A Lifetime of Global Peacemaking

An Interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman by Barbara Casey

Gene, how did you first become familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh?

Gene: I have been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation since 1950 and we sponsored Thich Nhat Hanh’s speaking tours for peace in the United States and abroad in 1966. I was interested in this young Buddhist who had so much to contribute to peace. In 1985 I went for a month to Plum Village, his center in France. While there, he asked me to organize his first retreat with Vietnam Veterans. It was a wonderful retreat here in Santa Barbara and there are several veterans from that retreat that l still see.

Thay, as we learned to call him, is particularly strong and powerful in h is teachings on reconciliation.  Since that is my field, l learned much from him.  The international program I founded, Compassionate Listening, is based on h is teachings that we must listen to both sides of any conflict before we take action and we must acknowledge the suffering and grievances of both sides without judgement. Ultimately through this process, we bring the two sides together for reconciliation.

When Glasnost came, everyone just stopped, thinking that no more work of reconciliation was needed, but I knew that wasn’t true. So l began working in the Middle East and since then I have been going back and forth, working there. On one trip to Israel, I stopped in London and attended a Quaker meeting. I saw a huge sign outside the hall saying, “Meeting for worship for the tortured and the torturers,” so l went to that meeting. I had long listened to the tortured, but listening to the torturers I’d never thought of that. So I developed a Compassionate Listening program and wrote many articles about it. Then in 1996 I received a call from Leah Green in Seattle, saying she wanted to use my Compassionate Listening process in her peace delegations to the Middle East. No one else had wanted to work with me because they said I didn’t advocate for anything. When you advocate, you pick a side and you have enemies. I didn’t take a side. When people asked me who I was advocating for, I told them, “I’m advocating for reconciliation.”

Tell us about Compassionate Listening:

Gene: Compassionate Listening is a process for making peace because you listen to the grievances of both sides, you hear the suffering of both sides, and you hear the life stories of the people who represent each side. It is a listening program that does not criticize or advise. The Middle East project has been bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Now there are more people who are beginning to understand the situation. When l went to Israel the first few times, the Israelis I met said the Palestinians didn’t exist and no one would go into the Palestinian Territory except the peacemakers.

Compassionate Listening is people listening to both sides without judging or condemning and being there as nourishing, nurturing people caring for people on both sides. It’s amazing.

One of my last visits to Israel included a meeting with the military head of Hamas at that time. He was a very appealing young man. I listened to his life story. He had been arrested and exiled by the Israelis, and made to sit on the border of Lebanon where they were fighting. His story was horrific but he was a loving man. I went up to him afterwards and said, “l might have some ideas on nonviolence for you and I wonder if you would like to hear them?” And he said, “You sound just like my mother.” I told him, “I’d like to be your mother!” We hugged and I left. A week after I came home, the newspaper reported that he had participated in nonviolent demonstrations twice. I don’t know where he is now but the transforming experience of having a group of people listen to your life story was reflected in the change in this young man.

I was requested by the American Friends Service Committee in Alaska to offer two trainings. They were having problems with indigenous people in Alaska having their food supply threatened. Their program went for a year and a half and then they came together and made seven concessions.

In the listening process, there is a group leader and the same listeners stay with the project. They start out listening to one group and then the other. They don’t bring the groups together until they feel they are ready; by that time they have often worked through many of their differences. This is the process that I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh because in his community each person tells their side.

How does a person use compassionate listening skills in their daily life?

Gene: You listen to people; you don’t criticize or condemn them and you don’t argue with them. You are grateful they told their story. I have one grandson who is a little terror and is defiant of everything he’s told to do. One day he came over and he didn’t talk to me, but he was being very troublesome. So l said, “Tell me what’s going on, are you upset with me. Have I done something?” He said, “I’m mad at my dad!” I said, “Thank you for telling me; tell me about it.” He said, “I didn’t want to come here, I wanted to stay and play with my friends, but my dad made me come!” That explained everything. Before I understood, his behavior was so awful l was ready to send him home. After I knew the problem, he softened up and his dad was here and we all began talking, and then everything was fine.

I think that you have to ask, is there anything wrong?  Is there anything I’ve done? Can you tell me how you’re feeling? I don’t know if it will work, but it works in the home if we can stop our own feelings of aggravation and listen. Just stop and say, “I’m going to listen to you now; tell me whatever it is that’s bothering you because it will help me.”

At home it’s so easy to just start arguing, I think it really helps to set an environment by stating what you’re going to do; “I’m going to stop and listen to you now.” Stopping and verbalizing your intention helps to create safety.

Gene: If an argument starts, one of the things that I usually do is to say, “I can’t talk about this anymore, I have to think about it.” Because at the moment the argument is going on I would just fall into it and defend myself. I do what I need to get out of the angry mode because that’s the hardest place to listen from.

In the Compassionate Listening project, you have to be able to listen to people you hate, but sometimes a person just cannot listen and they have to stop. I would have a hard time listening to [President] Bush, and I think it would be the best thing for me to go and listen to him. I think I would learn more about whatever it is that arouses me and makes me fear for my nation and for our lives.

How can Compassionate Listening help us in these times?

Gene: I think we should listen to the people who differ from us, either in small groups or one on one. We should listen to what we find is the truth they speak and affirm them in it. That is one of the processes of Compassionate Listening. For example, in the U.S. we can go in pairs, from door to door; and ask three questions: What do you think of the war against evil? Do you see a way other than war for resolving these differences? Would victory resolve our differences? Why or why not? Each person will have an opportunity to look at their own truth and to consider the beliefs behind their words.

We went to Libya and stayed a week doing Compassionate Listening. We met with people in government, politics, law, and academia. We also met with the religious leaders of Islam. I told them that I, as a Quaker, believed the spiritual teachings were evolutionary and asked them if the teachings in the Koran were too. They went into another room to consider my question and when they returned they said, “We interpret Mohammed’s teaching in different ways as time goes by.” When we asked them about their treatment of gay people, we were relieved when they answered that they don’t kill them anymore.

Gene, if you had an opportunity to meet with President Bush, how would you go about listening to him?

Gene: I would go with a small group who had been trained in this process. We would say something like: “We want to know about you as a person and as a President. Tell me the best time you ever had in your childhood.” We would not ask adversarial questions. We would say we want to know about your life, we want to know what you believe and what your faith tells you to do. What I would like to find is the good spirit in Bush that can be built upon, where we can build on what he believes, because there is no point in attacking him. I would listen with compassion to him.

How do you think we can bring peace?

Gene: There is no future without forgiveness. We must start going in delegations around the world, acknowledging the harm our country has done, acknowledging our grief over it and asking for forgiveness. I think every country has to do it, but I think that it needs to start here. The goal of compassionate listening is that we will acknowledge the harm that we’ve done and ask for forgiveness and listen to the other people. All of this bombing and destroying people has never brought peace.  So we have to do something much bigger. That will come in steps and just doing this compassionate listening is an important beginning.  There is a coming together of the two sides.

One of the many things I love about compassionate listening is that it’s not at all abstract.  It’s something I can do even when I feel completely overwhelmed by the state of things in the world.

Gene: Yes, and I still go back to the one on one. Since 9/11 I’ve had at least twelve people call me up and just want to come and talk to me, so I’ve listened.

Compassionate listening seems easy to do but is so difficult. If one aspires to be a compassionate listener, what are the qualities one needs to develop in oneself! Especially to be able to listen to people who have different views?

Gene: In the course I teach, you examine yourself for hatred. All the classes are on the Web, and it’s free. Whatever you can’t listen to, you don’t do. You have to discipline yourself and not react. With my grandson I react all the time, so I am working on that. You have to discern the truth and it’s not listening with your human ear, it’s listening with your spiritual ear. It’s much better to work in a group with a leader, but you can do it by yourself with my booklet.

What is your vision? How do you see Compassionate Listening being used in society?

Gene: I think it is a process that can be used in every experience and l think it’s a process that we Americans have to learn. This process is a step in our evolution, a direction that is different from the way we’ve gone before.  I’ve never seen so many articles published on listening before; I believe its time has come. We just have to transform ourselves and it’s a wonderful thing to do! We have been doing things that are very destructive to human beings for a long time.  We don’t know how rich and important it is to go out and do something!

It seems that separation breeds more separation, and compassionate listening breaks down the illusion that we are different, that we are “other.” We need to do that on a personal, one on one way, for the seeds of that belief to dissolve.

Gene: That’s a great statement. I’ m going to use that in my teaching. We can only aspire to the impartiality and balance that’s needed to do compassionate listening. But if we’re aware of our biases, then we can stay in honesty while listening.

Our nation is in denial about all the harm we’ve done. ‘”We’re peaceful,” we say, while we drop the bomb in Afghanistan and support war all over the world. I don’t think we can hope for much until we transform and begin to listen, and then it’s going to be a rough road.

What advice do you have to our readers if they want to begin incorporating compassionate listening in their lives?

Gene: l recommend they find other people and practice together. Go to my Website, www.coopcomm.org and you will find my training booklet, “Compassionate Listening: an Exploratory Sourcebook for Conflict Transformation.” They should do it together as a team; they could do it in their Sanghas. Try going door to door, as I have suggested, and then come together and share your experiences. It’s good to go representing a group, taking a poll or survey. See how you’re doing by writing a “love letter” to the person you dislike or hate the most. My sourcebook has many of these kinds of suggestions.

I’m amazed about all the new efforts to listen in our country. I think it’s thrilling. It’s amazing how effective it is in our personal life as well as our public life. Keep saying no to things you don’t believe in, but look for the truth in the invitations. Don’t worry about any outcome; go on growing and learning that’s the reward.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a Quaker peace activist who has pioneered compassionate listening practice for over thirty years. She has become a legend in the peacemaking community through bringing compassionate listening to the heart of the world’s greatest conflicts in Russia and the Middle East. Gene offers a step by step manual on this practice, available on the internet free of charge, at:  www.coopcomm.org


Compassionate Listening: An Exploratory Sourcebook by Gene K. Hoffman


In Compassionate Listening, we do not seek to change those who share with us, we seek only to love them. The more people are loved, the more freedom they have to respond to their own inner truth which may or may not prompt movement.   The only change we can be assured of is that if we truly listen to our fellow human beings, we ourselves will be changed.

What are the results of Compassionate Listening?

People who are involved with Compassionate Listening projects report them to be transforming experiences usually for both the listeners and speakers. Those in conflict have the chance to learn about one another as human beings and potential friends. Their understanding of the complexities of issues addressed are broadened and deepened. Their preconceptions are often shattered, their abilities to listen and be present are challenged and expanded. They find new understandings of themselves and others. Often listeners remark at what a reciprocal experience they have felt, despite only taking the role of listener.

When not to get involved with Compassionate Listening

You must not try to take on the Compassionate Listening role around an issue where your own experience is too fresh or painful. You will get hurt, and you will l hurt those with whom you set out to build bridges. You may need to rest and come back to the issue later.

“Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in awareness, we could have seen the beginning phases and helped to avoid it. The reconciler is not a judge standing outside the conflict, but becomes an insider who will take his or her responsibility by understanding the suffering of both sides. The participants in the conflict should communicate clearly how they see the suffering endured by the other side. The conflict’s resolution should be offered on the basis of benefit to both sides. Our purpose is the realization of understanding and compassion.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

PDF of this article

Sacred Clowning

An Interview with Didier Danthois

By Barbara Casey during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village in June 2002

Barbara: Didier, how did you create and develop the idea of sacred clowning?

Didier: For me the “sacred” added to clowning is a way to celebrate the eternal quality of our human nature, and ultimately, to share that eternal aspect through the art of clowning.

Barbara: How does the sacred part express itself in the clowning?

Didier: It connects with the clowning because of the way we prepare, the way we tune into ourselves, where we come from with our clown. This work is not about acting. It is about coming home to the present moment. We are interested in touching the quality of this moment. For example, how you feel, how you are, just now, as you are sitting, touching the floor, a cushion next to you. What is around you, and between us as we speak? All those nuances of experience are moving through us in this moment; maybe the shyness

I feel as I speak with you, or my joy. To honor all those qualities as a shared reality, as a ground to inspire us into creativity. An authentic improvisation is born, just from being present, open, receptive; not from an act. You are here, I’m here, and I feel that, and from there, a dance can start to happen. Sacredness to me is connected to honoring that essence of coming home to ourselves and each other.

Doing nothing is the main point for me when I work with people. Sometimes I have people who have had years of drama training and I ask them to do nothing and it is very hard for them. To be on the stage and just be, with your heart open. Do nothing, just feel. Unless we can do that, we cannot touch the truth about our relationships, our true connection to space, to the universe. All performances or work we do with patients in health care settings is based on that attitude. Trusting, being in the now, listening, letting ourselves be touched, rather than coming with an idea to fill up the gap when nothing appears to be happening. True creativity can only come from silence, from not knowing.


Barbara: So when you offer this, what is your hope? That people come into this space with you?

Didier: I would say I wish to meet people. I don’t hope that they meet me, because hope is an attitude which provokes certain reactions. We create an open space where we just intend to meet the other. And that means we might be rejected. If we meet our fears as they are, and don’t try to change the outside situation, or want something different, then there is the potential for transformation. In that attitude, we come to essence, by simply not expecting things to be a certain way, and engaging from a true emotional response to what is there.

And then, of course, we use our skills in movement to magnify what we feel. So we develop dance, we develop mime. We enter imagination and play mindfully. In mime, the essential point is to come to the essence, to the heart of a movement. We can come to essence through feeling, through being here now. So it’s another way to look, and that has been a great key in the way we work as sacred clowns.

This way of working came to me ten years ago, after working extensively with people with special needs. For eight years I worked with blind performers on stage, with people who had Downs syndrome and learning difficulties, people who are often considered to be unable to do anything. I worked with one completely blind lady, and in the show we had to cross the stage running. She saw nothing, and her hand was resting on my hand, and the weight of her hand was like a leaf. She had total trust. At one point we had to jump together, leaping across the stage. We could have run into the wall! I’ve really learned about trust from those students. They taught me so much. Working with them, putting performances together, rediscovering the true meaning of being present, not expecting something. They taught me how in putting the performance together, they were not bothered about the end product. I was, they were not! I went through a lot and over the years they showed me that actually each step is a gem, nothing is separate. Everything is part of the beauty unfolding.

