes me to the entrance of their nest, a crack in the rock with a lot of sand surrounding it. I feel despondent that I can’t continue farther while they unaffectedly carry on their task. A sense of curiosity continues in my store consciousness for the next few days.

Like A Colony of Ants

Recently, I saw a short documentary film called “Animal Planet,” which examined the life and activities of a colony of ants. Thousands of them followed each other in a meadow of tall green grass that resembled the young plants in a rice paddy. Many climbed grass stems and bit off young shoots, while those on the ground carried the shoots back to the nest. Each had its own particular task to do, be it to bite off the shoots, transport provisions, or remain inside to build the underground nest from the grass that had been carried back. They seemed to work like an ensemble without a leader or discrimination. None of them seemed to complain about each other. The way they lived reminded me of our Sangha.

As brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we work together like ants in a colony, or like cells in a body. In a body, there is no single cell that is considered the leader of all other cells. A retreatant once asked one of our sisters who plays the violin, “Why does Thay travel with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour?” She replied, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra.” The conductor would not attract an audience by himself; yet if there were no conductor, the quality of music produced by the orchestra would not be very high. Thay has never wanted to control us. He only seeks to open doors and clear obstacles for us. Thay just allows things to unfold naturally and tries to find the best way to help all of us develop our various talents. We inter-depend on one another; we inter-are with each other. When our individual skills are combined, they no longer belong to any particular person, but become the effectiveness of the whole Sangha.

Whether we are at our monastery or on the road, and especially during the recent retreats in North America, our brothers and sisters live and work together like a colony of ants; we flow as a river. Our 2011 U.S. Tour, which spanned three months, included five public talks, eight Days of Mindfulness (DOM), an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, seven retreats in as many states, a half DOM with the Google staff at their headquarters in California, and a talk for congressmen and women in Washington, D.C. Each retreat had from eight hundred to one thousand participants, the DOMs had from one thousand to sixteen hundred people, and the public talks attracted approximately twenty five hundred attendees. The majority of activities were organized by monastic brothers and sisters. The tour took the organizing team two years to plan.

We work together as an ensemble, and each person is allocated a task: some oversee logistics, others take care of registration, and others welcome and orient retreatants. Some brothers and sisters do the grocery shopping while others cook. Some manage the accommodations and others are in charge of hygiene. We have a transportation coordinator and children’s program supervisors. A team films the Dharma talks, a team produces the DVDs, and a team sells Thay’s calligraphies and books. All these tasks are tightly coordinated, and they all relate to each other.

When we’re on big teaching tours and retreats, the brothers and sisters do much work, but there are rarely complaints or criticism. Glitches are opportunities for us to learn new things and better understand each other. One brother is the treasurer, and he is on a cooking team, the CD producing team, and the organizing team. He has such a lot of work to do, but he is always fresh, smiling, and full of energy! One time when I saw that he had a great deal of bookkeeping work to do, I said to him, “Dear brother, you have so much work to do. May I give you a hand?” He looked at me kindly and replied, “The paperwork is a bit complicated. It’s okay, I’ll do it.” I continued, “But please take care of your health.” He smiled and said in his humorous way, “There’s no need to live a long life. Forty years is enough!” Matching his wit, I replied, “Thay has said that whoever goes before he does is not showing enough filial piety! The Buddha and Thay have entrusted their mission to us, so we can’t go so early!” We both laughed.

Recognizing Paradise

During our retreats there is much joy, and peals of laughter can be heard everywhere, especially in the kitchen. Each kitchen team has only five or six people, but they cook for over a thousand retreatants. They do so with happiness cultivated from the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. One day I went into the kitchen and saw a sister at the stove frying tofu. I was surprised at how tall she was that day, and then I realized that she was standing on a step in order to comfortably reach the stove top. I saw the large tray of delicious fried tofu pieces, and thought it must have taken her quite some time to fry all of that tofu in the midday heat, yet her face was still fresh. I said to her, “Sister, you are so good!”

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An elder brother had been assigned to that same cooking team. He was cooking a huge pot of curry and using a large wooden ladle to stir. The curry was appealing, but the most amusing sight was that the pot was as tall as his ribs! This pot surely would need to be carried by three or four people. I had a funny thought: Cooking like this, one does not need to go to the gym and lift weights! I felt very happy because I knew for sure that the food cooked by the brothers and sisters had a lot of love in it, and that the retreatants would be able to taste and enjoy it.

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When I have a bit of spare time during a tour, I like to watch children play together; I think they look like innocent angels. I particularly relish hearing their spontaneous laughter echoing in the summer air. At least a few dozen children come with their parents to each retreat. Brothers and sisters take care of the children’s program very skillfully; they are mostly “baby monks” or “baby nuns” who have grown up in the monastery. They wholeheartedly guide, play with, and offer their presence to the children. That’s why the children who attend Plum Village retreats are so happy. When I look into the bright eyes of these children, I know that we are sowing good seeds in them—seeds of peace, happiness, and liberation.

I also like to drop by the bookshop to see Thay’s new calligraphy, which helps remind people to practice mindfulness at home. The calligraphies may say, for example, “Breathe, my dear,” or “Peace is every step,” or “Happiness begins with your lovely smile.” The calligraphy stand is always full of people. An elder sister is happily helping her younger sisters distribute the calligraphies, even though she has many other things to do. Promoting calligraphy involves more than just selling individual sheets; there are also elements of practice and play. People often have many questions about the meaning of Thay’s calligraphies; therefore the stand is like a Dharma hall. This is an opportunity for elder sisters to pass on their experience to younger ones, while also working to serve and liberate all beings. The elder sisters explain the calligraphies in a dynamic way, while the younger sisters’ fresh faces and witty comments attract visitors, as well.

Despite the crowds, the atmosphere at retreats is serene and peaceful. One practitioner commented, “Even though there are about a thousand retreatants here, it doesn’t feel like it. The atmosphere here is totally different from outside.” There are not only those who are experienced in the practices of Plum Village, but also many newcomers. The long-time practitioners are a much-needed foundation and source of support for newer practitioners. During one walking meditation session full of people, one retreatant exclaimed, “This is a miracle! We are walking in paradise!” Thanks to the mindful presence and collective energy of the Sangha, we can recognize this paradise.

Our Source of Energy

mb61-Spirit5During a Dharma sharing session at Estes Park, Colorado, one retreatant commented, “In this retreat there are up to eight hundred people and everything is done by the brothers and sisters. I’m truly surprised to see that you do all of these things so wholeheartedly. I’m curious to know how you all have so much energy.” I looked at her and simply replied, “Your tears and smiles are our source of energy.” It is true that there are tears from pain and suffering, but there are also tears born of happiness. And smiles are signs of joy, peace, happiness, and transformation. Both tears and smiles are a source of inspiration that nourishes our mind of love. That is why we have so much energy to continue what we are doing. I feel so nourished and happy as a monastic because my brothers and sisters and I have come across a way of practice that is relevant to us. We are able to continue the Buddha’s task of liberating beings in the way that Thay has transmitted to us.

Personally, I think we monastics benefit the most from these retreats. When we conduct such retreats, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the suffering of people from many sectors of society. As monastics, there are places that we cannot go; there are things that only laypeople can do. However, through our interactions with lay friends, and listening to their life experiences and suffering, we are able to see different aspects of life more clearly. Sometimes, just by listening, we alleviate much of their pain and suffering. When I’m able to sit and listen to people’s deepest pain and hidden difficulties, then naturally the energy of compassion arises within me. This kind of energy makes me so happy whenever I’m able to generate it.

I think it’s truly wonderful to be a monastic, especially when I have the chance to help others. In my opinion, “miraculous” things don’t need to be lofty; it is what I can do every day that counts. To be able to help others benefit from their practice, to bring about healing, transformation, happiness, peace, and joy in others is already a miracle. My life is so fulfilling and happy. What else is there to search for?

The Spirit of Sangha

We monastics spend much time learning, practicing, and conducting retreats. Another art needs to be nourished every day, as well: the art of developing brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the foundation of happiness in our daily practice. Everything we do holds the purpose of building brotherhood and sisterhood, and drinking tea together is one of our favourite methods for doing so. Drinking tea is a meditation practice. Each pot of tea contains so many joyful stories that we share with each other, especially after a session of sitting meditation and chanting. And nothing beats hiking up a mountain and drinking tea together there. Our daily activities have all the elements of mindfulness practice, play, work, and learning. It is only when we live and work in this spirit of inclusiveness and inter-relatedness that large-scale teaching tours can be successful and beneficial for practitioners.

Living and practicing in the Sangha, as well as going on teaching tours with Thay, have given me a precious lesson—anything can be accomplished when we have ideals, aspirations, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Further, when we are able to let go of our individualism, then we can easily flow with togetherness. That is the spirit of living in the Sangha, the spirit of non-self. That is the love of brotherhood and sisterhood.

There is a popular proverb in Vietnamese: “One stick cannot make a mountain, but three sticks together create a solid peak.” It is a sensible proverb that everyone likes and appreciates. Before I was ordained, it did not hold much meaning for me. It was merely a nice idea. But after becoming a monk, having lived and practiced with the Sangha, I realize its depth and truth. I appreciate this proverb, thanks to the miraculous power of the Sangha and the wonders of a lifestyle of non-self. This lifestyle is truly a Sangha paradise.

mb61-Spirit6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

 

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Dharma Talk: Community as a Resource

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

We can make people happy. One person has the capacity to be an infinite resource of happiness for others. The more we practice the art of mindful living, the more we become a source of happiness and joy. This is possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh

But we need a place, such as a retreat center or a monastery, where we can go to renew ourselves. The features of the landscape, the buildings, and the sound of the bell should be designed to remind us to return to awareness. Even when we cannot actually go to the retreat center, we can think of it, smile, and feel ourselves becoming peaceful.

