Buddha Walks Where Buddha Was Born

mb51-Buddha1By Irpinder Bhatia

Thay and the monastics spent five days in Nagpur, the nerve center of the Buddhist revival in India. Nagpur could one day be as important as Sarnath. On 14 October 1956, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, the visionary socio-political leader of the Dalits* took a historic step. He converted to Buddhism with 400,000 Dalits and rolled the waves of Buddhism’s return to India. This happened at Diksha Bhoomi at Nagpur.

The day of Shakyamuni Buddha’s firstever teaching at Sarnath is known as the Dhammachakra Pravartan Din, the day of Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. On arrival in Nagpur on 7 October, the Sangha found hundreds and hundreds of banners welcoming the Buddhists from all over India to celebrate Baba Saheb’s conversion day. The Dalit Buddhists celebrate it as the second Dhammachakra Pravartan Din, the day of Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. The monastics and the lay Sangha from Plum Village and Ahimsa Trust walked through more than a million Indian Buddhists visiting Diksha Bhoomi on this special occasion and shared with them Dharma, meditation practices and chanted together with them. And, on the evening of 8 October, Thay gave a Dharma talk to thousands of Indian Buddhists assembled at Diksha Bhoomi.

The first evening at Nagpur was spent with the Buddhist intellectuals and monks. In the words of one of the senior bhikkus, both the lay people and the Indian monastics were “startled” by the emphasis Thay placed on the building of Sangha. Thay’s teaching that “giving care to oneself” and “building Sangha” are essential for those who want to work for social change was found striking and led to reflection.

The volunteer team when it first went to Nagpur made a surprise discovery. It found that the Indian Buddhists have formed a very special relationship with the Hindi version of Thay’s book Old Path White Clouds. The book is being read, not just by individuals, but by entire families, and often more than once. “I have read it twice, and my father is now reading it,” is a typical expression. People who have learnt to read for the first time in centuries form the core of the revival of Buddhism in India.

For these newly educated people hungry for Dharma, Old Path White Clouds brings Buddha’s essential teachings in simple language through a story that is easy to understand. A special low-cost edition of the book was brought out for this occasion that sold out to the last copy available in Nagpur. It is felt that this book will be needed in several Indian languages over the years. It could play a vital role in quick dissemination of Dharma to the masses.

The two-day retreat at Nagpur was special for the kind of people it attracted. Most of the retreatants were men and women over forty, and quite a few young men. One of the most beautiful and striking visuals I carry from my first exploratory trip to Nagpur is of the women in the local Buddhist temples. More than once, late at night, I saw groups of ten or twenty women reading Buddhist scriptures by candle light. (Nagpur has long power cuts that can last five or six hours.)

These men and women who are the bedrock of the Buddhist revival in India came to the retreat. They gave the same quality of attention to walking, sitting, and eating meditation as they gave to Thay’s Dharma discourses. On the second day of the retreat, Thay led the walking meditation to a tree. In silence they sat together, Thay and more than 700 retreatants, none questioning, none restless.

At the end of the retreat, a group of young men between 18 and 22 walked up to me to share what the retreat had meant to them. “Listening to each of Thay’s Dharma talks has been like sitting through a meditation session. So simple and so fulfilling.” One of the young men said thoughtfully, “Thay asked us to feel the presence of the body of the Lord Buddha and the body of Baba Saheb Ambedkar within our body. Thay asked us to feel their presence within us and draw strength from them. I could have never imagined that I can connect with Lord Buddha and Baba Saheb in this way. It is so simple and so easy to practice.” A young woman said, “When I saw Thay walk I felt this is the way Lord Buddha must have walked. When Thay stopped and hundreds of people sat around him in silence, I felt that this is how Lord Buddha must have sat and meditated with his Sangha 2550 years ago. Little talking, and much practice.”

This is exactly how I felt too. When I saw Thay walk in Nagpur, on Indian soil, I felt that I was seeing Buddha walk where Buddha was born.

*Victims of the pernicious caste  system of India, Dalits were a dispensable lot who lived a sub-human existence for centuries [also called Untouchable].

Irpinder Bhatia is an educator and documentary film maker.

