Poem: petals of insight

in the morning, i breathe the cool air,
moist with dew
all around the earth is waking up,
soaking in the fresh warm light.
i too, turn to face the sun, sweet joy.

in the afternoon, i take gentle steps
on this precious soil of my mind.
i lay my body down,
in the shade of a healthy pine tree.
my arms crossed over my chest,
embracing myself

tenderly i hold the pain
of many lifetimes.
my precious companion,
teaching me the way of
acceptance, compassion.

written in my breath is a loving word,
a peaceful  smile.
i rise, following the rhythms of the sun.
i recall my teacher’s words,
“My child, we walk among stars. Can you see this is true?”
each flower, a cosmos
of sun and Earth,
ancestors and loving kindness.

in this moment, it is not an external notion,
i see i am the sunshine.
my suffering is not mine,
is not encased in this body alone,
is not caught in you and me,
is not separate from the sunshine.

to embrace is to include, to surround, to surrender.
i asked my teacher, please show me
how to transform my suffering,
how to bring peace to my heart and my mind.
my teacher said,
my child,
embrace yourself, include yourself.
do not cut yourself with fear and jealousy.
do not be ashamed of your pain .
it is precious,
it is the fertile soil of enlightenment.

that beautiful rose that touches your heart,
look closely,
you will see some petals are withering,
some are just beginning to bloom.
the beauty is not found in its perfection,
but in its wholehearted offering.
fragrant and fresh,
withering and worn.

breathing in and breathing out.
one action
lights up the mind of understanding and love.

21 may 2002

by Sister Steadiness


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Dharma Talk: Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine

By Thich Nhat Hanh on Poetry and Interbeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

within closed food packages,
poetry nurtures love.

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

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

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

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong.

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Healing The Inner Child

Ian  Prattis

We prefer not to remember the sufferings of child hood, so we bury them and hide from looking deeply into their causes.

Yet we have to find a way to reach the hurt child and make her safe. Although we may now be adults, there is also a little boy in us, a little girl in us, who is so afraid and suffers deeply, no matter what kind of pretend happy face we present to life. This suffering child within our adult frame colors everything we do, generates our fears, insecurities and self- loathing, wounding us in our relationships and life. We must have the courage and awareness to bring healing to our hurt inner child and thereby produce a transformation for ourselves. And in this process we somehow connect to all wounded children – those in our blood line, our ancestors and descendants, and also with all wounded children throughout the world. For once we cultivate the seeds of mindful healing in ourselves, the energy of these seeds continues on into all that we connect with. It is a quantum leap from our cellular memories to everyone else’s throughout time and space.

Thich Nhat Hanh addressed the issue of child abuse in a question and answer session held in the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village, France on October 17, 1998. Very gently he spoke about the ignorance and pain of the abuser as well as that of the abused, and stated clearly that understanding was the basis of recovery. Not blaming or feeling guilt and shame, but seeing deeply and understanding that the person abusing must have lived under painful and deprived conditions. The power of ignorance was stronger than the person’s happiness and stability, and thus they were driven to do wrong things. If the abused person can begin to understand this, then their anger, shame and outrage can transform into compassion. Through mindfulness practice we can begin to understand and forgive. Our suffering decreases and can be transformed into compassion. Through this healing we can become Bodhisattvas, helping all children who need protection and helping to eradicate the ignorance which generates abuse. The energy of compassion for children will transform the pain and sorrow that came from our experience of being abused.

The Diary

One technique that helps to heal the inner wounded child is to start a diary for you and the inner child to write to one another. I recommend that it be practiced under the guidance of a therapist, shaman or spiritual teacher. The adult you will write using the hand that you normally write with. You begin by saying “hello” to Little John, to Little Allison. Tell your child you are sorry for having been neglectful; that you are grown up now and that you will provide a safe and loving environment.

Then with your non-dominant hand, the one you do not normally write with, allow the inner child to express herself. Do not edit. Just write down whatever comes out. It may be angry, blaming and abusive words and it is your job not to be shocked or defensive but to provide constant re-assurance, love and guidance. These are the seeds of mindfulness you consciously bring to support the wounded child inside you. The energy of these seeds works on the energy of the traumatized inner child to reduce his pain and suffering. Talk to him through your writing with love and mindfulness.

Details of trauma may be revealed that you were not conscious of, which is why you need the guidance of a trusted teacher or therapist to support you being a wise and loving parent to your wounded child. With time you will notice shifts and changes in patterns of expression as the child becomes trusting and starts to grow, eventually merging fully with you as an adult. In your letters tell your inner child about yourself and your life, take her on picnics, treats and give to that child all the care, attention and love you feel you did not receive when you were a little boy, a little girl. The suffering will diminish and you will experience a transformation. You may discover that your relationships with co-workers, friends and family start to change, and your fears and anxieties do not have the same force in your life and your relationships. When you notice things like this, tell your inner child “Thank you for being with me. That makes me so happy.” The experience of being with the inner child in the healing journey is a stimulus for this kind of happiness.

There are times you may cry, feel deep joy or despair, which is why you need that wise friend to keep you steady and mindful. I know, for I went through it. I am happy to say that it worked for me, as I experienced the painfully slow establishment of trust, then the exhilarating joy of safety and integration, until finally my inner child was the adult me, integrated with a freshness and vitality that I continually treasure.

Adapted from “Healing Journeys,” a chapter in Ian’s forthcoming book, Living Breath: Stories, Essays and Meditations.

Ian Prattis, dharma name, recently received the Dharma Lamp in Plum Village. Ian founded the Pine Gate meditation community in Ottawa. He gives dharma talks coast to coast in Canada and conducts retreats in Europe, India, North and South America.

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A Life of Faith

An Interview with Sister Giac Nghiem, A Nun in Plum Village

By  Sister  Steadiness

You have said that you have two roots, Buddhism and Christianity. How do you integrate these in your life of practice as a Buddhist nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I met the Buddha twenty-seven years ago. I was in Laos with my former husband. Early in the morning we woke up and my husband said, “My dear, do you want to see something beautiful, the sunrise over the Mekong River?” We went together and I was so happy. At the moment we arrived at the banks of the river the sun was just beginning to rise. Standing by the river we saw many Buddhist monks begging. They were walking very slowly in silence, very mindfully. They were walking on our right and on our left there were four ladies sitting on the ground with food in front of them. The monks came and opened their bowls and the ladies filled up their bowls. It is difficult to express how I felt at that moment.


I felt that I was the lady who was filling up their bowls. I was a monk bowing in front of the women. I was the sun. I was the river.  I was a buffalo drinking the water.  I was a young child taking care of the buffalo. It was like meeting someone after a long time and suddenly he is here. It was something very deep; I cannot describe it. I met Thay a long time afterwards. Between meeting the Buddha in Laos and meeting Thay I practiced yoga.

I met Thay in 1987. Sister Chan Khong had long beautiful hair and Thay was young. When I met Thay I met the Buddha again and I also met St. Francis of Assisi because they are the same. The first time I met Thay was at a two-day retreat in Lyon where he taught in French. He spoke about the piece of paper and seeing the whole world in it. I felt the teaching was familiar and I thought, this is my master. When I returned home my family asked me what happened during the retreat. I smiled and I said, I found St. Francis of Assisi again and I am free from the fear of abandonment now.

My Christian roots are very old.  They are older than me because they flow in the blood of my family, very deeply. When I was a child knitting a small blanket for my doll and I didn’t want to go to bed before finishing it, my mother would come and say, “My dear child, you can go to bed and perhaps Mother Mary or an angel will come and finish your work.” Sometimes in the morning I would see that the row I was knitting had been finished for me. And I knew for sure that it was Mother Mary or an angel who had done that. Perhaps it seems like nonsense but this kind of faith is in me very deeply. I really have faith about the capacity of the spiritual ancestors to take care of us. Even if something happens that is very difficult they are always here.

I am a Buddhist nun and I am deeply Christian too. I found the key to Christianity in Buddhism. For example, Jesus said, “Forgive the people who make you unhappy.” I try my best all the time to do as Jesus tells us, to be generous and so on.  But I did not know how to put Jesus’ teaching into my daily life. Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gave me the key. The key is mindfulness, concentration, insight and understanding. When we have understanding we are free from our hatred, our guilt, and our worries. I am not free yet but I try. This key helps me.

One time Jesus came to a synagogue and there was a crowd who intended to stone a woman who had committed adultery. Before I encountered Thay’s teachings I thought Jesus said to the crowd, “If you look at yourself, you cannot throw stones at the woman because you have also made mistakes.” Now I see this story so differently. I can really see Jesus waiting for the man to come to ask his advice. He already knew what would happen. The young man told Jesus that they wanted to kill the woman and asked him what was the right thing to do. Jesus said, “The one who has never sinned can throw the first stone.” He said this lovingly. He did not speak out of anger; he did not want to teach them a lesson as we have the habit to do. He just loved them; he understood them and he wanted to put a clear mirror in front of them, a clear mirror full of love. This way of seeing more deeply comes from my encounter with Buddhist teachings. What I have learned here in Plum Village has enabled me to be closer to my Christian spiritual ancestors.

How was the transition from your family life to the monastic life?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha offered me the opportunity to become a nun even though I had a lot of difficulties. Before ordaining as a novice I lived at Plum Village for a year and a half as a lay person. Then I became an aspirant and began to enter the monastic life of the community. During my stay before ordination the Sangha allowed me to go back to my hone in St. Etienne and Lyon to see my family, my Sangha, and our center for homeless people four or five times a year. I would stay with my family for three or four weeks before returning to the monastery. It helped me to be gradually less attached to the projects in my home Sangha. But it was very difficult. At the beginning our Sangha and our association for social work had the feeling that I was abandoning them. But I realized that though my family and friends are not physically here, they are here in my body. I really found them in me. Their feelings and their lives are in me. I take care of them through my own life and my own body. That is why it became easy for me to make the transition from family life to monastic life. But it was more difficult for them to experience me within them. For my beloved ones it is very big sacrifice but because of their love they have accepted to offer me to my way.

The monastic life is wonderful. I chose it because Jesus and Mother Mary and angels are very close to me. When I was a child I went into a church in Casablanca where the sisters of St. Francis are. They sang so beautifully and I thought, I want to become a nun and sing as they do. Often when I felt an aspiration to become a nun during my life I said to my children, “My love, if in the future I lose your dear father, my beloved one, and you grow into adults I will become a nun.” But when I felt a calling, in my mind I said to Jesus, “Oh, my love, you know I am so busy. I have a wonderful husband. I have wonderful children; I am so happy with them. Perhaps if you call me later I will be free to come to you.” And I would say, “Oh, my love, do you know I have such wonderful work. There are so many people who need me. We have an association; we have a Sangha; we take care of homeless people. I do not have time to become a nun.” I felt I really could not become a nun because I love so much my wonderful family. I thought about becoming a grandma, making jam for my grandchildren and taking care of the babies coming from our daughter or our son. But Jesus is very persistent. He would knock at the door and in my heart I would hear him say, “My child, now are you free to become a nun.” And I kept saying, “No, I have a loving family, the association, my friends and so on.” But he kept knocking at the door and finally I said, “Yes, I am so happy to come.” And then I said, “Oh, what am I saying? That is not a possibility.” I was really in touch with this kind of conversation inside of me. At that moment I felt so deeply fulfilled by love that all my resistances fell down.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty that I have to overcome is my feeling of inferiority. I feel the teacher, the place and the Sangha are so wonderful.  But many times I have the feeling that I do something wrong, that is not beneficial for the Sangha. Often I feel difficulty because of my perception about what I did or what I thought. But because the Sangha has a big heart and accepts me even if I have this kind of difficulty, I have the opportunity to transform myself and to find clarity on my path. I can walk on the beautiful path taking the hand of Jesus on one side and taking the hand of the Buddha on the other side. Now I have lived in Plum Village for four and a half years. I became a nun on the 4th of December, 2000. I feel at home. I feel loved and happy. I love the Sangha a lot.

How do you stay in touch with your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning my suffering and that of my family was very strong, but now it is lighter and lighter. Some members of my family could accept my path and others could not. The best way for me to be in touch with my family is to telephone them once a week. When I hear their voices I can tell how they are and they know how I am. Recently, our mother, our daughter and her family and our son all came to Plum Village to visit me. Now they know that this is my home, it is our home. I hope they will take root in this home and come more often.

Did you ever think of leaving the monastic life and returning to your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning I felt the desire to return and help my family, my Sangha and our association, and to be in touch with them with my body and not only with my heart. But because I can really find my family in me, this kind of desire has become smaller and smaller. Sometimes I dream that I am at my family’s home and am living with my family. It is okay for me to go in my dream to my family. But I did not come here to hide myself or to protect myself from suffering or from my life before. I have the aim to really become someone who is awakened, to help more people.

We have many people coming to Plum Village who are full of anger and despair, burned by the fires of craving and suffering. One day Thay said we are like nurses or doctors who take care of the people who come from outside to help them relieve their suffering and become healthier. We give them the key to transform their suffering into something wonderful and to find more ease in their family life.

Society for me is sinking like a big boat. I know that if I were in society I would not have the energy to transform myself enough to become someone who can help. It is because I have this ambition to help the most people that I can that I go on this path. I start with my family, but I want to help many more people. I know if I return to my family I would not be able to transform because so many  people already need me outside and I would not have enough strength to do it. My life in our temple, close to our master, to Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gives me enough strength to  transform  myself,  to transform my difficulties. The loving-kindness of the sisters and the brothers is so wonderful. Often I make a mistake and I make someone unhappy. But they always find a way to accept and to help me to accept and to transform, and in that way we live together beautifully. I know that I have often made mistakes. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize in front of everyone. If I have made a mistake and hurt you, please forgive me.


Tell us about your experience with the practice of Touching the Earth.

Sr. Giac Nghiem: In November 1996 Sister Chan Khong offered me the practice of the three Touchings of the Earth. Soon after that my husband left me. Sister Chan Khong asked me to use this practice as medicine for twenty-one days. One sentence in this practice touched me so much, “I accept you as you are with your strengths and weaknesses as I accept myself as I am with my strengths and weaknesses.” This helped me a lot when my husband left.

I first practiced the five Touchings of the Earth in June 1997 when I came to Plum Village for ten days. I came to learn how to be compassionate towards my former husband. Since then, Touching the Earth has been one of my basic practices. I used the five Touchings of the Earth almost every day for two years. We say that reciting the Diamond Sutra cuts through afflictions. For me practicing Touching the Earth cuts through my afflictions and helps me to transform. It is my second diamond. I practice Touching the Earth to nourish myself. At the beginning sometimes I practiced it for one or two hours.

Before I practice Touching the Earth I look deeply into my spiritual ancestors and into my society. I know I am made of all the input I receive from my ancestors and my society. The collective and the individual are together in me. I want to transform many things in me for the benefit of my descendants,  my  children,  my grandchild, and my parents. I don’t want to transmit the difficulties I have had.   When I found the blocks of suffering in me I took care of them even if I had to cry a lot.  I always had a handkerchief close to me to absorb my tears.  I would only stand up after I could see something beautiful coming from the earth.

At the beginning I did not want to lie down on the earth because the child in me was afraid of getting dirty. When I was a child I often had a pretty dress on and I heard, “No, don’t get mud on your dress; don’t get dirty.” But Sister Chan Khong told me that if I can open every cell in my body, the earth will be very happy and will eat and drink from me and will transform my suffering. The young child in me is very fond of sweet foods. So only when I could see beautiful, sweet foods like strawberries, little mushrooms, and blueberries coming from the earth could I stand up and smile.

One time I found a way to touch the earth with more ease. I was in the Buddha hall and I allowed my imagination to touch the earth with me. I imagined that I was lying on a beach. I was feeling dirty and the waves came and washed me of everything I didn’t like in myself from my family and my society and from myself. The waves washed away all the dust and it was transformed into beautiful fish and coral, into beautiful colored sand and the blue of the waves. I felt so happy because the sea is really my ground, more than the soil.

At the beginning when I practiced for twenty-one days I had so many things to put into the earth, but day by day it was transformed. At the end of the twenty-one days I was very surprised because for the fifth touching of the earth, when I send my love to the one who has destroyed my life, I no longer had an image of anyone. At first when I practiced this I had the image of different people in front of me, but then finally there was no one left. That was a big transformation. Now when I touch the earth I don’t have many negative things to put on the earth; sometimes I have nothing to put on the earth because my difficulties have been so transformed.  I can see the beauty of my family and my society. It is like the practice of total relaxation. At first we need to take a long time to feel the relaxation, but after we have practiced for a long time, we just lie down and breathe a little bit and we experience the relaxation.

One time my father told me that my brother was suffering. I said, I will take care of him even if I am in the monastery. My father has faith in this practice because I have shared it with him. I went in front of the Buddha and Jesus together, because they are my two spiritual roots. I said, I want to touch the earth in the name of my brother because he is in every cell of my body. We have the same blood ancestors, the same education and civilization. I am him and he is me. It was absolutely successful. After practicing for twenty-one days in the name of my brother, my brother’s situation improved a lot. He became lighter. I put his suffering on the earth for him because he did not know how to do that for himself. I have done that for other members of my family as well. It is very important to understand that I’m not trying to transform them, just to alleviate their suffering. This practice is the key for me to make life lighter so that is why I do it and offer it in the name of others.


How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I was born in Morocco and I spent my childhood there. I lived with my family in Djema el Fina, the Medina, close to the marketplace in Marrakech. In the Medina there were a lot of handicapped people, without their legs or blind or diseased. One day when I was around four-years-old I went out and just outside our door I saw a very poor handicapped child. I asked my mom, “Why is this child like that?” She said, “My love, you were born on the other side of this door but if you had been born out here you might be like that too.” During my whole life I have had the desire to help because I know that that child could have been me.  All my life I have carried this thought. Helping people however I can is my way. Nearly ten years ago I had a dream, where I saw a beautiful young woman who was full of light. I remember with her left hand she showed me a young child, a very tiny, skinny child. I saw this child and my heart was filled with suffering. Then she showed me a candle and said, “One candle, ten days of life for a hungry child.” A few days before I had met a lady who decorated candles with the dried petals of flowers. They were very lovely and they seemed easy to make. When I woke up I was full of desire to help put an end to suffering in Vietnam and everywhere. That aspiration was already in me, but now I had a plan. I realized my dream could help me relieve suffering through my work. At that time I was a physical therapist working in the hospital and clinic with terminally ill patients.

I began making the candles as my  friend showed me. One day our son came into our kitchen and he saw me making the candles. He said, “What are you doing, my love?” He was very gentle. I said, “My love, for Mother’s Day I want to sell one thousand candles.” He said, “You are doing it alone?” I said, “Yes, but it is February and I have a lot of time to do it.” But I didn’t really because I had a lot of other work to do also. He laughed because he has faith in what I do even if it seems impossible. I tried to do a little bit every day. After one month four people came to our house and when they saw what I was doing they were so happy and they wanted to help me. For Mother’s Day we had one thousand candles and I was so happy. A lot of people came to help, but I didn’t think about anything but that the children need our help. That was ten years ago. I think the presence of Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha was a catalyst for my dream.

We gave Sister Chan Khong the money we raised to help the children in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong is a big master for me. After that she gave us information about needy children so that we could find sponsors for them. I also received inspiration and support from Sister Minh Tanh, the abbess of a big temple in Vietnam who takes care of many children there. Our Sangha in St. Etienne created an association called it “Le Coeur a Vivre,” or “The Heart to Live.” Two or three years later we began to help the homeless people and others in difficulty in our country, who were close to our homes. Our bodhicitta grew because we watered the seed of loving kindness in us. Mother Theresa was also always dear to me and an inspiration for our work.

How are you nourished by the social work now as a nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Because of the desire I have to help I suffer a lot here. Why? Because I feel the world is so full of suffering. Everywhere someone is suffering. Not to help our children, parents, family and friends and to let go of my work at the hospital where all of my friends are dying slowly or not doing anything for the homeless people because I am here: all of this filled me with suffering. It was very difficult for me. One time I said to Thay, “My dear teacher you can imagine my suffering because you stay in France and you cannot return to your home monastery in Vietnam to give your support.” I know my dear Sister Chan Khong can understand me too, because she also knows the suffering of not being able to help at certain times. I did not know if I could stay in the monastery because my suffering of letting go of my children, my mother, my father, and my mother-in-law was so deep. I felt I have so many people to take care of and I suffered so much. But I became a nun to help, to become someone very solid who can really help everywhere, not to escape from my own suffering or the suffering of society and of the world.

Sister Chan Khong gave me children from Vietnam to take care of. She was watering my bodhicitta to help others. She let me know that when we spend a lot of energy to take care of children in Vietnam, we can release a part of our suffering in the world. That is why I accepted with great gratitude to take care of the hungry children projects for France, Belgium and a part of Switzerland. I enjoy very much taking care of these children, seeing their little faces with different expressions. I read the letters about the children. In December of 1999 there was a big flood in Vietnam and the city of Hue was under water. Sister Chan Khong came and gave me a lot of children to take care of who were crying and asking for help. Now we have many sponsors and we wait for more because we have so many children who need help. They are so in need. We really need help. For instance, a flood during August and September devastated so many homes.

Sometimes I stay up late working. But I feel close to the children. I take one child’s photo and I say to him or her, “You know, we have a sponsor for you now. My love, do you know you can sleep and dream very well now. Do you see me in your dream?” I smile to him and I enjoy sharing good news like that. Every time I find one sponsor I am happy for many days. I think about the family who has so much difficulty and the child who needs to go to school, to have something to eat and to learn. I think that one day that little child will become a strong, beautiful man or woman and he or she will already know the key of how to help other people.

Sister Giac Nghiem, Adornment with Awakening, ordained as a nun in 1999.  She is French and often goes out to lead Days of Mindfulness and retreats in France.


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My Mind is a Stage

Introducing Mindfulness to High School Students and Teachers

Richard  Brady

I grew up on Chicago’s Northshore, the area which, I later learned, had the highest teenage suicide rate in the country at the time. My own high school years were uneventful, but my younger brother’s were very troubled. I suspect that this was a major reason why I chose to devote my life to working with teenagers. After teaching high school mathematics for thirty years, I realized that there was something more I needed to do with my life. I took a year off to discover what that might be. Only a few weeks after receiving a leave of absence I found out what it was. My friend Sue Anne called to tell me about the tensions the students and teachers were experiencing in the schools in her area. “Someone should teach them meditation,” I heard myself reply. It immediately dawned on me, I was that someone.


The following is an account of this teaching and some of its outcomes.

Whether or not you are a teacher, if you would like to share mindfulness practice with others, you may be able to use some of my ideas. Perhaps you can share them with teachers you know.

During the last three years I have been given a number of opportunities to introduce mindfulness practice to students and teachers in my Quaker high school as well as to student and faculty groups in other private and public high schools. I usually advertise my presentations under the banner of stress reduction, since this is a fairly widespread issue for both high school students and faculty. Underlying these presentations are the following premises: high school students and their teachers are seldom aware of how their minds work. When given the opportunity to examine their minds, they enjoy doing so. The experience will in many cases reveal sources of stress which meditation can alleviate.

An Experiment in Awareness

I have presented a forty-five minute assembly to my entire high school and a workshop of similar length to high school faculty members in two other schools. In each case I have begun by suggesting that our minds play a significant role in our wellbeing. I then lead an exercise to give people an understanding of how this may be. “When I talk about mind,” I say, “I am talking about awareness.” It helps people to think of their awareness as a stage. On that stage a variety of things make an appearance: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, physical sensations. I tell the group that we will conduct a short experiment and watch what is playing on our personal stages. After the group gets comfortable, I ask them to close their eyes and tune in to whatever may be on their stage of awareness. I ask them simply to try to watch whatever thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations arise during the next few minutes, observing them, but not getting carried away by them.

After five minutes I invite a bell and ask people to slowly open their eyes. Then I ask for a show of hands to a series of questions. How many of you were aware of physical sensations: sounds, smells, tastes, your contact with your seat, your heartbeat, your breathing, your feet, your mouth, you hair? How many of you were aware of emotions or thoughts? More than one thought? More than five? More than ten? How many of you saw a thought arise, a thought end? These are very intriguing questions for many of the participants. Returning to feelings, I ask how many people experienced negative feelings, neutral feelings, positive feelings, then negative thoughts, neutral ones, positive ones. Focusing on the negative feelings and thoughts, I ask how many had to do with things that have already happened, things we are upset or guilty about. Usually quite a few relate to this. I then ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the future, things we are anxious about. This also gets a good response. Finally, I ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the present. As a teacher, I want to be open to the discomfort some may be having with this experience.

What our minds do during this particular five minute interval of our waking life is repeated about 70,000 times each year. If we multiply the number of negative thoughts and feelings we observed by 70,000, we might understand why the mind plays such a significant role in creating stress. However, if we are able to become more aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that enter our minds and develop ways to replace them with positive ones, we will be able to live happier, less stressful lives.

I explain that meditation is one way to help our minds turn more readily to healthy thoughts.

Math  Meditation

At this point in the presentation, in order to make a connection between meditation and the high school experience, I speak about how I came to do meditation. I tell the audience the following story. When I started reading The Miracle of Mindfulness fifteen years ago, I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings so compelling that I began starting each math class with a short reading from the book. The students greatly appreciated these readings, so I went on to read them The Sun My Heart. It all sounded great. However, the way of living portrayed by Thay in these books felt so different from my own that it seemed to me that I could not begin living this way just through reading.

At the end of the school year when the seniors returned from three weeks off campus working on senior projects, one of them offered a presentation on his three-week project at the Zen Center of Washington, DC. Here, I thought, is someone who is actually doing meditation. Perhaps I can learn something about how it works from him. The student, named Chris, began his presentation by telling us that a classmate and he had been reading Eastern religion and philosophy books since seventh grade. Recently Chris had discovered the local Zen center, and “decided to put my body where my mind was.” I felt Chris talking directly to me.

Chris spoke of his experience with tremendous enthusiasm. He showed pictures and recounted some dramatic experiences during a three day intensive meditation retreat he attended as part of his project. At the conclusion of his talk, another student, noting Chris’ enthusiasm, asked him whether, besides doing a lot of sitting on cushions now, his life was different in other ways. Chris first responded by saying that meditation had affected him in many ways. However, most were so subtle he couldn’t put them into words. After a pause, he went on, “I can tell you that I am less angry.” Chris’ presentation, especially this last statement, was very moving to me. As I thanked him, I made a promise to him and to myself that I would try to meditate. Thus Chris became my first meditation teacher.

During the following six years I met Thay, helped establish the Washington Mindfulness Community and attended two Plum Village retreats. On returning from the second, I was invited to give an assembly about my experiences there. This assembly featured a slide show and stories about Plum Village life. I concluded my presentation with a brief meditation focused on the breath.

I conclude the personal part of my presentation by reading from an article which Audrey, a senior, and I wrote for The Mindfulness Bell. In the article we described how a few days after the Plum Village assembly, as our high school sat in its weekly Quaker meeting for worship, Audrey spontaneously rose and spoke

out of the silence. She told the students how closing her eyes and focusing on her breath had dispelled her feelings of stress late the previous night. She concluded, “The action is so little, but the reward is tremendous.”

This last story provides a good opportunity for me to invite the participants to move, as I did, from learning about meditation to practicing it. I then lead the group in a ten minute guided meditation, meditation, using Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha:

Present Moment/Wonderful Moment

I prepare the group for the meditation by having them sit erect, shoulders relaxed, both feet on the floor. Then I ask them to focus on their breath and to coordinate their in and out breaths with the phrases of the meditation verse. I use a bell to begin and end the meditation and to signal each transition. At the conclusion of the meditation, I ask the participants to turn to a neighbor and share their experience.

I have found this short introduction to be effective in emphasizing the importance of awareness of the mind and using this awareness to tune the mind to healthy channels. I’ve encountered a variety of reactions. In one faculty workshop, a teacher told me he could not even begin to focus on his breath and the words I gave him because he was so riled up about an interaction he had just had with a student. This verse is one of many possible meditations, I replied. The breath can also assist us in being with strong emotions, helping us hold them in our awareness without getting lost in them. However, our meditation practice needs to be strong in order to do this. If we are able to embrace our emotions with our breath, we may learn some valuable things about ourselves and relate to our emotions in a less stressful way in the process.

Basketball  Meditation

The members of the Physical Education Department at my school were not able to come to my meditation assembly, so they invited me to do a special workshop for them. I started in a similar fashion, inviting them to observe their minds. Then, since the group was interested in developing concentration and it was lunch time, I invited them to do eating meditation with raisins. Later, the boys’ varsity basketball coach asked if there might be something I could do with his team members to help them improve their foul shooting. A week later I was with the team as they stood in a row facing a basket, each with a basketball in his hands. I asked the players to assume a comfortable position with eyes closed. When I blew the coach’s whistle, they began watching whatever was passing through their awareness and continued doing this until I blew the whistle a second time, five minutes later. Although they never repeated this meditation during subsequent practices, the coach told me the team’s foul shooting did improve.

Encountering  Suffering

Several years ago an invitation to share mindfulness practice with her twelfth grade class came to me from a religion teacher at another Quaker school. The class had been studying the events leading up to the Holocaust and would soon be reading disturbing, graphic accounts of the Holocaust. To help prepare the students to be open to the suffering they would be encountering, I told them that mindfulness practice could provide them a way to be with suffering without being overwhelmed by it. I described the process of holding emotions in one’s awareness like a mother cradling a crying infant, holding the emotions with great tenderness.  Class members then chose personal experiences of suffering, perhaps an argument with a friend, or receiving a low test grade,. After establishing themselves firmly in their awareness of their breath, they got in touch with their suffering and held it gently for five minutes. Afterwards, some students chose to share their experiences with the class.

I took a different approach in working with two other classes. The eleventh/twelfth grade Peace Studies class students had gotten advance word that I would be coming to teach meditation. I was a surprise guest in ninth grade English class. I began both classes by telling the students that I taught high school math and also taught meditation to students and teachers. I wondered what reasons their teacher might have had for inviting me to teach meditation to their class. In both classes a number of hands immediately shot up. I took notes on all the students had to say. When they finished, I used the students’ comments to shape my remarks and, to some extent, my choice of meditations. One student in the English class suggested that I had been invited by his teacher because the class tended to be restless. This gave me a great opportunity to invite the class to do a short meditation on restlessness.


