Book Reviews

mb38-BookReviews1Journeying East:
Conversations on Aging and Dying

By Victoria Jean Dimidjian
Parallax Press, 2004

Reviewed by Lois Schlegel

For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of death. Even as a child I wrestled with this unknown. At night, when the house was quiet I lay awake trying to figure it out, trying to touch the mystery of it somehow, trying to understand.

None of the conventional answers satisfied me. I searched and questioned and suffered for years, as both my parents died before I was twenty-five and I witnessed the fragility of life from a mother’s perspective when my own children were born.

So, it was with a sense of kinship I read Victoria Jean Dimidjian’s outstanding collection of interviews on this subject. She too was touched by death as a child and her experience seems to shape this far-reaching book. Devoting her entire sabbatical from teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University to this project, Ms. Dimidjian traveled the globe to bring us insight from many of today’s prominent philosophers and death and dying practitioners.

Journeying East includes conversations with Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Eigen, Norman Fisher, Joan Halifax, Sister Chan Khong, Frank Osataseski, Rodney Smith, and John Wellwood. Each interview is at once intimate and transcendent, as if we too have been sipping tea with these masters and come away not with answers, but insight; not knowledge, but peace. As Rodney Smith so aptly tells the author when she asks him about his own fear of death, “You live it consciously; you live it actively; you live the open question of death. We access the true spirit of Buddhism by living the question of life.” This book is an invitation to that awareness and practice. It offers ways to tolerate and even find joy in the mystery of death.

Fill your life with music! Sing your blues away!
2 new COMPACT DISKS

Rivers & Oasis
Available through the Deer Park Monastery Audio Visual Department

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

www.deerparkmonastery.org/shop_online.htm

Wonderful new songs and chants are available as a gift from the fourfold Sangha. Through the direction of Sr. The Nghiem, monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen have come together to produce a CD of twenty-seven practice songs called Rivers. These songs clearly reflect the personal practice of the participants, watering seeds of peace, freedom, lightness, and joy in the listener.

For those who love singing and are looking for fresh songs to enjoy and to share with your Sangha, Rivers is the CD for you! There are fourteen songs in English, nine in Vietnamese, and four in French. Included in the English songs is the popular, In Gratitude, which many of us have learned. Most of the others were new to me, and a complete delight. My personal favorites include Alone Again, adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, Recommendation, and put to music by Christian monks; and No Wait, an acapella, two-voiced song encouraging self-reliance, which makes me cry with happiness every time I hear it. There is also a wonderful talk-story song by Sr. Chau Nghiem, called Peace is the Way. The CD’s name comes from a lovely song featured first, and also reflects the many sources that came together to form the beautiful music which now flows out to all of us.

Oasis is a compilation of some of the chants we already know in fresh arrangements, plus some new ones. By far the most notable is the Discourse on Love, which I am now listening to as part of my daily practice. I have always wanted to memorize this wonderful sutra, and by putting it to music, I am learning it without effort. I find that listening to and singing this beautiful chant is watering seeds of deep love and happiness in me. I look forward to experiencing this chant with the worldwide Sangha. I hope we will all learn and enjoy it.

Best of all, you can sample these musical offerings online, at: www.deerparkmonastery.org

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Airplane Dharma: No Birth , No Death

By Christian Bergmann

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We flew one night with the Sangha from Hue to Hanoi. Half the airplane was filled with monastics and lay Sangha. Over an hour into the flight we were told that bad weather conditions were preventing us from landing in Hanoi. Now we were heading for Haiphong, a town by the sea two hours’ drive from Hanoi, and would take a bus from there back to Hanoi. As we approached Haiphong, we could see that the weather there was not much better. It was so foggy we could barely see our own wings, much less any city lights below.

As we got close to the ground the pilot switched off all the cabin lights. We sat in the blackness, flying slower and slower, expecting to touch down any minute but with no idea how close to the ground we actually were. Time seemed to stretch forever sitting in the dark plane.

Suddenly the airplane was thundering, the engines going full blast, as the pilot pulled the plane sharply up. It was very loud in the cabin. I wondered if this would be my last minute in this life. I expected we might hit a building or the trees at any second.

My wife, Angela, and I held hands, saying that we loved each another, just in case these were to be our last words. I trembled.

My legs were shaking, my heart was beating fast and hard, my breath was choppy. Fear of death captured my mind.

It was a powerful teaching. Being a hospice nurse, I had fooled myself into believing I had accepted the impermanence of life. But when that reality got personal and real, I saw that I have a long way to go in my understanding! I was not willing to let go of this life.

So we sang some spiritual songs as I tried to focus on my breath. What brought me the most calm was chanting Avalokiteshvara’s name and visualizing the Buddha’s and Thay’s smiling faces.

This experience was a great mirror in which I saw that my practice has yielded only partial success. And it was a great inspiration to practice wholeheartedly, and to live each day as if it may be the last. As we gained altitude, we flew back to Hue. After refueling, we reboarded the plane for another try.

Christian Bergmann, Joyful Gratitude of the Heart, lives in Berlin, Germany and practices with the Source of Compassion Sangha.

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Dwelling in the Ultimate in North Mississippi

By Steve Black

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“In the Ultimate I dwell,” Thay says. And turning to the child holding his right hand, he says, “Do you know what the Ultimate is?”

Silence. The child looks at Thay. His head is level with Thay’s thigh. He says nothing.

Thay gently repeats the question: “Do you know what the Ultimate is?”

“No,” the child says. “Neither do I,” Thay replies.

They begin walking, Thay and the two children on his left and right.

A few steps later they stop again.

“If you don’t know what the Ultimate is, I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Thay says. “It’s a kind of plant. It’s a kind of flower.” He grins.

And with that we begin walking along the front of the meditation hall, which has been newly built in the Mississippi hill country, about four miles from Batesville. It is Tuesday, October 11, Thay’s seventy-ninth Continuation Day and the first morning of his visit to Magnolia Village. Over 200 of us are gathered here this morning. Tomorrow, on the Mindfulness Day, that number will increase more than 300, and more than forty people will receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings. On both days, roughly half the participants are Vietnamese and the other half are Westerners.

We walk through the chilly morning fog, around the long meditation hall, and across a wide field lined on either side with the tents of those of us who are staying at the center during Thay’s four-day visit here. There are no dormitories. In fact, the only structures here are the meditation hall, a one-story house where Thay and the monks are staying, a mobile home that is being used to house the nuns, and a hand-hewn corn crib that was built in the nineteenth century and stands as a witness to the land’s former manifestation as a cattle farm.

This land, 118 acres in all, is a gift from the North Mississippi Vietnamese community. Inspired by Thay’s visit to Memphis for Peace Walk 2002, they began to look for property suitable for a practice center. A year later, in November 2003, they had located this property. Now, twenty-three months later, the sale of the land has closed, and the meditation hall has been built, along with a beautifully landscaped pond with a bridge leading to a Kwan Yin statue on a small island.

Learning the Landscape

The history of this land on which we are walking is at once rich in joy and saturated with suffering. On land that was worked by slaves forced into labor, on land in a state that, through lynchings and countless acts of brutality and small, daily humiliations, has become the emblem of the racism that has darkened our entire country’s history for so many centuries, on land that has known the joys of generations of farm children at play, we are now enjoying these precious four days with Thay and the monastics and friends who have gathered here from Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

The grass is damp from heavy dew and by the time we have reached the middle of the field, my shoes are soaked through. They will remain uncomfortably wet until the sun emerges in the early afternoon and begins to dry them. But there is a joy and solidarity in this dampness. All around me I see people with their shoes soaked, their pants wet up to their calves, brown grass blades stuck on their heels and pants legs. We are all walking together.

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At the end of the field, we walk through a gate and onto a gravel lane, down into a ravine and out again, stepping into a wide pasture. We are walking slowly, learning this new landscape as we go: its dry creek beds; its unexpected patches of late blooming swamp sunflowers, blue wild ageratums, and purple beauty berries; its stands of persimmon, oak, cedar, pines, sassafras, and sweetgum trees.

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We walk for a long time, stopping finally along the edge of the pasture, and Thay sits on the ground. We all ease ourselves onto the wet grass, taking a moment to find a position that will ensure the least amount of dampness. Thay shows the children how to make the “five mountains” with their hands and then Sister Chan Khong begins singing. Thay guides us in the singing as well, making us repeat verses when we lose the melody or sing off key. At one point, during “I Take Refuge in the Buddha” he stops us and, reminding us of our southern roots, says, half-scoldingly, “This is country music.” It’s true, I realize, when Thay begins singing again; here we are in Mississippi, singing about taking refuge in the Buddha to a traditional country melody.

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Blessings

Later that morning, in the meditation hall, Thay formally accepts the donation of the practice center. He has promised us that, two or three times a year, monastics will come to Magnolia Village to lead retreats, and he says that if the Sangha practice in the Mid-South area becomes strong, he will send a group of resident monastics in a few years. As part of the Acceptance Ceremony, the monks offer a chant, and then Thay stands and, lifting a glass of water and a long-stemmed rose, begins flinging droplets onto the fruit and flower offerings on the altar. He steps up onto the altar and sprays water onto the Buddha statue made out of beautiful white Vietnamese marble. Stepping down, Thay walks along the side of the hall, flinging water onto the walls and dropping it onto the heads of the people sitting along the edge of the room. And once Thay has circled the room, he begins to walk up and down the rows of people sitting on cushions, dropping water onto our heads. Thay walks up behind me and I can’t hear his feet approaching. Suddenly there is the sound of rose petals rustling above me and when the drops fall on the crown of my head, I feel as if a weight has landed on me. I bow my head slightly and Thay steps quietly forward.

Sitting there, I bow in gratitude to Thay for coming to Magnolia Village. I bow in gratitude to the opportunity to practice with so many friends on the path. I bow in gratitude for this opportunity to dwell in the Ultimate in North Mississippi.

Whatever the Ultimate might be.

Steve Black, Compassionate Continuation of the Heart, and his wife, Virginia, Peaceful Mountain of the Heart, live and practice in Statesboro, Georgia.