The community does not need to be big. It is enough to have ten or fifteen permanent residents who emanate freshness and peace, the fruits of living in awareness. When we go there, they care for us, console and support us, and help us heal our wounds.

From time to time, the residents can organize large retreats so that we can learn the arts of enjoying our lives more and taking good care of each other. Mindful living is an art, and this community can be a place where joy and happiness are real. They can also offer Days of Mindfulness, so that people can come and live one happy day together in community. And they can organize courses that teach The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and other courses on Buddhist psychology and healing in a Buddhist way. Most retreats will be for preventive practice, practicing mindful­ness before things get too bad. But some retreats should be for people who are undergoing a lot of suffering, although even then two-thirds of the retreatants should be healthy, happy people. Otherwise it may be difficult to succeed.

Practice has a lot to do with the happiness of the people in a family or a community. We practice not only in the meditation room, but in the kitchen, the backyard, the office, and in school as well. How can we incorporate practice into our daily lives, so that our daily lives can be joyful and happy?

The sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. When you are with your family and you practice smiling, breathing, recognizing the Buddha in yourself and your children, then your family becomes a sangha. If you have a bell in your home, the bell becomes part of your sangha, because the bell helps you to practice. If you have a cushion, then the cushion also becomes part of the sangha. Many things help us practice. The air, for breathing. If you have a park or a river bank near your home, you can enjoy practicing walking meditation. You have to discover your sangha. Invite a friend to come and practice with you, have tea meditation, sit with you, join you for walking medita­tion. All these efforts can help you establish your sangha at home. Practice is easier if you have a sangha.

The foundation of a community is a daily life that is joyful and happy. In Plum Village, children are the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children be happy, because we know that if the children are happy, it is easy for the adults to be happy. In old times, families were bigger. Not only nuclear families, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all lived together. Houses were surrounded by trees where they could hang hammocks and organize picnics. In those times, people did not have many of the problems we do now. Today, our families are very small. Besides Mom and Dad, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the whole family feels the effects. The atmosphere in the house is heavy, and there is nowhere to escape. Sometimes a child may go to the bathroom and lock the door just to be alone, but still there is no escape. The heavy atmosphere permeates the bathroom too. So the child grows up with many seeds of suffering and can never feel truly happy and then transmits these seeds to his or her children.

Formerly, when Mom and Dad had some problems, the children could always escape by going to an aunt or an uncle. They still had someone to look up to, and the atmosphere was not so threatening. I think that communities of mindful living can replace our former big families, be­cause when we go to these communities, we see many aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that can help us a lot.

You know that aged people are very sad when they have to live separately from their children and grandchildren. This is one of the things in the West that I do not like very much. In my country, aged people have the right to live with the younger people. It is the grandparents who tell fairy tales to the children. When they get old, their skin is cold and wrinkled, and it is a great joy to hold their grandchild, so warm, so tender. When a person grows old, his or her deepest hope is to have a grandchild to hold in his or her arms. They hope for it day and night, and when they hear that their daughter is pregnant, they are so happy. Nowadays the elderly have to go to a home where they live only among other aged people. Just once a week they receive a short visit, and afterwards they feel even sadder. We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.

A community of mindful living should be in a beautiful location in the countryside. In many cities today, you do not see a lot of trees, because so many trees have been cut down. I imagine—and I believe it is very close to reality—a city which has only one tree left. (I don’t know what kind of miracle helped preserve that one tree.) Many people in that city have become mentally ill because they are so alienated from nature, our mother. In the old time, we lived among trees and we sat in hammocks. Now we live in small boxes made of concrete. The air we breathe is not clean, and we get sick, not only in our bodies but in our souls.

I imagine that there is a doctor in the city who under­stands why everyone is getting sick, and every time some­one comes to him, he tells them, “You are sick because you are cut off from Mother Nature.” And he gives them this prescription: “Each morning, take the bus and go to the tree in the center of the city and practice tree-hugging medita­tion. Hold the tree and breathe in, ‘I am with my mother.’ Then breathe out, ‘I am happy.’ And look at the leaves so green and smell the bark of the tree that is so fragrant.” The prescription is for fifteen minutes of breathing and hugging the tree. After doing it for three months, the patient feels much better. But the doctor has many patients, and he gives each of them the same prescription.

So I imagine a bus in the city going in the direction of the tree, while people are standing in line, waiting their turn to embrace the tree and breathe. But the line is several miles long, and the crowd is becoming impatient because they have to wait for such a long time. They demand new laws which will limit each person to just one minute of tree-hugging. But one minute is not long enough to be effective, and then there is no remedy for society’s sickness. I am afraid we will be close to that situation very soon, if we are not mindful of what is going on in the present moment.

When we practice mindful living, we know what is going on in every moment of our daily lives. When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, we know it is a banana peel, and that banana peels decompose quickly and become flowers. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we have to know that it is a plastic bag. This is a practice of meditation: “I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage can.” If we practice mindfulness, we will refrain from using things made of plastic, because we know that they take much more time to degrade into soil and become flowers. And we know that disposable diapers take four or five hundred years, so we refrain from using them. Nuclear waste, the most difficult kind of garbage, takes 250,000 years to become a flower. We are making the Earth an impossible place for our children to grow up.

Practicing mindfulness with friends allows us to get in touch with the healing aspects of life, Breathing mindfully the clean air, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves, our friends, and society. Smiling, we realize peace and joy. Communities of mindful living are very important for us to cultivate these practices.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lecture at the “Cultivat­ing Mindfulness” Retreat, Mt. Madonna Center, Watson­ville, California, April 1989.

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Dharma Talk: Five Wonderful Precepts

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

When we think about peace, we usually think about the absence of war and nuclear weapons, or the absence of social injustice. But I would like to raise a question concern­ing our ability to enjoy peace. Even if peace is present, if we are not able to enjoy it, then what is the use of having peace? Peace is relative. Even if we do not have perfect peace, we can have some peace right now, in the present moment. But many of us do not seem capable of enjoying peace in the present moment, in ourselves, or around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Many of us find peace boring, and so we do things that create war. We drink cognac, for instance, in order to feel better, when we feel bored with life—with the air we breathe, the sky above, the river that flows—and we need something else. But drinking cognac is not making peace, because cognac is made of grain, and many people in the world starve because they don’t have enough grain to eat. The fact that we drink cognac means that we are not reconciled with the people in the Third World, and there­fore, drinking cognac is not an act of peace.

We do other things, such as commit sexual misconduct and intoxicate ourselves, because we feel a vacuum within ourselves and we want to fill it. By doing these things, we destroy our happiness and the happiness of our children and grandchildren. I think this is due to the fact that we have not developed the capacity of enjoying peace. We have to educate ourselves and our children to learn to enjoy peace. By enjoying peace, we make peace stronger and more real in the world. Practicing mindfulness in the present moment is the basic way of making peace and building peace.

I know that the lack of mindfulness has led to a lot of suffering in our daily life. Many families have been broken because of sexual misconduct, alcoholism, and drug addic­tion, and their children and grandchildren continue to suffer and to transmit suffering to future generations. The seeds of suffering that they have will be transmitted to their children and grandchildren. Eventually, you will need a Twelve-Step Program to get out of it. Taking the precepts and practicing them is a “One-Step Program.” It’s much easier.

In my recent tour of North America, I emphasized very much the practice of looking deeply into the causes of our suffering so that we can overcome them. I have encouraged people in the U.S. to practice in the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. When the Buddha was about to pass away, he told his disciple, “Ananda, after I am gone, the community of monks and nuns should look upon the practice of the precepts as their teacher.” So I encouraged people who participated in retreats to take the Five Precepts and to practice them.

In the past, I was not very fond of ordaining people or having disciples. I tried to avoid that, especially when I saw that there were many other teachers. But during my visit last year, I changed my idea. We have to support each other, and the practice of the precepts is very important to help us. We do not practice meditation alone. We practice with a teacher and with friends. When you have a good sangha, your prac­tice is easy, because you are supported by the sangha. A sangha that is practicing a good Dharma is healthy, joyful, and happy. If you have a sangha like that, it is very easy to practice. You have to build your own sangha. You yourself have to be the first element of a good sangha, When the flower in you is real, you can help other members of the sangha. If you have a good sangha, you are a happy person.

The Five Precepts are the foundation for practicing with others. They have been practiced for more than 2,500 years. Buddha gave the Five Precepts to the father of a monk named Yasa, when he asked the Buddha what he could do that would allow him to live more like his son. Yasa was the Buddha’s sixth disciple, a wealthy young man, ordained just after the Buddha ordained his five ascetic friends. If members of a family or a sangha observe and recite these precepts regularly, Buddhism becomes a living reality. Once the precepts are received, we have to practice and recite them at least once a month. If we do not practice the precepts, the precepts’ body will cease to be a reality and the practice of Buddhism will become impossible. Bud­dhists of many generations have practiced these precepts in order to maintain happiness and to be of help to others. The Five Precepts are principles for peaceful co-existence between people and also between nations.

No one can impose anything on us. We are free people, and we do only the things we want to do. But we know that there is a kind of illness in our society, and practicing the precepts is a very good medicine that can protect us and our families and safeguard our happiness. Buddhist precepts are not commandments. To word them in a way that does not sound like commandments may be useful for a lot of people, but we have to word them in a clear, strong way. The wording of the Five Precepts may not be perfect, and those of you who practice them might like to think about the words and help all of us express the precepts in a clear way. But we want to avoid any misunderstanding.

