Healing The Inner Child

Ian  Prattis

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

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

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

The Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Life of Faith

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

By  Sister  Steadiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you stay in touch with your family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Letter from (one of) the Editors

Dear Brothers and Sisters on the path,

in this moment my heart is clear,
not because i have attained much understanding,
not because i am able to love all without discrimination. my heart is clear because i have a path to go.

a path that is rich and full of learning,
with many companions to support me and protect me. i know that i am best protected by our practice,
by our capacity to calm, to embrace suffering and pain to bridge the chasms of separation and fear,
to relax into connection.

dear friends, dear companions,
i am aware of your presence, of your sincerity and care.

i am in touch with a source of peace, a source of energy,
not dependent on the great elements of earth, air, water and fire.
yet not independent.
our energy arises from our aspirations,
our sincere wish to understand, to love, to hold as one.

i touch the earth, i touch my life source with gratitude, with concentration,
with joy.
and i am nourished,
to continue. to grow. to love.
i acknowledge my weaknesses, my mistakes
and i make the vow to lay all my suffeing on the earth,
to transform everything i have received from my ancestors,
from my society into a great source of peace and presence.

dear brothers and sisters,
please enjoy this small booklet in your hands.
it is an offering to you.
it is an opportunity to meet your friends on the path of practice,
to smile to each other,
to simply acknowledge each other’s presence,
as real.

peacefully, your sister steadiness

July 8th, 2003

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Opening the Voice with the Practice of Chanting

Brother  Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chanting as Meditation

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

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

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

The Realm of the Body

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

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

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

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

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

The Realm of Speech

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

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

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

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

The Realm of Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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Suggestions for Chanting in Community

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

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

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

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

Listen carefully to other chanters around you as you chant.

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

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

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

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

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Vietnam Journal

When Thich Nhat Hanh left Vietnam in 1966 to teach in the United States, he told his friends that he would be back in three months. Thirty-nine years later, he has finally returned. As Thay said in the letter he wrote to the Sangha before the trip, he left as a single cell and returned as a Sangha body. Along with the one hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, approximately three hundred lay people from dozens of countries had the privilege of accompanying Thay.

Many of them generously shared their writings and photos with the Mindfulness Bell—we wish we had room to print everything! Look for more impressions in prose, poetry, and pictures in the fall issue.

In a Dharma talk upon his return to Plum Village, Thay said that anyone who was on the journey, especially for the whole three months, was transformed. Each day was packed full of activities, even though Thay reported that he had to turn down ninety-five percent of the invitations he received. Like a delicious, heavy meal, it takes time to digest. “We need to give ourselves at least six months,” he says.

Time will tell what miraculous transformations take place—within each participant in the journey, in the people of Vietnam, in Buddhism worldwide, in our Sangha. Brother Phap Luu has called the journey “Thay’s Magical Mindfulness Tour.” The miracle of mindfulness continues to unfold.

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A Letter from Thay to the Sang­ha Members Going to Vietnam

January, 2005

As the date of our departure to Vietnam approaches, I would like to express my joy and gratitude to all of you for joining me on this historic trip. Our three-month visit will be an offering to the land and people in Vietnam; therefore as a Sangha we would like to offer our best.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

Vietnam is a beautiful land and a beautiful people, and we shall have the opportunity to contemplate many beautiful things. These will include walking meditation by the Ho Guom lake (Lake of the Returning Sword), climbing Yen Tu Mountain where King Nhan Tong practiced as a monk, and visiting Halong Bay which is considered to be the most fantastic landscape in Asia. Wherever we go, we will practice dwelling happily in the present moment, radiating peace and loving kindness around us. Those of us who stay in hotels will consider our hotel as a practice center, walking, talking, sitting, and eating in mindfulness. All of us will be closely observed, especially by secret agents, who will be able to appreciate our wholesome energy and certainly will profit from it.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the most concrete expression of our practice. There will be no consumption of tobacco, meat, or alcohol; no talking while walking; etc. As we practice to be the Sangha body of the Buddha, we are also the body of Thay at the same time. Those of us who are Dharma teachers or Dharma teachers in training will make sure that the practice of the Sangha body is solid, fresh, and joyful. We shall certainly make many people happy with our presence and practice.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

We’ll be together in a few days

Thay


Hanoi
January 12 to January 22

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Thay’s Arrival in Hanoi

We all got up at four a.m. to meet Thay and the Plum Village Sangha at Hanoi airport. We arrived to crowds, and more and more people kept coming: monks in bright yellow robes, lots of people with cameras, old men and women wearing amazing regional costumes.

When Thay entered the arrivals hall total mayhem ensued: everyone surged forward, trying to get a glimpse of Thay, who was tightly surrounded by a pair of monks to keep him from being trampled. People threw flowers, climbed on chairs, pushed and pulled, while three film crews tried to get their footage, and countless cameras flashed.

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Arriving at Bo De Temple, where Thay and the monastics stayed, rows of people lined the road leading to the temple. As Thay passed they threw flowers, and chanted, and bowed deeply —not just for Thay, but also for us, which was a strange experience. So much devotion!

For me, the most moving moment happened a couple of hours later, when Thay was walking in the temple grounds with Sister Chan Khong and the abbot of Thay’s root temple in Hue. Thay squatted between the cabbages planted around the stupas, picked up some earth and let it flow through his hands, remarking that it was the first time in nearly forty years that he was able to touch the earth of his homeland. The abbot started to cry and I couldn’t stop myself from joining him.

—Evelyn Van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, Amsterdam

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mb39-Vietnam6Northern Vietnam

Vietnamese country scenes
Rice paddies and lakes
Big French style homes
And muddy shacks

In rain and cold
Unexpected weather
In farms and cities
People work so hard

Road construction
Buildings go up
In fortune of peace
Vietnam smiles

—Joy Magezis, True Wonderful Commitment, Cambridge, England

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What It Means

Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam is about importing the Buddhism he built in the West. When Thay came to the U.S. to try to stop the war, he already had a record of developing practices and approaches that would revitalize Buddhism and meet the real needs of people, both spiritual and material. It was labeled engaged Buddhism, a term that has become synonymous with Thay and his teaching.

