Announcements

Thich Nhat Hanh to Visit India and Israel 

Thich Nhat Hanh will be traveling through India in February and March. For information about joining all or part of this journey, please contact Shantum Seth, tel/fax: (91) 11-852-1520, email: shantum@artisan.unv.ernet.in.

In May, Thay will lead two weekend retreats at Kibbutz Harel and give public talks in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Bethlehem. The donation requested for Dharma talks is $15, for each retreat weekend $160. To register, Europeans and others should contact Partage in Paris, tel: (33)1 -44-07-06-07. North Americans may register with the Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707. If you are unable to attend, please consider donating to provide the opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to share Thay’s teachings. Donations may be sent to CML and marked for the “Israeli/Palestinian Scholarship Fund.” Please see p. 37 for schedules for both of these trips.

Transcribing Talks

Local Sanghas are encouraged to help transcribe Vietnamese and English tapes of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma talks. For Vietnamese talks, contact Hoang Khoi, 14 Maitland Avenue, Kingsford 2032, Australia, tel: (61 )2-9313-8489, fax: (61)2-9697-9007, email: K.Hoang@unsw.edu.au. For English talks, contact Michelle Bernard at Parallax Press, tel: (510)525-0101.

AIDS Anthology

The Buddhist AIDS Project is compiling an anthology on Buddhist practice and AIDS tentatively entitled, Heart Lessons from an Epidemic: Buddhist Practice and Living with HIV. The working deadline for submissions has been extended to January 30. The anthology editor, Steve Peskind, specifically requests submissions on practicing and living with the promises and challenges of protease inhibitors and other medical advances. Please call Steve at (415) 522-7473 in San Francisco for more information.

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Passages

Born: Jonah Lieberman Flint was born to New York City Sangha members David and Ann Flint on May 23, 1996.

Married: Shantum Seth, True Right Path, and Gitanjali Varma celebrated their wedding vows with Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village on September 14, 1996.

Died: Greg Keryk, 44, died of cancer on August 16, 1996 in Santa Cruz, California. Greg was a member of the Order of Interbeing, the beloved husband of Irene Keryk, and the father of Diane Keryk. Please see tributes on pages 16-17.

Died: On August 8, 1996, Jusan William “Frankie” Parker, 42, died by lethal injection at Cummins Prison in Arkansas, after 10 years in prison for the murder of two people. His conversion to Buddhism in 1988 and wholehearted practice inspired people inside and outside of the prison. Frankie’s spiritual advisor, Kobutsu Kevin Malone, ordained him before his death. Despite letters from H.H. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh and petitions signed by hundreds of Buddhist practitioners, the governor of Arkansas refused to commute Frankie’s sentence to life in prison.

Frankie spent his last day answering letters and calling teachers and friends. On the night of his death, family and friends gathered to support Frankie and oppose the death penalty. Rev. Kobutsu accompanied him to the execution chamber where they chanted the Three Refuges. At the moment of his death, Frankie was shown a picture of the Buddha by the executioner.

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A Real-Life Hero

By Gaia Thurston-Shaine

My hero is that woman who plays marimba with flying wrists, who opens her mouth in wild love for the music as she dances behind her instrument. My hero is one with gentle hands, who teaches Aikido by example and with the willingness to make a thousand mistakes for the sake of learning. My hero is the man who pulls the oars with skill, and who knows what to risk for the sake of fun and what is better left alone to admire. My hero is the woman who walks beside a field and exclaims at its beauty, then walks in the mountains and stands in awe. My hero dances madly, listens carefully, knows his strength, and see beauty in everything around him.

The dictionary definition of hero leaves much open for interpretation. None of the qualities I see as heroic are remotely similar to those honored in the tale of Beowulf, which I recently read. If an old English hero danced madly, took time to listen, decided something was too much for him to handle, or stopped to smell a flower, his reputation would be shot. Courage was seen as strength and perseverance in gaining power by force. I belleve it takes a much greater amount of courage and personal integrity to make mistakes, hug trees, look ridiculous, and truly Iisten.

Of all the people I’ve met, Thich Nhat Hanh comes the closest to having all these qualities. When I walk slowly beside him, his hand is gentle in mine. He stops to admire the sky or a view of the rolling French countryside. He teaches by experience, and has gained wisdom and insight by truly Ilstening to many kinds of people. I often wonder if he finds the same release through his sitting meditation as I do in the mountains or on the dance floor.

Every quality I see as heroic is one I constantly strive for in myself. I thrive on being gentle, listening, and walking with those I love. I balance gentleness with wild abandon, flying down a sledding hill headfirst or diving into an icecold glacial pool. I work hard to strengthen my abilities and do my best at everything I try, but also to accept my own mistakes. Perhaps some day I will become the hero I see in those around me-dancing wildly, listening closely, pulling the oars with confidence and respect, and seeing beauty in every landscape and human I encounter.

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Gaia Thurston-Shaine, a high school senior, lives in McCarthy, Alaska, and Port Townsend, Washington. She has attended many retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh and cocoordinated the teenagers’ program during the 1997 retreat at Omega.

