The Diamond Within

By Hans

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The Third Mindfulness Training is about integrity, about attacks and defense, and about sexual abuse. Sexual energy is a very strong force. It can be an extremely destructive fire if it is not embedded in the safety of love. If someone is sexually assaulted, the reaction is to protect oneself by raising a shield, like putting on an iron harness. It provides protection, but it also blocks communication. It is a prison … no openness, no space, no freedom, just loneliness and fear. If someone is abused, he or she is put into a prison from which it is very difficult to get out.

When I was nine years old, my parents were killed in a car accident. After losing them, I realized that I had to take care of a lot of things myself. One of these things was to join people who could help me. I met a family that matched very well with my own background. Gradually we grew toward each other until we considered each other as family. We shared many happy moments. Some years later, my foster father showed interest in a sexual relationship with me. He talked about it often and one time he tried to abuse me. At that time I was quite strong and quick and I prevented him from abusing me. From that time on, my feelings about the family were ambiguous. On the one hand I needed the family, and on the other hand there was danger in the family. I felt suspicious; the family had lost part of its safety and trust. I found myself playing a role rather than being spontaneous. Home seemed to be polluted. I felt less freedom, less expression, less growth. I was surrounded by an unseen prison.

I Had to Live

Much later, all of the family got to know my foster father’s abusive activities, because they were not limited to me. I saw the damage that was done within and outside the family. By that time I was a father myself. My wife and I realized that our child might be at risk. As often happens, the family tried to restore harmony by forgiving and forgetting. For me, it resulted in a moral conflict I could not live with. I chose to leave the foster family and saw them no more.

My decision had effects that were difficult to deal with. I was ill for almost a year. I experienced hell, mentally and physically, especially at night. I tried to cope in many ways, with help from my wife, from friends, from therapists and doctors. I studied, changed work, and tried my best to be a good father and husband. One day I found myself walking in nature beside a small forest stream, suddenly discovering that I had the wish to exist no more. I also realized that I had to live, because I did not want my kids to have the same pain I had myself: to be without a father. One month later I realized that an unhappy father will cause unhappy children and an unhappy wife. I decided that I had to become happy, even though I did not feel capable of change anymore.

I took a book, The Way to Happiness, by the Dalai Lama, from my wife’s bookshelf, and started doing exercises in our attic every day, meditating on emptiness and compassion. After most meditations I fell into a calm, deep sleep, without nightmares. After a few weeks my wife asked, “What are you doing in the attic? Whatever it is, it has a very positive effect on you.” The next summer we traveled to Plum Village for the first time. Since then, there is more and more space, freedom, and happiness in me and my family. Not all is easy, but a lot of things have changed for the better.

Look for the Diamond

Many women and men are damaged by abuse. They live in prisons. They may have defensive or aggressive communication. But this is not who they really are … it is only the expression of their pain. Within the hard walls of their prison is a diamond. We should always look for the diamond, because the diamond within is what we really are.

The Third Mindfulness Training provides a clear formula that can be used as a very practical tool to start discussions about the difficult subject of sexual abuse. It can be applied to start to repair damage caused by abuse and as a tool for prevention. In Plum Village, I shared my story with the audience, using the text of this training. It proved to be a very constructive and powerful vehicle to communicate my pain and for others to respond. For days, it opened discussion and gave space for many people’s pain to be liberated. This is what happened in Plum Village and this is what I hope will happen in many more places. The training should not only be contemplated; the words of the text can be used in many situations in practical life.

mb56-TheDiamond3Hans, Mindful Commitment of the Heart, teaches at a school for physical therapists. Recently, at a retreat in Plum Village, he enhanced his skills in teaching mindfulness. He trains his students to use mindfulness to transform any learning challenges into strengths.

mb56-TheDiamond4The Third Mindfulness Training: True Love

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

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Finding Harmony in Beginning Anew

By Bethany Klug

My husband David and I entered our relationship with a deep intention: that spiritual practice would form its foundation. We met at Sangha and our friendship grew around the trellis of mindfulness practice. When we began entertaining the notion of a long-term committed relationship, I insisted we start with Beginning Anew. I had withheld some things about myself from my first husband until years after we married. To some degree, the anger, hurt, and mistrust we felt led to the downfall of our marriage. So David and I told each other everything—things we didn’t ordinarily share out of fear of judgment, things we felt ashamed of, everything. And it worked. There have been no unpleasant surprises in our ten-plus years together.

We practice Beginning Anew once every two weeks, before we recite the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The process is simple, but as Thay says, “it takes training.” We encourage the practice of mindful speech and deep listening by bowing before and after we speak. We don’t interject, but breathe mindfully and place our full attention on listening to our dear one. In fact, we have a rule. We do not comment on anything said during our Beginning Anew ritual for forty-eight hours. The few times we have broken the forty-eight-hour rule, we have regretted it. We both need the space to hear and be heard and look deeply into our feelings.

This regular practice of Beginning Anew has helped us navigate the path of happiness together. We know what brings each other happiness, and we water those seeds often. The practice has trained us to listen deeply to each other and to speak and act in a way that helps us take care of difficult seeds. We do our best, but if we make a mistake, we recognize it quickly and take care of it, even by practicing Beginning Anew informally that day.

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We had a large group of Sangha friends over the other day. I was rather focused on our guests as everyone was leaving and did not hear David say goodbye. Once everyone was gone, I noticed David wasn’t there. I called out to him and received no answer. Then I noticed his car was gone. I was shocked. He had left without saying goodbye. Earlier that day, he had asked me if I would sit with him as he got his monthly massage. I declined, and he looked a bit sad, but I was still catching up on things since I had been out of town the past few weekends. “Where did he go?” I wondered, realizing that his massage wasn’t for another ninety minutes. “Was he mad that I wouldn’t go with him to his massage? How could he leave without saying goodbye?” David doesn’t carry a cell phone, so there was nothing for me to do but breathe and do things I had planned to do.

We spoke when he returned. I had forgotten about the errand he planned, which was in the neighborhood of his favorite restaurant. He’d had just enough time to get a bite to eat there; thus, he left in a hurry, before our guests were gone. Still, I could not understand him leaving without me knowing he had gone. He held up his right hand and said, “I vow two lips before I go, always!” He pursed his lips together in a kiss. I laughed through my tears.

He then touched my face and asked, “Don’t you know I treasure you?”

“Yes, but for some reason I forgot today. It’s not often I forget,” I murmured.

“I guess the causes and conditions were right, today,” he said as he stroked my hair.

“Yes,” I said, as I recognized the seed that led to our misunderstanding. “But remember, I know what it’s like not to be treasured.”

mb56-Finding1Bethany Klug, the Practice  of True Emptiness, convenes the Heartland Community of Mindful Living along with her husband David, True Wonderful Lamp. They reside in Kansas City with their spiritual director, Shanti the Cat.

Beginning Anew

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

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

Flower watering: This is a chance to share our appreciation for the other person. We should mention positive qualities that we have truly observed in him or her, or specific instances when the other person said or did something we admired. This is an opportunity to shine light on the other’s strengths and contributions to the Sangha and to encourage the growth of his or her positive qualities.

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

Expressing a hurt: We may share how we felt hurt by an interaction with another practitioner, due to his or her actions, speech, or thoughts. Expressing a hurt is often performed one-on-one with another practitioner rather than in the group setting. If desired, you may ask for a third party that you both trust and respect to be present. We must be sure to have completed the first step described above, watering the other person’s flowers, before expressing how she or he has hurt us. When someone expresses to us that they have been hurt, we should not justify ourselves. We have to listen deeply without thinking of how they are wrong, and we breathe to keep our compassion alive. If they have many wrong perceptions about us, we should not express this just after they have spoken. We can just apologize, saying that we are very sorry that we have made them suffer. If we have an opportunity in the future, we can try and explain a little more to help them feel better.