Mindfulness is the fundamental precept. Think of the precepts as the manifestation of mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are responsible. Precepts do not have to dictate our behavior. We don’t need an elaborate code of behavior. Mindfulness is enough. Mindfulness is a torch that can show us the way. Buddhism, the practice of Buddhist meditation, should address the real issues of our life. It should address the issues of our suffering. Whatever suffering we have in the present moment, the practice of Buddhism should help. We should not say that these are only personal things, that we only deal with ultimate reality, supreme enlightenment. These do not mean anything if they have nothing to do with our daily life, with our daily suffering. So, please confront the real issues, the real problems of our life, and inquire.

If we students and teachers do not practice the precepts, we are not faithful to the tradition. We can even destroy each other. Therefore, in a community practicing Buddhist meditation, students and teachers alike have to practice the precepts, the basic teaching of Buddhism. We have to help each other. You know that you or your teacher is not practicing intelligently when you drink alcohol or engage in sexual misconduct. You believe that your teacher has insight, but if someone has insight, how could he or she do things like that? You know that alcoholism has destroyed so much of this country. Sexual misconduct has destroyed so many families and caused many young people to suffer. Even someone who does not practice Buddhism knows this and tries to avoid these kinds of things. How could practi­tioners of Buddhist meditation not practice this?

Someone said, “In the Zen tradition, people are not restricted, they are free. They don’t practice the Five Precepts.” To me, Zen Buddhism is just Buddhism. Every Buddhist practices meditation. Zen is meditation—whether it is in Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana—people practice meditation. To practice the Five Precepts is the minimum. The Five Precepts are Zen itself. So, you cannot say that Zen does not practice the Five Precepts. That is a distortion. To me, to teach, we have to preach by our own lives, not just by a sermon or a Dharma talk.

It is in practicing that we get enlightened in every second, every minute of our lives. The Buddhist teaching on suffering is very deep, very complete, about how to deal with your anguish, fear, anger, and frustration, and about how to deal with your family and your community. All these can be found in the teaching of the Buddha. If you practice correctly, you will get healed, you will be happy and joyful. You don’t need to practice ten years in order to get results. Only one day or two days a week will bring you something positive and good. As you progress on your way, you will be able to help other people also. I believe it is the time that practitioners of Buddhism in this country begin to practice the precepts seriously, responding to the kind of sufferings that have been going on in many Buddhist communities.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the spirit of the Five Precepts is present. If you go back to your traditions, you will find the equivalent of these precepts. I see very much the need for this kind of practice, and I urge you, if you don’t want to practice the Five Precepts in this Buddhist version, to go back to your Jewish or Christian traditions and ask that the equivalent of the Five Precepts be restored.

Peace is important but we have to educate ourselves and our children to enjoy peace. Otherwise, peace will be boring. There are so many positive elements, peaceful elements within us and around us, and we have to live mindfully in order to get in touch with these in order for us to have a joyful and happy life. Someone said, “Thay, when do I know that I am ready for the precepts?” I said, “The sooner the better.”

The First Precept 

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. 

The more we practice and study the precepts, the more we understand their depth.The First Precept, not to kill, is not easy, and no one can say that he or she observes it perfectly. If we are mindful in trying to practice this precept, we will see that we may be unintentionally killing people, animals, or plants, for example, by consuming alcohol, reading newspapers, or eating meat. I think all these things pertain to the precept of non-killing. So we have to be very careful to be able to practice this precept. Things are inter-con­nected. When we eat grapes or drink coffee, we may think that it has nothing to do with killing, but that is not true. So we have to be very mindful in order to deeply practice the precepts.

Sometimes we do not speak out against killing, and that is also violating the precepts. “Do not kill. Do not let others kill.” It is very difficult. You cannot do it perfectly. To practice the precept means you have the intention to go in the direction of not killing. You do the maximum in your power not to kill and not let others kill. The essential is not to be perfect but to go in that direction. When we boil some vegetables to eat, we may think that we are avoiding killing, but by boiling the vegetables, we kill many tiny beings in the water. So our vegetable dish is not entirely vegetarian. No one, including the Buddha, can practice this precept perfectly. He told his disciples not to travel much during the rainy seasons, in order to avoid stepping on tiny living beings. They were trying their best to avoid killing.

We should not be too proud of being nonviolent. Trying to be nonviolent is like looking at the North Star in order to go north. We do not intend to arrive at the North Star; we only want to go north. That is the spirit of the precepts. We want to go in the direction of non-killing, nonviolence, and we make a little progress every day. We have to try all our lives in order to understand the precept better and to practice it better.

The precept is a guideline, a direction. Every time you practice the recitation of the precept, the person who leads the ceremony will say something like this: “This is the first of the Five Precepts. Have you made an effort to study and to practice it during the last two weeks?” You don’t say yes or no. You breathe three times and let the question enter, and you act from there. That is good enough, because “yes” is not entirely correct. You might have made an effort but still think that it is not enough. So, the intention is to help you move in that direction. If you say, “No,” that is not correct either, because you have practiced.

This precept needs a lot of study and practice. It is not as easy as you may think. Trying to go in the direction of the precepts, we become a shining light, and people will follow our example. 

The Second Precept 

Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffer­ing of other species on earth.

Bringing to our awareness the pain caused by social injustice, this precept urges us to work for a more livable society. This precept is linked with the First Noble Truth (awareness of suffering), Right Livelihood (of the Eightfold Path), and the First Precept (the protection of life). In order to deeply comprehend the Second Precept, we need to meditate on all these teachings.

Developing ways of preventing others from enriching themselves on human suffering is the primary duty of legislators, politicians, and revolutionary leaders. However, each of us can also act in this direction. To some degree, we can stay close to oppressed people and help them protect their right to life and defend themselves against oppression and exploitation. 

The Third Precept 

Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.

It is quite clear. This is not just Buddhist; it is universal. It is the right medicine for our illness. When we and our children take the precepts, it means we accept the medicine to protect us.

Sexual misconduct is the cause of many troubles in society, and therefore, the Third Precept is very important. Many things in our lives—films, commercials, magazines—stimulate and create impulses for sexual aggression. This kind of sexual expression has caused a lot of mental stress, and therefore, I think we should look for effective ways to heal society in this respect.

Even in practicing communities, this precept is not practiced seriously enough. I think we need a conference, a long retreat, in order to work on this very big issue. Various forms of suffering have resulted from the Iack of the practice as far as this precept is concerned. Therefore, I would urge young people to begin to practice the Five Precepts, and the parents also should be companions of their children, practicing the Five Precepts. 

The Fourth Precept 

Do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.

The Fourth Precept is about right speech. You know that sometimes we destroy our happiness just because we are not mindful in saying things. Saying things is an art. To use our speech is to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance, and we should be very artful and mindful while speaking. What is described in the precept is not everything, just a few essential lines. Words can build up a lot of happi­ness, but they can also destroy. Practicing right speech, loving speech, is very important in our lives. We have to learn a lot about the art of speaking.

The essence of the Fourth Precept is concord. Commu­nity life is only possible with concord. There are six principles of community life prescribed by the Buddha: living together at one place, sharing material resources, observing the same precepts, sharing the understanding of Dharma and the experience of practice with each other, reconciling differing viewpoints, and practicing kind speech to avoid all quarrels. These Six Concords have been practiced by Buddhist communities since the Buddha’s time and are still relevant.

Kind speech is born from understanding and patience. Only understanding and care can bring about change. Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict. Not only do both sides bear partial responsibility, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in mindfulness, we could have seen the beginning phases of the conflict and helped to end or avoid it.

Our awareness of the need to reconcile will empower us to work in that direction. The success of reconciliation will be the success of understanding and compassion for the other side as well as for ourselves.

The Fifth Precept 

Do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your parents, and also to betray the future generations. 

When we realize the interconnectedness between our ancestors, our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves, we see that by taking care of ourselves, we take care of all of them. Someone who practices the Fifth Precept could not say, “This is my body. I can do anything to it. I have the right to.” They cannot say that, because they know that their body belongs to all their ancestors, themselves, and the future generations.

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Meditation is to look at things in a way that you can see the roots and the fruits of those things. Mindfulness allows that kind of perception. When we look at a glass of whiskey with mindfulness, concentration and understanding will come. We will see the roots of the whiskey. A lot of grain is used to produce meat and alcohol. If we look more deeply at the glass of whiskey, we will see that many people in the world starve because they do not have enough grain to eat. When we see that, we will stop drinking whiskey very soon. Cereals, and the lack of cereals for hungry people, are the roots of whiskey. We know that the fruits of the whiskey include the death of hungry children, liver cancer, and a nervousness that you have in the future. These are all fruits of the whiskey. So mindfulness is the base of all precepts. Drinking a glass of whiskey with mindfulness is already practicing the precepts, because if you drink with deep mindfulness, you will live with the reality of the world and you will stop drinking very soon.

Someone asked me, “I don’t get drunk. I only have a glass of wine when I attend a reception. Isn’t it okay to drink a little bit of wine in situations like that?” 

I don’t think so. I don’t think that those who practice the Fifth Precept should drink even a glass of beer or wine, because one glass of wine will bring about the second glass, and so on. Those who are alcoholic all begin with one glass. That is why it is better not to take a drop of alcohol. During a reception, if you are offered a glass of alcohol, you say, “Thank you very much, but I do not drink alcohol. May I have a glass of juice, or something?” That is beautiful. The best teaching is with your own life, not with a sermon.