Following my meditation assembly I offered a twelve week introductory mindfulness course, which a ninth grader from my school and two faculty members took. Like Chris fourteen years before, this ninth grader is a young man who needs to deal with his anger. Mindfulness practice has provided him a much-needed tool for doing so. My two teacher friends reported that meditation, when they take the time to do it, gives them relief from stress they experience at work and at home. A few other students, who have not pursued meditation in a formal way, have mentioned using it to reduce their anxiety before tests. All of the students and teachers have experienced meditation as an inner resource which they might recall and draw upon at some future time when their lives signal to them a need for change.

Over the last few years my own understanding and practice of mindfulness has been affected by my teaching experiences. I began using the stage metaphor for consciousness as a way of helping my students be more able to step back and observe their minds. The more often I use this image, the more real it becomes for me. These days I find it easier to get some distance from the goings-on on my own stage.

My teaching has also developed. I first approached my students with the notion that negative thoughts and feelings not only lead to stress but are intrinsically bad. Watching their negativity was part of a sales pitch I was making for the guided meditation to follow, a means of changing the mind’s channel. Now I find sitting back and just watching whatever is on stage tremendously important in and of itself. I continue to call it an experiment in my presentations, though I see it as a valuable skill to develop and employ. To the extent that I am able to watch without engaging, I have less need to tune in to a different show. I can see both negative and positive scenes on my stage as transitory products of my mind, whose primary significance lies in what I make of them. I no longer present the guided meditation as a means of escaping negative mind states. Rather, it is a form of enrichment, a pick-me-up, which my students and I might use at any time.

My foremost goal in teaching meditation and mathematics is the same, to offer my students opportunities to be mindful – mindful of their minds, of their breath, of mathematics and math problems, of other students. If I am successful, students will find their own personal meaning and values in their experiences. The effects will mostly be subtle and evident only over time, just as they have been for me.


Dear fellow teachers and educators you may be interested in joining the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN) listserv by sending a message to MiEN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness in Education Network. He teaches high school math in Wash, D.C.

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Elementary School Bodhisattvas

Clay  McLeod

There is a movement in education today called “global education.” It originated in the peace education movement, but it has now grown to encompass teaching students about social justice, human rights, equality, and ecological sustainability, as well as peace and harmony between people. The idea of global interdependence is fundamental to the approach that global education takes in the classroom, and this idea mirrors the Buddhist teaching of interbeing. The similarities don’t stop there though. As an elementary school teacher who uses a global education approach, I have found that the similarities between global education and engaged Buddhism are striking, and I have adopted the practice of global education as part of my mindfulness practice.

Global education is an approach to teaching that stresses the interconnection of all things on this planet. According to the theory behind global education, we are all related to one another in a network of links, interactions, and connections that encircle the planet like a web. Global education stresses the importance of looking at the world and the relationships of people and things in the world as integrated systems that are dynamic and inseparable. It exposes the relationship between and unity of familiar dualisms like “local” vs. “global” and “past” vs. “future.” According to the theory of global education offered by Graham Pike and David Selby, building on the ideas of physicist David Bohm, everything causes everything else, and what happens anywhere affects what happens everywhere. The reality of global education exists on two levels, described by Bohm as the explicate and implicate orders. At the explicate level, objects seem to be separate from one another and discrete, but at the implicate level, looking deeply into the relationships between things, we see that the whole of reality is “enfolded” into every part of reality.

This precisely mirrors the Buddha’s teaching of interdependent co-arising and interbeing. This is, because that is; that is, because this is. All dharmas are conditioned and are really the continuation of other dharmas. This is the reality of impermanence and non-self. In Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness, Thay also discusses David Bohm’s explicate and implicate orders, and he compares these “orders” to the Buddhist teaching about the historical dimension or relative reality (samsara) and the ultimate dimension or absolute reality (nirvana). Global education touches this insight and attempts to open students’ eyes to it.


Global education also touches the insight of the four noble truths.  Through the lens of global education, students are encouraged to look at the world clearly and see the reality of suffering, like the unequal distribution of wealth, the existence of sweat shops where workers are abused and exploited, the devastation of war, and the consequences of racism, sexism, and discrimination. More importantly, it is an approach that encourages students to do something about the suffering that they see in the world. Global education tries to encourage social responsibility by teaching students how to shape the future through their actions in the present moment.

This penetrates the third noble truth; there can be a cessation of creating suffering. The idea of effective action that reduces injustice, oppression, and suffering is central to global education. Students are encouraged to realize that their choices have consequences and that they can change the world with their actions. This parallels the practice of engaged Buddhism. When a bodhisattva sees suffering, she is moved by compassion to act in order to reduce that suffering. This is the aspiration of global education; to create a culture of bodhisattvas who see the relationship between their well-being as individuals and their character and actions as these things relate to the well-being of the planet. Through the development of students’ character, knowledge, skills, and abilities, it aspires to transform the things in the world that lead to suffering.

In my classroom, I have a poster that represents the four immeasurable minds. It’s title is “Friendship Tips,” and it says “Be friendly and kind to everyone that you meet (loving kindness); be happy and joyful (sympathetic joy); be caring, and think about other people’s feelings (compassion); try to stay calm, even when things aren’t going your way (equanimity).” These are the values that I try to personify and teach in my classroom. When I was learning to be a teacher, one of my practicum teachers told me that the students probably wouldn’t remember much of what I actually taught them, but that they would remember how I treated them. In my interactions with my students, I try to offer them a kind and loving example of how to treat others. Global education is an approach that allows me to try to explicitly teach them the knowledge and skills that they need to live these values. Through global education, I try to make what I teach them match the example that I attempt to provide through my actions.

Every year, I begin the year by teaching my students how to be good friends and how to respond to bullies. My hope is to create a safe and supportive classroom environment where students can grow in confidence and feel that they belong. One of my central classroom expectations is that students solve their problems peacefully. Through brainstorming, role playing, reading, writing, and drawing, we explore ways to be kind and friendly and ways to respond to violence with communication rather than an escalating cycle of violence. The students practice their basic reading and writing skills, developing literacy and the ability to communicate effectively, while also developing their ability to get along with others, perform as cooperative members of a group and a community, and solve problems in peaceful, constructive ways.

Throughout the year, we study various topics and themes that address the goals and aspirations of global education. While we address the learning outcomes required by the curriculum, we create a classroom community of caring and support, and we learn about peace building, deep listening, loving speech, equality between people, the relationship of people and animals to their environments, the interactions and interdependence of elements in the ecosystem, and ways to stay calm and resolve the conflicts that we have with each other through discussion rather than violence. Through global education, I try to cultivate and nourish the seeds of love, compassion, joy, understanding, and peace in my students and myself. To me, the practice of global education is an essential part of my mindfulness practice.

Clay McLeod practices with a Sangha in Chilliwack, B.C., Canada, where he teaches grades three and four. He and his wife Meaghan look forward to watering seeds of joy and happiness in their own family “classroom” when their first child arrives in July.

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Opening the Voice with the Practice of Chanting

Brother  Goodness

When I was in grade school and high school I attended chorus classes, but I never paid much attention. It was a wonderful time to goof around, and for my classmates and I it often turned towards playful endeavor that tested our teachers’ sanity. I was not aware of the opportunity I had in that moment. But as much as I tried to avoid and resist it, then and at other times, learning to open my voice in speech, song, and chant has become a great part of my life.

Many seasons flourished and faded away while I lived under the great fear of simply opening my voice and singing. I sensed that when we do this we reveal ourselves; our voice transmits to those around us a direct experience of what is going on inside. What is in us vibrates in the listener, and it can be frightening when we are revealed like that to others, and even to ourselves.

This is a fear of being in touch with the reality of ourselves. And this fear is based on the belief that we are individuals, separate from others. We cannot avoid the perils of such misperceptions. Now we are learning that these beliefs and fears are at the root of much suffering and that they can be addressed directly by our practice of meditation. I have experienced that the practice of cultivating mindfulness of the voice can help us grow through this fear to a deeper understanding from which no bitterness and suffering arises.

I cherish a comical and yet inspiring memory of my father as he listened to German and Italian operas while cooking dinner. He would mimic these vigorous and committed voices as they coursed passionately through passages of misfortune and glory. He was being funny, but he was also singing his heart out, and as a child I could sense the intensity and power in his voice. My father is not an opera singer, but when he loved what he was doing and he was happy, he could put aside his inhibitions and his voice soared out in full vibrato. He didn’t know it, but it marked me, and it challenged me.

As a teen-ager, faced with self-centered awareness amidst my peers, this challenge grew into fear. There were many liberating moments when I was alone, at home or in the car, and turning the volume of the stereo up very loud, I sang along with my favorite bands, fully committed to letting my voice shine out. I thought nobody could hear me, but I was wrong. I could hear myself. Through this listening relationship to my own voice, I secretly began to teach myself to sing.

Many of us hold onto these self-centered fears for our whole life. We are afraid to open our voice; we simply do not know how to do it. We always feel uncomfortable and stifled when we are with others who are singing and especially if we ourselves are asked to sing. I was lucky. I found a safe way that slowly, bit by bit, stabilized my faith in my voice. Until one day I was strong enough to really sing out and enjoy. In that moment I made a leap, uncertain where I would land, but hopeful nevertheless. My voice wasn’t very beautiful but I had to make that first jump. Then I had to do it again and again. I had to thrust myself onto the path. And thus a great fear that had once chosen dark corners for me to hide in now opened many doors. It offered me a chance to be honest and accepting of much in me that previously was hidden and unwanted. Since that time my voice has always been a great teacher and a great joy, as it continues to unfold the marvels of challenge and freedom.

Entering monastic life, I met the practice of chanting, and it was then that my voice really opened. It was then that I began the process of liberating my voice, setting it free from the sorrow and loneliness that colored it deep within my heart. For the voice carries in it all the shadow and glimmer of our consciousness, afflictions as well as wholesome seeds. Without careful awareness and training we transmit many things to others through our voice frustration, anger, longing, and despair among them. On my own path, the liberation and transformation of my voice settled itself on a regular practice of sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. Soon after, it leapt joyfully into the arms of chant. I found that all aspects of spiritual practice and lifestyle will affect the voice. Likewise, all spiritual endeavor with the voice, such as the practice of chanting, will strengthen the other aspects of our practice.

Chanting as Meditation

Chanting is a meditation practice. If it is not a practice then it is not really chanting. For it is not the notes on the page or the text and font that make up the chant, it is the living voice inspired from the depths of consciousness and summoned from the relaxed and stable posture of the body. Chanting is the realization of the teaching sent out to the world in every syllable. It is the resonance of many voices held together by attentive, listening ears. It is the delicate ringing of harmonic layers left hanging in empty space, and it is the silence which fills up an open heart when it seems that tone is no longer heard.

When we chant well we are moved straight into the beauty and wonder of life without any emotional push and pull. We are moved, but not in the direction of longing, comfort, or excitement, as we are by many musical expressions these days. We are moved towards realization in the practice, towards freedom and clarity. When we chant well we remain grounded in our breathing and our practice of mindfulness. Thus the chant releases tension and knots in both body and mind, transforming us, drawing us into the current of awakening. It helps us let go and be flexible, capable of opening our heart to what is there in the marvelous moment. It reminds us of our resources and the strength of our compassion. It offers us inspiration to persevere through challenge and hardship; and it leaves a peaceful smile on our face.


In the Buddhist practice there are three realms of action in which we cultivate awareness: action of the body, action of speech, and action of thought (mind). In truth, there is no action that exists solely in one of these realms. They all have much to do with each other. The practice of chanting is a practice that consciously brings together all three realms of action into one, and does so in a very pleasant way that can be shared among many people simultaneously. Thus chanting has the potential to generate both concentration and joyful togetherness. Spiritual traditions around the world have recognized this for thousands of years, and almost all have some form of chanting as a substantial part of their practice.

The Realm of the Body

There are many ways to approach the practice of chanting in terms of techniques and methods. Yet there are certain elements of the practice that are important to any method. One of these is the breath.

It is essential in meditation practice, and especially in chanting, that the breath be relaxed and easy. If we can succeed in this then the breath, of its own accord, becomes full, deep, flexible, and strong. To relax the breath we need also to relax the abdomen and the abdominal organs. Thus the diaphragm muscle (which is an elastic membrane separating the lungs and the lower internal organs) can move (drop) easily and allow the lungs to expand to full capacity. If the belly and its contents are relaxed, then the diaphragm muscle can move downwards with very little effort more like letting go than making an effort. Then the chest can gently open, from the inside out, to accommodate more air. This allows our chanting, which relies on the firm and steady force of the out-breath, to come from the center of the body. It comes from the natural upward movement of the diaphragm, rather than the forced constriction of the chest. In this way we avoid using a lot of tension and unnecessary energy for a process that is designed to be relaxed and easy. If we breathe only with our chest, expanding it with the in-breath and contracting it with the out-breath, then we make unnecessary effort. Granted, this can help us to add to the total volume of air in our breathing, but it is not the natural mechanism for the lungs.

This is my experience of the natural process of breathing and its effect on chanting. You can help yourself to enter into this experience of the breath by learning to truly follow your breath without manipulation and keeping your abdomen flexible, warm and relaxed. Allow the diaphragm to draw the air down towards the belly and relax completely into the process of breathing.

Healthy breathing is encouraged by eating in moderation, massaging and stretching the torso of the body regularly, and by an upright and relaxed posture. It is very nice to stand while chanting, softening the knees a little to stay grounded and balanced. If you practice while sitting, be sure not to slouch.

We can also cultivate an awareness of the throat, larynx, neck, and ears. Be gentle, soft, and open in these places. Do not strain the neck forward while chanting. Do not force tones out of your throat. Chant the middle way, not too strong, not too soft. Chant in such a way that you can hear your own voice and also the voices of people chanting with you. Keep the neck and head warm and relaxed at all times. These things will help make it possible for the healing vibrations of sound to work in the body and transform the voice. It will also help to prevent tearing and scarring to the vocal chords and damage to the inner ear.

The Realm of Speech

The practice of chanting lies at the crossroads of spoken word and song. A chant is not a poem and is not just recited. A chant is not a song and is not simply sung. It is expressed with wakefulness somewhere between these two as a powerful poetic recitation and as an uplifting song, carefully blended. When we chant well we benefit from both the clarity of shape and texture and the steady, light, and yet grounded feeling imparted to us through tones.

When speaking and reciting in the English language we primarily use consonant sounds. The consonants sculpt and develop the texture of the voice. The consonants give shape to the meaning of words and can be powerful, beautiful, and sometimes emotionally unsettling.

When we sing a song, we are expressing primarily in vowels. You cannot sing a consonant; you can only sing a vowel. Singing out the vowel sounds, we express the meaning of the song directly in the realm of feeling. Thus, the significance of a song comes to us less from the message in its lyrics and the shape of its consonants, and more from the way its melody and harmony make you feel. This is very important, because the vibration of the tone has no filter before it impacts us. It goes straight past reasoning and we must embrace it as it is. Sometimes the intended meaning of a song and the actual feeling it gives us are in conflict with one another. For example, the lyrics express something light and uplifting but the melody and harmony of tones give rise to sadness and nostalgia. And even if the melody and harmony are appropriate, the voice of the singer can be influenced by his or her state of mind and emotions. Thus the song may not bring about the intended or appropriate feeling. The feelings brought about through the expression of the vowel sounds have great potential. They can be healing and transforming or agitating and even painful. We need to be aware of these things so that the healing spirit of the practice can shine through our chanting and singing.

We can develop awareness of these things by cultivating mindfulness in the act of chanting, as well as at other times; practicing the mindfulness trainings, carefully choosing what we listen to, watering wholesome seeds in our consciousness. Slowly we tear away the veils of our conditioning, and we begin to recognize truth and beauty in music and the voice that carries it. Slowly we bring a spiritual quality and resonance into our own voice and music.

The Realm of Thought

Our thoughts play an important part in chant. Of course the message of the chant is influential. Its content gives rise to energy, inspiring a kind of movement. We might describe this movement as the opening of the heart or stilling of the mind, a beginning anew, the settling of afflictions, or the cooling of desire. These phrases describe not emotions but spiritual activity, an entering into the realms of happiness that lie beneath our busy worldly affairs. The presence and practice of our spiritual ancestors are found in these thoughts expressed in chants. The stability to be gleaned from tradition and lineage is contained in these thoughts as well.

But the very thoughts that enter our mind during the moment of chanting are equally important. We should always remember that chanting is a process of meditation. Do not allow the mind to wander aimlessly. Maintain concentration on the breath, the posture of the body, and the content of the words you are chanting. Then your authentic presence and the chant join together into a living vibration that is shared among all present; and indeed, even those not present will benefit.

It is easy to be distracted by imperfections in your own voice or in the voices around you. Try not to be carried away by such judgments. You do not need a trained and controlled voice or “perfect pitch sensitivity” to chant well. Chanting is about being right where we are, and practicing. Chanting is a process, an unfolding into the present moment. This present moment is a place where many powerful things can happen, especially with the support of our spiritual ancestors and our community of practice. Because chants carry with them the understanding and the compassion of the ancestors, if we don’t feel skilled or confident, we can lean on them. The ancestors and our community are there for that.

I have discovered that a talented singer with a beautiful voice can sing horribly, wounding the heart and ears of the listener. I have also listened to people chant, whose voices, according to technical evaluation, were horrible. But because they chanted with full presence and sincere intention, what came out of them was something spiritually inspiring and beautiful. Talents are often the learning of behavior that brings one the love and recognition one needs, and not necessarily an expression of truth or something beautiful, because what hides beneath the talent is a fear, a longing it is suffering. This untended and unwanted suffering has twisted itself into something acceptable in an attempt to gather recognition that fills the emptiness inside, the void of loneliness. I believe that an artist who meditates must understand these things and take on the path of transformation in order to purify their talent, to make it a conscious, well -tended, and fully embraced expression of their life.

Some people, especially those with some talent or training, find it difficult to chant with others whose voices are not technically skilled. There are many ways to remedy this. The best is to do away with our idea of how things should be. Then happiness reveals itself. It is only difficult to chant with those who have unskilled voices because of our expectation, desire, and on a deeper level, because of the fear of what is not harmonious in us. So leave expectations and desires behind, and do not be afraid to rejoice in the reality of what is there. Start simply, with basic chants suited for the whole community. Have the Sangha practice lots of recitation, reading the texts aloud together. As a community, take up some basic training for the voice; there are huge resources available for this. But most important, always endeavor to do these things as ways to strengthen your practice and the practice of your community. This is cultivating wholesome thoughts in the practice of chanting.


Suggestions for Chanting in Community

Here are several suggestions for individuals and Sanghas to aid in the practice of chanting:

Take time to memorize the words and learn the content so that you can concentrate easily during the chant. Be aware of what you are saying so that you enter into a process of realization and are not simply repeating the text.

Take time to memorize the melody and the basics of the rhythm and dynamics of the chant so you do not have to rely on a piece of paper to remind you of what you are doing. Then you can begin the process of unfolding the tapestry of the chant.

Stay in touch with the process of breathing; learn to take deep and relaxed breaths while chanting. The point is to remain truly present and to cultivate stability and insight while chanting, not to get out of breath and make a flawless performance. If you need a breath, take one, it’s okay to miss a couple of words. Maintain awareness of body posture, holding yourself up right in a relaxed way. Every few breaths check to make sure you are not straining the neck, throat, and facial muscles. Soften them, relax them, and smile.

Listen carefully to other chanters around you as you chant.

All who are chanting must learn to chant with one voice.  This is a very deep and wonderfully fruitful practice. Chant lightly, not too loud, so that it is easier to hear those around you. This encourages togetherness.   When we chant well together we can begin to allow the expression of the chant to change subtly according to the experience of the content.  The chant then becomes something totally alive and the collective experience of being together in freedom can arise very easily. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, when practicing the chants marked “breath by breath,” be aware that each breath is usually for one phrase and there is space to draw an in-breath between phrases. We do not need to maintain the rhythm continuously through the chant each phrase stands on its own. They are not marches, and they should express the natural rhythm and dynamics of the English language. Only general guidelines are given as to how long each note is held or how much volume it receives. These chants are open to the expression of the chanters in the present moment and require a lot of listening to each other. They are inspired by the Gregorian technique, but they are not truly Gregorian.

When practicing other chants in the chanting book, we can follow the standard music notation more closely, adhering more to the timing and dynamics that are scored. There are no breath marks, but do not rush to take breaths in between notes. There is no need to worry about saying every syllable or word, skip one or two if necessary in order to take a real in-breath and maintain calm and presence.  Remember to listen carefully to those around you as you chant. Rely on the group to carry the chant. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves when we practice as a Sangha.

The musical notation of a chant cannot contain its vitality. The notes and the technique are used as a guide to learn and transmit the basic form of the chant, but we should eventually let them go in order to truly live the chant. Please remember that chanting is not about getting somewhere or attaining something. Come home to the wonderful moment, open your voice, and enjoy!

Brother Chan Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained as a monk in 1996 and became a Dharma Teacher in 2001.

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Ashoka’s  Transformation

Paméla  Overeynder


About twenty-three hundred years ago, there was an emperor in Northern India called Ashoka, who waged many wars in the early years of his reign to expand his empire. Maybe he thought he was protecting his people. We understand that he was a very unhappy man.

One day after a particularly terrible battle, he walked on the battlefield. He was aghast at the carnage he had caused, bodies of men and animals strewn everywhere. At that moment, he looked up and saw a Buddhist monk walking peacefully across the field of dead bodies. Ashoka asked the monk how he came to be happy and peaceful. The monk was able to walk peacefully and with happiness because he was filled with compassion and because he had transformed his own suffering.

Because of the presence of this one radiantly peaceful human being, Ashoka became a student of Buddhism and stopped waging wars. Instead he focused on feeding his people and meeting their basic needs. He transformed himself from a tyrant into a well-respected ruler and changed the course of history. His son and daughter later transmitted Buddhism from India to Shri Lanka and from there the teachings spread to Burma and Thailand and throughout the world. This one monk and this one emperor literally changed the course of history. Because of them, many, many people have transformed their own suffering and helped others to overcome suffering.

We walk for peace in Austin, Texas because we know that we are all interconnected. We know that when one of us suffers we all suffer. There is no ‘other.’We know that when one of us transforms her suffering, everyone is transformed. We are the world and right now there is tremendous suffering in our world.

We are walking to practice peace in ourselves, and we will continue to cultivate that peace until it is reflected at the national and international level. Then, like Ashoka, we will use our resources to feed our so-called enemies and put an end to unnecessary suffering.

Paméla Overeynder, Chan Tue Nhat, True Sun of Understanding is a founding member of the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas. Pamela is also a member of the Hill-Country Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship,


The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is an international organization founded in 1978 to bring a Buddhist perspective to the peace movement, and to bring the peace movement to the Buddhist community. Its members seek to practice engagement in the suffering of the world. touchingpeace@earthlink.net

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Sangha Building

by Thich Nhat Hanh

From a Dharma Talk at Joongang Sangha University for monks and nuns in Kimpo, Korea on March 31st, 2003


My dear friends, according to my experience the study of Buddhism and the practice of Buddhism should always go together.  It is not possible to learn the teachings first and then begin to practice because it is by practicing that we understand the teachings, not just by listening and studying. We might think that we have understood the Heart Sutra but then ten years later we realize that we did not. Thanks to our practice, thanks to confrontation with difficulties and suffering we begin to really understand. Suffering plays a very important role in helping us to understand the teachings of the Buddha. Thirty years of war in Vietnam have helped me to understand Buddhism more profoundly.

When I was a young novice learning about the three refuges and the five precepts I thought that I understood them. But now I see that my understanding was very superficial. My understanding of taking refuge in the Buddha has been evolving through the years. After sixty years I continue to see more deeply into the practice of taking refuge. Taking refuge in the Buddha is something you practice all day long. You can take refuge in the Buddha while sitting, while walking, or while cooking for the community. Taking refuge in the Buddha brings me a lot of happiness. Learning the teaching and putting the teaching into practice in such a way that you can be nourished by it brings joy. It is that joy that enables you to continue your life as a monk or as a nun.

Suffering and Happiness of Monastic Life

In your monastic life sometimes you encounter a lot of difficulties, a lot of suffering, and you might be tempted to give up your life as a monk or as a nun. If there is no joy in the practice then you will certainly give up your monastic life. Sometimes the relationship between you and your teachers and the relationship between you and your Dharma brothers or sisters becomes difficult and you are discouraged. You don’t see any joy in the Sangha. You feel that nobody in the Sangha understands you, not only your brothers in the Dharma but also your teacher. People around you seem to practice very hard but they have not transformed, they are still angry, they still have many prejudices. And you lose faith in the practice. Many high monks speak about non-self but they are full of self and they are seeking fame, wealth, and power, and that is why you are discouraged and you want to give up. I realize that when you don’t find happiness in the Sangha and in your life as a monk or a nun you could be tempted by things in the world like fame, like wealth, like sex. But if there is joy and happiness in your daily life as a monk or a nun then these temptations would not be important at all.

Tempted  by  Communism

As a young monk there was a time when I was tempted to become a communist. I saw that in the Buddhist community people talked a lot about serving living beings but they didn’t have any practical methods to help the country, which was under foreign rule and the people, who suffered from poverty and social injustice. As a young monk I wanted Buddhism to respond to the situations that created suffering and to help reduce the social injustice and political suppression. Many elders spoke about serving living beings but they did not give the kind of teaching and practice that could relieve the suffering in society. I saw that the communists were really trying to do something and they were ready to die for the sake of humanity. So temptation at that time for me was not fame, not money, not beautiful women – it was communism. I did not become a communist because I was very lucky. I realized quickly that being a member of the communist party, I would have to obey the orders of the party and may have to kill my countrymen who did not agree with the party, instead of being able to serve them.

As a young man or a young woman you are full of good intentions to serve the people of your country, so you become a member of a political party. You want to serve, not to harm people, but your party may become like a machine and one day you may be given the order to kill, to liquidate other young people who do not belong to your party and you have to betray your first intention to love and to serve. I was saved by the enlightenment that violent revolution was not my path. I did not want to go in the direction of violence. As a young man or a young woman, when you enter monastic life you are determined to serve the people in your society and other living beings. You are a revolutionary. Leaving your family behind, shaving your head, putting on a monk’s robe is an act of revolution. You want to be like Siddhartha, offering your life in order to relieve the suffering of living beings. But if the teaching and the practices that you are given do not satisfy that desire to serve and to help others, then you will be disappointed.

Engaged  Buddhism

After several years being in the Buddhist Institute1  my need was not satisfied, so I left. Also there was division in the community, there was no harmony, and people did not really do what they taught. I did not give up the life of a monk, however, because deep in me there was a strong belief that Buddhism could be renewed and could offer the teaching and the practice that would respond to the actual suffering in the world. I thought of engaged Buddhism, the kind of Buddhism that can be applied in all walks of life, in the realms of education, economics, technology, science, politics, the arts, and so on. I knew that historically Buddhist teachers guided and advised the political leaders. But nowadays business and political leaders do not listen, and it seems we have lost our spiritual leadership. At this time I was only a monk of twenty-four years old, just fully ordained, but I had a deep conviction that spiritual leadership could be restored to Buddhism and that Buddhism could give guidance in all areas of society.

With a number of other young monks we created a community of practice and tried to form a way of practice which we called “Engaged Buddhism.”


Buddhism must be present as a spiritual dimension in all aspects of life. In 1954 when Vietnam was divided into two countries, North and South, the suffering was intense. I was given the chance to realize a reform of the teaching and the practice in the Buddhist Institute in the South of Vietnam, called the An Quang Institute. I called on young monks and young nuns and together we created a system of education and practice that had the capacity to respond to the difficult situation in the country and in the world. At twenty-eight, I had to take care of reorganizing the largest Buddhist Institute in South Vietnam.  I was lucky to have the love and support of the young monks and nuns, and together we tried to renew the teachings and the practice. We also had a number of elders who supported us and believed that we could do it, which was crucial for our success. At that time the French army had just been defeated in the North by the communist army and the French soldiers were leaving the country and American advisors began to arrive. It was the intention of the Americans to replace the French and to retain the South as a stronghold in order to contain communism and not allow it to spread in Southeast Asia. The country was divided and people suffered not only from social injustice and political oppression, but also from doubt and anger. We felt that Buddhism should do something to show people that there is a path leading us out of this difficult situation, and to create peace, brotherhood, and reunification.

It was suffering that helped us to give birth to what today we call “Engaged Buddhism.” Now this expression has become popular in Europe and America and there are Buddhist communities and associations that use it, like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. There are now Buddhist groups that organize soup kitchens for hungry people, centers to help dying people, and so on. Plum Village is now helping hungry children, disabled people, and refugees in Vietnam. Engaged work in society has become part of our daily practice.

Happiness and Harmony in the Sangha

Every one of us wants to help our society, but in order to go far we have to operate not as individuals but as a Sangha. If there is no harmony in the Sangha, if there is no brotherhood in the Sangha, if there is no happiness in the Sangha we do not feel nourished and we will not be successful. That is why the teaching and the practice of Buddhism should be effective in Sangha building. If the practice of Buddhism does not help the Sangha to be more harmonious, does not help brotherhood to grow, does not help to create more happiness in the Sangha then that practice is not effective and we don’t want it. You can practice very hard, staying up all night in the sitting position and not sleeping at all, but if there is no joy, no compassion, no understanding in you and the Sangha is divided and unhappy, then your practice is not correct. We should practice every day in such a way that happiness can grow in our Sangha. If there is no harmony, no happiness in the Sangha, serving living beings is an illusion.


