Dharma Talk: Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine

By Thich Nhat Hanh on Poetry and Interbeing

Offered to Social Workers from Vietnam Visiting Plum Village in May, 2002

Sunshine rides on space and poetry on sunshine.
Poetry gives birth to sunshine, and sunshine to poetry.

Every time we use the expression armful it is usually used to refer to an armful of hay or an armful of logs but rarely do we say an armful of poetry.   When people speak about drops they speak of drops of rain or drops of dew or a drop of soy sauce but no one says a drop of sunshine.  This poem is an invitation to look deeply in an awakened way and to see poetry as an armful and sunshine as a drop.

Without sunshine how can we have poetry?  Without sunshine we would die.  How can we make poetry?  We feel sunshine also comes from poetry.  Poetry is not only pleasant and sweet, it can also be explosive, like thunder.  In sunshine there is not only the pleasant image, there is also a strong aspect.  Sometimes sunshine is also dry and burning.  When we read poetry we feel something sweet and it can also be like a shout denouncing  injustice.  In these two sentences we can see the interdependence of poetry and sunshine.

Sun treasured in the heart of the bitter melon,
poetry made of steam rising from a bowl of soup in Winter.

I wrote this poem during winter. In the previous summer we grew many bitter melons, more than we could eat. We put them in the freezer and in the midst of winter we took them out and made soup. The bitter melon stores so much sunshine within it. In the winter we could not see the sun at all, it was only gray and cloudy with a cold, sharp wind. We took a log of wood and put it into our stove. At that time in Plum Village we did not have any central heating. We only used wood stoves. We could not see the sunshine outside, but we could  touch the sun in the wood log and in the bitter melon in a hot bowl of soup.  Even in the depths of winter you know that the sun has never left you. In the warmth inside your home you see the sun in your bowl of soup; you feel the sunshine is still there.

We are eating but we don’t know that we are consuming sunshine. The sun is our father. Without the sunshine not a single being can survive on this planet. All the animals, vegetables and humans on this planet are children of the sunshine. When we eat the bitter melon we are also eating the sunshine. Our father is nourishing us.   Without  the sun our father we cannot have the Earth our mother and we cannot have food. The sun is our father and the Earth is our mother.

The wind is lurking outside, swirling.
Poetry is back to haunt the old hills and prairies.
Yet the poor thatched hut remains on the river shore, waiting.

When I heard the howling wind outside I thought of Vietnam with many poor thatched roofs. Of course there are also many good houses in Vietnam, but I thought of those families who are most destitute. I thought of the poor thatched roofed hut by the river shore waiting for our support. My mind is in touch with the wood log; my mind inter-is with the material things, the phenomenal world.  At the same time, when I heard the sound of the wind, it touches my store consciousness and I remembered the images of our country. When I left Vietnam, over thirty-five years ago, there were so many poor people living in huts like that. My mind is in touch with the bitter melon and then hearing the howling wind my mind touches the image of the day I left Vietnam, with many people suffering under the bombs and now they are still poor and waiting for help.

Spring carries poetry in its drizzle.
The fire sparkles poetry in its orange flame.
Sunshine stored in the heart of the fragrant wood,

Today it is May and we can see poetry everywhere. But in this poem it is not yet Spring, it is Winter and everything is dark, yet I am still in touch with sunshine and poetry in the bowl of bitter melon soup. There is poetry in each drop of rain in Springtime.  The poetry is stored in the fragrant wood. If you are practicing, you bring a piece of wood and put it in the fire and you are aware that you are putting sunshine into the stove. 

warm smoke leading poetry back to the pages
of an unofficial history book.

An unofficial history book is the book Hermitage Among the Clouds about the true story of Tran Nhan Tong, a Zen teacher in the fourteenth century. During that Winter I wrote that book and I ate the bitter melon soup. My poetry is what I have truly lived. You need to read that book; it is very beautiful. Poetry is everywhere.

Sunshine, though absent from space,
fills the now rose-colored stove.
Sunshine reaching out takes the color of smoke;
poetry in stillness, the color of the misty air.

It seems that sunshine is absent from space, outside it is so dark and gloomy, but sunshine fills the woodstove.  When you prepare the stove the heat that radiates out is poetry. The bitter melon soup is also poetry. That is the deep look that is not caught in the form. We have to learn to see things free from the form. When the person that you love is not there you think that he has died but when you look deeply you see that he or she is still there. We complain that there is no sunshine, but sunshine is there in the bowl of green vegetables, sunshine is there in piece of wood.

Spring rain holds poetry in its drops
which bends down to kiss the soil,
so that the seeds may sprout.
Following the rain, poetry comes to dwell on each leaf.

