Discovering Levels of Deep Listening

By Ian Prattis

The adventure with my teenage son in Glasgow’s drug world brought home to me that when all else fails there is still mindfulness. And it can work miracles. As I spent time with my son in his rambling apartment, inhabited by a shifting population of punks, drug users, and dealers, I knew that I needed support from all the tools of mindfulness I had—particularly deep listening—in order to remain steady and clear and not be drawn into judgment and discrimination.

Late one night, after teaching my son and some of his friends how to do walking meditation in a park, we all sat on a bench, fresh with morning dew, and they began to talk to me. I entered stillness and said very little. As I listened to my young friends pour out their hearts and stories, I encountered a level of deep listening within myself never before experienced. I felt an all-encompassing energy embrace me, my young friends, the park, the lights, and the night sounds of Glasgow. This experience totally changed my understanding of deep listening, a mindfulness practice I was very familiar with, but never before at this level. On later reflection I could see that I had journeyed through several distinct levels of deep listening in my practice of mindfulness. The first level of coming to know the practice of deep listening was intellectual, whereby I scrutinized Buddhist literature on deep listening, gaining a conceptual grasp of what it meant within the corpus of Buddhist teaching. Although this was the least significant level of understanding, it was a starting place, which enabled a window to open for me.

As time went on, I began to realize that deep listening is not just an intellectual exercise, but is a fruit or consequence of mindfulness practice—my second level of deep listening. The simple insight that deep listening could not be there alone was a key. I experienced a distinct improvement in my capacity for deep listening, as my practices of walking meditation, mindful breathing, and mindful eating grew stronger. I realized that they were the necessary ground out of which deep listening could arise—as a flower growing from fertile soil. When such a ground was not there, my focus was largely on my own agendas and assumptions, and I would not be listening carefully to what was being said to me. This understanding deepened as I investigated how it directly affected my life—the times I suffered from not being heard, as well as the suffering I had caused when I was not able to deeply listen to the concerns of those speaking to me, especially my children.

On this evening I encountered for the first time, a third level of deep listening. As I was deeply present with my young friends, my carefully constructed sense of self dissolved and the “I” of me disappeared. “I” became particles of energy, touching and engaging with the particles of energy in everything there—my friends, the grass, trees, park bench, city lights and sounds, and beyond to a vastness that I cannot find the words to express. In that stillness, the vastness of energy touched deep seeds of consciousness in my young friends as they trusted me with their confidences and secrets. We stayed there for hours, frequently silent, and walked home just before dawn. From the smiles and embraces that were exchanged I knew that something had changed in all of us. I had discovered within myself a level of deep listening I had never thought possible. My young friends and son had nurtured long forgotten seeds of hope within themselves.

mb38-Discovering1We talked about our experiences the next evening. My new friends had shown great consideration for me, turning down their heavy metal music and not dealing drugs in my presence. The kitchen even got a cursory clean. I thanked them for their consideration and said that I was aware of every acid hit, every cocaine use, every moment of their despair, anger and selfdestruction, as I felt the energy of it all in my body and that it hurt like hell. A long, thundering silence ensued, filled with healing and open-heartedness. Before leaving, I did many walking meditation exercises with each one of them in the nearby park. I spent time listening deeply to them and learned a great deal about the angst of alienation amongst young people, about how they intuitively understood the interconnection of all life, but that they were simply lost.

Thanks to my young friends, my journey and practice of deep listening had deepened, from an intellectual and personal appreciation to an instrument of transformation. Interbeing was no longer a concept or just a good idea—it was a direct experience of reality. If the Divinity we quest for cannot be found everywhere, including with these alienated young people, then it is doubtful if it will be found at all. When we come home to our true nature, we discover that we are all interconnected—even with situations we do not readily understand. But if we can stop discriminating against others, we can know wholeness.

Ian Prattis is a Dharmacharya living in Ottowa, Canada. This essay is excerpted from a chapter in his forthcoming book “The Buddha at the Gate.”

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Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.


Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.



What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.


Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.