It is like when someone offers you a cigarette, you say, “Thank you, I do not smoke.” It’s very good. So those who practice this precept should be clear about it, because you do not practice it for yourself alone. You practice for your friends and other people. There are many things that are delicious to drink, so many wonderful things to drink, and nobody will die if they don’t drink alcohol. I am very firm on this, because the first drop wilt bring the second drop. And when we become alcoholic, it’s very difficult, very difficult. Too many children suffer because their parents are alcoholics. So please just stop. This is the One-Step Program.

Just stopping is a compassionate act for future genera­tions and also for our friends. Many generations have suffered from alcoholic parents and then had to undergo a very long procedure to heal the wounds. Taking precepts is much easier. That is why we should encourage our children to receive and practice the Five Precepts. And we ourselves have to practice in order to support our children. Practicing the Five Precepts is not only for our own good, but for the good of the society.

 

The Five Wonderful Precepts 

  1. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.
  2. Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffering of other species on earth.
  3. Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the suffering you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.
  4. Do not, say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or con­demn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that can cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.
  5. Do not use alcohol and other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors and your parents and also to betray the future generations.

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Dharma Talk: “Relationships” — Community as Family, Parenting as a Dharma Door, and the Five Awarenesses

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

To practice Buddhism, we have to take refuge. This means that we have to base our practice on some ground that helps us be stable, It is like building a house—you have to build it on solid ground. If we look around and inside ourselves, we can find out what is stable for us, and we can take refuge in it. We should be careful not to take refuge in what is unstable.

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This morning I was touching the ground, and I felt that there is some stability in the Earth. Why don’t we take refuge in the Earth? There is also some stability in the air, the sunshine, and the trees. We can count on the sun because we know it will rise tomorrow. We have to look around to see things that we can count on. In order to practice, we need to take refuge in stable things.

Our bodies have a healing power. Every time we cut our finger, our body has the capacity to heal itself. We take care of it by washing it carefully, and then we can leave the work of healing to our body. In a few hours or a day, the cut will be healed. Our bodies have that kind of healing power. We have to take refuge in our bodies.

The same is true with our consciousness. Our conscious­ness has a healing power, and we have to trust it. When we have some anger, distress, or despair, we don’t need to panic. We can trust our consciousness to know how to heal these kinds of wounds. When we have a feeling of instabil­ity, we only need to breathe in and out consciously and recognize the feeling of instability, knowing that our consciousness is much more than that feeling. We know from our experience that there have been times in the past when we were not very solid. We know that we can take refuge in our consciousness We can let it do its work without interfering too much. After cleaning out the wound in our finger, we just let it heal. If we have a wound in our mind or heart, we just clean our wound and then we trust our consciousness to heal it.

If we have a teacher and dharma brothers and sisters who are stable, they look very much the same today as yesterday and yesterday they looked very much the same as the day before. We have to take refuge in a sangha that is stable, that we can count on. We can contribute to the quality of our sangha by our smile, and by our own stability. A sangha can be improved by our practice. We can never find a perfect sangha. An imperfect sangha is good enough. We have to do our best in order to transform ourselves into a good element of the sangha. It is not helpful to complain too much about our sangha: “This sangha is not good; this sangha is not worth my refuge,” and so on. We have to accept our sangha and build it. It is like a family. And our family is also a kind of sangha. We have to accept the members of our family as they are and begin from there. We should be a good member of our family sangha in order to help others.

Taking refuge means also taking refuge in ourselves. When we take refuge in the earth, it is because the earth is stable. When we have a friend who is stable we can take refuge in him or her. We use our insight and our experience to see his or her stability. We don’t just go on blind faith. Taking refuge is not blind faith. It must be based on our own experience. There are many stable things around. We should refrain from taking refuge in things that are not stable, that have made us shaky in the past. Sometimes we don’t know much about something. We hope that it can be a refuge for us simply because we want it. It is not based on any direct experience or observation. We should refrain from taking refuge in things like that.

Single Parenting 

If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.

We abandon the idea that we cannot be ourselves unless “that someone” or “that something” is with us. We our­selves are sufficient. We are enough for ourselves. When we transform ourselves into a cozy hermitage, with a lot of air, light, and order inside, we begin to feel a great peace, joy, and happiness. And we begin to be someone that others can rely on. Your child, your dharma brothers and sisters, and your teacher can all rely on you.

So return to your hermitage and arrange things from within. You can benefit from the sunshine, the trees, the earth. You can open your windows wide for these good elements to enter, because you are one with your environ­ment. Many times unstable elements try to enter our hermit­age. Then we must close our windows and not let them in. When thunder, winds, or heat are about to intrude into our cozy, refreshing hermitage, we should be able to prevent them from entering. The practice of being a refuge to oneself is a basic practice. We do not rely on someone or something that we do not know much about, something that may be unstable. We go back to ourselves and take refuge in our own hermitage.

If you are a mother raising your child alone—without the help of a man—you must learn what to do and how to do it. You have to learn to be a father also, otherwise you cannot raise your child. If you don’t learn how to be a father, you will continue to need someone else to play the role of a father for your child, and you will lose your sovereignty, you will lose your hermitage. But if you can say, “I don’t need anyone else, I can learn how to be both a father and mother to my child, I can succeed by myself, with the support of my friends and my community,” that is a good sign.

Every other year, I give a retreat for about sixty Viet­namese monks and nuns in northern California. One day, when we were conducting the closing of such a retreat, the Abbot of Kim Son Monastery said to me, “Thay, you are our mother.” Why didn’t he say, “You are our father,” which is a more normal thing to say? It was because some­thing in me has the manner of being a mother. When I am with children, I can play the role of a mother as well as a father. The love of a father is different from that of a mother. A mother’s love is somehow unconditional. You are the child of your mother, that is why you are loved by her. There is no other reason. A mother tries to use her body and her mind to protect that very soft, vulnerable part of herself. She has a tendency to consider her child as an extension of herself, as herself. This is good, but it may create problems in the future. She has to learn gradually that her son or daughter is a separate person.

A father’s love is different. The father says, “If you are like this, then you will receive my love. If you don’t do that, you don’t get my love.” It’s a kind of deal. I have that in myself, too. I am capable of disciplining my students and I also have the capacity of loving my students as a mother. That is why the monks and the nuns call me mommy, I know it is not easy for a mother to be a father, especially when she hasn’t learned how to do it. Single mothers should be aware that they can profit from the community, from the brothers and sisters in the dharma. If she does it well, her child will have uncles and aunts. If the child doesn’t have a father, he can consider his uncle as a father. It is not difficult to provide your child with an uncle. If you have a good sangha and good relationships with the people in the sangha, other members of your sangha can have a nephew or niece in your child.

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The nuclear family is very small. There is not enough air to breathe. When there is trouble between the father and mother, the child has no escape. That is a weakness of our time. Having a community where people can gather as brothers and sisters in the dharma, and where children have a number of uncles and aunts is a very wonderful thing.

We have to learn to create that kind of family. Each of us needs to be loved in order to go on. We need the kind of love that does not shatter our stability. If we cling to our teacher as a father and we want that father to pay attention to us only, that is not the way we love in the practice com­munity. We have to share the love of the teacher with everyone. We have to see the other members of the commu­nity as our brothers and sisters. This is something we can learn to do. It is already a tradition in the East, and it can be learned slowly here in the West. We can take the best from both cultures.

I hope that communities of practice will take that kind of shape in the West. Without that kind of warmth and family flavor, it is difficult to practice. When you bring your children to some practice centers, your children may be regarded as an obstacle for other people to practice. But if we have a community where people regard each other like brothers and sisters, a child of that community becomes the child of everyone. If he is doing something disturbing, such as hitting another child with a stick, his mother is not the only person who is responsible. Everyone in the community shares that responsibility. Together we try to find ways to prevent the child from hitting the other children. We might try holding the child tightly, doing that as an uncle, not as a foreigner or a policeman. Of course, the parent of the child should prevent their child from throwing rocks or hitting other children, but if the parent cannot discipline her child, then he or she has to let an uncle or an aunt do it.

When you are a student of your teacher, your children are grandchildren of your teacher in a spiritual family. The children in Plum Village call me “Grandpa Teacher.” I always approach them as a grandfather, not as someone outside the family. This is the way we conduct the practice in Vietnam. We do things as a family. A practice center should possess that kind of warmth, that kind of brother­hood and sisterhood that will continue to nourish us. and not be a place where people come only to take care of their own problems.

In a community of practice like this, a single parent can be very self-sufficient. At the same time, he or she will see that when the community is not there, he or she is capable of playing the roles of both mother and father. When you have learned and have the capacity of loving your child as a mother and a father at the same time, you are transformed. When you see stable families coming to practice, you can look at their stability and learn from it. You can learn a lot: how a father loves a child, how a mother loves a child. There must be some coordination between father and mother. A good father would not say, “If he’s spoiled it’s your fault.” It’s not her fault; it’s a collective lack of mindfulness.

The phenomenon of single parents is widespread in the West. If you practice and succeed in bringing up your child happily, then you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a dharma door. Single parenting is a dharma door. We need retreats, seminars, and dharma discussions on how to be parents. We cannot accept the ancient way of parenting. At the same time, we do not have a modern way of parenting. We need to elaborate on the way of being parents, drawing from our own experiences and practice. Using the greater community of practice to bring another dimension to the life of the nuclear family is important. Even though the nuclear family structure may not have much space in it, when nuclear family life is combined with the life of a practice community, a sangha. it can be very successful. You can bring your child to the practice center, very often, and both you and your child will benefit from the atmosphere there. And the practice center will benefit from your presence also.