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Peace, Salaam, Shalom

By Susan Hadler

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On September 24, 2005, approximately 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. to demand an end to the war in Iraq. People clustered into various affinity groups including the Buddhist one that Sangha member Susan Hadler joined.

We sang as we walked down Sixteenth Street towards the White House, “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.” I sang to Abdullah Abdul-Majeed Al-Shadoon, wearing his name on a tag around my neck, given to me at the church where we gathered before the march. Abdullah Abdul-Majeed Al-Shadoon was twenty-six years old when he died on April 22, 2003. A beloved son, a brother, a friend, maybe a father. I also sang to my father who was twentyfive when he died in April 1945 in World War II when I was an infant. I sang with the mothers and fathers walking with us whose children were killed recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We walked together with our knowledge of war and our message of peace: clergy and laypeople of all faiths, Code Pink women, anarchists dressed in black, Buddhist monks accompanying our steps with drums, brothers and sisters coming from Alaska to Florida. I walked with the Buddhist affinity group, thankful to be part of a community practicing walking, singing, sitting, and breathing peace. We walked with the larger Sangha, gathered to hold in mind and heart the names of all the dead in the war on Iraq and to present those names with a letter to President Bush as a plea to end the killing and to use our resources for helping people live.

We sat in front of the White House, peacefully and joyfully sharing food and water. We did not move when the police told us to leave. The police picked up Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and carried her to a paddy wagon. She was smiling. They arrested people in batches, handcuffed them, put them into paddy wagons, and drove off. We sat on the curb and sang peace songs to Mr. Bush and the White House and Congress and to each other. Walking. Sitting. Singing. Smiling. Our practice nourished us and gave us strength. The atmosphere within and around us was peaceful, dedicated, generous.

Prisoner 5-168

Our turn came. Our Buddhist affinity group stood in a row, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front. When it was my turn I smiled and bowed to the young police officer, turning as he attached the handcuffs. As prisoner 5-168, I entered a DC Metro bus borrowed from the city due to the unexpectedly large number of people being arrested, 374 in all. A police escort led the bus to the park police headquarters in Anacostia.

Our bus was our jail cell for about ten hours. We were a joyful group of forty-eight women of all ages and colors, singing, talking, sharing stories. Those who could scratched the noses of those who couldn’t, as we worked to wriggle out of our handcuffs. The young police officer assigned to us tried to be tough but ended up becoming our friend. As time went on my slight headache worsened and I lay down on the back seat, a woman sharing her pillow with me. I followed my breath in and out, and I felt Thay’s presence, reminding us to keep breathing. He knew where we were and I felt his prayers and energy. I began to relax.

About one p.m., we were led inside a garage split into two rooms by a chainlink fence, women on one side, men on the other. Sangha sister Roberta and I began doing mindful movements and a circle formed. As the outside doors closed, we knew we were locked up in a filthy, greasy place, but our minds were free and we were able to help each other stay calm. Often during that night and since then I have sent love and courage to those who are imprisoned.

We Are Free

Finally the police called our numbers to be processed. Inside the police headquarters more information was taken and for a short time we were put into tiny dirty cells, about seven to a cell. Called by number for fingerprinting and photographing, we were then given back our names and our property.

I looked out the door into the four a.m. night and saw a taxi waiting, and Maia and Bob of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship welcoming us. Our taxi driver was a South African who had been arrested many times in his country’s efforts toward liberation.

Because we were a Sangha and because we practiced, we were peace and we were free and we were home every step of the way.

Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Alexandria, Virginia. This was her first arrest.

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Sangha Building in Hanoi

By Trish Thompson

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I am living in Hanoi. Am I dreaming? How has this happened? The answers can, as always, be found in the teachings. This is because that is. Manifestation occurs when conditions are sufficient. The understanding of the answers, however, is found in life, and mine has definitely taken some unexpected turns.

When I arrived in Vietnam in January 2005 for the trip with Thây, I was feeling especially happy and free. I had finally completed a five-year divorce process, the culmination of many years (and perhaps, many lifetimes) of bobbing about in the ocean of suffering. I had lived for decades in a hell realm which left me no alternative but to practice. My teachers, the teachings, and the sangha, as well as my determination and effort, had allowed me to transform the negative energies which had been so all-consuming. Now, how perfect to begin this new phase of my life by traveling and practicing for three months with Thây and the sangha in Vietnam! I had laughingly told friends and family in the U.S. that “I just might not come back.” I was joking, or so I had thought!

Right away, riding into Hanoi from the airport, I felt a strong attraction to the landscape and architecture. The lushness of the rice paddies, and the bent backs and conical hats of those who were working them, stirred something in me. A thought came, “I could live here.”

Over the next weeks, as is usual for me, I fell in love with the sangha and with everything and everyone around me, but something was different. The ocean of suffering had been transformed into a sea of love, and I was swimming in it. The Heart Sutra became real. I was living it. There seemed to be no obstacles for my path, and consequently, the trip unfolded easily. Even though our schedule was very full and the law of impermanence sometimes manifested quickly and unexpectedly, nothing could mar my happiness.

I quickly made wonderful connections with Vietnamese people, first in Hanoi and then in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). During a Day of Mindfulness at Van Hanh University, the Buddhist institute in HCMC that Thây had co-founded over 40 years ago, I had surprising encounters with two faculty members and the president, who all agreed that they needed to have a foreigner on staff. And they invited me to return to teach mindfulness meditation and English. Our shared enthusiasm was somewhat tempered when they remembered that for them to receive permission to hire a foreigner would not be easy and would take time. While I knew this invitation might be withdrawn, the seed of possibility had been thoroughly watered.

In segment two, I experienced a strong connection to the land during an overnight visit with Thây and the sangha to Bat Nha [Prajna Temple], the practice center in the central highlands. I felt such profound contentment and immediately visualized myself spending time there. When the announcement was made that Bat Nha would become a Plum Village monastic center, a surge of joy ran through my body.

During Têt, which we celebrated in HCMC, my oracle was read by Sister Chan Khong and Brother Phap Tru. My question was, “I am happy here. I am also happy there. In Vietnam, however, I see love everywhere, especially in the eyes of the people. I want to live here. I want to help build a bridge between the East and the West. How can I do that?” The answer from the Patriarchs came down through the centuries, declaring, “If you meditate consistently in your meditation hut, in a balanced way, all your wishes will come true.” I think I floated out of the meditation hall. Carried by feelings of calm confidence, I had my assignment and somehow I knew I could do it. A few days later, Sister Chan Khong announced that lay friends could invest in the construction of meditation huts at Bat Nha, and I immediately committed.

My future seemed clear. I would live in HCMC. However, several times I heard myself say to others, “I wish something would happen in Hanoi.” Something seemed to be pulling me to that northern city, even though nothing very special had happened to me there. But the trip was not over.

Love and Service in Hanoi

At the end of the three-month tour, I had two nights and three whole days to enjoy being in Hanoi before returning to the U.S. An American lay-sister, a roommate on the tour, suggested that while there, I should meet her cousin, for “he is very interesting, loves living and working in Vietnam, and is a good person for you to know.” I agreed, so she introduced us via e-mail. An American lay-sister suggested I meet an American woman, a Quaker who has lived and worked in the country for more than 30 years.

Conditions were truly sufficient. I met the cousin for dinner, and we agreed to meet for a second evening. I met the woman, and we enjoyed time over lunch. They each, in their own way, urged me to stay, and I did. I postponed my departure for some weeks, then returned to the U.S. only to pack a few things for my move to Hanoi. These life-changing decisions were the easiest I have ever made.

The woman became a dear friend. The man became my beloved and my partner. I was home. I am often asked how I found this partner and this relationship that brings me so much joy. I did not find him, for I was not looking. I was becoming. I became the happy, loving person I wanted to meet, and there he was!

Planting a Dharma Garden

For years, when voicing a wish to become a monastic, I was told to create happiness through sangha building. I tried, but my practice was too weak. Sister Susan said, “Nurture yourself. Plant a garden,” and I did. I withdrew from that which brought no happiness. Several years of gardening were required before flowers could bloom, but with right effort and the support of the sangha, all things are possible.

I received the transmission for membership in the Order of Interbeing in 2002. While that is certainly not a prerequisite for sangha building, my own practice deepened, and in 2003 I started the Sea Island Sangha of Beaufort, South Carolina. I found much happiness in my work there.

The Hanoi Community of Mindful Living (HNCML) became a reality in April 2006. We are a very dedicated group, many of whom are new to the practice. Each week seems to bring one or two experienced practitioners. We are a diverse sangha of many cultures, with both foreign and Vietnamese friends. Our core is made of 15 to 18 people who love to practice together. Already, more than 120 names are on our e-mail list.

Our weekly schedule is quite full, with something for everyone. Early morning sitting and walking meditation is three days a week. A compassionate listening group meets every Tuesday. One evening is devoted to sitting, walking, and Dharma discussion. On another, we chant for peace. Occasionally, we enjoy a special practice or day of mindfulness.

I do not question for a moment why I am in Vietnam. I am here because I am happy here. I am here to build sangha. The roots of my spiritual family are in this land. Sanghabuilding here, I have discovered, is no different from sanghabuilding in South Carolina, and, I suspect, anywhere else. Nurturing myself and taking care of my inner garden is my priority. When I do that, my loving energy is boundless.

mb43-Sangha4Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, recently helped translate and edit an anthology of Vietnamese women’s poetry, to be published by Vietnam’s Women’s Publishing House and the Feminist Press of New York City.

A Recent Evening of Sitting & Chanting at the Hanoi Community of Mindful Living

Linh’s face breaks into a broad smile, as she bows and begins to speak. “I am thirty years old, and I hope I can come to this place forever!” The rest of our group laughs. “I feel so happy here,” she says. “All my colleagues at work tell me I am so much happier, since I began to come to these meetings, and it’s true!” The next to speak is Alan who bows and offers, “I’ve done a lot of work with the mentally ill and the mentally challenged, and I’ve been thinking this week about how I can introduce that population to the practice of chanting. After only a few weeks, I can see that chanting is very healing.” Hang speaks next: “ My whole life has changed since I found this group. I have fallen in love with the teacher, the teachings, and the practice!” Daisuke introduces himself. He has meditated for many years in a Japanese tradition. “I am so surprised at my feelings,” he says as he pats his chest.