When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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Sangha News

Blue Cliff Monastery: The First Steps

Our new monastery does have cliffs in the mountains nearby but they are not blue, they are white. We like to practice sitting meditation there as we watch the sun rise or set. These mountains are very old, the oldest in the U.S. They are covered in dwarf trees so that being on the mountain is like being in a natural bonsai park.


When we first arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery, which is a former hotel, on April 30, 2007, a strong gust of wind blew down the hotel sign. Some people said that they saw a rainbow cloud. At that time Thay was in Vietnam and said that Blue Cliff Monastery will be a warm and welcoming place.


After we arrived it took us a month to clean up enough to be able to offer an open house for our neighbours and members of local sanghas nearby. The next day we celebrated the Buddha’s birthday and 80 people bathed the baby Buddha. Our non-Buddhist neighbours also bathed the Buddha with great respect.


At the end of June we offered a retreat for OI members. There were eighty-five participants. Some of them said that it was the best retreat they had ever attended. When people were asked what aspect they enjoyed the most, some said that it was the mindful working. Every day we had forty-five minutes to work together in the kitchen or in the garden. It was a time when we felt together as a four-fold sangha.

The family retreat that followed was less well attended. However the children and teens outnumbered the adults by almost two to one, which was auspicious for the future. The teen program was particularly successful; they took charge of all pot washing and cleaning up after meals. At first the monks and nuns said that they wanted to divide the teens into three teams: one for each meal. However the teens wanted to help each other and have everyone work together at every meal. The result was that the teens were able to live as a family and support new teenagers as they arrived.


We are lucky to have the full support of our Town Manager (mayor). This has been a great help to us in our seeking permission to build a new meditation hall and a hut for Thay. Many local people say that they like the change of a hotel into a monastery. They feel that it supports their spiritual path, even though they belong to the Jewish or Christian tradition. They are happy that we are planting more trees to add to the large ancient pines that are like Dharma protectors for the monastery. They are happy to see the outdoor swimming pool area become a vegetable garden and the indoor pool area become a dining room.

Themb46-SanghaNews5 brothers and sisters of Blue Cliff are grateful to our sisters and brothers who have come to Blue Cliff from Plum Village since we arrived here to lend support. We are also grateful to brothers and sisters from Deer Park who came to help us for the two initial weeks here and the move. We are grateful to all our friends who have made financial contributions, material offerings, lent a helping hand, or responded to our wish list. Please know that we still need financial support to pay back loans, cover mortgage payments, build, and renovate.

We are now preparing for the arrival of Thay and the Plum Village delegation in August.

When we return after Thay’s tour there will be a retreat in Blue Cliff with Thay, October 12-16. After that it will be almost time to begin the winter retreat. We hope very much to see you, dear reader, this winter, whether it is with your family during the holiday retreat (December 2mb46-SanghaNews67-30, 2007) or for a longer stay during the winter retreat from mid-November until mid-February. The winter retreat of three months is the one extended period that monks and nuns spend together in the monastery to deepen their practice and studies. We wish that our lay friends can support us at that time and also join us for as long a time as possible in order to deepen their own practice. Thay gives teachings on a defined topic throughout the three months and these teachings are received two or three times a week by Internet.

Our friends who live nearby are welcome to join us for Days of Mindfulness 9:30 to 4:30 every Thursday and Sunday, for Thanksgiving (November 22, 2007), Christmas Eve (December 24, 2007), and New Year’s Eve (December 31, 2007).

Blue Cliff Monasterry
3 Hotel Road
Pine Bush NY 12566
(845)  733-5653/4959
fax: (845) 733-4300

— Sister Annabel, True Virtue


Thay  to  Speak  at  UCLA  Conference on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: Cultivating Well-Being in the Present Moment

Thich Nhat Hanh will be the keynote speaker at this conference co-sponsored by The Center for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, Insight LA, and the University of California Los Angeles. The conference, which will be held October 5-7, 2007, is designed for psychotherapists and other health care professionals, researchers, educators, and others interested in the behavioral sciences who are seeking to be more effective in their personal and professional lives.