Every drop of rain in Spring enters into the leaf. In a drop of rain there is also sunshine.  During the Summer there is a lot of sunshine evaporating the water from all the ponds and lakes, forming clouds. Thanks to the cold air the clouds will become Spring rain.  We can say that the rain is kissing the Earth, but we can also say that the sunshine is kissing the soil because the sunshine is in each drop of rain. We see the deep connection between the sun and the Earth. In Plum Village there are so many stinging nettles. In winter you do not see this wild plant. But in spring all you need is the drops of rain and you will see it everywhere. Here in France they call them weeds but they are very good for eating.

Sunshine has a green color and poetry a pink one.
Bees deliver warmth to the flowers from the sunshine
they carry on their wings.
On sunshine footsteps to the deep forest,
poetry drinks the nectar with joy.
With the excitement of celebration,
butterflies and bees crowd the Earth.
Sunshine makes up the dance, and poetry the song.

Usually people  say  that  sunshine is golden yellow, but nobody says that sunshine has a green color. But with deep looking we can see that the sunshine is green. In the poem “Cuckoo telephone” I said that snow is also green. Why? When snow melts and becomes water it makes the plants very lush and green. If we see in a superficial way we only see that the snow is white. But if we look deeper we can see the snow is also green.

When we look at butterflies or bees you can see plenty of sunshine. What do they carry on their wings if not sunshine? Bees deliver warmth from the sunshine to the flowers.  The flower has plenty of sunshine. When the bees come and visit the flower the bees bring back honey. Bees deliver warmth to the flowers. If you look deeply you see poetry everywhere; it happens every second and every minute of our life. Things are happening in every moment in May.  If you have the time to lie down on the grass you will hear the excitement of spring. Every little being is inspired to sprout. The Earth is crowded with butterflies and bees and many other things. Don’t miss your appointment.

Drops of sweat fall on the hard ground.
Poems fly along the furrows.
The hoe handily on my shoulder,
poetry flows from my breath.
Sunshine wanes away down the river,
and the silhouette of the late afternoon lingers reluctantly.
Poetry is leaving for the horizon
where the King of Light is blanketing himself in clouds.

After being in touch with the beauty we are also invited to be in touch with the suffering.  We see the sweat of the farmer who works so hard to grow vegetables for us to eat and we see poetry in that beautiful act of the farmer. The King of light means the sun is going to sleep and he uses the clouds as a blanket. The sun going to sleep is a beautiful atmosphere.

A green sun found in a basketful of fresh vegetables,
a tasty and well-cooked sun smells delicious in a bowl of rice.

If you look at the basket of vegetables but you cannot see the sunshine you are not a good practitioner. Without the sunshine how can you have green, fragrant vegetables?  In Vietnam there is a variety of rice called, “eight fragrances rice.”  When you taste that delicious rice you know you are tasting the sun. You can see poetry everywhere.

Poetry looks with a child’s eyes.
Poetry feels with a weather-beaten face.
Poetry stays within each attentive look.
Poetry – the hands that work the poor and arid land somewhere far away.

When you are far away from your homeland and you eat some delicious rice you can see the hard work of the farmer; you can see the eyes of children, thin and malnourished. We have seen so many children without enough  food.  When we eat some delicious rice we see right away the hard work of the peasant and the poor children who don’t have enough to eat. While eating I can see the look of these children.

I remember one day when I was at Kim Son Monastery in San Jose, California there was a friend from the local newspaper, the Mercury News, who came to interview me about mindfulness.  The editor wanted to publish an article about mindfulness. This journalist was of Vietnamese origin but she was also very good in English.  She asked me, “How can I help you?  I am a journalist; maybe I can help you with my talent as a journalist.”  That day I was sitting under a redwood tree.  She sat next to me and I said, “Please do in such a way that every child in Vietnam will have one cup of soymilk to drink every day. That is my only wish.”  There are many of children in Vietnam who cannot grow up healthy and strong for lack of proper nourishment. This morning I received a photo of many toddlers from three to five-years-old taken in Do Linh village, the hometown of my mother which is in a very poor area. I see each child as my mother. My mother was a toddler, poor and undernourished like that. If these undernourished children can grow up properly, as my mother did because she had a good family, they can become a healthy person and give birth to someone like me. If I am a bit thin and small-boned it is because when I was a child I never had a cup of milk to drink. If you can help me every child will have a cup of milk.