In a good practice center, there should be a garden for the children to play in and there should be people who are skillful in helping children, people who can be good aunts and good uncles for the children. Then you will enjoy your practice, as a parent or as a single parent.

The Buddha did not specifically address the issue of single parenting. This is a new problem. But we can apply the basic teachings of the Buddha to find a way out. There are so many divorced parents: in Australia, in the West. When things become too difficult, people tend to think of divorce. Vietnamese families living in the West are also beginning to adopt this point of view. In traditional Vietnamese culture, the failure of a marriage is considered to be very bad. People don’t look on divorce with much respect.

Collective consciousness helps a lot. Instead of thinking of divorce, you make an effort to preserve your marriage, to return to your spouse with more harmony, with more understanding. In the West many people have divorced three, four, five times. They keep making the same kinds of mistakes. This is an issue which Buddhist practice has to address. We should not complain about having to deal with this issue. We should take it as an opportunity to study, look, and explore, in order to provide people with a new dharma door. How can we practice and bring the practice community into the nuclear family? How can we create a balance?

The Five Awarenesses 

Ed. Note: When Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates a marriage ce­remony, he asks the couple to repeat the Five Awarenesses and then to recite them together once each month. The fol­lowing is from a talk given at Plum Village in August, following Kathy Season and Damien Cameron’s wedding. 

Mindfulness is the basis for happiness. Before two people marry, they should practice mindfulness together, and after becoming husband and wife, they should continue to practice the Five Awarenesses as a manifestation of their Practice of Mindfulness. Happiness is not an individual matter.

In the first awareness. we see ourselves in the context of a lineage. We see that we are one element in a continuation of our ancestors, and that we open the way for future gen­erations. We play the role of connection. We can see the elements of the future and the past right in the present. The Buddha teaches us that the present contains the past and the future. By being in touch with the present, we shape the future and heal the past. If we take good care of our body and our consciousness, we take care of our ancestors in us, and at the same time we take good care of our children and our grandchildren.

The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations and that our children and their children have expectations also. Our happiness is their happiness; our suf­fering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us. We may not see them in person yet, but they are already talking to us. They want us to live in a way that they won’t be miser­able when they manifest. Buddhist practitioners, especially the Vietnamese, see themselves not as individuals, separated from their ancestors, but as a continuation representing all previous generations. Actions of the couple do not aim merely at satisfying the spiritual and physical needs of their individual selves, but also at realizing the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and at preparing for future genera­tions.

The third awareness tells us how joy, peace, freedom and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. Liberating them means liberating ourselves.  If we do not liberate them, we. will be in bondage an our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors in us. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony, at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely, happily touching the earth, we are doing it for all our ancestors and all future generations. The first three awarenesses are all aspects of one deep teaching. We have to continue to study and practice these first three awarenesses to deepen our understanding.

The fourth aware­ness is also a basic teaching of the Buddha. Where there is under­standing, there is love. When we understand the suffering of some­one, we are motivated to help. This energy is called love or compas­sion. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. But, some­times we destroy the person we love. It is like the general who said that his fighter bombers had to destroy the city of Ben Tie in order to save it. We have to practice in a way that whatever we do for others will only make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.

The first year of marriage is a difficult time. There is excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration, but the two people do not yet understand each other well. They live together twenty-four hours a day, looking, listening, and being aware of many details that they have not seen before, discovering more of their partner’s reality. Everyone of us has flowers and garbage inside us, not just of our making but of the making of our ancestors. If we know this in advance, we can be ready to accept everything that will manifest in the other person. When people fall in love, they construct a beautiful image of the other person, and they may feel shocked when they compare it with the reality. During the first year, many illusions about the other person will vanish. Until we give up our preconceived image, we miss the real beauty in the other person. We must be mindful to discover these flowers.

When we begin to see each other’s weaknesses, we may feel discouraged. We may need to be reminded of the other’s strengths. A married couple consists of two persons who have to lean on each other to help each other. We receive and nurture our partner like a tree, and we must find ways to water and protect him or her. We take care of the tree so that it flourishes. If there is some disease on the leaves, we must learn how to treat it. If the tree flowers and bears fruit, it is we who benefit. Both partners in the couple should regard themselves as the gardener, the caretaker, of the other. When we discover a weakness in the other person, we have to accept that. This is why the Buddha said, “Everyone has Buddha-nature,” the capacity of smiling, understanding, and being awake.

When we marry, we form a primary sangha, a sangha of two, and we begin to learn to love.. If we still have the feeling of being attached to each other, that is not real love yet. Love in the Buddhist context is loving kindness and compassion. It is the kind of love that does not have any conditions. We form a sangha of two in order to practice love—to take care of each other, to make our partner blossom like a flower, and to make happiness something real in that tiny sangha of two.

“Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity and of all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. Unless I succeed in loving you, I cannot love any­one else. So I am determined to love you. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth.”

This is the real message of love. How can we take advanced steps before we succeed in the primary steps? In the first one, two, or three years. this should be our purpose—to realize peace, happiness, and joy in that small sangha. We know that the small sangha should be placed in the context of a larger sangha. We are practicing with the help of our teachers, parents, friends, and all living beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. That is our larger sangha. “I want to express my love to the larger sangha, and I do it through you. Therefore I must be able to love you, take care of you, and make you happy.”

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of love itself. Looking deeply in order to understand is the basic practice. When a couple is happy, understanding and harmony are there. Then it is easy to extend that happiness, and joy to the people around us—our parents, sisters, brothers, and dharma friends.

If we blame each other and argue, we are divided. This is the fifth awareness. Everyone agrees, but when we become angry, we forget, and a force in us begins to argue and blame the other person for what happened. Only by practic­ing conscious breathing and smiling every day can we control that impulse. Conscious breathing and smiling every day help us develop the capacity to stop at that critical moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.

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Loving speech is an aspect of practice. We say only loving things. We say the truth in a loving way, with nonvi­olence. This can be done only when we are calm. When we are irritated, we may say things that are destructive. So when we feel irritated, we should refrain from saying any­thing. We can just breathe. If we need to, we can practice walking meditation in the fresh air, looking at soothing things like the trees, the clouds, the river. Once we have returned to our calmness, our serenity, we are capable again of using the language of loving kindness. If, during our expression, that feeling of irritation comes up again, we can stop and breathe. This is the practice of mindfulness.

All of us need to change for the better. When we marry, we make a promise to change ourselves and to help the other person change himself or herself so we can grow together. If we think only of changing and growing alone, eventually we will lose patience with the other person. Prac­ticing together, we change and we help the other person change. As a result, we grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of the other person. We are the gardener, the one who helps the tree grow. If the tree doesn’t grow well, we don’t blame it. We blame ourselves for not taking care of it well. Human beings are somehow like trees. If they are taken care of well, they will grow beautifully. If they are taken care of poorly, they will wither. To help a tree to grow well, we must understand its nature. How much water does it need? How much sunshine? If we understand, the tree will grow beautifully.

Every time the other person does something well, some­thing in the direction of change and growth, we should con­gratulate her or him to show our approval. This is important. We don’t take things for granted. If the other person mani­fests some of her talent and capacity to love and create hap­piness, we must be aware of it and express our appreciation. This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, “I don’t know whether you can do this” or “I doubt that you can do this.” Instead, we say, “This is difficult, darling, but I have faith that you can do it.” This kind of talk makes the other person stronger. This is true with children, also. We have to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. We have to appreciate and congratulate every good thing they say and do in order to help our children grow. When we are married, we can love each other in a way that encourages change and growth for the better, all the time.

For those who have been married for ten or twenty years, this kind of practice is also relevant. You can continue to live in mindfulness and continue to learn from the other person. You may have the impression that you know everything about your spouse, but it is not so. Nuclear scientists have studied one speck of dust for many years, and they still do not claim to understand everything about it. The more deeply they look into an electron, the more they realize how little they know about it. If a speck of dust is like that, how can a person say that he or she knows everything about the other person? Driving the car, paying attention only to your own thoughts, you just ignore your spouse. You think, “I know everything about her. There is nothing new in her anymore.” That is not correct. And if you treat her or him that way, she will die slowly. She needs your attention, your gardening, your taking care of her.

We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during our childhood, we see our mother or father do things that create happiness in the family, we can learn. But if our father and mother did not know how to create happiness in our family, we may not know how to do it. So in our practice community, we try to learn the art of making people happy. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of good will, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Good will is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy. Art is the essence of life. Try to be artful in your speech and action. Art needs some substance, and that substance is mindful­ness. When you are mindful, you are more artful. This is something I have learned from the practice.

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples’ feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child’s life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “No talent. Needs to be better motivated.” This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher’s Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students’ families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words “true person” were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, “Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?” The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, “Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?” Disappointed by the monk’s question, Linchi said, “That true person? What the heck!” No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach’s acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill’s content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

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Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother’s illness. We should tell people, “Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance.” We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. “Resis­tance” does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society’s pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society’s destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, “In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you.” The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father’s request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him “the destitute son.” No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos:
First photo by Ingo Gunther.
Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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Dharma Talk: The Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Noble Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, Right Action and Right Effort. Right View is the insight that we have within us of the reality of life. Our insight, understanding, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and the happiness of those around us depend very much on the degree of Right View that we have. That is why Buddhist practice always aims at helping us develop a deeper understanding of what is going on within us and around us.

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Right View can be termed prajna. It can also be described as enlightenment, understanding, or wisdom. There are people who practice hard, but instead of developing Right View, they become more narrow-minded. By looking at their insight, their capacity of understanding, their ways of loving others, we can know whether their practice is correct or not. It is not a problem of the mind or the heart. It is a problem of right practice. Right practice is always pleasant and joyful in this very moment and always leads to dissolving notions and developing Right View.