Thay started the Order of Interbeing and the School of Youth for Social Service, a kind of Buddhist domestic Peace Corps, where volunteers studied medicine and nursing, economics, agriculture, and architecture and construction. They then went to live in rural villages to help with grassroots development. Thay was not popular with the Buddhist establishment of the time, nor the government. Not taking sides, speaking out against injustice, calling for change got him thirty-nine years in exile, which ended when he landed in Hanoi on January 12.

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Our job, one hundred monastics and ninety lay persons, was to display Thay’s Buddhism: gender equality; Sangha-centered decision making; lay persons who practice as well as support practice; close and happy relationships among lay and monastic Sangha members; engaged practice; enthusiastically embracing what can be learned from other traditions. These are all new and radical things in Vietnam. A Vietnamese member of the delegation told me, “You are the message. Educated westerners practicing and walking mindfully, that’s the news, that’s what gets the attention, that’s what gives Thay added credibility.”

—Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, Missoula, Montana

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First Days in Hanoi

The trip is starting to find its own rhythm: getting up around 4:30 a.m., having breakfast (sometimes on the bus), and visiting an average of four temples and shrines each day. We are met with exceptional warmth and kindness: people lining the streets, schoolchildren singing, women throwing flowers, followed by a sumptuous meal.

—Evelyn Van de Veen

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Letting Love

The Vietnamese are giving us a profound teaching with the abundance of love that they offer so effortlessly. Accepting it is easier when we look deeply and see that each one of us represents the love and wisdom that Thay generated over his forty years in exile. To the people who have been without their master, we are a walking, breathing, smiling testament to his life’s work. When I think of myself as capable of being a vessel for peace and wisdom, I feel for the first time that I can receive what comes from other people’s hearts and be deserving of it.

I find myself moving with marked slowness after seeing Thay pass by, because his formless beauty awakens the same in me. At times I find myself moving like him, curling my lips with ease like him, speaking with gentleness like him, and it is in these moments that I have come home. I am not so distinctly me or him; I am a vessel of stillness that is as quiet as a boat on a waveless ocean. Perhaps this is what the Vietnamese see—so many offerings of peace flowing in a river to their temples, warm with burning incense, into their hearts and palms pressed together in prayer.

—Kate Cummings, Asheville, North Carolina

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Saigon
January 22 to February 18

A Sea of Monks and Nuns

There was a Day of Mindfulness at Vinh Nghiem Temple, an enormous, modern place with a grand stair­case leading up to a huge Buddha statue. The turnout in the south is even bigger than in the north, with a sea of grey robes and bare scalps, packed in knee to knee.

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Thay’s tone today was light-hearted and informal. Addressing the Vietnamese monastics, he told about many of the practices at Plum Village, such as shining the light, using Sangha eyes, not going out alone, doing everything together, and working through a democratic system. “Our abbots are not so busy; mostly what they do is drink tea,” he said.

—Alissa Fleet, Boundless Transformation of the Heart, Berkeley, California

Sacred Ground

Thây told us that Dharma Cloud Temple (Chua Phâp Van) is on sacred ground. More than forty years ago Thây designed and built the original thatch-hut temple, and the first classes of the School of Youth for Social Service were held here in 1964. Two years later, the first members of the Order of Interbeing were or­dained here. “Phâp Van is the cradle of engaged Buddhism,” says Thây. He describes the beautiful memorial garden where victims of war-time violence are honored: Nhat Chi Mai, one of the original members of the Order of Interbeing, who immolated herself for peace; the two people killed in a grenade attack on the temple; the eight social workers who disappeared, presumed dead; and the four social workers who were shot. “I could no longer cry. I had engaged them and now they were killed.” Thây then reads the letter that Nhat Chi Mai wrote to him before her death; he tells us that Nhat Chi Mai’s sister is in the audience, and even he does not keep the tears from his voice. Then he reads some of his poems.

—Janelle Combelic, Sweet Wisdom of the Heart, Loubès-Bernac, France

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My Teacher Is In Me

In the Dharma talk today, Thay spoke at length about how our parents and grandparents are in us, in every cell of our body, that all our ancestral teachers are in us, as well as our teacher in this lifetime. Afterwards, wandering among the people in the temple courtyard, I was approached by a woman who bowed and offered me a book of Thay’s to sign. (A few of his books are being published, legally, in Vietnamese for the first time). It was open at the title page, and with pen in hand, she insisted that I sign the book! I laughingly resisted, until I remembered–– Thay is in me. This woman understood that, and was happy for me to sign the title page, since he could not. So, I happily signed my Vietnamese Dharma name, Chan An Dinh, True Concentration on Peace.

—Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace

Heaven on Earth

We took a bus out of Saigon and visited Bat Nha (Prajna Temple). This was among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. To get there, we drove for two hours through wild, green mountains that rose up dramatically on either side of the winding, two-lane road. Arriving at the temple, we stepped into a utopia deep in tea and coffee plantations. Sloping fields full of tea bushes drop on all sides of this gorgeous refuge, making an almost flat, lush, waist-high green carpet of landscape. The air smelled like jasmine, and red earth paths circled in and around the grounds. From a speaker somewhere, voices were chanting with bells, the effect being nothing short of celestial.

We spent one day and night here, sleeping on the floor in buildings ringing the main temple. I awoke before sunrise to the steady, deep sound of a single drum heartbeat, then heard male voices chanting. I walked outside into the warm air following the sound and entered the temple. Twenty saffron-robed Theravadan monks visiting from Thailand were greeting the day. I sat in back on the smooth marble floor for almost an hour, listening, breath­ing, absorbing the sense of unity that voice, drum, and quiet early morning created among us. This place, Prajna Temple, deep in Vietnam’s tea fields, is a bit of heaven on earth.

—Lisa Haufschild

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Love Food

I have never had such delicious, sim­ple, lovingly prepared food.

At Phap Van, our main temple in Sai­gon, food was prepared by the nuns. On temple visits, the women prepare beautiful things. We have had banana leaves folded origami style into octagon shaped boxes holding a coconut tapioca square. Sesame squares are in handmade packets wrapped in colorful gift-wrapped cellophane. Tan­gerines, the sweetest I’ve ever had, are stacked and wrapped. This is not restaurant food. It is love food.

