The River Koan

By Mark Vette

mb21-TheRiverOne evening I invited my eight-year-old son, Koan, for a river walk under the near full moon. He lit up, reminding me of my promise to show him the wild duck nest. The dogs joined us. In the joyous fracas we passed Mother Kaihikatea, a huge native tree of great spiritual significance to the Maori people. My mother’s ashes are buried there, along with many animal friends. Koan and I bowed. He spoke of burying a pukeko chick he had tried to save. We talked about Pip, a friend we worked with as she died. I realized how maturely he understood death and how fortunate we were to have direct experience of impermanence.

We climbed the fence into the meadow, where I normally begin formal walking. My breath hugged me in the quiet night. The silver river reflected the moonlight filtering through the leaves. Flap-flap-swoosh!! Koan started as the mother duck flew from her nest in a small bush. He rushed to pull back the branches and looked in as if he’d found the king’s jewels. In the moonlight, the eggs looked like huge pearls as they were reflected in his joyful face. Koan felt the eggs to see if the mother was sitting, then lectured me not to disturb her nesting.

A short time later, I left him watching a possum and walked quietly on to sit under a tanekaha tree at the water’s edge. I slipped into the silver flow of the river and the image of Thay’s teaching came back vividly: allow your mind to become as immense as the great river and the muddiness of life is washed clean. Within minutes, I felt fresh and clear.

Koan’s muttering to the dogs edged nearer. He spoke to them as if they were human, looking down a rabbit hole with Polly-his blonde hair and muddy pants, and her we€d-ridden coat and wagging, excited tail. Koan rushed over and asked how big I thought the underground rabbit town was and what might they be doing? He asked why I was sitting, not walking. I explained I wanted to sit with the river for a while. He understood, dropped between my legs, and snuggled up.

We sat meditating on sticks and weeds. Bubbles. “Could that be an eel?” We sat. He enjoyed my warm presence and stability. I enjoyed his freshness and energy.

Walking back slowly, we held hands. When I hold Koan’s hand as we walk, he quiets and seems to know I just want to walk and be with him by touch. The walk ended with one tired boy falling asleep on my lap. I watched the beauty and peace of my child’s sleep. Practice with children is wonderful when it is natural and unnamed.

Mark Vette, True Great Root, is the father of three children and practices with Long White Cloud Sangha in Auckland, New Zealand.

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Prison Mindfulness

By Mair Honan

A few years ago, the word “prison” arose repeatedly in my meditation. I thought it referred to an internal prison and laughed when the words “Thomaston prison” arose one day. Thomaston is a nearby state prison. I had no conscious desire to enter the prison and no experience in prison work. But, a week later I bumped into someone who works at Thomaston and asked about bringing meditation in. After an interview with the education office, our mindfulness program began.

We present mindfulness meditation as a way to focus the mind and develop peace and clarity in life, rather than as a Buddhist practice. We openly speak about our teachers, however, and the inmates know we have taken Buddhist precepts. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine came to the prison to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings to one dedicated practitioner. Each new person receives instructions from The Miracle of Mindfulness. We remind them they can get a free copy of We ‘re All Doing Time from Human Kindness Foundation in Durham, North Carolina and free books from Parallax Press. When someone wants to learn about Buddhism, we try to help.

During the sessions, the inmates sit on chairs. We sit in meditation at the beginning and end of each session. We also read and discuss a short piece from a variety of teachers. The guys may have questions or want to discuss their practices. During one session, I offered walking meditation, but it activated too much tension in the small room. For now, we pass out instructions from Thay’s Guide to Walking Meditation and encourage them to try mindful walking alone in their cell or out in the field.

About nine months after we began, I saw a connection between the inmates and my brother, my closest sibling. One evening, an inmate laughed a particular way and it felt as if my brother was there. A few years ago, through alcohol abuse, my brother killed himself and another young man. Such pain-I loved him so dearly. When I heard the inmate laugh, I remembered that my brother was arrested in his teens and spent a short time in prison awaiting trial. I had wondered why I felt so comfortable with these guys. As Thay says, the past and the future reside in the present.

We’re all learning from each other. I am particularly grateful to these men who are unwittingly helping me heal a deep grief. From the beginning, I knew this could work only with the Sangha’s help. Six regional Sangha members are cunently involved in the prison practice. We are all grateful to the Thomaston Prison staff. Without their openness, Support, and thoughtfulness, we would not have a meditation program in the prison.

Mair Honan, True Seal of Enlightenment, practices with the True Heart Sangha in Maine.