According to the organizers, “One important new wave of psychotherapeutic practice is nourished by wisdom from the great philosophical traditions of the East, building upon and extending the clinical experience of previous eras—psychoanalytic, cognitive/behavioral, and humanistic/existential psychology…. A key element in this new frame of reference is mindfulness, the practice of being fully present within moment-to-moment experience with acceptance. Mindfulness enhances awareness of the sensory, somatic, intuitive, and emotional elements of experience in the present moment, thus enriching psychotherapy for both therapist and patient. For the therapist, cultivation of mindfulness facilitates the free-flow of clinical creativity and engages the wisdom of the heart. It fosters the ability to listen deeply with ‘beginner’s mind’ which enables the clinician to relate to clinical models in a new way. In turn, the client’s experience of mindfulness within the therapeutic encounter opens up the possibility of moving beyond the limiting frame of self and other.”

Other presenters include Tara Brach, Ph.D., Trudy Goodman, Ed.M., Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., Harriet Kimble Wrye, Ph.D., Sara Lazar, Ph.D., and Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. For information go to or call (310) 825-9971 or (818) 784-7006.


Join the Car-Free Day Movement

In October 2006, during a speech to UNESCO, Thich Nhat Hanh called for a global no-car day. The proposal was taken up immediately by all the monasteries. Now, a team of dedicated volunteers is working to spread the word through the Car Free Days campaign.

Deer Park Monastery announces that there is a new website: It describes ways to reduce personal carbon emissions and lower the impact on global warming. Users will f ind “fun, healthy activities that can bring more joy to your life while helping the planet.”

Organizers have declared September 22 to be “World Car Free Day” and have been soliciting pledges on the website. People are encouraged to promise to try four or more car free days per month or as often as they can. “For every mile you don’t drive, you save one pound of greenhouse gas from entering our atmosphere,” they say.

To help spread the word, a number of posters are available to be downloaded from the website. Willing artists are needed to design additional posters as well as t-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, screen-savers, and so. In addition, to help promote the Car Free Days to a wider audience, volunteers are needed to translate the website and posters into as many languages as possible. To help with any of these projects, contact: deerparkmonastery@

Bloggers are invited to contribute to the Car Free Days community by posting ideas, experiences, questions, and solutions on the blog:

“We won’t solve this problem unless each person contributes,” says the Car Free Day team. “Please join us by doing your part to reduce global warming. The entire planet and future generations are counting on you.” You can start by visiting:




Building Community Through Art

Earlier this year artist Brett Cook developed the epic “Building Community, Making History” collaborative art project that resulted in a series of portraits, two of which are on display in the “Portraiture Now: Framing Memory” exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum/National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. through January 6, 2008.


Brett Cook, a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh’s, worked with students and staff of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the National Portrait Gallery, leading them through a number of contemplative, educational, and creative practices. Seven workshops emphasizing portraiture allowed participants to explore their role in making history and resulted in the creation of four collaborative art works. The workshop exercises modeled the action of building community.

“By creating spaces for participants to express their individual selves in an inclusive and peaceful way,” says Cook, “there is the creation of a loving community that highlights the individual’s role in our collective history.” For slide shows, video clips, and student reflections, visit

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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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The Helping Hand

By Brother Phap Dung


Brother Phap Dung (pronounced FAP YUNG) gave the children’s Dharma talk before Sister Annabel spoke during the Colorado retreat, 24 August 2007.

I enjoy my life very much as a monk. I live with my brothers and sisters at Deer Park Monastery in California. We live together as a family. The nuns live in a place called Clarity Hamlet, in the oak grove, and the monks live in a place called Solidity Hamlet. It’s all rocky up there, and the sisters live by the stream where the oak trees are. We come together each day to do sitting meditation in the big meditation hall, and we watch the sun come up.

Have you ever seen the light change in the morning? It’s very beautiful. This is what we experience every morning. Because when we come out of our room going to the meditation hall, there are stars. We sit in there and we watch. We wake up with the sun. Afterwards we come out and do exercises while we watch the sun. It’s very nourishing to wake up like that, very quiet. I get to sit with all my brothers and sisters and it’s very nourishing.