—Lisa Haufschild

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Transformation

By the last evening, people know that Phap Van is no longer an ordinary neighborhood temple where you smoke cigarettes and offer a cursory handful of in­cense. You can now hear children singing “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “Here Is the Pure Land.” When something wonderful happens on stage, people know to wave their hands in the air rather than applaud. And when the bell is invited, there is a long moment of settling and quieting. A transformation has clearly happened here: people are listening to the talks with a deeper stillness now.

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The local practitioners sit beautifully, some with their eyes closed, their hands folded before them. They listen peacefully as Thay delivers his farewell: teach­ings on interbeing; no coming, no going; no birth, no death. He holds up a sheet of paper, he strikes a match, he watches as the flame goes out. Where did it go? With deep intimacy, Thay speaks directly to each person: some day you might hear that I am deceased. And you might think I am gone. But all you need to do is look deeply to see that I am still here.

—Alissa Fleet


Hue
February 18 to March 15

Thay’s Return to Tu Hieu Pagoda

Walking in long lines in silence we made our way towards the temple entrance. We heard drums in the distance, and tradi­tional Vietnamese music. We were surrounded by trees, the leaves glistening in the damp late morning air. The route was lined with people holding Buddhist flags, flowers, and paper lotuses contain­ing candles. Some cried silently; no one said a word. After fifteen minutes we arrived at an archway, above which a sign said, ‘The Tu Hieu Temple Welcomes the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and the International Delegation from Plum Village’.

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Ahead of me I could see the Half Moon Pond. As Thay stood opposite me, he turned, looked at the pond and said to one of the monastics, “Am I dreaming or is this real?” “It is real, dear Thay,” came the reply.

—Sita Ramamurthy, Compassionate Understanding of the Heart, London

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Heaven

Tu Hieu Temple, set in the forest a few miles from town, is where Thay became a monk at the age of sixteen. Our ancestral teacher, Master Nhat Dinh built the hermitage which served as the starting point of this temple in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was a highly respected abbot at a larger temple, but when his mother became ill he decided to find a place to build a small hermitage and take care of her. He found this place, crawling with tigers and thick with forest. Undaunted, he made a little hut for himself and another for his mother. Despite his intentional isolation, disciples found him and eventually it expanded into a monastery.

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Returning to his childhood home and learning more about his teacher, we are all beginning to understand Thay in a wonderful new way. A remarkable thing is happening — he is looking younger each time I see him. We were told his teacher also began to look markedly younger during the last years of his life. The happiness on Thay’s face makes us all glow.

—Kate Cummings

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Releasing the Fish

One day the delegation piled into seven boats painted red and yellow with dragon-headed prows. For two hours we floated up the wide and languorous Perfume River, through a landscape of brilliant green forest dotted with the occasional pagoda, vil­lage, or cornfield. On the way back, we stopped in the middle of the river across from Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the most famous landmarks in Vietnam. The dragon boat captains maneuvered to face upstream all in a row, anchored, and roped their boats together side by side. From the prow of the central boat, a senior monk led the Ceremony Releasing the Fish. After the monastics chanted the ritual, a monk took a fish out of a tub bubbling with big catfish and ceremoniously released it into the river. Then dozens of squirm­ing fish were given their freedom, more and more, finally whole buckets of them dumped into the water. Such joy!

—Janelle Combelic

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Walking Meditation

Thay and the fourfold Sangha practiced walking meditation through central Hue, Hanoi, and Saigon. In Hue, the traffic was confined to the left side of the busy streets as we walked on the right half. The pavements were lined with people with palms joined. Hundreds more joined the walking meditation along the way until we were a body of many hundreds. This, for me, was a powerful expression of Thay’s teaching that society cannot thrive on economic advancement alone, but needs to have a spiritual dimension.

—Barbara Hickling, True Wonderful Land, Plymouth, Devon, England

mb39-Vietnam23Engaged Buddhism

While the monastics held a one-week retreat at Tu Hieu Tem­ple thirteen lay Dharma teachers led us in a lay retreat. Every day ninety of us came to the Dieu Nghiem nunnery next to Tu Hieu, for sitting and walking meditation, Dharma talks and discussions. The week was a sweet respite from the sometimes befuddling intensity of the pilgrimage. One afternoon we were joined by a dozen Vietnamese members of the Order of Interbeing, including some who had been part of the School of Youth for Social Service, founded by Thay in 1965, as a helping arm of Van Hanh University. Through the war, through the brutal years of communist rule since 1975, often working underground, they have continued feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, educating the poor.

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Describing their work over the past forty years and continuing today, they told us: There are many people not cared for by anyone so we build schools and hospitals to care for them. After 1972, lots of people in the South were evacuated so those who remained grew crops to help feed the rest. A lot of blood and sweat was shed on those lands to grow crops. After 1975 all operations were terminated by the government so we stopped officially for several years but continued working underground. In 1985 we received from Plum Village, packages of medicine to sell so we could buy rice to give to people in poor areas.

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Thay has taught us not to be attached to the political system, so when the government officials ask us to stop, I tell them that we only work in the spirit of loving our people and our country. We can continue because of the nurturing support of the Buddha, of all of you and of the energy of streams of all our ancestors.

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“Thây left us when I was twenty,” said a dignified gentleman with tears in his eyes, “and now we’re all in our sixties. We have missed Thây very much, always hoping and praying that he could return. When he came to Phâp Van temple (in Saigon,where the school was located) and touched our hands we were very emo­tional, very moved. Having Thay here for the past two months has nurtured us tremendously and we do not wish for him to leave.”