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Punk Palace in the Moonlight

By Ian Prattis

My eighteen-year-old son, Alexander, was studying at the Glasgow School of Art. From our transatlantic calls, I knew he was in trouble with drugs. I arranged to visit him. At the airport I scarcely recognized him in his multicoloured hairstyle. He met me with a warm hug and a big smile.

At his apartment, I knew something was dreadfully amiss. There were no books or art materials. The large apartment was occupied by a shifting population of punks, drug users, and dealers. Alexander left for a while; I sat inhis squalid room wondering about him. Several hours later, he returned, badly beaten up in a drug deal gone wrong. He confessed that his requests for money to complete summer courses were false; he needed the money because he was deep in Glasgow’s drug world. I listened quietly, calmly washed his rearranged face, and learned that he could easily have been killed that night.

We walked to nearby Kelvingrove Park where I introduced him to walking meditation, encouraging him to trust the earth to absorb his pain and distress on each out-breath. As he calmed, I suggested perhaps the beating was a wakeup call. I offered him two options: £500 cash to enter drugdealing in a bigger way, or spending the next several weeks living mindfully with me. He refused the money, so I will never know how much bluff I used.

Alexander and I read most of The Miracle of Mindfulness together and did some of the exercises. Together we practiced sitting and walking meditation, enjoying silent meals, and conscious breathing. I taught him to coordinate body movement with breath, and also to defend himself with martial arts. We discovered that we enjoyed one another’s company and humour.

The residents of “Punk Palace,” as I named the place, gathered each evening to listen to heavy metal music, do drugs, and talk. Committed not to take drugs while I was there, Alexander smoked cigarettes. I listened quietly to these young people pour out their lives. For this short time, they became my family. No other parent ever visited them, let alone lived with them.

One night several punks asked me to teach them walking meditation. I agreed-if they remained drug-free for two days. Two evenings later, my punk friends boosted me into a tree and told me to crawl along a branch that hung over a private park. They bounced over the fifteen-foot-high railings and caught me as I dropped. After we picked ourselves up and stopped laughing, I introduced them to walking meditation. Slowly and mindfully for over two hours, we walked barefoot in the grass.

The next evening the punks spoke of their awareness of my presence in Punk Palace. Drugs were used less; my new friends turned their music down. No drug deals went down while I was there, and the kitchen even got a cursory clean! I thanked them and quietly said I was also aware of them, of every acid hit and cocaine use, of every moment of their despair and anger. Silence followed. Two people began crying. I softly thanked them all for their kindness and consideration, and said I was there for them. I then left them among themselves. These young people knew everything interconnects. They were simply lost.

Alexander and I worked on practical matters for which we prepared with meditation. We met with college tutors who had not seen him for six months, his college counsellor, and his bank manager. I enrolled him in a martial arts academy run by a kick-boxing champion who treated his students as family and began and ended sessions with meditation.

The final step was to talk to the drug dealers. We met in Alexander’s room. They were the most hardened young people I have ever met. I cleared Alexander’s outstanding debts, and quietly and firmly told them he was out of drugs. The tension could be cut with a knife. I breathed slowly in and out, extending love and compassion to them. After a time, they too relaxed. They asked about my martial arts background, which Alexander had no doubt exaggerated. It was our only common ground apart from Alexander. I wove a web of stories and showed them some drills, mentioning how many martial arts experts end up in healing and meditative practices. The more I talked quietly and directly to them, the more violence left the room. When they left, I knew they would leave Alexander alone, but their energy disturbed me.

It would be ideal to say the whole situation did not get to me, but it did. After one all-night party, I got really angry over Alexander’s wasted opportunities and irresponsibility. I did walking meditation, unsuccessfully trying to calm down. At 6:00 a.m., I packed my bags, found Alex, and asked him to walk me to the bus stop- I was leaving. His face showed fear that I was walking out of his life.

We walked silently. Alexander insisted on carrying my bags. They were much too heavy, but I let him. Then I stopped, told him to put the bags down, and hugged him. I told him I love him. We both cried. I told him why I had been so angry and invited him to join me at the airpolt hotel for a few days to continue our mindfulness training. Relief flooded his face.

Our mindfulness training continued at the hotel with emphasis on life skills-budgeting finances, handling peer pressure, completing college assignments, etc. We meditated and continued breath work with martial arts training. Once again we drew closer. When I left, Alexander saw me off and the real test began for us both: Alexander has to choose how he wants to walk through life and I have to allow him the freedom to choose.