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On this Thursday evening, we are a group of eighteen. Chanting is a new practice for our members. We are learning to chant the Opening Verse and the Heart Sutra in English, after which we sit while listening to the Vietnamese version on CD.

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We follow this with twenty minutes of sitting and chanting Namo ‘Valokiteshvara, a weekly practice. We send our loving kindness energy to ourselves and then to all places and people who are experiencing violence and war.

The last thirty minutes we devote to the singing of Plum Village songs. Tonight, we learn “No Coming, No Going” in English. Tam, a seasoned practitioner, sings it in Vietnamese, earning our silent, enthusiastic applause. She agrees to teach us next week. Someone suggests we sing it in French, and we do. Huong, a newcomer, beams and says, “I love singing! My favorite sentence is ‘I am in you, and you are in me.’”

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Grand Visit to a Small Country

Thây in the Netherlands

In the spring of this year Thây came with a delegation of 30 monastics from Plum Village for a ten-day visit to the Netherlands. Both the public talk, ‘Peace Is Every Step’, in The Hague and the five-day retreat in Oosterbeek near Arnhem were sold out. Many people made Thây’s visit and the retreat a wonderful and joyful practice. New sanghas are starting, local sanghas, but also a peaceworkers’ sangha. Sleeping sanghas wake up again, and small sanghas grow. It is clear that Thây’s visit to the Netherlands brought new inspiration to the Dutch sangha. Here are fragments of personal reports by participants. For reflections by young retreatants, see “Children’s Voices” on page 29.

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Preparations for the Public Talk in The Hague

Along the edge of the stage: 22 meters of transparent glass vessels topped by yellow daffodils. Behind it, the warm red velvet of the curtain. A white banner with a painted tulip hangs from ceiling to floor: roots, bulb, stalk, and 10 meters above the floor, the flower. In between, the brown of the monastics with their bright faces, the sun. This is the image that 2000 people see from the auditorium.

The basic idea popped up in the intimacy of Didi’s small car: ‘The window sill’, a typical Dutch feature, ‘with flowering tulip bulbs on it’. The tulips turn out to be too expensive. The idea changes, we replace the tulip bulbs with daffodils.

We start collecting glass jars and bottles. At recycling containers we stand and ask people to give us their jars and bottles: a good exercise in humility. For many weeks bags and boxes full of dirty glassware wait to be cleaned. We start loving these glass forms, the beauty of their brightness and simplicity.

On April 28, we drive to our friend Pim. Due to a late spring this year in Holland, the yellow trumpets are still there at the end of April. With shoes wet from the dew, we pass through the bulb fields. In The Hague it takes us all afternoon to get water, glass jars, and flowers in the right place. The banner with the beautiful tulip in the middle of the stage hangs brilliantly. At 6 p.m. we’re finished, ready to enjoy the lecture, the singing, and the sight of this stage. And we think about what we have experienced in turn: humility and dirt, cleaning and brightness, transformation and joy.

—Gré Hellingman and Didi Overman

The Lecture, “Peace Is Every Step”

On the evening of the talk it was very busy in The Hague. The town is the residence of the government and that day it celebrated the eve of ‘Queen Day’ (the birthday of the Queen). Our group of students from the agronomy university reflects a broad segment of the audience that feels touched by Thây’s message that “the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present.”

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While 2000 people slowly fill the room, a number of nuns and monks are sitting in meditation on the podium. Hundreds of daffodils provide color and joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh calmly walks onto the podium and takes his place on a meditation cushion. We are requested to mindfully watch our breathing, while on the podium there is singing accompanied by the vibrating tones of a bell. I feel the hall gradually becoming calmer. Some people welcome this peacefulness very much indeed: in front of me two men start to fall asleep.

Thây starts to tell about the merits of walking meditation. ‘Walking meditation helps us to get into the now.

Often we are a little ahead or behind. Our thoughts are in the future or the past, while our life is only in the present moment.’ Thây speaks about the importance of deep listening and loving speech in dealing with lonely desperate youth, and even with violent extremists. He also talks about his peace work with Israelis and Palestinians.

After the talk the audience is invited to take a souvenir. On the train back, I see daffodils here and there. Tonight Thich Nhat Hanh has clearly touched and inspired a lot of people.

—Barbara Tieleman

The Retreat in Papendal, Oosterbeek, May 1-5

To me as a newcomer, the five-day retreat was like an intensive course in slow and mindful living. Incredible what Thây, the monastics, and the Dutch organization managed to fit into the program! Every day eating in silence (amidst pictures of Olympic sportsmen), a guided sitting meditation, a dharma talk, walking meditation, and discussion in the families. In addition, ‘beginning anew’, ‘touching the earth,’ and the taking of the Five Mindfulness Trainings (by almost 200 people!).

In his dharma talks, Thây elaborated on issues touched upon in the public talk, such as living in the here and now, and overcoming hostility by deep listening and loving speech. During the week Thây tuned his talks more and more to the current harsh Dutch political atmosphere. He did so in a positive, encouraging and inspiring way.

On May 4, Memorial Day, some younger and older participants told their personal stories of war, peace, conflict, and reconciliation. (The retreat was located in a spot where 61 years ago, bombs had fallen.) That evening we celebrated peace with a candlelight procession and we sang peace songs in the open air. There was a festive atmosphere in Oosterbeek.

—Wilma Aarts

Snapshots of the Retreat

Snatches flutter through my head and heart, songs I hear myself sing when I ride my bike, images on my retina. Some fragments…

In his talk on making peace Thây stands rocking the baby of pain in his arms, saying to it: “I’ll take good care of you. I don’t know yet what is wrong with you, whether you are lonely or angry, but I know that you are in pain. With my full attention, I will be with you, I do not leave you alone.”

Thây sketches the image of a friend, an American peace activist, who is in a coma in a hospital. In his last hours Thây and Sister Chan Khong visit him, massage his feet and remind him of all the good peace work he did. And Sister Chan Khong sings for him the song she sings for us now: ‘No Coming, No Going’.

The island in ourselves, a place of comfort and renewal we can return to, before we step into the outside world. In his talk Thây describes the island in ourselves. And then we sing the new, Dutch version of this song. The young Dutch monk who sings so beautifully leads the singing and we follow.

Children around Thây, helping each other to entwine their little fingers into mudras. It is almost still, a pigeon coos, a giggle. Thây loans his bell to a child. Very mindfully he mimes inviting the bell, the unhearable sound of the invisible bell.

—Else Meerman

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The Wonderful World of Gathas

By David Percival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwelling in Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gatha to Cool the Flames

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

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

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

Sitting by the Garlic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources for Gatha Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blue Sky Practice

By Susan Hadle

Almost every place is taken tonight in the meditation hall. “Probably a lot of people have come to find an island of comfort and safety after the tragedy at Virginia Tech,” I tell myself as I settle into my cushion. I notice the seed of sorrow that has darkened my mind since returning from caring for my brother who took his last breath just weeks ago. This seed seems to have a little magnet inside that attracts sadness.

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Richard is the bell inviter and he welcomes us to the second half of the evening. He tells us he has a practice he wants to offer that he learned from John Bell of the Mountain Bell Sangha in Massachusetts. It’s called Blue Sky Practice. He explains. “First we’ll sing the song ‘Blue Skies’ and then we’ll take a few minutes to think about a ‘blue sky’ experience. A few people will tell what qualities blue sky moments have for them. After that we’ll meditate on our own blue sky experiences. Next we’ll find one other person whom we don’t know very well and take turns sharing our blue sky times and then we’ll return to the circle and share.”

“We Left the Camps Singing”

Surprised and curious, I wait while Richard hands out little squares of paper with the words to “Blue Skies” printed in blue ink. And then Freddie leads us as we sing:

Blue skies smilin’ at me
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see
Bluebirds singin’ a song
Nothin’ but blue birds all day long.

Never saw the sun shinin’ so bright
Never saw things goin’ so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly.

Blue days all of them gone
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.
Blue skies smilin’ at me
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see.

We stumble along together the first time and then we sing with our hearts. Sangha energy flows and begins to open this crowded heart. I remember something I learned during the retreat at Deer Park. Thay wants us to be happy. The Buddha wants us to be happy. And, most amazing, happiness can exist even in the midst of sadness. Daffodils bloom on cold, wet spring days. On a transport to Auschwitz, Ettie Hillesum threw a postcard out the train window that read, “We left the camps singing.” Not fake happiness that we wear to please others, but the happiness that comes from remembering that right now we are alive, the happiness that comes from being aware of what is real in this moment.

Earth Beneath and Sky Above

We’re given a few minutes to think about a blue sky experience. I am walking on a mountain ridge close to the sky. So free. People share and I think of other blue sky times. And then we meditate for about ten minutes. “Blue sky. Remember blue sky,” I tell myself as I notice the seed of sorrow sprouting again. This seed has grown thick recently with sad thoughts: “It shouldn’t have happened. I don’t want it to be like this. They were too young. It could have been prevented. If only.” And then, “Oh yes. This is Sangha and we’re meditating on our blue sky moments.” I am walking along the red dirt path, trees beside me, earth beneath and sky above. All is well. This picture fades and I am back with my brother. I feel sad. I open my eyes and remember that I am with the Sangha where we are together concentrating on blue skies. Space opens up inside me and I relax. I feel light and content to be sitting here with the Sangha.

We find a partner and share. He goes first and I listen like Buddha, as Richard has suggested we listen, wide open to listening, just listening without thoughts or feelings. I feel refreshed enjoying his blue sky experiences and then telling him mine.

We join the circle and share moments of clarity and joy and freedom. It’s right here as we talk, ‘blue skies smilin’ at me.’ I bow in, “Blue sky mind is contagious. I feel happy.”