—Contributed by Sozan Schellin, Wild Rivers of the Source, Austin, Texas; Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, Washington, D.C.; and Janelle Combelic


Hanoi
March 15 to March 30

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Halong and Yen Tu

Gliding past islands
Stretching up from green water
With tree topped hair
At Halong Bay

What peace
Steaming along
No sign of mines
Long past

mb39-Vietnam27Atop small mountain
Red pagoda
Against grey sky
fog hovering at base

Yesterday Yen Tu Mount
Crowds gathered for fest
Climbing muddy rock steps
To Zen King’s home

I climb with Nyu
74 year old pilgrim
Holding hands I support her
Others come past and help

With my grey robe, brown jacket
I’m less an outsider
Myu translated comments
I smile, laugh with Viets

At heart of island
There wondrous cave
Stalactites drip beauty
Into silent pond

Sangha walk through cave
Stand chanting to Avalokita
Feeling old water energy
Releasing mind to touch joy

—Joy Magezis

Flow

And just how do I step into this beginningless flow? This I am taught by the flow of traffic in Hanoi. I stop and watch, and when I begin to feel myself slow down inside, when trust arises that the flow is there for me to tap into, the fear dissipates and I can see the openings in the traffic. Only after I am aware of this slowness in and outside of myself, have stopped and concentrated on what is flowing right before my eyes, am I ready to step into the traffic. And once I step in, it must be without hesitation; any hesitation separates me from the flow and actually causes danger to others. If I am tired, or shaky, as I often have been in Hanoi, I take the arm of a Sangha sister or brother, and let them lead me into and through. If I am alone, it’s harder. I will wait until someone else is crossing; it could be an old woman or someone carrying large bundles on either end of a bamboo pole, or even a bicycle or motor scooter crossing in my direction. The guide across the river will always come if I am patient, just as the opening in the throngs climbing Yen Tu mountain always came, if I waited and watched.

—Roberta Wall, True Insight of Peace, New York

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Binh Dinh Province
March 30 to April 10

Monks and Nuns on the Beach

Now we near the sea
Beyond salt drying fields
Sister tells of old home
Then white waves, clear sand

 Off the bus we go
Onto peace time beach
Old bunker behind
Young monks jump into sea

Others follow joyfully
Soon half the Sangha’s wet
Brown robes bob in blue sea
Laughter fills the air

—Joy Magezis

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How Was It?

It was exhausting. It was pivotal, I think, for Buddhism in Vietnam. It was a floating celebration. It was a reunion and a triumphal return. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life. Every night I dream about the trip and the Sangha; a different person every night. The night before I wrote this it was about Chuck, the twelve-year-old. The night before that about Terry Barber. Tonight, who knows. Maybe I’ll sleep through the night and won’t remember dreams. But the dreams will be there as Thay lives his dream—returning home and retooling Vietnamese Buddhism for the twenty-first century.

—Rowan Conrad

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Discovering Levels of Deep Listening

By Ian Prattis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the Footsteps of My Teacher

By Tran Kinh Tam An

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing Your Autobiography:

mb40-Writing1A Path to Healing

By Janice Rubin

I am in my twelfth year of teaching adults to write their autobiographies—a new career begun after I had retired from a career in journalism—and in my fifth year of practice with my Sangha. Without knowing anything about Buddhism or the existence of a blueprint for decency known as the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I had created an atmosphere in my classes and a code of behavior that I later found mirrored in the practice community I visited in 2001. No wonder I felt I had truly come home!

Retiring after twenty-one years, I decided to review my life, beginning with my earliest memories. I found the process to be painful at times, but was determined to finally face my demons. Writing my memoirs was therapeutic, and I wondered whether others might find it helpful. When I shared my writing with my therapist, she suggested that I teach so that others might benefit from the process.

I teach three semesters a year, each one eight weeks long. Classes are two hours long and limited to ten persons. I tell new students that writing their autobiography is like taking a magical mystery tour—they don’t know where they’ll end up when they start out, they don’t know what means they will use to get there, and when they arrive, they won’t be the same person who started the journey. In the process they will develop compassion for those they feel have wronged them, discover they have accomplished much more than they have given themselves credit for, and find they like themselves a lot more than they did when they began.

I suggest that beginners start out by following the syllabus, which has questions related to each period of life and can be used to jog the writer’s memory. They write at home and come to class prepared to share their writing. Each person is allotted time to read and to receive feedback from the others. Those who say they don’t have any childhood memories are inspired by the material I provide and by hearing others’ stories. As we write, the pathways between memories are lubricated so that memories return, sometimes faster than we can write about them.

Most of my students are between fifty and eighty-five years of age. Most come with the intention of writing their life stories to pass on to their children and grandchildren; many return to continue examining their lives in an effort to rid themselves of feelings of anger, guilt, and anxiety that are preventing them from enjoying their days. Some come because they have reached a significant stage in their lives; they want to understand where they’ve been so they may chart a path for their future.

Among the writers, some have been childhood victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In the supportive atmosphere that prevails in our workshops, many feel safe exploring events that need to be examined in order to rid them of suffering. Some are recovering from alcoholism or other addictions; some are grieving the loss of dear ones. Some are closeted homosexuals or abused spouses who are not yet able to share their plight.

Cultivating Compassion

The first mindfulness training talks about cultivating compassion and protecting life. It has been said that one may kill with words; it is also true that a kind word, appropriately offered, can be life enhancing. New students are asked to listen to each other with an open mind, without judgment. In commenting on another’s writing, they are asked to be mindful of the reader’s feelings. I watch with increasing love for my students as I see heads nod and tissues wipe away a tear while someone writes about the disappearance of her father when she was four years old. If empathy and compassion were blossoming plants, our classroom would be ringed with flowers.

One time, during introductions on the first day of class, a new student mentioned that she was twenty-five years old. A man in his seventies said, “You’re so young. You haven’t lived yet. What do you have to write about?” I told the group about the twenty-one-year-old in a previous class who had taught us what life had been like in East Germany and had participated in pulling down the Berlin Wall. I told them about children in elementary school who had written about their memories of accidents, birthday parties, the death of a parent. Unfortunately, my illustrations were not sufficient to counteract the damage done by a thoughtless remark; the young woman dropped out of the class and did not respond to messages I left her.

Generosity

The second mindfulness training reminds us of the importance of not taking what belongs to others and encourages generosity. In my classes this training is symbolized by a timer and a set of wind-up clacking teeth. The two-hour session is barely long enough for ten people to read and receive feedback so when participants don’t respect their time limits it can become a problem. In order to prevent hurt feelings, I set a timer when each person begins to read. When the bell goes off, that person’s time is up. The conversations that sometimes develop in response to a particular reading can wreak havoc with a schedule. So I wind up my two-legged chattering teeth and, as they dance across the table, we laugh and remind ourselves why we’ve come to class.