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Mindfulness Bell Survey

By James Schaan and Natascha Bruckner

As a key step in our efforts to transform the Mindfulness Bell, we conducted the first-ever MB reader survey. Our purpose was to discover who our readers are, how they feel about important aspects of the MB, and what they’d like to see in the magazine. The survey was conducted online and targeted to three groups: current subscribers, past subscribers, and potential subscribers.

The survey helped us understand who our readers are and their desires for both the content and style of the Mindfulness Bell. For many questions, the results showed us what we expected to see. There were also a number of surprising responses. Here are a few examples of each:

Not Surprising:

It appears there are more girl Buddhists than boy Buddhists. At least, more girl Buddhists responded to our survey. Feel free to draw the conclusions you prefer.

The number of articles, breadth of content, and frequency of the Mindfulness Bell are about what our readers expect.

The majority of survey respondents would like to see more articles written by or about Thay and the monks and nuns.

The great majority of respondents feel that subscriptions are donations to the Mindfulness Bell that help spread the Dharma and Thay’s presentation of the teachings of the Buddha, and that the subscription price is about right.

Surprising:

Responses across all three survey categories showed us that the majority of our current, past, and future readers practice individually rather than as Sangha members. Knowing this, we will continue to offer tools and insights for individual practice, as well as encouragements and guidance for Sangha building.

There is a migration of past subscribers and a majority of online respondents who only read the Mindfulness Bell online. However, all three survey groups responded that they want the print version of the magazine to continue. In order to support the flow of resources to continue MB in print form, we will add a secure donations page to our website, www.mindfulnessbell.org.

The vast majority of readers feel a very strong connection with Thay and the monastics. We were not surprised that these feelings of affinity existed, but we were surprised by the strength of those feelings. As we continue along our path with our readers, we will address methods for helping people feel more deeply connected with the core practitioners of the Order of Interbeing.

The results showed us that we are on the right path. We also have opportunities to transform, and to help our readers have the best experience possible with our magazine. And when we say “our,” we mean “our” as in yours, too. Your subscriptions, donations, writing, artwork, volunteer support, and deep listening/reading bring this publication to life. The Mindfulness Bell is a meeting ground for the maha-Sangha. Together, we can all ensure it is a place of collective awakening.

If you’d like to learn more about the survey, please email editor@mindfulnessbell.org. To answer the survey questions in writing, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Mindfulness Bell, c/o David Percival, 745 Cagua S.E., Albuquerque NM 87108. Contact us if you are interested in volunteering for the Mindfulness Bell by helping with the website, fundraising, copy editing, or staffing a booth at a retreat.

The Mindfulness Bell survey was conducted by James Schaan, Most Gentle Goodness of the Heart, a marketing and business development professional, and Elizabeth Hospodarsky, Compassionate Connection of the Heart, an organizational leadership and development training professional. They live in Tucson, Arizona and are members of Singing Bird Sangha.

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Touching the Master

By Aparna Pallavi

 mb56-Touching1“Go back and take care of yourself. The wounded child in you needs you. Your suffering, your blocks of pain need you. Your deepest desire needs you to acknowledge it.”

Each word touched my hurting heart like a tender dewdrop. My whole being ached with the desire to see the writer of these beautiful words—to see the radiant smile on the back cover of his book, Teachings on Love. It was the middle of the night. Unable to remain in bed, I got up, turned on my computer and opened the Plum Village website. And it hit my chest like a hammer, knocking my breath out entirely. Thich Nhat Hanh was coming to India! And to Nagpur, the city of my residence! Had ever a human wish been fulfilled so dramatically!

On October 9, 2008, in the huge marquee at Nagaloka Buddha Vihar, something beautiful happened even before I saw Thay. Sister Chan Khong, leading a team of monastics, was approaching the marquee. My daughter, then barely eleven, cried, “Mom, look what that beautiful grandma is doing!”

Through some misunderstanding, the women posted at the entrance to perform traditional Indian welcome rituals were trying to put flowers on the old lady’s feet instead of scattering them in her path, as is customary. It was a clumsy gesture, but the tiny old woman magically transformed it by bending down to receive the flowers in her hands and putting them on her head in a spontaneous, childlike gesture of joy and gratitude. I’d never seen a simple gesture radiate so much visible, felt beauty before.

When Thay appeared, I found myself leaving my seat and following him to the dais, pulled like a child to an ice cream cart. I stood within feet of Thay, my elbows on the dais, hoping the camera in my hand would help me look less foolish to the sedate audience.