Now it’s today and I wake up early to meditate. The heaviness of the past month is gone. I hear the birds and see the golden sky behind the trees. I invite the little bell and the little bell is the blue sky filling me with spaciousness.

mb48-Blue3Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC. In the past two years Susan has been able to be with her mother, her brother and her step-father as each took their last breath.

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Calligraphic Meditation

By Maureen Chen

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From September 7 to December 31, 2013, Calligraphic Meditation: The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh––the first U.S. exhibition of Thay’s calligraphies––was held at ABC Home in New York City. Jointly presented by Blue Cliff Monastery and ABC Home, the exhibition had already shown in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand.

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ABC Home sells elegant, responsibly sourced home furnishings. Its CEO and Creative Director Paulette Cole and COO Amy Chender both own Thay’s calligraphies and attended his NYC public talk in October 2011. Thus, when consultant Lorna Chiu proposed the exhibition on behalf of Blue Cliff, they were eager to host.

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In the store’s front windows, huge calligraphies were displayed with furnishings as they would appear in a home. The artwork featured two empty Zen circles as well as Thay’s aphorisms: look deeply, be beautiful be yourself, breathe, go as a river, and no mud no lotus. Occasionally, someone noticed them and even stopped to take photographs or watch the video of Thay doing calligraphy.

Just inside the entrance, breathe served as a mindfulness bell, inviting viewers to stop and become aware of their breathing. Then look deeply invited them to look at and buy Thay’s books and CDs displayed below the art.

A Sacred Sanctuary

Inside the store, the Deepak HomeBase gallery— created by Paulette Cole and bestselling author Deepak Chopra to present the work of visionary individuals—was transformed into a sacred sanctuary by the sixty-six framed calligraphies on its walls. These included more of Thay’s core teachings, such as peace is every step, this is because that is, smile, and the English, French, and Chinese versions of i have arrived i am home.

At a press conference held on September 5, a panel of fi e monastics––Sister Chan Khong; Sister Dedication, exhibition curator; Thay’s calligraphy assistant Brother Phap Nguyen; Sister Peace; and Brother Phap Chieu––shared their favorite calligraphies with members of the media. Brother Phap Nguyen explained that the Zen circle is a special symbol in the Zen and Plum Village traditions, and that it has multiple meanings, such as emptiness, the cosmos, and Thay’s concept of interbeing. Sister Chan Khong sang the poem “For Warmth” in her lovely voice.

Paulette Cole greeted the media by saying, “For us, it is a privilege to water positive seeds in New York City.” Deepak Chopra spoke about how one’s attitude, whether positive or negative, is infectious.

At the reception that followed, a classical string quartet of lay and monastic musicians performed for two hundred guests, including many family members, friends, colleagues, wellness experts, and artisans in the ABC Home community. Notable attendees included motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein, actor Edward Norton, actress Parker Posey, actress Amy Smart, and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman.

After Paulette Cole and Deepak Chopra welcomed the guests, Thay gave a Dharma talk about mindful breathing and transforming suffering. “The practice of mindful breathing brings the mind home to the body and helps you to be fully present, fully alive in the here and the now. You can get in touch with all the wonders of life that are there, available in the here and the now for your nourishment and healing.”

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Introducing the “Namo’valokiteshvaraya” chant— honoring the bodhisattva of great compassion—by the monastics, Thay said, “If we allow our body to be in the here and the now, and allow the collective energy to penetrate into our body, then we can release the tension in our body and feel much better after a few minutes of listening. And if we have some fear, some anger, some despair in our heart, it is time for us to open our heart and allow the collective energy of mindfulness and compassion to penetrate and help hold the massive suffering in us.”

Following the uplifting chant, Thay talked about his calligraphy. “Calligraphy, for me, is an act of meditation, very pleasant, where I enjoy happiness, freedom, brotherhood, sisterhood. I always start my practice with a cup of tea. I have the habit of always mixing some of the tea in my ink, and when I hold the brush, I begin to breathe in. For making the circle, I breathe in mindfully.” Holding up a calligraphy of an empty Zen circle and pointing to the beginning of the brushstroke, he said, “You can see my in-breath in this circle. There is a calm, there is a concentration, there is a mindfulness, and there is love. When I come to this [halfway] point, I begin to breathe out, smiling. There is always a smile somewhere from here [halfway point] to here [end of brushstroke]. Making a circle like that, doing a line of calligraphy, always brings peace, concentration, joy, happiness, and love.”

After the ceremonial ribbon cutting by Thay, Paulette Cole, and Deepak Chopra, Thay gave a demonstration. Using Chinese ink mixed with tea, French and Japanese brushes, and rice paper, he made eight new calligraphies with complete mindfulness and concentration. Upon finishing each one, he affixed his red seal, which bears his lineage name and Dharma title, Trung Quang Nhat Hanh, and held up his work with a joyous smile. A video of the reception can be viewed at www.abchome.com/video-experience-the-meditative-art-of-thich-nhat-hanh-live/.

Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape

On the following day, a flash mob meditation organized by Wake Up New York was held at Union Square Park. Led by five monastics, about three hundred people sat on hard concrete and meditated to the sound of traffic and a persistent drumbeat. Sister Chan Khong then led the meditators on a four-block walking meditation to the exhibition. There she led the singing of “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “For Warmth,” and gave a Dharma talk on taking care of one’s anger. She advised listeners not to speak when angry, but to return to the in-breath and out-breath. Paulette Cole closed the evening by thanking the monastics for their presence at ABC Home.

On October 10, a conversation on “Slowing Down, Finding Meaning: Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape” occurred in the packed gallery. The discussion was led by Ira Glass, host and executive producer of This American Life. Brother Phap Vu of Blue Cliff, Dharma teacher Joanne Friday, and Wake Up New York facilitator Zack Foley shared their personal experiences with practicing mindfulness and answered questions from the audience.

Much painstaking work by the entire ABC Home team, led by Paulette Cole, Amy Chender, Head of Events Paula Gilovich, and Visual Director Manena Frazier, went into creating and maintaining this exhibition and its events. Supporting Thay were many monastics and lay friends, the NYC Dharma teachers, consultant Lorna Chiu, and Blue Cliff staffer Stephanie Davies, coordinated by Brother Phap Vu, Sister Lang Nghiem, and Brother Phap Chieu.

Indeed everyone and everything in the cosmos came together in this exhibition: all who supplied materials for the calligraphies, books, and decorations; all who transported Thay, the calligraphies, monastics, guests, and viewers to the exhibition; everyone’s ancestors, including Paulette Cole’s great-grandfather, who founded the store; and many more elements too numerous to mention.

Mmb65-Calligraphic5aureen Chen, Radiant Opening of the Heart, of Morning Star Sangha in Queens, New York, deeply thanks everyone who helped with this article.

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Touched by Heart Nectar

Stories from a Joyful Retreat

By Lorrie Harrison

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A friend recently sent a description of what he imagined it was like at Plum Village: “I get a flash of it being like individual bees flowing toward an attractant. The sweet words of Thay and the lovely people and surroundings pull at the soul like the flowers pull the bees. Then the hive disperses to various parts of the world, forever touched by the heart nectar.”

This is exactly what it is like.

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A Family Reunion

About 600 of us from fifty countries are in Plum Village for the June retreat. To help people connect and feel solid, we form “families” of about twenty people. In my Oceans of Peace family, we are from Denmark, Viet Nam, Hong Kong, North Carolina, Wales, the UK, Berkeley, Botswana, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands… and Lopez Island, my home off the coast of Washington State.

The weather is steamy-hot midday, but mornings are blessedly cool. The large pink-petal lotus flowers are just opening, a few lazy frogs lounge on the shiny green lily pads, the sun is still gentle and easy. By 9:00 a.m. we’ve all arrived at the meditation hall for Thay’s Dharma talk. Quietly we slip off our shoes and enter in noble silence. The hall is simple. At one end, two sticks of incense burn on a Buddha altar. Up front, a simple vase sits next to Thay’s cushion with a sprig of flowers and a tray with one small teapot and cup. Cushions and mats are arranged in a large semi-circle with chairs behind. I enjoy hearing the comforting rustles and whispers as lay friends and monastics settle in. Those who don’t speak English plug their headphones into audio boxes for translations of Thay’s talk.

The ting-ting-ting of the small bell announces Thay’s arrival. Everyone stands and joins their palms. Our teacher enters the silent hall and walks to his cushion in the center of the front row. He turns to the Sangha and bows. We return his bow, and all sit down.

Seeing Thay for the first time in three years, my heart opens like a morning flower. He looks so young, so fresh; his words are as joyous as his smile. “Dear friends, when I see you all here, come from so far, I feel so happy! We have each other; we have hope. Like many drops of water, we come together to flow as one serene river. On June 21 we will go back into the world, but we are here now. Let us enjoy every minute, every second. For me this is a family reunion, a celebration, a Dharma festival! We entrust ourselves to the Sangha. We learn, we grow and together are free.”

Before the monastic chanting that precedes the Dharma talk, a nun offers this aspiration: “The Sangha is invited to come back to their breathing. Let the whole Sangha breathe as one body, chant as one body, listen as one body and transcend the boundaries of the delusive self, liberating from the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex.”

Huh? I can understand liberating from feeling superior or inferior, but isn’t equality exactly what I’m hoping to nourish? Each morning the aspiration is read aloud and each morning I smile hearing it. The little mystery tickles me. One day, Thay unties the knots of my koan. “When we feel equal, we are still separate. Our practice is to liberate ourselves from all distinctions, to understand I am in you and you are in me. No distinctions. No separation. This is true interbeing.”

Thay talks about Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, saying President Obama is practicing Beginning Anew with Islam. “He is one of the few politicians who knows how to use loving speech. He does not call himself a Dharma teacher, but he is a Dharma teacher!” Thay tells us Obama has manifested for our sake, and asks us to give him our support. “The Sangha is very strong; we should do something to let him know we are here for him. Please reflect on how you might help him. Where there is a will, there is a way! We all know that President Obama is made of many nonObama elements.” Thay’s eyes crinkle into a twinkly smile. “And we are some of those elements!”