We may like to sit together and ask whether there is happiness and harmony in our Sangha. If there is no harmony and no happiness in the Sangha what are the reasons? What are the causes? What can I do in order to make the Sangha suffer less? What can I do to make the Sangha happy today? Together as a Sangha we practice looking deeply into the first Noble Truth, namely the presence of suffering, the absence of happiness, in order to find out the second Noble Truth, the roots and causes of our unhappiness. To me a Buddhist Institute should be organized as a family, where everyone is a brother or a sister for everyone else. Our daily practice should be centered on building brotherhood and sisterhood. If we are nourished every day by the happiness of brotherhood or sisterhood we would never give up our life as a monk or a nun. Of course, we have to study the sutras, the shastras, and the vinaya.2 But we have to study in such a way that we can find ways of practice that will build a happy Sangha. Sangha building is our daily practice.

Many of us are capable of building big temples, but not many of us can build a happy Sangha. That is why I have been proposing that in Buddhist Institutes Sangha building become an important subject of our study and practice. If there is no real happiness, brotherhood, and harmony in the Sangha and we go out to teach the practice, we are offering fake products. In the Buddhist Institutes, Dharma teachers should not only teach what they know but should teach with their way of life. We should not be overwhelmed with texts. We should have time to look deeply into each member of the Sangha to see the suffering and difficulties of each person and to offer our help. In that way we can go together like a river, in the direction of enlightenment, transformation, and service.

During the twenty years of sharing Dharma in the West we have learned a lot about Sangha building and we have learned a lot about offering the kind of teaching that helps in modern times. I can tell you as an elder brother that the noblest task is to build a happy Sangha. The Sangha is like a beautiful garden. You have to take care of each tree and bush in the garden. You have to understand the nature and the need of each tree and bush. You take a lot of time to help each member of the Sangha grow beautifully and happily. When the garden grows beautifully, you enjoy it a lot; when the Sangha is happy, you are well rewarded with happiness. When people come and visit the Sangha and they see the harmony and happiness, they will have faith in the Dharma. We don’t have to say anything; they just look at the Sangha and they have faith.

One day the King of Sravasti, King Pasenadi, met the Buddha. They were both eighty years old. The King said, Lord Buddha, every time I see your Sangha I have faith in the teachings. The Buddha did not build any temples but he was an excellent Sangha builder. We, his students, monks and nuns and laypeople, should not only spend our life building temples, we should devote our time to building happy Sanghas.


  1. The Buddhist Institute is the place where young monastics are sent to study sutras, ancient languages and other Buddhist Young monastics come from many different temples to study together and are generally awarded a degree at the end of their studies. This form of training is followed in most Mahayana Buddhist countries including China, Vietnam, and Korea.
  2. The sutras are the teachings given by the Buddha, the shastras are commentaries on these teachings and the vinaya is the collection of rules and regulations governing the monastic Together these three collections of Buddhist scripture are referred to as the tripitaka, or the three baskets of Buddhism scripture.

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Thich Nhat Hanh Answers Questions at the Library of Congress

September 10, 2003

On September 10, 2003 Thich Nhat Hanh  offered a talk at the Library of Congress  in Washington, D.C., to members of  Congress and their staffs.  Two days later,  Thay and monks and nuns led a three- day mindfulness retreat for Congress  members and their families. 


I would like to answer any question that you might have concerning this practice.

Q: How do you practice with anger? 

Thay: Two days after the events of September 11th I spoke to 4,000 people in Berkeley. I said that emotions are very strong now and we need to know how to calm ourselves, because with lucidity and calm we will know what to do. And we will know what not to do, to keep from making the situation worse.

I have suggested a number of things that can be done to decrease the level of violence and hate. The terrorists who attacked the twin towers must have been very angry, they must have hated America a lot. They must have thought America was trying to destroy them as a people, as a religion, as a nation, and as a culture. We have to find out why they have done such a thing to America. A political leader of America who has enough calm and lucidity can ask the question, “Dear people over there, we don’t know why you have done such a thing to us. What have we done that has made you suffer so much? We want to know about your suffering and why you have hated us so much. We may have said something or done something that has given you the impression that we wanted to destroy you. But in fact that is not the case. We are confused, and we want you to help us understand why you have done such a thing to us.” We call that kind of speech loving or gentle speech. If we are honest and sincere they will tell us and we will recognize the wrong perceptions they have about themselves and about us. We can try to help them to remove their wrong perceptions. All these acts of terrorism and violence come from wrong perceptions. Wrong perceptions are the ground for anger, violence, and hatred. You cannot remove wrong perceptions with a gun.

While we listen deeply to the other person, not only can we recognize their wrong perceptions but we can see that we also have wrong perceptions about ourselves and about the other person. That is why mindful dialogue, mindful communication is crucial in removing wrong perceptions, anger, and violence. It is my deepest hope that our political leaders can make use of such instruments to bring peace to themselves and to the world. I believe that using force and violence can only make the situation worse. To me during the last two years America has not been able to decrease the level of hate and violence from terrorists. In fact, the level of hate and violence has increased. That is why it is time for us to go back to the situation, to look deeply, and to find a way that is less costly and will bring peace to everyone. Violence cannot remove violence; everyone knows that. Only with the practice of deep listening and gentle communication can we help remove wrong perceptions that are at the foundation of violence.

America has a lot of difficulty in Iraq. I think that America is caught in Iraq just as America was caught in Vietnam, caught with the idea that we have to seek and destroy the enemy, wherever we believe they are. That idea will never give us a chance to do the right thing to end violence. During the Vietnam War, America thought that they had to bomb North Vietnam, that they had to bomb Cambodia. But the more America bombed, the more communists they created. I am afraid that situation is repeating itself in Iraq. I think it is very difficult for America to withdraw now from Iraq. Even if you want to leave, it is very difficult. I think that the only way for America to get emancipated from this situation is to help build the United Nations into a real body of peace so that the United Nations will take over the problem of Iraq and of the Middle East. America is powerful enough to do that. America should allow the other big powers to contribute positively to building the United Nations as a true organization for peace with enough authority to do her job. In my point of view, that is the only way out of the current situation.

Q: Thank you for coming here.  When we see so many  lands in this country being destroyed, the forests, the rivers, and the mountains, by policies in this government, how  might we approach our members of Congress mindfully, in  the name of peace, and on behalf of the land and all living  things?

Thay: I think that we should bring a spiritual dimension into our daily life. We should be awakened to the fact that happiness cannot be found in the direction of power, fame, wealth, or sex. If we look deeply around us, we see many people with plenty of these things but they suffer very deeply and many of them have committed suicide. When you have understanding and compassion in you, you don’t suffer. You can relate well to other people around you and to other living beings. That is why a collective awakening about that reality is crucial.


We think that happiness is possible when we have the power to consume. But by consuming we bring a lot of toxins and poisons into us. The way we eat, the way we watch television, the way we entertain ourselves is bringing a lot of destruction into us and into our children. The environment suffers when we consume so much. Learning to consume less, learning to consume only the things that can bring peace and health into our body and into our consciousness is a very important practice. Mindful consumption is the practice that can lead us out of this situation. Mindful production of items that can bring only health and joy into our body and consciousness is also our practice. I think one of the things that Congress may do is to look deeply into the matter of consumption. By consuming unmindfully we continue to bring the element of craving, fear, and violence into ourselves. People have a lot of suffering and they do not know how to handle it, so they consume in order to forget. Families, schools, and communities can help people to go home to themselves and take care of the suffering inside. The spiritual dimension is very important. When we are able to touch joy by living with compassion and understanding we don’t need to consume a lot and we don’t need to destroy our environment. Consuming in such a way that can preserve the compassion and understanding in us is very important.

The Buddha said if we consume without compassion it is as though we are eating the flesh of our own son and daughter. In fact we destroy our environment and we destroy ourselves through unmindful consumption. I think Congress can look into the matter and find ways to encourage people to consume mindfully and to produce mindfully, not producing the kind of items that can bring toxins and craving into the hearts and bodies of people.

We have the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But in the name of freedom people have done a lot of damage to the nation, to the people. They have to be responsible for that. I think there should be a law that prohibits people from producing the kind of items that bring toxins into our body and our mind. To produce with responsibility: that is our practice. I think we have to make a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast of America in order to counterbalance liberty. Liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. You are not free to destroy. Through films, movies, and entertainment we are producing food for the souls of people. If we know how to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our bodies, we also have to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our consciousness and the collective consciousness of the people. I think these things have to be looked into deeply by people in Congress. The people in Congress have to see where our suffering comes from. I think unmindful consumption and production of items of consumption are at the root of our problem. We are creating violence and craving by consuming and producing these items. If we continue we can never solve the problem. The way out is mindful consumption, mindful production of items of consumption. My deepest desire is that the members of Congress will look into this matter. This is how we can protect our environment. 

Q: Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr.  said  that we  are  all  caught in an inescapable web of mutuality.  Whatever affects one of us affects all of us.  In light of that view, that all  of us on the planet are connected, what would you recommend as some first steps for people of different races and  backgrounds to begin to close the gap of racism and bigotry  that we are in right now, that is really expanding right now  to Arab Americans because of the issue of 9-11.  My question  is really a two-part question.  One is, what are some beginning practical steps that individuals can take to close the gap  that keeps us disconnected despite our denial?  Secondly,  how do we deal with  that  in  light  of  the  legitimate  fears  after  9-11 that cause  us to  look at even our Arab  American citizens in a  hostile, distant way?  How would  you  see  individuals  begin  to  close the gap?

Thay: I think we have to wake up to the fact that everything is connected to everything else. Safety, well-being cannot be individual matters anymore. If others are not safe there is no way that we can be safe. Taking care of others’ safety is at the same time taking care of our own safety. Taking care of others’ well-being is to take care of our own well-being. It is the mind of discrimination and separation that is at the foundation of all violence and hate.


My right hand has written all the poems that I composed. My left hand has not written any poems. But my right hand does not think, “You left hand, you are good for nothing.” My right hand does not have the complex of superiority at all. That is why it is very happy. My left hand does not have any complex at all including the complex of inferiority. In my two hands there is the kind of wisdom called the wisdom of nondiscrimination. One day I was hammering a nail and my right hand was not very accurate and instead of pounding on the nail it pounded on my finger. It put the hammer down and it took care of the left hand in a very tender way as if it were taking care of itself. It did not say, “You left hand, you have to remember that I, the right hand have taken good care of you and you have to pay me back in the future.” There was no such thinking. And my left hand does not say, “You, the right hand have done me a lot of harm, give me that hammer, I want justice.”

The two hands know that they are members of one body; they are part of each other. I think that if Israelis and Palestinians knew that they are brothers, that they are like two hands, they would not try to punish each other any more. The world community has not helped them to see that. If Muslims and Hindus knew that discrimination is at the base of our suffering they would know how to touch the seed of nondiscrimination in themselves. That kind of awakening, that kind of deep understanding will bring about reconciliation and well-being.

I think it is very important for individuals to have enough time to look deeply into the situation to have the insight that violence cannot remove violence. Only kind, deep listening and loving speech can help restore communication and remove wrong perceptions that are the foundation of all violence, hatred, and terrorism. With that kind of insight he or she can help others to have the same insight. I believe that in America there are many people that are awakened to the fact that violence cannot remove violence, that there is no way to peace, peace is the way itself. Those people have to come together and voice their concern strongly and offer their collective light and insight to the nation so that the nation can get out of this situation. Every one of us has the duty to contribute to that collective insight. With that insight compassion will make us strong and courageous enough to bring about a solution for all of us in the world.

Every time we breathe in and go home to ourselves and bring the element of harmony and peace into ourselves, that is an act of peace. Every time we know how to look at another living being and recognize the suffering that has made her speak or act, and we are able to see that she is the victim of suffering that she cannot handle—that is an act of compassion. When we can look with the eyes of compassion we don’t suffer and we don’t make the other person suffer. These are the actions of peace that can be shared with people.

In Plum Village we have had the opportunity to practice together as a community. We are several hundreds of people living together like a family in a very simple way. We are able to build up brotherhood and sisterhood. Although we live simply we have a lot of joy because of the amount of understanding and compassion that we can generate. We are able to go to many countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and America to offer retreats of mindfulness so that people may have a chance to heal, transform, and to reconcile. Healing, transformation, and reconciliation is what always happens in our retreats.

We have invited Israelis and Palestinians to our community to practice with us. When they come they bring anger, suspicion, fear, and hatred in them. But after a week or two of the practice of mindful walking, mindful breathing, mindful eating, and mindful sitting they are able to recognize their pain, embrace it, and bring relief to themselves. When they are initiated to the practice of deep listening they are able to listen to the other group and to realize that the other group suffers the same way they do. When you know that the others also suffer from violence, from hatred, from fear, and despair you begin to look at them with the eyes of compassion. At that moment you suffer less and you make them suffer less. Communication becomes possible with the use of loving speech and deep listening. The Israelis and Palestinians always come together as a group at the end of their practice in Plum Village and report to us the success of their practice. They go back to the Middle East with the intention to continue the practice and to invite others to join them so that they suffer less and they help others to suffer less. For the last three years this has been a very effective practice. We believe that if this practice can be done on the national level it will bring about the same kind of effect.

Unfortunately our political leaders have not been trained in the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and embracing pain and sorrow to transform their suffering. They have been trained only in political science. It is very important that we try to bring into our life a spiritual dimension, not vaguely, but in concrete practices. Talking like this will not help very much. But if you go to a retreat for five or seven days the practices of breathing mindfully, eating mindfully, walking mindfully, and going home to yourself to take care of the pain inside becomes a daily practice and you are supported by hundreds of people practicing with you. When you are in a retreat, people who are experienced in the practice offer you their collective energy of mindfulness that can help you to recognize and embrace, heal and transform the pain in you. That is why in a retreat we always bring enough experienced practitioners to offer the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration for healing. A teacher, no matter how talented she or he is, cannot do that. You need a community of practice where everyone knows how to be peace, how to speak peace, how to think peace so that practitioners who are beginners are able to profit from the collective insight.

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Without Blame or Judgment

Reflections on Engaged Practice in the Holy Land

By Mitchell Ratner


We did walking meditation together, each of us silently breathing and stepping, opening ourselves to the moment. We formed a circle and chanted together, giving homage to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva who hears and responds to the suffering of the world. All of us had walked and chanted before, but this time the atmosphere was noticeably different—our walking trail was the approach to the Israeli military checkpoint that separates the Palestinian authority-controlled city of Nablus from the rest of the West Bank.

This checkpoint is often in the news. Many West Bank Palestinians need to cross it each day, to work, study, do business, or seek medical treatment. Journalists and foreign observers have substantiated Palestinian claims of needlessly long waits and degrading treatment by the guards. We had come to the checkpoint to offer a healing presence.

There were about twenty of us at the checkpoint that day in June of 2003. Eleven of us had come from outside Israel, including four Plum Village monastics, three lay Dharma teachers, and several Order of Interbeing members. We had come to Israel to share the practice of mindfulness and to open ourselves to the suffering, resilience, and wisdom that is present in Israel and the West Bank.

The international program began with a five-day mindfulness retreat at Givat Haviva, a kibbutz education center in the rural heartland of Israel. The international community joined with 50 Israelis to develop our practice of mindfulness. During the Dharma talks we talked about the Buddhist understanding of suffering and the overcoming of suffering. In Dharma discussion groups and private sharings, we talked about the particular suffering that Israelis felt, especially the daily fear that some unforeseen incident will bring great harm to them or their families, and the larger, overhanging sense of despair, that the situation will not improve.


Three themes emerged for me during the Givat Haviva retreat that helped me frame what I saw, heard, and experienced in Israel.

The first theme was about blame. With mindfulness we can develop the capacity to relate to ourselves and others without blame. As Thay Phap An noted in one of the Dharma talks, “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” In the context of Israel, the words resounded. Almost every public or private discussion of the Jewish-Arab conflict focuses on attributing blame. Each side justifies the suffering they have caused in terms of the suffering they have received. The suffering is not abstract or distant; almost everyone in Israel and the West Bank has a relative, friend, or acquaintance who has been killed or wounded.

The second theme was about the importance of our daily practice, of working with our own suffering. Sister Gina shared with the community how important it was for her to be able to take care of her own anger, fear, and defensiveness:

“I really have to practice. Only if I can do it, can I expect others to do it. If I cannot do it my daily life, there’s no hope. . . I would sink into despair for myself and for the world.”

This focus on the connection between our inner lives and the conditions we wish to see in the world is a special gift that mindfulness practice offers the peace movement.


The final, third theme was about the power of history, our own history and that of our community. At Givat Haviva most of the participants were Jewish and many of the discussions led back to the Holocaust. The question was often raised in terms of whether Israeli Jews, as individuals and as a community, had worked through the Holocaust—whether that unimaginably searing and painful experience had been fully processed so that it no longer clouded understanding of the current reality.


After Givat Haviva, the international participants, along with some of our Israeli hosts, spent a long day in the West Bank. In the morning we visited activists from a Palestinian village that will be cut off from its agricultural land by the new Israeli “security wall.” In the afternoon the residents of a small Palestinian community, near Nablus, offered us mint tea and told us about the struggles of their daily life, including attacks and harassment from an Israeli-Jewish settler community that has established outposts on the hills over their village, the general economic and social instability arising from the Israeli control of the West Bank, and the daily difficulties caused by the many blocked roads and Israeli checkpoints—what was a fifteen minute drive to Nablus had become at least a two-hour ordeal, and some days it was not possible to go there at all.

Following our stop at the Nablus checkpoint, we returned to Israel, and arrived late at night at Neve Shalom/Wahat alSalam (Oasis of Peace), an intentional community founded in the 1970s by a Dominican priest in the foothills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For more than twenty-five years Israeli Jews have lived as neighbors with Palestinian Arabs and Christians. Together they have created an international peace center, a bilingual/bi-national elementary school, and a retreat program that brings together Israeli Arab and Israeli Jewish high school students. A bumper sticker they make and distribute reads simply, in Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace Is Possible.”

Our next stop was Jerusalem, where we stayed for several nights with host families and together visited historical and spiritual sites, such as the Church of the Sepulcher (built on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion) and the Western or Wailing Wall (the last remnant of the second temple). One morning we visited the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem—a harrowingly effective presentation of what it meant, life by life, for six million people, one and a half million of them children, to have died, only because they were Jewish. Afterwards, we did walking meditation together in the hall of memory, holding each other’s hands, calming ourselves, struggling to simply breathe and remain open: not to close to the suffering, not to be overwhelmed by it.


An hour later we had lunch at the Jerusalem office of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a remarkable German non-governmental organization started in the 1950s by Protestant theologians. The organization’s founding principle was that when a great harm has been committed, there must be atonement before there can be reconciliation.

We Germans began World War II and for this reason alone, more than others, we are guilty for bringing immeasurable suffering to humankind. Germans have murdered millions of Jews in an outrageous rebellion against God. Those of us who did not want this annihilation did not do enough to prevent it. For this reason, we are still not at peace. There has not been true reconciliation. …

We are requesting all peoples who suffered violence at our hands to allow us to perform good deeds in their countries, … to carry out this symbol of reconciliation.

As Sabine Lohmann, the Jerusalem office’s director explained, more than thirty-five years after that statement, young Germans still come each year to Israel, and to similar offices in eleven other countries. In Israel they learn Hebrew, provide personal care to Holocaust survivors, and work in special education classes and with people with disabilities—classes of people especially affected by Nazi policy.

The still vivid images from the Holocaust museum, coming together with the German organizations efforts to reach to the roots of reconciliation, encouraged us, right there in the organization’s meeting room, to have an intense and cathartic sharing about World War II, Jews, Germans, cruelty, guilt, blame, and atonement. Thay Phap Minh, a Plum Village monk, born and raised in Israel, reminded us that demonizing almost always accompanies blaming. We separate ourselves by highlighting certain characteristics and ignoring others. For him, it was important to remember that “the dark side of the Nazi is within me and there’s great love in the heart of a Nazi.”


After several more events in Jerusalem, we headed north to Nazareth. While the retreat at Givat Haviva followed closely the structure of a standard mindfulness retreat, the events in Nazareth also included exchanges between the Israeli mindfulness community and other groups working for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

During the days preceding the public events in Nazareth, the international group and Israeli organizers met with two extraordinary Arab groups. Memory for Peace was started in Nazareth by Father Shoufani, an Arab Greek Catholic Prelate. He brought together Christian Arabs and Islamic Arabs who felt that there was no place in the public dialogue for the positions they held in their hearts. Nazir Mgally, a journalist, shared with us:

We are Palestinian people. We are also part of the Israeli state. We suffer with the people in the West Bank. We suffer with the Israelis. We said we were the bridge, and we didn’t do it. . . . I felt the best way to stop the bloodshed was to return to our roots as human beings. I felt I needed to understand his [the Jewish persons] suffering. Maybe he will understand our suffering.

The Memory for Peace group began by studying Jewish history together, and, after some time, they invited Israeli Jews to study with them. Just weeks before we met with six members of this group, they had traveled together to Auschwitz, 150 Arab-Israelis and 150 Jewish-Israelis.

A Nazareth building contractor explained why, as an Arab, he went to Auschwitz:

We are living here together and recent events have hurt us. We’ve seen the Jewish people close down and distance themselves. We wanted to see the roots; wanted to go to the place of greatest disaster. Today we know the main problems of the Jews. The Jewish people have fear. They have always been chased. We want to support them. Our aim is holy. With all our might we want to bring together the people who are living here.

The next day we met with a small delegation led by Sheikh Abd Elsalem H. Manasra, the head of the Salam Qaderite Sufi Order in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He explained that while Sufis are Muslim, their tradition differs from many other Islamic traditions in that they try to penetrate into the texts, rather than interpret them from above. In Arabic, the words “Islam”, “peace”, “surrender”, and “wholeness”, all have the same linguistic root. The Sheikh’s spiritual vision was open and embracing:

I’m speaking as a human being, as an Arab, and as the Muslim. I begin with human being. This is what I share with you. Everything else is less.

Sufis say they have the truth, but not the whole truth. Others have a truth as well.

The holy man gives peace to the earth. We should break down the borders in order to reach the man.

There are only two commandments: love of God and love of man. This is enough for a universal religion.

The holy land can include all the Palestinians and all the Jews, if we love.

Before leaving, the sheik taught us to rhythmically chant, in the Sufi style, the name Allah, the pronoun of God. We stood and joined together our voices and spirits: Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, holding a sacred space together.

The retreat program in Nazareth, at the St. Gabriel’s Hotel, included elements from a standard mindfulness retreat, such as Dharma talks, sittings, and walking meditation, along with several public events. On Friday night, two hundred people sat in the church of St. Gabriel to listen to representatives from eight groups talk about their experiences working for reconciliation and peace. On Saturday afternoon, the retreat ended with a silent peace walk through Nazareth, to Mary’s well, in the heart of the city.


Often during the weekend, around meals and odd moments, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Jews, and members of the international community shared personal stories and reflections. In Hebrew, Arabic, and English, sometimes all three languages at once, people talked about their roots, their desire for peace, and their frustration with the distrust and fear that separated communities. Afterwards, both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews mentioned that this casual sharing from the heart, across customary boundaries, which had happened in Nazareth, was rare even at peace and reconciliation events.


Several days after the retreat, on my last full day in Israel, I sat with a Jewish Israeli friend talking about what I had seen and learned. I struggled to pull the parts together. When I talked about the spiritual lessons I had learned while in Israel, my comments centered on all that we gain when we let go of blaming. I felt I had gained insight into what Thay Phap An had said, that “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” When we blame we distort. When we blame we highlight an individual’s or group’s actions, we ignore the context, and we ignore the contributions we or others may have made to the situation. When blame is in my heart, the other person naturally becomes defensive. Communication breaks down. Authentic dialogue and reconciliation cannot occur.

And yet, a few minutes later, when I talked about the reality of daily life I had observed in Israel and the West Bank, I dwelled on the defects of Jewish Israeli society. In me were feelings of disappointment and anger. The distrust and institutional racism was more extensive than I had imagined. I asked my friend, “Of all people, after the experience of the Holocaust, how could Jewish people be so intolerant of Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank? How could they be insensitive to their pain?”


For several hours we talked, working our way down to the roots of the incompatibility between what I was feeling and saying about Jewish Israeli society and my increased understanding of the corrosive effects of blaming. I shared with my friend that the trip had made me aware of how often blame crept into my thinking and speaking. To use words such as racism and intolerance almost automatically steers a conversation toward blaming. Often, however, it is much more subtle–spontaneous remarks directed at loved ones, and seemingly objective discussion of social issues which slip into blame. (How could you/they do that?)

Why was it so hard for me to let go of blame? For the next two months I pondered the question and talked about it with friends. Finally the realization came that in my life, in an odd way, blaming was connected to caring. When it seemed that someone else’s actions were causing pain to me or to those I cared about, my response was to blame them. When I acted in ways that seemed to undermine the goals I had set for myself, I blamed myself. When people close to me acted in ways other than what I thought was in their best interest, I blamed them. That was how I was raised.

My strong reaction to what I saw as Jewish Israeli insensitivities came out of a deep caring. I did not want that community, which had suffered so much, to be destroyed again. I deeply wanted Israeli Jews to act in ways I believed would lead to a just and lasting peace. I saw that in my reactive blaming I underplayed how debilitating the historical wounds might be (Who was I to judge that enough time had past?), and I underplayed how many causes and conditions from outside the Israeli-Jewish community contributed to what I perceived as Israeli-Jewish insensitivity to the pain of others.

For me, the great challenge, in Israel and elsewhere, is to let go of the blame and not let go of the caring. Without blame, we can still work and hope for peace. Without blame, we can still bring attention to situations of injustice. We can even ask people to act in a different way, or, when necessary, forcibly prevent some persons from hurting others. Without blame, rather than closed and angry, our hearts are open and accepting.

Mitchell Ratner, True Mirror of Wisdom, is a Dharma teacher living in Takoma Park, Maryland and practicing with  the  Still  Water  Mindfulness  Practice  Center.

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The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic

By Lynette Monteiro


Understanding the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana evaded me despite thee tomes I read and the lectures I attended. Then in 1998, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and in the subsequent years struggled with fatigue, pain, and frustration. Refusing to be defeated by this illness, I intensified my meditation practice, changed my eating habits, and took on a regimented exercise program. Despite the positive physical changes, emotionally I remained exhausted and I felt no closer to knowing how to apply the practice of Buddhism to my situation.

The way out began over a coffee at Starbucks. A physician friend cornered me with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living (2) and asked if I would start a clinic to treat our mutual patients using mindfulness skills. I laughed. With barely enough energy to get from one day to the next, attempting this was out of the question. However, I knew that my meditative and doctrinal practice in Buddhism was the stabilizing force in coping with my disorder. Studying the sutras and having a disciplined meditation schedule gave me continual insights to the nature of my mind and its role in managing my illness. I could see the potential benefits and that it would be a way of reaching so many who were suffering. But start a clinic, especially when I seemed to struggle with core concepts? I thought it impossible until I attended a retreat with Chan Huy. He watered the seeds of comprehension for me with his presentation of the thirteenth step of the Anapanasati Sutra: On the Full Awareness of Breathing bringing to my attention three primary tenets of practice: Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.

Suddenly the clinic seemed possible. I became aware that what had been effective in managing my illness was not the physical schedules, the intellectual calisthenics, or the chase after experiences. What had helped me gain ease and composure in my suffering was living as best I could the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. I held no assumptions that any one moment would be the same as another. I was not my illness, I found joy and happiness where I could. Symptoms ebbed and flowed as did mind and its mental formations but I somehow stayed steady.

In May 2003, my partner and I began the Mindfulness Based Symptom Management program, an eight-week course in skilfull living modeled along the lines of the Canadian mindfulness-based program (3) at the Center for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada. The patients who registered were suffering from depression, anxiety, pain from severe physical traumas, and work-related stress. Some were afraid of relapse into depression when they returned to work. Over eight weeks, we planned to teach these patient-practitioners sitting and walking meditation, an understanding of the four foundations of mindfulness, the techniques in the awareness of breathing, and the use of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a guide to symptom management. They would be trained to examine their instincts to wrestle for control over their symptoms. This approach of no-action has been referred to as a paradigm shift from the medical model interventions that emphasize aggressive and often invasive interventions. The course aspirations and curriculum were daunting and ambitious, even more so because the canons of Buddhism had to be rendered into an acceptable secular form. However, we believed that anything less would not be powerful enough to transform their suffering.

We embarked on the program with an understanding that the facilitators and patients were equally practitioners. The tenets of the Five Mindfulness Trainings were listed and became a beacon when the work seemed tedious or not immediately relevant. The core of the course examined the body, emotions, sensations (mind), and thoughts (the most easily accessed and intellectually grasped object of mind) (4). In each class, we practiced the appropriate technique from the Anapanasati sutra (5). In the class dealing with emotions, we used the Theranamo and Bhadekkaratta sutras (Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone/An Auspicious Day (6)), as parables to encourage beneficial engagement with self, other, and the world. The glue that held the whole works together however was the primary tenets of practice– Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.


Practicing continuously

Without mindfulness skills, we become stuck in the illusion that symptoms are static and permanent, and therefore doom us to eternal suffering. Viewing the situation as singularly determined also results in thinking there is one magical intervention if we could “just do it.” When mindfulness is practiced continuously, we can look deeply into our symptoms and observe as they change in frequency, intensity, and duration. This is the gift of impermanence. It makes us available for many more possibilities and therefore many more opportunities to intervene in a suitable manner. Observing our level of fatigue we can recognize, for example, when jogging is less suitable than walking.

Practicing continuously means bringing awareness to all aspects of the system. We notice not just the segments of behaviors but the dynamic ebb and flow of all behaviors. It permits adjustment of our strategies as we attune ourselves to the impermanent nature of our experiences. When we are engaged fully in this practice, there is no way to “just do it” because there is no “it.” Continuous attention reveals nuances of change that alert us so we can adjust our actions, speech, and thoughts appropriately. It informs us when an intervention is suitable and beneficial; it informs us accurately of the specific signs in our body, which then allows selection of the beneficial and suitable level.