I remember there was a beautiful man, about twenty years old, in a group of people with Downs syndrome. One day he shared a dream. And I took the whole group into creating the reality for his dream. The power of his dream was a teaching and a mystery, so we entered it. All the participants in the workshop created a magic story out of this dream. It was so moving. I was nearly crying by the end of it, it was pure, there was no ego. I did my best to have enough openness not to try to modify but to follow and serve that dream, to open and let go. These people took me back to what celebrates life and the eternal aspect of love and nature.


So how can we bring that quality to the population of supposedly “normal” people, like you and me? And that is where I look for the answers. What was the essence of that experience? Innocence, potency of feeling, presence, authenticity, very little thinking, and joy and fun. A lot of this attitude was coming from play. How can we resurrect play? How can we be in the present, how can we be in touch with our feelings? Then one day I discovered a man called Lex Van Someren who was teaching something called ‘The Dancing Clown.’ So I started training, and soon I was very involved in the humor of the clown and the ability to play with everything that creates it, which is your sadness, your joy, your depression, your wanting to hide behind the corner. All those qualities are not to be separated. The clown is about restoring the full picture. It is expressing opposite energies. One of the names for the clown in the North American Indian tradition is “contrary.” He has the ability to touch on what is not expressed, on the repressed, to bring back to life, to mirror to the society what has been forgotten.

Barbara: It’s like the court jester.

Didier: Yes. It is the same. The clown is to bring back what is left behind.

Barbara: Big job!

Didier: That’s a big job. So the courses we do, we reawaken that ability to get in touch with the present moment. Working with inner listening, rather than outer, and watching the breath, feeling the breath through the whole body.  And I apply that literally to movement. If you want to expand your mind right to your fingertips or your toes, you can do that. And then we get in touch with beauty. Your movement becomes magic because you are opening your consciousness to touch the air, to tickle the air, with your fingertips, or your toes. Then wonder is there and also innocence. We are touching innocence, which means spontaneous, unprepared actions. Those movements are the result of inner listening, of bringing back the sense to their inner source.

Barbara: When you go to a hospital, when you enter that space, how do you help to create safety for those people? How do you connect? Do you begin to express what you feel in the room? I always had a fear of clowns because there is a spontaneity there and a call for interaction, but I didn’t feel safe because I didn’t know what their motive, their agenda was. How do you create safety?

Didier: Another aspect which we train to develop as part of mindfulness is compassion, to really feel the other as much as yourself, and to move into action in response to the other with care. We learn to sensitize that muscle by practicing compassion. Breathing in, dissolving your own resistance, your own blocks, your own fears. And breathing out, offering care to the other. We practice that for each other as a team of clowns, and then for the patients or audience. We practice this weeks in advance as part of daily warm-up, which means the clowns, the artists, already feel relieved of a lot of fear and feel more creativity, more ease, more love. Something has been prepared on the invisible level. We include the staff, the patients, the whole surrounding in our preparations.

I feel this is a very important part of the way we work. And many people feel quite inspired by this way of working because it brings more understanding, more openness from the people we share with, whether it’s a hospital, or a street improvisation.

It touches people. And we are able to share some of the values we’ve forgotten in our society, like silence, stillness, expressing true feelings. Being in places where normally nobody stops. We use simple things of nature to share our experience. We smell a flower, then offer it to someone. This art is about stopping in order to experience the here and now. Sometimes we go into slow motion. A group of five, six clowns in slow motion, walking next to each other. Traveling, but not going anywhere. Enjoying being the Fool, being aimless. This is what I call “Fool at Heart”, the Fool who expresses a response from his heart, or her heart.

Barbara: Tell me about how you work in teams.

Didier: We work in groups with street improvisation and in parks. A landscape of clowns comes together, relating to the space, celebrating nature. This summer we are having a gathering of about thirty clowns. We are working with a group of children in Germany, and are going to create a magical journey of clowns through a garden. So we will lead the children into different mime-clown scenes, really connecting to nature. That’s one example of what we do together.

Another aspect of the work is stage performance. Every year we have a retreat in Scotland, and we offer a performance in a Tibetan monastery there. We offer a whole week of training at the end of the retreat and we also have a performance with the monastics. It’s so beautiful!

We also have a more committed aspect of clown training for the work we do in hospitals. It requires being very grounded in meditation, and true motivation to want to share something from your heart. The nurses are often over-worked and very stressed. You come as a clown, with your joy, playing music, and maybe invite a patient to sing, or play, opening the joy muscle. I have worked with groups of nurses, and through that I have realized how much compassion they have, but so often, they didn’t have enough support to help them integrate challenging experiences. After nursing a dying patient, they might have to rush immediately to the next one. No space, no sharing time, never.  So slowly, something tightens in their heart. But of course, their compassion is still there, underneath all the stress. As a result, the nurses might sometimes feel annoyed with the clowns, or at other times relieved to see them.


Barbara: How do you deal with that?

Didier: I’m a true Westerner, very independent, and I have a lot to learn about being part of an organism. That’s why I’m here in this retreat, and I have a lot of pain to clear. My family and my background never gave me a positive experience of being part of a group. And now I realize the next step for this work has to be in a Sangha, so we can be supported in our values. The teaching of this three-week retreat is just like pouring honey into my brain and my heart, and I’m clearing up so much pain of never having lived in a true family. Here we have a true family. Thay inspires me so much about Sangha building, and how we can celebrate the sacred, the true values of human life. But as soon as we touch those wonderful golden aspects of life, we release a whole cloud of suffering that’s been there for years and years, so we are still very much beginners on the path. How can we hold the sacred view in a society that is not seeing it? That is the challenge. That is why I am here.

Barbara: How many clowns do you work with?

Didier: There are eighteen trained clowns. Clown Care & Co. is composed of two groups in England, (in London and Bristol), and there are other Sacred Clown groups emerging in Holland, and Germany, (in Munich and Frankfurt).


Barbara: Didier, can you give me a specific example of seeing someone transformed or touched when you were clowning?

Didier: We’ve been working with the elderly in a Jewish center, with people between 65 and 100 years of age. It’s a big place, 300 residents, and we’ve been working with teams of clowns and it has been quite beautiful. The residents often say they are bored, watching TV all the time. Some are depressed, waiting for death not having much hope for anything else. Discretely we find a way, maybe over two weeks, to turn off the television. Then three, or four, of us may just mime how we see the residents we are visiting. I might sit there and wait a bit, copying their posture, just being there, breathing, making some eye contact, Not expecting anything in particular – the whole work of clown care is not to expect, but to trust, and doing nothing is doing everything, just being there. And then we can just make a little movement, and very soon there’s a kind of mirroring happening. They start to move, I will start to move slowly, and I start to play some music, singing an old Jewish song they have known in their childhood. We hum the melody, and they start to sing the words.  And as they sing the words, some joy comes into their body, and we encourage a little movement, just connecting to their neighbor, letting go of their feelings of isolation. So it builds up slowly from things that are meaningful to them.

We’ve had many who started to sing with us so loudly and full of energy. We might have two clowns who start to dance in the middle, softly, to the music. If someone is totally withdrawn, which can happen particularly with dementia, we might just start copying them, or for example touch their hand, to bring back the mind into the body. We have to feel how far we can go without disturbing their sense of security. So that’s how we work, we invite slowly, and we engage, in a very careful way, with music, mime, mirroring their feelings, in a true way until we open the door for a possible exchange.

Our mind/heart is a mirror. As you become a mirror, you are remembering yourself, especially when you are old and a bit lost in your mind. Here you are, and you’re fine as you are. And this true meeting is a stepping stone for playing creatively. Then we can start to relate to the invisible, as we touch empty space, letting an expansion arise from the meeting. It’s to expand our mind to a possibility that there is something more than you and me here. This is also the role of the clown. We are entering the invisible. As we enter this realm, something happens in the feeling, in the mind, and it has surprising qualities, it can transform. We start to relate to the invisible.

Barbara: That really helps me understand how you work and how the human process happens, the gift of being together, and the gift of presence. Didier, is there anything that you could offer to the rest of us, of how we could bring this sense of play into our lives, in our interactions with others?

Didier: What touches me so much is looking at beauty. What is beauty? And where does beauty come from? If you move and there’s beauty in your movement, anybody can be touched. Beauty is simply bringing the breath into the movement, and letting ourselves be touched. We often say we have to do something to express ourselves, but actually, to have an attitude of listening and letting ourselves be touched by what is, that is real beauty. The air as you move, the floor under your feet, all those things are the ground for beauty, a kind of beauty that gives joy, and costs nothing. What is art? Art is being simple. Like William Blake says;

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.


It is there. And if we can just really enjoy a flower, or a little shadow on the floor, or some dust in the air, you can enter it. We are very free already when we bring our minds to the smallest things. Developing mindfulness into an art form is the most wonderful gift. The clown is a master at coming back to being

truly human, embracing the sadness and the joy, so they unite and become one. This is the full spectrum, the full rainbow, sadness and joy, there is a quality of reverence in that experience, and it also becomes a potential for play. It is very simple. It is the practice of coming home, being touched and touching. In my performances I don’t work with things completely set, there are just little landmarks, and between them I connect with the audience. The audience is creating the performance with me. We are engaging and sharing a creative moment together, and it’s a mystery. And if we can hold that mystery, then we have true magic. The interaction of opening the space and holding it together, the not-knowing, is really a beautiful interconnection.

Barbara: I’ve been touched, by you allowing yourself to be touched.

Didier: Yes! Right. To not know, and hold it there. You know, hold it right now, just here — I don’t know what I am going to tell you, I’ve lost the track of it.

Barbara: [laughs]

Didier: Just enjoy it!

Barbara: Right!

Didier: You know, if I can just enjoy it, it’s okay.

Barbara: Right, right. It’s interesting how much discomfort there is, in that moment, for most of us.

Didier: Exactly. In that moment, I’ve lost the track. I can panic. Or I can enjoy it. Then we stay together and just trust each other. If you are on stage, with an audience before you, and you fill up the gap, then at that moment you are truly lost. If you are lost, you have also lost your audience. You have lost the inter-dependence. So it’s very important to not panic, but rather to rest there, and not judge the experience.

Instead of performing, we learn to be in the moment, and when nothing is there, just breathe! As soon as you have this attitude as the ground, you are never lost. You are always free, and you are always in total connection with your surrounding and the people present.

[plane flies overhead, making a lot of noise.]

I just lost what I was saying then, and I felt, okay, just felt it, [exhaling long], and I didn’t lose you. But in that moment, it would be easy to fill up the gap with doing.

Barbara: Right.

Didier: This is where we lose track.

Barbara:And especially, if you had kept going with what you were saying, ignoring that sound, you would have lost me, because it’s all happening right there, and we were in it together.

Didier: Yes.

Barbara: – and we need to be authentic with it.

Didier: Exactly.

Barbara: I’m going to try that. When I lose my train of thought, instead of trying to get it back, I’m going to enjoy that moment, that place.

Didier: Creativity is never lost then, because with this attitude, we will be touched, if we remember to trust.

Barbara: Sometimes losing your train of thought is a very good thing, because it takes you back into your store consciousness. And when you feel that the ground underneath you drops away, what you feel is where you really are—you’re coming from a much more authentic place then, a place in the moment.

Didier: Yes, exactly. It is a very important key. And often with art, we are frightened to become, to do, art. We are frightened to dance, especially in the West, everybody is more or less terrified to express themselves. At school, you’re asked to do a drawing, you have half an hour, and you try to do it right, yeah? You have never been told how to touch the magic. I never learned those things at school. I learned the opposite. I was beaten up at school.

Barbara:You just learned how to be judged.

Didier: Exactly. And also to judge myself. So one of the basic things to re-learn is to trust, and in doing nothing, we can let ourselves be touched. To touch the magic is entering that space of letting ourselves be an instrument. This is where art is born, I think true art. And if we can share some of our feelings in this way, in a park, in the middle of nowhere, this is very important. In the middle of a British railway station, there are three clowns, expressing just that. And very quickly, you have many people who stop, because they have been waiting for something to stop them for a long time. The clowns do slow motion mime, and it’s very beautiful to watch, because it’s not a movement from an idea. It’s a movement coming from being very present. It can touch deeply.

I’ve been very involved with teachings from the East. And now I am feeling and exploring where our roots are for mindfulness in the West. Where is it hidden, that understanding of being in the present moment? The archetype of the Fool is a very important Western archetype. Jesus was a Fool. There is so much of that Fool quality in his teachings. Many times here in Plum Village, when we are eating together in mindfulness, I feel that I’m eating with Jesus. It comes not as a thought, it comes like a feeling or a memory. To touch some essence of the Fool is very important. The clown is born from that. The role of the Fool in spirit as an archetype is extremely important, in resurrecting simplicity and joy, the pleasure of being in the moment, touching life, all of nature, in a very simple way.

Barbara: I was a fairly happy child and fairly happy adult, and then at a certain point I started feeling like I lost my playfulness, that a lot of my life was spent doing things I didn’t want to do, and I wasn’t very happy. I wasn’t seriously unhappy, it was just that a lot of what I was doing was not really play, not really fun. And I started looking at that. Where did that happen? Whydidthathappen? AndIfeelthattodayyouhaveledmeback into exploring play and being in a group, a Sangha, that plays together. And I think that the Fool is the one who has the ability to stop everything and play. That’s so needed because we have this idea that when we grow up, things have to be hard, and we have to work all the time, and we have to let go of childish things, and so we lose ourselves.

Didier: Yeah! We lose the sense of play.

Barbara:Yeah! And we lose our heart, we lose ourjoy. And it’s very sad when there are children who have lost that.

Didier: It’s very sad. It’s a big concern I have about play and children, and what is happening to them. I mean, what we are doing? We are taking away all drama in school, all physical education, and in England, they are selling playgrounds because they want the space to build buildings. This is absolutely mad. And the computer world has taken over the children’s world. They play not with people, they play with machines and in the computer games they learn to kill each other. This is very serious, if we realize that play is the beginning of spiritual understanding, the root is starting there when a child plays with another, in trust and not knowing.

Play, to my mind, is bigger than the individual. It is taking us on a journey of creativity. It is the first step in a perception of something beyond my individual self. And we learn to respond to emotions, to each other as we play. If we don’t let the children play in this way, what are we going to have in fifteen years? This is very serious. I have put together a questionnaire for school teachers to express what they feel is happening with our children, because the curriculum has become entirely academic.