Breathe, You’re Online

Thay likes to write on the whiteboard when he talks. I enjoy watching him erase the board. He pauses, quietly stands up, and walks mindfully to the board. Then he picks up the eraser. There is not a sound in the Dharma hall. Hundreds of us, totally silent. It’s easy to smile, relax, and enjoy the peaceful moment. Thay slowly wipes away the words, making a clean space for new writing. I feel calm, free from speed, free from wanting anything, enjoying watching the eraser make wide, peaceful arcs across the board.

Thay is teaching about practicing right diligence: ways to stay safe in a fast world. At Plum Village, the monastics have a way to use the Internet while not getting caught in its energy. They ask another brother or sister to sit beside them while they are online. In this way they are part of the world, but safe, too. Thay paints beautiful calligraphies which are sold in the bookshop to raise money for special projects. The newest is “Breathe, you’re online.” How cool to have a teacher who, at age eighty-three, uses the Internet to share the Dharma!

A Path to Joy

One of Thay’s themes in this retreat is joy. He talks about the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths, reminding us that the first truth is that life contains suffering. But, he says, we concentrate too much there. The second truth is that there is a path to suffering; the way we have been living has brought suffering to us. Remove the cause and the effect will vanish. The third is that there is joy, an end to suffering, and it is the absence of darkness, the presence of light. The fourth noble truth is that there is a path to that joy.

The old language, from the time of the Buddha, calls the third noble truth the cessation of ill-being, but Thay’s teaching is clear: let us call this by its true name, joy! Let’s find a way to make this wonderful teaching available to everyone. The world needs our help. “Dear friends, please be the best practitioners you can be. That is why we live our life in mindfulness and concentration: it is for our own liberation. With that, we can help to liberate the world.

We can learn to gladden our minds. Please don’t leave your love, your compassion in the basement of your store consciousness. Go get them! They will be your tonic, your strength, your nourishment. You will become stronger, and then, when pain, confusion, sadness come, you will be able to handle them.”

How do we bring up this feeling of joy? We make use of our breathing. We return to the present moment so that insight, knowledge, and awareness will bloom, and joy will be possible right away. We don’t have to be excited any more. Our joy can be calm and peaceful. This is true joy.

Circle of Friends

After the Dharma talk, we wander around the grounds. It’s nice to seek a soft patch of grass by the lotus pond or a wisp of shade. The monks show us where to pick juicy black mulberries from the trees. The nuns are selling little treats to raise money for needy children in Vietnam. We gather at their tables, choosing sweet crepes served on fat green leaves, warm sesame balls (oh, the doughy goodness!), and squares of carroty cake.

The big bell calls us for walking meditation. We gather in one huge circle, monastics and lay friends side by side. Someone begins singing, “Happiness is here and now, I have dropped my worries. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no longer in a hurry.” More little songs follow with simple words, melodies, and hand motions. We sing in French, German, Dutch, Vietnamese, and Spanish. Years ago I felt a little goofy singing like this, but now these songs awaken my tender heart. I feel like a happy kindergartner, safe in a circle of friends.

After we sing half a dozen songs, a hush falls on the group. Like flowers turning toward the sun, the circle opens as Thay joins us. We join our palms and bow. Taking two children by the hand, he starts making slow, mindful steps. Imagine the extraordinary sight: 600 people silently walking step-by-gentle-step around the lotus pond, through the stately rows of poplar trees, into the forest, down beside the creek, and finally back to the hamlet. We walk for forty-five minutes, flowing in a silent Dharma river.

mb52-Touched3Lorrie Harrison, Compassionate Listening of the Heart, is a founding member of the Morning Light Sangha on Lopez Island in Washington State. A professional writer, she lived and practiced near Plum Village for five months over the summer.

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A Frolic Down the Path of the Buddha

By Janelle Combelic

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A Buddhist retreat at Plum Village is unlike any other Buddhist retreat (as far as I know). There’s relatively little sitting meditation, which surprises and disappoints some folks. But there are lots of other forms of meditation — in fact the practice of mindfulness means meditating twenty-four hours a day, no matter what we are doing. The point, of course, is to teach us how to do this in daily life, out in the “real” world.

There are two particularly ingenious methods that Plum Village has devised for teaching the practice of mindfulness. The first is working meditation. At the Path of the Buddha retreat, I was in the francophone family with my friend Pascale and my mentor, Sister Dao Nghiem. Our job for the three-week retreat was to clean the bathrooms in Lower Hamlet. Hence our name: Delicate Fragrance.

Working with people every day, you get to know who likes to scrub every corner and who would rather pick flowers for the sinks. Who has a bad back but doesn’t want to complain. Who stops to chat (and chat and chat), who’s cheerful no matter what, who’s grumpy. Who wants to tell people exactly how to do everything (me) and who on the second day realizes that grown women know how to clean bathrooms and can decide among themselves who’s going to do what (me again).

You learn a lot about other people, but mainly you learn about yourself, in the context of community and activity. Being as how most of us live and work with others, these lessons come in very handy once we return home.

On the Road to Plum Village

The other ingenious device to teach mindfulness on retreat is the skit. Most Vietnamese people love to play; and since their culture was only recently infected with modern technology, they still enjoy old-fashioned homegrown entertainment. So at the end of every retreat there’s a grand performance. Fortunately, we’re doing the performances within each hamlet rather than all 600 of us together. After living together for three weeks, Lower Hamlet feels like one big family.

Which is a good thing, because there’s nothing that brings up people’s neuroses like the idea of performing in public.

Unlike most families, we started working on our skit the very first week. Serge, the one man among twenty-three women (our hamlet hosts women and a few couples), proposed a lovely old French folk song that someone had rewritten into a Plum Village song, “On the Road to Plum Village.” We decided to rewrite the song again with a story about us: arriving at Plum Village all tired and stressed out, then cleaning toilets and showers together, finally finding freedom and happiness.

Working on the song that first week was a blast. A few people did the writing, then Beatrice, a delightful and energetic Swiss woman who could not for the life of her hold a tune, emerged as the director. We formed two choirs who sang back and forth to each other. Sur la route des Pruniers…

At the end of the second week it all turned sour. We’d been rehearsing every day, and had the music down pretty well but were getting tired of it. Hélène, who happens to be a fabulous singer, arrived at the retreat two weeks late. That evening she sat down with the only two people who still wanted to rehearse and she taught them a slightly different version of the tune. And the three of them came up with a new way of performing it.

The next evening after dinner we started to rehearse, and all hell broke loose. Ah non non non! On recommence pas à zéro! No, we’re not starting over, someone huffed and stomped off. Others shook their heads in disgust and did not return from cleaning their dishes. The rest of us regrouped, decided to put the song mostly back the way we had it, and had a great time singing our hearts out and laughing.

The next day we started adding the skit. It had been my bright idea to have actors pantomime what the words were saying. (No one in our audience was going to understand our song, because it was in French! The other 140 retreatants at Lower Hamlet were British, Dutch, German, American, with a few Italians.) From the supply closet by the kitchen, I had collected all kinds of props — new brushes, sponges, mops, spray bottles — all stashed in a suitcase for the first part of the skit.

Retreat Rockettes

Don’t you just wish that after all these years of listening to Dharma talks, meditating, paying therapists, going on retreat — don’t you wish you could stay enlightened for more than thirty seconds at a time? When it came time to create the little skit, just three minutes of pantomime, my ego came out to play. Big time.

Because I had some really good ideas! Brilliant ideas! Every morning and every evening in meditation, in the deep stillness of the meditation hall, it was the first thing that sprang into my mind: Sur la route des Pruniers… I saw our three nuns doing this, and our lay friends doing that in the next verse, and a stupendous finale with everybody dancing… as stunning as the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Enough already! Quiet.

When it came time to rehearse with our family, my overbearing enthusiasm was not well received. Beatrice was a little miffed that I had wrenched all the fun stuff away from her. And the actors never managed to come together at the same time: Andréa got sick, Géraldine had to make an emergency trip to care for a friend, Josslyn had somewhere else to be after Dharma discussion. But the obvious reason that it didn’t come together is that it was supposed to be a collaboration. Silly me.

Day after day, I dealt with my feelings and frustrations — looking deeply in meditation, stepping back when rehearsals weren’t going well, letting go, letting go.

Thank goodness the performance was pushed back to Thursday. On Tuesday Sister Dao Nghiem, who had left us to our own devices, initiated a rehearsal. The two groups sullenly stood facing each other in a semicircle and half-heartedly sang: Sur la route des Pruniers… The nuns walked through the center as we had scripted. The actors feebly acted out our part. With only a little squabbling in the middle, we limped to the finale.

Sister Dao Nghiem calmly admonished us to relax a little bit and have fun. Then she redesigned the ending, adding some peaceful walking in pairs rather than our manic scurrying and jumping. We performed it a few more times but our hearts weren’t in it.

I Have an Idea!

The big day came. We rehearsed before dinner, but it wasn’t going very well. I was disgusted with myself for getting so hung up on the whole thing, for not being able to communicate my ideas effectively, and especially because my magnificent finale had been scrapped.

Finally I decided to just throw myself into it. What did I have to lose? I banished my ego once and for all and joined in the fun. We were nervous, we were excited, we were enjoying ourselves again.

Then Hélène said, “Attendez, j’ai une idée! Wait, I have an idea!” We all screamed. She was joking of course. Béatrice suggested next time we do a skit we should call it “I have an idea!” We all laughed; we knew exactly what she meant.

That night in the meditation hall we were one of the last acts to perform. There were five or six before us, all funnier and more inspired than the last. The pot-washing family pounded tubs and pans for an energetic percussion piece, accompanied by nuns and laywomen waving big pot lids in a traditional Vietnamese hat dance. The vegetable-chopping family did a skit about having to work in silence (Delicate Fragrance conveniently forgot about the practice of silent working meditation).

When it came our turn, yes, you guessed it — we pulled it off! Our fellow retreatants laughed and clapped along to our silly song. We exited the stage area breathless, joyful, eminently pleased with ourselves.