A serene song of piercing loveliness, which I’d never heard before, started playing in my heart the moment I saw Thay. But coiled with it was a terrible, aching sense that this would be over, and soon. My practiced hands were feverishly snapping pictures. A part of me was madly determined to capture this moment for eternity. But the song was still strong, and when the monastics started chanting sutras, the melodies blended effortlessly.

For a long moment during the chanting, Thay very deliberately turned his gaze full on me, where I stood. My heart leapt, but at the same moment my hands, as if on cue, rose and poked the old camera at him. And just then, the camera folded up right under his gaze, its batteries exhausted. I was torn between intense ecstasy and intense anxiety, and now, in addition, an urgent sense of utter stupidity. Camera gone, there was nothing to do but to gather the blessing of that gaze, which miraculously stayed on me for another long moment, looking into my fragile human eyes, so inadequate to the task.

Then the disappointments began. When Thay spoke, I recognized the words from the books I had read. During the two-day workshop, I could hardly see or hear Thay through a throng of more than a thousand people. His translator, whom I knew, laughed at my request for a five-minute talk with Thay. On the last day, I cried in the bus back home.

I rationalised that it was stupid and sentimental to have hankered for a flesh-and-blood encounter with someone as busy as Thay, like a teenager for a movie star. It’s stupid to go to a guru at all. The truth is all in the books, so why bother? But a tender, trusting part of me was deeply ashamed and confused. Had my yearning been sentimental and stupid? What intangible quality had I been looking for in Thay’s presence? What had caused this tangible feeling of let-down that was eating away at me?

For weeks, a child inside me cried inconsolably.

For many months, I continued to read Thay’s books, and tried to practice walking, sitting, and eating meditation, and mindfulness. But given the old habits of my mind, progress was slow. I was frustrated that I had no master or Sangha to help me. I was torn between the desire to seek help and the fear of further hurt. If contact with a living master had failed to help me, how could I trust lesser mortals?

A Rare State of Being

Almost a year and a half after Thay’s visit, I chanced upon a book by a contemporary seeker, which described his efforts to be with his guru, not seeking his attention, but just absorbing his radiance from a distance. The book inspired me to confront my pain directly. Had I gone to Thay with the wrong expectations? What had I expected the brief encounter to achieve? The only time in my life I desired something with my whole being, my wish was fulfilled with near-miraculousness. And yet I was so full of secret misery.

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The more I tried to look deeply into these questions, the more the memory of that ethereal song knocked at my heart, the clearer my beautiful vision of Sister Chan Khong putting flowers on her head became. I was surprised at how fresh and flower-like these memories still were. I allowed myself to look at my memories full in the face, and one afternoon realization burst upon me. These memories had been the whole point of my yearning—the music that had throbbed through my entire being in the presence of Thay, the radiance of Sister Chan Khong’s simplicity that had touched my eyes like a benediction. In these moments, I’d been given the most precious gift. I’d had an opportunity to share the being of these two precious people. I’d been allowed a glimpse of a rare state of being, to see, to know for myself, beyond all doubt, that such a state is possible.

And how I’d fought against the gift! I’d nearly missed Thay’s living presence due to my preconceptions, my egoistic clinging. The only moment I’d been fully alive to the magic of his presence was the moment when my camera failed and I looked into his eyes. But for that, I’d have missed it altogether.

When this simple realization came, it was as if a huge block of stone embedded in my heart had been removed. Practice and life are much more serene and smooth when you wholeheartedly trust something than when you are carrying a pinprick of doubt. Once I allowed myself to fully trust that day’s memories, it became easier not to get carried away by the mechanical habits of my mind.

My progress is still slow, but steadier, as if my energies are flowing together instead of fighting each other. There are times when, in moments of deep calm, the memory of Thay’s penetrating look or Sister Chan Khong’s beautiful gesture (the latter framed in a kind of sunlit halo) come back to me, refreshing me, strengthening me, touching me with a benediction as fresh, as fragrant as the day when they really happened—perhaps even more so now, when I am fully present. My conflict about whether or not to seek a Sangha has been resolved in an unexpected manner. It has disappeared altogether, taking both the “to be” and the “not to be” with it. I am neither seeking nor not seeking. I am just practicing, as Thay puts it, with a rock, with a flower ….

mb56-Touching3Aparna Pallavi is a social activist, journalist, and organic farmer who lives in Nagpur, India, with her husband and daughter. She works for the environmental magazine Down to Earth.