Do Linh is just an illustration, but everywhere in Vietnam the poor hungry children could become good mothers if they have a chance like my mother had. Every child in every poor country could be my mother. If you give five dollars per month you can offer a child a cup of milk every day; cow’s milk or soymilk are both helpful. I look at every child in Do Linh as my mother, every child in Vietnam is my mother; every child in Thailand is my mother. I see that every child in Africa and everywhere could be my mother.  I wish that every child would have a cup of milk to drink.  When you look deeply you can see like that. That is what we call,  “attentive  look.”  Poetry stays within each attentive look.  With an attentive look you can see the toddler and you can also see the past and the future of that child.  hat child can become a strong mother who gives birth to a healthy child or a weak mother who gives birth to handicapped children.

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There are farmers that work so hard but it is not enough to feed their own children.  You dwell in the present moment but you see far away all over planet. You dwell in the present moment, but you can see the past and the future. Dwelling in the present moment doesn’t mean that you are limited to the present moment.

The smiling sun brightening up the sunflower;
the ripe and full sun hiding itself in an August peach;
poetry follows each meditative step,
poetry lines up the pages.

A person who walks mindfully and beautifully looks like a poem. When you write a compassionate line that is poetry.

Discreetly,
within closed food packages,
poetry nurtures love.

At the time that I wrote this poem it was impossible to send money to Vietnam. It was impossible to reach the poorest children, the elderly people. The government forbid our social work and charity work.  The work of the School of Youth for Social Service, that we had set up in Vietnam to help mend the wounds of war, was stopped and the director was in jail.  Many social workers were prevented from doing anything. Yet we found a way  to provide food to the poorest people  in Vietnam.  We bought ordinary French medicine.  At that moment all Western medicine was blocked from entering Vietnam. So we bought French medicine and each family received one kilogram that they could exchange into 300 kilos of rice to nourish the children. Sister Chan Khong and myself and others wrapped the medicine and sent it everywhere in Vietnam. If the person had the family name “Nguyen” for example, then we would give ourselves that name also. If we put our own names, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, the recipients would have been arrested.  So we addressed each package as if a family member had sent it. The communist government did not have the ability to check if that person was really in France.  We sent thousands of parcels like that to thousands of families. A parcel like that was like a gift from heaven; it could nourish the whole family. We did that work in the wintertime nineteen years ago.  We had to use many different handwritings or else the communist government would have been suspicious and arrested the recipients. We gathered twenty persons to write in twenty different handwritings. We included instructions on how to consume the medicine: like that is aspirin or multivitamins do not take more than a certain amount and also how many kilos you can exchange it with for rice. We did that work with a lot of love. We brought a hundred packages to the post office every day. The post office workers said, “You are Santa Claus. But why does Santa Claus come every day and not just at Christmas time?”

With the deep look of a practitioner every moment can be poetry, you can see very deeply and very far while dwelling in the present moment.

Today if I read that poem it is because there are a number of social workers who have come to Plum Village from Vietnam. They have helped me to transmit all of this to the poor people in Vietnam. They have worked in very difficult situations and they have encountered many dangers to be able to do that work.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong.

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Remember Remember Remember

By Sister Dang Nghiem

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When I close my eyes, I see hundreds of little eyes looking at me: round, dark, innocent eyes, eyes opened wide. They wrench my heart and force me to seek deeper understanding of my path.

Therese came to visit our Understanding and Love Program in the highlands of South Vietnam. We organized a tea meditation at Prajna Temple on the night of her arrival to celebrate her visit and the visit of one of our elder sisters. The meditation hall was packed with over 250 monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.

Our Venerable Abbot spoke warmly to welcome the visiting sister and Therese. He told the history of our Prajna monastery (“Prajna” means “understanding”). Around 40 years ago, inspired by Thây’s teachings that he had read in Fragrant Palm Leaves, he and seven other young novices had the aspiration to continue Thây’s teachings and practices of engaged Buddhism in the highlands of South Vietnam. They built their first hermitage in what is now known as An Lac Temple (Temple of Peace and Happiness). That temple gave birth to seven other temples including Prajna, the most recent, established in 1998. Except for An Lac, the temples are situated in the remote areas of the highlands where the aboriginal K-ho people live and the poor people from North Vietnam have come to resettle.

Over the years, our Venerable Brother and his monastic disciples lived with and supported the people in these underserved communities. They established a school following the model of the Understanding and Love Program begun by Thây’s social workers in the 1960s.

When our Venerable Brother wanted to expand the school program, he went to Plum Village to ask Thây for support. For the eight years that followed that visit, Thây’s lay students trained through the School forYouth and Social Services have worked with the Venerable to establish 39 kindergarten schools for children in the distant areas of the highlands.

The next morning we all got in a van—our Venerable Brother, Therese, four social workers, the driver, and me, Therese’s translator.