Every year we have retreats like in Plum Village where families come with their kids, many little ones like you, and sometimes I take care of them. We also have a teen retreat just for teenagers. At the beginning when we first had the teen camp the parents said they would go somewhere else, stay away from the program, but they would find a way to sneak in. So the teens wrote us a letter and said please don’t allow any parents, any adults, they keep coming and trying to tell us what to do [laughs]. So we wrote them back and said, okay, we respect you. This year we had a hundred teens and we practiced yoga in the morning before sitting; the teens love yoga! Some of them are new to it so they do these moves and they fall — it’s a lot of fun. That’s how we start the day.

It’s wonderful to see so many young people learn to practice to sit still, to be okay not to run around and play computer all day. There we don’t have any computers and television for them, and some of them, like the new kids that come, they’re very afraid that they will not survive five days without television!

This last retreat we had with the teenagers, guess what we took away from them? We took their cell phones, can you believe that? We took their iPods, all their gadgets and video games. I remember the first meeting we had. They were like, “No, you can’t do this! No, but I need them! I need to talk to my mom.” You could see they were really afraid to be away from their cell phones. “But my friends! I have to check my messages!” You could see in their bodies, when they’re sitting around in the dining hall talking to us, they have physical reactions as if they’re addicted. So we thought that was quite interesting. [laughter from audience]

But after maybe three days, they made new friends and they were able to not even think about their cell phones and things. You’re very lucky right now — you don’t have cell phones, right? Once you get cell phones, you spend most of your time doing that, and you’re not really in front of your friends. The teens found out they’re in front of their friends and they play with sticks, with pine cones and stuff, and they really enjoy it.

And they go hiking. We take them hiking deep into the mountain where the coyotes live. Ohh! [laughter] And we go low and look in the bushes and we try to find the tracks of the coyotes, — you never see the coyotes — they disappear because they have these secret passages under the bush. So we take the children up the mountain, we go look for these paths.

Sometimes in the family retreat, we take the children all the way up into the mountain with their families, and we have sitting meditation up there. Then we enjoy breakfast or dinner. We watch the sun rise up in the mountain or the sun set out over the ocean. It’s an area where there are a lot of flat rocks. There are no railings re, so the monks and nuns, before we have the family retreat, do a little prayer,: “Please land ancestors, help us to — ,” cause you can imagine a hundred children going up there, and rocks are like cliffs, but there are no railings. But the children ays enjoy sitting and eating in silence up in the mountain. It’s y wonderful. They don’t need television, video games, and text messaging with their friends. They enjoy nature with us.

A Family of Fingers

I want to share with you today about our hands. I remember I was growing up, my mom taught me that a family, it’s like our hands [holds hand up and wiggles fingers]. Can you imagine u have five fingers and you always ignore this finger, and you everything with these fingers? [holds one finger down and ves the other four]

There’s a saying in Vietnamese, but I don’t really know it ughs] because I wasn’t really good with Vietnamese when I was owing up. I grew up in America. Anyways, I remember my mom ays reminding me that a family’s like a hand, and you always knowledge each other and see each other in the family. It could your father, your mother, your brother, your sister — you always things together, and you help each other, right? Your family is like the fingers on your hand, so if you have brothers and sisters, you help each other out.

Once in a while, this finger will be not so happy with this finger, right? Does that ever happen to you in your family? Sometimes it’s like this. You’re too close to each other, it’s like, “Get away from me! Get away from me!” [laughter] “I want to go in the closet! Mom!” Right? But look — how far can you go? [he wiggles his fingers; laughter] You still have to be in the family, right? So, remember that. Okay?

Once in a while we need space, and that’s very important. You kinda get very mad at your brother or sister, right? When I was young and I got mad at my mom or at my dad, I used to run in the closet. I’d go, rrrh! and I tried to pretend to my parents that I ran away. [laughter] You know, I’d run in the closet and I’d sneak in there and put all the blankets on, and I tried to stay there a long time, so that they’d think I ran away. And nobody looks for me! [laughs] So I stay there for a long time, and I come out, and nobody thinks I ran away!

So you cannot really run away far, because your mother and your father, sometimes they get angry at you, but they always love you, because you’re still part of one hand, you’re still part of the family.