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Fertile Ground

Indonesia Teaching Tour

By Brother Phap Lai

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Thay and the Sangha touched down in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on September 27, 2010, having just said a wistful goodbye to our hosts in Malaysia, where we enjoyed a successful two weeks offering retreats and public talks. In Jakarta, we were greeted by warm smiles from a team of lay friends and monastics eager to take good care of us, introduce us to their homeland, and help us plant seeds of Thay’s teaching and practice.

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Indonesia is densely populated with 238 million people. Onehundred-twenty-million are concentrated on Java—the political hub of this archipelago of some 17,500 islands—where we stayed for two weeks. We were taken first to Ekayana Temple, our base in Jakarta and the home of Brother Phap Tu and Venerable Dharma Vimala, both of whom have spent long stays in Plum Village. We were then escorted by police for the three-hour journey to Kinasih resort near Bogor, where we were to offer a five-day retreat. Phap Tu said without the escort, he was not sure how we could have made our way through the thick traffic of Jakarta.

It is impossible not to be affected by the squalid conditions of the poor majority of this overpopulated city. However, we were lucky to have some time in more rural mountain areas. Evident on people’s faces and in their interactions was the simple reality that, even though people may be poor, happiness is possible once the wholesome conditions of having enough space to live, clean air, water, and nature are present. We saw families and communities living simply but happily together. Wherever we went, the majority Muslim population was friendly and courteous, happy to return the beautiful Islamic greeting “As-Salamu ‘Alaykum” (“peace be upon you”) with “Wa Alaykum As-Salam” (“and on you be peace”).

In Indonesia, the ethnic Chinese are generally Buddhist by way of family tradition. However, the Plum Village tradition is new and this was Thay’s first visit to Indonesia. We were touched by the openness of Ekayana Temple, and its associated temples outside Jakarta, to our tradition; they made the Sangha’s visit possible. Brother Phap Tu was the main organiser, and the fourfold Sangha of Ekayana Temple worked wholeheartedly with him to make this visit a huge success. In addition, previous Sangha building efforts made Indonesia a fertile ground for Thay’s teaching to take root. Thay Phap Kham made a number of visits, and in May 2009, Sister Chan Khong, along with a group of brothers and sisters, led a four-day retreat in Kinasih Resort for 400 people and offered Days of Mindfulness in Java and Sumatra.

Interfaith Understanding

With conditions so ripe, we should not have been surprised by how well the retreat was attended and how immediately the energy of practice established itself. There were nine hundred retreatants, of which a record three hundred were young adults. Such an inspiring number of youth wouldn’t have manifested without the outreach work of Brother Phap Tu, who offered a series of weekend retreats at universities in the months leading up to the tour. This outreach paid a wonderful dividend. (We hope to emulate this kind of outreach in the UK before Thay’s visit in 2012). Thay gave a talk on True Love especially dedicated to the young people, and they had lots of sincere questions to ask the monastics. The retreat went well for everyone, and over two-thirds of the people attending received the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Some thirty Muslim practitioners attended the retreat. They formed a family for Dharma discussion, led by Sister Jina. Thay shared teachings of Buddhism that highlighted nondualistic thinking, nondiscrimination, and inclusiveness as central to Buddhist wisdom and insight. Thay talked on “the wisdom of nondiscrimination” as the fourth ingredient of True Love—upeksha, often translated as equanimity. Thay said Buddhists and Muslims can say to each other, “Because I love you and your God is Allah, I also love Allah as my God,” and “because I love you and your teacher is Lord Buddha, Buddha is also my teacher.” Thay shared that as Buddhists, we can very well understand Islamic proclamations from the Koran such as “Allah is God, there is only one God,” in the light of the Buddhist insight that the one contains the all. Thay said, “As Buddhists we should study Islam. Thay has studied and sees the five pillars of Islam can be compared with the Five Mindfulness Trainings.”