We must become aware of the importance of play for the sake of the children. This is really the focus I have now for the work, to really bring awareness to the importance of play, as the birthplace for spiritual understanding.


Didier Danthois first trained in clowning and circus skills twenty years ago at the Fratellini Circus School in Paris. He studied Expressive Dance, and performed with Amici Dance Theatre Dance Company for five years. He is also a certified Biodynamic Psychotherapist and group facilitator. He trained in clowning with Lex Van Someren. Didier has been inspired by the teachings of the Buddha for the last ten years, first through his root teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, and then by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He works towards creating an art which celebrates the beauty of authenticity, compassion and the interdependence of all things, and all people. Didier is the founder of Fool at Heart, School of Sacred Clowning, and teaches, performs and directs in England and abroad. He is presently involved in establishing ‘ClownCare & Co.’, an organization bringing Sacred Clowning into healthcare settings.

For future events, contact Didier at 32 Rosemary Avenue, London N3 2QN England  Tel: 020 8343 0255 E-mail: ScSacredClowning@aol.com

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is a managing editor for the Mindfulness Bell.

PDF of this article

Letter from the Editor

mb38-LetterFromEditorTo Our Readers

It is a rich blessing to be sitting here, receiving treasures of the practice from all over the world to share with you in the Mindfulness Bell. During the months of developing the material for an issue, I go through many changes. At first, I am inspired to create a new weaving of insight from the material I have waiting and from the transformation happening in my own life; and I am also a little anxious that I won’t receive enough material (that’s the part of me who thinks I am in control).

Then, inevitably, the river of insight flows forth and so many of you offer wonderful teachings. My confidence becomes strong and my appreciation for this wonderful path of practice deepens as I work with each piece, watching how each one becomes a beautiful thread in the overall design, both lovely and strong.

Because we have been in such a tumultuous time with the recent U.S. Presidential election, I wanted to address how to practice with politics and how to engage without becoming embroiled in partisan conflicts. Being quite involved in the campaign, I had a chance to look daily at this issue. I saw that first of all, I needed to stop. I needed to stop feeding my prejudices and judgments about others, and to start every day with an open curiosity about each person I would meet. I needed to listen deeply, both to the stories in my head and to what I heard from others and from the media. I had to look for the truth, and to learn to let go of all the rest. I had to have confidence in my own true nature and in the foundation that my practice has built for me to rest on. I had to take refuge in myself, in the strength of my spiritual and blood ancestors. I needed to nourish myself every day, with the presence of supportive and loving friends, and in the beauty of nature. And I had to work every day, to uproot my limited views and to open my heart to life in this moment.

The morning after the election, as I went out to retrieve all the political signs from my front yard, the neighbor dog ran over to greet me, wagging his tail in great happiness. In that moment I realized that to him, this morning was just as new and full of possibility as was the morning before. I realized that I needed to renew myself by spending time with the trees and the deer, with the moon and the stars.

The teachings in this issue speak of these practices. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us the power of visualization and gives us ways to explore the nature of our minds. Four lay sisters share stories of taking refuge in their spiritual and biological roots. A group of practitioners encourage us to go further with the transformative practice of deep listening. Thay and other wise teachers offer views on the political situation and our place in stepping forward as mindfulness practitioners. A guided meditation helps us to learn to continually let go.

Perhaps the most important personal result of my participation in politics over the past year has been the establishing and deepening of friendships, resulting in strong community-building. Acquaintances became friends as priorities shifted and people stepped forward to live their highest good.

May we all rest in the net of Sangha, offering one another the power of our mindfulness and deep faith in the beauty of life as it is.

In gratitude,


PDF of this article

Poet, Peace Advocate, & Goodwill Ambassador Dies

By Norman R. Brown

For Our World*

We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment…
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.

We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment…
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.

We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment…
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.

Stop, be silent, and notice…
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures.
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.

We need to be.
Just be.
Be for a moment…
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting,
Like children and lambs,
Never judging or vengeful

Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray,
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.

mb38-Poet1The internationally acclaimed poet, peace advocate, and Muscular Dystrophy Association National Goodwill Ambassador, Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek, or “Mattie” as he’s nationally known, died on June 22, 2004 in Washington, D.C. He had been hospitalized since early March with complications related to the disease that impaired most of his bodily functions.

Stepanek, of Rockville, Maryland, had dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that impaired his heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and digestion, and caused muscle weakness. Mattie was hospitalized many times over the years. He navigated around his home in a wheelchair he nicknamed “Slick,” and relied on a feeding tube, a ventilator, and frequent blood transfusions to stay alive.

Mattie was the author of five volumes of poetry, three of which reached the New York Times’ best-seller list. He became a beacon of hope to the millions of adults and children who have been inspired by his words, making him one of the best-selling poets in recent years. His admirers include Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and former President Jimmy Carter.

Despite his physical condition, the effervescent and playful philosopher was upbeat, saying he didn’t fear death. His work was full of life, a quest for peace, hope, and the inner voice he called a “heartsong,” which he explained as “our inner beauty, our message, the songs in our hearts.” He explained, “My life mission is to spread peace to the world.”

After the September 11, 2001 tragedy, Mattie wrote the poem to the left.

Mattie advised that, “Poetry is a great way to express your feelings and life experiences so that others can understand and get through the same situation. We all have life storms. We need to celebrate that we get through them, instead of mourning and waiting for the next one to come along and wipe us out again. Remember to play after every storm. Celebrate life no matter how bad it seems. Life is a gift, and there’s always something beautiful that you can find. We have to make the best of life and do what we’re meant to do. Everyone has a special song inside their hearts. If you believe you can be happy, then you, too, will hear your song.”

Mattie was thirteen years old at the time of his death. He was the recipient of several awards, including the 2002 Children’s Hope Medal of Honor and the 2002 Verizon Courage Award. President Carter, in eulogizing Mattie, said, “I have known kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers. But the most extraordinary person I have ever known was Mattie Stepanek.”

Contributions in Mattie’s name may be made at: www.mdausa.org or sent to MDA Mattie Fund, P.O. Box 66002, Tucson, AZ 85728.

Go to: www.mattieonline.com for links to purchase his poetry.

*For Our World copyright, April 2002, “Hope Through Heartsongs,” page 49, ISBN 0-7868-6944-5, Hyperion Book.

Norman R. Brown, Disciplined Patience of the Heart, belong to the SDGLBT Buddhists Sangha in San Diego. He is event coordinator and registrar at Solidity Hamlet, Deer Park Monastery.

PDF of this article

Transformation at the Prison

By Terry Masters


Friday Morning

I got to the prison early but Kent was already there, pacing the floor.

“Hi Kent,” I smiled.

He nodded but didn’t stop pacing. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said, as he paced. “I think I’m goin’ crazy. I don’t think I’m gonna be a Muslim anymore… I just… This is horrible…”

“What happened?”

“Well…” Pacing back and forth, but in front of me so I can hear him.

“This white dude? Yesterday he got in my face. Real bad. “And I wanted to smash his face in. I pictured him on the floor and I was stompin’ his face.

“But you know what I did?” I shook my head.

“I walked away.”

“You walked away from him?”

“Yeah! Listen. I been shot at. I been stabbed. I been dragged behind a car and I don’t even know how many fights I been in… and then… I walked away from that dude.”

I smiled. Kent didn’t notice. He was still pacing.

“I think I’m turnin’ yella. I’m nuthin’ but a big coward.

I’m a…”

I interrupted. “Kent! This is wonderful! This is so beautiful.

You did just like we’ve been talking about.”

He stopped pacing and faced me, waited for me to continue.

“Yes! Somebody…” “A white dude!”

“…A white dude got in your face, made you angry and you stopped to notice what was happening.”

His brows furrowed; he was really listening.

“You stopped, Kent! You listened to your true self.” He looked doubtful.

“You did! You stopped, just like our teacher says to do. You didn’t just react out of habit.”

His face softened a little. “And now…”


“And now, you’re doing walking meditation!” (Sorry, Thay.

I know pacing isn’t exactly walking meditation.) “This is wonderful, Kent. This is so wonderful.”

He didn’t exactly smile, but a little bit, he did. And sat down for our meditation as the other guys filed in.

Next Friday

When I came in only Kent and another guy were there, a guy I didn’t know. Kent introduced me to him: Charlie. Charlie and I visited a little as Kent moved the chairs out of the way so we could do some yoga before we meditated. Charlie is a Choctaw from Oklahoma. After a short visit, he walked away to help with the chairs.

Kent came up to me and whispered, “That’s the dude.”

“The dude?’

“Yeah, the white dude I told you about.”

“You brought him, the white dude, to meditation class?” My eyes were wide with astonishment. A smile spread over my face.


“Oh my gosh, Kent, you are amazing!” “Terry, don’t cry!”

“Well, I’m so happy!”

The other guys arrived. After yoga and after our first meditation, we always talk a little about our practice. Kent said to the group, pointing to Charlie, “This is the dude.”

Everyone knew right away who he meant. They bragged on Kent until he hid his face, pretending to be embarrassed, “Cut it out!”

I was grinning. Tears of joy were forming. “And Terry, don’t cry!”

“I’m not crying.”

“She can cry if she wants to, Kent—leave her alone.”

We all sat still then, enjoying the wonder of this man.

After a while I said, “Kent, would you be willing to tell us how it came about that you invited Charlie to join us today?”

“Well… well, I was doin’ yoga in our dorm and Charlie, he comes up an’ he says, whatcha doin’? and I say, yoga, and then after a while I say, and I’m gonna do meditation after that. And then after a while I say, and Friday I’m goin’ to meditation class, wanna come? And he says yeah.”

I’m speechless. We all are. We just sit in our circle, smiling. Finally I say, “So, Charlie I know this is your first time here, but would you mind telling us how you got the courage to say whatcha doin’ to Kent?”

Charlie squirmed in his seat as he said, “Well, Kent is a positive guy, uh…” Squirms, his eyes on his feet. “And I’m a… positive guy…” Squirm. “And well I just thought there’s too many negative guys around here and it doesn’t make sense for two positive guys not to uh…” Squirm. “Uh, stick together. So I asked him.”

Charlie took a breath and looked up at us.

Awed, no one said anything.

Charlie added, “And I like it here.” Pause.

“I’m comin’ back.” Pause.

“I’ll be back next week.” Pause.


I didn’t cry.

There, at the prison? I didn’t cry.

(Although everyone but Kent said it’d be okay.) But I cried when I got home.

Cried and grinned.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas.


PDF of this article

The Better Way to Live Alone in the Jungle

By Terry Masters


The Buddha taught:

“…I want to tell you that there is a wonderful way to be alone. It is the way of deep observation to see that the past no longer exists and the future has not yet come, and to dwell at ease in the present moment, free from desire. When a person lives in this way, she has no hesitation in her heart. She gives up all anxieties and regrets, lets go of all binding desires, and cuts the fetters which prevent her from being free. This is called ‘the better way to live alone.’There is no more wonderful way of being alone than this.”

from the “Elder Sutra”*

Last spring I lived alone deep in the jungle of Peru in a hut near the Amazon River. My hut sat on stilts and had screen walls, hand-hewn plank floors, and a thatched roof. There was no electricity so I had no refrigerator, no lights, no radio, no fan, no telephone. No washing machine, sink or toilet; no running water at all unless you count the Yanomono River which ran a few yards from my hut.

It was the Yanomono River that taught me the better way to live alone.

During the day I gave reading lessons to children in a little jungle library, and in exchange for my dinner, at night I taught English to the mozos—the guys who worked at the tourist lodge about forty minutes by dugout canoe from my hut.

The first evening, after working at the library, I gathered the supplies for my English class, put on my rubber boots, got my paddle, and walked through the jungle to the muddy riverbank where my dugout was tied to a tree root. I began paddling to the lodge just as the sun was setting. The river, and even the air around the river, was gold and pink, purple and orange and red. It is a wonderful thing to be in––not under, but inside––a sunset in the jungle in Peru.

I paddled slowly under a tree of sweet-smelling, lilac-colored flowers. Many of the flowers had fallen into the river, so I was gliding in golden, lavender-petaled water. The air was soft and warm and smelled green.

Women and men bathed on the riverbank. They smiled and waved at me as I passed.

“Hola Señorita!”

“Hola amigos!” I called back. “Buena noche, ¿no?”

As I paddled around a curve, naked children from the village swam out to play “Sharks Attack the Gringa.” They splashed me––as sharks will do when confronted with a gringa in a dugout canoe––and I cried out, “Ayudame! Ayudame!” (“Help me! Help me!”)—as gringas will do when confronted with a river full of ferocious fish.

When I arrived at the lodge, I was still smiling. I ate my dinner and gave an English lesson to my new Peruvian friends. At 9:00, when I was ready to paddle home, the darkness in the jungle was so thick that I could only see the top of my paddle and the front of my dugout canoe.

There was no moon. The stars filled the sky; a few were reflected in the river. I smiled, anticipating gliding back home through a dark peaceful river of silver starlight and purple flowers.

But as I left the lodge, I realized that although I could see the starry sky above and specks of starlight in the river, I could not see the riverbank, nor could I see where I was in the river. I peered into the darkness. I saw nothing.

My Peruvian friends had told me to stay in the middle of the river–– if I got too close to the bank, things in the trees could get into my canoe. I didn’t ask what things. I imagined them, though: fifty-foot anacondas, canoe-sized caiman, monkeys, bats, frogs, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes—I imagined every jungle critter known to man or woman jumping, flying, falling, crawling, or slithering into my canoe.

I got lost: the river “S”ed and I “Y”ed into a tangle of tree roots and vines. I had to paddle my way backward out of a little creek, back into the Yanomono again. I stared into the darkness trying to see where I was and what was around me. I saw nothing.

My heart began to race. I couldn’t get my breath. I began to paddle frantically through the river, bumping into the right bank, then the left.

A bat flew past, brushing my face with its wings. I squealed.

Mosquitoes buzzed my ears, bit my arms.

The sounds from the rainforest grew louder: frogs especially, but birds too, and other jungle animals I couldn’t name. I had to get home!

I peered anxiously into the darkness, trying to see what was out there, looking for the bank of mud in front of the path to my hut, looking for the tree root that was my port, looking for anything familiar. I could see nothing.

I passed under a low hanging branch and something fell from the tree into my hair. A tarantula! A huge tarantula! A huge hairy jungle tarantula!

I paddled fast, desperately slapping the water with my paddle. My arms, my shoulders, my whole body was tense. I gasped for a breath.