Sharing a long-term difficulty and asking for support: At times we each have difficulties and pain that arise from our past to surface in the present. When we share an issue that we are dealing with, people around us have an opportunity to understand us better and offer the support that we really need.

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

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

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

Reprinted  from  www.deerparkmonastery.org.

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To Live In Freedom

Calming Sexual Desire

By Brian Kimmel

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mb56-ToLive2Several years ago, I spent three months at Deer Park Monastery during the winter retreat. It became very natural to go to the meditation hall and sit silently in front of the monks, with a most pleasant view of morning mists rolling up into the cliffs and into my own body/heart/mind. In one such session, I saw my parents in me. They divorced when I was four, after being unfaithful to one another. Soon after their divorce, mom married my first stepfather who, for six years, sexually abused me.

For many years, before the winter retreat at the monastery, I had attempted to unravel the deep hurt and betrayal of the abuse, particularly around sexuality, sexual desire, the feelings that often roared through me without control, and the memories stored in my body/heart/mind, unable to be released. I had looked deeply into the abuse, and into my relationship with my former stepfather, but I had not known, until the morning in the meditation hall, how much my parents’ divorce, feelings, and desires affected me.

I listened as my parents spoke through me. They spoke about their passion when they were my age. They spoke about their love for each other, the challenges of their marriage, and the difficult choices they made. They spoke about their guilt, their fear, their envy, and their remorse. They said, “Brian, we want you to be loved. We want you to love.”

I quietly observed the thoughts and feelings as they surfaced in many forms, and I asked my parents, “How can I love?” A deep sense arose: whatever my parents had experienced—their desires, habits, and views of love, sex, and marriage—are in me. I heard Mom’s voice. “I needed to find a husband to help support you kids. I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t be alone ….” I felt my father’s sadness over losing custody of my sister and me. I heard Dad’s voice: “If only I had been faithful to your mom, had known what would happen, had stayed ….”

The many feelings and desires I’d faced in my life were so similar to my parents’. At that moment, as I sat with the monks, with mists on the cliffs and the fresh air of Sangha, I felt that healing was possible. The desires I’d felt weren’t just my desires. Many of my feelings and habits concerning sexuality and love involved my parents; my parents’ experiences continued in me. And the fear and humiliation I often felt around the topic of sex continued the suffering of my former stepfather in me. It became clear that I had a choice. Transforming the habit energy of my parents, and healing the wounds of sexual abuse within me could, over time, gradually set me free.

“Breathing in,” I began, “I am aware of this sexual desire. Breathing out, I smile to this desire.” I continued, “Breathing in, I am aware of the many sources of sexual desire in me. Breathing out, I calm these sources of desire.”

The simple awareness of sexual desire was my first step. At times, during meditation, it was helpful to listen more deeply to the sexual feelings and sensations within my body as they arose, with the wisdom of knowing they would pass, and that whatever healing occurred in me would take place within my parents too. That was, and is, my gift to my ancestors in me, and the gift I also received. My choices offer many generations, and me, a chance to live in freedom, a chance to love.

Brian Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, studies at Naropa University in Boulder, CO and is publishing a memoir on healing sexual abuse with mindfulness and love. He participated in the Plum Village Delegation to Indonesia in 2010. He was the first of his mother’s family to return since they left in 1962.

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Relationship as Engaged Buddhism

By Nathaniel Vose

Of the different forms of activism I’ve practiced in my life, the most transformative, perhaps, is the relationship activism I practice with my partner, Liz. Our partnership acts as a microcosm for our relationships with all beings. We practice to nourish not only the happiness of one another but also the happiness of the world. It is very real, engaged Buddhism.

My grandfather, an educator and Methodist minister, was a mentor to me. I once asked how he and my grandma had made it through fifty-five-plus years together. He offered me his sage counsel: “Every morning you can sit down at the breakfast table and look across to your partner and say, ‘Why did I marry her? She is not what I really wanted,’ or you can say, ‘Wow, how lucky I am to have her here to share this life with!’ The choice is yours.”

With mindfulness, I have realized that I do have the power to choose my own reality. When I was new to the practice, I focused on suffering. But I came to discover that suffering is only one of thousands of Dharma doors. Without sunshine, we will not have lotuses. Mindfulness gives permission to relish joy in relationship.

Liz and I practice Beginning Anew on each new moon. We practice hugging meditation in the morning and share appreciations before we go to bed at night. Our mindfulness rituals create a container for transformation and when we feel their fruits, we only want to practice more! That is why I see our relationship as a practice center. It brings us home to ourselves and we become each other’s mirrors and mindfulness bells.

Right Relationship with Sexuality

Mindfulness helps in practicing with sexual energy. I grew up feeling ashamed of my sexuality. In my experience, sexuality was often used as a weapon or status symbol. I remember walking down the halls of high school, being taunted with names like “fag,” and listening to guys talk about their latest sexual escapades. I went through puberty during the advent of pornography on the Internet. It fascinated and confused many of us young people. Luckily, other seeds were watered in me, and I was able to channel my energies into music, theatre, sports, and supportive friendships.

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Upon receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, sadly, I found myself condemning my sexuality as I tried to emulate my brother and sister monastics. My misunderstanding pitted me against my self, my body, and others. I’ve learned that committed relationship and the Mindfulness Trainings are manifestations of true love; both work to push suffering up to the surface so it may be healed. Inevitably, my mindfulness practice and relationship invited me to come into right relationship with my sexuality, embracing these intense energies with care. My partner, the trainings, and Sangha provided protection and antidotes to fear and confusion.

Although sexual energy contains no suffering in itself, my habit of contracting around it can create hell on Earth. Holding this energy with mindfulness, I feel a natural respect and love. Sexual energy puts me in touch with my capacities of generativity and creativity. How amazing that this energy of vitality and creativity is alive in me! “Breathing in, I recognize sexual energy as a wonder of life! Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I let it expand throughout my body, nourishing my cells with life. Breathing out, I relax.” Working with the energy in this way helps me give birth to my self, my ancestors, and future beings anew in the present moment. Mindfulness is the essence of true intimacy. Cultivating appropriate attention, I connect with the vital and creative source of life.

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mb56-Relationship3Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and female friends have taught me about masculine and feminine principles. This empowers me with a sense of inclusiveness. “Breathing in, I recognize I have both masculine and feminine within me. Breathing out, I feel solid and whole.” Both mother and father are in me; nothing is lost. Understanding this, I can relax and approach Liz with my wholeness.

Two Hands of the Same Body

I have found that true love has no limits. Partnership has taught me the necessity of cultivating self-love in order to love and nourish Liz. Similarly, it has taught me that love is more powerful than I am. Many times, Liz becomes prajnaparamita herself, and her love allows me to accept myself to an extent I did not know was possible. Gradually, I am able to love better. The wisdom of non-discrimination works like this. Liz and I are two hands of the same, greater body.

Recently, Liz and I decided to start a couples’ Sangha. The challenges our relationship brings to the surface made us realize that it is not an individual matter, nor is it a two-person matter! It is bigger than us. It involves the transformation of endless ancestors, causes, and conditions. That is why we need Sangha. Understanding relationship as engaged Buddhism, we honor its potential for individual and collective transformation. It is truly a potent and nourishing form of activism!

mb56-Relationship4Nathaniel Vose, True Land of Compassion, works as a chaplain and lives in Oakland, CA with his partner Liz Turkel, Radiant Commitment of the Heart.

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Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

Every one of us is trying to find our true home. We know that our true home is inside, and with the energy of mindfulness, we can go back to our true home in the here and the now. Sangha is our true home.