In the Clinic, patient-practitioners learn to adjust their body, speech, and mind to the ebb and flow of the breath. Using the body scan meditation technique, we set up an internal model of “observation, not indoctrination.” (7) That is, we learn to bring our attention to a part of our body, suspending the need to engage in action. We start with the toes, which always gets a smattering of giggles! The giggles turn to awe when we observe how hard it is to bring attention to the toes without twitching them automatically in response. We observe automatic behaviors and notice when we tune out, turn off, drop out of our daily lives. In the first two classes, we befriend our breathing and allow it to teach us the inevitability of change and the simplicity of adjusting to it. Because we breathe continuously, practicing continuously is no longer as imposing or tedious a task as it might have seemed initially.

Being in the present moment

The gift of non-self is the ability to discern the true nature of our suffering. Symptoms inter-are. They arise, endure, and dissolve from a complex interaction of the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. Arising in any single platform, they are empty containing neither intrinsic meaning nor power. However, when we apply our assumptions about an independent self, separation from others and the world, energy is imparted to our symptoms powering them up to debilitating levels. Muscle pain now becomes a harbinger of days in discomfort, even loss of income from lost wages. A limitation in physical activity now means loss of connection with family and friends.


Grounding ourselves in the moment, we develop the skills to discern the origins of our pain with clarity and confidence. We develop an awareness of the arising conditions that result in our pain, our depression, and our fears. We can locate physical pain in the body, observe the thinking that escalates the meaning of the pain. Like teasing out the threads of a knotted ball of twine, we begin to separate the true nature of the symptom from the pain generated by the story-telling about the symptom. In the next four classes, we become firmly established in the foundation of mindfulness that is appropriate: in the body if the pain is physical, in the emotions if the pain is psychological, etc.  Discernment among the foundations allows the interconnections with the other foundations to generate information, not escalation. As we learn to identify the energy that causes the pain, we can then take steps to find alternative sources of energy.

As patient-practitioners grasp these concepts, the defensive stance to illness changes. The belief that things have to be different from what they are in this moment dissolves. Each moment is just what it is, an occasion. The ghosts of the past lose their potency to enslave us and render us dysfunctional. The ghosts of the future cannot hold us hostage with anxiety, fear, and the threat of failed dreams. The power in our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world can only be realized in the present. At this point, a critical flaw in the organization of current psychotherapeutic interventions comes to the fore. Relapse is not something that we practice at some future date when our symptoms disappear. Every moment is an occasion to prevent relapse into previously unbeneficial behaviors, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts.


Living in joy

Joy is the realization that suffering is impermanent. Sometimes joy is retroactive, arising only when the craving and clinging to what is not has abated. While experiencing an attack of vertigo, I tried desperately to convince myself that the spinning room was only a mental formation. I recited: Not real, not real, not real. My mind remained resolutely unimpressed with my rhetoric (an object of mind) and joy was not present until my inner ear (body) calmed itself. Like a symphony, timing is everything. To expect joy in the middle of a flare of symptoms is to lose sight of the moment as it is. It throws us back to the illusions and delusions we created to avoid the reality of our suffering.

When symptoms recur despite our greatest efforts, we are given the opportunity to practice looking deeply into our assumptions. The arising of a symptom we thought was well-managed can touch on feelings of being a failure, activate models of helplessness, or even cause us to give up our practice. Looking deeply, we often find we have derived predictive equations relating our efforts to improvement in some linear fashion. Feeling energetic today becomes a promise that tomorrow will offer the same joy. Thrown into the future, we lose the moment of joy in the here and now.

Observing the breath, staying grounded in the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts, patient-practitioners begin to experience the cessation of the craving to make things okay immediately. We recognize that symptoms dissolve and realize that awareness of impermanence enforces letting go. Symptoms become waves greeted, if not with ease, at least with composure and steadiness. With tools of mindfulness, we do know what to do. We acquire the secure knowledge that the symptoms are generated from the essence of who we are in the moment and dissipate as we alter our stance to them. In a single round of breathing in and out, we become evolving beings, intricately tied to self, others, and the world, and know comfort in that unity.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

Throughout the course, the Five Mindfulness Trainings are used to give the skills a firm grounding in ethics and to provide deeper purpose for the practice. Viewing ourselves as worthy of respect, examining ways in which we generate delusions, setting psychological and physical boundaries, addressing ourselves with gentleness, and nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner become the modus operandi of creating skillful lives. As we become confident and stable in our practice, we find ourselves applying these skills in our interactions with others and our environment. In fact, interaction with all aspects of our environment is where the rubber meets the road. However, because suffering renders us somewhat narcissistic, we begin with applying the five trainings to ourselves.

Each foundational lesson is framed in the context of the five trainings. Behaving with respect to our body allows physical self-abusive cycles to be examined and broken. For the patient-practitioners suffering physical trauma this becomes a key to enter the realm of joy and acceptance. Rather than pushing past limits, they begin to accept and respect the body as it is.

Being generous to our body results in resting when needed, treating ourselves to days of silence and enjoyment of treasured activities. Depression and physical degenerative disorders respond well to this training. Rejuvenation becomes the form of continuous practice and symptoms no longer need to flare for attention.

Not exploiting our bodies psychologically or physically permits the building of safety in interactions with others. The target of this training is the anxiety generated from abusive relationships or lack of trust because of abuse. Recognizing and reducing exposure to toxic situations or relationships increases a sense that we are reliable in our assessments and consistent in our responses.

Speaking with kindness when referring to our body changes the sometimes hate-filled inner dialogue that in turn maintains our suffering. Lack of confidence, feelings of helplessness or low self-worth can be transformed through this training.


Altering the language alters the meaning we give to ourselves of who we are. As self-talk becomes supportive and honestly reflective of our situation, we develop trust and confidence that we can adjust to change.

Nourishing our bodies with beneficial foods and activities allows a sense of well-being. Being with persons who generate joy, feeling encouraged by others practicing healthy lifestyles, and exposing ourselves to a variety of perspectives break up the fixed patterns that signify most physical and psychological suffering. As we limit the input of common myths about being human, we begin to develop a stronger understanding of the reality of being just who we are.

The suffering arising from weak practice of mindfulness in the foundations of emotions, sensations, and objects of mind (in this case, thinking) respond equally well to this application. In fact, the remaining foundations are deeply contained in the foundation of the body and are interconnected profoundly with the body.

At the end of the eight weeks, we have all been irrevocably changed by our contact with each other. At the beginning of the course, the patient-practitioners were asked to list the things they wanted to change in themselves. Usually, the expectations revolved around “cure” or total cessation of physical and emotional symptoms. They want their suffering taken away when they enter7 treatment. Their perceptions of themselves as ones who suffer imply that the suffering means they are flawed and damaged by and because of their symptoms. So, at the start of the course, the craving is to be “normal” by which they mean “without suffering”. When asked if they have changed in ways they had listed eight weeks before, most patient-practitioners say it doesn’t matter anymore. Those expectations written fifty-six days ago are examined and deemed unrealistic, irrelevant, or—best of all—where there was no change, acceptable just as they are. Expectations transform into aspirations. Symptoms are now moments of education in developing skillful means. Self is now a product of an interaction of the four platforms with the moving moment and mindfulness is the mechanism to steady the interaction.


Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana reveal themselves in each moment. By practicing continuously, we are able to stay grounded in each moment. Observing the breath, we move through the four foundations of body, emotions, mind, and objects of mind. Skillful means grow as we develop clear comprehension of what is beneficial and suitable action. Understanding the true nature of our illness grows further as we experience being firmly in our physical and psychological domain, cutting through the illusions of what it is not. All symptoms are nothing more than the waves in our ocean of being. In the moments that our practice is strong and stable, we can allow the symptoms of our illnesses to penetrate us as great teachers do and ultimately let them dissipate as waves in the ocean.

Lynette Monteiro, True Wonderful Fulfillment, practices with Sanghas in Ottawa and Montreal, Canada. She is a psychologist in private practice, and Director of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. She bows to teachers Chan Huy and True Body of Wisdom for inspiring the Clinic and assisting in the preparation of this article. Photography by Lynette Monteiro.

1 Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana are called the “Three Dharma Seals.” A teaching offered by the Buddha is considered to be authentic if it has these three characteristics. The awareness of impermanence helps us to see that all things are subject to change. Nothing in the universe is a fixed, unchanging entity. Secondly, the awareness of non-self shows us that all things are without a separate self; everything inter-is with everything else. Thirdly, all things have their ultimate nature, their nature of nirvana, meaning the extinction of all notions, ideas, and concepts concerning reality. For a more thorough explanation of the Three Dharma Seals see Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998).

2 Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living (Dell Publishing, 1990)

3 Segal, Z., M. Williams, & J. Teasdale, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Guilford Press, 2002)

4 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Berkeley: Parallax Press 1990) and the following texts were used by the facilitators to organize the course content

5 Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You are Alive: the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

6 Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

7 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing, p 134

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Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

by John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend.   In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.



There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • “Blue sky”: Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”
  • “Noting:” Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.
  • “Change the peg”: Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.
  • “Taking the hand of suffering”: Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm.  Very interesting.”  Kind and gentle.
  • “Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.


Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are
    • inherently valuable
    • deeply caring
    • enormously intelligent
    • immensely powerful
    • infinitely creative
    • naturally cooperative
    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.
    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.
    • Treat the person with complete respect.
    • Be present and
    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.
    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.
    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful
    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”


  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our  behavior.  Initially  developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.
  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.
  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.
  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy.  Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.
  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

mb36-Cultivating4John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation.  He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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A Knock on the Door

A Sangha Christmas Story

By Jerry Braza

It was three days before Christmas and twenty-seven Sangha members were nestled in chairs and on cushions in our Woodland Chapel practice center. The warmth of the building coupled with the energy of the Sangha, offered us a refuge on this cool first day of winter.

The evening began with a guided meditation in preparation for our Dharma discussion on true love. “Breathing in, I am aware of the presence of the Sangha. Breathing out, I am embraced by Sangha love. Breathing in, I recognize the presence of the other. Breathing out, I am here for you. Breathing in, I am aware of the suffering in others; breathing out, I embrace your suffering.”

Following our practice session, I began to offer a Dharma dis­cussion on the four mantras which Thay recommends we practice in our relationships. The first mantra is, “I am here for you.” One way to be here for another is to practice mindful breathing in order to bring body, mind, and spirit together. The second mantra is to truly recognize the other. We often do this through our eyes, our hugs, and words of affirmation which we selectively choose for loved ones. As I began to explain the third mantra, “Dear friend, I know you are suffering,” a loud knock on the locked side door stirred the Sangha. The door was opened and a man in his fifties appeared, “Can you help me?” he said.

Welcoming a New Friend

A Sangha member asked him to go to the main entrance where he was welcomed into our circle. As he introduced himself, it was clear that he was suffering from the cold and from emotional exhaustion. He said he was a Vietnam veteran and that he lived under the bridge. “Please help me. I don’t know where to turn and I felt the energy of this group as I went by this building. Will you pray for me?”

Instead of just talking about the concept of suffering, in this moment we had a wonderful opportunity to learn this practice experientially. I asked him, “How can we help you?” He told us he needed some money for lodging and food. We listened deeply to his suffering as he told his story. As the formal session ended we offered him a metta meditation. “May you be free from suffering. May you be well. May you find peace.” The evening’s dana was given to him as a parting gift.

The Action of True Love

That night we had a chance to open our hearts and water the seeds of understanding, compassion, and generosity. Homeless­ness and the scars of the Vietnam War came alive for us, and we will not easily forget the face of our suffering friend. We learned that embracing suffering in another will help us embrace our own suffering. I suspect we left with many unanswered questions: What is the best way to help? Is money always the answer? What if he drinks it away?

Every day we have opportunities to learn how to offer true love, sometimes in unexpected ways. It happens whenever our heart opens and we are truly present with another. In that moment, our breath and our practice enable us to be present with the suffering or joy of the moment. In that space, our mindfulness helps us to respond in the most appropriate way.

Several years ago I heard a story about the glove man. Each year at Christmas he walked the streets where the homeless resided and gave away gloves, which he had collected during the year. He never asked, “Should I give?” He just gave. In each moment his heart was open and he watered the seeds of generosity and compassion.

May you find ways to practice the mantras on true love as you connect with your suffering and the suffering of the world. “I am here for you. I recognize you by connecting with you. Dear one, I know you are suffering and that is why I am here for you.”

mb39-AKnock1Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a Dharma teacher living in Salem, Oregon and practicing with the River Sangha

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Murder as a Call to Love

By Judith Toy


When I smoked cigarettes it was two packs, sometimes three, a day. My record for lit cigarettes simultaneously burning either in ashtrays or in my hand was four. Sometimes I chewed gum, too. Half cups of cold coffee were strewn about my office. I was skinny and nervous.

It was my habit to stay in constant motion. What bogey­man did I think would strike me if I stopped moving, watching television, listening to radio, eating, reading, writing, jogging, paying bills, talking on the phone? Maybe what was living inside of me following the trauma of the murders of three of my family was anger, even rage. I had no lack of confusion, doubt, greed, self-contempt, jealousy, and ego.

If I stopped, I would have to come face to face with my deeply inadequate self.

The murders of my sister-in-law Louise and my two teenage nephews, Dougie and Danny, brought me to my knees. It was October 15, 1990, and looking back, I see that for me and my family, it was the holocaust. Everything normal about our lives had been shattered; our shock and despair seemed too much to bear.

The DNA evidence proved that Louise, Dougie, and Danny’s lives had been cut short by the boy across the street. Eric was a friend of Dougie and Danny, and had ranked in the top two percent of his high school graduating class. Three weeks prior to grad­uation, Eric had dropped out of school and began prowling the neighborhood at night. A year later, he stabbed and bludgeoned my family to death.

Eric’s father was the only neighbor willing to be interviewed by the television reporters after the murders. He was like the movie character Rambo, telling reporters, “We’re going to get whoever did this; we have guns and dogs!” This air of retribution was carried out by a mob of people after Eric was arrested in Florida and extradited to Pennsylvania. When Eric was brought back in restraints in the middle of the night, a waiting crowd screamed, “kill him, kill him!”

Two months later, the trial ended with Eric’s confession. From the murder through the trial and confession, my family and I had lost so much hope, we felt like we were going through life wading under water.

Many months later I came face to face with a Soto Zen monk, Patricia Dai-En Bennage, who was to change my life in two im­portant ways: by teaching me how to stop and enjoy my breathing, and by introducing me to the teachings on mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. That was thirteen years ago.

The act of stopping took courage, because I came face to face with my deeply inadequate self. At first when I meditated, guilt and betrayal and rage floated to the surface. I learned that the only way out of my pain was to let it happen ––to go through it. And on the other side of the pain, I was welcomed into paradise through noticing my breath.

Forgiveness a Breath Away

The breath became the gateway to my heart. Because I have learned to stop, sometimes I have felt my heart as an orb of a moonflower on the garden arbor, opening to the sky. I listen to my heartbeat. I let my heart open like a bud, like a leaf unfurling.

I did not plan to forgive the boy who murdered my family. But after five years of stopping, enjoying my breathing, and re­laxing every day, I was able to look deeply and understand Eric. He was not a monster, but a boy who had temporarily become a beast when he murdered my family. When I forgave Eric, I felt such a surge of relief that I understood why Jesus said, “Before you enter the temple, forgive.”

Through this insight, I knew Eric was suffering intensely for his actions. And I began to understand that the seeds of violence in our society and in his family partly caused the murders. Eric was serving three consecutive life sentences in prison, with no chance of parole. I began to mentally place myself in his prison cell and hold him gently in my arms. I will never know if this helped him. One day he took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his cell. When I learned he was dead, I profoundly mourned his passing.

Gratefully, I turned to the refuge of the three jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Realizing that everything changes and that I will sooner or later lose those I love, I began to deeply appreciate the preciousness of each moment. I began washing the dishes as if each one were the baby Buddha, and looking deeply into the eyes of my grandchildren. I allowed my grief to be absorbed by the earth during walking meditation, and felt the earth give back to me, cool grasses soothing the soles of my sometimes weary feet.

During seated meditation, when emotions arise, I try to notice and stay with them. As a pain or an itch arises, instead of moving or scratching for relief, I try not giving in to the urge, but just notice the pain or the itch. How refreshing, not to move or scratch! One hot July evening while sitting, I felt a mosquito sink its proboscis into my scalp and feed. Welcome, my friend! I guess you deserve to live, too, I thought. There was never any swelling or itch from that bite.

The Voice of the Bell in Prison

My husband, Philip, and I take a bell to a medium security prison to share our practice with young inmates, some of whom had known Eric, the boy who murdered my family. The small bell with a beautiful sound is the centerpiece of our practice together. The noise of slamming metal doors and the prison public address system is the background even as we sit and walk in silence. Upon hearing the sound of the bell we breathe three times, returning to the moment. The men named themselves Fragrant Lotus Petal Sangha, a place of refuge.

Healing Both Families

I called and talked with Eric’s mother. We cried together over the four needless deaths in our two families. She said that in the thirteen years since the murders, mine was the first phone call regarding her son. She and her husband have been so shunned that they have become invisible to their family and neighbors and friends. She thanked me and asked God to bless me for making the call.

The first holy truth of the Buddha is that life constantly of­fers up suffering. Life offered me my deeply inadequate self for transformation. I no longer smoke cigarettes and pace the floors, afraid to stop. In fact, now that I’m walking mindfully on the path of joy, everything in the actual world— the rising sun, the sound of sirens, a crying child, the squealing of brakes, a Mozart sonata, even a war — reminds me to breathe, to breathe in a universe that while full of anguish, will always, always breathe with me.

mb39-Murder2Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, is co-founder of Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This story is excerpted from her forthcoming book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.

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Voices of Pain

By Sarah O’Brien


Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. While around me the feelings, unbelievable and large, saunter. Heavy elephants.

The voice tells me things you don’t want to know I am thinking. You don’t want to know, because you will realize that I am crouching in a wretched place full of shame and dirty waters and elephants of so many colors and tales that all becomes confusing.

The voice whispers to me that I do not belong here, that I am breathing too loudly, that I am undeserving of love, that I am unable to speak truthfully, that I am a rapist inside and a murderer. The voice believes itself, and it is loud.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. Around me the sitters are sitting, silently breathing. I emerge from the pool gasping for breath. Tears are silently flowing down my cheek. Thank god in this practice in this room we don’t look and measure one another. I face the wall, and draw from the silence around me, from the still sitters not judging, only breathing.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. The sound of the bell emanates through the room. I bow, and I know I am in the present moment. Still, that voice tells me I am not welcome in the here and now. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

I ask the voice, what do you want from me? Love, she an­swers. Only love.

How to love her? How to cherish her? I know I cannot do it alone. I need the support of Sangha. Sitting in the midst of those who meditate, a light grows as if from a seed inside of me. Hope arises like a small purple flame at the center of a candle, the kind that may stay lit and turn to a royal orange, or that may dampen and desist when untended.

I hear the sound of the bell and the flame is evoked; the voice is quiet. I wonder: is she listening? Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

At home I am overcome with the image of a downtrodden black boy, seven years old and angry. His name is Jerome. His arms are crossed, and his hands are creased with many lines.

I wonder to myself, is this she? Is this the voice I have been waiting to love?

A watercolor painting of Jerome shows his angry lines, his dejected pouting lips. I sit on the purple cushion to meditate and light a candle in front of the image. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. I soak in all of the aspects of Jerome, and create a space for love in my heart.

The voice is silent. I listen to the sound of my breathing. I see the candle flame, I see Jerome.

Angry voice arises, and the elephants come trampling in. They trample me. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

I am still alive, and the tears come again. This time the tears are not for me, they are for Jerome. They are for that small child inside of me that is so angry and unknown.

How many other suffering children are there? Which voices in my life do they come forth to represent? An angry father? A suffering relative? A buried ancestor coming back through my genetic structure to relay the message of pain?

How many times will I cry these tears? I don’t know. Some­times I can’t see their faces––I only hear the voice.

It is when I hear the voice that I know how much compassion and breath I need, and how much I need the Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma. They have brought me to a time and place where I can meet myself with love. They supplement the medications and therapy in which I invest for healing. They are my refuge and place of stillness. To sit with the Sangha is like drinking a balm of honey, lemon, and water. It is simplicity that spins around me like a cocoon.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. During Dharma discussion someone holds my hand. People raise voices to the question: Can you speak to the matter of holiness, practice, and depression?

This so that during individual practice Jerome and I become so much one that he and I both dissipate, and the voice comes and goes until all that is left is breath.

mb39-Voices2Sarah O’Brien practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC. She is a program coordinator for NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, of Montgomery County, Maryland, and enjoys playing Native American flute.

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Thich Nhat Hanh Responds to Young People

At the Colors of Compassion Retreat

In March, 2004, at the Colors of Compassion retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh addressed questions from two participants who are part of the group described in the article on page 23.


My name is Aaron, I’m from Boston, Massachusetts, I’m seventeen. Where I’m from it’s a more urban setting, and a lot of us kids are faced with feeling like we’re hopeless because a lot of problems that we have seem to just badger us and don’t go away. Everywhere you turn there’s a negative. Your friends peer pressure you to smoke weed or they might ask you: “Hey, I got problems with somebody, can you help me beat ‘em up?” And where I’m from, due to the facts of the streets, it’s almost a responsibility you hold for your friends. But you got so many negatives coming at you from each side, how can you use mindfulness and Buddhism to turn those negatives into a positive?

I think the first thing you must do is to create a place where people can feel safe. This is the work of Sangha building. You create a community where people know how to practice mindful breathing, mindful sitting, mindful walking; where people know how to handle their emotions and feelings. When that Sangha meets regularly and practices together, then you can invite other people. And when they come they feel safe, they feel that there is something beautiful and peaceful. They calm down and begin to see more clearly. The Sangha must help us get a taste of peace, of joy, of brotherhood through the practice. Then we can choose to go in the direction of peace.

You use drugs when you don’t know how to handle the suffering inside you. When the despair, the anger, the anxiety comes up, you get some drugs or alcohol in order to forget. Instead we can offer a Sangha of practice, and teach people how to handle the blocks of suffering inside. In the practice center we learn how to take care of our body by the practice of mindful eating and mindful drinking. We learn how to take care of our feelings and emotions when they manifest.

In the Sangha there should be people who have really mastered the practice, like a Dharma teacher or a long-time practitioner. Then we invite people over for tea and for a discussion, and they will experience the atmosphere of peace and safety. In Boston the young people who know how to practice can start a Sangha for young people. My answer is Sangha-building.

I’m also from Boston, Massachusetts. I came here to learn more about Buddhism and how you live your life here. I see now that it’s so beautiful, everybody welcomes everybody. Where I come from there’s not a lot of that. There’s a lot of negativity and discrimination. I’m eighteen, and teenagers my age go through so much in Boston, and most don’t know about Buddhism. They don’t know how to deal with their suffering. Is there a way that I can talk to my friends and help them understand this practice?

The living Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is a way of life that radiates peace, understanding, and compassion. That is why it is very important to show people the living Dharma and not just the Dharma in a book or a tape. People have made the teaching of the Buddha complicated, but in fact we can talk about it and we can show it to friends in a very simple way.

Thanks to the true practice, we can radiate the energy of gentleness, peace, and compassion, and others will feel it right away. That is the best way to introduce the Dharma to them. We have learned to touch the nobility in ourselves, the seed of understanding and compassion that exists in everyone. And when we talk to people, we can touch the seeds of compassion, joy, and understanding in them. Then these seeds will manifest as energies that help them feel much better. We need to train ourselves a little bit in order to do that.

In the teachings of the Buddha it is very clear that what is valuable in a person is not their race or caste, but their thought, speech, and action. You are noble not because of your race, but because of your way of thinking, your way of speaking, and your way of acting.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, everyone has the seed of equanimity within himself or herself. Equanimity means nondiscrimination. If we are able to touch our own seed of equanimity, the wisdom of nondiscrimination will manifest, and we will not suffer and make others suffer. Everyone has the seeds of joy and compassion in them, and if you know how to touch them you transform them into energies that make you feel happier, more joyful, more compassionate. The practice of watering seeds can bring such results right away.

You know the other person has the seed of joy and compassion in her. Suppose you talk to her in such a way that you touch those seeds, and half an hour later she becomes a different person. This is possible. You also know that she has the seeds of sorrow, despair, and jealousy in her. So you refrain from watering those seeds and you only recognize and water the positive seeds in her. In no time at all she becomes more pleasant, happier. This is not only for her sake but for our sake, and we call this the practice of selective watering.

I see young people who come home from a retreat transformed. Thanks to their true presence, which embodies the Dharma, the same aspiration and energy is born in their parents, and they embrace the practice and change themselves. Then the family is completely transformed. This is what I call the living Dharma. You can embody the living Dharma through this practice.

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Trainings of the Mind in Diversity

by Larry Yang

from Friends on the Path, edited by Jack Lawlor and published by Parallax Press

The practice of these trainings is an opportunity to begin the journey towards narrowing the experience of separation. As humans, we all participate in the harmful behaviors that these trainings are addressing. We all have been the perpetrator and victim, at one time or another. These trainings are for all of us, not just for any particular group or community. And in our conjoint practice is the vision, hope, and possibility of both cultivating non-perpetration of oppression and increasing the compassion in how we live our lives and understand each other.

Entering into the trainings can be done in many ways. They can be used in contemplative meditation practice and as themes for inquiry in individual practice. If used in a Sangha, they can serve as guided meditations and intentions, or the beginning of mindful conversations. Related to this is the possibility to use one or more of these trainings as guiding principles during critical discussion, conflict resolution, mediation, or other sacred dialogue.

The Trainings

  1. Aware of the suffering caused by imposing one’s own opinions or cultural beliefs upon another human being, I undertake the training to refrain from forcing others, in any way ––through authority, threat, financial incentive, or indoctrination ––to adopt my own belief I commit to respecting every human being’s right to be different, while working towards the elimination of suffering of all beings.
  2. Aware of the suffering caused by invalidating or denying another person’s experience, I undertake the training to refrain from making assumptions or judging harshly any beliefs and attitudes that are different or not understandable from my I commit to being open-minded and accepting of other points of view, and I commit to meeting each perceived difference in another person with kindness, respect, and a willingness to learn more about their worldview.
  3. Aware of the suffering caused by the violence of treating someone as inferior or superior to one’s own self, I undertake the training to refrain from diminishing or idealizing the worth, integrity, and happiness of any human Recognizing that my true nature is not separate from others, I commit to treating each person that comes into my consciousness with the same loving kindness, care, and equanimity that I would bestow upon a beloved benefactor or dear friend.
  4. Aware of the suffering caused by intentional and unintentional acts of rejection, exclusion, avoidance, or indifference towards people who are culturally, physically, sexually, or economically different from me, I undertake the training to refrain from relating to people of similar backgrounds as myself and from being only with people who make me feel I commit to searching out ways to diversify my relationships and increase my sensitivity towards people of different cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, physical abilities, genders, and economic means.
  5. Aware of the suffering caused by the often unseen nature of privilege, and the ability of privilege to benefit a select population over others, I undertake the training to refrain from exploiting any person or group, economically, sexually, intellectually, or I commit to examine with wisdom and clear comprehension the ways that I have privilege in order to determine skillful ways of using privilege for the benefit of all beings, and I commit to the practice of generosity in all aspects of my life and towards all human beings, regardless of cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, age, physical, or economic differences.
  6. Aware of the suffering caused to myself and others by fear and anger during conflict or disagreement, I undertake the training to refrain from reacting defensively, using harmful speech because I feel injured, or using argument to justify my sense of I commit to communicate and express myself mindfully, speaking truthfully from my heart with patience and compassion. I commit to practice genuine and deep listening to all sides of a dispute, and to remain in contact with my highest intentions of recognizing Buddha nature within all beings.
  7. Aware of the suffering caused by the ignorance of misinformation and the lack of information that aggravate fixed views, stereotypes, the stigmatizing of a human being as “other,” and the marginalization of cultural groups, I undertake the training to educate myself about other cultural attitudes, worldviews, ethnic traditions, and life experiences outside of my I commit to be curious with humility and openness, to recognize with compassion the experience of suffering in all beings, and to practice sympathetic joy when encountering the many different cultural expressions of happiness and celebration around the world.
  8. Aware of the suffering caused by the cumulative harm that a collective of people can impose on individuals and other groups, I undertake the training to refrain from consciously validating or participating in group processes, dynamics, activities, decisions, or actions which perpetuate the suffering that these trainings describe on a familial, social, institutional, governmental, societal, cultural, or global I commit to exploring, examining and eliminating the ways that I consciously and unconsciously ally myself with forces that cause harm and oppression, and commit myself to working for the benefit and peace of all.

(c) 2004 Larry Yang

Larry Yang is a psychotherapist and consultant in cultural competency living in northern California. He is a contributor to Dharma, Color, and Culture, a book being published by Parallax Press this month.

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Now is The Time for Engaged Buddhist Practice

By Larry Ward

mb38-Now1At this very moment, American society is full of anger, fear, confusion, and reactivity. The recent loss of our perceived psychological safety and physical security has removed the veil of material success as our great protector. With this curtain of affluence and influence torn away the depth of our suffering is fully revealed.

In these disturbing times full of apathy, fear, dispersion, and hope we find ourselves in a state of spiritual emergency. Some of our people of every race and class find themselves seduced by radical extremes of material, religious, and ideological fundamentalism in an attempt to respond to this emergency. In such a time nothing is more important than cultivating our capacities for mindfulness, understanding, and compassion.

As our teacher has said on many occasions, “Meditation is to be aware of what is going on––in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in our world.” True meditation is not running away from ourselves and our world but rather the courageous act of coming home. This is not a grim process, however sobering it might be. Acknowledging and embracing our suffering and the suffering around us is really challenging. But coming home to ourselves and our world is also touching and being touched by the wonders and mystery of life.

I know that many of us feel powerless and overwhelmed by the situation and behaviors of American society today, and we wonder how our meditation practice can help. It can help a great deal because as we personally heal and transform, our society heals and transforms also. If we dare risk deepening our practice of stopping and calming ourselves and deepening our practice of looking and seeing, we can witness miracles in ourselves and our world.