Noble Veterans of the School for Youth and Social Services

The four social workers who accompanied us were young men in their twenties when they joined the School for Youth and Social Services (SYSS), established by Thây. Now they were all in their sixties. In the 1960s they had gone to war zones and worked together with the villagers to build bridges, create makeshift classrooms, and establish health clinics.

“Over three hundred social workers had graduated from the School for Youth and Social Services,” they said. “Thây continued to provide us guidance even after he went to Europe and the United States to call for a stop to the war in Vietnam. However, when the communists took over Vietnam, all of our social works were forbidden. We lost contact with Thây for fifteen years!

“After contact was re-established, we began to do social work again. Now, there are only a few more than 30 active social workers working throughout the three regions of north, central, and south Vietnam.”

I asked the men what fueled their minds of love after all these years. “It’s our love and loyalty to Thây,” one replied, and the three other social workers nodded in agreement. “It’s also the practice of the Dharma that nourishes us. We certainly would not be able to continue this work if we did it for the money.” (They receive every month from Plum Village an equivalent of less than $100 dollars.)

Fresh as the Dew, Solid as a Mountain

The first of the kindergarten schools we visited was not far from our monastery. I hesitate to call these locations schools, because they are just one to three rooms (each room about 3 by 4 meters), one small kitchen, and a toilet (squatting style). Most of the schools stand isolated in a field of tea plants; some are built adjacent to the house of the people who have donated the land.

As we walked to the door of the first school, the children stood and joined their palms into lotus buds to greet us. “We respectfully greet Thây” (to our Venerable Abbot). “We respectfully greet Su Co” (Su Co literally means Miss Teacher, which referred to me, a Buddhist nun). “We respectfully greet our aunts and uncles” (this to the social workers and Therese). The children all looked at us with their big eyes, then quietly returned to their places. There were no tables and no chairs. Thirty to forty children sat on the floor next to each other along the walls of the room. At some schools, the floor had ceramic tiles, but at the more remote locations, the floors were made of bare cement.

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Therese and I walked into the room and sat down with the children. Their teacher led them in a song: “Here is the Pure Land. The Pure Land is here. I smile in mindfulness and dwell in the present moment….” Then she started another song: “Breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in, breathing out. I am blooming as a flower. I am fresh as the dew. I am solid as a mountain. I am firm as the earth. I am free.” The four- and five-year-olds sang enthusiastically with their hands gesturing for flowers and mountains. The very little ones just lip-sang or sat wide-eyed in silence.

Keeping the Children Safe and Fed

At each location, Therese asked why there was a need for our Understanding and Love Program. The teachers and social workers explained that the local government only provided primary schools; there were no schools for toddlers. In addition, the parents had to pay for school fees and daily meals. Since most of the people in these regions work on tea and coffee plantations, either working for themselves or for the Taiwanese companies that have 50-year contracts for use of the land, they are too poor to send their children to the government school. Many parents had to leave their children at home so that the parents could go to work in these plantations. The children had many accidents at home by themselves. These were the reasons the parents came together and petitioned our Venerable Abbot for a school for their toddlers.

The families promised to take turns offering a room in their house for the school; often the woman in that family also offered to be the teacher for the school. Eventually the parents planned to put together enough money to buy land for a real school for their children, but when the parents cannot raise enough money for a school, the Understanding and Love Program helps them buy the land, purchase the materials for the school building (the parents work together to build it), pay the teacher’s monthly salary, and feed the toddlers two times a day.

The Joy of Giving

In some locations, the parents donate the land for the school. I met a woman who had offered the small piece of land that her family owned for a place to build a school. The Understanding and Love Program has not yet collected enough money to build it, so she was also allowing the school to meet in her house. Her house has only two rooms and it is small and shabby. I was too curious not to ask her, “Your husband and you are so poor. Why did you not sell the land that you have? Why did you donate it to the school?”

She exclaimed, “We would never sell the land!”

“Then why did you donate it?”

“Grandfather Monk (referring to Thich Nhat Hanh) and the monks and nuns do charity work for us. This is my contribution to the charity work,” she said.

My heart sank into a deep silence.

Her two children were helping with the school program. I asked the younger one if it was annoying that so many children were in her house. “Not at all, respected Su Co,” she replied.

“Does it bring you joy then?” I asked.

“Yes, very much so, Su Co,” she answered with a smile. “What do you do to help?”

“When I come back from school, I help my mother wash the children’s hands and feet,” she said.

I turned to her older sister. “Do you help your mother with the children, too?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly. “Are you still in school?”