In Vietnamese, the husband calls the wife “my home.” And the wife calls the husband her home. Nha toi means my house, my home. When a gentleman is asked “Where is your wife?” he will say, “My home is now at the post office.” And if a guest said to the wife, “Your home is beautiful; who decorated it?” she would answer, “It’s my home who decorated it,” meaning, “my husband.” When the husband calls his wife, he says, “Nha oi,” my home. And she says, “Here I am.” Nha oi. Nha toi.

When you are in such a relationship, the other person is your true home. And you should be a true home for him or for her. First you need to be your own true home so that you can be the home of your beloved. We should practice so we can be a true home for ourselves and for the one that we love. How? We need the practice of mindfulness.

In Plum Village, every time you hear the bell, you stop thinking, you stop talking, you stop doing things. You pay attention to your in-breath as you breathe in and you say, “I listen, I listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” My true home is inside. My true home is in the here and the now. So practicing going home is what we do all day long, because we are only comfortable in our true home. Our true home is available, and we can go home every moment. Our home should be safe, intimate, and cozy, and it is we who make it that way.

Last week I had tea with a couple who came from the United Kingdom. They spent two weeks in Plum Village, with the monks in the Upper Hamlet. The lady said, “It’s strange. It’s the first time that I’ve lived in a place where there are hundreds of men and no women, and I feel very safe in the Upper Hamlet. I have never felt safe like that.” In the Upper Hamlet she was the only woman, and she felt very safe. And if she feels safe, the place is her home, because home should provide that kind of safety. Are you a safe place for him or for her? Do you have enough stability, strength, protection for the one you love?

And the gentleman said, “The last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.” That is because of the work of Sangha building. When you build a Sangha, you build a home for yourself. And in that place, you feel at home, you feel at ease, you feel safe. If you don’t feel safe within yourself, you are not a home for your own self, and you cannot provide your loved one a home. That is why it’s very important to go back to yourself and make it safe for you and for the ones you love.

If you feel lonely, if you feel cut off, if you suffer, if you need healing, you cannot expect to heal by having a sexual relationship with another person. That cannot heal you. You will create more suffering for him, for her, and for yourself. In the Third Mindfulness Training, we learn that sexual desire is not love. And without love, sexual activities can only bring suffering to you and to the other person. Loneliness cannot be dissipated by sexual activity; you cannot heal yourself by having sex. You have to learn how to heal yourself, to be comfortable within, and then you begin to create a home. Then you have something to offer to the other person. The other person also has to heal, so that she will feel at ease, and she can become your home. Otherwise, what she has to share is only her loneliness, her sickness, her suffering. That cannot help heal you at all.

Three Kinds of Intimacy

There are three kinds of intimacy. The first one is physical and sexual. The second is emotional. And the third one is spiritual. Sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy. They go together. And if spiritual intimacy is there, the physical, sexual intimacy will have meaning and will be healthy and healing. Otherwise it will be destructive.

Every one of us is seeking emotional intimacy. We want to have real communication, mutual understanding, communion. In the light of Buddhist practice, you have to listen to your own suffering. There is suffering inside of you, and there is suffering inside of the other person. If you do not listen to your own suffering, you will not understand it, and you will not have compassion for yourself; and compassion is the element that helps you heal.

The first thing the Buddha talked about is the suffering inside. Many of us are fearful. We don’t want to go back to ourselves, because we believe that we will encounter the block of suffering inside, and that we will be overwhelmed. Instead, we try to cover it up by means of consumption. We consume food, we consume music, we consume many other things, and we consume sex. But that does not help. That is why the Buddha proposed that we go home to ourselves with courage, in order to recognize and listen deeply to the suffering inside. We can use the energy of mindfulness, generated by conscious breathing and walking, to embrace it tenderly. “My suffering, I know you are there. I am home. And I will take care of you.”

There are times when we suffer but we don’t know the nature of the suffering. Our ancestors, our parents may not have been able to transform their suffering, and they have transmitted it to us. And now, because we have encountered the Buddhadharma, we have a chance to recognize it, embrace it, and transform it for ourselves and our ancestors, our parents. “Dear ancestors, dear father, dear mother, I have received this block of suffering from you. I know the Dharma, I know the practice. I will learn to recognize this block of suffering that has been transmitted to me, and with love I will try to accept and to transform it.” You can do it out of love. You do it for your parents, for your ancestors, because we are our ancestors.

According to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, unless you listen to your suffering, unless you look deeply into your suffering,and embrace it tenderly with your energy of mindfulness, you cannot understand the roots of your suffering. When you begin to understand the roots of your suffering, suddenly the energy of compassion, of understanding, arises. And understanding and compassion have the power to heal. By embracing and listening to your suffering, you bring about understanding and compassion. And when the nectar of compassion is born in you, you suffer less, you feel less lonely. You begin to feel the warmth within yourself; you are building a home inside yourself. The Buddha recommends that we build a home inside, an island within ourselves. Be an island unto yourself. You’ll feel comfortable, you’ll feel warm, and you can be a refuge for the other person too.

When you have understood your own suffering, your own loneliness, you feel lighter and you can listen to the suffering of the other person. Your suffering carries within itself the suffering of your ancestors, of the world, of society. Interbeing means that my suffering is in your suffering, and your suffering is in my suffering. That is why, when I have understood my suffering, it is easier for me to understand your suffering. When you understand someone’s suffering, that is a great gift that you can offer to him or to her. The other person feels for the first time that she is understood. To offer understanding means to offer love. And understanding another person is not possible without understanding self. Home-building begins with yourself. Your partner too builds a home within, and then you can call her your home, and she can call you her home.

In the Upper Hamlet, we build a Sangha as our home. You build your family as a Sangha too, because Sangha means simply “community.” The most noble task is to build a Sangha. After enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha taught us was to look for elements to build a Sangha. A Sangha is a refuge for ourselves and for many people.

So we go home to ourselves, we listen to the suffering inside of us. We embrace our pain, our sorrow, our loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. And that kind of understanding, that kind of insight will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter, we begin to feel warmth and peace inside. And then when the other person joins you in building home, you have an ally. You are helping him and he is helping you. And together you have home. You have home in yourself, you have home in him, in her also. If that kind of intimacy does not exist, then a sexual relationship can cause a lot of damage. That is why  earlier I said that physical, sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy.

Between the spiritual and the emotional there is a link. Spirituality is not just a belief in a teaching; it is a practice. And the practice always brings  relief, communication, transformation. Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in his or her life. Without a spiritual dimension in our life, we cannot deal with the difficulties that we encounter. We should have a spiritual practice, a Dharma life. We learn how to put the Dharma into practice. With that kind of practice, we can deal with the difficulties we encounter in our daily life.

Your spiritual practice can help you a lot in dealing with your emotions, helping you to listen, to embrace your own suffering, and to recognize and embrace the suffering of the other person. That is why these two forms of intimacy inter-are. You know how to deal with a strong emotion, like fear, anger, despair. Because you know how to do that, you can feel more peaceful within yourself. That spiritual practice helps you build a home within yourself, for your sake and for the sake of the other person. That is why emotional intimacy cannot be separated from spiritual intimacy. The three kinds of intimacy inter-are.

Reverence for the Body

Sexual activity without love is empty sex. It is prevalent in our society and is causing a lot of suffering for our young people. If you are schoolteachers, if you are parents, you should help your children and your students to avoid empty sex. Empty sex is bringing a lot of damage to their minds and their bodies. Damage will emerge later on in the forms of depression, mental disorders, suicide. Many young people don’t see the connection between empty sex and these physical and mental disorders in themselves.

What happens in the body will have an effect on the mind and vice versa. Mind relies on the body to manifest and body relies on mind to be alive, to be possible. When you love someone, you have to respect not only her mind but also her body. You respect your own body, and you respect his body. True love should have the nature of reverence, respect. In the Asian tradition you have to treat your spouse with respect, like a guest. And in order to respect her, you have to respect yourself first. Reverence should be the nature of our love.