Protection

The third mindfulness training makes us aware of the nature of our ties with family and the importance of protecting children from harm. In our writing we deal with destructive as well as healing ties. We come to understand not only how our parents raised us, but how their upbringing influenced the way they behaved as adults. When we write about our parents as little children we begin to understand their suffering and we realize they did the best they could. At the same time, we develop compassion for ourselves as children who suffered at their hands. We also develop understanding and compassion for other family members, and it is not unusual for my students to reach out to family members from whom they have been estranged, and to reconnect with childhood friends.

A recovering alcoholic, writing about the abusive, alcoholic father of his childhood, gradually began to soften toward him when he wrote about his father’s boyhood in Ireland, where his mother died when he was very young and his father indentured him to a farmer because he could not care for all the children in the family. One woman came feeling angry and bitter toward her mother who had died thirty years before. The mother had had seven children, some by the seven men to whom she had been married, and some by others. My student was the middle child who had assumed responsibility for raising the three youngest ones. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her mother and an older sibling and had been sexually abused by one of her stepfathers. In four years of writing, she developed a tolerant respect for the mother who had lost her own mother as a child, was raised by an unloving aunt who threw her out when she became pregnant at fifteen, and managed to keep her seven children together and enjoy life by using her wits. She also developed a healthy respect for her own strong character that had enabled her to create a stable, loving marriage and a good life with her husband and children as she continued to help her siblings.

Deep Listening, Loving Speech

Without offering the gift of deep listening and mindful speech to one another, our writing Sangha could not thrive. I tell my students to follow their writing wherever it goes and to censor nothing, but to share only what is comfortable for them. We offer a safe haven in which there is virtual freedom of expression.

A woman who had been the victim of incest by her older brother during her childhood, blamed him for her failed marriages. When she tried to talk to him about it, he either denied anything had occurred or blamed her for seducing him. She read us a letter she had written to him, describing how she had felt as a little girl who had lost the right to her own body. As she stifled a sob, the person next to her put an arm around her shoulder. Asked whether she would mail the letter, she said she would not; it was enough for her to have been able to talk about it to friends who could understand.

Mindful Consumption

My students are well aware of the need for mindful consumption and good health practices for themselves and the planet. The ailments of an aging population are not far from their consciousness and many are involved in regular exercise programs. The recovering substance abusers write about the effect of their addictions on their self-image, careers, and families, and take pride in their years of sobriety. Since most are parents and grandparents, they usually share a commitment to protect the environment, promote peace, and encourage intelligent radio and television programs for all ages.

I love the folks who take my classes; they are my writing family. It gives me great joy to watch shy individuals blossom, and to see a group of strangers become friends. What better basis is there for friendship and love than sharing one’s life story with others in a loving, nonjudgmental atmosphere?

When I wrote my former therapist to tell her that I had finally found my spiritual family, she informed me that she too sits with a Sangha affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh’s community. I was delighted, but not surprised.

mb40-Writing2Janice Rubin, of Oakland, New Jersey, sits with the Practice Community at Franklin Lakes. She is a teacher, writer, and author.

Writing Your Autobiography

Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear friends. Today is August 5, 2005. We’re in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village on the last day of our summer session.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I would like to speak about reincarnation, rebirth, and continuation. If we look at an orange tree we can see that it makes an effort every day to have a long continuation. Every day the orange tree makes leaves, and in the spring it makes orange flowers, which become tiny oranges. In those oranges are seeds, and that is how the orange tree assures its continuation. The orange tree has to continue.

And we do, too. We are humans and it is a natural tendency to prepare ourselves to continue. So continuation, rebirth, reincarnation is normal. How do we continue ourselves? This question begins our meditation together. Every time you produce a thought, that thought is a continuation. That thought will have effects on us, on our body, our mind, and on the world. The effect of that thought is our continuation. Producing a thought is the cause; the effect is how that thought impacts us and the world.

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To think is an action. Because the thought may be very strong, it may be painful, it can modify our body, it can change our mind, it can change the world. So thought is a form of action.

In Buddhism we use the word karma. Karma is action, action as cause and action as fruit. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. The Chinese word for karmahetu contains the character for karma and a character that means “seed.” When we produce a thought, the production of the thought is a karmahetu, karma-cause. That thought will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that health, good or bad, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought. Karmaphala is the karma-fruit. So karma is action, action in the cause and action in the fruit.

Right Thinking

When we produce a thought, we have to ensure that the thought is a good thought, a right thought, because if it is, it will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world to heal itself. Our practice is to try to live in such a way that every day we produce only good thoughts, thoughts in the direction of right thinking. We have to train ourselves to do that. A bad thought can destroy the physical and moral health of ourselves and of the world. So we have to be careful to produce only good thoughts.

Right thinking is recommended to all of us by the Buddha. It’s action in the form of thought. Each time we produce a thought, that thought carries our signature. You cannot say, “No, I didn’t produce that thought.” That is karma. Karma-cause, karma-fruit. If it is a cause, it will lead to a fruit—the fruit will be bitter or the fruit will be sweet, depending on the nature of the karma.

Right Speech

First, we have to understand that thinking is action. When we say some thing, that speech will have an effect on our body, on our mind, and on the world. Good speech will give us joy and health — physical and moral health — and it will change the world in the direction of goodness. We should produce right speech, which inspires understanding, joy, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Your speech is the seed, it is the cause. And what it produces in you and in the world is the karmaphala, the karma-fruit. Action as cause and action as fruit.

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Sometimes action-fruit manifests immediately after the action-cause. Sometimes it takes months or years before it leads to a result, but sooner or later the cause must become the effect.

Right Action

The third kind of action is the physical act, the act carried out by the body. With the body you can do things. You can kill a person, you can kill an animal, you can kill a tree. You can save a person, you can save an animal, you can save a tree. The Buddha recommends right action because the action will have an effect on your physical and moral health as well as the world’s. We have to ensure that our actions are in the direction of right action.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher in the existential tradition. He said that man is the sum of his actions. When a child is born, he hasn’t acted yet, so he cannot be defined. But as the man begins to act, we can look at his actions and see the man. Man is defined by his acts. What Jean-Paul Sartre said is very close to Buddhism.