Can Right View be transmitted to another person? This is an important question. Sometimes parents have a deep understanding of life, but they are unable to transmit their insight to their children. There are many reasons for this. One is communication. If the line of communication is broken, no matter how much insight you have, you cannot transmit it. Another is that you do not speak the same language. A third is that your insight might be too personalized. It works for you, but it must be practiced and presented in another way to others.

Wisdom insight is the kind of energy that makes us happy, alive, and loving. Sometimes we try to express it in words, as in the sutras or the Abhidharma, the treatise on the Dharma. When the Buddha was fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he had that kind of energy in him, prajna. It made him very happy and loving. He wanted to share that insight with others; that is why he thought of the five ascetics who had practiced with him in the past. But before he set off for the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha remained near the Bodhi tree to enjoy his enlightenment. Enlightenment is enjoyable. The Buddha practiced sitting, walking, smiling to the trees, and playing with children from the village of Uruvela.

One day he went to a nearby lotus pond and sat for a long time, contemplating the lotus flowers and leaves. It was at that moment he discovered a way to communicate his insight to others. Insight is not made of concepts, but if you want to share your insight, you must use concepts, words, and notions. As the Buddha was looking at the lotus pond, he realized that people are of many different psychologies. Like the lotuses, some have roots deep in the mud, some have leaves still curled and underwater, some have buds partially exposed to the air, and some have leaves entirely above the water. That is why we need different means to share the Dharma with various kinds of people. The intention to create different Dharma doors was born at that time. One Dharma door is not enough.

During his 49 days of enjoying himself – sitting and walking around the Bodhi tree – the Buddha continued to translate his insight into notions and words. Then, during his first Dharma to the five ascetics, he spoke about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are the eight right practices. A sutra, or a Dharma talk, is a translation of the insight that has been achieved. Dharma talks are not insight in and of themselves. Sutras are just means of presenting insight in terms of concepts and notions. Even if it is a good description of the insight in terms of notions and words, there may be some difficulty. When you buy a map of New York City, you know that the map is not the city. You just use it to enjoy the city. It is important not to mistake the map for the city itself. Many people get caught by notions and words and miss the real insight. The Buddha said, “My teaching is like a finger pointing to the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” Do not get caught by the words and the notions, or you will never touch the real insight.

The Buddha also said, “My teaching is like a raft that can help you get to the other shore. Don’t grasp at the raft and think that the raft is the shore.” Another day he said, “It is dangerous to misunderstand my teaching. If you don’t learn and practice with intelligence, you will spread more harm than good. It is like a person who does not know the better way to catch a snake. He may get bitten by it. A clever person will use a forked stick to catch the snake by the back of the neck, so he can pick it up safely. If you catch a snake by the tail, you may be bitten. Learning and practicing the Dharma is the same. You need intelligence, you need a teacher, you need sisters and brothers in the Dharma to help you learn and practice.”

Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. Right View is living insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace. It is quite different from Dharma talks, sutras, or books. We must use words and notions and the understanding behind them. Imagine someone who has never eaten a kiwifruit. When he hears the word “kiwi,” many concepts or notions are created in his mind. If you try to explain a kiwi to him, you might describe it as a fruit of such and such size, a certain color, feel, and taste. But no matter how well you do the job, you cannot give the other person the direct experience of the kiwi. It must be tasted. That is the only way. No matter how intelligent the other person is, kiwi cannot be understood until he places a slice of kiwi into his mouth. The same difficulty confronts anyone trying to convey insight or enlightenment. You must have direct experience. We practice mindfulness, concentration, and looking, touching, and understanding deeply, so that insight might be possible.

Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View are the basis of the practice. The practice of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are easy and natural when the practice of Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View have become solid. The Venerable Nyanaponika, a German-born bhikkhu, has described mindfulness as the heart of Buddhist meditation. I fully agree. Right Thinking is a practice, and its essence lies in mindfulness. If you are not mindful, your thinking cannot be right. If you are not mindful, how can you practice Right Speech? You can make a lot of people unhappy and create a war within your community or family. That is why mindfulness in speaking is the heart of right speech. Right Action – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. – cannot be practiced properly unless mindfulness is the foundation of your being. The same applies to Right Livelihood; if you are mindful of the ecosystem and the suffering of other species, your attempt to practice Right Livelihood has a chance to succeed. If you are not mindful about what is happening to the earth, the water, the air, the suffering of humans and animals, how can you practice Right Livelihood? Mindfulness must be the basis of your practice. If your efforts are not mindful, those efforts will not bring about the good result you hope for. Without mindfulness, the more effort you make, the more you can create suffering and disorder. That is why Right Effort, too, should be based on mindfulness.

When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, concentration, and Right View are the essence of Buddhist practice. They are called the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight). Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to protect all life. I vow not to kill.” That First Precept is born from mindfulness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. Precepts are a concrete expression of mindfulness. I you don’t practice the precepts, you cannot say that you are practicing mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to practice the precepts in your daily life.

“Aware of the destruction of families and couples, aware of the suffering of the children who are sexually molested by others, I promise to practice protecting the integrity of the individual and the family. I vow to protect children from abuse. I vow to refrain from any act that creates a disintegration of families or couples. I vow to do my best to protect children.” This Third Precept is born from our mindfulness of what happens when we practice sexual misbehavior. All precepts, whether they number 5, 10, 14, 250, or 380, are born from the practice of mindfulness. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are all practices of the precepts. When you live your daily life this way, your mindfulness will grow. The energy of mindfulness brings about concentration. You are concentrated in your daily life. You are concentrated in your sitting and walking meditation, and you look deeply and touch deeply, which brings about more and more insight. More insight helps you practice mindfulness in your daily life more easily.

If we look into any one of the eight branches of the path, we see that the other seven are present in it. If we look at Right Speech, insight is present because correct speech is born from insight. We can see that we have concentration. If we are speaking mindfully about something, we know what we are saying. Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also found in Right Speech. We can see the nature of interbeing in all elements of the path.

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Mindfulness practice must be applied to our daily life in order to be true practice. At Plum Village, we practice not only in the meditation hall, but in the kitchen, the garden, and the bathroom as well. It is helpful to slow down. We enjoy walking, reading, bending down, and all that we do in mindfulness. When you drive, hold your baby, wash your dishes, or work at the office, you can practice mindfulness. But for that to be possible, you need the support of a Sangha. You must create a Sangha where you live, because you need the support of brothers and sisters in the practice. The Buddha was quite clear that the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of our daily lives, not of intensive retreats alone. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of an engaged Buddhist. Right Action – not to kill but to protect all life, not to steal but to be generous in giving time and energy for the people who suffer, not to break up families and couples, not to harm children but to protect them – all these things are meant to be practiced in real life.

To say “engaged Buddhism” is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not “engaged?” To communicate, we must use words, and hopefully our words will be heard and understood. In his first Dharma talk to the five ascetics at Deer park, the Buddha offered the Noble Eightfold Path, and in his last Dharma talk, spoken to the monk Sudhana, the Buddha also offered the Noble Eightfold Path. He said that where there is the Noble Path, there is insight. We must use our intelligence to apply the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to our daily lives.

The practice of Right View helps us develop a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. If you have deep insight into the truth of the suffering of beings, the truth of origination, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path, you have Right View. In fact, if you have a deep insight into any of these Four Noble Truths, you have deep insight into all four. Each truth contains all the others. This is the teaching of the Buddha about Right View from the historical dimension.

From the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said about Right View. There is a Zen story about two monks walking together. One sees a beautiful bird fly by. It is so beautiful that he wants to share the sight with the other monk. But the other monk has a pebble in his shoe and he is bending down to remove it. When the other monk looks up, there is no bird at all. So he asks, “What is it you want me to see?” But the bird is no longer there. All the first monk can say is, “A beautiful bird has just passed by.” It is not the same as showing him the bird. It is impossible for him to share his wonderful feeling. Sometimes we must just be quiet, when it is impossible to convey the insight.

A philosopher came to the Buddha and asked, “Is there a self? Is there a world?” Bombarded with questions like these, the Buddha said nothing. The philosopher became frustrated and left. Finally Ananda asked the Buddha, “You always say there is no self. Why didn’t you tell him?” The Buddha replied, “Anything I would have said would have done him more harm than good. I said nothing at all, to protect him from wrong views.”

Another time, an ascetic asked the Buddha to explain ultimate reality without using the terms being and nonbeing. The Buddha maintained silence for a long time, and the ascetic bowed three times and left. Ananda marveled and stated, “Lord, you did not say anything, yet he seemed to understand you.” The Buddha replied, “For a good horse, you don’t need a whip.”

Sometimes in Zen circles, they use language that is difficult to understand. This language is not made of concepts. It is a language to help us drop our concepts. From time to time, I try to use that kind of language myself. In 1968, when I was in Philadelphia for a peace demonstration, a reporter asked me, “Are you from the north or the south?” He wanted to put me in a box. If I said I am from the north, he would think I was anti-American. If I said I am from the south, he would think I was either with the National Liberation Front or pro-American. So I smiled and said, “I am from the center.” I hoped that would help him find a way to transcend the conflict. To understand the speech used in Zen circles, you must become familiar with this kind of language.

One Zen student said to his teacher, “I have been at the monastery for three years, and you have never told me about the true way of ultimate reality.” The teacher pointed his finger and said, “Monk, do you see the cypress in the front yard?” It is very important to notice the trees in the front yard. That monk had been living in the monastery for several years and he passed that cypress tree thousands of times, yet he never became aware of its presence. If he had been mindful, he could have touched the ultimate reality directly. How could he expect to touch ultimate reality if he had not even touched the tree in the front yard?