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Through Prison Gates

By Bill Menza

On October 16, 1999, for the first time ever, the state of Maryland opened its prison doors to a renowned Buddhist Zen master. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh rode in the second of two cars caravaning from Washington, D.C. to the medium security prison at Hagerstown, Maryland. The glorious autumn day reflected the importance of the event, making the one-and-a-half hour trip seem as wondrous as the leaves falling from the passing trees.

A few months before, Emma Lou Davis, who chairs the Community Correctional Services Committee of Washington County, Inc. (CCSC), a nonprofit group of volunteers who support prison inmates, had read some of Thay’s books. A few weeks later, Bo Lozoff, Director of the Human Kindness Foundation, called to see if she could arrange Thay’s visit to the prison. Bo and Sita, his wife and Foundation codirector, have worked for more than 25 years to bring spiritual support to people in prisons. They have visited over 600 prisons to teach a way of life based upon three common principles taught by the great sages of all religions: simple living, dedication to service, and commitment to personal spiritual practice. The foundation and CCSC also work with the American Friends’ Alternatives to Violence Project, which teaches prisoners how to turn away from violence and toward  responsible nonviolent ways of handling conflict and living.


 

Hagerstown, Maryland is a rural area with many farms and beautiful landscapes. Signs to the correctional facilities brought us to a small gravel road that ends at three prisons set in rolling fields: the Maryland Correction Institution at Hagerstown (MCI), the Roxbury Correctional Institution, and the Maryland Correctional Training Center. These three medium-security prisons hold almost 7,000 inmates and have a staff of 1,800. Each is surrounded by 16 feet high fences topped with razor wire, which hide the buildings they embrace. The customary towers with armed guards added to the foreboding scene.

As we approached the small reception building, we could see guards looking out at us. These brownrobed monks and nuns must have been a strange sight for them. I wondered how we would be accepted and treated by the guards and the prisoners. We signed in, showed identification papers, and were checked off the pre-approved visitors list. Then we went through the metal detector machine. Even our shoes had to be removed, for they set the machine’s alarm off. Throughout our visit the guards were professional, but also cordial, helpful, and friendly. I sensed that our visit might have softened their more usual tough detachment. Later I learned that they were hand-picked to make sure we were treated exceptionally well.

Leaving the reception building, we walked mindfully toward the entrance gate to the stone castle that is MCI. The guard leading us signaled for the chainlink gate to be opened, and we entered the first sallyport of many as we went deeper into the prison. This first sallyport is a cage; when the gate behind you closes, the one in front is opened, leading into the yard. The sun was warm and flowers near the entrance smiled at us.

The guard signaled for the next door, directly into the castle. We entered a hallway and were directed to a waiting room. Signs warned prisoners and then visitors that chair legs must remain behind the yellow lines painted on the floor. If the chairs are moved, the visit is terminated. Other signs proclaimed: “Once visitors and inmates are seated there will be NO changing of seats.” “Physical embracing is limited to the start and end of the visit. Hand holding is the only other contact permitted.” “No Warnings. Violations will terminate visits.”

We were led through more sallyports and down halls to the chapel. Prisoners watched us pass their cell blocks. The cells were the size of a small bathroom. I wondered what it must be like to live in such a tiny place day in and day out. And most likely, as a former prisoner told me, with a cell mate you would not want to be with in such close quarters. I wondered too about the double bunking that goes on in many prisons to handle the over-capacity of prisoners. All of this is hidden from the public.


 

There were 30 of us with Thay, including Sister Chan Khong, Brother Phap Hoa, Order of Interbeing members Pritam Singh and Bill Menza, and Washington Mindfulness Community associate Larry Inghram. Sister Chan Thieu Nghiem and Brothers Phap Kham and Phap Thong waited for us in the reception area. The other visitors, including another 40 waiting in the Chapel, were volunteers with the CCSC, the Human Kindness Foundation, and the Alternatives to Violence Project, and some of their family members, as well as some prison officials. Sita Lozoff and her son and daughter-in-law were with us. Bo Lozoff was concluding a speaking engagement at the National Cathedral and would join us shortly. There were also some Maryland prison staff, including Nancy Williams, Director of Maryland’s Department of Corrections Volunteer and Religious Services.

About 120 prisoners waited for us. Lloyd “Pete” Waters, the warden, introduced Thay by saying that they had things in common, and that there was a bond between them from their experiences during the Vietnam War. Waters grew up nearby in Maryland. In 1967, the United States Army sent him to Vietnam. He remembered the news photos of Buddhist monks immolating themselves to awaken others to the pain and suffering of the war. He told the prisoners many details of Thay’s life, including his peace efforts in Vietnam, his nomination for the Nobel Peace prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his founding Plum Village.

It was remarkable that the warden, the highest authority in this prison, was introducing Thay. This introduction told the prisoners that this monk from Vietnam was an honored guest to be listened to with great respect. And his attitude was reflected all during our stay at the prison, particularly during our lunch together. The prisoners gave us our sandwiches, drinks, and apples and took away our empty containers as if we were special guests in their home.