But Sartre’s declaration was not detailed enough, because we need to include thoughts. Our speech comes from what we are thinking; thinking is at the base of all speech and of all action. We may say that man is the sum of his thoughts, his words, and his acts. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre would agree, because in using the word “acts” he meant to include thinking and speech. Thinking as action, speech as action.

Thoughts, speech, and action create karma, and we produce this energy every moment of our daily life. You continue to say things, you continue to do things, and every thought, every word, every act of yours carries your signature. And that is your continuation. It is never lost.

The scientist Lavoisier, said, “Nothing is lost.” He’s a Buddhist, essentially. Nothing is created, nothing is lost. What you have produced as thoughts, as speech, as acts, continues to influence the world, and that is your continuation. Your continuation is your rebirth and your reincarnation. Nothing is lost. So you have to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

We want to continue in beauty. And we know that in order to continue in beauty we have to ensure that our thoughts are right thoughts, our speech is right speech, and our acts are right action. These are three branches of the Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.

Right View

What is right view? Right view is our way of understanding the world; it brings insight into the ultimate reality. We are so often the victims of wrong views, and based on wrong views we create suffering for ourselves and others. So we have to avoid wrong views, wrong perceptions. If we continue to suffer because of violence and terrorism, it is because we need right view. The terrorists have a wrong view of themselves and of others, and the anti-terrorists also have wrong views about themselves and about the terrorists. Based on wrong views, we keep killing each other, so we have to look more deeply to obtain right view. With right view we will be able to stop the violence and terrorism. Right view is the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action, and that is why the Buddha began with right view.

The Buddha describes right view in a precise, deep, and clear way. A right view reflects wisdom, the nature of existence.

Impermanence

For example, the Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, of phenomena, and other wise men have also spoken of this. For example, Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly changing. It is a fact that everything changes. Right view goes in tandem with the insight of impermanence. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have right view we don’t suffer, and we can create happiness.

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This is not just philosophy, it is life. For example, when you have difficulties with your partner, and you are about to argue with each other, the Buddha would say to you, “Dear friends, close your eyes. Imagine your beloved in three hundred years. What will she become?” When you can see what happens three hundred years from now, you see that it’s not wise to argue, because life is impermanent. If you can touch impermanence, when you open your eyes you will no longer be angry. You’re saved, because of the insight of impermanence.

Intellectually, maybe you agree that things are impermanent, but in your practical life, you act as if things are permanent. The Buddha does not speak of impermanence as a philosophy, but as a practice. We should practice concentration on impermanence. For example, all day, when you look, when you listen to something, you should get in touch with the insight on impermanence.

Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. So the insight on impermanence stays with us all the time, and that is why it is not a theory, but a concentration. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence.

With mindfulness we can keep the insight on impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech. So right view is the view that contains the nature of impermanence.

Non-self

We imagine that every person has a separate soul that remains the same forever, even as the body ages and decomposes. This is a wrong view, because it goes against the truth of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. So if we accept the reality of impermanence, we have to also accept the truth of non-self.

Impermanence is seen from the perspective of time. The same thing viewed from the perspective of space is non-self. Non-self and impermanence are the same thing.

When the son sees the father as a different person, as someone who has caused a lot of suffering and difficulty for him, he wants to punish his father with his words and actions. He doesn’t know that to make his dad suffer is to make himself suffer at the same time. You need to understand that you and your dad share the same reality. You are the continuation of your dad. If your dad suffers, you will also suffer, and if you can help your dad not to suffer, then your happiness will be possible. With the insight of non-self we can avoid many mistakes, because non-self translates into right view.

Terrorists and anti-terrorists think of themselves as two different entities. The anti-terrorist says, “We must punish the terrorist, we have to eliminate him.” And the terrorist also thinks that the other person is the cause of the suffering in the world, and in order to survive, he has to be eliminated. They don’t know that they are the same.

All the parties in a conflict have to understand the insight of non-self. If the other side continues to suffer, if there’s no safety, peace, or understanding on the other side, there won’t be safety, peace, or understanding on our side. When both sides realize that they inter-are, when they touch the nature of non-self, then there will be right view. With right view we will think, speak, and act in the right way, and then safety can become a reality. Right view is a view of reality that translates into impermanence, non-self, and interbeing.

Interbeing

When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we see the clouds and the rain in the flower. And we can touch the sun, without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so we cannot take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.

The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and non-self are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily life we can touch the truth of interbeing, of non-self in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, the nature of interbeing, of non-self, of interdependence. If you can touch reality like that, you will have right view. And when you have right view, all your thoughts will be right, all your words will be right, and all your actions will be right.

This is why cultivating right view is the basis of the practice of Buddhism. And we can practice as an individual, as a community, as a city, as a nation. If we are shut in the prison of permanence, of self, we cannot obtain right view. In order to cultivate right view, we have to have concentration. We have plenty of intelligence to understand the notions of impermanence and non-self but the notions do not help us. That’s why we have to train ourselves to see things in their true nature. We have to keep this insight alive in every moment. That is why concentration is very important.

Right Concentration

The Sanskrit word for right concentration is samadhi. The notions of impermanence and non-self are useful, but they are not powerful enough to liberate you, to give you a right view. So you have to have concentration. Samadhi prajna is right view, insight, which is at the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action. But to cultivate prajna we have to practice concentration. We have to live in concentration, to touch deeply into things in every moment. We live deeply when we can see the nature of impermanence, of non-self, and of interbeing in the flower, and we can do this thanks to the practice of concentration. Without samadhi there is no prajna, there is no insight. So concentration is a door that opens onto the ultimate reality. It gives us right view.

Right Mindfulness

But before we can have concentration, we have to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is smrti.

Mindfulness is the energy that can help us bring the mind back to the body so that we can establish ourselves in the present moment. In that way we can look at the blue sky. We can look at the clouds. We can look at the child who is sitting in front of us. And we touch deeply the wonders of life. That’s mindfulness.

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Mindfulness is the capacity of recognizing what is happening in the present moment. When pain manifests, we will be able to embrace that pain, in order to transform it. With strong mindfulness, we can realize the Kingdom of God is available, and the joy of living is possible.