The story of that cypress tree became very well known throughout China. Another monk who heard the story of the cypress tree traveled very far to visit that teacher to ask him about it. But by the time the monk arrived, the teacher had already passed away. He was distraught as he now had no chance to ask his question. Another monk pointed him in the direction of the former teacher’s head disciple and suggested he direct his questions to him. The visiting monk went through many formalities to obtain an audience with this disciple, who was now senior monk. After listening to the visitor’s inquiry about the famous cypress tree, the senior monk answered, “Cypress tree? There is no cypress tree here.” The visitor could not believe it; the entire country had heard about that cypress tree. It had become an important topic of debate. Yet the head of the very temple where it originated did not seem to know anything about it? He tried to explain to the head monk that it was a very deep subject of meditation. He asked him if he was really the disciple of the master. The senior monk replied, “I am.”

When I first heard this story, I understood the senior monk’s intention to “kill” the cypress. Too many people were caught by it. If the visiting monk is intelligent enough, he can be enlightened by this “new” cypress. The cypress is a Dharma door. When you understand this type of exchange, you change your way of looking and understanding, and that can help lead you to enlightenment.

Another teacher when asked a philosophical question, replied, “Have you eaten breakfast?” When the disciple said, “Yes,” the teacher said, “Then please go and wash your dishes.” Washing the dishes mindfully is the door to the ultimate reality, the key to Right View and the whole Noble Eightfold Path. In the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra it is said, “no ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path; no understanding, no attainment” – no Right View, no Right Thinking. These are all notions, and you must free yourself from notions and words. The Buddha said, “My teaching is just a raft to help you get to the other shore. Don’t be caught by the raft.” We do our best practice this way.

This lecture was given in Plum Village during the 1994 Summer Opening. A book on Basic Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh will be published later this year.

Photos:
First photo by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.
Second photo by Tran Van Minh

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Dharma Talk: True Presence

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Four Mantras 

When you love someone, you have to be truly present for him or for her. A ten-year-old boy I know was asked by his father what he wanted for his birthday, and he didn’t know how to answer. His father is quite wealthy and could afford to buy almost anything he might want. But the young man only said, “Daddy, I want you!” His father is too busy – he has no time for his wife or his children. To demonstrate true love, we have to make ourselves available. If that father learns to breathe in and out consciously and be present for his son, he can say, “My son, I am really here for you.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The greatest gift we can make to others is out true presence. “I am here for you” is a mantra to be uttered in perfect concentration. When you are concentrated – mind and body together – you produce your true presence, and anything you say is a mantra. It does not have to be in Sanskrit or Tibetan. A mantra can be spoken in your own language: “Darling, I am here for you.” And if you are truly present, this mantra will produce a miracle. You become real, the other person becomes real, and life is real in that moment. You bring happiness to yourself and to the other person.

“I know you are there, and I am very happy” is the second mantra. When I look at the moon, I breathe in and out deeply and say, “Full moon, I know you are there, and I am very happy.” I do the same with the morning star. Last spring in Korea, walking mindfully among magnolia trees, I looked at the magnolia flowers and said, “I know you are there and I am very happy.” To be really present and know that the other is also there is a miracle. When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, if you are really there, you will recognize and appreciate it deeply. Looking at the sunset, you feel very happy. Whenever you are really there, you are able to recognize and appreciate the presence of the other – the full moon, the North Star, the magnolia flowers, or the person you love the most.

First you practice breathing in and out deeply to recover yourself, and then you sit close to the one you love and, in that state of deep concentration, pronounce the second mantra. You are happy, and the person you love is happy at the same time. These mantras can be practiced in our daily life. To be a true lover, you have to practice mindfulness of breathing, sitting, and walking in order to produce your true presence.

The third mantra is: “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” When you are mindful, you notice when the person you love suffers. If we suffer and if the person we love is not aware of our suffering, we will suffer even more. Just practice deep breathing, then sit close to the one you love and say, “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” Your presence alone will relieve a lot of his or her suffering. No matter how old or young you are, you can do it.

The fourth mantra is the most difficult. It is practiced when you yourself suffer and you believe that the person you love is the one who has caused you to suffer. The mantra is, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” Only five words, but many people cannot say it because of the pride in their heart. If anyone else had said or done that to you, you would not suffer so much, but because it was the person you love, you feel deeply hurt. You want to go to your room and weep. But if you really love him or her, when you suffer like that you have to ask for help. You must overcome your pride.

There is a story that is well-known in my country about a husband who had to go off to war, and he left his wife behind, pregnant. Three years later, when he was released from the army, he returned home. His wife came to the village gate to welcome him, and she brought along their little boy. When husband and wife saw each other, they could not hold back their tears of joy. They were so thankful to their ancestors for protecting them that the young man asked his wife to go to the marketplace to buy some fruit, flowers, and other offerings to place on the ancestors’ altar.

While she was shopping, the young father asked his son to call him “daddy,” but the little boy refused. “Sir, you are not my daddy! My daddy used to come every night, and my mother would talk to him and cry. When mother sat down, daddy also sat down. When mother lay down, he also lay down.” Hearing these words, the young father’s heart turned to stone.

When his wife came home, he couldn’t even look at her. The young man offered fruit, flowers, and incense to the ancestors, made prostrations, and then rolled up the bowing mat and did not allow his wife to do the same. He believed that she was not worthy to present herself in front of the ancestors. His wife was deeply hurt. She could not understand why he was acting like that. He did not stay home. He spent his days at the liquor shop in the village and did not come back until very late at night. Finally, after three days, she could no longer bear it, and she jumped into the river and drowned.

That evening after the funeral, when the young father lit the kerosene lamp, his little boy shouted, “There is my daddy.” He pointed to his father’s shadow projected on the wall and said, “My daddy used to come every night like that and my mother would talk to him and cry a lot. When my mother sat down, he sat down. When my mother lay down, he lay down.” “Darling, you have been away for too long. How can I raise our child alone? She cried to her shadow.” One night the child asked her who and where his father was. She pointed to her shadow on the wall and said, “This is your father.” She missed him so much.

Suddenly, the young father understood, but it was too late. If he had gone to his wife even yesterday and asked, “Darling, I suffer so much. Our little boy said a man used to come every night and you would talk to him and cry with him, and every time you sat down, he also sat down. Who is that person?” she would have had an opportunity to explain and avert the tragedy. But he did not because of the pride in him.

The lady behaved the same. She was deeply hurt because of her husband’s behavior, but she did not ask for his help. She should have practiced the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer so much. Please help. I do not understand why you will not look at me or talk with me. Why didn’t you allow me to prostrate before the ancestors? Have I done anything wrong?” If she had done that, her husband could have told her what the little boy had said. But she did not, because she was also caught in pride.

In true love, there is no place for pride. Please do not fall into the same trap. When you are hurt by the person you love, when you suffer and believe that your suffering has been caused by the person you love the most, remember this story. Do not act like the father or the mother of the little boy. Do not let pride stand in the way. Practice the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” If you really consider her to be the one you love the most in this life, you have to do that. When the other person hears your words, she will come back to herself and practice looking deeply. Then the two of you will be able to sort things out, reconcile, and dissolve the wrong perception.

The Practice of Loving Kindness

In our daily lives, we are often caught by wrong perceptions. We are human, and we make mistakes. When we listen unmindfully, we misunderstand the other person. We have to be aware of that. The Buddha said that we are caught many times a day by our wrong perceptions. We have to be careful not to be too sure of our perceptions. You might like to calligraphy these three words and put them on your wall as a bell of mindfulness: “Are you sure?”

When we look deeply, we often discover that it is we who cause ourselves the most suffering. We think our suffering is brought about by others – our parents, our partner, our so-called enemy – but when we look deeply, we see that out of forgetfulness, anger, or jealousy, we have said or done things to create our own suffering and the suffering of those around us. Suppose in the past I said something unkind to someone and made him suffer. Now, touching deeply the present, I can breathe in and out, smile to that person, and say, “I am sorry. I will never do that again.” When I practice this, I see the other person smiling to me even if he is not there, even if he has already passed away, and my wound can be healed. Touching the present deeply, we can heal the past. The practice of dwelling in the present moment can help us calm ourselves and transform our pain. If you were abused by your parents or your society, it is important to learn how to transform the violence that is within you, so that violence will stop destroying you and those around you.

Whenever there is a fight between parents and children, both sides lose. Children who have been sexually abused by adults often feel helpless. They feel that violence will eventually destroy them. It is very important to learn the art of transforming the energy of violence in you into something more positive, like understanding or compassion. If you have suffered because of violence, you may tend to use that violence against yourself. That is why it is so important to practice looking deeply to take good care of the violence that is within you. Looking deeply, you will be able to see what could have caused the other person to act so violently towards you. You see the person who sexually abused you as someone who is sick and needs to be helped. Children who have been victims of that kind of sickness also need to be helped. If you are aware of their suffering, you will be able to generate the energy of compassion and bring about healing. In the past, you may have been animated by the energies of hatred, violence, and blaming, but through the practice of looking deeply, those energies can be gradually transformed into understanding and compassion. Compassion helps us understand others, even those who have caused our suffering. With compassion and loving kindness in us, we suffer much less.

Looking deeply, we can see the other person as our mother, father, or ourself. Then it is easy to act with compassion. The hatred and anger we have towards the other person prevent us from being happy or peaceful. But if we practice looking deeply into the other person, we see that she also suffers. She may be living in hell, and she needs help. Maybe you are the only one who can help. With that kind of insight, the stream of compassion suddenly begins to flow in your heart, and you suffer much less. Your insight is the fruit of your practice of looking deeply.