But once in a while, we need space, and that’s okay. So we ask you to go home with your mom and dad, and tell them that we need a place for us to go when we feel angry, when we feel sad. “You know, Mom, Dad? I think we need a space. Our teacher called it the breathing space, a breathing room, or we can call it a flower room.” Go home and ask your mom and dad to set up a space in our home. It could be a corner or even a little area of the house where you have a cushion, a little flower, and if you feel angry, you go there. If you feel sad, you go there.

You see this finger here? When it feels a little sad or needing some space, you go to mommy and daddy, or you go to your brother, “I am going to the flower room.” Okay? “Please, everyone, you know, I need time to breathe.” So we go in there and we can sit on the cushion. Everyone try it, okay? Everyone sit in that space. Sit beautifully. No one can bother you in that space. Everyone in the family has to agree to that, even the young ones. The parents, you have to respect the young ones. So you sit there and you follow your breath. Everyone try it.

Pretend we’re sitting in that room. Sit beautifully. We can use our hands to help us. You put your left hand on your belly, and then you put your right hand on the belly on top of your other hand. We close our eyes. And we breathe in. Right now, I’m taking care of myself. I need space, I need to be still. So we sit there, and we close our eyes for a few minutes like that. And we become more calm.

Can everyone remember that? When I was young, your age, I didn’t have anybody to teach me that. All I knew was how to run into the closet and hide under the blanket. But now, you have a way, you don’t need to run. You can be with your feelings. So next time when your brother and sister, you rub against each other too much and you need some break time, instead of going to tell your mom, “Yah!” and yell, you go to that space. And you take care of yourself.

And now, please, for all the mommies and daddies, if you can help establish a space where our children can find some place for them to practice. We hear many stories from families that the kids remind their parents to breathe. Your mom, sometimes, and your dad, they take care of you and they get tired. You ever see your mom get tired? Because she gives everything to you. Yeah, she gets grumpy. Your mom is like a flower, like this [points to flower] and you need to take care of her. And your dad, too, you know. Because sometimes they take care of you too much and they get tired.

So I’m going to teach you with the hands again, with both of your hands. You go like this, it’s like a budding flower [holds hands together in lotus bud, then opens palms with wrists together, creating a blooming flower]. “Mom, here’s a flower for you.” You don’t have to go to the store to buy a flower. When you see your mom or your dad feeling grumpy — it’s not nice to feel grumpy, but you have to help your mom, because she takes care of you the whole day and sometimes at night, too — she’s like a flower and you have to take care of her. “Hi, Mommy, here’s a flower for you.” She’ll know that you’re there for her and then I think she will freshen up. Sometimes when she is grumpy, please try to help her — staying out of the way, giving her space, just like you when you need space.

So remember the hand — family [holds hand up]. You can’t run away from your family. Once in a while you rub against them, but you go to the space, breathing, and remember to give space to your mom and dad. Remember your hands can help you.

Brother Phap Dung is abbot of Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

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The Wisdom of Ordinary Children

By Mike Bell


I started learning to meditate in the late 1980s and went on my first retreat with Thay around 1992. I joined the Order of Interbeing in 1996. By 1999 I was looking for a new career and decided to take up teaching. I found I had less time to go to local Sangha meetings and so spent more time integrating the practice into my everyday life.

Mindfulness Trainings: Guidelines for a Better Life

I first thought about trying to use Buddhist ideas in the classroom while teaching a General Studies class of sixth formers (sixteen-year-olds). We had been talking about ethics. I remembered hearing that if you ask a group of schoolchildren about the things that upset people at school, and then ask them to come up with rules to prevent these things from happening, they will naturally generate the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided to give it a try.


I asked the pupils to write down one or two things that had made them unhappy at school. They read their ideas out loud, and I wrote them on the board. The most common reason that people get upset in school is because of things others say, and particularly, being talked about behind their backs. I asked the pupils to group the ideas into categories and, finally, to come up with a rule that they might be prepared to follow to prevent these things from happening.


It soon became clear that this exercise was going to work, but not quite as I had anticipated. The pupils came up with a list of what they called “Rules for a Happy Society,” which included:

  1. Consideration for others—no discrimination on the basis of age, sex, religion, or disability.
  2. No stealing
  3. No hurting, violation, or murder.
  4. Protection for religions and cultures.
    Accept a reasonable level of risk—do not look for blame.
  5. Welcome asylum-seekers, but deport illegal immigrants.
  6. Make facilities available for people of all ages.
  7. Limit the use of addictive drugs.