And then a voice from somewhere inside whispered, “Stop.”

I stopped. I took a slow breath.

I lifted my paddle from the water and let my canoe drift.

I stopped telling myself jungle stories. I stopped my Tarzan drama. I just stopped. Stopped and took a long slow breath.

Then another. And another. And another.

Finally, I forced a little smile.

“Hola, rio.” I whispered. Took a breath. Let it out.

“Buena noche, ¿no?”

The sounds of the jungle softened. The stars brightened. The river slowed.

I lifted my paddle and gently dipped it into the soft starsparkled river. I pulled it slowly through the calm waters.

Breathing in, I know that I am here, now. (Dip the paddle, pull the water, glide.) Breathing out, I know that I am now here. (No longer inventing scary jungle stories.) In…. here.

(Not thinking about the English lessons I just gave; not planning how to get up the muddy slope when I get home.)

Out….here. (Dip, pull, glide.)

Here in this present moment.

(New trees above me, new stars. New water below, new fish and mud and snakes. The air I now breathe is not the air of my last breath.)

Here in this wonderful moment. (Dip, pull, glide.)

After a while I saw some white tree trunks that looked familiar and dipping my paddle in, pulling back easily, I glided slowly toward them. I had arrived. I was home.

“Try living like that,” the Yanomono River said. “Thanks for the dharma talk,” I smiled.

The next day it rained most of the day. About an hour before sunset, when the rain had stopped, I took a small bucket to my canoe to bail out the rainwater. I also expected to bail out that huge tarantula that I had shook from my hair the night before.

There was no tarantula. In the rainwater, in the bottom of my dugout canoe, a small purple flower floated.

During the months I lived in the jungle, I became friends with the trees that lined the banks of the Yanomono River and familiar with its “S” turns. I came to know the sounds of the jungle and its smells. I recognized the reeds on the left that meant the river was going to wind to the right; the wide space overhead that meant I was to go straight; the cluster of white-barked trees that meant I was getting close to home; the hoarse frogs that meant I had arrived.

Aware that I was surrounded by friends—the river, the stars, the trees, the sounds, the smells—I was no longer so afraid. In fact, most of the time I was awed by the majesty—by the miracle—of it all.

It was the Yanomono River, deep in the jungle of Peru, that taught me The Better Way to Live Alone.

mb42-TheBetter2*The “Elder Sutra” as well as the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone” can be found beginning on page 234 of The Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. Both are the subject of Our Appointment with Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, which also includes his beautiful commentary on them.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, lives in Austin, Texas where she practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha. She has just returned from another month teaching English in the jungle of Peru.

PDF of this article

The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai

This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.


Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.


Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly
Doing nothing
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.


PDF of this article

Mindfulness in a State Psychiatric Hospital

By Bruce L. Hilsberg

Bruce Hilsberg passed away on March 29, 2005; you may read an essay by his wife Karen in issue 39 of the Mindfulness Bell.

When I first became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh over ten years ago, I never thought that my personal interest in meditation, mindfulness practice, and the dharma would become an essential part of my work as a psychologist at a state psychiatric hospital.

I had practiced mindfulness with my wife in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, attended days of mindfulness with Thay when he visited California, and participated in meditation classes and dharma discussions with a local Order of Interbeing teacher. Over time, I have taught mindfulness techniques to some of the patients in my private practice to help them find relief from symptoms including insomnia, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, manic depression, and anxiety. Still, my mindfulness practice felt compartmentalized. In the context of working at the state hospital, I still subscribed to the medical model of illness and disease in which I had been trained. During work, I contemplated curing mental illnesses and reducing symptoms rather than seeing individuals as people with strengths and a desire to build on these.


But all that changed last year, when an outside consultant was brought in to help improve the state hospital where I had worked for over eleven years. It just so happened that this consultant, who served many state psychiatric hospitals in the United States, had cultivated a Soto Zen Buddhist practice and had integrated mindfulness training into his work. When the consultations with our hospital began, I found a door through which I could enter to begin integrating my personal and professional beliefs and practices. This is the story of my journey this past year and a half.

Our system at the state hospital has watered many seeds of negative habit energy over the past decades, resulting in problems that need new solutions. For example, the system encountered difficulties in accurately diagnosing and properly treating individuals with serious and persistent mental illnesses. With the help of our consultant we are moving in the direction of systemic change for the betterment of the people connected to the hospital: administrators, staff, individuals with psychiatric disabilities, family members and the community.

From the Medical Model to the Recovery Model

One of the first methods we are using is stopping and looking deeply at ourselves and each other. While we are well aware of changes that we would like to see, part of my practice has become to accept that I am where I need to be in this moment and the hospital too is where it needs to be. Sangha building has also been a very important part of the process. We are forming connections with each other to support mindfulness in our work environment so that we can embody the practice and then bring the fruits of our practice to the hospital and the people with whom we work. In this regard, we have struggled to get out of “automatic pilot” and instead to recognize our habits, realize what we are thinking and doing, and look deeply so that we can make better choices for ourselves. In turn, we can help others to make better choices for themselves. This forms the basis of a new model of treatment for mental disorders called the recovery model.

In the recovery model, we think about individuals—what helps them and what hinders them in their lives. We talk about choices and empowerment. In the same way that Thay talks about our store consciousness with our positive and healthy seeds as well as our negative and unhealthy seeds, the recovery model sees individuals as having seeds of strength and seeds of weakness. In the old medical model, we might have asked, “Why was the individual so ill? How can we treat and cure his illness?” Now with the recovery model, we ask, “How did the individual sustain herself in the face of her illness? How can I help support her strengths and help her to recognize and water her own seeds of health, growth and well-being?” We now focus on conducting strengths-based conversations with them instead of routine diagnostic work-ups (though accurate diagnoses are still considered very important).

The research that is now emerging in the field of psychology indicates that mindfulness training is an incredibly effective treatment for many people suffering from psychiatric disorders such as chronic depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The treatment does not necessarily make the disorder completely vanish, but it can empower individuals to manage their symptoms effectively, to discontinue negative cycles of thought and behavior, and to lead more adaptive and contented lives outside of hospitals and in the community. Furthermore, many individuals with psychiatric disabilities have benefited from mindfulness training as they learn to change the relationship they have with the symptoms of their illness and to feel a sense of control in their lives.

What Mindfulness Looks Like

Over the past year and a half, as I have been mentored by our consultant, my own mindfulness practice has deepened immensely. At work, I try not to operate on automatic pilot anymore. I don’t see events as meaningless. I see the importance of my speech and my actions, and I appreciate that all I have right now is the present moment and my own presence in the moment. I spend a great deal of time in meetings, and my behavior at meetings has changed. I’ve become more present in the meetings. I recognize that while there is a lot to do, what I am doing in the moment is what I need to be doing right now. I listen deeply to others’ speech, I don’t interrupt others, and I breathe mindfully. I realize that my list of things to do does not control me. I practice non-attachment to outcomes happening within a certain arbitrary period of time. I understand that I do not need to balance my time, but to find balance in my life. I realize that my list of things to do is there to assist me in seeing what needs to be done and what my priorities are, but that is all. I feel a sense of acceptance in my work of what is. Just as in my life, rather than feeling that I need to chase after a goal, buy something, or accomplish something to feel better, I am just being in acceptance of what is.

At work, I have begun to offer a weekly meditation group for members of the hospital staff. For the last couple of months, every Thursday at lunchtime we sit on chairs or on the floor in the administration building and meditate together for half an hour.

Though I have attended meetings in this room for many years, now that I meditate there, I am aware of new sounds that I never heard before. For example, I am aware of the sound the clock makes as it ticks. We have core members who are present almost every week, and we also have people who come and go. The energy of the group practice is becoming strong, and after the practice we discuss our experiences together in a spirit of acceptance, understanding, and lack of judgment.

One thing I dream of is a time when these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention for the meeting. This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

In my private life, my wife and I have made a new commitment to meditate together every morning before our young children wake up as a way to support each other in the practice. We also have had wonderful opportunities to spend time at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido and to practice breathing, sitting, walking, eating and working meditation as a family with the support of the monastic Sangha. We have come to see the truth for us in the Dharma Seal, “You have arrived, you are home.” We have also recently formed a Sangha in our area to offer the practice to our family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends on a weekly basis and to seek support for our Order of Interbeing aspirant training.

To some, the changes that have happened at our hospital are remarkable and inspiring. To others, it seems that change is moving at a snail’s pace. Many people within the hospital are struggling with the changes and feel angry, resentful, or helpless. Others are embracing the changes and feel the freshness of the new approaches as they are introduced. For me, some days are full of frustrations as more entrenched problems in the system emerge into the light of day. “Breathing in, I know I feel frustration. Breathing out, I smile to my frustration and am grateful that I am alive.” Other days are exciting as new standards of care for the individuals we serve are implemented. Overall, I can say that mindfulness is now a part of my daily work life as well as my personal life. Through mindfulness training we are working to improve our hospital, the treatment practices, and the quality of life of the individuals we serve, as well as staff, administrators and family members. It has not been easy to introduce these ideas into a bureaucratic system, but my work is enormously meaningful to me now in ways that it has never been before.

Bruce L. Hilsberg, True Commitment of the Heart, was Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. He and his wife practiced with the Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City, California and at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

PDF of this article

Inner Therapy

Two scenarios for moving through a day of psychotherapy

By Ryan Niemiec

mb42-Inner1Several years ago I discovered the practice of mindfulness. This radically altered how I approach my work as a psychologist at the Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute and as a behavioral health consultant. Every client who seeks treatment is suffering from some kind of distress; it is difficult for the therapist to be of help if his or her mind is mirroring the same chaos. Here I describe a typical day before mindfulness, compared with how a typical day passes for me now…

Four Years Ago: Before Mindfulness

I speed into the fenced-in parking lot and skid into the parking space closest to the back door of the psychotherapy clinic. I balance a cup of coffee on some books and a lunch bag as I fumble out my keys. Picking up speed, I hurry down the narrow hallway to the waiting room where I ask my waiting client, Lisa, to follow me to my office. I have Lisa begin to tell me about her struggles while I hang up my coat, put my books and papers away, and prepare my notepad. I ruminate about the train that delayed me five minutes and the morning coffee I spilled on my shirt. Lisa is a talker so I sit back and let my mind wander while she rambles from topic to topic.

I wish Lisa a good week and call in my next appointment, Scott, a particularly challenging and defensive man. I find clever ways to avoid his challenges and work to out-smart his defensive speech. This seems to keep his anger at bay.


At midday, I attend a meeting with various administrators and therapists where there is a tight agenda filled with tasks to accomplish. I make a couple of suggestions for improving clinic relations in the community. Nobody seems to hear them and we transition to the next topic of caring for clients. I make an observation and propose an idea for how to better work with a particularly difficult client. One team member, Dr. Christopher, voices strong disagreement with the idea and explains why it would not work. I nod my head and sit quietly through the remainder of the meeting.


I leave the meeting irritated and call up my next client, Joe. For most of the session my mind wanders to Dr. Christopher’s critical comments and I begin to feel they were directed at me personally. This raises my anxiety level and my thoughts begin to scan my day. I evaluate my therapy work with Lisa, reflecting on other ideas I should have implemented in today’s meeting, and I quickly judge that I am not doing enough to help Scott. In the current session with Joe, I continue to nod and show facial expressions as if I am listening very closely and hanging on every word he is saying. With a vague idea of Joe’s conflict with his boss, I offer a general suggestion to journal more about this conflict and encourage him to sympathize more with his boss’s position. Joe thanks me for my suggestions as he leaves, leading me to believe I have done him some good.

I have five minutes between sessions to call a managed care (insurance) company to get authorization for more visits for a client. I dread making these calls. They never go smoothly. The workers transfer me to two different departments. I notice my frustration level rises and I begin to feel these people are inconveniencing me and wasting my time. A third voice comes on the line and tells me she is putting me on hold, and before I can respond the background music clicks on. Hearing the soft music further escalates my anger as I am forced to pause my busy day for a couple minutes. Realizing I cannot tolerate this injustice any longer, I count down from ten to one, curse at the music, and slam the phone down on the receiver.

I stomp off toward the waiting room to greet my next client, Sue. Along the way, I pass a colleague and I mumble something about how incompetent and insensitive all managed care workers are and how they prevent good therapists from doing their job. The colleague nods in acknowledgment and walks on.

Sue is very upset today. She is mourning some losses in her life. I don’t have much energy left after a ten-hour day of back-to-back clients, group sessions, and meetings. I listen for a while and drift off to planning what I will do next—my house needs some work, I could go to the store, and I deserve to relax with a beer and a movie. The session nears a close and I feel confused as to how I can help Sue today. I make a general and safe suggestion that she peruse her old photo albums and journal about her experience to manage her grief.

The day is finally over. I grab my coat and walk as fast as I can down the hallway, hoping no one will try to have a conversation with me. Leaving the clinic, I think about where I might stop for dinner.

Present Day: With Mindfulness

I listen to the engine transition from idle and click off. I have intentionally parked my car several rows back from the clinic’s back door so I can enjoy the walk. I feel the sensation of the sun’s rays on my right cheek as it makes its way through some cumulus clouds. As I open the clinic door, I see a dead cricket upside down on the ground. I allow this image to stay with me throughout the day.

Before meeting with my first client, Lisa, I prepare for the session with a brief meditation. I follow my breathing closely to bring about a concentrated awareness to start the therapy session. I feel a sense of clarity, which stays with me as I walk down the hallway. I feel very focused with Lisa. I challenge her verbosity and we explore the fears she hides with her words.


Following the session, I return to my meditation chair and silently concentrate on my breath. I let go of Lisa and our work today. I smile to the image of Scott, my next client. I return my focus fully to my breathing. I slowly stand and begin to walk, coordinating every three steps with my inhale and every four steps with my exhale. Scott begins the session with apathy and disdain, verbalizing his disinterest in being in therapy. He complains of people mistreating him. After empathizing with his struggles my mind begins to wander. I hear the sound of people’s voices in the hallway. This distraction builds and threatens to throw me off balance, drawing me into Scott’s stories and emotion. I ask Scott if he minds if I close my eyes while I listen to him. This opens my ears in a new way. I begin to deeply listen to Scott, hearing the pain and fear behind his defensive speech of disclaimers, his masculine façade of having it all together. Somehow Scott begins to open up deeper. He associates my closed eyes with my full, undivided attention. In this exchange of deeper awareness, honesty, and connection, he and I become aware of insights reflected in the present experience.