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Just as there is no need to worry about the past, there is no need to worry about the future. The future is made only of the present. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. If you walk deeply, drink deeply, and act deeply – in ways that bring real peace and joy to yourself and those around you – the future will be assured. When you have a fight with the person you love, try closing your eyes and visualizing yourself and the other person 200 years from now. After three breaths, open your eyes and I am sure you will see the other person differently. You will only want to take him or her into your arms and practice hugging meditation. Breathing deeply and holding the one you love, the energy of love, care, and mindfulness will penetrate her and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower. You will want to do everything you can to make her happy now. Don’t wait until tomorrow.

Taking care of the present moment, you recognize the presence of the sunset, the morning star, the magnolia blossoms, and the person in front of you. When you practice this way, you will not be lost in your worries or anxieties about the future, or caught by the suffering of the past. The teaching of the Buddha is clear. You only have to practice it. With the presence of a loving Sangha, it is easy.

Buddhist meditation is, first of all, living mindfully. We practice precepts (sila), concentration (Samadhi), and insight (prajna). Being present helps us touch and look deeply into whatever is there. When you live deeply each moment of your life, you will have insight into yourself and also the person you think is the cause of your suffering. When insight is present, it is easy to love and accept, and you will see that the other person is not your enemy. He is yourself, and he needs you in order to be transformed. With that insight, the nectar of compassion is born in your heat. That nectar is the Buddha, the Holy Spirit, God, and it is available to us twenty-four hours a day.

After practicing taking ourselves as the object of love, we change the word “I” into “he” or “she.” (See The Nine Prayers, below.) We can do that only when we have some understanding, peace, and solidity within ourselves. Self-love is the foundation for the love of others. We begin with love for someone we have sympathy with; then for someone we are fond of; and then for someone who has made us suffer. The children in Somalia, the victims of war in the former Yugoslavia, the children in my mother’s native village may be considered first as neutral, people we don’t really know. But if we touch them deeply, looking into them, they are no longer neutral to us. We see that they are ourselves, and suddenly compassion and loving kindness are born in us. They become true objects of our love. Finally, we come to the person we consider our enemy, the person who made us suffer. With the practice of deep looking and deep understanding, that person can also become the object of our love.

But first, we have to learn to look at ourselves with the eyes of understanding (prajna) and love (maître). Many of us cannot accept ourselves. We are at war with ourselves and want to run away from ourselves. Practicing looking deeply into ourselves and seeing the nature of the joy and pain within us, gradually we are able to accept, love, and take care of ourselves. “Know thyself” is the practice of love. If we look deeply into ourselves, we discover the conditions that have formed us and then we can accept ourselves – both our suffering and our happiness. So first of all, we accept ourselves as we are. Then we can accept the other person as she or he is. Looking deeply, we see how that person has been formed. Just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements, that person has been made of elements that are not him – his ancestors, his parents, his society, and so on. Once we see the causes and conditions that have made him, we are able to accept him and take good care of him.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, love is made of understanding. With understanding, you can love. To understand is to see all the difficulties, pain, and problems the other person is having. If you ignore the suffering and aspirations of the other person, how can you say you love him or her? But to love and understand is also to see the aspirations and hopes of the other person. To understand him more, you can go to him and ask, “I want to make you happy, but I do not understand you. Please help.” If you want to love someone you don’t understand, you might make him or her suffer more. A father has to go to his son and ask, “My son, do I understand you enough? Or is my love making you suffer?” Husbands have to ask wives the same question. Otherwise our love can suffocate the other person. It may be just a person for him or her. The practice of mindfulness helps us be there, look deeply, and understand the other person. We need to say to the other person, “I really want to love you and make you happy, but I need your help. Tell me what is in your heart. Tell me your difficulties. Tell me whether my way of loving is making you happy or unhappy.” That is the language of true love. We need the other person’s help to love properly and deeply.

All of us are subject to wrong perceptions. We have an idea of happiness and we want the people we love to follow that idea, but by forcing them to do so, we make them suffer. True love is always made of true understanding. That is in the teaching of the Buddha. “Looking with the eyes of compassion” is an expression from the Lotus Sutra, describing Avalokiteshvara. When you look at others with the eyes of compassion, not only do they feel pleasant but you also feel very pleasant, because understanding and love pervade your heart. The amount of happiness you have depends on the amount of compassion that is in your heart. Compassion always carries with it joy and freedom. If you love someone without understanding, you deprive her of her freedom.

In Buddhist psychology, we say that our consciousness is made of two levels. The lower level is called store consciousness (alayavijnana), like the basement. We keep all our seeds down there, and every time we or someone else waters a seed, that seed will sprout and manifest itself on the upper level of our consciousness, called mind consciousness (manovijnana). Mind consciousness is like the living room consciousness. Seeds in the storehouse consciousness manifest themselves in the living room consciousness. There are also mental formations. Mental formations are of 51 kinds, according to the Northern tradition of Buddhism. Mindfulness, loving kindness, hatred, violence, fear, equanimity, and faithfulness are mental formations. They manifest themselves on the upper level of our consciousness.

Our store consciousness is described as the soil, the earth, containing many positive and negative seeds. We have to be aware of all these seeds and their importance. We have seeds of suffering in us, but not only seeds of suffering. When we look deeply into ourselves, we hay touch the suffering first, but we should know that there are other seeds present. Our ancestors have transmitted to us seeds of suffering, but also seeds of peace, freedom, joy, and happiness. Even if these seeds are buried deep in our consciousness, we can touch them and help them manifest.

To touch the seeds of joy, peace, and love within you is a very important practice. You can ask your friends to do the same for you. If you love someone, you acknowledge their positive seeds, and practice touching them every day. Touching and watering the seeds in one person is a very concrete practice of love. If you love me please refrain from watering only the seeds of anger, despair, and hatred in me. If you love me, recognize the seeds of joy, gladness, peace, and solidity in me also and touch them, several times a day. That will help me grow in the direction of health, joy, and happiness.

To practice mindfulness is to practice selective touching. Your happiness and suffering depend on you and the people around you. If they refrain from touching your negative seeds, if they know the art of touching the positive seeds in you, you become a happy person and your suffering will gradually be transformed by that kind of selective touching.

We learn how to touch the beauty of the sky and the autumn leaves even if pain and sorrow are still there. If it is difficult, we have to rely on the presence of a Dharma sister or brother ot help us do so. If one mindful person, capable of joy and happiness, sits close to us, her energy of mindfulness and joy will support us and help restore our balance. Suddenly, with her sitting close, we are able to touch the blue sky and the colors of autumn again. I think all of us have had that kind of experience. Alone it may be difficult. But with someone beside you, solid and free, it is less difficult. We profit very much from his or her presence. If you find yourself in a desperate situation and that person is far away, you go to her, because her presence can help you restore your balance and get in touch with the positive elements that are within and around you. That is why a Sangha and a practice center are so crucial.

You need a practice center where you can find brothers and sisters, so that in difficult moments you know where to go to get support. Even if you cannot come, just thinking about it can give you some relief. Building a practice center, building a small Sangha in your city so that you have the opportunity of meeting other brothers and sisters for the practice of walking meditation, mindful breathing, tea meditation, and recitation of the precepts is very important. It is a raft that can rescue us.

One young American who practiced during the Winter Retreat at Plum Village was asked to write down all the positive traits of his father and his mother. He found it easy to list positive things concerning his father, but he was having difficulty with his mother. He was able to write only two or three positive things about her. But when he began to look deeply, he was surprised to find that he could touch many positive things in his mother. He practiced walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and all the activities of the Sangha. Then when he sat down to write, the insight came very naturally. In a few days he discovered dozens of positive qualities in his mother. The more his discovered, the more his resentment toward his mother vanished, and he reestablished his deep connection with her. Compassion and love flowed in his heart. Then he sat down and wrote a love letter to her.

When his mother received the letter, she was very moved. Her son had never talked to her that way, in the language of true love. He recognized all her qualities and felt grateful for her presence. She rediscovered her son and her own happiness. She regretted that her mother was not still alive so she could write the same kind of letter to her. The son then wrote another letter, saying, “Mother, my grandmother is still alive in you. You think that she has passed away, but she is still alive in you. You can touch her deeply. So why don’t you write that letter now? I am sure Grandmother will read your letter, even as you are writing it.” That was the insight he got in the practice – that all our ancestors are still alive in us. Our parents, even if we hate them and do not want anything to do with them, are still inside us. We are only a continuation of them. The son wrote the second letter to his mother, and his mother practiced writing the same letter to her mother. One person practicing may help the whole family to practice.

The practice of Buddhist meditation is the practice of true love. True love has the power to liberate us ad bring happiness to ourselves and to living beings around us. True love is the love that retains liberty and creates joy. We cannot be peaceful and happy if we do not have true love in us.

The Nine Prayers

  1. May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
  2. May I be free from injury. May I live in safety.
  3. May I be free from disturbance, fear, and anxiety.
  4. May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and of love.
  5. May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
  6. May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
  7. May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
  8. May I be able to live fresh, solid and free.
  9. May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

NOTE: After practicing “May I be…”, you can practice, “May he (or she) be…”, visualizing first someone you like, then the one you love the most, then someone who is neutral to you, and finally the person whom thinking of makes you suffer the most. Then you can practice, “May they be…’, beginning with the group, the people, the nation, or the species you like, then the one you love, then the one that is neutral to you, and finally the one you suffer the most when you think of.

Photos:
First photo by Simon Chaput.
Second photo by Debora Faust.

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