America’s Karma

I invite all of us as individuals and Sanghas to meditate on America’s karma. There are many notions of karma that have been handed down to us through centuries of spiritual practice. We often refer to karma as historical or divine retribution that we will receive by some power at the end of our life.

Thay’s description has been most helpful to my mindfulness practice. Karma is the living reality of our actions of body, speech, and mind that flows through time and space, having our unmistakable signature. Through my daily practice of the five remembrances I try my best to stay aware that “I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech, and mind. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

This living reality continually shapes my being and my becoming, and as it does so it shapes the being and becoming of my family, my community, and my society. The living reality of karma is my continuation and the continuation of my ancestors at every moment. No activity is more important right now to the well-being of our world than our capacity to inquire deeply into the true nature of our actions, individually and collectively.

The Process of Deep Inquiry

Inquiring into America’s karma is not easy. It must be done with stability and compassion. It is easy to get caught in judgment, assigning blame to others and regret to oneself. It is easy to be tempted by despair, for America is so big and we are so small.

During this depth inquiry it is important to remember to breathe and smile. This inquiry is not an intellectual or philosophical exercise. It is a real invitation to practice, to touch life right here, right now.

To look into America’s actions at this moment of history is to encounter many emotions, pleasant, unpleasant, and mixed. In order not to be overwhelmed we must use the tools we have received from Thay. I have found it important to enjoy a mindful walk or cup of tea in Noble Silence, and not to try to take in too much at once. I have learned that if I make such an inquiry without practicing concentration and awareness of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness, it is very easy to get trapped by wrong views. I have discovered that the best place to begin a meditation on America’s karma is with me. Since America is the place of my most recent blood ancestors, I have been deepening my awareness of America’s karma inside of myself. What seeds of thinking, speech, and action are resident in the storehouse of my consciousness? What perceptions of America reside in my mind? What individual and collective nutriments water these seeds?


We have come through another Presidential election season. I find that seeds of fear, confusion, power, and divisiveness have been profoundly watered in us all. Engaged Buddhism is not zendo-only Buddhism. It is the continuous act of coming home to ourselves and coming home to America. Regardless of the outcome of the recent elections, if our individual and collective actions remain without enquiry, the path of our destiny will not be altered.

In an effort to participate in American society, many of us simply substitute the most familiar or latest politically correct ideology. Sometimes we protest the warlike behavior of America with a sense of our own rightness while we remain at war with ourselves, our families, our Sanghas, our communities, and our country.

Bringing Home the Flag

Four days after our national independence day my father passed away. As is a custom for veterans, an American flag was placed on his coffin during the funeral. I have never been comfortable with the flag, especially as an African American, based on how it has often been used and abused.

But I had an insight during the funeral services that this is my flag, the flag of the land of my birth. I brought the flag home and placed it on an altar in my office to remind me of my connectedness to America. While America has negative qualities, she also has positive ones. It is my responsibility to manifest her hope and promise in my own life and the life around me. It is my opportunity to look into her suffering and the causes of her suffering in order to find relief.

Shortly before he passed away, my father shared with me his reflections on war as a WWII veteran. He said, “Please remember that nobody really wins.” So we must go deeper than mere politics in order to heal and transform America’s karma. We must not leave out the political realm but bring deep practice to it. We must bring our Buddha mind, our Dharma mind, and our Sangha mind to our collective life and destiny.

The trees outside my window are turning brilliant colors as they let go of their summer’s disguise. We too must let go of outdated disguises of opinions, positions, judgments, and habits in order to free ourselves to give America true understanding, true peace, and true love.

Larry Ward, True Great Sound, is a Dharma teacher living in North Carolina. This article is from notes on a book he is writing called America’s Karma. He and his wife, Dharma teacher Peggy Rowe are also developing a curriculum for the Bodhisavatta Mystery School of the Lotus Institute, which will include retreats and an on-line learning community, beginning in 2005.

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In the Footsteps of My Teacher

By Tran Kinh Tam An


Sitting at the feet of my Teacher
Seeing the rose held in two hands
Visualizing the cosmos in the rose
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

My Teacher speaks about transformation
All is in me; realization is the goal
Transform garbage and suffering into beauty and Nirvana
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Moon shining light on pitfalls on the path
Moon casting shadows to the left and then to the right
Moon, the Sangha guiding my steps on the path
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Standing in awe on the hilltop
Gazing at the twinkling city lights below
With a calm, peaceful heart and mind
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Sitting, calm and smiling
Peacefully concentrating on nature around me
My teacher turns and quietly watches me
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Gently picking up an insect crawling on my leg
Gently putting him down in the grass
Smiling, listening deeply, speaking lovingly
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

My teacher is beautifully present by my side
Waiting quietly, patiently to hear my pain
Knowing my need for empathy
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

I bow my head, while joining my palms
Acknowledge my weaknesses and strengths
I am in my Teacher; my Teacher is in me
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Simultaneously dwelling in the historical and ultimate dimensions,
Intellectual thinking moves from head to heart.
Faithful to my true self—interconnected with the universe,
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Tran Kinh Tam An, Peaceful Respect of the Heart, lives in Portland, Oregon where she practices with the Thursday Night Sangha and aspires to join the Order of Interbeing.

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How Can You Stand Being a Nurse?

by Cheryl Barnes-Neff, RN

Fourth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing: 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.


During my mentorship to join the Order of Interbeing, Ian Prattis asked my fellow aspirants and me to rewrite and discuss our personal experiences with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to make them more personal and to encourage us to look at them more deeply. This is my assignment for the Fourth Mindfulness Training:

Aware that it can sometimes be easier to make excuses for or to turn my head from suffering, I vow to look deeply at the suffering in the world, even when it is painful. To look deeply into others’ suffering is to support them in a profound way by acknowledging and touching them with compassion. I vow to remember that when I look into my patients’ eyes, I am looking into the eyes of the Buddha and myself. Giving them my undivided attention will nourish us both.

I have worked in the health care fi for many years as a nurse. There have been times when I felt overwhelmed by the suffering I saw, and sometimes I distanced myself emotionally from my patients and their families. I have seen colleagues in the medical field become cold and indifferent to their patients’ suffering because they felt overwhelmed, frightened, and helpless. We see our own mortality when we face how fragile life really is.

When I first became a nurse, I worked in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and was helping with my first severely burned patient. It was a powerful night. I was at heightened attention as I learned new procedures and cared for a seriously injured child. There were a few moments when I was able to look into this little boy’s eyes, trying my best to comfort him, talking and singing softly to him. His big brown eyes looking out from all the white gauze touched my heart and I’ll never forget him.

After I got off work, I met my sister and we went to a meeting with a Christian group that I had promised to attend with her. I was exhausted and drained, but listened quietly. A young man told us that no one has ever suffered as much as Jesus did on the cross, and that suffering is a beautiful thing that purifies our souls.

I was horrified! In unskillful language I told them all about my night, challenging them to tell that little boy that there was some kind of suffering competition, and that what he is going through is beautiful. My sister was upset with me and my speech was not skillful or appropriate.

The incident has helped me see how sincere people avoid looking at suffering deeply by working hard to bring a positive meaning to the things that happen that are so hard to understand. We build a wall between us and another to shield ourselves from their suffering when we seek to find reasons for the suffering or positive meanings from the results instead of being with them in total presence alone. In the back of our minds, we hope that if we figure out why bad things happen we’ll know how to prevent those bad things from happening to us; if we can figure out the good that comes from the suffering, then when the bad does befall us, we’ll be okay with it. We can’t be truly mindful when in the back of our minds we’re working to figure out all the ramifications of the situation, or when we’re actually busy hoping that things will become better.

A few years ago, I helped organize a staff education session about domestic violence. I invited one of the domestic violence detectives from the local sheriff ’s office to talk with the staff about her experiences and give us another perspective on this difficult topic. She played a recording of a 911 call from a little boy, trying to get help for his mother as she was being battered by her boyfriend. Listening to the boy’s cry for help took me by surprise —as a lump gathered in my throat and tears sprang to my eyes, I realized that there were still some walls between me and this tragic human experience. By softening my heart to this little boy, and holding my pain for him quietly and looking deeply at it, I could see aspects of my own childhood that I had tried to cover over and hide from myself. My challenge was to hold the little boy, the mother, and the boyfriend in this fresh light of compassion, to see that all three of them were suffering terribly. By looking deeply at their suffering, I could touch suffering within myself, and break down one more barrier between me and others.

Thay teaches us that when we feel anger, we should hold our anger like a baby—to neither express our anger nor suppress it, but to look deeply at our feelings so that we can understand the roots of our anger. This practice has worked for me in being with patients and their families as well. When I can hold their pain and look deeply at it, I neither become consumed and overwhelmed by their pain nor do I distance myself from them. If I can be deeply present with my patients, there are no walls of judgment or separation. I can help them so much more by listening to what they need and how they feel.

Learning to be present to my patients has been a wonderful practice for me. As a nurse, I was taught to fix things, to find a symptom and do something to change it for the better. But I’ve learned that when I deeply observe and listen to them, they can tell me far more about what is wrong and what they need. Helping to ease the burden of a patient’s suffering needs to be on his or her own terms for the help to be meaningful.

It has been a privilege to be with my patients through the triumphs, tragedies, births, and deaths. Looking at suffering deeply in my patients and myself has taught me about myself, the nature of suffering, and about impermanence. While life can be so resilient, when sitting with someone as they die, the flicker of a moment between life and death feels so tender and fragile.

We can understand impermanence with our heads, but it is in looking at suffering deeply that impermanence fills our hearts.

Cmb40-How2heryl Barnes-Neff, True Happiness in Peace, is a hospice nurse, living in central Florida and practicing with the Laurel Oak Sangha. She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in August.

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

mb42-dharma1Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.

In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.


In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.

But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.

If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.

I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.

A Logical Proposition

I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.

I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.

Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.

I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.

If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.

It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.

The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.

Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.

The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.

The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

The Power of Right Thinking

We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.

In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.

“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.

If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.

The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.

The Territories of the Mind

A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.

But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.

When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.

But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.

To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.

In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.

Being on Automatic Pilot

We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.

Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.

Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.

You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”

You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.

There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.

Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.

The Way Out of Depression

We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.

Whenmb42-dharma3 you come to a house and you want to meet someone in the house, you ask, “Is anyone home?” And if someone said, “Yes,” then you’d be happy. You don’t want to go to a house where there is no one.

Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.

If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.

The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.

A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.

The Key to the Door of Happiness

In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.

When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.

There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

A New Year’s Resolution

Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”

The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.

If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.

At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”

And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.

What Is Right View?

Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.

So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.

What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.

The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.

Tasting the Wonders of Life

There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.

While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.

While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.

The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.

Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.

Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.

As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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Dreaming with My Dad

Growing closer to those we love who have already passed away

By Sister Hanh Nghiem


How many of us have suffering from our past, especially when it comes to relationships and how we live our life? Many people ask how we can fix mistakes or heal deep wounds we carry with us in our daily life. The Buddha teaches us that impermanence is life. We like impermanence when it benefits us and gives us what we want, but when it takes us away from our loved ones or causes us to suffer, we don’t know how to accept it. We want to be with our loved ones forever. We want to make our life meaningful and precious.

I was raised Jewish and went to synagogue for all the High Holidays; we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover at home with the family. Every once in a while we went to minyan (prayer service) on Friday night, but still I felt a sense of emptiness and a lack of spirituality and guidance. I did enjoy the Jewish traditions and how the Jewish observances were so family oriented. When it was time for the family to gather for holidays, it wasn’t about gifts; we came together to remember our ancestors and to let go of regular daily routine, to reflect on our lives.

A Heart-Breaking Loss

Actually it was my dad, Barry Allen Brodey, who had the Jewish roots. My dad passed away ten years ago, when I was sixteen years old. Some teenagers shot him in order to get into a gang. I remember the day my mom had to break the news to us. She wanted to do it as skillfully as possible and took us to a beautiful wooded area near our house, where we sat on a log surrounded by trees in the early summer sunshine. The news was so shocking that I didn’t even cry. I didn’t know how or what to feel. I thought you only heard this news on the TV. I just turned into a frozen block of ice, filled with disbelief and despair. A part of me wanted to believe that he just went on a vacation. But he wasn’t on a vacation, and he would never come home. I never got to say good-bye or I love you one last time. He had to die alone and far away from home.

My father was like the summer sun, making everything around him vibrant and alive. There was no way any person could have a dull moment with him. He was the life of the party. He not only called me his little princess but also treated me like a princess. My dad was always more than happy to take me out with him, but like most kids I took it all for granted. He gave me all I needed to be happy—life and his love. But while he was still alive, I focused so much on wanting to understand his suffering, the part of him that was closed to the world and simply untouchable.


I was stuck on a weed rather than enjoying his garden. I didn’t feel it was my place to pry into his life and open up wounds, but it made me feel hopeless because I didn’t know how to connect with him. I couldn’t help him for fear that the family would deny what I saw, and I felt like a fool for saying anything. If my dad did share his sadness with me, I was afraid of having to truly face it and deal with it.

Looking back now, I know what I was doing at the moment was just perfect. I was there with him and in my heart I was happy to have him as my dad.



A Gift of Healing

After I was ordained, I started having dreams of my dad. They are such a refl    of how I was and how I have been transformed. The first happened five years after his death. I had been ordained only a few months. In this dream, I was in my bedroom—there were no colors. My dad walked in with a melancholic look, his head bent, his shoulders slumped. He gave no hint that he might be harboring a childlike hope to receive love by coming into his daughter’s room. I just sat there on my bed unmoved by his presence, nor did it dawn on me to show my love to him.

The second dream occurred about a year later. My dad came to visit me still very sad and depressed, oblivious to the world around him. This time I acknowledged his presence happily. The atmosphere was still somewhat gloomy, but there was love present. I took him on a tour of the monastery grounds and brought him up to a room to rest. I carried with me a photo album to show my dad the special events that had taken place in the past years. Many sisters came along with us to make both of us feel supported and loved. Then we parted company as he lay down on the bed and peacefully sank into it for a much needed rest.

In the last dream, which took place a year later, I was together with my dad, my sister, and my brother at some kind of celebration. There were lots of colored round balloons, red, yellow and blue ones, and many green trees under a clear sunny blue sky. We sat around a white table with a floral centerpiece, laughing and giggling as Dad told us stories. My dad was so happy. He looked as if many of his burdens had been lifted from him and his heart was much lighter. I could see his joy and freedom as my own, which made my heart rejoice in a peaceful way. Over the course of my stay in Plum Village, I have learned how to take refuge in the Sangha and break down a few of the walls around my heart to allow the love and wisdom of the Sangha to embrace me. But it didn’t embrace only me, it embraced my dad.

The Faith and Obedience of Abraham

My dad was not a Buddhist nor would he have wanted me to be a Buddhist nun. But one thing is for sure, he always wanted me to be happy. I took to this path out of faith and in obedience to what I heard in my heart, I think much like our Father Abraham did with God. Thanks to the practice of non-fear and learning to open my eyes to the life around me, my dad and I have the chance to live together for a long time. I have no regrets about our past relationship. Nor do I feel that he is alone, because he still lives with me every day, just as our spiritual ancestors continue in us through our faith and obedience.

Each time I hug a person or share my pain with someone, I know that he too is loved and he too is cared for, and we smile together in peace.

Sister Hanh Nghiem lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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Carts & Koans

By John Beaudry


I was standing on a narrow sidewalk, bent over, putting a small bandage on a cut my sandal keeps making in the top of my right foot.

The bus that would take us the remaining distance to the island and the temple had not arrived yet. So I had bought some bandages from the small store next to the bus stop.

Standing on the sidewalk, I put my foot on the store step, bent forward and concentrated on ending the little pain that had been present since early that morning when we had begun our journey from the city to the island.

On the first part of the journey, I had been focused on the koan I always carry in my mind. The strain of pushing against the barrier of the koan, of trying to close the space between it and my mind, merged with the irritation of the cut. The pain intensified the always-present feeling that I lacked sufficient ability to break through the barrier of the koan, that breaking through was impossible. Still, I held onto the koan as fiercely as I could.

Now, I finished attaching the bandage to the foot, checked it—and then realized that there was a head next to mine that also seemed to be looking at my foot. I straightened up to see an old, weathered woman standing next to me, bent over forward past a ninety-degree angle, with her hands clasped behind her back. She was trying to pass through the space between the store wall and me and was bent over because she could no longer stand up straight. I took my foot off the step, opening the space wider for her to pass through.

As she walked slowly past and away, I watched her, trying to see the cause of her present condition. The effect of her past struggles had been to push her dangerously beyond the limit of her physical ability. Past suffering had led to present suffering.

Her hands were the highest point on her body, resting way down her lower back almost directly over her legs. Those hands, I speculated, had carried baskets of vegetables, or worked rice fields, or pulled loaded carts behind her. In that moment, though, the hands’ purpose was to provide balance for walking, and to keep the arms out of the way: If she unclasped her hands, her arms would hang down in front of her legs, dead weight with nothing to support them. So, she held her arms and hands as far back as she could and let her legs carry them.

She reminded me of the old men and women in Seoul, where I live, who pull rustic, wooden carts behind them, collecting loads of cardboard and other recyclables, often piling them high above their heads. To me, the weight of the load looks like a lot more than they can handle, pulling the carts up resistant hills, down obstacle-filled alleys, through dangerous street traffic.

When I’m out walking the back road in the mornings, pushing against the barrier of the koan, I pass the cart pullers, often walking in the opposite direction. As we approach each other, their physical struggle is obvious. But there is something else as well, something underneath or behind their suffering that eludes my perception. What is it? In the moment we pass each other I try to cross the space between my understanding and their experience, and I fail.

They walk bent forward, arms behind, hands holding on tightly to the metal bar.

Walking at a slow, determined pace, the cart pullers seem to be concentrating only on the essential: a firm grip, the next step. Looking straight ahead, apparently undistracted by sights and sounds around them, and appearing to rely on intuition to find what they are looking for, they pull against the weight of their load. Are they really that single-minded in their purpose?

To me, their work seems possible only for people of greater physical ability—stronger, younger people. Month after month, on hot days and cold days, they walk their path. It may be that some dare to pity them. But, looking closely at them and seeing what they do, in those fleeting moments, I rediscover compassion and renew awe in my life, the same experience I had upon seeing the old woman who seemed to be looking at my foot.

Connecting to the Source of Compassion

After the old woman passed out of sight the bus came. And soon after that we crossed over the bridge to the island and arrived at the bottom of the road that led up to the temple. We walked up the steep hill at a slow but determined pace, and I noticed as we walked that the bandage was holding, protecting the cut.

At the top of the hill we passed through the old stone temple gate, headed for the main Buddha Hall, went in, and as we always did upon first arriving at a temple, performed the bowing ritual. As I bowed before the statue of Buddha, the weight of the koan, the weakness of my ability, and the strength of the barrier all bowed with me.

After a last bow, I stepped out of the temple door, putting my left foot in my sandal. And as I bent down to check the condition of the bandage on my right foot, I thought of the old woman at the moment when she had passed between the store wall and me. But this time I saw the moment clearly; this time I could see into it as it expanded in my mind.

The moment deepened until it merged with my whole being. In that one moment that seemed to extend forever, I saw deeply into the simple and awesome truth of the moment when the old woman passed between the wall and me, and at the same time into the mystery of the cart pullers.

This moment merged with that moment in a birth of clarity, and I connected to the source of my compassion for them, and my awe. I understood: There are people all around me who are doing the impossible. And in that moment I shared their burden, their suffering and their strength. There was no space between us.

Intuitively, I turned my head from the bandage on my foot to the direction the old woman’s head had appeared from—and saw the smiling face of a monk who was walking toward the Buddha Hall to welcome us. I slid my right foot firmly into the sandal, stood up straight, clasped my hands behind my back, and walked slowly forward to meet him.

John Beaudry has taken the precepts but continues to search hermitages deep in the Korean mountains for an old master to take as a teacher. He lives in Seoul.

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Dharma Talk: Throwing Away

Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

June 7 – 8, 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

During the Breath of the Buddha retreat at Plum Village, Thây focused on the Sutra on Mindful Breathing, which he had just translated from the Chinese. In this excerpt from two Dharma talks,Thây discusses exercises 11 through 14.

Exercise 11: Skillfully he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

Exercise 12: Skillfully he practices breathing in, liberating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

mb43-dharma2The practice of concentration helps us to understand the nature of affliction, and with that kind of insight, we can burn affliction away. Concentration as energy has the power of transformation. Concentration is something extremely important in the teaching of the Buddha.

To concentrate means to concentrate on something. In the teaching of the Buddha, many kinds of concentration are proposed. According to our need, we can apply one or two of these concentrations to free us, like concentration on impermanence, concentration on non-self, concentration on compassion, concentration on interbeing, and so on. Each concentration, each samadhi, has its own name.

The Buddha spoke about the three doors of liberation, which are considered to be three concentrations: emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness.

Emb43-dharma3mptiness is not a philosophy, a description of reality. Emptiness is a practice. Emptiness does not mean non-being, non-existence. There’s a big difference between non-existence and emptiness. Suppose we look at the glass. It is empty. The glass is empty, but the glass is not non-existent, right? In order to be empty, you have to be there. That is one thing you can learn—emptiness is not non-existence. The second thing is that when we say the glass is empty, you have to ask, “Empty of what?” It’s not empty of air. It is empty of tea, but it is full of air. So the intelligent question to ask is, “Empty of what?” The first answer may be: empty of a separate existence, empty of a separate self.

This is the simplest description in the Buddhist scriptures about emptiness, about interbeing: this is, because that is. As practitioners, we don’t just speak of emptiness as a teaching philosophy. We have to transform emptiness into a complete practice.

Signlessness is the second door of liberation. “Sign” means the appearance or the form. We are used to seeing the form that is the object of our perception. Nimita is the form. Animita is formlessness, or signlessness. The practice is not to be attached to the form, and this needs some training.

Those of us who have lost a loved one, we know grief. But if you are equipped with the concentration of signlessness, formlessness, you can overcome your grief, your sorrow, very quickly. You are capable of seeing things in the light of signlessness: nothing is born, nothing dies. Everything continues in this new form. You also! Your nature is the nature of deathlessness.

Aimlessness is the third door of liberation. Apranihita is the Sanskrit term. Apranihita means you don’t put anything in front of you as object of your pursuit. What you are looking for is already there, not outside of you. You are already what you want to become. You are wonderful just like that. Don’t try to be something else, someone else. You don’t have to go to the future in order to get what you want. Everything you are looking for, it is right here, in the here and the now, including the Kingdom of God, your immortality, your deathlessness. Your enlightenment is right here. And that is truly the third door of liberation: aimlessness.

The Concentration on Loving Kindness

There is a concentration called maitri, karuna—love, compassion. And the contemplation on love, on compassion, can bring you a lot of relief, can bring the nectar of healing to you.

Suppose someone has made you suffer. You think of him or her as very cruel. That person has inflicted on you a lot of suffering, on your family, on your country. And because of that you want that person or that group of persons to suffer a lot for you to get relief. You are thinking in terms of punishment. That hate, that anger, that will to revenge is a kind of fire that continues to burn your body and your mind, and you are in hell. Hell is here in the here and the now.

Just before, we spoke about the Kingdom of God being in the here and the now. But that is true of hell. Hell can be in the here and the now. If we allow the flame of affliction to burn us, there are moments when lying on our bed we cannot sleep because our whole body, our whole being is burned by the fire of hate, of anger, of despair.

The concentration on maitri, on karuna, on compassion, will help you to suffer less.

With your attention focused on the other person, you can see that the other person suffers a lot also. The fact is that when someone suffers a lot and is not capable of handling his or her own suffering, she will spill her suffering all over, and you become a victim of that.

And you may be like that. You are suffering a lot, and if you don’t know how to manage your suffering, you continue to suffer and you will make others around you suffer, including the people you love.

Looking deeply, we see that the other person, as a child, did not have a chance to learn love and compassion from his or her parents. The parents have caused a lot of wounds in him, in her, as a child; and no one has helped him or her to heal the wounds in the child. And then when they went to school, the teacher did not help, and the students around did not help. The seeds of anger, suffering, and hate continued to grow.

Such a person needs help, not punishment. By looking deeply and recognizing the presence of suffering in that person, you might see the truth that that person needs help. And now if we punish him, he will suffer more.

This insight may motivate you to do something to help that person. With that kind of insight, the hate and anger vanish, because that insight brings the nectar of compassion. And the nectar of compassion is wonderful. You stop suffering right away. The fire that has been burning, stops burning. That is the effect of metta meditation, the meditation on compassion.

Compassion for a Suicide Bomber

Nowadays we learn that there are many young people in the Mideast, they are ready to die, to blow themselves up with a bomb in order to kill as many as possible. We call them terrorists, and we believe that in order for the world to be peaceful, you have to kill all these terrorists. So you invest a lot of money and energy into what you call the war against terror. The more you kill, the more terrorists you create, because the killing is an act of punishment. Then the family and the friends of the one who is killed burn with the flame of anger, the will to punish. In killing one so-called terrorist, you create three, four terrorists more. That is what is happening.

There are many young people who suffer so much hate and despair, not only in Iraq, but also in Europe, in America. The number of young people who kill themselves every day is enormous. When you are burned by the flame of despair, of hate, of violence, you suffer so much. And as a young person, you don’t know much about your mind, about the practice. You believe that the only way to stop the suffering, the burning, is to kill yourself.

I guess for many young people, to die is much easier than to live, because they are overwhelmed by the emotions—of hate, of despair. And then you are told that by dying you might help the cause of justice, and you can go to paradise right away after death.

These kinds of perceptions and feelings lead to the act of suicide bombing. If you look deeply, you see that these people need help. And the operation to kill them is not the right answer. We have to help them to see there is a way out of suffering, that only love and compassion and understanding can solve the problem.

One side is using violence. The other side is responding with violence. And the situation goes on without a chance to stop. The way out is shown by the Buddha. Hate cannot respond to hate. Violence cannot respond to violence. There must be another way. The meditation on compassion is essential.

During the war in Vietnam we were able—myself and many friends of ours—to see that the young Americans who came to Vietnam to kill or to be killed were also victims of a wrong policy. With that kind of insight we tried to work for reconciliation rather than supporting one side of the war.

In my experience, the concentration on compassion is a wonderful practice. You may need only fifteen minutes of breathing deeply and looking deeply to recognize that the other person is a victim of his or her own suffering. That person needs you, needs your help, and does not need your punishment. Suddenly the nectar of compassion is born, your heart is blessed with that nectar, and you don’t suffer any more. Instead, you want to do something, to say something, and if you are not capable of loving speech you can write a letter. You can say something kind in order to help that person. But you cannot help that person until you have been able to help yourself. Peace and compassion always begin with yourself.

The Reality of Impermanence

Exercise 13: Contemplating impermanence, I breathe in. Contemplating impermanence, I breathe out.

Impermanence is a key that can unlock the door of reality. It is also a concentration, a practice. Intellectually we know that things are impermanent. We can agree with the truth of impermanence. Our scientists also agree that things are impermanent. But in reality we still behave as though things are permanent.

We have to keep the insight of impermanence alive. When we come in touch with anything, we should be able to see the nature of impermanence in it.

mb43-dharma4We have to distinguish between the notion of impermanence and the insight of impermanence. We may have the notion of impermanence, we may have understood what impermanence is, but we do not have the insight of impermanence. The insight is something alive.

Impermanence is a fact that science has to recognize. When you are able to see the nature of impermanence, you’ll begin to see the nature of non-self. Because non-self is not different from impermanence. Since everything is changing in every second, nothing can remain itself in two consecutive moments. So impermanence means non-self. They are the same thing.

Looking from the angle of time, you say, impermanence. Looking from the angle of space, you say, non-self. They are exactly the same thing.

In the Pali canon, non-desire comes next. In the Chinese canon, throwing away is next.

Throwing Away What?

Exercise 14: Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go. Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

Throwing away is a wonderful practice. You might like to ask, “Throwing away what?” What is to be thrown away?

We have learned that wrong perceptions are the ground of all afflictions— fear, anger, discrimination, despair. So it’s easy to know that throwing away here means to throw away wrong perceptions—ideas or notions—that are at the base of our suffering. It is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation. You have an idea, and you entertain that idea for a long time, and you continue to suffer.

Every one of us entertains an idea about happiness. It may be because of that idea of happiness that we’ve never been happy. So it’s very important to throw away that notion of happiness.

A nation is a community of people, and they may entertain together one idea, one ideology. Each political party—the socialist party, for instance—entertains an idea. And we might get caught in that idea. An ideology may be a trap, and your nation may be caught in it for sixty, seventy years, and during that time you create a lot of suffering. Those who do not agree with that ideology, you put them in psychiatric hospitals. The moment you release that idea, happiness begins to be possible.

So throwing away is very important. It takes insight and courage in order to throw away an idea.

The word is “throwing away.” It’s very strong; it’s not just letting go. The Sanskrit, the Pali term, is “throwing away” in a very strong way. The Vietnamese meditation master Tang Hoi, he used the word phong xa for throwing away. Tang Hoi was the first teacher of meditation in Vietnam, who lived in the first half of the third century.

Insights from the Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away four notions. The first notion is the notion of self. It is by intensive training that you can throw away the notion of self.

If a couple knows how to live in a spirit of non-self, there will be no difficulty, no anger, no discrimination, no despair, because they have realized the truth of non-self. If a father and son, mother and daughter, have the insight of non-self, they look at each other as interbeing.

mb43-dharma5There is the idea that I am this body. This body is mine, belongs to me. This is a notion that does not correspond to reality. When we say the words “I am,” we say it on the ground of the notion “I am,” and still people do not believe very much in that statement. That is why they try to justify it with a kind of argument.

In order to demonstrate that “I am” is a reality, René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” One day I saw a cartoon picturing Descartes touching a horse. He declared, “I think, therefore I am.” And the horse asked back, “You are what?” That is a good question. If you can answer what you are, you may have a better idea that is closer to reality.

In the scripture it is written, “This is, because that is.” This is a statement about interbeing. If you are not there, I cannot be here.

So it is very important to throw away the notion “I am,” the notion of self, because it does not reflect the truth. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, you are capable of throwing away that notion of “I am.”