At a midday administrative meeting, my stomach tightens when my suggestions seem to go unnoticed. I deepen my breath to my abdomen, repeating the phrases commonly used by Thich Nhat Hanh: “Breathing in, I calm my body; breathing out, I smile; dwelling in this present moment; I know this is a wonderful moment.” My thoughts become more focused. I assert myself to the team leader, asking for the group to reconsider my ideas. Later, one group member, Dr. Christopher, rejects and criticizes my suggestion for improving a client’s health. My shoulders tense, my heartbeat increases, and beliefs of “I’m not helping anybody” and “I never say the right things” blanket my view. I reconnect with my breathing and decide I will address Dr. Christopher’s approach with me after the meeting so as not to risk embarrassing him in front of the team and to not take up time from the busy agenda. I also resolve that if he is busy after the meeting I will set up a time to speak with him later.

Before seeing my next client, Joe, I close my office door to take a two-minute break in my meditation chair. I anchor my attention to my breath and scan my body. I relax the tension that was beginning to creep into my shoulders. I practice letting go of my last meeting and my morning clients. I slowly walk to the waiting room, feeling my body transition with each step. I greet Joe with a warm smile and firm handshake. Remembering that my mind tends to wander quite a bit with Joe, I practice mindful listening. When my mind trails off, I return the focus to my breath, not Joe. This anchors me to the present moment in the room and re-opens my ears to listen deeply.

Between sessions, I make some administrative phone calls, mostly to managed care companies. It is not surprising to me when I am put on hold several times, transferred to incorrect departments, and challenged over my professional opinion. During the final call, I am put on hold for several minutes. I had kept my balance up to this point, but this seems to dig at me in a deeper way. As I become aware of the rising bodily and emotional tension, I shift my attitude. I see this phone call as an opportunity—a space to befriend the breath once again. This keeps me focused on what is most important for me to say for my client and it keeps me fresh for the person that begins to speak on the other line.

I am running late for my session with Sue but knowing the importance of breathing through the transitions and creating space for each person, I return to my meditation chair for a few deep breaths. In my session with Sue, I soon begin to feel overwhelmed by the amount of stress, sadness, abuse, and shame she is reflecting and experiencing. I listen carefully and only speak of those things I know to be true about her condition and express them as my perceptions, thus fallible. We conclude this emotional work with five minutes of silent breathing to pay respect to Sue’s openness and vulnerability with another being.

My workday is coming to a conclusion, but much of the day remains. I stand in the middle of the office to appreciate the fullness of the work and respect the energy that was present. With careful awareness, I flick off the light-switch and pull the door closed behind me. Leaving the clinic, I again notice the cricket and its particular position, now slanted a bit to the right. I smile to it and slowly turn to walk to my car.

Ryan Niemiec, Fullest Breath of the Heart, is a clinical psychologist in St. Louis, Missouri. He works in the Program for Psychology & Religion, helping ministers, priests, and nuns with mental health problems, as well as the Headache & Pain Management Program; he also teaches mindfulness.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

PDF of this article

The Wonderful World of Gathas

By David Percival


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.

PDF of this article

Cleaning the Sponge

A Dharma Talk on Beginning Anew

By Sister Dang Nghiem and Brother Phap An

At the Stonehill retreat in New York, two senior Dharma teachers teamed up to speak about the practice of Beginning Anew. This excerpt preserves some of the playfulness, humor, and depth of their presentation, which took place on August 15, 2007.


Brother Phap An: Some of us have listened to Beginning Anew presentations quite a few times. If you’ve been to Thay’s retreats, every time we have a Beginning Anew presentation.

This time, the sangha asked me and Sister Dang Nghiem to do the Beginning Anew presentation — Sister Dang Nghiem, Adornment with Equality or Non-Discrimination and Brother Phap An, Dharma Seal, like the animal in the Atlantic. Actually it’s Dharma Seal like a stamp, the Dharma seal. So you can remember our names. (laughter)

The two of us met a few days ago, and I said that I’ve been doing presentations for a few years now, and every time I want to have Beginning Anew anew! What should we do about it? So tonight you will see a skit! Let’s see how it will evolve. (laughter)

This morning, in her talk, Sister Annabel mentioned a man working in the garage who turned to his wife and said, “I know that you must be suffering a lot. Please tell me about it.” This is a form of Beginning Anew. Let’s ask Sister Dang Nghiem what she thinks about that practice. What should we do before we make such a statement to our loved one? Please tell me.

Is the Sponge Clean?

Sister Dang Nghiem: I would ask, “Is the sponge clean?” (laughter)

Brother Phap An: What do you mean by “sponge”? (laughter) I don’t quite understand that term. Please explain! (laughter)

Sister Dang Nghiem: You know how we wash dishes every day? We use the sponge to clean the dishes. But how often do we think about whether the sponge is clean? Because if the sponge is not clean, the dishes will not be clean. (laughter)

We may be very eager to do Beginning Anew, but actually the first step is to come back and to do Beginning Anew with ourselves — to clean the sponge.

In our lives we often look for new things. If a pair of shoes is old, we get a new pair of shoes. If a pair of shoes is new but we don’t like them, we get another pair. Sometimes we do that with relationships. We can get another girlfriend or another boyfriend.

But how often do we do Beginning Anew with what we have, to see it fresh, to make it new, alive, and beautiful for us again? How often do we hear ourselves thinking the same thoughts and saying the same things, even sometimes those things we know will not bring more understanding and harmony? How often do we see that in our physical reactions we have very predictable patterns?

The practice of Beginning Anew starts with the sponge. It means that we begin anew with our own thoughts, our own speech, our own bodily actions.

Brother, how do we do Beginning Anew with our own thoughts? I think that’s the most difficult.

Lying Down with Anger

Brother Phap An: For me as a monk, the life of a practitioner is a life of practicing Beginning Anew every moment of daily life. That is my practice. The way I practice Beginning Anew is by returning to my breath. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. And then, breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I relax my body. That’s my practice of Beginning Anew with my physical body.

As a human being we often act like an automated machine. As soon as a button is pushed, we act in a certain way. To respond properly to any situation, the first practice is to stop. Awareness of breathing is very important; it helps us to stop.

I used to have a very hot temper. But now I have lower blood pressure! It took me a long time to practice stopping, but that is the training of a monk.

I remember one time there was a ceremony in the Upper Hamlet, a monks’ residence in Plum Village in southern France. That day the abbot of the hamlet asked some of us to hang a wooden plaque with Thay’s calligraphy and to prepare an ancestral altar. We discussed where to hang it, but the abbot was not there, he was busy; perhaps he was busy having tea. Thay Giac Thanh was the abbot at the time, a very dear brother, very kind, very Zen.

So we hung it up, and it was about noon when we took away the ladder, the drill, the hammer, all the tools. With his Zen master’s stick, the abbot came and walked through the meditation hall. He looked and said, “Well, the wooden plaque with Thay’s calligraphy doesn’t look nice over there. The altar should be in another place.” (laughter)

It was a Zen training, you know. Whenever you go to monastery and you have frustration, think of it as a training. (laughter)

When he came in and said we need to move it, my anger just came up like crazy. And you know what I did? As soon as he left, I lay on the floor, flat! Just like this. (demonstrates; laughter) So I lie on the floor, and I put my arms around me, and I begin to follow my breath. Breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in! (laughter) Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out. And I feel the anger so strong, it wants to take me off the floor.

Breathing in, I know that I’m very angry. (laughter) Breathing out, I embrace my anger with all of my love! This is the real transmission for you tonight (laughter). When you are angry with your beloved, even if you are on a paved road, lie down. It’s the Zen way of practicing. (laughter) But make sure there’s no truck going by! (laughter)

Luckily I was able to lie down and embrace my anger. After five or ten minutes, I felt calmed down and I stood up, and went out to look for another brother so we could move the ancestral altar.

So my practice of Beginning Anew has very much to do with our daily life. The practice of walking meditation is the practice of Beginning Anew. The moment that we put one step on the floor, aware of the step, aware of our body, aware of the blue sky or our feeling, that is a wonderful practice of Beginning Anew.

My Sister Dang Nghiem said, “That’s the way to clean the sponge.” In every one of us there is a block of suffering. We are all born with a block of suffering, which has been transmitted to us by our ancestors, the way they lived, the way they acted, the way they talked with each other. They made each other suffer. As we grew up this block of suffering began to snowball. Beginning Anew is a practice of reversing the process of the snowball effect, to make that snowball smaller.

That’s the basis of the practice of Beginning Anew. Once we are able to have that calm and peace within us, then we can approach the other person.

Sister Dang Nghiem, how do you approach a sister when she’s angry with you? How do you practice Beginning Anew with her? After you clean your sponge, what do you do?

A Tale of Two Sisters

Sister Dang Nghiem: Well, actually the situation happened not very long ago. One sister came up to me, and as we were passing by, she gave me a note. She and I have been really close because we were aspirants together. We came as young lay women, and we played together and then we became ordained at the same time. So we are sisters in the same family.

Recently there was something that made us feel a little strange towards each other. Her note said something like this: “I’m ready, if you are ready, to talk to me about your anger towards me.” (laughter) I almost choked when I read that note! And then she walked away. On the way back, I was standing there and I said something to her. But first I have to give you a little bit of background or else it may shock you!

When I was young — my grandmother was the one to raise my brother and me — every time I tried to be a little bit philosophical or argumentative, my grandma just saw right through it and she would say, “You make me want to poop!” (laughter) That effectively deflated my ego.

So when my sister passed by me this second time, I said, “You make me want to poop!” (laughter) It’s loving speech between us.

She said, “Poop, so that you’re unblocked!” (laughter)

When she said that, I just kind of pulled her cone hat and kissed her on the cheek. And then she walked away.

It made me really happy in that moment. We could just be goofy together again. As the day proceeded, I thought, now I can go and talk to her. And then it came to me, no, I don’t want to go to talk to her, I’ll let her suffer! (laughter) I just didn’t want to go talk to her.

Even though in our precepts as monks and nuns we should not hold our anger for more than twenty-four hours, I wanted her to wait for a few days! But deep inside me, I was cleaning my sponge. I always do my best, because I know that I am very unskillful. I was very aware that I wanted revenge, but at the same time I was just smiling because I have always felt a lot of love for my sister. It was just a matter of time until we came to talk to each other.

When we did Beginning Anew there was a full moon, and she sat there and I talked to her. I said, “Actually, I am not angry at you. It’s not anger that you feel from me, but hurt. When you shared like that, it took me by complete surprise. I thought we knew each other, and now I hear that you cannot talk to me. I feel that you don’t understand me, and that’s what hurts me the most.”

She just listened, and I did the best I could not to blame her in any way but to explain how I felt. I also explained how I contributed to the situation. Because admittedly there were times when she tried to give me advice or something, and I didn’t want to hear it so I brushed it off. That was how we came to a point where she felt that I did not listen and that she could not speak to me.

At the end she said, “Now I don’t want to say anything, but it makes me feel lighter to hear you.” We did hugging meditation and I said, “Please forgive me for my limitations.” She said, “Don’t worry about it.” We walked away feeling a lot happier.

Beginning Anew, Anew

The interesting thing is that the awkwardness continued. Beginning Anew is not some kind of magic. Sometimes it works and the situation is resolved, but to me it’s a continual process.

It comes back to the sponge that has to clean itself. Deep inside us there are still thoughts and views, grudges or resentments or whatever. When we do Beginning Anew, it resolves to a certain level, but the deeper levels are still there. When the awkwardness between us was still there, I knew that deep inside me there are still other issues, as there are inside her. It takes a lot of patience and love.

I see that we have trust in each other because we want to make that commitment to live together as partners, as parents and children, or as brothers and sisters. We want our relationship to be healthy, to be beautiful, but at the same time we realize that it is a continual process, and it is very difficult. The best thing we can offer each other is our practice. We take responsibility for our sponge, and we give ourselves the space and time to constantly cleanse ourselves. We also give the other person the time and space to do that, because if we push ourselves or the other person when we’re not ready to do Beginning Anew, to share, or to go to a deeper level, then it becomes very awkward and unnatural, and it can even cause more damage. It’s really a process that is like a dance, and we learn to be sensitive to it.

I would like my brother to share a little bit about the process of Beginning Anew. We don’t jump in with what’s difficult because that would cause imbalance. We start with flower watering; we acknowledge what’s beautiful first. My brother is one of the best practitioners of flower watering! And I would like to know how, when you live with your brothers and sisters, year after year, how do you manage to see beautiful things in us and not just boring things?

Master of Flower Watering

Brother Phap An: Flower watering is the practice of looking deeply into the other person; you recognize his or her beauty and how that beauty offers love and support to your life. You need to say something sincere, and something that comes from your observation — not a form of flattery.

For example, just last night, my brother who is at the CD table brought in a sleeping bag for me. My body does not feel up to cold weather, and I have felt cold the last few days. The fact that he brought in the sleeping bag, materially, made me very warm, but his care and kindness also gave me a lot of warmth. So I’m watering the flower right now for him down there, at the CD table.

You don’t need to say, now I’m doing flower watering for you. You can do it very skillfully without revealing what you are doing, but people see and feel that you are watering their positive seeds. And that’s how I do it, Sister, to answer your question.

Don’t wait until the situation becomes difficult. If we do the flower watering then, it’s too late. We should learn to practice it in our daily life. It becomes a habit to see the goodness in the other person.

I think I have a very good seed from my ancestors, perhaps from my mom. My tendency is to look at the wholesome seed in the other person. It’s very rare that I look at the negative seed. My practice is to see everything that people do for me as something very wonderful. Every day I can water flowers all the time, all day long. So that’s the problem with me! (laughter) You see, when you do it too little, you have a problem. But when you do it too much, it becomes a problem, too. Many brothers and sisters just don’t trust my flower watering. (laughter) They say I am too professional! (laughter) And they don’t trust it. But I say it from my heart.

So my brothers and sisters gave me a very bad name: Master of Flower Watering. (laughter) There’s Zen Master, there’s Tea Master, and I’m Flower Watering Master! But the truth is I see good acts in all of my brothers and sisters. In very small acts, I appreciate them.