In my country, parents are proud to introduce their child to a guest. The guest will usually ask, “Do you love your father, your mother?” The child says, “Yes! I love my father, I love my mother.” The next question is: “Where do you put your love?” The child has been instructed to answer: “My love, I put it on my head.” Not “in my heart,” but “on my head.” When a monk is about to put on his sanghati, the saffron robe, for a ceremony, he’s holding his sanghati with reverence, the same as when handling a scripture. If you approach the monk and you bow to him, and if he does not find any decent place to put his sanghati, he will put it on his head because this is a noble place; it is like the altar. That is why in Vietnamese good manners, you should not touch the head of another person if you don’t know him or her well. This is one of the sacred places of the body, because the head is the altar to worship ancestors and the Buddha.

There are other parts of the body that are also sacred that you should not touch. It’s like inside the Imperial City, there is the Purple City* where the family of the king lives. And you are not supposed to go in that area. If you do, they will arrest you and cut off your head. In a person’s body there are areas that are forbidden to touch. And if you don’t show respect, if you touch that part of the body, you are penetrating the Purple City. When a child is sexually abused, she suffers, he suffers very deeply. Someone has violated her Purple City and she did not have the ability to protect herself. There are children who have been abused at the age of eight, nine, ten, and they suffer very deeply. They blame their parents for not having protected them, and their relationship with their parents becomes difficult. Then their relationship with their friends and their future lovers will also be very difficult. The wounds are always there.

Sexual abuse of children is overwhelming. It is said that in the U.S. from five to fifteen percent of young boys are abused sexually and from fifteen to thirty-five percent of little girls are abused sexually. That’s a lot. And when a child is abused like that, she or he will suffer all her life from many things, because her body hasn’t been respected.

In school, and in the family, we need to teach them to respect themselves, to respect their own body, and to respect the body of the other person. If you are religious leaders, if you are politicians, if you are parents or teachers, if you are educators, please think about it. We can learn from the teaching of the Buddha to organize our life in the family, in the school, in society in such a way that we can be protected and our child will be always protected.

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

We said earlier that sensual pleasure, sexual desire, is not love, but our society is organized in such a way that sensual pleasure becomes the most important thing. To sell their products, corporations create advertisements that water the seeds of craving in you. They want you to consume so that you will develop a craving for sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. What we need is mutual understanding, trust, love, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy. But we don’t have the opportunity to meet that kind of deep need in us.

There are women’s fashion magazines that tell us that in order to succeed, you have to look a certain way, and use a certain product. Many young people in our society want to have cosmetic surgery in order to meet that standard of beauty. They suffer very much, because they cannot accept their bodies. When you do not accept your body as it is, you are not your true home. Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. Your body is a kind of flower, and flowers differ from one another. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. If you can accept your body, then you have a chance to see your body as home. If you don’t accept your body, you cannot have a home. If you cannot accept your mind, you cannot be a home to yourself. And there are many young people who do not accept their body, who do not accept who they are; they want to be someone else. We have to tell young people they are already beautiful as they are; they don’t have to be another person.

Thay has a calligraphy: “Be beautiful; be yourself.” That is a very important practice. You have to accept yourself as you are. And when you practice building a home in yourself, you’ll become more and more beautiful. You have peace, you have warmth, you have joy. You feel wonderful within yourself. And people will recognize the beauty of your flower.

Mindfulness is the kind of energy that can help you to go home to yourself, to be in the here and the now, so that you know what to do and what not to do, in order to preserve yourself, in order to build your true home, in order to transform your own afflictions, and to be a home for other people. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete way of practicing mindfulness. In the Buddhist tradition, holiness is made of mindfulness. And mindfulness brings within itself the energy of concentration and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight make you holy.

Holiness does not exist only with celibacy. There are those who are celibate but who are not holy, because they don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. There are those who live a conjugal life, but if they have mindfulness and concentration and insight, they have the element of holiness in them. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise it will be very  destructive. A sutra describes the moment when Queen Mahamaya was pregnant with the Buddha. Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant whose trunk was holding a lotus flower. The elephant touched her with the lotus flower and entered into her very, very softly, and she was pregnant with Siddhartha. That is the way they describe a sexual relationship, in the palace before Siddhartha was conceived: gentleness, beauty. Sexual intimacy should not occur before there is communion, understanding, sharing on the emotional and spiritual level. And then the physical, sexual intimacy can also become holy.

To practice Buddhism as a monk is always easier than to practice as a layperson. There is a Vietnamese saying: to practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a layperson is much more difficult. So to refrain from all sexual activities is much easier than to have a sexual relationship. To have a sexual relationship in the context of mutual understanding and love, you need a lot of practice. Otherwise you create suffering for him, for you, for her.

There is a woman doctor in Switzerland who came to practice in Plum Village. She had suffered several times because of relationships. Since she was young, every time she was asked to have a sexual relationship with a man, she felt she had to say yes even if she did not feel ready, because she was afraid. Many teenagers in our time feel that way. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, they don’t feel ready for it, but they do not dare to say no, because they are afraid to be looked upon as weird, as abnormal. They don’t want to be rejected; they want to be accepted. That is a psychological fact parents and teachers have to be aware of. We have to tell the young people that they can learn to say no when they are not ready, when they are afraid. Otherwise they will destroy their body and their mind. Please listen to the young people, be compassionate, help them. We have to help them find skillful ways to say no.

When she came to Plum Village, the woman from Switzerland learned skillful ways to say no. In her last relationship, she was able to say no. She said, “I need you, my beloved. We need to understand each other. I need your presence. I need someone to help me when I have difficulties, to understand me.” They spent one year and a half together without having a sexual relationship. And when we went to her country for a Dharma talk, she proudly introduced her husband to us. Their relationship was wonderful, very successful, because she was able to say no until she was ready, and together they could build the kind of relationship that is lasting.

* In China and Vietnam, the Imperial City contained an enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City.

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Simple Living

An Interview with Brother Phap Trach 

By Sister Chau Nghiem 

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Question: Thank you, Brother, for taking this time. Can you share some of your early childhood experiences of spirituality, Buddhism, or mindfulness? What experiences or conditions watered your seed of becoming a monk?

Brother Phap Trach: When I was little, my mother always took me to the temple. When I, my father, and my brother left Vietnam on a boat, we went to Hong Kong. My father was very religious, very active in the Buddhist Scouts, so he helped to start a Buddhist Scouts in Hong Kong for the Vietnamese refugees, and he always took us to the temple. It was a Chinese temple, but we’d do Vietnamese-style chanting. For three years, every Sunday, we took the bus and the train to the mountain, very high in the mountain. We had to climb a thousand steps. When you’re little the steps are huge. That was when I was about six, seven years old. In my childhood, there were always monks coming to stay in our house. I think they watered our seeds. When I looked at them they were very free. They didn’t have so many worries. I felt very inspired by them. I just liked the way they were. I had a thought when I was young: “Well, if I don’t do anything else, then I’ll become a monk.”

Question: How old were you?

Brother Phap Trach: I was twelve or thirteen. I thought, “If I’m not successful in life, then that’s the way I will go.” Yet there was a point when I said, “I will become a millionaire when I turn thirty.” You just let life carry you away, and you lose touch with your spiritual side.

After you’ve been through a lot and suffered, you ask yourself, “Is there anything else to do in life besides just having a family, being successful, going to work, and spending all your time and energy trying to be wealthy? Is there anything else?” You hit the point where you have suffered enough. There’s something wrong. Something is missing in life. You start to think there must be another way of doing things. There was a point where I gave up. I didn’t really have a path, a direction. I became depressive. On the weekend I partied or went to casinos. I was wasting my time and energy. I broke up with my girlfriend. She was concerned about me. I wasn’t happy with myself. So I escaped into entertainment, gambling, and unwholesome activities.