“No, Su Co. I stopped going to school after fourth grade.” “Do you wish to go to school?”

“Yes,” she replied quietly.

“Does it make you sad that you cannot go to school?”

She simply looked down to the floor; her face turned pale. I stroked her unkempt hair and breathed mindfully. Later, as we walked out of the woman’s house, Therese said to me, “It’s so sad that the mother’s salary as a teacher is not enough to put her own children in school!”

Serving the K-ho People

We visited a school of the aboriginal people of K-ho. The teacher was 24 years old. She had received a scholarship to go to a university in the city, but she chose to stay and teach her own people. She taught a night class to teenagers and adults for a number of years, and thanks to her, illiteracy was eradicated in her area. During the day, she took care of toddlers and taught them how to speak, read, and write in Vietnamese. Each year, she would take the ones who had just turned six to the public primary school, then for a week to ten days, she walked with them to their new school, staying in class with them as they got familiar with the place and became less frightened. Then she returned to her own preschool class. She was the only teacher to thirty toddlers. Another woman helped cook breakfast and lunch for the children.

We went deeper into the forest to visit another location. The local government had received funds to build a primary school in each sub-district but they ended up leaving many of the schools vacant since the parents could not pay for their children to attend the school. Our Venerable Brother borrowed one of these primary schools for our Understanding and Love Program. (“We’ll eventually borrow all of them,” he said with a charismatic smile.) I was surprised to discover that these public schools include just a few relatively big rooms and no toilets or sinks! (The tea plants surrounding these schools must grow well with the natural fertilizers.)

The children at this location were also of the K-ho ethnic group. Their clothes were discolored and many did not even have socks or hats. It was cold and windy, but they all sat on a thin straw mat on a cement floor; there were no toys and no decorations in the room. The children simply sat still and silent.

I placed a small girl on my lap. The teacher said to me, “The father of

that child died last year in a vehicle accident. Her mother is only 22 years old and she has to take care of two children by herself. They are very poor.” The child was 17 months old, but when I pulled her up, she could stand for only a few seconds before she sat back down. Yet her face was beautiful and calm like a full moon, and her eyes opened wide.

Little Zen Masters

Again and again at each location, Therese and I were deeply struck by the children’s demeanor—and by their eyes. They were quiet and still, but their bodies and minds were not flaccid or lethargic. Their eyes were wide open and calm, yet penetrating. I saw them as little Zen masters in meditation, sitting in ease and acceptance.

We went to three more locations that afternoon. When we arrived at the last school we had tea with the two teachers and an elderly woman whose granddaughter attended our school. The tea was particularly strong and fragrant. The women told me that most of the tea plantations in this area belonged to Taiwanese owners who lived in Bao Loc with their families. The local workers were allowed to use only the old tea leaves for drinking (called chè); the young tea leaves were harvested for exports (called trà). I said to them that I must be drinking trà, and the elderly woman smiled in embarassment, saying, “Well, it’s a special occasion that the Venerable and you are here, so I went to the tea garden back there and took a few young leaves.” She smiled.

Spiritual Nourishment

I asked the teachers if they were tired after taking care of the children from 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday. They smiled, a smile of kindness, acceptance, and endurance.

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“How do you nourish yourselves?” I asked them.

“We go to Prajna temple and the monks and nuns teach us how to take care of the children and of ourselves,” one teacher told us.

“How does the practice help you?”

“I learn to bring joy to other people. I don’t get so upset anymore. If I didn’t hear the children’s voices for a few days, I would miss them!” she replied.

On our visits to the schools we discovered the importance of spirituality. “Hunger and poverty is one kind of suffering,” said our Venerable Abbot. “Yet, the lack of spirituality is a greater suffering. The people in these areas are very poor, but they live their lives with honesty and joy because they have a spiritual practice. If not, their lives would be much darker,” he said.

The Beauty of Interbeing

Towards the end of our time together, our Venerable Brother slowly looked at each of our faces. Then he turned to speak to the four social worker brothers, “Well, do you have any last thing to say to sister Therese? Tomorrow, on our way to Saigon together, we will be practicing silence and hand gestures!” Everyone laughs wholeheartedly because they know I will not be in the car with them to translate.

On the way to the car, Therese and I reached out to embrace one another. I follow mindfully my in-breaths and out-breaths, as I feel concretely Therese’s presence in my arms. We have shared meaningful and beautiful moments together. I am keenly aware that I may never see her again, yet our lives are forever intertwined.

And the eyes of the children, they will always remind us to reflect deeper into our path and to remember. Remember. Remember.

Sister Dang Nghiem worked in the U.S. as a medical doctor before she became a nun. She lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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