Your First Love

The key of the practice of Beginning Anew is to return and touch that deep love within you. When we have a relationship — with ourselves, with our environment, or with a partner or a friend — we approach it with that first love. When you come to a retreat the first time, you have that first love. Then when you come the second time, things become more familiar and somehow that first love begins to deteriorate a little bit, because we use the old experience to respond to the new situation. That’s our human tendency. We are like a machine, and we tend to act that way.

Beginning Anew is to lighten up, to turn to the first love that’s within us. I believe that in any relationship there is that first love. The first moment that you touch the earth and do that first step in walking meditation, that is your first love. If you practice for some time and you don’t get happiness from it, you don’t get much joy from it, then that love is beginning to deteriorate.

When a relationship becomes less nourishing, less joyful, less happy, then that first love is withering away. Beginning Anew is to go back and to touch that love one more time. In my sister’s language, it is to clean our sponge, to clean that sponge so that the first love reveals itself again.

Transcribed by Greg Sever, edited by Janelle Combelic and Barbara Casey.

mb47-Cleaning2The Practice of Beginning Anew

From the Deer Park Monastery Website

To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, our past actions, speech and thoughts, and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others. At the practice center we practice Beginning Anew as a community every two weeks and individually as often as we like.

We practice Beginning Anew to clear our mind and keep our practice fresh. When a difficulty arises in our relationships with fellow practitioners and one of us feels resentment or hurt, we know it is time to Begin Anew. The following is a description of the four-part process of Beginning Anew as used in a formal setting. One person speaks at a time and is not interrupted during his or her turn. The other practitioners practice deep listening and following their breath.

1. Flower watering

This is a chance to share our appreciation for the other person. We may mention specific instances that the other person said or did something that we admired. This is an opportunity to shine light on the other’s strengths and contributions to the Sangha and to encourage the growth of his or her positive qualities.

2. Sharing regrets

We may mention any unskillfulness in our actions, speech, or thoughts that we have not yet had an opportunity to apologize for.

3. Expressing a hurt

We may share how we felt hurt by an interaction with another practitioner, due to his or her actions, speech, or thoughts. (To express a hurt we should first water the other person’s flower by sharing two positive qualities that we have truly observed in him or her. Expressing a hurt is often performed one on one with another practitioner rather than in the group setting. You may ask for a third party that you both trust and respect to be present, if desired.)

4. Sharing a long-term difficulty & asking for support

At times we each have difficulties and pain arise from our past and surface in the present. When we share an issue that we are dealing with we can let the people around us understand us better and offer the support that we really need.

The practice of Beginning Anew helps us develop our kind speech and compassionate listening. Beginning Anew is a practice of recognition and appreciation of the positive elements within our Sangha. For instance, we may notice that our roommate is generous in sharing her insights, and another friend is caring towards plants. Recognizing others’ positive traits allows us to see our own good qualities as well.

Along with these good traits, we each have areas of weakness, such as speaking out of anger or being caught in our misperceptions. When we practice “flower watering” we support the development of good qualities in each other and at the same time we help to weaken the difficulties in the other person. As in a garden, when we “water the flowers” of loving kindness and compassion in each other, we also take energy away from the weeds of anger, jealousy, and misperception.

We can practice Beginning Anew every day by expressing our appreciation for our fellow practitioners and apologizing right away when we do or say something that hurts them. We can politely let others know when we have been hurt as well. The health and happiness of the whole community depends on the harmony, peace and joy that exists between every member in the Sangha.


PDF of this article

Book Reivews

mb47-BookReviews1Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go
Waking Up to Who You Are

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2007
Softcover, 204 Pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

In this book we receive two gifts tied up in one package: twenty-three teachings of Master Linji and twenty-three commentaries on those teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh, with a bonus of five practices offered by Thich Nhat Hanh based on Linji’s teachings.

In Teaching 14, Master Linji outlines for us the Holy Grail of mindfulness practice — the promise that we can indeed realize our clear original nature. That each of us can roam freely through the world and reach all the Dharma realms. That if we meet the Buddha, we can speak to the Buddha; if we meet a hungry ghost, we speak to the hungry ghost. Wherever we go, we are at home. “Everywhere is pure, the light of clarity illumines the ten directions, and you see the oneness of all that is.”

Master Linji is famous for saying that when we meet the ghost Buddha, we should cut off his head. Thay always tells us, whether we’re looking inside or outside ourselves, we need to cut off the head of our views and ideas, including our notions of Buddhist teachings.

This book finds me at a time in my life when I am physically exhausted because of all my Dharma activity and my involvement in our sangha. How ironic — and, gulp — unskillful for a teacher of mindfulness! Perhaps I need to cut off the head of the notion that I must launch and do so many worthy projects.

Master Linji might well have hit me with his stick! That was the effect of reading this book. I am stunned into noticing the present moment. I am stunned into realizing that I am so busy teaching others to stop that I do not stop myself! In a recent article by the president of Shakyadita, the International Buddhist Women’s Association, Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo warns of this paradox in monastic life as well as lay life: “[We]… cannot become genuine models of simplicity and contentment unless we live simple and contented lives.” St. Francis of Assisi said, “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”

What does this mean to one who is worn out from over-activity? Again and again, Master Linji, as well as Thay, warns us about the “busy” trap, suggesting we should become “busynessless”— a term coined by Linji. So we can conclude that even in the ninth century during the Tang Dynasty, in Jiangxi province, just south of the Yangzi River, folks were caught in too much to do! In 2000, when I visited Plum Village, then too, I felt struck by the stick when Thay said to several hundred people, “You do not have to be the director of anything.” I felt as if he were speaking directly to me.

After mastering the teachings, our ancestor Linji threw away his books to live the Dharma! In his commentary on Linji’s Teaching 14, Thay tells us, “A sutra is only a supporting condition to manifest our own wisdom.” The same could be said of the Buddha and the Sangha.

Linji states very clearly that learning a sutra or even practicing seated meditation in a spirit of attachment only creates more karma. What indeed, keeps us busy if not ego and attachment? What an inner revolution! The spirit of Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go can free us from samsara, the vicious cycle of birth and death and suffering, and lead us to the Pure Land, which is none other than right here, right now.

mb47-BookReviews2The Buddha’s Diamonds

By Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem
Candlewick Press, 2008

Reviewed by David Flint

As The Buddha’s Diamonds begins, ten-year-old Tinh sits in the village temple and “sighs, the knots inside him relaxing” as the monks and nuns begin to chant. The Abbot offers a teaching about how “The Buddha’s Diamonds” — the sunshine, the ocean, our loved ones — are always available to us, even in a poor fishing village. And yet a few minutes later Tinh encounters his first remote-controlled toy car —sent to his cousin by a rich uncle in America:

“Tinh reached for the remote control…. He tapped the button on the left and the car drove toward a palm tree. He maneuvered the car around the base of a tree…. He loved the feeling of power in his hands…. This car was a diamond the monk didn’t know about.” Tinh spends much of his time daydreaming about having a life-sized car like this.

And so it goes in this lovely and evocative children’s book, set in a Vietnamese fishing village not long after the war has ended. Through Tinh’s eyes we experience the effect of consumer goods and consumerism on one fishing village. We see the subtle and unspoken shifts in the relationship of a father and son, in the warmth of a child’s life lived within an extended family. This story takes us into a huge, exciting, frightening and dangerous ocean storm. And it shows us the possibility of dwelling in happiness in the present moment.

We see Tinh learning lessons in wise attention as he accompanies his fisherman father: “You’re daydreaming again, Ba said. When the boat is moving, pay attention.”

Later, after the storm has damaged many homes and boats, including his own, Tinh sees the statue of the Buddha. “He even felt the beginnings of a glow around his own heart.” And then Tinh “refused  to look at the Buddha’s face. He turned away from happiness and started home,” feeling it is wrong to be happy at such a time.

This is not a book of good advice all dressed up as a children’s story. Life itself teaches Tinh about wise attention and how the mind can be happy in difficult situations. One eleven-year-old said of The Buddha’s Diamonds: “I liked it. It has lots of descriptive words so you can really get into it.”

This book can be enjoyed by children and adults, and is good for reading out loud. It can also be used as the basis for discussion in a children’s group in a Sangha.

mb47-BookReviews3The Dragon Prince
Stories and Legends from Vietnam

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2007

Reviewed by Emily Whittle

“Long ago, when earth and sky were still covered in darkness, a great bird with wings like curtains of night….”

Before the end of the first sentence in The Dragon Prince, the wide-eyed child in me is awakened and I am hanging on every word, enchanted by a rich story that unfolds like a compelling dream.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking these stories are mainly for children. These are stories that resonate on deep levels, weaving myth, legend, and Vietnamese history into an intricate tapestry to delight and inform all ages. Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple, straightforward prose refreshes my literary palate like a piece of fresh fruit after a meal.

In keeping with the author’s lifelong dedication to mindfulness, these stories emphasize interconnection, cooperation, and the resolution of conflict through understanding. Without being saccharine or scolding, they water good seeds in us. At the same time, we are educated about Vietnamese culture, with details such as the origin of traditional earth and sky cakes and the practice of chewing betel nuts.

The third story begins, “It had not rained in over six months.” Again, I am hooked. It has not rained in my town in North Carolina in five months. Maybe this story will give me a clue to the meaning of this terrible drought that signals the growing imbalances of nature.

Perhaps we need to dive down into the store consciousness to awaken the Dragon Emperor that resides in us all. He’s been napping, waiting for us to make the inner journey. We only need to ask his help to slay the monsters of greed, jealousy, discrimination, and hate. It will take courage, cooperation, and concentration but we can do it. Then the rains can come and the parched fields will turn green again.

Maybe this is not the meaning intended by Thich Nhat Hanh, but that’s the power of myth and legend. Although Vietnamese, these stories are timeless and placeless. They rise up from the collective unconscious like deeply rooted trees. I read them hungrily. They feel like good medicine.

The last story, “A Bouquet of Flowers,” goes right to the heart of my own suffering and the suffering of my friends. A dying father leaves his son and daughter a poem from the ancestors that will help them find a buried treasure. On his deathbed he instructs them, “…Don’t be as busy as I have been. Work just enough to live, and take the time to find the deep meaning of the poem and uncover the treasure.”

The son, who ponders the poem in a literal way, fails to understand, despite three years of contemplation in a monastery. It is the daughter who penetrates the meaning of the poem, simply by tending the rice fields with concentrated mindfulness. Without looking for the treasure, she finds it in the details of her daily life.

There is treasure embedded in the stories in The Dragon Prince. Read them and it can be yours!

Books of Note

Compiled by Judith Toy

New Edition of World As Lover World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, by Joanna Macy, Parallax Press, 2007, 206 pages, paper. A visionary ahead of her time, in this modern classic the author sounds a call for us to wake up to a deeper relationship with the Earth or risk its destruction. Includes spiritual practices for activists.

First Snow, by Helen Coutant, with pictures by Vo-Dinh, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1974. A picture book for children age five to nine. A charming story about a little girl whose grandmother is dying, a story that grew out of the shared belief of Coutant and her husband, Vo-Dinh, that many of the ancient ideas and traditions of Buddhism can have meaning for all people. Available through out-of-print book searches online.

Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam, edited by Philip Taylor, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2007, 491 pages. Part of the publisher’s Vietnam Update Series of annual conferences that focus on recent economic, political, and social conditions in Vietnam. An academic textbook, with a fortytwo-page chapter by sangha member John Chapman on Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in 2005, as well as some details of Thay’s early life.

Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Las Olas Press, 2007, 263 pages. Helps us recognize how we interact with others’ suffering, pain, crisis, and trauma, and the effects of trauma exposure everywhere: in ourselves, our organizations, and our society. “Reading this book is like looking into a mirror,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in his endorsement. “We will see ourselves much moreclearly, will understand ourselves much better…” For information go to www.traumastewardship.com.

PDF of this article

Caring for Our Children by Caring for Ourselves

By John R. Snyder


On the occasions when I slow down enough to actually think about it, it occurs to me that my job as a Montessori teacher is too hard for someone of my limited abilities––i.e., someone who is still dependent on food, sleep, and occasional recreation. The demands never seem to stop, and if they do happen to slow down from time to time, I have a huge backlog of practice-improvement projects to fill the gaps.

Parents sometimes ask with a certain awe, “How do you do it?” How, indeed? How does one not only keep going, but do so with good cheer, grace, a sense of perspective, and, more often than not, a calm presence in the classroom?

I am happy to share at least part of “how I do it.” I suspect that behind every successful teacher is a similar practice of self-care and reflection, although we seldom talk about these things with each other. Perhaps we should.

The crux of the matter is that less is more. At the center of the hurricane of teacherly activity, there must be a still center, a place of repose in the heart and the mind. This, I am convinced, can only be maintained through the regular, disciplined practice of stopping, paying quiet attention to one’s inner voices, and reconnecting with one’s highest self. One could call it a practice of prayer, or meditation, or affirmation, or self-reflection; the point is that it must be a regular period of quiet time, free from interruptions, an appointment one keeps with oneself.

I think of this quiet time both as a gift to myself and as a period of spiritual conditioning that keeps me emotionally prepared for whatever comes my way in and out of the classroom. Although the children do not know of my practice of reflection, I am certain they could identify which days I have failed to keep my appointment with myself.

My anchor, the backbone of my daily preparation for the classroom, is a practice found in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Teachings on Love. It is his version of a 1,500-year-old text from Sri Lanka:

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May I be safe and free from injury.
May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.



Just as a good weightlifting routine works all the major muscle groups, I find that these nine lines exercise all the psycho-spiritual “muscles” I need to strengthen for my work with children, parents, and colleagues. I start my day with these lines, and I keep a copy in the front cover of my lesson-planning book so that when I feel myself slipping away, I can read them to re-center and refresh myself.

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

I appreciate that this meditation starts with a clear statement of the desired state, the end result of the practice. Sitting quietly, following my breath, I can bring my body and mind back from their habitual agitation and anxiety to the place of peace, happiness, and lightness that is gradually becoming a habit through years of this practice. Like a tennis player mentally rehearsing her stroke, I can mentally rehearse, noticing the places of tension and disconnection in me and shifting them to calm connectedness. What could be more useful and important to someone working intensively with children?

May I be safe and free from injury.