One day I ran away from home. I didn’t want to go home; I didn’t want to face my difficulties. My family was looking for me and called the police, trying to find me. They found me in a casino. My family suffered a lot with this situation. That was the turning point in my life.

After that situation, Thay led a retreat in Key West, Florida. My brother knew Thay and he knew the practice. He took me, and my brothers and sister also, to meet with Thay and the Sangha. I saw the monks and nuns, and many people practicing. They were walking very slowly. The environment was very calm and peaceful. I talked with the brothers, and they showed me how to practice.

Thay and Sister Chan Khong and the brothers and sisters were doing a skit about novices sleeping and inviting the bell for everyone to wake up. It was wonderful, a real family atmosphere. It really inspired me to consider the path, which had been watered since childhood. That experience made me want to change my life. I really wanted to change the way I was behaving and how I consumed things. It influenced my decision to become a monk. I tried to practice and it really brought peace and calm in me.

Question: Like sitting meditation?

Brother Phap Trach: I did sitting meditation, walking meditation. I read Thay’s books to water the positive seeds in me. And that really changed my mind. My body and my mind became more peaceful. I saw how the practice really works. I had learned many things about the Buddha and how he had all these magical powers. That really didn’t work for me. I wanted to learn more about the more human aspect of the Buddha, because this is what inspired me and made me want to become a monk.

I really wanted to do the practice. I hadn’t really aspired to do something in life before this. I see that in many people in society, who have nothing to do, who may be lost in life. Maybe they need a path also. I felt that if I went on the path I would have a chance in life, and then other people would have a chance, too—many young people who didn’t know what to do with their lives.

Question: What was the most difficult thing to give up when you became a monk?

Brother Phap Trach: The habit of looking for entertainment. Growing up in America, we’re always bombarded with entertainment—video games, movies, and things like that. I used to go to a movie every weekend. I think that energy was really strong in me, looking for entertainment. Becoming a monk, in my novice year, I always looked for entertainment. It’s still there, but it’s not strong. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but you need to channel it into a wholesome direction.

Question: Which practices do you find the most natural and rewarding for you, and which practices do you find the most difficult and challenging?

Brother Phap Trach: Breathing and walking meditation are very basic, profound practices. The practice of being in touch with our body is so important. Wherever I am, I come back to my body. When I am able to do that, I can touch the present moment. It starts right there. At that moment, we have a chance to look at ourselves. We see our environment. We can release whatever is in our mind. We just come back to our breathing. It’s very profound to practice constantly dwelling in the present moment, being happy with that moment. Whatever will happen, or has happened, it’s not a big deal anymore when we’re with ourselves, when we’re with our body. It’s very nice, the feeling of being there, happy with being alive, happy with what we have. It’s very profound.

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Yet, the hardest practice is the simplest practice. I constantly have to remind myself, “You don’t have to look for something extraordinary, but just enjoy the ordinary.” This is the most difficult thing to do, because our mind is a monkey mind, always looking for something difficult and extraordinary. This habit can sometimes make us lose our mind; we lose ourselves. I always remind myself, “You have what you need right here. Doing what you’re doing right now is a wonderful thing.” Thay always reminds us to do that.

Question: In 2008, Thay asked you to come to the EIAB to be abbot of the brothers’ Sangha. How did you feel when he asked you to do this?

Brother Phap Trach: I like adventure, so I just try to accept whatever comes, and take it as a learning opportunity. “Abbot” is just a label for me. Someone needs to take that label on. It’s like someone gives us a name, and we take that name. “Okay, I’ll take that name, to be there.” But living in the Sangha, I can just be myself. I contribute whatever I can, whether that role is an abbot or just a brother. I do what I can do.

Question: You don’t feel some pressure inside that you’re the abbot and you have to do things a certain way? Do you feel it somehow constricts you?

Brother Phap Trach: It’s a challenge to take on that label, because even though I don’t expect much from myself, other people expect things from me, whether the expectations are said out loud or not. The practice is to hold those expectations and accept them as they are, and try to do the best I can to fulfill them. If I cannot do more, then I accept my limitation. That’s my practice. If I don’t have any challenges, then I will not grow. It’s good to have challenges.

As a monk, I have moved around a lot, always traveling, going here and there. Being an abbot helps me to settle, to stay. It’s an advantage and it’s a lesson for me. I enjoy it. It also makes my commitment stronger, to be in one place. It helps me to be more responsible in the Sangha, just to be here, to take that label. It drives me to do better, to learn more, to invest more into the Dharma, to help the young people.

Question: I’m wondering if there’s a time when you had something in mind that you wanted to do, just as Brother Phap Trach, but then because you’re also abbot, you decided to do it differently.

Brother Phap Trach: I really like to travel with the large Sangha, to be able to hop from monastery to monastery, and not stay in one place for a long time. It’s like when we want to do something, or go somewhere, and then we have to stay put. It really brings up challenges in our mind. Like, “I’m supposed to go; I deserve to go on that trip.” But just being, just staying, helps. We don’t have to go. We don’t have to be with Thay to be happy. We don’t have to travel to Asia to be happy. We don’t have to do the things that we think we need to do. We can be happy here, too. We can always find the present moment pleasant. When we accept something, then new doors open to our mind. We can enjoy the new things.

Question: What have you learned in the last three years at the EIAB about Sangha building and how best to support yourself and others on the path?

Brother Phap Trach: I think I’ve grown a lot in learning to be patient and accepting what comes. It takes a lot of time to adapt to a new environment, a new culture, new brothers and sisters. It teaches me to be patient; it tells me, “You have to let yourself adapt to the environment. You have to be patient with your brothers and sisters; they also need time to adapt to the new environment. They have difficulties to transform.You have to accept them as they are.” Everything takes its time to change, to adapt. It’s more like adaptation than change. Like ants—when their organization is disturbed, they need time to reestablish it again. In the beginning, we didn’t know what to do and how to structure our Sangha, but when we allow enough time and space things take care of themselves.

Question: What are some particular things that you’ve had to adapt to here in Germany, in the town of Waldbrol, in this big building, with its tragic past?

Brother Phap Trach: When we become a monastic, we want to live in a simple, secluded place. There was my idea: “Become a monk—simple place.” Coming here, my ideas changed. Even though I still live very simply, I learned that simple living is not dependent on the place we live. Simple living is more about our attitude and our way of being. Even though the building is very big and special, like a castle, and we are next to the city, it doesn’t make us more glamorous. To keep a simple attitude, a simple life, is challenging, but it makes our practice more solid to deal with the suffering that was here in the past. We come here and we slowly change the past. Monks and nuns are living here now. This energy is coming into that past, and it really changes people’s way of seeing this place. I think it’s very good. I think in the long run, we’re creating a wonderful, nice history for this place. It was bad at one time. But we re-create that part. Now it’s something wonderful, and many people benefit from us being here.

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Conditions

By Hilary Bichovsky

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Phenomena manifest when the necessary conditions are present. We humans are phenomena. With the removal of a single condition––oxygen, for instance––we cease to manifest as living, breathing beings. In his interview with Oprah in May 2012,* Thay reflected on the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the words: “The American people had produced King but were not capable of preserving him.” Sufficient conditions for his survival, which would have included the absence of an assassin, were not present.

Every single phenomenon––a birth, an assassination––is a flower of a thousand thousand conditions. These infinite fields of specific conditions, unique for each event, are too complex for our minds to hold. The Buddhist teaching on conditions has liberated me and I would like to share what I have learned. Thay’s teachings on conditions, and the steady presence of the Sangha I meditate with in Manchester, have helped me deepen these insights.