Someone from another family later remarked on how much harmony there was in our family. We laughed our heads off when we heard that.

But there was harmony. A far deeper harmony than when we started. During the worst of it, when some people disappeared from the family for a day or two and our dinners together were glum, Sister Dao Nghiem told us that harmony does not mean the absence of conflict. You can have differences — in a community there will always be differences — but still you have harmony because you care about one another. You want it to work, so you do whatever it takes.

In fact, I believe those very difficulties are what knit the community into a harmonious whole. How else would we get to know one another deeply, to know ourselves?

That’s why Thay says he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven where there’s no suffering. It’s in those cracks that healing occurs. It’s when our heart breaks that we learn how to love.

That’s the whole point of the skit — aside from motivating us to relax and play, us Westerners who can take the whole thing so seriously. It’s fi to feel peaceful and loving when you’re sitting on a cushion or walking in the woods or eating with friends in silence. But try to do something together and that’s where the real practice begins.

Those are the lessons that I’ve taken home with me, and put to use in my daily life — humility, joy, Sur la route des Pruniers…

mb52-AFrolic2Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, practices with Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado.

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One Rock Star is Not Enough

By Angelina Chin

I came back from the Colorado retreat totally transformed. Before the trip to Colorado I’d read several of Thay’s books but had never been to a retreat or practiced with his Sangha before. Nor had I ever met Thay in person.

To be honest, when I arrived the first evening and realized that Thay was not there, I was very disappointed and felt cheated. I even told one friend that it was as if I had gone to a rock concert but the rock star had bailed out!

I was a night owl, so I couldn’t fall asleep on my first night, and by the time I finally felt sleepy it was time to get up to do walking meditation. It was very difficult for me to keep up with the activities of the first two days. Because of the lack of sleep, I slept through the Dharma talks. And while many of the Sangha members found the food to be quite decent, I didn’t enjoy it during the first two days. I wasn’t used to a vegan diet. Of course I practiced eating meditation, but the more I meditated, the more I thought about the food I enjoyed outside the retreat. I also formed negative perceptions of some Sangha members.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to me in the following days, but gradually I found myself enjoying every moment of the retreat. I think the wonderful songs were a great help. It was very healing to be able to sing and practice with a Sangha of nearly 1,000 people. Everyone was so friendly, focused and happy. It was very comforting to me, especially because I grew up in a different cultural environment and always have felt racial and gender discrimination around me. Toward the end of the retreat I became quite mindful. The food became tastier. Before the retreat I had only known Thay’s works by their titles, but his teachings really sank in during the retreat.

After a few days I began to realize that Thay’s physical absence was a good lesson in itself. It had been so silly of me to compare the retreat to a rock concert! I’d attended the retreat to practice mindfulness, not to look for the rock star! I think because Thay was not there, the members were less attached to his presence and became more focused on the practice itself. I did feel Thay’s spiritual presence, and I missed him very much. But I also want to express my gratitude to the monastic brothers and sisters who tried so hard to make the retreat possible. It must have been a great deal of pressure on them. I could totally see both the Buddha and Thay in all of them! Thank you, Thay, for training our future teachers.

I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings on the last day. I hadn’t planned to do so. But since the day after the retreat was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate my transformation (rebirth?) and show my commitment to becoming more mindful, I decided to receive them. I also was given a beautiful Dharma name—Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart. I felt peaceful when I left Colorado.

Here are a few of the ways my life has changed since the retreat:

  • I had insomnia before, and couldn’t get up until around 10:00 a.m. Now the insomnia has been cured and I wake up at 7:00 every morning.
  • I practice walking meditation every day.
  • I’ve cut down my meat and seafood consumption by 40%. I’ve also decided not to cook meat at home.
  • I try not to kill any living beings.
  • I can concentrate much better at meetings.
  • I’ve practiced “beginning anew” with friends. These friendships are now better than ever. I will continue to listen to them with my heart.
  • I used to have an inferiority complex, which had been affecting my life in many ways. Now I am more aware of my mental formations and try not to water my negative seeds. Life is more pleasant and I feel more confident and engaged.
  • I’ve become less judgmental of others and have built new relationships!
  • I drive more mindfully. I think I’m a safer driver now.
  • I’ve witnessed some improvement in my meditation and breathing practices.
  • Even though negative emotions still visit me frequently, I’ve learned to be patient and try my best to take care of them.

I was so inspired that I attended a Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery for the first time and finally met Thay! It was a blessing.

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Angelina Chin, Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart, lives in Southern California. She was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She teaches East Asian history at Pomona College.

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The Last Walking Meditation

By a Young Monastic Sister from Bat Nha Monastery

In September 2009, over 350 monastic disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh were violently expelled from Bat Nha (Prajna) Monastery in Vietnam’s central highlands. They took emergency refuge at Phuoc Hue temple in the nearby town of Bao Loc. Following is an eyewitness account from a young monastic sister from Bat Nha. Further stories, photos, press coverage, petitions, and opportunities to help can be found at www.helpbatnha.org.

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On Sunday, September 27, we had the opportunity to do sitting meditation together, and then to do walking meditation around the Garuda Wing Meditation Hall. It was raining heavily that day. My brothers’ and sisters’ robes were soaking wet, but we continued to walk next to each other in peace, love, and understanding. In me, the mind of love and faith reignited brightly.

We never thought that this would be our last walking meditation on this lovely piece of land that was full of life. The atmosphere was still peaceful, and everyone was ready for the next activity, a Day of Mindfulness. For our class, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings,” the topic of the four nutriments was going to be presented, but it had to be cancelled. Perhaps that presentation became the non-verbal Dharma talk, manifesting its insights through our love and profound brotherhood and sisterhood.

At 8:00 a.m., all of us returned to our rooms and sat on our own beds, waiting. I did not know what I was waiting for; I only thought of it as a routine Sunday schedule. Over the last few months, there had been no Sunday when we were not shouted and cursed at. We only knew to sit still and keep our minds calm and receptive.

At 9:00 a.m., we—the sisters in the Mountain Cloud Hamlet— received the news that the brothers’ hamlet, Fragrant Palm Leaf Hamlet, was being attacked. Everything was being destroyed and thrown into the rain. A number of elder and younger brothers were dragged outside and driven away. We were shocked by the news, and we did not believe that it could be true. Soon after that, I saw one elder brother and one young novice running toward Mountain Cloud Hamlet in soaking wet robes. They only had enough time to bring their Sanghatis [monastic ceremonial robes] wrapped on their shoulders.

Victims of Ignorance

At 10:30 a.m., we were allowed to take our food. I was on the cleaning team, so I stayed back to clean up and put things away before I went to eat. As soon as I sat down on the straw mat and picked up my alms bowl, I was told to get my things immediately. All of us put down our alms bowls and went to pack our belongings. We only thought about bringing our Sanghatis, alms bowls, monastic certificates, and identification cards. It would be all right if people came and took the rest of our belongings for their own use. We understood that they were only victims of poverty and constant struggle. They were unfortunate to grow up and live in negative environments, so they were easily “brainwashed” and incited by distorted information.

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In fact, these people deserve love as much as we do. We are victims of violence. But they are victims of ignorance and lack of reflection. Only 70,000 to 100,000 dong [Vietnamese currency] was enough to hire them to do something unwholesome. How pitiful that is! Is that the value of a human being? What about the days and months to follow, when they would suffer from the gnawing of their own conscience? Who would pay them a salary?

At 11:30 a.m., six men walked around our hamlet and knocked on the sisters’ doors, shouting, “The nuns have to leave this place. Do not make us get angry and hurt you. If you don’t leave this place, you will have to suffer the consequences.” All of us sat next to each other quietly. We listened to the sounds of glass windows being broken. People came into every room and herded us outside. They held long iron bars, which were used to hit us if we resisted. One by one, we walked out of our rooms and went out in the front yard. It was raining heavily. Perhaps the sky gods also cried for us.

Not Someone to Love or Hate

When everyone was down in the front yard, we discovered that young sister Cong Nghiem was not with us. She had recently had an accident, so she could not move. We begged the uncles [the attacking men] to allow us to go back and carry her down. All of us were so moved looking at our elder sister carrying our young sister on her back.

The more we looked, the more we also felt sorry for the uncles. There was one uncle about fifty years old, who wore a helmet and walked with a limp. While he was smashing the windows his hand got cut, and it was bleeding severely. We ran to the first aid cabinet, which was completely destroyed. We were lucky to find some cotton balls, gauze, and alcohol to clean and dress his wound. Looking into his eyes, I saw that he was deeply moved; he realized we did not hate him, but instead we took care of him wholeheartedly. During that time, for me, there was not someone to love or someone to hate. I did not think about what they had done to us. There was only this person who needed our help.

After we dressed his wound, he lowered his head to thank us and situated himself quietly in the corner, watching us standing next to each other in the rainstorm. He was not violent anymore. Then I saw him leaving quietly. At that point, all of us were together and safe. No one was stuck inside. We felt so happy to realize that we loved each other, and that we could sacrifice our lives for each other, for our ideals, and for this path of understanding and love.

We Love Vietnam

That morning, about 100 women and men came down to the sisters’ hamlet. Whenever they saw a monk, they would jump in to tear at his clothes and beat him. When we tried to protect our brothers and sisters, we suffered the same fate—they pushed us down; the women used umbrellas and rocks to hit and kick us on our hands and backs. Some of them even slapped our faces. We only knew to endure it or duck. We did not do anything else.

When all of that happened to us, we did not shed one tear or complain. We only felt that our society was full of violence, hatred, and fear. We felt that we needed to protect and guard our ideals, bringing understanding and love to humankind. It pains me to see that the Vietnamese nation was loving, gentle, and ethical, and that the four thousand years of history for which Vietnam has been praised is now lost at the hands of Vietnamese people. We love Vietnam. We love the gentle and kind people. We love the humanist culture that our ancestors cultivated. That is why we have chosen this path, to protect and guard the beauty in the Vietnamese people.