I have come to realize over the years that every kind of progress in the classroom depends upon all members of the community feeling safe and free from injury. This line reminds me of that, and allows me to renew my intent to provide physical and emotional safety for myself so I can better provide it for the community. This hallows the many mundane things I do every day to insure the safety of the community, from giving lessons on the safe use of science equipment, to keeping the first-aid kit well stocked, to mediating conflict on the playground, to honoring the children’s efforts instead of their products. Looking a little more deeply, I also see that part of my practice is to know how to take care of myself and others when injuries do happen. Having the confidence that comes from being prepared, I believe, allows me to take appropriate risks on behalf of the community. So, far from being an invitation to always “play it safe,” this line stretches me and allows me to walk away from fearful states of mind.

May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

It is so helpful to have such a clear list of the major obstacles I face in my relationships with children, parents, and colleagues. It is even more helpful to have time to envision myself free of these obstacles and look calmly at the roots of these problems. I can, for example, rededicate myself to my practice of noticing when anger and fear are arising in me and not acting on them until I have had a chance to calm myself and inquire into what the emotions are telling me. My experience has been that simply acknowledging the presence of anger, fear, anxiety, craving, jealousy, and the like, greatly diminishes the urgency and force with which they batter my body and mind. The function of these emotions is to call my attention to something I need to take care of, and when I calmly give them my full attention, their job is done and they can relax.

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.

This line is priceless because it goes straight to the heart of so much self-inflicted pain, and it also helps to remove one of the biggest obstacles between me and the relationships that I need to build in a peaceful classroom. Behind this line is the wisdom that until we understand, accept, and love ourselves, we cannot adequately understand, accept, and love others. Indeed, whenever we think that other people are making us miserable with their foolishness and bad behavior, it is very likely that we are projecting onto them some self-criticism or fearful insecurity that has taken root in us. To our chagrin, we find those hypercritical, perfectionistic voices that chatter in our own heads speaking through our mouths to inflict harm on others. How wonderful to be able to practice stepping out of that cycle of injury by beginning to extend to ourselves the compassion that will allow us to connect compassionately with others!

May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.

This line comes from a view of human nature as being like a garden in which are planted all kinds of seeds––each one representing a capacity of body and mind. In each of us are the seeds of great evil, suffering, and destruction, side by side with the seeds of great goodness, joy, courage, and the highest states of being. Some of these seeds we inherited; some have been planted by our culture and personal history. The seeds we water and tend, whether wholesome or otherwise, grow to crowd out the others, coming to dominate our internal gardens and our very lives. I find this outlook to be completely aligned with Dr. Montessori’s views on the richness and essential goodness of human nature, and the importance of the environment in the self-construction of the human being. The salient point in this line is that, although it is easy to lose sight of it when we are in the grip of some negative emotion, the seeds of joy and happiness are still there. We do not have to wait for our lives (or even just our classrooms!) to be perfect before we can be genuinely happy.

May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.

Now we go beyond a clear intent to be free of anger, fear, and anxiety to search for the roots of these negative forces in our lives. Quietly, deeply, consistently looking at these things while not being carried away by them, gives us the chance to see the patterns, to understand the ways these things work in our particular minds. Seeing clearly, we have a chance to reorient our thinking and rebuild our habits into something more positive and free. To me, this line moves beyond intending and visualizing to doing something about the situation.

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.

Continuing the metaphor of seeds and the intent to learn to view and treat ourselves with compassion, this line invites us to take concrete action on our own behalf. The positive seeds are there, so how can I water them? I have gradually developed a mental list of very concrete ways that I can touch the seeds of joy and peace in myself, and I try to do some of these things every day. Here are a few of my touchstones: taking a slow walk in nature; really seeing and experiencing a blue sky, a flower, a stone, or a child’s face; thinking of someone I love; enjoying a quiet cup of tea; giving my full attention to a great piece of music or art; holding my dog in my lap; reading a good poem or science magazine. Your list might be very different, but you can make one by noticing the things that give you joy. In particular, instead of reacting mindlessly out of anger, irritability, or fear, I try to stop and do one or more of my “joy things” to ground myself again in my best nature before responding to a situation.

May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

As a teacher, I often think of this line as a description of the opposite of burnout. Surrounded as I am by the freshness of children, may I be able to find that freshness in myself. May I be solid enough to withstand the winds and waves of experience, stable enough to provide the consistent strength of purpose it takes to build a good community. May I live as a free person, not a thrall to my faulty perceptions, fearful attachments and aversions, public personae, or life history.

May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

Montessorians are passionate people, the idealistic followers of a passionate and visionary leader. We have great expectations and bold plans. We have strong feelings about many things, strong likes and dislikes, long lists of both shibboleths and taboos. And yet, these attachments and aversions are often our undoing, the very things that get in the way of our realizing our vision. This line, when regularly rehearsed, helps me let go of my certainties, both positive and negative, and helps me live instead with the kind of openness that Montessori herself exhibited; she allowed a group of young children from the Roman slums to completely change her culturally conditioned views of who children are and what they can do. It reminds me that the opposite of passionate attachment and ego investment is not indifference, but mindfulness: holding my perceptions and beliefs lightly and being fully present to whatever the moment brings.

Now for the best part. Having taken good care of myself, I take the time to traverse these nine lines again, but this time the energy is directed outward to the community.

May the children [or a specific child] be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May the children be safe and free from injury.
May the children be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

For me, this closes the circle, and I am ready to enter the classroom again to see what great good can be wrought from whatever raw materials the day brings.

mb65-Caring4John Snyder, True Precious Goodness, taught nine-to twelve-year-olds and was an administrator at Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas. This article was written in 2008, when John was still teaching. He practices with Plum Blossom Sangha. You can reach him at jsnyder@pobox.com.

This work by John R. Snyder is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.

PDF of this article

The Collective Bodhisattva

Sisterhood and Brotherhood in the Twenty-first Century

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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

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


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

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

Our Contribution to a Global Ethic

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

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

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

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

Stopping vs. Acting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Six Harmonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting Go of a Separate Self

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

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

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

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

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

Education as Key

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

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

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

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

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


  1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

  1. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment to Views

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

  1. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

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

  1. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering

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

  1. The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Simple, Healthy Living

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

  1. The Sixth Mindfulness Training: Dealing with Anger

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

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

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

  1. The Eighth Mindfulness Training: Community and Communication

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

  1. The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

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

  1. The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

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

  1. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood

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

  1. The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

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

  1. The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity

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

  1. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: Right Conduct

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

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

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

PDF of this article

Helping Obama, Helping Others

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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


Helping Obama

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

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

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

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

Helping Others Across the Globe

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

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

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

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

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

PDF of this article

Media Reviews

Essential Mindfulness Practices

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2009
Softcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

This book is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for longtime practitioners, beginners, anyone who is curious about the practice of mindfulness. Happiness summarizes in concise, clear chapters what Thay has been teaching for the last sixty years.

It also answers, for me, the question of what the word “practice” means in our tradition. Several years ago, twenty or so lay people gathered at Plum Village to consider the idea of a lay community. It soon became clear that people had vastly different meanings when they spoke of “practice.” Some meant formal sitting meditation, chanting, reciting sutras. And while those activities can enhance our experience of the Dharma, they are not the essence of our daily practice. “Mindfulness,” writes Thay in the introduction, “is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment…. The practice of stopping is crucial. How do we stop? We stop by means of our in-breath, our out-breath, and our step. If you master these practices, then you can practice mindful eating, mindful drinking, mindful cooking, mindful driving, and so on, and you are always in the here and the now.”

The book is divided into six sections; each short chapter is a gem. “Daily Practices” covers the basics, such as breathing, sitting and walking meditation, bowing, gathas, and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. “Eating Practices” and “Physical Practices” are guidelines for caring for body and soul. The section on “Relationship and Community Practices” describes how to start and maintain a Sangha. It also offers techniques for creating healthy relationships, such as beginning anew, hugging meditation, deep listening, and loving speech. Several pages are devoted to anger and other strong emotions.

Some “Exended Practices” include solitude and silence, as well as lazy day, touching the earth, metta/love meditation, and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The section on “Practicing with Children” contains many useful tips for parents and teachers: listening to young people, walking meditation with children, the breathing room, and so on.

These are familiar teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh, which many of us have heard in Dharma talks or read in other books. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to read them again and again, because we might need to be reminded to actually practice them. And they really do work! I can vouch for that. Even practicing as unskillfully as I have, has made a huge difference in my life. In the six years since I committed myself wholeheartedly to Thay’s tradition, I have experienced deep healing and transformation. I am far happier than ever before.

Happiness is aptly titled. “We have a rich inheritance, but we don’t know it,” writes Thay at the end of the book. “We behave as if we were poor; a destitute son or daughter. Instead we can recognize that we have a treasure of enlightenment, understanding, love, and joy inside us. It’s time to go back to receive our inheritance. These practices can help us claim it.”

Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung
HarperOne, March 2010
Hardback, 256 pages

Reviewed by Sister Chau Nghiem (Sister Jewel)

Two out of three people in the United States are overweight and one in three is obese. Obesity is becoming a pandemic around the globe. Most methods of weight loss focus on the symptoms, not the root of the problem, which lies not only in our way of thinking and living as individuals, but very much in the increasingly unhealthy and toxic societies in which we live, which encourage us to eat more, to eat foods that undermine our health, and to move less.

Based on both the profound Buddhist wisdom of mindfulness as well as the latest science on nutrition, this book by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung offers a new and penetrating perspective on how we arrived at our current weight problem and what we can do to reverse it, individually and collectively. The authors gracefully apply the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Nutriments, and other key Buddhist teachings to help readers understand and transform the suffering of excess weight and obesity.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, of the Harvard School of Public Health, compassionately and engagingly encourage readers to have faith in their ability to change and improve their life situation, no matter what difficulties they may have had in the past around weight loss. With the latest data on the health and environmental benefits of a more plant-based diet, meditative verses that help us incorporate mindfulness in all our activities, detailed guidelines for creating and implementing a mindful living plan that incorporates weekly goals for eating, exercising, and living more mindfully, and inspiring stories and suggestions for social activism, the book is packed with a wealth of resources for how to begin to make significant and lasting changes in our weight, in our life, and in the world, starting now.

Saving the Earth from Ourselves

By Ian Prattis
Manor House Publishing, 2008
Paperback, 192 pages

Reviewed by Christopher Titmuss (excerpted with permission from www.resurgence.org)

Ian Prattis, a former professor of Anthropology and Religion at Carleton University, Canada, belongs to a growing school of thought that believes humanity requires a real shift in consciousness to handle the global crises—environmental, political, and economic. A core tenet of Failsafe: Saving the Earth from Ourselves is the simple maxim that our thinking has to change if the current worldview is to change.

Under the guidance of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Prattis states that the three poisons of the mind (to quote the Buddha) have become institutionalized. Greed pervades the corporate world. Hate pervades the military. Delusion pervades advertising. The poisoning of land, water, and air, and the catastrophes for the world’s poor and marginalized have their origins in the state of mind of those who run our institutions and their intentions to make profit, act violently upon people and the earth, and manipulate the public mind. There are signs of soul-searching in our major institutions, but the pace is painfully slow.

Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru, told Prattis that only two percent of the global population needs to meditate on a daily basis to transform human consciousness. Prattis endorses such a view and encourages people to slow down their relentless “doing” in order to experience a sense of “being”: a slowing down of thought, making it possible for fresh ways of thinking to emerge.

The book serves as a valuable collection of reflections on global issues and the part each one of us can play in making the necessary changes. While drawing on the wisdom of various authorities, past and present, Failsafe reminds us of the Buddha’s recipe for global ills—namely mindfulness, letting go, reflection, inner change, watching desire, inter-connection, and the transformation of consciousness.

Prattis writes that he remains “confident and optimistic about making the world a better place environmentally.” He has usefully employed his own experiences, the wise voices of others, and practical advice to address concerns about life on Earth. Failsafe concludes with a list of useful websites that inform and inspire further exploration.

mb53-MediaReviews4Touch the Earth

By Joe Reilly
CD, 40 minutes

Reviewed by Nicole Brossman

Touch the Earth showcases true genre diversity, taking listeners through an intriguing landscape of rock, hip-hop, country, eco-rock, and meditative balladry. Reilly’s honest voice and consistent message have the unique ability to pull the eclectic mix together. With his Native American heritage, roots and upbringing in contemporary Catholic folk music, ever-deepening understanding of life through Buddhist meditation practice, and academic studies in environmental justice and racism, Joe Reilly is able to unite people across diverse lines of race, class, gender, age, religion, ability, and musical genre.

While listening to Touch the Earth, listeners are able to engage in lyrical discussions of ecological cycles, meditation, global warming, war, and spirituality with an open mind. Reilly’s music strengthens community while embracing diversity, inspiring listeners to experience the interconnection with one another and their environment, and inviting them to look deeper and connect with the positive aspects in their own nature. This is exemplified when he asks, in the title song, “Where’s the Earth?,” then answers, “in your hands, underneath your feet right where you stand…. It’s what you eat. Take off your shoes and socks and sink your feet in the mud of the Earth, it’s the blood of your birth.”

Reilly is a practitioner in the Plum Village tradition, and practices with the Huron River Sangha in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He also practices at Deer Park Monastery, where he received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2004, with the Dharma name True Faith of the Heart. He has visited Plum Village twice, and wrote many of the songs on Touch the Earth while he was there. It’s clear from the first track of the album, when Reilly sings “Keep it E-A-S-Y,” that his songwriting invites listeners to smile, laugh, and sing along with him. Reilly’s creativity brings both humor and depth to things that seem very ordinary. Through his songs we learn that a tree, a tomato, a guitar, and a human being are not separate and isolated.

PDF of this article

Book Reviews

mb59-BookReviews3The Novice
A Story of True Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperCollins, 2011
Hardcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Chau Yoder

Edited by Lyn Fine and Natascha Bruckner

I felt really touched by the new English version of The Novice: A Story of True Love. When I read this story of the novice Kinh Tam in English, and then reread the original Vietnamese version (Su Tich Quan Am Thi Kinh), I felt strongly that many readers would benefit from the tale of injustice, patience, and the four immeasurable minds of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of this ancient Vietnamese story has many deep teachings to transform our suffering.