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As a young woman I was sexually used, which is not so unusual. I was consumed unmindfully, with no more particularly malign intention from those who were consuming than it is malign to eat too quickly, with bad manners, lost in appetite.

Because this happened within my own family as well as outside it, the consequences for me lasted for years. In turn, I hid events, revealed them, attributed blame, took on the stance of a victim hoping for sympathy, withdrew in anger when that did not come, and in later years finally denied to myself that anything had happened.

But in fact the drive to attribute blame never really stopped in me. It churned on like background music, or like a train on a circular route always returning to the same stops. It was his fault. It was my fault. It was their fault. It came to me with my genes, with the Second World War, with the haphazard and bohemian sexual mores of the 60s. When people were not interested in my story or directly blamed me, I blamed them back. They were bad people interested only in defending their own status quo, they were selfish, and so on. At the lowest points, worn out with my failure to get a reaction, I blamed myself exclusively not only for everything that had happened but also for wanting some response. “If I hadn’t said, if I hadn’t done, if I hadn’t gone there, if I hadn’t wanted that.”

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that three decades of circling around on these blame tracks brought me little psychological relief. In fact I now wonder if much of my genuinely felt anguish over the years arose simply from a too crude and not-fitting-to-reality understanding of causality, a Newtonian one where X causes Y, no questions asked. This Newtonian view of causality infuses my society. Disaster? Who is to blame? Let’s have an enquiry so we can pin them down. There seems to be a belief that blame is of some intrinsic usefulness.

Events do have causes, of course. If I kick that ball, it will travel. But many other causes precede my kick, and limitless consequences follow it. A flower, a birth, an assassination, a mindless act of sex: these are not end points but nodes in an infinite web of interconnected happenings. There is no end of the line. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in 1968, although it affected Thay so deeply that, in his own words, he did not eat or sleep for a while, he was determined to “go on building the beloved community.” Through this deep skillfulness he transformed his pain into a positive continuance, showing how even the deepest losses still leave us with a choice of how to go forward.

I remain free to wonder about my early life, but I have let go of striving to identify who the “really bad” people were in this story. This new openness ends a lifetime’s pointless efforts to sum it up once and for all. Deep peace comes from understanding that not knowing is not a weakness on my part, or a failure to shoulder the whole responsibility myself, but is in fact a true reflection of reality. The answer to my question, “Whose fault was that?” is: “No one’s and everyone’s.”

If you have any niggling concern about the way things have turned out for you, dwell deeply with this precious teaching of conditions, and let it dissolve any tightly structured stories of heroes and villains you may have constructed. Deep understanding of the nature of conditions brings a fall into the free space of no blame, an opportunity to really experience yourself as a flower manifesting in every breath, always new. The truth has a sonorous ring, like a bell, and is composed of endless ripples, like the waves of sound from a bell. Like these waves of sound, the expanding circles of influence which radiate out from every act themselves become conditions of the future.

*To see Oprah’s interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxsUwFNBBvo

mb64-Conditions3Hilary Bichovsky practices with the Heart of Manchester Sangha in the United Kingdom. 

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One Year as a Monk

By Brother Pham Hanh 

July 4, 2012—Independence Day, the day I became a monk—is now one year ago. What is a monk? Why become a monk? Is it the best way to live your life? Did this year really make a difference for me? Did I really transform?

I always have many questions. I remember the first question I wanted to ask Thay as a lay friend: How do you know if an answer you give to yourself comes from the reasoning mind or from deep wisdom? At that time, I thought Thay did not understand my question because, in response, he talked about which seeds you should help to grow and which seeds you should not water.

To Live My Aspiration 

I grew up in the Netherlands within a Jewish/Christian-based contemporary religious community. At age nineteen I’d finished high school and started working in the computer business full time while studying IT in the evening. Always very eager, hardworking, and looking for challenges, I made good progress. At age twenty-six, I was working for myself as an IT consultant and earned the money and got the fancy car I always thought I deserved for my efforts. But in 2009, after ending my second long-term relationship, I’d worked myself into a burnout and ended up in Plum Village, which drastically changed my life.

mb64-OneYear1In Plum Village, many of my questions were answered, about relationships, love, volition, and purpose, and I started dedicating more of my life to service by building Sangha and organizing Wake Up retreats. My life became simpler. I ended up selling my house and car and living on a small patch of land in a wooden hut. With a decent amount of money, I didn’t need to work anymore and had all the time in the world. So now I could do what I’d always wanted to do, but what was that?

Wake Up became the main focus in my life. I found out deep in myself that happiness is found not in having ideal conditions, but in having a healthy, free attitude. In order to be able to deeply live my aspiration, I needed to transform many things. The best way to do this was to train as a monk for five years, as this could lay the foundation for a deep, meaningful life, either as a layperson or as a monk for life.

Training in True Love 

What did I realize in this first year as a monk? First and foremost, I have cultivated more ease. I feel less eager to think that I should be the one doing things. Before, I thought that I knew better how to do things or wanted to have the attention. I now see that things are okay as they are. I do not feel changed or transformed; I just notice that I react differently. I don’t take things as seriously, and the need to change things immediately is much less strong. I just smile.

Being a monk at this point is a training. I look like a monk, keep the precepts, and try to apply the mindful manners, but mostly I try to be in harmony with the brothers and enjoy my own presence. My habit energies could easily make me behave un-monk-like, to be honest. But as I have committed to train as a monk, I do not follow those habit energies. The training helps me more and more to see the deeper roots of my thinking, habits, and feelings. I see my suffering in a different light and have a better understanding of why my relationships did not work out, why I struggle in work and with accomplishments, and why there was so often a feeling of pointlessness in my life before.

By not being involved in sex, drugs, alcohol, money, fame, and power, I more clearly see the effect of these influences, and my mind does not create excuses as to why they are not a problem. I look at couples, see their attachment and their craving, and remember the suffering that I also had before. I do not condemn it, but I see that in me there are still many seeds that need to be transformed in order to not create suffering in the future, if I ever have another romantic relationship. As a monk you are protected from such relationships, though living with the monks and being close to the sisters does not mean there is no love or intimacy.

I’m building up real friendship here in which I’m still free, but we have joy together. I do not get too attached, so I do not have to claim the other person for my needs. At the same time I see the brothers’ efforts to understand me and give me what I need. It is not always pleasant to hear what they have to say, because it might not be what I want, but it may be what I need. This understanding, friendship, joy, and freedom is real love and is not limited to one person.

For me, being a monastic is about learning true love in the safest way. It does not involve expressing sexual energy. This energy is so strong and deep that it is often destructive and addictive. I still have a deep wish to understand it, so it is not by chance that I received the name Pham Hanh, brahmacharya, Brother Holy Life,

or more simply Brother Abstinence or Brother Celibacy. Sexuality is a topic I discuss often with the brothers and I’ve learned so much about it. I’m not ready to make a commitment to never have a romantic relationship again, and it comforts me that I’m doing the five-year monastic program so I do not have to worry about that desire. I’m here to train with the desire because I have created enough suffering and I do not want to repeat my mistakes. But an intuition tells me that by practicing as a monk, I will be able to love and experience intimacy so deeply in every moment that the desire for sexual intimacy will be transcended. That is my aim, but I will take my time. If that happens, or I have enough faith that it will happen, I can be a real monk.

Just Enjoy 

How does being a monk help others? Just living freely, happily, and easily already helps others. When you cultivate those things, they naturally flow out of you. Just looking at a young child makes us smile, so how do we feel looking at a monk or nun? I’ve noticed that the most beautiful things we offer are mostly not the things we think we offer, so I do not worry about what I offer as a monk. I practice to be happy.