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The pain, the shame, is too great. The beating and eviction are all right, because as monks and nuns, we have no property to be attached to. It only pains us that the dignity and humanity of our society have been brought to such a low level. I thought to myself: How happy I had felt, reading the history of those before me in the Ly and Tran dynasties! We have the right to raise our heads and feel our national pride. However, our children and future generations, when they recall the events at Bat Nha, will have to lower their heads in shame. Time will erase all the physical traces, but the wounds in the heart, the shame, the hatred, the fear, and the violence will be transmitted. With such a transmission, the ethics of our society cannot help but seriously decline. How sad that would be!

We brothers and sisters speak our own hearts; we cannot plant and spread more of those negative seeds. We have to water this arid, thorny land of the human mind with drops of wholesome nectar, so that we can revive the flowers of understanding, love, inclusiveness, and non-harming. Only because of that, we—who are carrying in our hearts the great love, the great vow—are determined not to allow those unwholesome seeds to develop further in the hearts of our people.

We love the sound of the phrase “my motherland.” We love the Vietnamese people. Even if they accuse us of being traitors, even if they beat us down, we never want “chicks of the same hen” to attack or hurt one another. So, from the moment when we were forced out on the street to stand in the rain, accepting the heckling and the beatings, enduring the dirty water tossed into our faces, we continued to stand next to each other and protect each other. Even though we were cornered, beaten, pushed and pulled, we would not leave each other.

“We Will Never Lose You”

At 5:00 p.m. that day, we were forced outside the gate of Mountain Cloud Hamlet. It was painful for us to see that we could not protect our elder Brothers Phap Hoi and Phap Sy from the violence of the uncles. We watched with deep pain as they were taken away. They tried to shoo us, but we all stood silently in the rain. We were cold and hungry.

Only when it was dark outside did we quietly walk to our sisters’ Warm Hearth Hamlet. We were moved by the way our sisters greeted us and received us. They were able to start two fires so that we could warm ourselves. Then they cooked ramen noodles for us to eat. We all felt a burning in our eyes. Was it from the smoke or from the love for each other?

That night, the Warm Hearth Hamlet was left temporarily in peace. We sat next to each other and looked at each other carefully for a long time. We knew that it would be difficult for us to be united like this again. Even though I was tired, I could not sleep. As soon as I lay down, the image of Thay Phap Hoi and the other brothers being taken away arose in my mind. I was afraid that it would be the last image, and the last time that I was able to see him. If this were true, then we would cherish even more deeply his silent sacrifice. It would further affirm our confidence in our path of practice. “Rest assured, dear elder brother. You are present in us. You have transmitted to us your quietness, your calm, and your solidity in those moments. We will never lose you.”

That night, the rainstorm continued strong. I sat up to look around our room in the “Phuong Vy 2” dormitory. Seeing my sisters sleeping, my heart surged with love. If my sacrifice would bring them peace so that they could live and practice, I would do it. Fear in my heart yielded to a powerful love. Two streams of tears ran down, and down. These were the first tears shed since what happened in Bat Nha. The teardrops came from an unlimited source of love.

At five o’clock the next morning, one by one, we got on the bus to Phuoc Hue temple. I was on the second trip. Looking at my sisters’ faces—so young, innocent, and pure—my heart jolted with a sharp pain. We began to sing Here is Our Beloved Bat Nha. Everyone’s eyes became red and teary. When we got to “Here is our beloved Bat Nha, with those who carry in our hearts the Great Vow, to live together and to build the Pure Land right here…,” we could not sing anymore. We just cried. The driver saw us, and he was also moved to tears.

Never before had we cherished so much every moment we were together. To be able to stay together, we were willing to endure any amount of poverty, pain, and suffering. Only five minutes were spent in deep sadness; then we continued to sing our practice songs. We sang and sang until the bus stopped in front of Phuoc Hue temple. From that moment on, our life has moved on to a new page, not any less beautiful or majestic.

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Teaching the Student Within

By Sara Unsworth

“If you want to think like a hummingbird, be the hummingbird.”
Sister Dang Nghiem

mb54-Teaching1Arriving at Deer Park Monastery for the Meditation and Education Retreat last November, I kept having one recurring thought: I want to learn how to connect to students. As a new, young professor, I was surprised at how disconnected I felt from the undergraduate students in my classes. Had so much changed in the nine years since I was an undergrad? Was this a generation gap? Was it because I was Canadian? How could I support American students if I didn’t understand what they were going through? This retreat was an opportunity to figure these students out. I decided I would watch. I’d listen. I’d lurk.

It didn’t take long before the collective consciousness at Deer Park cut through my reality. “No lurking,” joked Brother Phap De at the registration desk, as he made suggestions about what I could do for the hour before dinner. How did he know? Monastic mind meld? Nah—coincidence. I left the registration desk smiling as I retreated effortlessly into my sense of separateness, my ego mind.

Walking around before dinner, I came across two students. We smiled, and one student remarked that he had nothing to do for the next hour and didn’t know what to do with himself; he was used to running from one thing to the next. The other student asked with a sense of intrigue and excitement, “Are you Buddhist? Because that would be cool.” Exhaustion and openness to Buddhism—I could easily identify with both of those sentiments.

Eating meditation was followed by a brief walking meditation and orientation, led by Sister Dang Nghiem (Sister D) and Sister Hang Nghiem. We sang songs together, but we started off quietly and with some trepidation. To bring us out of our shells, Sister D reminded us: “We’re young, strong, and idealistic at this age, so let’s really sing!” And we did! Listening to Sister D and singing with the Sangha, I remembered a time when I saw my life as a path of change and growth, when I felt I could do anything, when I thought I could change the world. Life felt a little difficult for me at that time, but I really believed that every moment was an opportunity.

Looking around now and recalling that excitement for life, I understood something that gave rise to a feeling of joy. The issue wasn’t about connecting with students. If there was a missing connection, it was with myself.

Later that night I felt the energy of the young women in the tent next to me as they oscillated between gentle giggles and roaring laughter. I imagined they were young coyotes roaming free on the side of the hidden mountain. What spirit! The next day, speaking with a few other professors, I learned that one of them had shed a tear of joy when she heard Sister D’s words, and another felt as though Sister D had been talking directly to the professors: “We are young and strong!” (A Pat Benatar song pops into my mind.) “We can be idealistic too. We can be coyotes roaming the mountainside, if that’s who we want to be. The world is full of possibilities.”

Reflecting more on my youth (well, my earlier youth), I was able to touch both the joy and suffering I experienced as a student. I had a sense of excitement for learning about the world and traveling it, and a feeling that I could become anyone I wanted to be. But I also felt an intense need to prove myself and to compete for the top spots. It was a zero sum game: somebody was going to win and somebody was going to lose. As a graduate student, I was told by professors that I didn’t know how easy I had it. These seeds had been watered in me, and recently I had found myself looking at students with the same lack of compassion. I realize now that it is very difficult to be a student when professors look down on you. I can see myself in my students, and I can see them in me. I would like my job to be focused on supporting students, rather than testing and judging them.

I was a student for the remainder of the weekend. I learned from the students, teach-ers, and monastics, and also from myself. I sat in silence with the Sangha. During orienta-tion, the students were asked how many had never sat in silence during dinner, and most raised their hands. I walked in silence with the Sangha—a group of people moving in the direction of peace and happiness. I allowed the mindful breath of others to become my mindful breath.

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During the Dharma talk, I sat as a student and learned from Brother Phap Dung about challenging the status quo in our lives, hearts, and minds. During an activity focused on the mindfulness trainings, I sat as a student and heard other students talk about true love, interbeing, gratitude, compassion, and tolerance. One student reminded us all of the importance of loving deeply and listening with compassion. What wisdom!

Later that night, the young coyotes were at it again, and this time they were howling to the tune of “One finger wiggles, one finger wiggles, one finger wiggles, it’s enough to be happy…” The next day we hiked in silence to the top of the mountain and did sitting meditation above the clouds. It was very healing to feel supported by the earth as we sat solidly in the present moment. During a question and answer period later that morning, students asked about bringing the kind of love and tolerance they experienced inside the monastery out into the “real world.” Brother Phap Dung turned our attention to the world we are, by discussing connections between our inner peace and peace in world, and by encouraging us to approach life with openness.

Brother Phap Dung suggested that we consider the ability to cultivate happiness as a necessary skill for any job or career. I realized that I could rewrite my job description as a professor to include cultivating happiness. I hope to cultivate this happiness in my classroom and in my relationship with students. I see that in order to connect with students I have to find the student inside myself, and that providing support for students depends on my ability to cultivate happiness for myself. Learning how to water the seeds of compassion for the student within me will allow me to find compassion for the students I mentor, and will also allow me to find the teacher inside myself.

I do not want to be a robot, programmed by ideas of being a professor that are based on a desire for admiration, achievement, respect, and fame. I will move in the direction of love and compassion, and will cultivate the ability to mentor with a heart that is open to the suffering and idealism of students.

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I am grateful to all of my teachers, including those who attended and helped to organize this retreat, and those who have been a part of my life and the lives of my ancestors. I’ll end with the words of a graduate student who also came to the retreat: “It was, like, the best thing I have ever done, ever.”

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Sara Unsworth, Joyful Stream of the Heart, practices with the World Beat Sangha in San Diego, California. She grew up in Alberta, Canada. She now teaches psychology at San Diego State University.

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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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Retreat Among Jacarandas

By María Jiménez

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The Felicidad family, originally from Mexico City, was spread out. Some of us had known each other a long time; others, however, weren’t aware of the existence of happy and enthusiastic brothers and sisters in search of someone with the same last name. But thanks to the efforts of our Sangha in February of 2012, hundreds of emails went out and arrived like rainfall of flowers inviting people to “Coming Home: The Road to Our Happiness,” the big family reunion to be held in April. The response was immediate. Thirty-six sisters and brothers accepted the invitation, because who wouldn’t want to come back home? Who wouldn’t want to find the road to happiness? Besides, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, two monks from Deer Park Monastery, would be coming to share ways of conscious living with us and to converse intimately with the earth.