 

Thay taught about how to visit paradise in prison. He began by explaining about a poem he wrote after Sister Chan Khong’s home village was bombed, and how his poem was turned into a song. He read the poem, “For Warmth,” and then Sister Chan Khong sang the song. Thay went on to summarize and explain 2,500 years of teaching on the instructions of the Buddha to be free of pain and suffering. He advised us to “practice freedom, to cultivate it,” in order to bring happiness to ourselves and others. He told each of us to walk as a free person; to breathe as free person; to eat as a free person, not as a victim of anger and despair. And, he explained, that to walk, breathe, and eat as a free person is possible anywhere.

Thay said that when you walk in prison you can walk mindfully with joy, peace, and solidity. You can enjoy the air you breath, which is the same air outside the prison. You can enjoy the earth under your feet, which is the same earth outside the prison, and you can enjoy the warm sun, which is the same sun outside the prison. You can walk for your loved one, for your son or daughter. When you walk like this, Thay said, call out their name to yourself. “David, here I am,” as you step with your foot. This makes David walk with you. You are here for him. You are walking with joy and stability for him.

Paradise, Thay said, is a place where there is compassion. You can bring Paradise to Hell, if you allow your suffering and the suffering of others to give birth to compassion. To understand your suffering and the suffering of another person you must look deeply. When you look deeply, deep understanding develops. Understanding brings compassion. Here in prison there is time to look deeply, to live  compassionately, and to let this liberating force rise up. Each of us contains the whole universe, Thay said, and when we go back to ourselves mindfully in the here and now we can enter the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land. We can be alive and awake, touching the refreshing and healing elements in and around us, or we can live in Hell. Both are in us.

As we were leaving, many prisoners came up to us to thank us for this visit. Their deep appreciation was evident in a letter from a prisoner to a local newspaper a few months later. The seeds that Thay planted that day in prison are growing into flowers.

Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia. The transcript of Thay’s talk to the prisoners was published by Parallax Press this spring. It is available through the Prison Project of Community of Mindful Living. Please see page 35.

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Book Reviews

mb38-BookReviews1Journeying East:
Conversations on Aging and Dying

By Victoria Jean Dimidjian
Parallax Press, 2004

Reviewed by Lois Schlegel

For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of death. Even as a child I wrestled with this unknown. At night, when the house was quiet I lay awake trying to figure it out, trying to touch the mystery of it somehow, trying to understand.

None of the conventional answers satisfied me. I searched and questioned and suffered for years, as both my parents died before I was twenty-five and I witnessed the fragility of life from a mother’s perspective when my own children were born.

So, it was with a sense of kinship I read Victoria Jean Dimidjian’s outstanding collection of interviews on this subject. She too was touched by death as a child and her experience seems to shape this far-reaching book. Devoting her entire sabbatical from teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University to this project, Ms. Dimidjian traveled the globe to bring us insight from many of today’s prominent philosophers and death and dying practitioners.

Journeying East includes conversations with Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Eigen, Norman Fisher, Joan Halifax, Sister Chan Khong, Frank Osataseski, Rodney Smith, and John Wellwood. Each interview is at once intimate and transcendent, as if we too have been sipping tea with these masters and come away not with answers, but insight; not knowledge, but peace. As Rodney Smith so aptly tells the author when she asks him about his own fear of death, “You live it consciously; you live it actively; you live the open question of death. We access the true spirit of Buddhism by living the question of life.” This book is an invitation to that awareness and practice. It offers ways to tolerate and even find joy in the mystery of death.

Fill your life with music! Sing your blues away!
2 new COMPACT DISKS

Rivers & Oasis
Available through the Deer Park Monastery Audio Visual Department

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

www.deerparkmonastery.org/shop_online.htm

Wonderful new songs and chants are available as a gift from the fourfold Sangha. Through the direction of Sr. The Nghiem, monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen have come together to produce a CD of twenty-seven practice songs called Rivers. These songs clearly reflect the personal practice of the participants, watering seeds of peace, freedom, lightness, and joy in the listener.

For those who love singing and are looking for fresh songs to enjoy and to share with your Sangha, Rivers is the CD for you! There are fourteen songs in English, nine in Vietnamese, and four in French. Included in the English songs is the popular, In Gratitude, which many of us have learned. Most of the others were new to me, and a complete delight. My personal favorites include Alone Again, adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, Recommendation, and put to music by Christian monks; and No Wait, an acapella, two-voiced song encouraging self-reliance, which makes me cry with happiness every time I hear it. There is also a wonderful talk-story song by Sr. Chau Nghiem, called Peace is the Way. The CD’s name comes from a lovely song featured first, and also reflects the many sources that came together to form the beautiful music which now flows out to all of us.

Oasis is a compilation of some of the chants we already know in fresh arrangements, plus some new ones. By far the most notable is the Discourse on Love, which I am now listening to as part of my daily practice. I have always wanted to memorize this wonderful sutra, and by putting it to music, I am learning it without effort. I find that listening to and singing this beautiful chant is watering seeds of deep love and happiness in me. I look forward to experiencing this chant with the worldwide Sangha. I hope we will all learn and enjoy it.

Best of all, you can sample these musical offerings online, at: www.deerparkmonastery.org

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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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