Andre Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. And he said, “God is available twenty-four hours a day.” I also agree with him on that. If God is available twenty-four hours a day, then His kingdom is also available. The only question is whether we are available for the Kingdom of God, available for happiness. Mindfulness makes us available to the Kingdom of God, to the wonders of life that are here, in the present moment. I know there are many Buddhists in France, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Gide, and the scientist Lavoisier.

Mindfulness is what we practice in Plum Village. We walk in such a way that every step produces mindfulness. When we breathe, when we wash our hands, when we cook, we do all that in mindfulness. Generating the energy of mindfulness is the basic practice because mindfulness is the carrier, the bringer of concentration.

When you are mindful of something, you are concentrated. The energy of concentration is in the mindfulness. As you continue, that concentration will become stronger and stronger. With vigorous concentration you can make a breakthrough into reality, and then you can touch impermanence as a reality. You can touch interbeing, non-self.

The Buddha began with right view, but I would like to begin with mindfulness.

Right Livelihood

Then we have right livelihood, our work, our job. The Five Mindfulness Trainings instruct us to choose a livelihood that will help us produce right thoughts, right words, and right actions. Unfortunately, there are kinds of work that harm us, that harm the environment, that bring violence. We have to look with mindfulness, to see what kind of work to have, so that we will be able to practice right thinking, right speech, and right action in our work.

Schoolteachers can practice in such a way that their thoughts, their words, and their actions nourish their students every moment of the day. The children in their class may have a lot of suffering. Perhaps their parents have not offered them enough of the appropriate kinds of food. They have not had the chance to receive right thinking, right speech, and right actions, and they’ve been wounded.

As a teacher, you look at the child and you see the suffering. And you know with right thinking, right speech, and right action you will be able to heal the child’s wounds. You have the ability to give that child a second chance by playing the role of the dad, the mom, for the child. The class can become a family. If you’re a doctor or a therapist, you can do the same thing. If you have understanding and compassion, you have a lot of power because when people come to you, your right thoughts will help heal people. You can help them because you have healed yourself by developing the energy of understanding and compassion.

The Buddha spoke of right livelihood, not only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Right livelihood helps you produce right thinking and right speech. We need to take the time to look at our work, to see whether it supports us in producing right thinking and right speech every day.

Good thoughts always go with understanding and love. An occupation that causes you to produce thoughts of anger and of discrimination is not good for your health or for the health of the world. You may have to accept another form of work with a lower salary that will give you the chance to generate good thoughts and good speech. It’s possible to live in a healthier, happier way. If you have right view, you will have enough courage to stop the course of violence and of attachment. So right livelihood is very important, and we can define this in terms of right thinking, right speech, and right action.

Right Effort

The eighth is right diligence, right effort. The Buddha taught how to cultivate and take care of our energy, and he also taught how to practice conserving energy. In Buddhist psychology, we see our consciousness as having two layers. The lower layer is called the store. It’s always operating, even in our sleep. The store receives information and classifies it, and it makes a lot of decisions without the intervention of the mind consciousness, which is the upper layer.

When you drive a car you think it’s the mind consciousness that is driving, but actually a large part of the work is done by the store, without our conscious thinking. When you do your everyday work, the store plays an important role.

When the store operates, it takes less metabolic energy than the mind does. The mind consciousness takes a lot more sugar, glycogen, and protein to work. At the level of the store things are done very quickly and inexpensively, so most things are handled by the store and the mind consciousness does just the final part. In the store many seeds are buried, good seeds and bad seeds. The seed of anger is there. The seed of despair is there. The seed of meanness, the seed of compassion, are there. The seed of joy is there. So to cultivate right effort the Buddha proposed four practices.

Four Practices for Cultivating Right Effort

The first practice is, don’t water the bad seeds. You know that there are negative seeds in you, and if they manifest, you will suffer. So let them sleep peacefully. When you watch a film, when you read a newspaper, when you listen to music, there is a chance that a seed will be watered and will manifest. We have to consume in mindfulness so that the bad seeds are not watered. When we love each other we have to sign a peace treaty. “Darling, I promise never to water the bad seeds in you or in me, and you have to do the same. You have those seeds. You must not water them in you, and don’t water them in me.”

The second practice is that every time a bad mental formation manifests, we have to make it go back to sleep, because if we keep it here too long, then it strengthens down in the base. If we leave it up in the mind for an hour, then that seed has an hour of strengthening. It’s dangerous.

The third practice is to allow the good seeds to be watered so they have a chance to manifest in the mind. For example, a Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the good seeds in you. When they manifest in the mind consciousness, the landscape will be much more beautiful.

The fourth practice is when the good seed has already manifested, we help it to stay in the mind consciousness as long as possible. Like when you have a friend who comes to visit bringing good news, you try to keep that friend with you as long as possible.

That is the teaching of the Buddha on right effort, diligence, and conserving energy. It’s very concrete and practical and is done in a natural, relaxed way. We don’t need to fight or struggle; we don’t have to make exhausting efforts. Naturally and with a lot of pleasure, we can enjoy the practice.

These are the eight right practices representing the Noble Eightfold Path proposed by the Buddha to all of us. If a teaching can reveal the Noble Path, it is an authentic teaching of the Buddha.

The Right View of Reincarnation

Continuation is happening now, because every day you continue to produce thoughts, words, and actions that carry your signature. We don’t have to wait until this body decomposes to continue.

Most people think of reincarnation in terms of a permanent soul. This is popular Buddhism. But we have to rise to the level of right view. Continuation is a necessity, it is a truth. But this continuation must be seen in the light of non-self, of impermanence.

If, for example, you want to recognize my continuation, do not look in this direction. [Thay points to himself.] There is a part of my continuation in this direction, but when you look all around you, you will see other forms of the continuation. So don’t wait for the body to decompose. We’ve already begun our continuation. You know that you have the power to change. You can ensure a beautiful continuation. Let’s suppose that yesterday you produced a thought that was not worthy of you, and today you’re sorry. You think, “I don’t want to be continued in that way.” You can correct it, you can transform that continuation.

If you have touched right view, you will be able to produce a different thought, a thought that is worthy of you today, a thought that carries within it understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. The moment you produce this wonderful thought, it will go out and catch the other thought that you produced yesterday. And in the space of half a second it will be able to transform that thought.

So you have the chance to correct the past; this is wonderful. We say that the past is already gone, but the past is always returning with its new manifestations, and with those manifestations we can correct it.