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away is the notion “man,” human being. This is not too difficult. When we look into the human being, we see human ancestors, we see animal ancestors, we see vegetable ancestors, we see mineral ancestors. We see that the human is made of non-human elements. We see that we are at the same time a rock, a river, a cloud, a squirrel, a rose. And if we take away all the non-human elements, the human being is no longer there.

This is the deepest teaching on deep ecology. In order to protect the human being, you have to protect elements that are not human, because these elements are our ancestors, and if you destroy them there is no way we can be here. That is why discrimination between man and nature is a wrong view. You have to see you as nature, one with nature.

That is why harmony, respect of life, is possible. So throw away the idea that the human being is the boss, man is the boss, man can do anything to nature. The key is contemplation on impermanence of non-self.

The first to be thrown away is the notion of self, the second is the notion of man. With liberation from that notion, we become less proud, less arrogant as a species. We have to respect and protect other species in order for us to have a chance. That is why we said the Diamond Sutra is the oldest text on deep ecology.

We have the notion of la matiere inerte. But if you look deeply into the notion that matter is something without soul, without life, we see that is not true.

First of all, matter is the object of our perceptions. For a long time we believed that matter exists as a separate entity, and matter is something that does not move. But now as science advances, we see that matter is not static and immobile as we thought. In fact, the atoms, the electrons, move a lot. They are very alive. And looking more deeply, we see a lot of our mind in it, and we are not sure that they are there, in the way we imagined. So the distinction between living beings and non-living beings disappears after meditation. There is no longer any discrimination.

The fourth notion to be thrown away is the notion of lifespan. We believe that there is time, and we are born at one point of time. Our birth begins here, and we shall die at another point of time—death. I’ll only spend seventy, eighty, ninety or one hundred years on this planet. After that, I’ll be gone. This is what we believe. But as we look deeply, we see that this is a notion, a wrong perception. Birth is a notion, and death is also a notion. It’s not reality.

We have spoken of the deathlessness of a cloud. The cloud can never die. It can only become rain or snow. In our mind, to die means from something you become nothing; from someone you become no one. But if you look deeply you don’t see anything like that. A cloud can never die. If we look deeply we see that the nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. In our mind, to be born means from nothing we become something. From no one we suddenly become someone.

The cloud does not come from nothing. It has come from the water in the river, in the ocean. It has come from the sunshine, the heat. And you know that the birth of a cloud is a poetic image. It is a new manifestation. Before being a cloud, the cloud has been many other things.

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Birth and death are notions that cannot be applied to reality, because nothing can be born from nothing, and nothing can become nothing at all. This meditation practice of looking deeply will bring about insight. It will dissipate our fear and our despair.

Those are the four basic notions that are at the foundation of our fear, our desperation, our suffering. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to practice looking deeply, so that we can throw them away. The practice of throwing away your notions, your views, is so important. Emancipation and liberation would not be possible without this practice of throwing away.

If we suffer a lot, it’s because we still entertain a number of ideas. The practice of meditation helps us to get free from these ideas.

Our World Needs Wisdom

So the object of our meditation is not something alien to our daily life. The way proposed by the Buddha is to help yourself and to help the people around you. It is to practice looking more deeply in order to be liberated from these notions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence.

Writing a letter to a suicide bomber is true meditation. Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight. As a teacher, as a parent, a journalist, a filmmaker, you are capable of sharing your insight so that you can wake up your nation, your people. And if your nation, your people, are awake, then your government will have to act according to the insight of the people.

Meditation is essential for our survival, our peace, our protection. In fact, it is wrong views that are at the base of our suffering, and throwing away wrong views is the most important, most urgent thing.

To come to a retreat is not to get away from it all. To come to a retreat is an opportunity to look deeper, and to see exactly where we are.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Greg Sever and Janelle Combelic.

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing

This is what I have heard at a time when the Buddha was residing in the Jeta Grove in the town of Sravasti.

On that day, the World-Honored One told the Bhikshus:

“Dear friends, let us enjoy the practice of Mindful Breathing. If a Bhikshu knows how to skillfully practice Mindful Breathing, and does so consistently, he will find his body and mind peaceful; he will acquire positive investigations and reflections; his mind will be calm and pure; and he will have perceptions leading to Wisdom and be able to bring his practice to completion.

“This is how a bhikshu should proceed:

“Whether the bhikshu lives in a village or in a town, in the morning he puts on his sanghati, holds his begging bowl, and goes into town for alms round. While doing so, he knows how to protect his body and his six senses, his mind skillfully focused on whatever is present. After the alms round, he returns to his dwelling, puts his sanghati and begging bowl away, washes his feet, goes into the forest, to an empty room, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty space in the open air, and sits down in an upright position. He holds his mindfulness in front of him, releases all worldly pursuits, and lets go of his anger, torpor, restlessness, regret and doubt, his mind determined to be in accord with wholesome dharmas, leaving far behind the five hindrances that cause afflictions, weaken his wisdom and constitute an obstacle on the path of Nirvana.

1. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his out-breath.

2. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in a long or a short in-breath, fully aware of his long or short in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out a long or a short out-breath, fully aware of his long or short out-breath.

3. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his whole body.

4. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, relaxing his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, relaxing his whole body.

5. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing joy.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing joy.

6. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing happiness.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing happiness.

7. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his feelings.

8. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, calming his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, calming his feelings.

9. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his mind.

10. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, gladdening his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, gladdening his mind.

11. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

12. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, liberating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

13. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating impermanence.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating impermanence.

14. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

15. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating non-desire.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating non-desire.

16. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating cessation.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating cessation.

“Bhikshus! That is how the practice of Mindful Breathing helps make our body and mind peaceful, helps us acquire positive investigations and reflections, makes our mind calm and pure, helps us have perceptions leading to Wisdom, and brings our practice to completion.”

After the Buddha had finished his teaching, the bhikshus, having listened to the Buddha, happily put the teachings into practice.

Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 2, No. 99, Tsa A Han (No. 29) 803.
Chinese translated from Sanskrit by Gunabhadra, A.D. 435-443 ( Liu Song period ).
Translated from Chinese by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Letter to a Suicide Bomber

Excerpts from June 8 and 9 Dharma Talks

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

—Albert Einstein

How can we apply these teachings [on compassion]?

You may like to write a letter to a young man who is about to commit suicide in your country, or in Iraq. In France, many young men and women commit suicide every day. In the United Kingdom, in America, also. In every country. As a practitioner, as a dharma teacher, as a poet, you can write that young man a letter, the way Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a letter to a young poet. We can write a letter to the young terrorist, because he entertains ideas that make him suffer and make others suffer.

I learned that the young terrorists, they don’t like to be called terrorists. They prefer the term “suicide bombers.” You can, as a British citizen, as an American citizen, write him a letter—from your own practice, your own liberation. People in your countries still entertain ideas concerning peace, safety, and terrorism. Because we continue to entertain these ideas, we support violence and terror. The practice is to recognize the notions that have led to fear, to terror—to remove all these notions in order for us to be understanding, to be compassionate, and to help other people to be understanding, to be compassionate at the same time.

You may begin like this: “Dear Friend, I know you don’t want to be called a terrorist, although many people are calling you a terrorist. You prefer to be called a suicide bomber. You may think that you are acting in the name of justice, in the name of God, of Allah. You think that you are doing the right thing.

“You believe that there are people who want to destroy your religion, your nation, your way of life. That is why you believe that your act is an act in the good direction. You punish the evil people, the enemies of Allah, of God. And you are certain that as a reward you’ll be welcomed right away to the Kingdom of God, into paradise.

“In my country there are people who believe that way, too. They believe they have to go to your country and find young people like you to kill—to kill for the sake of safety and peace, to kill in service to God.

“We all are caught in our wrong views. In the past I have entertained wrong views like that. But I have practiced, and that is why I’ve been able to get rid of these wrong views. I’m able to understand myself better. I feel that I understand you and the people in my country, including the ones who commit suicide every day.”

Maybe there are a few dozen of us who would like to write a letter from our own insight, from our own liberation. We may combine all these letters into a collective letter that could be read not only by the young people who are going to die and to make people die in the Middle East, but also in our own country. Many young people entertain ideas and notions that are at the foundation of their despair, their anger, their craving. They suffer and they continue to make other people suffer, including their parents and their society.

No matter where we live, in England, in America, in Egypt, in Asia, we all have our wrong perceptions. We have wrong perceptions of ourselves, and we have wrong perceptions of other people, our friends, our enemies. Suffering is the outcome of wrong perceptions. So the letter is first of all an attempt to remove wrong perceptions—not only in the young person who is going to kill himself but in those who are going to read the letter.

The letter is a form of dialogue; the aim is to help each other remove wrong perceptions that have been there a long time. So this is a very deep practice.

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Sangha Building in Hanoi

By Trish Thompson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Service in Hanoi

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

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

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

Planting a Dharma Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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For Abby-Rose, With Love

By Laura Lester Fournier

The night before I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Stonehill College last August, I sat with friends and together we read the Trainings. I remember taking in every word deeply and contemplating what I was about to commit to. The topic that kept coming up for conversation was found in number five: specifically, “I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant.” For me, there was no question that if I were to commit to that, I would commit to no longer drinking alcohol. My friends, however, found peace in the idea that this is a practice and not a commandment. They did not have to be absolute; they simply needed to approach drinking with more mindfulness—although that in itself seems like a contradiction in terms. Can one ever drink mindfully, given that alcohol is an intoxicant that alters our consciousness?

As we shared our feelings and laughed together, I became crystal clear about my intention. I was no longer going to drink alcohol.

Transforming the Generations

I come from a long line of alcoholics, though I myself am not an alcoholic. I have a strong desire to help transform this disease for my ancestors and for the children who will follow in the generations yet to be born. It occurred to me that although I am not an alcoholic, my beautiful ten-year-old daughter Abby-Rose could be. The moment I realized that my daughter’s very life could be the price I pay if I continued, I felt completely grounded in my intention to no longer drink alcohol. I had a profound opportunity to transform something in me and in my ancestors and potentially in my daughter. It was my chance to shine a light on something that could alter my daughter’s life profoundly. Although I only have a drink once or twice a month, alcohol was still something that I continued to reach for. I could dedicate my decision to my ancestors, my precious child, and all those who suffer with alcoholism.


The following morning as I stood with my friends listening to Thây’s beautiful voice and hearing the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I felt so proud and sure that I was taking a step that only good would come from.

When I got home, I sat down with Abby and shared with her my decision to no longer drink. I shared how much suffering there has been in our family because of alcoholism and my wish for her for a life that is free from that kind of suffering. She listened quietly and when I was done she reached for me and gave me the longest and deepest hug I have ever received from her. I knew that she understood. I knew that she heard me on a level of spirit, connection, and conviction, beyond words.

The next day, I took my bottle of vodka out of the freezer. I walked to the kitchen sink and held it up to the sunlight shining through the window. As I gazed into the bottle, all I saw in it was suffering, and it caused me to weep. I unscrewed the cap and poured the contents down the drain, breathing deeply and remaining truly present to my commitment. I then walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water. I held the water up to the light streaming through the window and saw nothing but joy and thanksgiving. I drank the water and blessed it with gratitude.

But there was still the liquor cabinet in the family room. Ultimately, all that was left was a bottle of French wine. I thought that was appropriate, given that Plum Village is in France and it felt like a synchronistic connection with the Sangha and Thây. I knew right away what I wanted to do with the bottle. I wanted to return it to the earth. I walked outside to our summer house, a wonderful sanctuary where we have had many celebrations at our home in New Hampshire. The summer house is surrounded by a grove of trees and is very magical. I thought about all the good times we have had there and also about all the times when liquor was a central ingredient in those celebrations.

I knelt on the ground; the sun was shining through the trees, dappling the ground with little moments of radiance. I dug a hole and placed the bottle in it and covered it back up with dirt. I bowed to the earth and placed my hands on the dirt. I felt all my ancestors around me at that moment. I felt their hands on my back and I felt them smiling, I felt their gratitude and their healing. I felt myself healing, too. I knew that the cycle had come full circle—all for the love of one very special little girl, one promise of the future, one Abby-Rose.

A Champagne Flute Full of Joy

Since giving up drinking, I have had the opportunity to really see when I want a drink. There seem to be two times when I crave it. First, when I want to really let my hair down and have a good time! And the other is when I am completely stressed out and want to escape. During those times I miss the feeling I would get from that first sip of alcohol. Instant relaxation. A few sips later, I would not even remember whatever it was that I was stressed or worried about. It was like a mini-vacation.

I did not realize how much I had come to rely on that bottle to give me peace or just take the edge off. I didn’t drink very often, but I knew alcohol was available if I wanted it. Just the thought that I could go to the freezer and get that bottle and escape was sometimes intoxicating enough for me.

Now that I am not drinking I have found myself wondering if I truly am an alcoholic. There have been days when I wanted a drink, because I was stressed or because I wanted to party. That’s when I have an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and go deep into my practice. I get to return to my breath. I get to go home.

I can choose to celebrate and fill my champagne flute with something nourishing and joyful, rather than something that will only cause me more suffering. I have the opportunity to remind myself of ways that I can avoid becoming so stressed. Rather than escaping into a false peace, I can embrace a true peace. A peace that I joyfully pass on to the next generation.

Laura Lester Fournier, Awakened Direction of the Heart, lives on a small farm with lots of animals in New Hampshire, where she facilitates a children’s sangha.

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A Call for a Collective Awakening

Speech to UNESCO in Paris, October 7, 2006

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb44-ACall1Ten years ago, I was asked by the director of UNESCO, his Excellency Federico Mayor, to write a manual on the practice of peace and nonviolence, and I readily accepted the work. For me, writing this manual was an easy thing to do, because in Plum Village where I live and practice, we do nothing but practice peace and nonviolence — all year round. There are about three hundred monastics and lay people who live together in Plum Village, and what we learn everyday is to be peace and to do peace. Our center is also open to friends from all over the world to come and practice, and about five to ten thousand people come every year to learn to be peace and to practice peace and nonviolence. That is why I was ready to accept the work of writing the manual, which took about one year to finish with the help of the Dharma teachers in Plum Village.

When you come to Plum Village, you learn how to breathe so that peace, happiness, and freedom are possible; how to walk so that you can enjoy every step, and so that every step can be refreshing, healing, and nourishing; how to sit so that peace, understanding, and wisdom become possible. We also learn to eat our breakfast and do our dishes in way that makes freedom, peace, brotherhood, love, understanding, and joy possible; and the practice is continuous.


We have offered the practice of peace to many different kinds of people including children, students, parents, school teachers, police officers, ecologists, psychotherapists, business leaders, and others. The children who come to Plum Village practice very well, and they are capable of being peace and practicing peace. We offer different kinds of retreats to serve different kinds of people in their desire to practice nonviolence and peace.

We once offered a retreat in the United States of America for police officers and for corrections-center administrative personnel. You can picture those police officers now, practicing mindful breathing and mindful walking while patrolling the streets. Those police officers are now capable of using loving speech and deep listening in order to restore communication between themselves and their families. Everyone can practice, including politicians. We have offered a retreat for members of Congress in Washington, D.C. and there are now congressmen and senators who practice walking meditation on Capitol Hill. They know how to do walking meditation from their office to the place where they cast their votes. We have also offered the practice for people who are in prison, and there are now practitioners in prison enjoying breathing, sitting, and walking, and they suffer much less. Also among the people who come to our center to practice are many school teachers, and they are able to bring the practice to their classrooms to help their students suffer less.

Proposal 1: An Institute for Peace

Over the years, we have trained more than f ive hundred Dharma teachers in the practices of Plum Village, and they can offer the practice of peace and nonviolence in a non-sectarian way. If UNESCO wants to set up a school for the practice of peace, we can afford to offer teachers — both monastic and lay — and we don’t need any salary.


The peace manual was completed several years ago and it was published as a book by Riverhead. We have added a number of anecdotes and stories in order to make it pleasant for our readers, but it is essentially a manual for the practice of peace and nonviolence. We know that there is violence within us, and that there are also fear, despair, and anger in us. We should know how to recognize, embrace, and transform the violence and anger within. In Plum Village, we don’t just speak about nonviolence and peace — we try to do it. Once we have been able to transform the violence in us, we can help other people around us to do the same. We can help other people recognize, embrace, and transform the violence and suffering in themselves, and these are very concrete ways to practice.

Over the years, we have sponsored many Palestinian and Israeli groups to come to Plum Village to practice with us. In the beginning, it is always very difficult for the two groups to look at or speak to each other, because everyone has a lot of fear, anger, despair, hate, and misunderstanding. Therefore, their practice during the first week is just breathing and walking mindfully, so they can calm down and recognize the energy of anger, fear, and violence in themselves, and they can get a kind of relief. After about ten days, we introduce them to the practice of deep, compassionate listening. In this practice, you listen with all your heart in order to give the other person a chance to empty his or her heart. There is a lot of suffering within the other person, and maybe no one has ever been able to listen to him or to her. One hour of listening like that can bring a lot of relief to the other person. The group of Israelis sit quietly in order to listen to the Palestinians and vice versa. You have the right to say what is in your heart, but you should use the kind of language that will help the other person or the other group of people to get the message, and this kind of language is called loving speech. You are not supposed to argue, condemn, or blame, but you can tell everything, with the condition that you use loving speech.

Practicing like that and speaking like that can help restore communication. When you listen like that, you have an opportunity to realize that the other group consists also of people who have suffered exactly like you have. Their children, their men and women have suffered tremendously like your own people, your own children. If you see that they have a lot of wrong perceptions about themselves and also about you, you tell yourself that later on, you will have time to help them correct their perceptions by offering them the kind of information that they need in order to do so. If while listening, you realize that you too have wrong perceptions, then you have a chance to correct your own perceptions. It is only when you are able to see the other person as a human being who has suffered as much as you have, that you can begin to look at him with the eyes of compassion. Looking at him or at her like that makes you suffer less, and it makes him or her suffer less at the same time.

After the second week of practice, the two groups are able to share a meal together and hold hands to do walking meditation together. We have witnessed this kind of transformation in our community. Before they leave for the Middle East, they always come up as one group and report to us about the fruits of their practice. They always promise that once they go back home, they will organize activities that will allow other Palestinians and Israelis to join them in the practice so that they too, can suffer less.

Regional Peace Institutes

I propose that as religious and spiritual leaders, you establish an institute for the practice of peace and nonviolence in your own home country — whether you are Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian — because teaching and practicing peace is not confined to any one religion. The practices in our peace manual are nonsectarian. As a monk, a priest, a minister, a rabbi, or a school teacher, we are in touch with the grassroots, and if we know the art of making and practicing peace, we can help our own community. That is why my first proposal today is for UNESCO to set up such an institute for the practice of peace and nonviolence, and for all of you to also think about establishing such an institute where you live. That way, people like parents, school teachers, business leaders and even political leaders can come and learn how to practice peace.

We know that UNESCO has circulated Manifesto 2000, with its six points of practice for the culture of peace and nonviolence.(1) I know also that more than 70 million people have signed Manifesto 2000, including heads of state; but most of us, after having signed the Manifesto, do not have a way to put the six points into practice. That is why I would like to urge all of you, my friends, to organize yourselves in order for the practice to be possible.

In the Buddhist tradition, we recite the five precepts, the ten precepts, or the 250 precepts every fortnight, and we look back on the past two weeks and ask ourselves whether we have practiced them well or not. We also hold discussions to learn how better to practice the commitments we have made. It is very important that we organize ourselves as communities to recite the six points of the Manifesto and try to practice them in our daily life. The institute for the practice of peace and nonviolence would have the role of helping and supporting that kind of practice.

Proposal 2: Middle Eastern Summit

The second proposal that I would like to make today, is that UNESCO sponsor a summit gathering for Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders somewhere in France, perhaps in the Abbaye Royaumont. I know that the violence in the Middle East has the element of religion in it, and Mr. Osama bin Laden actually believes that Christianity and Judaism are trying to destroy Islam as a religion and a way of life. Of course, violence has its roots in fear and hate; but fear, hate, and despair are born from our wrong perceptions. If the groups of Israelis and Palestinians practicing in Plum Village could come together as brothers and sisters, it is because they had a chance to spend several weeks in Plum Village, living together and practicing together. It is my conviction that if these Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders could come and live together for at least twenty-one days — eating together, walking together, breathing together, listening to each other, doing everything together — they will help each other remove a lot of wrong perceptions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence. After that summit, they will issue a call for the cessation of hostility in the Middle East. A Dutch documentary film called My Life Is My Message tells the story of the practice of our Israeli and Palestinian friends and you may like to watch that film.(2) Parallax Press has also issued a book called Peace Begins Here that is about the fruits of the practice of the Palestinian and the Israeli groups.(3)


Proposal 3: Global No-Car Day

The third and last proposal that I would like to make today, is for UNESCO to sponsor monthly No-Car Days. We know that global warming is our common concern. We are polluting the world. We are making our Mother Earth suffer too much. We have to take action, and that is why I would like to propose that UNESCO, our leader in education, science, and culture, mobilize for global No-Car Days for the whole planet.

In Plum Village where we live, as well as in our Deer Park Monastery in the United States of America, we have adopted a No-Car Day once a week. We have decided to reduce our gas consumption and usage of cars by 50 percent, and only one week after we decided to do so, four thousand friends who are affiliated with us pledged to do the same. So I would like to propose that UNESCO embody the practice and that UNESCO, as a community, practice a No-Car Day once a month and call for the practice of No-Car Days across the globe, to increase awareness about the situation of our planet. “Buddha” means an awakened person, Buddhism is about awakening, and we need collective awakening. UNESCO should be the continuation of the Buddha, and you, my friends, should also be the continuation of Lord Buddha.

Since the day we adopted the practice of No-Car Day, we have gotten a lot of joy and happiness because we know that we can already do something. We do not want to be victims of despair, and we are trying our best to help. Our message is first and foremost not a verbal one; our message is our own action. That’s why it is my desire to propose to all of you who are present here to call for the practice of No-Car Day in your respective communities — if not once a week, then once a month — so that we can draw the people’s attention to the dangerous situation of our planet. We are so busy in our daily life that we need the Buddha every week, every day, to remind us to live in a way that a future will be possible for our children and their children. I believe that we are not being very kind to our children because we are leaving behind us a planet that is deeply wounded.

It is time for us to wake up together in order to do something to change the situation. That is not only for the Buddha; that is for our children and for the children of our children.

  1. For the text of Manifesto 2000, go to http://www3.unesco.org/manifesto2000/uk/uk_manifeste.htm
  2. My Life Is My Message, produced by the Buddhist Broadcast Foundation of The Netherlands, buddhistmedia.com.
  3. Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Begins Here: Palestinians and Israelis Listening to Each Other, (Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 2005)

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Heart to Heart

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on an assignment that Thây gave to the sangha at the Breath of the Buddha retreat in June (see the Autumn 2006 issue): to write a letter to a potential suicide bomber.


Letters to a Suicide Bomber

Dear Beloved One,

I see your face, so fresh and full of energy, before me. I can see that you love this life, your mother, father, and family, and your culture, religion, and country.

I think that probably every day you have been taught that I am your enemy, and that given the chance, I will destroy everything you hold dear.

And even to me, a white American woman almost sixty years old, it looks this way. How else could you feel about me?

It seems that possibly the only alternative we both have to annihilation is, for one moment, to stop and just look into each other’s eyes. Can you see the great sorrow I carry for all the terrible harm my government has caused your people? Can you possibly forgive me?

I want you to have a long life filled with beauty, joy, and accomplishments. I want to offer you a way out of the one-way path to suicide you are on. The only way I know to do this is to show you my breaking heart.

There is so much pain and suffering in life, and there is also so much beauty, peace, and love. Can you and I choose to begin with one step by seeing each other not as “other” but as fellow human beings, each wanting fulfillment and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones?

I know that you are my beloved because I see the preciousness of my life in your face. Can you see me too?

With love and hope,

Barbara Casey
True Spiritual Communication
Jacksonville, Oregon, U.S.A.


Dear Friend,

I want you to know that your anger and sense of powerlessness at the erosion of your culture and beliefs — I have known these too.

For a long time, I wanted to find a way to fight back at the forces of capitalism and consumerism that were eroding the culture that I love and the society that I hold dear. I envied those who were prepared to die for their beliefs but felt too disempowered to join them.

Then I found a better way than dying for my beliefs. I have learned instead to live for them by living by them. This seems to make a stronger statement than my death could — by showing my love for my society and my culture rather than leaving them forever.

I have learned to live deeply in the present moment, not overwhelmed by the anxieties about the future, or difficulties in the past. By taking good care of the present moment and finding peace in it, I influence my life, my society, and my country for the better.

I know that this path is available for you in the teachings of your faith and I urge you to consider this before you destroy the peace and happiness of those you love and many other precious human lives through your death.

Violence always leads to more violence, until someone has the courage to break this cycle. May you be given the strength and happiness to take this step to end the violence.

Yours sincerely,

Murray Corke


Dear Sirhan,

It has taken me thirty-eight years to become willing to write to you. Learning how to love by practicing with Thich Nhat Hahn has gradually opened my heart. Right now, today, I love you and look deeply to see your suffering.

When I knew you in college, I enjoyed your company. We were always happy to see you when you came to class. You were fun, joking, smiling, polite, and very smart. You enlivened our classes.

We were part of a group of pacifists. We were dismayed by the war in Vietnam. One of us was an Israeli conscientious objector. You and he were especially close because you both suffered over the treatment of the Palestinians. I knew you were a Palestinian refugee.

I did not know about what had happened to you and your family as a result of your displacement.

I didn’t understand, none of us understood, how much you were suffering. Later, we found out that your sister had died of cancer at Los Angeles County Hospital. You thought that her medical treatment had been inadequate because your family was so poor. When she died, you were heartbroken.

You decided to call attention to the condition of Palestinian refugees by killing Bobby Kennedy. When I saw you kill Bobby on television, I was shocked. I was hooked by my critical discriminating thoughts against you. You had chosen violence, murder. I closed my heart.

At this present, wonderful moment, I see you again as my dear sweet friend, Sirhan. The Mindfulness Trainings of my teacher give me openness, nonattachment to views, and freedom of thought
space to breathe and open my I smile to you. We have both been strongly attached to our views. I wish you the freedom, peace and happiness I have found.

In friendship,

Dollie Laura Meyers
True Recollection of Loving Kindness
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.A.


Dear Brother, Dear Sister,

Please believe me when I tell you I want with all my heart to know you, to know your feelings, the reasons that motivate you to offer up your life for a cause you believe in.

My first thought about your motives is that you feel you are doing a noble, heroic act for Allah, for your families, for the wellbeing of all and that you will be rewarded in heaven. Is this true? I also believe that the goodness you are seeking may not be so different from the goodness I am seeking. I wish for a peaceful life for all, where our nations respect one another, and no one is hungry or without shelter, where no one has to live in fear of war-torn violence, and where all have the freedom live their lives and to practice their beliefs without coercion from other nations.

Do you have other motives also? Do you suffer from not having enough food to eat? Or watching small children suffer from hunger, or cold, living in fear, or bearing the loss of their parents who have

been killed by our bombs? Or the many other injustices that happen when countries fight one another?

It is my wish that you can have a good life, be free to live with your faith, without our country’s attacks. The only way I see this can come about is that you and I understand each other better, know one another’s needs, hopes, and dreams. Deep understanding of one another will help us promote peace and develop compassion so you won’t have to sacrifice your life. Sometimes it requires more to live in order to promote peace.

Can you hear my need to know and understand you? To be able to change in the ways I need to change, in order to bring about the things we both want and need? I need you to understand me in a new light.

Above all, we are brothers and sisters. I pray we can live together as a family.

With love and compassion,

Margaret  Kirschner
True Silent Sound
Portland, Oregon, U.S.A


Dear Suicide Bomber,

This may surprise you. I am a suicide bomber, too. The bombs I make explode inside you and cause you to want to make the bombs that explode outside of you. My bombs explode in your heart and in your mind.

When my country supports governments, ideals and people that hurt you, oppress you, and cause you to suffer, I detonate a bomb in your heart.

When my government works to undermine your country’s leaders because we fear your political, religious, or social ideologies, I detonate a bomb in your mind.

When the businessmen of my country take unfair advantage of your country to get goods and labor cheaply, I detonate a bomb in your soul.

In doing these things to you, I have violated values and precepts that I aspire to live by. In doing these things to you I have failed to practice deep listening and mindful speech. I have stolen not only your resources, but also your joy. My actions have killed your spirit and your will to live. But I have been too intoxicated by my lifestyle to hear your cries of pain, anger, and grief.

My bombs make you despair of living. They make you want to kill yourself and take others along with you. Looking deeply I can see that when my bombs explode in you, I die also. When you die, I die.

I know that for you to want to kill yourself and others, you must feel very helpless and angry. I feel helpless too, and I don’t know what to do. So I continue to live my life in such a way that you are hurt by my selfishness and greed.

Inside I am very angry and frustrated by the situation we are in together. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I have learned to breathe deeply and try to understand. So that’s what I’m doing. And as I breathe in and out, I can see you there in your country, also breathing in and out. I can feel your anger and frustration. And in this moment I know what I want to do. I want to soothe and comfort you. I want to remove the cause of your suffering so you don’t have to be in pain. I sincerely and genuinely want you to know peace in your heart and relief in your mind. I want you to be happy, whatever that means to you.

I know that you will find it difficult to forgive me and my country for the damage we have done to you. I know we have hurt you deeply and I want to listen as you tell me how we have hurt you.

I also find it difficult to forgive the damage done to my people. I am so sorry to have made you do such terrible things to get my attention. I was not able to hear. Well you have my attention now. I’m listening now. And isn’t that what you have really wanted all along?

Maybe now that we know that we are both suicide bombers, perhaps we could get to know each other. Then maybe you wouldn’t have to kill yourself for me and I wouldn’t have to kill myself for you. Maybe we could find a way to share our planet and its resources as equals. Maybe instead of bombing each other we could live peacefully together. I’d like to try.