On the last day, Thay invited the Muslim Dharma discussion group to share with the whole Sangha about their experience and the initiative, following Thay’s request, to establish an interfaith group in Indonesia. One young Muslim lady shared that sadly, the country’s motto, “Unity in Diversity,” does not reflect the real situation. She shared that this retreat gave her hope and a way to contribute to making the motto something to believe in. Separately from this sharing to the whole Sangha, a Muslim lady shared with me about a transformation she experienced. “The ethnic Chinese, although a minority of twenty to twenty-five percent, use economic dominance to discriminate and this causes bad feelings among the Muslim community. But here it is clear everyone is good-hearted and I can relate them to as brothers and sisters on the path. I feel very at ease here.”

I had numerous conversations with our hosts, Chinese Indonesians and Malaysian Chinese, during the stay in these countries and discovered there is a lot of resentment regarding the many ways in which they suffer discrimination by the governments, which favour the Muslim majority. Underneath the occasional eruptions of violence that make the news, there is a pervasive tension among different ethnicities and religions of the Indonesian people. Poverty and overpopulation exacerbate the situation. Misperceptions and discriminatory behaviour fuel more resentment. It seems all the more important to find ways for the two communities to find common ground from which to build mutual respect and love. Conditions seem more favourable in Indonesia compared with Malaysia, where Muslims are barred by law from attending any Buddhist events. Under these kinds of restrictions it is hard to see how interfaith groups can form openly. Yet during the retreat it seemed everything was possible; indeed, understanding, love, and unity manifested palpably.

Back in Plum Village, Brother Phap Tu informed me that the interfaith group in Jakarta is meeting regularly, and Plum Village is to sponsor a Muslim practitioner from this group for a long-term stay in Plum Village.

Thay wrote to his children on the tour, “The Southeast Asia Tour is blooming as a beautiful flower. The flower has five petals. The first three petals are Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and they have manifested elegantly. The happiness of the Sangha has been nourished by the happiness of the local Buddhist practitioners. As teachers and students, we have learned many wonderful things on this trip, being able to drop many of our preconceived notions about these countries.”

Brother Phap Lai is from the United Kingdom and is currently residing in Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, France.

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Magical Moment at Borobudur Temple

By Deny Hermawan

mb56-Magical1Thay’s marvelous teachings have been deeply etched in my heart for a few years. On October 7, 2010, his teachings became even more impressive and alive for me when he came to Java to visit one of the most magnificent Buddhist sites in the world, Borobudur Temple.

On that day I felt so excited because I was able to walk mindfully together with hundreds of people, including many monastics from Plum Village, led by Thay. Although I was not able to maintain my awareness at every step, the peace walk was incredible for me. I could feel the energy of peace, love, and compassion spread over the area, empowering the sacred monument that was built by King Smaratungga in 800 AD. The encounter of the great historical temple and a living bodhisattva was a significant and moving moment. Thay’s presence, the Sangha’s solidity, and the rainy weather created an unforgettable atmosphere that day.

It seemed like magic occurred. Right after we completed the peace walk, rain started falling heavily. It stopped just as Thay began his Dharma talk by saying, “I am happy because I’m able to be here and now, in the present moment. Therefore, I feel no anxiety; I feel free.” Later in the afternoon, just as the event was coming to an end and Thay was getting into a vehicle to leave, the rain started falling again, as if nature were grieving the departure of the legendary teacher.

Moments with Thay and the monastics from Plum Village and the Indonesian Sangha at Borobudur were truly amazing. Walking and sharing lunch with them were wonderful moments, and another moment that truly impressed me was the pindapatra, or alms round. I felt so lucky because I had a chance to put some food into Thay’s bowl. I felt his beautiful eyes see right through me, smiling, and I felt his wisdom strike my mind without words, perhaps like the story of the Buddha holding flowers and Mahakashyapa smiling.

I attended my first retreat with monastics from the Plum Village tradition in 2008 when Brother Phap Kham and others led a retreat in Indonesia for the first time. That retreat was the beginning of my journey towards true happiness and mindfulness. Before that retreat, I had already become a big fan of Thay’s teaching through reading his books. Being able to meet the writer and participate in mindful activities with him was absolutely amazing. I hope I can maintain the spirit of goodness of that day at Borobudur Temple so that I can contribute more positively to society and so that, finally, heaven on earth will become truly possible.

mb56-Magical2Deny Hermawan, Determined Light of the Heart, is a practitioner in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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