I see how fortunate I am with the roots and seeds I’ve received from my parents, my church, my country, my teachers, and the whole world. I recognize my ancestors in me and see that I continue their aspiration. As a monk I can honor this aspiration just by practicing. Plum Village is a wholesome environment where many good seeds are watered, and I can be lazy. When you learn to be mindful and you can relax, then you become less uptight and things flow naturally. That is the deepest meaning of laziness, allowing things to manifest without control. So now I just allow my questions to sink in. Maybe an answer will manifest, maybe not. By practicing and watering the good seeds, I transform my base and it does not matter if my question is transcended or not. We can just enjoy our life, just enjoy ourselves.

What I do not understand is why we’re not flooded with new monks. Sure, you need to step into the deep and let go of stuff and ideas (the ability to let go is what makes happiness possible in the monastery), but what you get back is so much easier to carry with you. I was afraid of losing my money when I had it. Now I just have the Dharma and I’m not afraid of losing that! My favorite question remains: What do you really want?

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This article was originally published on the Wake Up website. Please visit wkup.org to learn more about the Wake Up movement, an active global community of young adults established by Thay in 2008. 

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Dharma Talk: Immediate Protection

By Thich Nhat Hanh

In the 1960s, American young people marched in the streets, shouting “Make love, not war.” I reflected deeply on this. What kind of love were they speaking of? Was it true love? If it were true love, it would be the opposite of war. If it were only craving, one could not call it “true love.” Making love out of craving is making war at the same time. In 1971, during the war for Bangladesh indepen­dence, soldiers raped 250,000 women; ten percent of these women became pregnant. These soldiers made love and war simultaneously. That kind of love is not true love.

True love contains the elements of mindfulness, protection, and responsibility. It carries the energy of enlightenment, understanding, and compassion. A church has to dispense the teaching on true love to all members of the church and to the children. In the Buddhist teaching, detailed in the third Mindfulness Training, a sexual relationship should not take place without true love and a long-term commitment. We must be aware of the suffering we bring upon ourselves and others when we engage in unmindful sexual activities. We destroy ourselves. We destroy our beloved. We destroy our society.

Mindfulness in the act of loving is true love. This practice of mindfulness can take place today and serve as our immediate protection. All church members should begin today the practice of mindful sexual behaviors. This is what I call immediate protection for ourselves, our community, and our society. The role of church leaders, in my belief, is to first protect themselves and their own community. If not, they cannot help protect others. When we are on an airplane, the attendant reminds us that if there is not enough oxygen, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help another person. Similarly, our self, our own family, and religious community should be the first target of our practice and action. The elements of awakening and enlightenment need to take place immediately in our own religious commu­nity.

Children and adults should be well-informed about the problems of HIV infection and AIDS. They should be aware of the suffering that can be brought upon the individual, as well as the family, commu­nity, and society, through unmindful sexual activities. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on. What is going on now is a tremendous amount of suffering. In the year 2000, more than five million people died of AIDS; many still weep over this loss. Members of the church must wake the church up to the reality of suffering.

The awareness of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths emphasized by the Buddha. Next, every member of the church and of the temple has to be aware of the roots of the suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. During the forty-five years of his teaching, the Buddha continued to repeat his state­ment: “I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.” Only when we recognize and acknowl­edge our suffering, can we look deeply into it and discover what has brought it about. It may take one week, two weeks, or three weeks of intense activities before the whole community, the whole church, or the Sangha will wake up to the tragedies of HIV and AIDS in its own community, as well as in the world at large. When the church and all its mem­bers are aware of the reality of suffering and its root causes, we will know what to do and what not to do for protection to be possible. The appropriate course of action can transform our suffering into peace, joy, and libera­tion.

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Daily unmindful con­sumption in our society has contributed greatly to the present suffering. The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food.” Love cannot survive without food; neither can suffering. Consequently, if we know to look deeply into the nature of our suffering and to recognize the kind of nutriments that have fed and perpetuated it, we are already on the path of emanci­pation. Entertainment in the media is a deep source of suffering. Movies, television programs, advertise­ments, books, and magazines expose us and our children to a kind of unwholesome nutriment, which we ingest every day via our sense organs, namely eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All of us are subject to invasions of these images, sounds, smells, tastes, and ideas. Unfortunately, these sorts of sounds, sights, and ideas in the media often water the seeds of craving, despair, and violence in our children and in us. There are so many items in the realms of entertainment that have destroyed us and our children. Many are drowned in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Therefore, to be mindful of what we consume—both edible foods and cultural items—is vital. The Fifth Mindfulness Training guides us to look at each nutriment we are about to ingest. If we see that something is toxic, we can refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, touch it, or allow it to penetrate into our body and our consciousness. We must practice to ingest only what is nourishing to our bodies and minds. The church has to offer this teaching and practice to all its members. The practice of protecting ourselves and our family is difficult, because the seeds of craving, violence, and anger are so powerful within us. We need the support of the Sangha. With the support of the Sangha, we can practice mindful consumption much more easily. Mindful consumption can bring us joy, peace, understanding, and compassion. We become what we consume.

Mindfulness also plays a critical role in relation­ships and communication. Relationships in the family are only possible if we know how to listen to each other with calm and loving kindness, if we know how to address each other with loving speech. Without the practice of loving speech and mindful listening, the communication between members of the family becomes tenuous. Suffering may result from this lack of communication. Many lose themselves in forget­fulness, and take refuge in sex, alcohol, violence, and tobacco. The problems of HIV infection and AIDS are intricately linked to these issues of poor relation­ship in the family and reckless consumption of sex and drugs. The layman Vimalakirti said, “Because the world is sick, I am sick. Because people suffer, I have to suffer.” The Buddha also made this state­ment. We live in this world not as separated, indi­vidual cells, but as an organism. When the whole world is devastated by the pandemics of HIV infection and AIDS, and many fellow humans are in desperate situations, our sense of responsibility and compassion should be heightened. We should not only call for help from the government and other organizations. Religious leaders need to take active roles in rebuilding our communities and reorganizing our churches by the embodiment of their own practice. The practice should aim to restore the communication between church members, between family members, and between ethnic groups. Com­munication will bring harmony and understanding. Once understanding is there in the church and the community, compassion will be born.

We know that with diseases, medical therapy alone is inadequate. We know that many people with HIV and AIDS are alienated from their own families and society. The church can offer understanding and compassion to people who suffer. They will no longer be lonely and cut off, because they will see that understanding is there, awakening is there, and compassion is there, not as abstract terms or ideas, but as realities. To me, that is the basic practice of the Sangha; that is the basic practice of the church. Without understanding and compassion, we will not be able to help anyone, no matter how talented and well-intentioned we are. Without understanding and compassion, it is difficult for healing to take place.

Thus, the practice of mindfulness should take place in the context of a Sangha—a community of people who strive to live in harmony and awareness. There are many things that we cannot do alone. However, with the presence and support of members of the community, these things can become easier for us to achieve. For example, when we have the Sangha to support us and shine light on us, we can have more success in the practices of sitting medita­tion, walking mediation, mindful eating, and mindful consumption. To me, Sangha building is the most noble task of our time.

In the Buddhist tradition, after we have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we come together every fortnight and recite them. After the recitation, we gather in a circle to have a Dharma discussion, learning more about these Five Trainings. We also discuss and share our personal experiences, in order to find better ways to apply the teaching and the practice of these trainings into our daily life. The Dharma teacher, the priest, or the monk attends the entire discussion session, contributes and guides the Sangha with his or her experiences and insights. If an individual in the Sangha has difficulties, the whole Sangha is available to support that person.

A true Sangha is a community that carries within herself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Dharma. The living Sangha always embodies the living Buddha and the living Dharma. The same must be true with other traditions. The Sangha, with her Sangha eyes, through the practice of mindfulness and deep looking, will be able to understand our situations and prescribe the appropriate course ofpractice for the protection of ourselves, our families, and society.