Michael  Melancon
True Recollection of  Light
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.


Dear Friend,

I heard about you from a friend. She said you lost your husband and your son. Your grief and despair were so great you no longer wanted to live. You wanted to die and you wanted the people who hurt you so deeply and destroyed your family to suffer in the same way that they made you suffer. So you made the only decision you could — that your last action would be as a suicide bomber. And now you are gone — taking others with you. And all the grief, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness you felt when you made your decision continue to spread out into more and more people’s lives.

Oh, how I wish I knew you — had been there with you when your husband and little boy died. How I wish I had been there to hold you, to comfort you, to help you to hold all your pain that was too much for one person to hold alone. How I wish I was there talking to you, letting you know you are not alone, and that even though this pain and grief are so intense and consuming, life can go on. The pain can be transformed — it will change. And the anger and hatred can be released in a different way. In a way that can put an end to suffering, instead of creating more suffering for others and for ourselves.

I also have known such pain and despair. My family — grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, altogether maybe twenty-five people were killed in a war before I was even born. My father somehow survived, and somehow continued his life. And I was born. How grateful I am to him, that he didn’t kill himself! All my life I missed my roots, my family so much, without even knowing them. And there was deep despair in my heart — without even being able to name it.

How I wish I was there to tell you — let us do this together, let us hold this pain and despair together, and find a way to continue living. Find a way to live that can really heal this suffering which is not just ours, but all humans. Together learn to see what the true source of this suffering is.

I know if I grew up as you did and had the same experiences, I also could do the same as you did. And if you had some of my childhood and experiences you could be alive now. And you could say this to me — Dear Friend, people are not the enemy. It is the hatred, anger, and pain that we do not know how to handle that is the enemy, that tortures us and hurts us the most. You are not alone in this. For generation upon generation we humans have continued to try to heal our pain by inflicting more pain on others. And so it continues until now.

But what if someone in your family had been able to find another way to heal their pain, to find a way of understanding and being with the pain that could transform it to compassion and love? Then you would have a different chance in your life. And what if you were that person in your family? And instead of being a suicide bomber, you and I together explored, learned, practiced, and found another way? Then you would still be alive now, and you would perhaps have more children and teach them how to handle their pain so that compassion and love could be born. Together we could spread this understanding, compassion, and love out into more and more people’s lives. And maybe one day, there would be peace on this earth, peace in our hearts, and we could be truly happy.

Oh, how I wish I was there with you, dear friend.

Anne Speiser
True Jewel of  Understanding
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A

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Zen Noir: Mindfulness in Moviemaking

By Marc Rosenbush

Zen Noir began about thirteen years ago, when I was sitting in a Japanese Zen temple in Chicago. It was about 4:30 in the morning, and I was facing a row of fellow meditators and watching their heads bob up and down as they tried not to fall asleep and slide off their cushions onto the floor. Just then, a strange thought suddenly occurred to me. “What would happen if one of them just keeled over, dead?”

Of course the literal answer to this was that we’d all rush over to see what happened and then call an ambulance. But at that moment, for whatever reason, I found myself thinking in non-literal terms, thinking about the Buddhist view of death and how it differs from the way we usually think about death in the West. Here we’re taught that death is fundamentally unnatural, something that may happen to other people but is certainly not supposed to happen to us. So we obsess about youth and undergo painful plastic surgery and hide our old people away, all to avoid having to face our own mortality.


There it was, the germ of an idea. I’d write a movie about a Westerner who has to confront the reality of death. And that was when the second idea suddenly popped into my head: why not make him a detective?

At last it all clicked: I’d write a mystery that takes place in a Zen temple, in which the detective must solve a koan that can’t be solved with logic or reason or any of the detective’s traditional Western tools. Instead of a murder, he’d have to solve the mystery of death itself.

Deep stuff. But it would also be funny. I’d adapt some traditional Chinese dialogs between Master and Student, which always felt like comedy routines to me anyway…

Student: Help me. Do something. Help me still my mind.

Master: Okay. Give me your mind.

So I started writing, and at first it went well. The characters were interesting, the jokes were working, and the message was…

Hmm. I stopped writing. For nearly four years. Something was missing. I knew I had a great, funny, intellectual idea for a film, but I kept feeling there was something more I could bring to it.

And that was when three things happened that changed my life forever:

  1. I got divorced.
  2. I lost a lot of money on a large project.
  3. I discovered the books of Thich Nhat Hanh and came to Plum Village for the first time.

The divorce and the financial loss had left me in a deep depression, but Thây’s teachings and the simple but powerful practices I learned in Plum Village changed me in some very profound ways:

  • A conversation with Sister Annabel helped me understand how to fully engage with my own suffering and see that it was something I felt, but that I was not that feeling.
  • Thây’s dharma talk about flowers and garbage helped me to better understand that the cycle of birth and death and transformation are all part of a single endless process that’s to be celebrated, not feared.
  • A story in Sister Chân Không’s book Learning True Love helped show me what living in the present moment is truly all about (this story even ended up in Zen Noir in a modified form, but you’ll have to see the movie to find out which story I’m talking about).
  • An older monk whose name I never learned helped me put my own suffering in perspective and become more aware of suffering in the world.


Back home, as I began to incorporate the practice more deeply in my daily life, I found myself happier, more grounded, easier to be around, and less likely to get upset about the challenges I encountered.

And I began to write Zen Noir again.

The suffering I’d experienced and the transformation I’d undergone brought a much more personal, emotional flavor into the writing, and helped me discover what the film would really be about: impermanence and how Buddhism helps us understand and deal with it.

I won’t bore you with the long, slow process of getting the film made and distributed (independent filmmaking is a koan in and of itself), but suffice it to say the process was a constant test of my own mindfulness practice and required a lot of stopping and breathing as chaos swirled around me. In any case, many years and film festivals and awards later, Zen Noir is finally out in the world, doing what a movie is supposed to do, making people laugh and cry and learn and grow.

I’d like to share one last story to give you an idea of how Thây’s teachings and the lessons I learned at Plum Village are affecting people through the film.

At the Rhode Island International Film Festival, a woman in her seventies came up to me after the screening. She touched my arm and told me that she knew nothing about Buddhism, but that her husband had died just a few months earlier, and somehow watching Zen Noir helped her feel better about it. She then hugged me and thanked me and went on her way.

I’d like to pass that hug and that thanks on to Thây, Sister Chân Không, Sister Annabel, the monk whose name I never learned, and to all my friends and teachers at Plum Village, Maple Forest, Deer Park, and elsewhere. You are as much the authors of Zen Noir as I am and I bow humbly in appreciation.

Zen Noir opened in select U.S. cities in September 2006, and the DVD will be available in early 2007. For screening dates and locations, or to join the mailing list, visit www.zenmovie.com.

Marc Rosenbush, Elucidation of the Source, is an independent filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

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Book Reviews

mb44-BookReviews1The Garden at Night
Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life

By Mary Rose O’Reilley Heinemann
Softcover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Richard Brady

In case she’s not already known to you, it’s my happy task to shine the light on one of Buddhism’s hidden Dharma teachers, Mary Rose O’Reilley. O’Reilley is a poet, a teacher of English and rhetoric, and the author of books that include The Peaceable Classroom, Radical Presence, and the autobiographical The Barn at the End of the World. Her new book, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life, is in reality a series of four very personal Dharma talks on engaged practice. In this short gem of a book O’Reilley calls on the wisdom of teaching from Thây, the Bible, and a panoply of writers and friends to inform her practice as an English department member in a Midwestern America parochial college. As the title suggests, Garden is a book written in response to suffering, suffering brought on by departmental meltdown, deaths of students, and inhospitable working conditions.

The lessons O’Reilley works with are ones that will be familiar to mindfulness practitioners. Each person constructs his or her reality. Your awareness of your authentic self is easily lost in busyness and your struggle to do it right in the workplace, even just to survive. Receive whatever comes your way as an opportunity for practice. Don’t get caught in characterizing your experiences as “good” or “bad”; they’re just your experiences. Change your relationship to time: live slowly enough to encounter life with mindfulness. This makes freedom possible, your one true freedom, which is to be authentic.

In my experience, these changes are easy to articulate and challenging to accomplish. O’Reilley agrees. She receives a great deal of support from regular times of retreat and from spiritual friends. When the next suffering comes along, hers or that of someone close, to test these lessons, her supports make it possible for her to remain present to the suffering. And it is particularly in the contemplation of suffering that O’Reilley finds the impetus for personal transformation and prophetic witness.

For readers who wonder how to grow in the absence of major suffering, O’Reilley describes practice with some of her personal koans and questions. Searching for guidance on how to carry on in her profession, she ponders the tension between Jesus’ advice to “Be therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) and the imperative to be herself. Recognizing her inability to control or even truly understand what her students are learning, O’Reilley asks herself the “painful” question, “What did I just learn?”

Suffering is suffering. So whether or not you’re an educator, you’ll likely resonate with the reality O’Reilley describes. This is the book to share with friends who wonder what mindfulness practice has to do with life. More than that, it’s a wonderful reminder and teacher for us all. Approach this book with an open heart. Its humor, its humility, its poetic truths will water your seeds of compassion and hope.

mb44-BookReviews2Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life
Collected Talks 1960-1969

By Alan Watts
New World Library, 2006
245 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Our beloved hippie icon, the late Alan Watts, is back. Thanks to his son, Mark Watts, keeper of the family archives (see www.alanwatts.com), a new compilation of his radio and TV broadcasts and recorded public lectures is out in book form: Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life, Collected Talks 1960-1969. With its vintage excess of language and Wattsian wit, this is another exciting collection from the British-American philosopher and theologian who beguiled multitudes of flower children, setting many of us on the Buddhist path with manuals such as The Spirit of Zen, Square Zen Beat Zen, and The Way of Zen.

As a small child, I remember losing sleep one night because I was imagining the “forever-ness” of death. I envisioned eternity as a scary, endless corridor of doors where one door always led to another. One of the great things for me about reading Alan Watts as a young adult was that he knew his young readers still harbored such fears. From the new collection:

The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nihil fit, which means “out of nothing comes nothing.” It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions…. It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down of nothing … such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles.

And from another essay, “Our fascination with doom might be neutralized if we would realize that every new doom is just another fluctuation in the huge, marvelous, endless chain of our own selves and our own energy.”

He persistently sees the universe as a deep and harmonious whole. Calling on his complex knowledge of history and quick deductive reasoning, Watts reassures:

But to me nothing—the negative, the empty—is exceedingly powerful… [Y]ou can’t have something without nothing. Imagine nothing but space, going on and on, with nothing in it forever. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.

mb44-BookReviews3Where to begin?! I was like a kid in the candy store with his new book. His subject matter covers the gamut from “Divine Alchemy” to “Religion and Sexuality,” frolicking through “Philosophy of Nature,” “Swimming Headless,” and “Zen Bones.” Although these essays show only a handful of the talks Alan Watts gave in the sixties, they embody the whole, highlighting a distinguished career that reflected the counterculture of the sixties and paved the way for the Western flood of interest in Far Eastern traditions that has not abated since.

mb44-BookReviews4Buddha or Bust
In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All

By Perry Garfinkel
Harmony Books, 2006
Hardcover, 320 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

In an inquiring-mind style that Perry Garfinkel calls Zen journalism — “a kind of karmic random access, driven by Google…ramped up by coincidence and luck, inspired by jazz improvisation, necessitated by an incurable case of procrastination” — he circles the globe looking for manifestations of engaged Buddhism. Expanded from a piece for National Geographic, this book describes the author’s nine-nation pilgrimage with visits to major Buddhist shrines and dharma teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh.

Through the internet, Garfinkel locates Order of Interbeing’s Shantum Seth, who becomes his tour guide in Bodh Gaya, India, where Shakyamuni Buddha found enlightenment. At Bodh Gaya, the sensory bombardment he describes is like a synthesis of Garfinkel’s whole trip: “The deep voices of a hundred Tibetan monks, their chanting amplified by tinny speakers, …wide-eyed American neophytes, …stern Japanese Zen priests, …curious Indian Hindus, …ebullient Sri Lankans.” Surrendering to his senses, Garfinkel does find peace in Bodh Gaya.

Some of the koans he carries with him around the world are: Why the meteoric rise of Buddhism in the west? Why now? How is it that monks can enter politics and Buddhists be at war in Sri Lanka, “a country hemmorrhaging from within.”? What would the Buddha think of the Taco Bell TV ad touting “enchilada nirvana,” the Madison Avenue-ization of the dharma? As compelling as these questions are, the author’s honesty is equally so. He tells of the headiness of being granted a one-on-one interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He compares the austerities of Japanese “marathon monks” to the asceticism rejected by Buddha. He wonders if ritual as practiced in some Buddhist cultures may cancel out its original meaning.

At a Vietnamese-speaking retreat at Plum Village, where he felt “like a fish out of water,” Garfinkel managed to sit with his “mishigas,” fall in love, and have a sudden gestalt of compassion through listening to a Vietnamese victim of war torture. Finally at Plum Village, the author has a revelation when he asks Thây, after a dharma talk on relationships, “Aren’t there more important issues to discuss than relationships?” Thay answers rhetorically, “Such as war, violence, death, economic problems, terrorism?” Misunderstanding, explains Thây, begins in the microcosm, between two people. It creates fear, and fear creates violence in the world at large. “Peace in myself, peace in the world,” is indeed a Plum Village mantra.

Does the author find truth, meaning, happiness? Yes and no. Summing up his fantastic voyage, Garfinkel ironically quotes eighteenth-century Japanese poet Ryokan: “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.”

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Dharma Rain in the Rocky Mountains


The monks and nuns who answered our questions during the panel discussion at the retreat astonished us with their wisdom and enlightened us with their insight. This heavily edited version gives you a taste; we hope to publish more excerpts in future issues.


Question 1 (from a lay man): How can we practice with the current political situation, in particular America’s role in the world, and how do we judge and understand what we’re being told by the media? How do we maintain optimism and remain agents of change, without feeling confusion and despair?

Question 2 (lay woman): A lot of my family loves the military; they draw their support and livelihood from it. When they tell their war stories, I feel aversion and don’t want to be there, but I love them and want to connect with them in other ways. Do you have suggestions for my practice around this?

Brother Phap Ho — Watering Positive Seeds

When I lived back home in Stockholm, Sweden, I really wanted to make a difference and contribute to a more beautiful world. Problems felt so overwhelming, so big; how can I ever understand? There’s so much suffering everywhere.

We’re all different. We talk about seeds, the different tendencies or qualities we have inside — despair, joy, hope, confidence, being judgmental. Some might have a very strong seed of joy and hope in them, and their seed of despair is not so strong; maybe they can consume a lot of news and still see clearly a path of light and beauty. For some of us when we consume even a little, we are heavy and discouraged.

When suffering arises in me due to causes around me or just inside, I think they’re real. I think it’s something that needs to be solved. I think it’s a matter of life-and-death urgency. And in those moments, I very easily forget that there are things going well, too. The sun is shining on my face. The wind is coming in, a gentle breeze. Sometimes my brothers, they see that I get a bit heavy and they try to make me laugh. Sometimes I feel like, Oh, what are you doing? I’m trying to do something serious, I’m practicing! Don’t distract me! [laughter] Little by little I’m getting better.

We have a wonderful practice of nourishing the positive elements in us. There is the teaching of changing the peg, changing the CD. When we see that our minds go in a way that makes us feel heavy and we keep having irritation against someone, the world, the government or whatever, we can change the CD.

It’s not that I ignore the suffering, it’s not that I ignore the difficulties inside or outside. But I see them in a little bit bigger light. I don’t forget that the sky is there and that the earth is still here. There might be some suffering but still there’s a lot of solidity in you.

We learn from our practice. We stumble a little here and pick ourselves up; it’s a bit like trial and error. We have to know ourselves. Little by little we become more aware, we see more clearly, we know how to deal with difficulties and how to nourish ourselves. But we have to practice.


Sister Lang Nghiem — A Ghost in a Hammock

When I was about to move from Lower Hamlet to Deep Park — Lower Hamlet is in Plum Village in France, and Deer Park is in California — I wanted to write a letter to my sisters and to express my gratitude for each of them in a concrete way, recollecting a positive experience I had with each of them. This would nourish those seeds in myself and also in my sisters. Everyone got a really good paragraph, and when I got to this sister, absolutely nothing came up! [laughter] I tried. I picked up my pen and said, Okay, Dear Sister — and then I would wait, and nothing came up. But I continued to try, and several days later suddenly I remembered an experience that I’d had with her.


One night I couldn’t sleep, there was a storm raging in me, so I went out and sat in the hammock. In Lower Hamlet there’s a hammock next to the bookshop in a cluster of trees, and you can overlook the lotus pond and see the plum orchard. That night it was a full moon, and I could see the path like sand around the lotus pond, and the plum orchard, and the shadows of the trees. I sat there for a while and inside the storm was still raging. I was just trying to calm it down.


Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me and someone asked, “Who is it?” I didn’t want to answer, I was focused on me, and I just sat still, swinging in my hammock. So I guess I was moving in and out of light and darkness, between the shadows from the tree and the moonlight. She asked, “Who is it?” several times. And I didn’t answer. Suddenly I felt pebbles at my feet, I was continuously being pelted with things. I realized what she was thinking and I just started smiling to myself. In Vietnam and in many cultures, ghosts don’t have feet.

I knew she thought I was a ghost or something. At one point I just turned around and stared at her as she continued to throws things at me. Then she came up and she recognized that it was me. “Oh, it’s you.” She sat next to me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I was really closed so I said nothing. So that night she just sat there, and she said she was determined to sit there, too, and I was wishing she’d go away! I kept telling her I was fine but finally it was too much for me so I got up and said, “Okay, we’ll both go to bed.”


I didn’t think much of that moment, but when I was writing the letter to her I was able to acknowledge that her presence that night helped to change the storm in me. That letter nourished me so much because as soon as I was able to acknowledge some goodness in her, my views completely changed about her. I didn’t look at her the same anymore, and I came to care for her in a way that I had never been able to care for her before.

If you’re having difficulties with someone, sit down and think of something really good that came of that person. It may change your perspective of the situation, the person, or the organization, and the government, too. If we look closely we’ll be able to identify people with wisdom, insight, and compassion, and we can find ways to support them. Even those whom we feel we really disagree with, we can look a little bit more and see that they’re not just that, they’re much more. We can look again to pick out these things, and then we can act from there.

Brother Phap Luu — No Fear, No View

So much of the suffering that we experience in the world, in America today, is because of fear. It comes from a sense of being a victim, a sense that we are not in control, a sense that there are outside forces that somehow have power over us. So the question is, how do we bring the Dharma into this moment, into our lives, so that we generate non-fear in ourselves and in those around us?

If we ask ourselves that question, moment to moment, we’re really asking ourselves, how am I generating non-fear for myself, for my family, for my community? That way we’re no longer prisoners to any government, to our society, to the fear of someone coming and shooting our young son, whatever fear we might have.

Our fears are irrational. We get in cars and drive around every day, and it’s much more likely that we’re going to die in a car accident than we’re ever going to be hijacked in an airplane. Global warming is something to be afraid of — we’re talking about all of our successive generations.

In my practice, when I look at what I’m to do in every moment, I’m careful not to base what I’m doing in a view. I feel this is a lot of why we are ineffective in transforming the way society functions. I was in activist groups before I became a monk, so I have experienced what it means to base your actions on a view. This is clear, these people are killing, they’re destroying the environment, right? Thus, I need to do this.

In his teachings on the Eightfold Path the Buddha said everything is based on right view. If we don’t have right view, how can we talk about right thinking? How can we talk about right concentration? We need to have a clear view.


Ultimately right view is the absence of any view. It’s only a matter of whether we’re clear or not clear. It’s not a matter of good or bad, of judging, punishing, or even statistics. Those are all just views, ways of looking at the world. Avidya is ignorance; one way you can translate it is the absence of light.

How can we keep this mind clear moment to moment? There’s not fear, because in clarity there’s no birth, there’s no death. It’s just manifestation, and the absence of manifestation.

What we’re doing now, ten thousand years ago it was the same thing. At the time of the Buddha, there was a prince who killed his father and terrorized the countryside. The Buddha didn’t go out and protest. This is what they did at that time. Now we have elections. [laughter]


When we do walking meditations with Thay, we call it a peace walk, but what’s going on there? I’ve walked with banners, it’s very boring. But when you see Thay walking, it’s really interesting! You’re not quite sure what it is he’s doing. And we’re not quite sure either! We’re walking. No, we’re following our breathing, we’re following our steps. But is this about Iraq?

It’s for a reason that Thay is not saying this or that. What’s happening now, the seeds were planted hundreds of years ago. But if we want to change, we have to have a clear view right now, to affect what’s happening to our children, to successive generations.

Brother Wayne — Connection Beyond Words

I am also from a military family. On my paternal side, all the males have been in the military for at least four generations. All my five uncles were in the Navy or in the Air Force or in the Army. At a very young age I was against war, against the military.

A couple of years ago my grandmother passed away. She was the only remaining parent of my father, and it struck my father very strongly. Although I wasn’t there at the time — I was in China accompanying my teacher — I got some phone calls and my relatives were really concerned over my father. When I got back to America, I called my father, and we had the strangest conversation ever. His mother had just passed away, and he spoke to me about his Navy career. And that’s all he could say. For the first half an hour listening to military stories over the phone, I was kind of scratching my head. I thought, my grandmother, his mother, just passed away, and he’s talking about the Navy.

When we practice deep listening, when we listen from that place of stillness, with our body and not with our brain, we can listen to what is not being said. Underneath I could hear his sense of loss, his confusion, becoming an orphan, and also wanting to make amends in our own relationship, because when I was about a year old my mother and my father separated, and he wasn’t there for me. So I knew, when I listened, he was trying to make it up, and he didn’t know how.

In the case of your family, when you have to listen to all of these military stories, that may not be what they really wanted to talk about. They may not know how to talk about anything else.

Yesterday in our dharma discussions we were talking about the mindfulness trainings and a sister shared how she used alcohol as an ice-breaker, a tool to let go and to be able to talk from the heart and connect with people. This touched me very deeply, because the reason I’m a monk and the reason I practice is because I see so much of the suffering that comes from our disconnection.

I was struck in my first year coming to Plum Village as a novice monk how I was able to connect with people at the heart level. Ordinarily we connect with people because we have things in common. We talk about work, the kids, or movies, music, art, whatever. With the practice we don’t have to have the same background, the same taste in music or sports or philosophy. Because I am practicing to open my heart, and you are practicing to open your heart, I can connect with you. If I didn’t have the practice there’d be no chance I would connect with all these different types of people. In the case of our family, with the practice, we find our own creative way to do that.


With my father, I was finally able to say, “Father, how are you? How do you feel?” I was able to make a connection. It’s different for each one of us. We have our own style, our own way, and we find that with our rootedness, with our stability.

Sister Susan — Mountain Love

You just can’t say enough about how important it is to get nourishment. You can’t say enough about what looking at a few good mountains can do for you.

I look at these mountains around here and what they say to me is, I’ve been around here for a billion years, and I can tell you a thing or two — not just about stability and rocks, but about beauty. There’s a lot of beauty in a billion years, and it touches my heart over and over again. It fills my heart to the brim, and that does a lot to pour a balm over what I hear about Lebanon and Israel, and to know that suffering there. I helps me to know that there is beauty in the world, that things are all right somewhere.


It’s so crucial to look daily and to let yourself be free. For me it helps me let go of the complexities. People get in knots with government leaders, they can’t solve their problems, there are conflicting ideas and conflicting pains. People don’t know how to figure them out.

I can’t criticize without looking deeply. I need all the calm I can muster, all the mindfulness, looking carefully at both sides, staying calm, and knowing how it feels to be in those shoes — what would it be like to suffer.

Everyone has an amount of media that they can take. I take as much as I can, and then I know I can’t take any more. I look at a lot of mountains! Then I need to see the suffering, and there is so much suffering I don’t see, obviously. When I find myself feeling despair, I know I need to be outside.

We don’t look at our earth nearly enough. We have so little clue of our connection to the outside world, to our physical world. We get stuck in four walls and in personalities. The more we can connect with the world we live in, the more we can see the bigger picture and grow our calm. Our government leaders need all of our wisdom and calm, and the more that our views change, as our brother said, it will become so obvious. But we need to have all that calm and clarity and happiness. Our happiness comes from our nourishment level and our compassion level; they go together.

We need to make our families our intimacy. Bonding needs to be really strong. We need to let go of things like military, which political side our families are on. Families need to be intimate. I remember this wonderful story of Thay giving questions and answers; this lady was going on and on about how her daughter was into computers too much and it just drove her crazy. She was saying over and over how destructive it was and finally Thay interrupted her, saying, “You really need to learn how to play the computer with your daughter.” [laughter]

I get into this with my son. Sometimes we get on opposite sides, but that bond with our loved ones is so important. You need love so much. Ninety percent of the time it is about love anyway. We need it so much.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic.

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Confined in Anger, Freed in Love

By Jacob Bowley

I was confined in the summer of 1999, twenty years old and more a prisoner of my own deep inner fears than the walls around me. Wrapped up in the great speed of the world, I had been able — with the help of drugs and alcohol — to maintain in my mind an impressive illusion of control. Here in prison the reins were clearly not in my hands; I knew no way to keep up my speed. Forced to stop, or at least slow down, I had to face the bitter truth: my will did not rule the world. This disappointment was too much for me to contend with day after day so I closed my eyes in anger. I would rage against the whole world until it consented to the perpetual gratification of my senses.


By the beginning of 2001 the institution was not pleased with my method of seeking fulfillment. They expressed this sentiment by giving me an extended stay in segregation. I knew the stay would be for only five or six months, so I saw no reason to change and quickly got into more trouble. At this point they told me I would stay in the hole for three years. My party stopped. This was no game. I could feel the anger oozing out of me, reverberating in my little cell and gaining strength. We looked at each other, my anger and me, and I knew it would destroy me.

While in the depth of this personal hell I came across a few pages about Buddhism. Strangely, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find any ground on which to cut Buddhism down. What I read seemed to be simple common sense.

Truth Cuts to the Heart

I read that life contains suffering. I found this to be an insultingly obvious statement, and yet there it was, in black ink; I had no way to deny it. This was not metaphysical speculation or theological proofs, here was something which cut right to my heart. I could clearly experience this in my own life and see it in the lives of those around me.

I read that suffering has a cause. That cause is not the outside world but is within; it is ignorance and clinging. Not the outside world? This had my full attention. I was putting so much energy into the delusion that with enough effort I could bend the world to my will — could it be possible to just change myself? The prospect of putting this burden down gave me, for the first time, the courage to acknowledge how large the burden was.

I read that the burden could be put down: if the causes of suffering are not, the suffering is not.

Finally I read that there is a path leading out of suffering. I needed to learn more about this path.

That summer and fall I immersed myself in new and exciting Eastern philosophy, ideals of compassion, and graded paths to enlightenment. Amazed by the deep and lucid wisdom I found in these teachings I nurtured a whole-hearted intention to realize their virtue. Slowly I began to experience the strength, healing, and freedom found in kindness and love.

Gradual changes were noticed by the institution and they responded by allowing me to return to the general population early. It was November 2001, and despite the excitement of moving out of segregation I was scared. I knew that the true test of my resolve to change would come when I returned to my friends. I came out of the box strong in intention, but weak in appreciation of the importance of practice. I held on to my new ideas but did not continue to meditate or study. Compared with the solitude of the past year, all the new ways to spend time provided a rich and stimulating life.


The sponsor of our Narcotics Anonymous group, Tyrone, says “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” The opposite is also true. I was acting my wholesome thinking and intentions into the back of my mind. My way of living systematically hardened my heart, but I didn’t notice the gradual loss of my freedom until I got into a fight over being called a name. How bitter it was to find myself bound once again in anger and rage! The anguish of this prison cut deeper now that I knew a small taste of peace.

Taking Refuge in the Practice

I turned for refuge to the practice, this time not in the isolation of the hole but right in the midst of my crazy world. I faced my habit of trying to maintain a certain image in front of my peers; I faced the deep fears at the root of this habit, and I chose instead to heal. The progress was slow and cautious, but there was peace in every step.

I met a wonderful spiritual friend early in 2004. Matthew Tenney is a living Dharma talk and he shared an infectious happiness with all of us here. He didn’t spend a lot of time engaging in the intellectual speculation and analysis regarding the practice that I wrapped myself in; rather, he introduced me to Thay’s teaching and to the true miracle of mindfulness in daily life. I had read about the importance of cultivating this obscure quality of mindfulness, and I was trying. But until now the methods appeared vague and overwhelming. Thay offered very concrete and simple ways that allowed practice to become a reality of my life.

One day, not long after meeting Matthew, I shared with him a yearning that had been percolating in my heart: I would like to be a monk after I was released. He asked “Why wait? Why not live that ideal right here, right now?” The aspiration to do just that has been the center of my life ever since, a center from which peace, stability, and freedom increase every day.

Witnessing the impact these qualities have on the emotional tone of this environment, and on the hearts of people who live here, gives me the strength to continue. It seems a long time ago that someone said of me, “Man, you can feel the hate radiate off that guy.” Today it is a quiet comfort for my heart to know that I no longer radiate pain and suffering to others, and that there is freedom in love.

Jacob Bowley received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, along with Matthew, long-distance from Brother Phap Bi on January 12, 2006, “a kindness,” writes Jacob, “ which brought tears to my eyes.”

Jacob is incarcerated in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; this essay was written for the Mindfulness Bell and submitted by his father, Freeman Bowley.

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Stupa Dedication

By Karen Hilsberg


We arrived at Deer Park on a clear fall Friday morning last October to help the sangha prepare for the ceremony to dedicate Thay Giac Thanh’s stupa. Sunday would be the fifth anniversary of the continuation of the beloved former abbot of Deer Park. The weekend was particularly meaningful and special for me and my family as my beloved was carrying an engagement ring in his pocket; we had chosen the ring together earlier that week.