This article is excerpted from a longer work by Ian Prattis, True Body of Understanding, who teaches anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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Open Heart Posture

By Margaret Kirschner

We sat facing Een—Eileen Kiera—our mindfulness teacher at Indianola, in a serene campground on the shores of Puget Sound, Washington. She was giving us a gift, she said, as she instructed us on how to sit or stand: slight pelvic tilt, sternum lifted as if pulled gently upward by a string, allowing the shoulders to rest slightly back and downward.

Familiar instructions given by yoga teachers, physical therapists. I had often used them myself as I trained chronic pain patients to relax at the hospital where I work. Yet I had a hard time with them personally—reminding myself to alter the chronic slump in my back each time I sat to meditate. Sitting upright was tiring and I would catch myself humped over again and again. Then I heard Een’s words, “Lifting your sternum opens your heart.”

“Of course I want my heart open,” I thought as I raised my ribcage and let my shoulders slip back. For the first time, I had found a position that felt comfortable and relaxing. My mind opened as an awareness shot through me: I had been protecting my heart since my divorce. I had been curling up to protect my soft underbelly—like any animal would do. I realized that I did not need to do that any longer.

I maintained the open heart posture during sitting throughout our week-long retreat, and have been able to continue the posture since. “My heart is open” has become a mantra. To my great joy, I find myself being more spontaneous, having a more open attitude toward others, giving more gifts of smiles or time or material things. That the open heart posture lifts my spirit and changes my behavior is only to be expected when we remember that body, mind, and spirit are one. But it has been my often successful habit to use my mind to change my body. When I remember that I am one with the universe, I find it natural that the universe reflects an open heart posture towards me: a chance meeting with an acquaintance who says he considers me his friend, or being introduced to someone who admires my “caring face.” Small but meaningful events that nourish my open heart.

Lifting my ribcage
I feel my heart opening.
My whole body smiles.

Margaret Kirschner, Mutual Support of the Heart, lives and practices in Bend, Oregon.

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Practicing with Kyrre

By Svein Myreng and Eevi Beck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santepheap Sangha

By David Biviano

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The Cambodian Children’s House of Peace is a residential home for thirty children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the location of the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat. There are twelve girls and eighteen boys, ages 10–18, who come from the poor countryside villages in the province.

The nickname for the children’s home is Santepheap (santaypea’-ap), which means “peace” in the Khmer language. In a country still recovering and rebuilding after fifty years of civil war, the bombing campaign during the Vietnamese/American war, and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, building a community of peace is a main purpose for the home.

I went to Siem Reap, Cambodia, following the three-week segment one of Thay’s 2007 pilgrimage in Vietnam. I volunteered at a children’s home during my visit, resulting in the founding of The Friends of the Children of Cambodia (FOCC) charity in Washington State, USA. When I returned in 2008 to volunteer at that home, it closed, leaving eight children with no home. So, I returned to Seattle, sold my home, and came to work in Cambodia, to start a new home. FOCC now supports Santepheap through the donations of friends from around the world.

The parents and guardians of the children are grateful for the opportunity to send their children to Santepheap, which provides food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and most importantly, access to education that is unavailable in the villages. The children have lived at the home since November of 2008. During that time, they have grown physically and their health has improved from the malnutrition they suffered. They have made great progress in school, moving from the bottom of their classes to the top. Some were able to be promoted two grades after their first year, overcoming some of the lag they suffered from being unable to attend school in their village, due to poverty or lack of schools.

The children of The Cambodian Children’s House of Peace gather each evening after supper for a five-minute silent meditation and brief talk on growing up and living in peace. This is also a time when any conflicts or misunderstandings are resolved, restoring peace to the community and teaching ways to reconcile after a fight or bad behavior.

Here are some of the things the children have to say about the importance of the evening meditation in their lives:

Mol (15-year-old girl): Meditation causes us to be calm in mind, and mindful of how to do the right things for our life.

Bon (14-year-old boy): Meditation makes our suffering less and less, by enjoying breathing in/out.

Sey (13-year-old boy): Meditation teaches us how to be thoughtful and grateful for the present moment. I like meditation and learning to sit quiet and about peace.

Kha (17-year-old boy): Meditation teaches us how to manage our mind when we are feeling angry.

Ny (13-year-old boy): Meditation makes people’s spirit stronger and stronger for a better life.

Voleak (17-year-old girl): I like to live at Santepheap because it is like a real family — school, a place to study, have good food, a place to sleep, and to learn to live in peace.

Visitors and volunteers are welcome at Santepheap, and of course, may join the Sangha for the evening meditation. Information about the home, directions, and contact information are available at www.santepheap.org and info@santepheap.org.

David J. Biviano, Wonderful Stillness of the Heart, of Seattle, WA, is the Founder and Advisor of the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace.

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