The location of the retreat, Casa Xitla, is a big old house surrounded by gardens in the southern part of Mexico City. It is a spacious place that invites one to withdraw and reflect; silence is the order of the day here. Thanks to the infinite goodness of Mother Earth, our encounter is dressed in violet; at this time of the year the jacaranda trees are in their most conscious here and now. Our hosts, a community of people in charge of administering and caring for this place, are an example of interbeing. As in a colony of bees, they organize themselves to live in harmony: they care for the water, use solar energy, protect the vegetation, and maintain a compost heap.

On April 4, Casa Xitla begins to buzz with our arrival. The brothers and sisters who organized the retreat and the monks Phap Lac (Happiness Monk) and Phap De (Young Monk) await us with their conscious presence. The smiles with which they greet us are an unmistakable sign that we have arrived home. Adults, some in couples, some with their families, and the majority alone, begin to fill up the space and prepare for the experience of the next five days. The majority of us come from bustling cities; we are full of expectations, with our minds agitated. The sweet sound of the bell, the conscious embraces of our sisters and brothers, the dim lights in the hallway on the way to the bedrooms, the shade of the trees, and the night remind us that we have arrived home. In an instant, all these signs come together, form a stream, and invite us to flow as a single river. “Happiness is here and now,” they whisper in our ears.

The Fountain of Life

In the first Dharma talk, Brother Phap De delicately suggests that we observe in our inner selves the impulse to do things: eat, read, talk. He proposes, instead, that we walk or write. “Life comes from within ourselves; we can feel it; we can connect ourselves with the fountain of inner and outer life, all united.” Like an expert gardener, the brother knows that before planting the seed, we must loosen the dirt. He invites us to recite gathas. It’s impossible to turn down his invitation, knowing that we can cultivate flowers in the garden of the heart.

At five o’clock in the morning, the bell wakes us, and a half hour later we begin guided meditation. Our bodies are tired; the majority of us aren’t used to waking up so early. However, our conscious inhaling and exhaling wake us up and fill us with joy. At 6:30 a.m., our sister, Norma Inés, better known as Hapinés, guides us down the roads of Qigong. With the noble bamboo pole at hand and the sweetness of her voice, we travel to the interior of our bodies, feel how our muscles stretch, and begin a dance that connects us with the foliage of the jacarandas. The pivoting of legs, trunks, arms, and eyes lifts us to the clouds and slowly and softly allows us to take root in the earth.

The morning advances. The bell invites us to share a delicious breakfast, which we enjoy slowly from the silent line. We share the table and the reading of the Five Contemplations. We eat slowly, looking to feel in every mouthful the flavor and goodness of all the beings who prepared it and made it possible.

Work meditation offers us the opportunity to do chores in the garden, which for some of us are unusual; some chores are light, like picking up leaves and branches; others are heavy, like lifting and moving the compost. Cleaning and arranging the building and preparing food for the whole group are some of the other tasks at hand. We have the opportunity to learn and to teach, to lead and to follow, to see our old habits as we work, to smile, embrace, and be present in the here and now.

At ten in the morning, the bell calls us to walking meditation. Our sister Gaby shares her experience:

I remember that marvelous walk as an experience of conscious enjoyment that keeps love, peace, calm, serenity, and forgiveness alive in my memory. I return to live in plenitude and to understand and experience interbeing with my new Felicidad family, to feel myself as part of nature, to be present, feeling the caresses of the air and the heat of the sun on my skin. I feel how Mother Earth receives me and comforts my every step, and I see and feel the happiness of the monastic brothers.

I remember Phap Lac’s talk about forgiveness. Nine months ago I’d signed my divorce from the father of my children and I had such an emotional charge that I asked myself how I could forgive myself for the guilt that I felt. I asked: ‘Is it strange that after years of sharing a life with someone you loved, you now ask yourself how to forgive?’ The walk was about to start and the brother said that we should invite our loved ones to walk with us. He suggested that we take the hand of one of the members of the Felicidad family and even that we invite our absent loved ones to come with us.

The sensation I felt is indescribable: I imagined my little children, Emilio and Sofía, at each side, felt their still-tender hands, and felt the peace and love of being united as one. I advanced slowly and smiled genuinely and lovingly, with gratitude and respect. Later I invited my parents and sister to walk hand-in-hand and felt the same sensations. Finally, uninhibitedly, with thanks, and in peace, I invited the person who had been my partner for ten years. I embraced him while I walked, thanking him for having shared his time, space, and love, for having participated with me in giving life to these two gifts. I decided to forgive the things that we consciously or unconsciously did when we lived together that hurt or damaged us or made us uncomfortable and I smiled at him. We stayed together like that for a few moments. Then I let go of his hand and saw him go, smiling and relaxed.

Drops in a River

At the end of each morning, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, taking turns, offer us a Dharma talk. Next to them a Mexican sister or brother listens attentively and interprets simultaneously. During these talks, the words of Phap De and Phap Lac weave in interbeing. Phap De speaks of his own life experience and shares the stories of his parents and the seeds they deposited in him. He shows us how the spiritual life of our ancestors is connected with our own. And he invites us to recover the spirituality of the people who inhabited these lands before the arrival of white people. Our spiritual realization, he says, is a matter of integrating ourselves like drops of water in a river that has flowed for thousands of years. This moves us, because in Mexico, indigenous blood is an underground river that only awaits our glance to revitalize us with its powerful energy.

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Thay Phap Lac offers other seeds. With soft strokes he recreates his experiences in the company of our dear master Thich Nhat Hanh. The words of Phap Lac have the power to bring Thay to our encounter: we can see and feel him; the voice of the brother becomes the voice of Thay. With simple stories of day-to-day life, Phap Lac reveals the efficacy of our practice. He shares a story of a single mother who learned to enjoy working meditation, and that of Thay, who, having suffered an injury in a crowd in Vietnam, sat down calmly to drink a cup of tea. Phap Lac is also a master of dispelling uncertainties. To a sister who has doubts about forgiveness, Phap Lac says sweetly: “The only help you have is your happiness. Only love can cure—love with compassion.” This teaching is an outstanding moment during the retreat.

mb62-Retreat3After lunch comes total guided relaxation. We lean our bodies against the earth, which generously receives our tensions, our tiredness, and our worries. With our minds we pass through each part of our body, we smile at it with thanks, we loosen it, and we relax. We listen to our guide from afar, as if in a dream. He sings to us a sweet song that rocks us and he brings us back, little by little, to the happiness of the present moment.

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The Dharma sharing at mid-afternoon is a moment of encounters. Some of us know each other from long ago, others have seen each other a few times, and there are those who are meeting for the first time. In two groups, each guided by one of the monastic brothers, we focus on practicing compassionate listening and loving speech. Little by little, our hearts open as we share happiness and sadness, presences and absences, hope and despair. We offer our loving presence to our friends; we receive their experiences and their smiles.

After supper we have another guided meditation, and then go off to sleep smiling, crossing the garden of Casa Xitla in silence, now lighted by a moon full of the here and now.

Like Water Reflecting

The second night, five sisters and brothers who have taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings share their personal experiences and reflections. The struggles and the joys of the road of Dharma parade before us. We hear that the trainings are like the North Star, a light that orients us. As the days go by, the question continues to arise: Who will take the trainings? Many of us are confused. We don’t know if we can meet the goals, if we should or want to commit ourselves. Thus three days pass. In Dharma sharing, some people express their decision to take the trainings. Others reveal confusion or a negative decision. We all listen with care and attention. Eleven brothers and sisters take the vow to revere life, practice generosity, look for true love and fidelity, practice loving speech and deep listening, and procure a nutritious and healthy life. It is beautiful to share this intention, knowing that these trainings will take us all our lives, and that we are accompanied on this road.

One memorable practice is that of starting anew. One night, Laura and Jorge water their flowers in front of the community. At first, they look each other in the eyes and each says the virtues that she or he sees in the other. Then they offer apologies for the discomfort or suffering they have caused each other. We see how their words turn into sun and water, the nutrients of the seeds of love and compassion. They give us a living example of the fourth training: our eyes witness the fact that loving speech and compassionate listening are the tools of the artist who creates reconciliation and peace. Later, Thay Phap De invites us to practice in couples. Some of us are with our life companions and we practice with them. Some are with parents or children. Those who have come alone pair up and practice watering the flowers of an absent person. It’s an intimate time, deep and hopeful. We learn that it’s always possible to start over.

As the days pass, we cultivate silence, but also listening. Mónica, Hapinés, and Laura help us to sing in key, inspiring cantos. We give thanks to life with our Chilean sister Violeta Parra. With Mercedes Sosa we remember that everything changes and with Fito Páez we offer our heart. Phap De teaches us an Irish blessing: “May love hold you in the hollow of her hands.” During the last night’s gathering we all sing “Cielito Lindo,” a traditional Mexican song, which our monastic brothers love. Three children who have lent a special touch to our time together, David, Elías, and Sofía, sing the turtle song, and Fausto thrills us with a cappella numbers. His crystalline voice reminds us that we are like water that reflects what is beautiful and true.

The last day, we finish our meditation by walking under the shade of a jacaranda. With the children cross-legged at their sides, Phap Lac and Phap De teach us the art of waking up the bell. Only five days have passed, but the conditions of the retreat have let the people of the Mexican Felicidad family recognize each other in interbeing. Without coming or leaving, neither before nor after, we embrace firmly and then let each other go. We know that each of us is in the other and that the other is in us. We leave Casa Xitla wide awake. We have learned to recognize that the present moment is a wonderful moment.

Thank you, dear Thay; thank you, dear family.

mb62-Retreat5María Jiménez, Felicidad Valiente del Corazón (Courageous Happiness of the Heart), is a professor at Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM). Maria enjoyed the retreat among jacarandas twice: the first time while living it and the second while writing this article. Two other members of the Sangha in Mexico City, Jorge Hirsch and Gabriela Rosales, contributed. Their voices are a vehicle to convey the sound of a single river: the Felicidad Family.

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plum Village Smiles

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

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

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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