Throughout the weekend everyone worked hard preparing for Sunday — cooking special foods deep into the night, washing hundreds of small bowls for the ancestral feast planned for Sunday, and laboring on the mountain to finish the installation of the stupa. Throughout all these activities and during intimate gatherings in the Solidity Hamlet classroom and meditation hall, members of the four-fold sangha mindfully recollected stories about the former abbot: recalling his beautiful teachings, reciting his poetry, and sharing personal memories about their meaningful and inspiring relationships with him. The feeling was one of a large family reunion, at once wistful and celebratory.


Sunday arrived. It was a very warm and clear day with the sun shining bright. The morning began with a special ceremony led by the Venerable Phuoc Tinh honoring our ancestors in SinoVietnamese. We prostrated many times as he recited the ancient blessings and chanted the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. The morning continued with a silent breakfast and walking meditation up the hill to overlook the stupa. The Venerable shared a line of poetry about how we are often able to see more clearly when we have a view of something from afar. Thus we gazed upon the stupa before proceeding down the freshly created steps; members of the sangha offered us their hands as we carefully stepped down to the dedication ceremony. We gathered very close together on the small steps around the stupa and after heartfelt chanting, the Venerable sprinkled water from a glass using yellow chrysanthemums and offered words of dedication. Some who loved the former abbot were in tears. We looked into the stupa after the ceremony to see it decorated beautifully with two cushions at a small table beneath a lovely altar.


Next the Venerable gave a moving dharma talk in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall. He shared about the name of the stupa, “Floating Cloud,” and likened the life and the practice of the former abbot to a “cloud floating in the vast sky.” He wove a tapestry with his talk utilizing the imagery of the floating cloud and the Buddha’s teachings on no-birth and no-death. He urged us all to practice as the clear blue sky, observing clouds coming and going, but with the understanding of impermanence. He reflected on the nature of a lifespan and noted that some people like the former abbot offer much joy to others and leave behind “a softness of the heart during this lifetime while others are unskillful and leave behind a great deal of pain.” He urged us to live in such as way that we leave behind something beautiful for people to remember.


Thay Phuoc Tinh taught that suffering is essential in life; we can welcome and profit from it by overcoming it, growing, becoming stronger, and realizing grace and peace in our hearts. “If we can find peace and be kind to those who are difficult, we can recognize the Buddha in ourselves.” He shared the poems “Gentle Steps” and “Being Sick” by the former abbot noting how Thay Giac Thanh was able to have a heart at peace when he was healthy and able to give to others, as well as when he was ill and able to receive from others.


After this talk, the meditation hall was prepared for the ancestral feast. Outside the hall, David and I sat on the steps overlooking the oak grove and mountains and shared our aspirations to be together; he presented me with the engagement ring. Smiling, we and the children joined our spiritual family in small groups. We ate delicious traditional Vietnamese foods while members of the sangha smiled, laughed, ate mindfully, and offered beautiful songs from the heart.




Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, and David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, are engaged to be married; they practice with the Organic Garden Sangha and Ripening Sangha in Southern California. The Venerable’s Dharma talk was translated into English by Sister Dang Nghiem.

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Letter From the Editor

mb46-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

We sit on the dew-covered grass, watching the light of dawn reveal the towering mountains all around us. Thay sits like a rock, like a tree, like a Buddha, in front of several hundred sleepy retreatants. It is six a.m. on the first day of the retreat at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado.

After a while Thay invites the little bell and we rise to walk as one to the meditation hall. In the half-light our mass of peaceful mindful people lumbers up the hill. That’s when I see for an instant through the present moment into a potential future. I see not a few hundred people but thousands, millions, walking in silence. I see people descending into the streets of towns and cities all over the world, walking together, and with our breathing bodies, with our hearts joined in love, saying no — no to war, to injustice, to poverty and exploitation — no to the powers that be.

I remember Princess Diana’s funeral, when over a million people lined the streets of London standing for hours in silence, united in their grief and their love. Even more amazing, all major U.S. television channels broadcast her funeral live, one of them broadcasting the silence as well as the images. Around the world as many as 2.5 billion people watched at the same time. So imagine, imagine what power we have — to say yes to life, to love, to paradise here on earth.

In his Dharma talks at the retreat Thay reminded us that we are all cells in one body, part of a single organism. I have heard Thay say that the next Buddha to be born will be a collective. This is what I see awakening all over the planet: the Cosmic Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, the Buddha to be. It is happening now. (Read magazines like Yes!, Ode, and Utne Reader for positive developments worldwide.)

Thay’s own happiness is his best teaching — after all he has seen and suffered and accomplished in this life, he radiates peace and joy. When he says that there is no birth and no death, that our only continuation is our actions, he is the living proof.

Thay’s joy — and that of the ninety monastics traveling with him on the U.S. tour — touched the nearly one thousand lay people at the retreat. We sang, laughed, sat, cried, walked, ate, talked mindfully together for six glorious days in the majestic Rocky Mountains.

And we shared the Mindfulness Bell — a joint creation of monks, nuns, and lay people. After one of the Dharma talks, four of us, including Sister Chan Khong, made a presentation about the Mindfulness Bell to the sangha. I was thrilled at the response from the retreatants. We sold every single magazine we had and collected many subscriptions and donations. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to all!

As Sister Chan Khong said, when you support the Mindfulness Bell you are doing more than just purchasing a magazine, which hopefully inspires you. You are helping Thay to spread the Dharma and build sangha around the world. Consider renewing your subscription for two or three or even fi years. And don’t forget that subscriptions make wonderful holiday gifts!

May our sangha flow like a river, each step in power and beauty. May the turning of the seasons and the year bring peace into all aspects of your life. Breathe on!


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Beginning Anew

Reflections on the Practice of Touching the Earth

By Larry Sipe


I have an eighteen-year-old son who is emotionally and verbally abusive. My relationship with him has been tumultuous. From affable and good-natured to explosively angry in the blink of an eye, he has punched holes in the wall, thrown objects (including a quart-sized Mason canning jar), and destroyed his bedroom with a baseball bat. His anger goes on and off like flipping a switch. It radiates, filling the room with its presence. I am the focus of intense, often violent and irrational outbursts of anger in which he swears unrelentingly, alternating with periods when he is down to earth. Walking on eggshells around him, I adopt a careful living style. I am on edge constantly while waiting for the other shoe to drop, even during the good times. His expectations of me are never clear. Feeling frightened, unsettled, and off-balance, I anxiously await his next outburst or mood swing.

The stress at home is palpable. My son’s anger has nearly torn the family apart on more than one occasion. I love him, but I cannot live like this. Every day he grows angrier. He is highly unpredictable. He projects the blame for all his problems onto me. (He would not get angry if only I would do what he wants me to do.) He has an overwhelming need to dominate my actions in order to get his own way, resulting in jealousy of his sister based on perceived parental favoritism, manipulating situations to his own advantage, and threatening to do harm. More than once he has threatened my life — he has pulled a knife on me, threatened to beat me to death with the baseball bat he was holding, and menaced me with a hatchet during a confrontation at home. He has even threatened to kill me while I sleep.

Becoming a Person with PTSD

Faced with unavoidable stress sustained over years of caring for him, I was frequently, then constantly, on guard. Such conditions took their toll. Feelings of hopelessness developed, triggering depression. Avoidance of contact with all reminders (including my own thoughts) of my son became paramount. Contact set off intrusive, vivid flashbacks and nightmares in which I relived everything over and over again.


Gradually withdrawing and isolating myself more and more, I experienced a restricted range of emotional response. I felt disconnected, spacey, and unaware of what was going on around me. Misperceptions resulted from my confused thinking. I was not fully present for myself, let alone my son. Relationships were not being nourished. I was losing balance, falling apart, and becoming increasingly fearful. In this state the cycle of daily conflict with my son triggered an internalizing of the stress reaction. My severe and continuous emotional reaction to the traumatic events was subsequently diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That was how I saw myself — as a person with PTSD.

At River Sangha, in Salem, Oregon, I was introduced at that time to a restorative practice: Touching the Earth. It is based on the Lotus Sutra with its elements of compassion and loving-kindness. My experience with this practice has been transformative. It is with a deep bow of gratitude that I offer the merits of this practice. In Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “When we touch the Earth, we take refuge in it. We receive its solid and inclusive energy. The Earth embraces us and helps us transform our ignorance, suffering, and despair.” This practice offers the opportunity to begin anew moment by moment.

To Touch the Earth

Joining my palms together to form a lotus bud, I kneel mindfully, and rest my feet, hands, and forehead on the floor. Palms are turned face-up in an attitude of openness to the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Thay instructs me to follow my breathing and touch the Earth, releasing all my instability, fear, anxiety, and anger. I communicate gratitude, joy, and acceptance to Mother Earth. The Earth neither reacts nor judges me as it absorbs my negativity. This teaching resonates with me as I am prone to pull in rather than run toward challenges. Thay teaches peace is the way, and that it is available to all beings right here, right now. “With this practice, we cultivate a relationship with the Earth, and, in doing so, we restore our balance, our wholeness, and our peace.”

The practice of Touching the Earth is instrumental in allowing me to stop reacting to the self-destructive pattern of my PTSD and start responding to it. Touching the Earth affords me the opportunity to look deeply at past events, changing my experience of and relationship to the stressors that affect my well-being. The seeds of joy and happiness are watered, change is possible, and I am arriving home with each breath, even though I still experience PTSD. The changes occur in my mind. I evolve from seeing myself as a person with PTSD to seeing myself as a whole person. My feeling of being alive is restored!

To echo Joanna Macy in her classic memoir Widening Circles: “[Touching the Earth] did not alter the circumstances of my life, it removed no hardships. Yet it changed everything.” I am transforming into a peaceful warrior through the practice of Touching the Earth. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The energy of mindfulness and concentration produced by Touching the Earth has the capacity to awaken us to the nature of reality, to transform us, to purify us, and to restore joy and vitality to our life.”

Touching the Earth affords an opportunity to heal and reconcile relationships, beginning with the relationship to one’s own heart and rippling outward to include all beings in all directions. Through this practice I am now more understanding and compassionate of my son. I open my heart to him as he has made me suffer. With awareness of this understanding and compassion, comes love. I know that he has had his own suffering to face — anger, pain, and hatred. His suffering has spilled over causing suffering to those around him. I want him to be open to life, to be happy and healthy. I do not want him to suffer or to cause others to suffer. The practice of Touching the Earth touches this relationship deeply, as well as all relationships. The interbeing nature of all beings is nurtured through such practice: connection with my son, the clouds, the blue sky, the earth, and all beings, is only possible in this moment — now.

Touching the Earth impacts my personal relationships and awakens me to the potential for beginning anew in the present moment. The opportunity is available for forgiveness and healing. Reconciliation is possible. Personal relationships, such as those with my son and Mother Earth, are nourished with this restorative practice.

mb47-Beginning3Larry Sipe, Insight Embodiment of the Heart, lives in Salem, Oregon, where he works for the local school district and community college, and attends and co-facilitates River Sangha.

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A War Is Never Over

By Trish Thompson



The road from Hue to Dong Ha snakes through villages and countryside, bounded on each side by ankle-deep floodwaters. On this day in October 2007, the rainy season in Central Vietnam is, thankfully, coming to an end. The annual flooding has been particularly heavy this year, with more than forty people having lost their lives.

As I stare out the car window, we make slow but steady progress, passing cement-block homes, most of which are painted only on the front. Occasional crudely constructed kiosks display Coca-Cola products, sweets, and cigarettes, inches from the highway.

Three Americans with a Vietnamese driver, we have been invited to visit the Quang Tri Province offices of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, an American non-governmental organization (NGO). We want to hear a first-hand report on Project Renew, which works with those who continue to suffer the effects of a war that has, for many, never really ended.

I have lived in Hanoi for more than three years, very much at home and at ease with the people and the rhythm of life. I understand I am not separate from what I see. After all I, too, am a child of a war. Mine was between mother and father. Their war left me with many wounds. I am grateful for those early years of conflict, for they determined my purpose in this Life. With the help of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, I continue to work to transform the violence of the past — inside me and around me.

The Ravages of War

During the Vietnam War (here called the American War) Quang Tri was one of several provinces that included, or were near, the official line separating the Communist North and the American-backed South. The Ben Hai River served as the official boundary for divided Vietnam since 1954. By the mid-sixties, troops of both the North and the South, including American Marines, were based on either side of the conflict-free Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that included the river.

This concentration of troops and supplies attracted some of the heaviest fighting of the war. These provinces were the target of more bombs than were dropped during all of World War II, in both the European and Pacific war zones. In addition, the deadly chemical Dioxin (Agent Orange) was heavily sprayed over much of the area to expose anything that moved on the ground, thereby aiding the work of the bombers overhead.

From the appearance of the land, which was once lush jungle, the defoliation effort was successful — thirty-three years later, the Earth continues to recover from the abuse of those years of war.

Unexploded Live Ordinance (UXO)

My friends have grown quiet. They, too, are concentrated on the scenes that in some cases literally float by. Though this is their first trip to this area, no commentary is needed; the landscape says it all. For me, in spite of my efforts to remain in the present moment, memories of my initial trip to this area rise to the surface.


It was during Thay’s 2005 trip to his homeland. An OI brother, Jeff Nielsen, has arranged for some of us to slip away as the international Sangha enjoys a Lazy Day in Hue. Jeff is a veteran who has made many trips to Quang Tri, the first while in uniform. With us is a Vietnamese university student. She tells us that many people will not visit the countryside of the province. They are disturbed by the presence of the wandering souls of those who died here. I am silent, as are my brothers and sisters.

In Dong Ha, Jeff takes us to the Center for Peace Trees, a tree-planting project, supported by American veterans. We are told of their attempts to educate local youth in how to recognize and avoid contact with the various forms of unexploded, live ordinance (UXO) which lie hidden in the soil of Quang Tri. I am shocked by this information, which is new to me. The numbers are staggering: 32,000 Vietnamese citizens have been injured by UXO since the shooting stopped. Most have been maimed forever. Some have died. The majority are children.

We practice walking meditation among the dried leaves in front of the center. I recognize the feelings. They take me to another time and place — 1971, and I am in Dachau on a snowy day. We are four, with one caretaker, and the thousands of souls whose moans seem to float through the silent air. I am keenly aware of the suffering, then, there, here, now. Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Reasons for Hope

As the driver avoids the potholes, memory takes me once again to that day in 2005, on the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, a modern quiet highway stretching to the border with Laos. We stop to talk with a group of eleven men who are finishing their day’s work. Four days each week, they search with metal detectors for UXO. Some are easily located, exposed by recent rains. Others must be dug from the ground. Once dismantled, these bombs of various sizes and shapes are hauled away, to be detonated each Friday. The group foreman, a German man who previously worked to locate land mines in Bosnia, has been doing this work in Vietnam for four years. He says the previous week was a “light” one, yielding only 263 bombs. Even though many such teams do this work, “it will take more than 100 years to clear Vietnam of UXO.” How to respond to that announcement? We thank the men for their courage and commitment, and continue our journey through a countryside of new-growth trees and hills that once witnessed and survived the terrible suffering of man’s war against man.

We enter the streets of Dong Ha and make our way to the project office. We spend a pleasant two hours, listening to staff, asking questions, and viewing a DVD that tells the story of Project Renew. While their search-and-destroy program for clearing the land of UXO is a major thrust, they also offer direct assistance to those who continue to suffer the effects of the war. Their prosthesis program has helped thousands who have lost limbs through contact with explosives, and their mushroom-farming program is providing jobs. I am so impressed by the professionalism of the staff and their enthusiasm for their work.

Later in the day, we begin our return trip to Hue. As I reflect on all we have seen and heard, I feel happy. True, we have seen that a war, once begun, seems to never end. But equally true, we have seen that one day love and compassion also appear.

mb48-AWar4Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, lives in Hanoi where she practices with the Hanoi Community for Mindful Living.

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The Light at the Tip of the Candle

mb48-TheLight1I was deeply touched recently by a book called At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. The author, Claude Anshin Thomas, describes in detail the suffering he has experienced as a Vietnam veteran [see below].

The description of his suffering made me look more deeply into the experiences of a soldier. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be trained as a killer at the age of eighteen. How it would feel to kill another human being. How it would feel to watch my friends die in front of me, or to watch children die as a result of the military action in which I was involved. How it would feel to live in fear of violent death on a day-to-day basis.

Looking deeply at these things helped me to understand the suffering on a different level. I realized, for example, that I could not even begin to think of how I would reconcile the thoughts and emotions around killing another human being, let alone many human beings. I know that labeling the people I killed as “enemy” would not bring me comfort in the long run. I know the energy of those actions would continue with me in some form as long as I lived.


Anshin Thomas also offers his opinion that the United States, as a people, never really took responsibility for the Vietnam War. Most people viewed the war as distant and unconnected to their day-to-day lives. They did not recognize that it was their lifestyles that supported the institutions of war. And, for the most part, they did not offer support for the veterans of the war, or for the victims of the war in Vietnam.

All of this got me to thinking about the war in Iraq, and my connection to that war. I realize that I have not really taken responsibility for my connection to that war. I follow the news about Iraq, and frown at it. I think from time to time about the tragedy of the war, and how I disagree with the U.S. government’s position on the war.

The Light at the Tip of the Candle

By Claude Anshin Thomas

mb48-TheLight2Claude Anshin Thomas came home from the war in Vietnam in 1967. In the years following his military service, his life spiraled downward into post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness, but his life turned around when he discovered Buddhism. Zen, he found, offered him a path toward healing, a practical way to cope with his suffering rather than run from it. The following took place in 1990, when Thomas attended a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans led by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I drove to the retreat on my motorcycle. At that time I was riding a black Harley Davidson. I was dressed in a typical fashion for me: black leather jacket, black boots, black helmet, gold mirror glasses, and a red bandanna tied around my neck. My style of dress was not exactly warm and welcoming. The way I presented myself was intended to keep people away, because I was scared, really scared.

I arrived at the retreat early so I could check the place out. Before I could think about anything, I walked the perimeter of the whole place: Where are the boundaries? Where are the dangerous places where I’m vulnerable to attack? Coming here thrust me into the unknown, and for me the unknown meant war. And to be with so many people I didn’t know was terrifying to me, and the feeling of terror also meant war.

After my recon I went down to the registration desk and asked where the camping area was, because I didn’t want to camp where anyone else was camping. I was much too frightened to be near so many strangers. This time each day, sunset, was filled with fear — fear of ambush, fear of attack, fear of war exploding at any moment. Rationally I knew that these things wouldn’t happen, but these fears, like the reality of war, are not rational.

I put my tent in the woods, away from everybody else, and I sat there asking myself, “What am I doing here? Why am I at a Buddhist retreat with a Vietnamese monk? I have to be out of my mind, absolutely crazy.”

The first night of the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh talked to us. The moment he walked into the room and I looked into his face, I began to cry. I realized for the first time that I didn’t know the Vietnamese in any other way than as my enemy, and this man wasn’t my enemy. It wasn’t a conscious thought; it was an awareness happening from somewhere deep inside me.

As I sat there looking at this Vietnamese man, memories of the war started flooding over me. Things that I hadn’t remembered before, events I had totally forgotten. One of the memories that came back that evening helped me to understand why I had not been able to tolerate the crying of my baby son years earlier.

At some point, maybe six months into my service in Vietnam, we landed outside a village and shut down the engines of our helicopters. Often when we set down near a village the children would rush up and flock around the helicopter, begging for food, trying to sell us bananas or pineapples or Coca-Cola, or attempting to prostitute their mothers or sisters. On this particular day there was a large group of children, maybe 25. They were mostly gathered around the helicopter.

As the number of children grew, the situation became less and less safe because often the Vietcong would use children as weapons against us. So someone chased them off by firing a burst from an M60 machine gun over their heads. As they ran away, a baby was left lying on the ground, crying, maybe two feet from the helicopter in the middle of the group. I started to approach the baby along with three or four other soldiers. That is what my nonwar conditioning told me to do. But in this instance, for some reason, something felt wrong to me. And just as the thought began to rise in my head to yell at the others to stop, just before that thought could be passed by synapse to speech, one of them reached out and picked up the baby, and it blew up. Perhaps the baby had been a booby-trap, a bomb. Perhaps there had been a grenade attack or a mortar attack at just this moment. Whatever the cause, there was an explosion that killed three soldiers and knocked me down, covering me with blood and body parts.

This incident had been so overwhelming that my conscious mind could not hold it. And so this memory had remained inaccessible to me until that evening in 1990 .…

At the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh said to us, “You veterans are the light at the tip of the candle. You burn hot and bright. You understand deeply the nature of suffering.” He told us that the only way to heal, to transform suffering, is to stand face-to-face with suffering, to realize the intimate details of suffering and how our life in the present is affected by it. He encouraged us to talk about our experiences and told us that we deserved to be listened to, deserved to be understood. He said we represented a powerful force for healing in the world.

He also told us that the nonveterans were more responsible for the war than the veterans.* That because of the interconnectedness of all things, there is no escape from responsibility. That those who think they aren’t responsible are the most responsible. The very lifestyle of the nonveterans supports the institutions of war. The nonveterans, he said, needed to sit down with the veterans and listen, really listen to our experience. They needed to embrace whatever feelings arose in them when engaging with us — not to hide from their experience in our presence, not to try to control it, but just to be present with us.

I spent six days at the retreat. Being with the Vietnamese people gave me the opportunity to step into the emotional chaos that was my experience of Vietnam. And I came to realize that this experience was — and continues to be — a very useful and powerful gift. Without specific awareness of the intimate nature of our suffering, whatever that suffering may be, healing and transformation simply are not possible and we will continue to re-create that suffering and infect others with it.

Toward the end of the retreat I went to Sister Chan Khong to apologize, to try to make amends in some way for all the destruction, the killing I’d taken part in. I didn’t know how to apologize directly; perhaps I didn’t have the courage. All I could manage to say was: “I want to go to Vietnam.” During the retreat they had said, if we who had fought wanted to go to Vietnam to help rebuild the country, they would help arrange it. And so I asked to go to Vietnam; it was all I could say through my tears.

* When Thay gives teachings he does not normally say that nonveterans are more responsible than veterans for the war, but nonveterans are just as responsible as veterans. — Sister Annabel

mb48-TheLight4From At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, by Claude Anshin Thomas, © 2004, 2006 by Claude A. Thomas. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.

Claude Anshin Thomas is a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and the founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and nonviolence.

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On Love and Being Gay

By Laurie Arron


“I believe that we all have the need to love and to be loved, and life without love is not pleasant, it is suffering.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Friday, July 13, 2007, Lower Hamlet

These are the words Thay spoke to me during the first Question and Answer session of the summer retreat at Plum Village. I had asked about finding love and had clearly stated I was gay. Thay’s answer was all about true love, and it demonstrated to me that he believes true love is possible regardless of sexual orientation.

Although I’ve accepted being gay, there’s still a voice in my head saying there’s something wrong with me. I’m forty-five now, I’ve been single for over four years, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find true love — or be able to let go of my grasping for it.

Years of Silent Suffering

Sometimes the memories of being a gay teen cause tears to well up inside me. I know that I have a long way to go in healing my suffering.

I first realized I was gay when I was thirteen years old. It was a terrible and frightening realization. At school, a “fag” was the worst thing you could call someone. It’s what we called the kids we didn’t like, the ones who didn’t fit in. I’d used it many times. How could I possibly be one of them?

But the fact was that I had a strong physical attraction to some of the boys in my class and none whatsoever towards the girls. My grim realization was indisputable.

I could not deny my sexual orientation, but I could keep it an absolute secret. I thought being gay was unnatural and I desperately wished I could be “cured.” I was convinced if anyone knew they would hate me, except my parents who would simply be devastated. I thought it would be better to be blind or in a wheelchair. At least then people wouldn’t hate me.

I hid my sexual orientation from everyone until I was twenty-seven years old. Being “in the closet” was very difficult, and I turned to smoking marijuana to ease the pain and escape my reality. I did fine in school and work, but whenever I thought about having to live life without love I was consumed with despair. It wasn’t until a close friend of mine (who wasn’t gay) killed himself that I realized life was too short to waste. I decided to take a leap of faith and stop hiding who and what I really was.

I went to a “coming out” support group and there I finally started to accept my sexual orientation. At the group they did things like turn on their head the questions gay people often get asked. They pointed to the absurdity of asking questions like “when did you first realize you were heterosexual?”, “what do you think your parents may have done to contribute to your heterosexuality?” and “what made you choose to be heterosexual?”

I’ve come a long way since then. I got involved in working for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people when I was thirty-one and eventually became Director of Advocacy for Canada’s national LGBT equality advocacy group. In 2005, Canada’s federal government debated and passed a law extending civil marriage to include same-gender couples. I did many media interviews and was about as publicly “out” as you can be.

But even being so comfortable with being gay, in public places I still had to ask myself whether it was safe enough to hold my partner’s hand or give him a kiss when I greeted him at the airport after not seeing him for several weeks. These are simple acts that most people take for granted, but for gay and lesbian people they are not so simple. And that’s in Canada, one of the most accepting and progressive countries in the world. In many countries, being gay is still criminal, sometimes even punishable by death.

I look back and sometimes it feels like my youth was stolen from me. While my friends learned to date and to be in relationships when they were teenagers, I started from scratch at age twenty-seven. The whole possibility of young love was already gone.

I find it particularly hard not to regret those lost years and wish I’d had more courage and come out earlier. My equality advocacy has been driven by my desire to make the world a better place for LGBT youth, so they don’t have to go through what I did.

The most difficult thing about the suffering I experienced was not being able to tell anyone. I suffered alone and in silence, with absolutely no support. I think about how wonderful it is to have a Sangha for support. Looking back on my years in the closet I realize that it was the exact opposite. The fact of not being able to tell anyone magnified my suffering a thousand times.

The Question of Marriage

A big source of suffering for LGBT people is the exclusion from marriage. It’s often said that love and marriage go together, but for same-gender couples this is usually not permitted. Only the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa have equal marriage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts permits same-gender couples to marry but our marriages are not recognized by the federal government. Israel also recognizes our marriages, but they must be performed in another country.

Marriage is about many things, including love, commitment, intimacy, companionship, emotional support, financial support, children, and fidelity.

Some people argue that marriage is essentially about procreation, but many opposite-gender couples don’t have children and many same-gender couples do. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, studies show that children of same-gender couples do just as well as other children and are no more likely to be gay or lesbian themselves.

Simply put, marriage is the central and most prominent way in which society recognizes romantic love and commitment. Since being gay is defined by who you love, the exclusion or inclusion in marriage sends a powerful signal about our place in society.

Exclusion says our love is inferior to the love between a man and a woman. This message does us great harm, both in affirming anti-gay attitudes and also in telling LGBT people that there’s something wrong with us. Inclusion in marriage sends the message that we are not flawed because of our sexual orientation. It says that we are equally worthy of respect and consideration.

This is especially important for LGBT youth. This poignant letter to the editor was written when equal marriage legislation was before Canada’s Parliament:

“I wonder if those fighting so hard against same-sex marriage ever consider how much it means to gays. They don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager — when the pressure to conform is so great — and you experience the horror of realizing that you are gay. They can’t understand what it’s like to listen to your friends talk about how they hate queers and how they wish they were dead. You consider suicide, because you never want anyone to find out the truth about yourself; your shame is too great to bear.

“And these people can’t understand the hope that filled my soul when I first found out that Canada was considering allowing same-sex marriage. This legislation goes so far beyond marriage. It is a symbol. It represents the hopes and dreams of gays for a better world. Now that I’m 18, I can finally admit to myself that I am gay and no longer feel the shame that almost drew me to suicide. At least now I have hope.”

The Desire for True Love

My deepest aspiration is to understand my suffering and to transform it. At Plum Village Thay Phap An told me that most of us spend much of our time struggling with one particular issue, one that is based on a misperception of reality. This misperception acts like a prism, distorting how we see the world and causing us to suffer. Covering up this misperception is a block of pain that has been built up over the years.

My block of pain seems to revolve around my desire to find true love and my belief that I won’t, perhaps because there is something wrong with me, or perhaps because I am simply fated to be alone.

I have had many insights about the source of my suffering, usually when I cry during sitting meditation. This has happened many times when I recall a feeling from the past, such as the sadness and despair when my partner left me, or the fear that I will never find another. And then another thought will manifest, perhaps from a different time in my life, and I know that there is a connection between the two.

Slowly, slowly, I am chipping away at the block of pain that exists deep inside me. I still have a long way to go to get through the block of pain, and to see and penetrate the misperception that lies beneath it. I don’t know if I will ever get there, but I know I am on the path, and I have faith in that path. The more diligent my practice, the happier I am.

For example, sometimes I despair. But I identify it as despair, or perhaps a mix of despair, sadness and grasping, or whatever feelings I can identify. I observe my in-breath and out-breath. I remind myself that this is just a feeling, and that feelings come and go.

For much of my life I learned to suppress my feelings and to cut myself off from my body. But that did not end my suffering. If anything, it made the suffering worse and prevented me from taking positive action. My practice is helping me to re-connect with my body and to become whole again.

Feelings are not only in my mind, but also in my body. I find the feeling in my body and I describe it to myself. Perhaps the feeling is a tension between my shoulder blades, or tension from my neck extending outwards to each arm. I observe that this is how despair is manifesting in my body. When I release the tension in my body, the feeling also dissipates. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes I don’t have time to wait because I’m too busy at work and I just live with the tension until later.

Underneath despair I find joy. I have experienced this hidden joy many times. Sometimes I can even find joy without having to go through despair. If I just look around my body, I can almost always find somewhere that’s experiencing joy.

Smiling Through Tears

I have also observed that I need my Sangha to support my practice. It is so easy to practice at Plum Village, but so difficult to practice in the world, with the pressure of work, friends and the dominant western culture. My Sangha helps motivate me to be diligent.

My practice helps me transform my suffering into happiness. It gives me faith that there is a way out of suffering. It reminds me that my suffering is impermanent. With this awareness, I can smile through my tears.

mb48-OnLove2Laurie Arron, Faithful Embrace of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. He divides his time between Toronto and Ottawa and is a member of the Mindfulness Practice Centre of the University of Toronto and the Pine Gate Sangha.

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