When I was about fifteen years old, I went with my mom to the Vietnamese opera (Cai Luong) and saw many touching stories. This one penetrated deep into my subconscious, planting seeds about Buddhism, patience, and realizing the great vow to live a free life. I used to hate the character Mau, who falsely stated that Thi Kinh was the parent of her baby. Now, reading Thay’s novel, I feel more compassionate toward Mau. As I read this book, I felt my heart opening—especially toward the end, when I read Thi Kinh’s compassionate letters to her parents, teacher, husband, and Mau. Thi Kinh wrote these love letters at the time she knew she was dying, and I felt she was passing her generosity on to us. Her letter to her parents inspired me to think about my parents. They sacrificed so much for me, and at times I wonder if I was good enough for them. I created suffering for them when I decided to marry my husband Jim and live far away from them. Yet when we became engaged, they generously opened their hearts to Jim, and we all happily lived near each other when Jim and I sponsored them, my grandmother, and my siblings to come the U.S. in 1981.

I felt touched by Thi Kinh’s letter to the abbot, who had accepted Thi Kinh as his student, thinking she was a man. Thi Kinh wrote that in order to go to the pagoda to study, she had to pretend to be a man because there was no nunnery. She asked for forgiveness for the deception. She begged her teacher to build a nunnery so that young women could be students of the Buddha’s teachings. She was thinking about the future, “paying it forward” on her deathbed!

A key teaching in the novel relates to the question of how to be magnanimous without being a victim. Why do people have to be tolerant of injustice in the world? Why do we have to live in the patient way that Thi Kinh lived? Thay writes that being patient does not mean suppressing suffering. We have to be patient in order to understand with loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Near the end of Thay’s retelling of this ancient tale, the abbot visualizes that Thi Kinh is really a bodhisattva. Her loving kindness is not only for human beings, but for all beings—a grand aspiration. This is the ultimate goal of the true awakened person; how can we live it in our lifetime? This story offers a lot for us to think about: the meaning of equanimity, letting go, nondiscrimination, non-self, patience, and magnanimous living.

In the English edition, a chapter by Sister Chan Khong offers an interesting comparison of the life stories of Thi Kinh and Thich Nhat Hanh, who both have a grand patience and an inclusive heart. Additional chapters describe the activities of the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) founded by Thay in 1964, and the situation in Bat Nha (Prajna), a monastery in Vietnam that was offered to Thay in 2005 by the abbot of a temple in Lam Dong Province, but ousted by the Vietnamese authorities in 2008.

I’m thankful that Thay published The Novice in English, so that young generations in the United States will get to read it and understand their Vietnamese roots a little better. My hope is that when people read this novel, the nectar of compassion in Thi Kinh will drop into their mind, body, and spirit to help them become more compassionate, ethical, loving people who will, in turn, help us live a more harmonious life.

mb59-BookReviews1The Seeds of Love
Growing Mindful Relationships

By Jerry Braza
Tuttle, 2011
Soft cover, 192 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The foundation for developing mindful and healthy relation- ships begins with ourselves. Three practices—Seeing, Renewing, and Being—will support you as you become the master gardener of your life and your relationships.” This opening passage from The Seeds of Love, by Jerry Braza, reflects the accessible yet deep lessons shared by the seasoned Dharma teacher in his new book. Braza emphasizes teachings and practices that help us nurture positive seeds in ourselves and our loved ones. He writes about how to transform seeds of fear, anger, jealousy, and doubt into love, compassion, and understanding.

While many of the teachings in The Seeds of Love reflect the wisdom of the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh, Braza brings a unique, modern, and American perspective to his presentations. He offers the insights of an experienced lay practitioner and college professor who has practiced with a Sangha for many years. The practices explored are not only for the pur pose of individual self-healing, but also for promoting healthy relationships with our families, friends, and co-practitioners. As the Buddha teaches, we inter-are with each other, so heal- ing within and without cannot be separated.

This book is both simply presented and dense in content. Braza includes beautiful poetry and illustrations that make the book an excellent practice companion. Furthermore, the teachings are accessible to people of all faiths, and Braza incorporates the lessons of many wisdom traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. Appropriate for beginners and experienced practitioners alike, this is a wonderful continuation of the author’s first book, Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness.

As a gardener, I find the book’s gardening metaphors and themes beautiful. They bring to mind the fact that one translation of an ancient word for “one who meditates or practices mindfulness” is “a cultivator.” The Seeds of Love would be a great book for Sanghas or book groups to read together and use as a basis for meaningful sharing and discussion.

mb59-BookReviews2Walking the Tiger’s Path
A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq

By Paul M. Kendel
Tendril Press, 2011
Soft cover, 247 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

“As the gardener, such is the garden.”
— Hebrew Proverb

Until reading Sergeant Kendel’s book, I’d only heard news accounts of the war in Iraq. Although my two nephews have each done two tours in Iraq, they don’t talk about their experiences. Kendel describes the precise type of hell realm this war has been. The “enemy” is both everywhere and nowhere, and compassion is considered a weakness. In the course of serving with the Georgia National Guard, Kendel became a student of the Shambhala Buddhist teachings. He learned that the mind of a tiger, according to Sakyong Mipham, is a “mind of discernment,” allowing us to “stop and think and make a decision based on wisdom and compassion, rather than on hate and fear.”

With story after hair-raising story, Kendel outlines his gradual battlefield enlightenment through correspondence with Buddhist teachers, and through reading Pema Chodron’s Awakening Loving Kindness while on patrol. He came within a fraction of an inch of blowing away a father and his little girl, but made split-second eye contact with the child. Instead of seeing the enemy, he “saw something positive. I saw hope in that little girl’s eyes. Hope…even when the world around her seemed to be in total chaos.”

When Kendel came home, his wife was having an affair and not only ended their marriage, but changed his close relationship with his two sons. And then his mother died. These events, along with haunting incidents in Iraq, constituted for Kendel both a crisis and an opportunity.

His saving grace was the Shambhala practice, along with Margot Neuman, a senior student who reached out and gave Kendel a peaceful place to take refuge. His subsequent visits to the Shambhala Mountain Center, and meeting Pema Cho- dron and Sakyong Mipham as well as Shambhala President Richard Roech, cemented Kendel’s inner peace and gave him a Sangha. The Shambhala warrior, he learned, does not create war at all. The tiger sees with clarity how to act.

PDF of this article

The Hands of the Bodhisattvas

By Sister Hy Nghiem 


Dear Thay, dear Brothers, dear Sisters, and dear Sangha,

Today is February 19, 2012, and we are in our final week of the winter retreat here at Magnolia Grove Monastery. Today we continue our investigation of the Fifth and Sixth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing.




Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying, nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness, such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, well-being, and joy in our body and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth.

This mindfulness training wants us to know that true happiness is not something that we can find outside of us. If we want to have true happiness, then we need to know how to create the conditions for happiness to manifest. The Buddha taught that we must know how to take care of our body and our mind. He showed us how to do that through the practice of mindful breathing.

We depend on our breathing to live. If we breathe in and we cannot breathe out, then our life ends. Sometimes when we are busy in our daily lives, we don’t have the capacity to get in touch with our breathing. That is why in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha taught us a very simple and concrete practice: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Awareness of breathing helps us to cultivate and establish wisdom, and that wisdom gives us the capacity to recognize what really brings us happiness. Do money, fame, or praise bring us happiness?

Recently, the famous singer Whitney Houston died. She had a special voice and she could sing many styles of music. She was very famous and very wealthy. But let us ask ourselves, did these conditions bring her happiness? Even though she used her money to help organizations that alleviate hunger in Africa, she was not able to find peace and happiness. The loneliness in her was too immense. She used drugs to cover that loneliness and one day she overdosed and died.

We may have looked at her talent, wealth, and fame, and wanted to be like her. But the truth is that all those things didn’t alleviate her loneliness and sadness; they were not able to give her true happiness and peace. If we want true happiness, then we must live with mindfulness. And if we want to be mindful, we must use many methods to help ourselves, to develop peace in our body and in our mind. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing teaches us to become aware of our in-breath and our out-breath, and in this way, to calm our whole body and mind. Our mind’s tendency is to think about the past and the future instead of staying in the present moment. We only need to be dwelling in the present moment and we find happiness here. We see that happiness is very simple.

Offering Dharma to Ourselves 

In 1999 there was a flood in Vietnam and many people died. When I first entered the monastery I really wanted to do charity work, so I helped with the Love and Understanding program. In this program, we send letters to our friends who have participated in our retreats, inviting them to give us a helping hand to alleviate the suffering in Vietnam. I worked with so much love and inspiration. And in one day I received hundreds of letters from friends. When we receive a donation, we send out a thank you letter. But one day I received so many letters, and I began to feel, “How come no one is helping me?” And suddenly I began to blame others, and sadness and anger arose.

So I lost my peace for a few minutes. Fortunately, I did not let that energy carry me for long. A few minutes were enough to destroy me. I could see that I was making myself suffer because of blaming. As practitioners, we bring our compassion to many places, but if we lose our peace, then the work we do only becomes an outer form. No real helping can happen.

And that is the lesson I learned. From then on, each time I worked I became more aware of bringing my practice into the work that I did. When we want to offer compassion to other people, the first thing we must do is to learn to love ourselves. We come back to our breathing to calm down the negative thoughts, the negative mental formations. That is why the Buddha taught us to use mindful breathing to calm our body.

This precept also says that we do not take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Our practice is to know how to live satisfied with what fulfills simple needs. In the Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, the third realization says that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled. This searching brings about unwholesome activity. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, know the value of having few desires. They regard the realization of perfect understanding to be their only career. For example, sometimes we need electronic devices to keep in touch with the news, but we should not waste too much time with them. We should not think that in order to have happiness we need them. We should not run after them.

So first we must offer the Dharma to ourselves, transform our suffering, transform our pain, transform what has become stuck in our heart. When we are able to practice like this, then the spirit of this precept will give us happiness in the present moment and we won’t need to seek material goods, wealth, or fame.


Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are committed to taking care of the energy of anger when it arises, and to recognizing and transforming the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger manifests, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking to acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We know that the roots of anger are not outside of ourselves but can be found in our wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in ourselves and others. By contemplating impermanence, we will be able to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger, and to recognize the preciousness of our relationships. We will practice Right Diligence in order to nourish our capacity of understanding, love, joy, and inclusive- ness, gradually transforming our anger, violence, and fear, and helping others do the same.
When our anger arises, we must use our eyes of compassion to look at the situation. For example, when a person does or says something that makes us suffer, if we can look with compassion at that situation, then we are able to understand the reasons why this person acted that way. And if we know how to practice, to nourish that peace inside of us, then this becomes a source of energy that can help us to deal with our strong emotions. If we do not practice, then suffering will always be there. The Buddha taught us in the Four Noble Truths that there is suffering, and that we have a path to overcome that suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the path of practice.

There is a story about a couple who didn’t know how to speak lovingly or nourish each other’s happiness, so, day by day a distance grew between them. They lost their ability to communicate, and irritation, loneliness, and fear manifested. The husband began to go out and get drunk, then came home and hit his wife and reprimanded her for being the cause of his misery.


The wife suffered so much she decided to go to the temple. She told the abbot her family situation. The wise abbot told her, “Let me give you the nectar of compassion and if you use it right you will suffer less. Each time your husband comes home and yells at you, you must drink it but don’t swallow; just let it stay in your mouth. If you swallow it, the sacredness will not be there to protect you.”

When her husband came home, she took a sip of the nectar of compassion and kept it in her mouth. No matter what her husband said, she could not say anything in return. For many days he came home and yelled at her, and when she didn’t respond, he fell asleep. And then one day the husband thought to himself: Why is my wife being so kind? Before, whenever I came home and said something to her, she would say something back. And if I threw a small bowl, then she would throw a pot. He told her, “My darling, recently you seem kinder, you are not angry like before. And thanks to your kindness, today I am able to transform.”

The wife told her husband about the nectar of compassion given to her by the abbot. So the husband went to the temple and told the abbot the nectar of compassion given to his wife was wonderful. The abbot responded, “It is not the nectar of compassion; it’s just water! When you are both angry, you can create a fire that will burn the whole house. But when you hold the water in your mouth, you cannot say anything, and your anger dies.”

This method helped the family to reestablish harmony, but they still didn’t know how to transform their anger. To do this we must know how to look deeply to find the roots of suffering. When we see someone act in anger, we bring our mind of compassion to look deeply into it. Then we do not blame or punish the person, but we want to find the best ways to help them transform their suffering and find happiness. This is the practice called Right View that leads to Right Thinking and Right Speech, through which communication can be established.

Refuge in the Practice

If our anger is triggered, we must take refuge in the practice; we must come back to our breathing so that we can control our body and our mind. Then we can bring the energy of love so that we can understand the situation. To do that we must know how to stop. We stop our bodily movements and our speech, and then we stop what is not so beautiful in our mind. And then we are able to see the roots of the suffering in this person: their family history and the long process that has created this person. And we are able to let go of that anger.

This precept tells us that each time we have anger we should not do or say anything. We take refuge in our breathing; we practice walking meditation. When we are calm, we are able to reconcile what is in ourselves and we learn to look at other people with eyes of compassion.

Once there was a young gentleman who got angry very easily.  And each time he got angry, he would hit things. His mother could not stand it. One day he went into the forest, where he found a cave. Into the cave, he yelled, “I hate you.” The echo from the cave came back to him, saying, “I hate you.” When he heard this, he was so disappointed and so sad. He went back home and asked his mom, “Why does everybody hate me?” When his mother asked what had happened, he told her about the message from the cave, and that it meant that in the whole world, nobody loved him. The mother told him to go back to the cave, and this time to say, “I love you.” When he did this, of course the cave answered back with love. When your mind has love, your eyes shine, and when you shine with love, the world responds with love.

These two precepts show us how to live the simple and healthy life of a practitioner. When we know how to take care of our body and our mind, our understanding and love grow. When we are able to make one step in peace, when we sit with our minds peaceful, the person next to us can feel that energy.  As practitioners we must know how to love ourselves, to establish peace in our body and our mind. Then we have the capacity to share our practice with the world. We can be the hands of the bodhisattvas.

Translated by Sister Boi Nghiem Edited by Barbara Casey

mb61-Hands4Sister Hy Nghiem (Sister True Joy) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1996. Sister Joy enjoys coming back to herself to be present for her body and mind. Reading sutras from the Buddha is also a source of nourishment for her daily practice.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people’s suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say things you don’t like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn’t want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man’s stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, “Good­ness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don’t know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.


Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, “My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful.” He said, “Okay,” and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don’t practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn’t allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it’s like sitting on thorns. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower.


Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That’s not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call “energy number two.” The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of … , you don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don’t stop, if you don’t become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 


This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

PDF of this article

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