I noticed the importance to young people of tolerance: religions, musical tastes, fashions, and sexuality were all mentioned in our class discussion as objects of tolerance.

I have tried the same exercise with twelve-year-olds. I introduce the practice as “the science of happiness,” and tell them not to believe what I tell them, just to examine the facts. On one occasion, without any prompting, they did indeed group their concerns into the same five areas as the precepts: violence, stealing, speech, sexual misconduct, and consumption. I found from experience that I needed to include a second question, such as: “What things that you eat, buy, or consume can make you or other people unhappy?” Once prompted, they easily came up with overeating, getting drunk, and using drugs.

Mindfulness Practice: Calming Your Mind

I have several times tried to adapt our mindfulness practice to the classroom. I introduce these ideas as ways to calm your mind, to stop from worrying, to think more clearly, or to help you focus. Initially I thought I would follow Thay’s idea of the “pebble meditation”: moving five pebbles from hand to hand as you breathe in and out. I then realised that if I sent thirty pupils out of the classroom to collect five pieces of gravel from the driveway, I would really not end up with a meditation lesson! So first I tried using five pencils. Unfortunately, not every child has five pencils, and pencils come with some disadvantages—they take a lot of tidying up, they lend themselves to tapping, and they fall on the floor—so I decided to invent a simpler system. This is the five-finger meditation.


You start with the index finger of one hand resting on the wrist of the other hand, just below the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the thumb. Breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the first finger; breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of that finger, etc. With nothing to fall on the floor, this system has worked reasonably well.


Slow walking meditation around the outside of the classroom was less successful— too many pupils did silly things, giggled, and poked each other. However, walking meditation has really worked with children who are being bullied.

I point out that bullies are people who enjoy seeing somebody else upset, so the trick is to not give them any idea that you are upset. I have shown several pupils how to bring their attention down to the contact point between their feet and the ground and how to keep their focus there as they walk across the playground, not allowing any change in expression when somebody makes a taunting comment. I have observed a change in two or three pupils. One girl, who would stop behind to tell me how horrible people were, now stops and tells me something else!


After I taught these exercises to one or two classes, a group of rather unruly boys asked me if I would teach them meditation. I told them that I would only do it with classes that I knew and only if everybody agreed to participate. I never expected the boys to be able to be quiet enough to do it. But each lesson they kept asking, so I decided to give it a try. To my amazement, they did quite well, with one particular boy practising extremely well. I asked him whether he did any activities that were repetitive and that required focusing his mind. He told me that he was a cross-country runner and that when he was running, he often paid attention to the feeling in his legs. He had no trouble sitting still without fidgeting, clearly focused for much longer than the other pupils.

On the day of their exams, I was waiting with my pupils outside the examination hall when two of them asked if they could do the relaxation practice again. (I had told them it would help them with their exam.) A group of five or six started breathing meditation. One of their friends came over. “What you lot doin’?” he asked in a jeering voice. One of my pupils immediately replied, “Meditating. Sir taught us… and it’s gonna make us better in our exam, so you can shu’ up!”

Can We Live by Ourselves Alone?

This year I was planning to teach eleven-year-olds about the characteristics of living things. I asked the technician to bring me a green plant and a large stone. Showing these items to the pupils, I asked them what would happen if I put the stone in a cupboard and left it for a year and took it out again. They had no trouble telling me that the stone would be roughly as it was before—perhaps a little dusty or even mouldy, but basically the same. When I asked them what would happen to the plant if it were kept in a cupboard for a year, they readily agreed that the plant would be dead, all rotten or all brown. I then asked them what the plant needed that the stone didn’t, and they said that it needed light and water and stuff from the soil. They copied my diagram and labelled it with things the plant needed. I then asked them what the plant needed to be happy, and they were clear that it needed more sunlight, more water, and more nutrients. I asked them what the difference was between the stone and the plant, and they came up with the general idea that the plant “cannot live by itself alone.”