Today, many young people are leaving the church because the church does not offer them the appropri­ate teaching and the appropriate practice. The church does not respond to their real needs. Renewing the church by dispensing the appropriate teachings and practices is the only way to bring young people back to the church. We need to renew our church, rebuild our communities, and build Sanghas. This is the most basic and important practice. Again, in order to carry out this task, church leaders, whether clergy or laity, should embody the teaching and the practice. Young people do not only listen to our verbal messages. They observe our actions. Thus, we teach not with our sermons or our Dharma talks alone, but we teach through our behavior and our way of life.

Some people contract HIV or AIDS from blood transfusions, but often, the issue of HIV infection and AIDS is an issue of behavior. If mindfulness practice is there, and each person has the Sangha to help him or her be mindful, then we should be able to avoid bringing suffering upon ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.

I often tell my students and others that the energy of mindfulness, generated by the practice in daily life, is equivalent to the Holy Spirit. The seed of mindfulness is there in each one of us. Once we know how to touch the seed of mindfulness in us through the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful thinking and consuming, then it will become a living source of energy in us. Mindfulness always brings about concentration, insight, understanding, and compassion. The practice brings back the energy of awakening and generates the energy of God in our daily life. I have trained people with terminal illness to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. If you know how to dwell in the here and the now, and invest 100% of yourself into your in-breath and out-breath, you become free of the past and of the future. You can touch the wonders of life right in the present moment. The Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, if you are a free person. This is not political freedom that I am talking about. This is freedom from worries and fear, freedom from the past and the future. If you can establish yourself in the here and the now, you have the basic condition for touching the Kingdom of God. There is not one day that I do not walk in the Kingdom of God. Even when I walk in the railway station, along the Great Wall, or at the airport, I always allow myself the opportunity to walk in the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is where stability is, mindfulness is, understanding is, and compassion is.

Each person has the energy of mindfulness within. Each person has the capacity of dwelling in the here and the now. Once you are fully in the present moment, you touch all the wonders of life that are available within you and around you. Your eyes are wonders of life. Your heart is a wonder of life. The blue sky is a wonder of life. The songs of the birds are wonders of life. If you are available to life, then life will be available to you. All the wonders of the Kingdom of God are available to you today, at this very moment. The Kingdom of God is now or never. Thus the question becomes, are you available to the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God can be touched in every cell of your body. Infinite time and space are available in it, and if you train yourself, it will be possible for you to walk in the Kingdom of God in every cell of your body.

When we are able to touch the Holy Spirit through the energy of mindfulness, we will also be able to have a deeper understanding of our true nature. The Buddha taught that there are two dimen­sions to reality. The first is the Historical Dimension, which we perceive and experience chronologically from birth to death. The second is the Ultimate Dimension, where our true nature is revealed. In Buddhism, we may call the ultimate reality “Nir­vana,” or “Suchness.” In Christianity, we may call it “God.” If you are a Christian, you know that the birth of Jesus does not mean the beginning of Jesus. You cannot say that Jesus only begins to be on that day. If we look deeply into the nature of Jesus Christ, we find that his nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. Birth and death cannot affect him. He is free from birth and death. In Buddhism, we often talk in terms of manifestations rather than creation.

If you look deeply into the notion of creation in terms of manifestation, you may discover many interesting things. I have a box of matches here with me, and I would like to invite you to practice looking deeply into this box of matches, to see whether or not the flame is there. You cannot characterize the flame as nonbeing or nonexistent. The flame is always there. The conditions for the manifestation of the flame are already there. It needs only one more condition. By looking deeply, I can already see the presence of the flame in the box, and I can call on it and make it manifest. “Dear flame, manifest your­self!” I strike the match on the box, and there, the flame manifests herself. It is not a creation. It is only a manifestation.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a manifestation, and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is also a manifestation. If we know this, we will be able to touch the Living Christ. In the Buddhist teaching, not only the Buddha has the nature of no-birth and no-death, but every one of us, every leaf, every pebble, and every cloud has this nature. Our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death.

I have learned from my practice that only by touching the Ultimate Reality in us can we transcend fear. I have offered this teaching and practice to numerous people with terminal illness. Many of them have been able to enjoy the time that is left for them to live with joy and peace, and their lives have been prolonged. In certain cases, the doctors told them that they had just three months or so to live, but they took up the practice and they lived fifteen to twenty more years. My wish is that the church will dispense teaching and practice on how to touch our Ultimate Reality to people who have been struck with the HIV/ AIDS, and also to those who have not. We should be able to help members of our community live in such a way that we can all touch Nirvana, that we can all touch the Ultimate Dimension within us in our daily lives. With the learning and the practice, we will be able to touch our true nature of no-birth and no-death. That is the only way to remove fear. Once the wave realizes that her nature—her ground of being—is water, she will transcend all fear of birth and death, being and nonbeing. We can help the people who do not have much time to live, so that they are able to live deeply with joy and solidity for the rest of their lives.

Once we can establish ourselves in the here and the now, and the fear of death is removed, we become the instruments of peace, of God, of Nirvana. We become bodhisattvas—enlightened beings working to free others from their suffering. Those of us who have been struck with HIV/AIDS can become bodhisattvas, helping ourselves and other people, and acquire that energy of healing called bodhicitta, or the mind of love.

During the Vietnam War, numerous Vietnamese and American soldiers and civilians died, and many who survived were deeply affected. Twenty-five years later, the survivors continue to be devastated by this war. I have offered a number of retreats to American war veterans. I tell them that they can become bodhisattvas because they already know what the suffering of war is about. I advise them that they should play the role of the flame on the tip of the candle. It is hot, but it will help create the awareness, the realization, that war is what we do not want. We want the opposite. We want true love. Each person can transform into a bodhisattva, creating the awareness in his or her own people, so that we will never have a war like this one again. Your life will have a new meaning and the energy of true love will guide you.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to end suffering and attain well-being. This path you have chosen to end suffering—your own and others’— is the bodhisattva path. Not only can you transcend the suffering of the past, but you bring joy and peace to yourself and your beloved ones, because you are helping to awaken people in your own community and society. The war veterans can practice creating awareness and waking people up, and the people who have been struck by HIV and AIDS can do likewise. Once motivated by the desire to work for true love, we can engage our daily lives in the activities that awaken and embrace others as well as ourselves. The work of a bodhisattva will help our healing process to take place very quickly. Our lives may become longer and of deeper quality than the lives of many who do not have HIV or AIDS.

Everything I have said comes from the experience of my own practice. I do not tell you things that I have read in books. It is possible for us to install immediate protection today, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is possible to provide understanding and compassion to those who suffer, so that everyone has the appropriate opportu­nities and conditions to heal. It is possible to experi­ence the Kingdom of God in the here and the now. It is possible to help the world heal as we are healing ourselves. Whatever our religious background, we must practice in such a way that we bring forth understanding, compassion, true love, and non-fear, so that possibilities become actualities. If our practice does not yield these flowers and fruits, it is not true practice. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: “Is our practice correct? Do we generate understand­ing, awakening, and compassion every day?” If we do not, we have to change our way of teaching and our way of practicing.

To me, the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, representing the energy of mindfulness, of awakening to the reality of suffering. We have to bring the Holy Spirit back to our religious communities in order for people to have true faith and direction. I sincerely believe that Sangha building is the way. It is the most noble task of the twenty-first century. Not only church leaders, but health professionals, gays and lesbians, schoolteachers, and members of different ethnicity should build Sanghas. Please reflect on this. The practice of Sangha building is the practice of giving humanity a refuge, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. When the Holy Spirit manifests in our church, God is with us.

Enjoy your breath, enjoy your steps, while we are still together as a Sangha. 

This article is from a talk given at the White House Summit on AIDS on December 1, 2000.

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