I then asked what would happen if the pupils were shut in a cupboard for a year (pointing out that I had no intention of doing this!). They easily agreed that they would be dead and rotten and smelly. I asked them what they needed to stay alive, and they first thought of food, water, and air; they soon added friends, family, and a house. They were ready to acknowledge that they could not live by themselves alone. I then asked them what they needed to be happy, and again they had no trouble listing the things that would help them. I asked them whether they thought the plant was separate from the water and the sunshine and the soil. This needed a little more thought, but they eventually agreed that the plant was not separate. I asked them if they were separate from their family and the air and the rain. They had no trouble with the idea that they were not separate. I asked what they needed to do to make sure that they were happy, and they decided that they needed to look after their family and the environment in order to be happy.

These experiences suggest to me that the wisdom found in Buddhism can be easily discovered by ordinary children without any reference to Buddhist terminology. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are not rules handed down by an authority but a set of guidelines for living that any group of reasonable people—even schoolchildren—can agree upon. I believe that my efforts to introduce mindfulness practice into the classroom have significantly affected and improved the lives of my pupils.

mb54-TheWisdom7Mike Bell, True Sword of Understanding, lives near Cambridge, England and teaches science in a state secondary school. He is interested in exploring ways to offer the benefits of the practice to those who would be put off by labels, rituals and complex language.

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Hugging with True Love

Thay’s Presence in a  Mother-Daughter Relationship

By Bobbie Bosworth


As many of us know, things can get pretty tense between teens and parents. That was the case with me (the mom) and our daughter when she was a teen. For various reasons, she became very unhappy and directed her unhappiness at those she loved the most. Our relationship became strained, and for a few years, I felt deep confusion about how to help her. It became hard to show love when I was getting messages like “stay away” or “leave me alone” from her. She also needed her parents so much at that time. How to build bridges and yet honor her wish for independence and separation? How to let her find her own way and yet support her when she was so depressed by the huge problems of this world?

One of our answers came from Thay in a very simple practice: hugging meditation. In hugging meditation, when my daughter and I were able to hold each other and breathe, as Thay recommended, there seemed to be an immediate lessening of tension and a recognition of our shared love. When we could drop out of conflict and allow ourselves to just hold each other, it always seemed to help. At times, she didn’t want to do it and neither did I. But if we just held each other, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes for quite a long time, something started to happen. We would relax and feel the warmth of each other. We would remember our basic deep love. We would sometimes cry. We often got to a deeper place with each other, to “big mind” or that to which we all belong. We would get beyond our little lives for a moment.

Happily, my daughter is now in her mid-twenties and is a wonderful mother. Our relationship has gotten much easier. We share so much now that she is raising a child. My daughter and I agree that most humans are starving for true love and connection. We both cannot get enough hugs from her son. We’ve also found that this practice, hugging meditation, is deeper than most people realize.

For me, hugging does not come easily, but I often think back on my daughter’s hard teen years and remember the simple connection we made through hugging with real love. I hug more now, as an expression of true feeling. To hug with intention, to hold another human (or animal) with love and best wishes, is a way to realize our true interbeing. It can be profound, and it certainly helped my daughter and me through a difficult time. We cannot thank Thay enough for his teachings, his writings, and his love for his Sangha and the world.

Editors’ note: To practice hugging meditation, you ask the other person if she would like a hug. If she agrees, following your breathing, take her in your arms and continue to be aware of your breathing as you hold her. You are 100% there for her and contemplate how wonderful it is that she is warm and alive. A hug should last for at least three long inand out-breaths.

Bobbie Bosworth, True Capacity of the Earth, and her husband live in a remote town in southern Utah. The natural environment is their Sangha. Bobbie was the first Buddhist chaplain in Salt Lake City.

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples’ feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child’s life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “No talent. Needs to be better motivated.” This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher’s Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students’ families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words “true person” were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, “Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?” The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, “Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?” Disappointed by the monk’s question, Linchi said, “That true person? What the heck!” No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach’s acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill’s content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.


Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother’s illness. We should tell people, “Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance.” We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. “Resis­tance” does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society’s pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society’s destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, “In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you.” The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father’s request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him “the destitute son.” No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

First photo by Ingo Gunther.
Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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