If you have said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. Do something different today based on right view and transform the whole situation. That is possible.

If you have a Sangha that supports you, if you are supported by the collective right view, then it’s very easy to produce such thoughts, such words, such actions, to transform everything right now, today, to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

The teaching of the Buddha is very deep, and at the same time very practical. This teaching has the capacity to heal us, to transform our pain, our fear. It’s good to have enough time to learn more about these teachings and put them into practice in our daily life.

Translated from the French by Sr. Pine Tree.
Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Janelle Combelic.

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

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

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

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

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Logical Proposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Right Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Territories of the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being on Automatic Pilot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Out of Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Key to the Door of Happiness

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

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

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

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

A New Year’s Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Right View?

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

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

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

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

Tasting the Wonders of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai

This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.

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Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.

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Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly
Doing nothing
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.

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On Karma

By Barbara Casey

mb44-OnKarma1For over six years Barbara corresponded with a prison inmate named Claude. He had been convicted of aggravated assault, which means that he did someone serious harm. In a letter to her, Claude asked Barbara for insight about karma, and she asked some dharma teachers to respond as well.

Barbara, there is something that I’ve been wanting to ask you concerning Buddhist teachings and I find this to be a good time to do so. I just hope that you’ll not think my question somewhat ignorant.

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According to karma, as I understand it, if a person is unruly during his lifetime he’ll suffer as a result in some future life. It is my understanding that if someone causes a horrible death to another human being, he’ll also experience a similar death sometime in his future. My question is, if this is true, and I’m not sure that it is, if this person who committed the horrible crime is to experience something of the same, how is it to come about? In other words, and I use myself as an example, let us say that I committed the horrible deed and am supposed to experience the same. Is the person who causes me to experience the same type of death held responsible for doing so?

— Claude

Dear Claude,

It really touched me when I read your question about karma. First of all, I have to say that I don’t think there is such a thing as an ignorant question – I think that ignorance only happens when someone has a question but doesn’t ask.

I don’t think that karma works simplistically; that is, if you do something, the same thing comes back to you in the same form. I think it is more a matter of energy and intention and resources. For instance, if your training from childhood is to use violence when conflict arises, then it is logical that what will happen in your life is violence. So what we have to do is to train our minds first of all, and from our thoughts come our speech and our actions. Thây has said that choosing to live peacefully is a radical act. We have to re-train ourselves almost completely, letting go of self-protective mechanisms that are genetically bred in us. It’s a big job! Every time we take a breath or a step in mindfulness, we are changing. Every time we choose to let go instead of react in anger or ill will or revenge, we are changing that pattern. So we don’t just do it for ourselves, we do it for all of humanity.

I remember hearing of a Vietnam veteran who was overtaken by guilt because he killed five children during the war, killed them in a horrible way, because the Viet Cong of that village had killed his buddies. Thây told him: you killed five children, yes, that is very bad. However, you can choose to live the rest of your life in guilt about that, or you can choose to help children for the rest of your life. Now that former soldier has helped thousands of children throughout the world.

I know when I do something I regret, there is a strong determination in me not to do it again, and that energy helps me to move toward the good. A very small example is one time I was at a retreat, and I was so tired of standing in line that instead of waiting to wash my dishes after a meal, I just left them on the table. I felt really bad about it, and from that shame grew determination. I spent the rest of the retreat picking up dirty dishes that other people had left around; they were everywhere!

The definition of karma is action. Karma is not just past action, it is present action, happening right now. You create your future in this moment, and you can even change your past through determined intention for the good right now. It is always possible to heal. Thây has said that you can send a good thought out like an arrow and it catches the bad thought of the past and transforms it.

There is also the story of Angulimala. Briefly, he was a terrible fellow living in the Buddha’s time, killing for sport and wearing a necklace of thumbs to display his killing abilities. One day the Buddha was walking on alms round when Angulimala came up behind him and demanded that he stop. The Buddha kept walking. He demanded again, and the Buddha replied, “Angulimala, I have already stopped, it is you who must stop.” The Buddha went on to explain the Dharma to Angulimala, who gave up his killing and became a monk. I think this story is for all of us who regret things we have done, giving us hope that it is always possible to stop our harmful behavior and to heal and transform.

So that is a little of my experience and understanding. I also asked some dharma teacher friends to respond to your question, and here are their responses.

From Mitchell Ratner

In his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Thây notes that in the Ekottara Agama the Buddha lists four things that can neither be conceived nor explained, one of which is the notions of karma and consequence. So it certainly wasn’t an ignorant question!

During the Feet of the Buddha retreat [2004], Thây said some wonderful things about karma. We are always producing it through our speech, thought, and deeds. In the present moment we can always transform the karma that comes to us.

My notes from the June 20 question and answer session include the following exchange. Thây’s full answer was wonderful; I will give you a summary in my own words.

Question: How do we deal with regrets at the end of our lives?

We all make mistakes, especially when we are young. With mindfulness we can recognize the unskillful things we have said and done. The ground of the action was our mind. Now in the present moment we can do something to neutralize the bad karma. Developing the willingness to act, to continue, in a beautiful way can be done every day.

Suppose you said something not nice to your mother, and now your mother is dead, but the wound is still there. You must recognize the wound in you. Say, “Sorry mother, I am determined not to do it again.” Your mother inside you will hear that. [Claude, this is something you can do every day, to the person you wounded.]

The past is still there, disguised as the present moment. The moment you are determined not to do it again in the future, the wound is healed. A new life is in front of you.

While past actions did create karma, present actions create karma as well. It is possible to transform the ‘bad karma’ through our present actions. What is important to understand, I believe, is:

  1. what you did,
  2. why you did it,
  3. what were the consequences for others and yourself, and
  4. how to develop an inner determination not to cause that type of harm

From Jerry Braza

In my personal experience working with inmates within the Oregon State Prison system, your question regarding karma is a common one. I have had many inmates reflect deeply on the possible impact of karma in the suffering surrounding incarceration. In my own reflection on this topic, I have gleaned some insights from several Buddhist teachers, including our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has experience with the prison population.

One of the more prominent teachers working with inmates is Bo Lozoff, the creator of both the Prison-Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation. His foundations offer numerous books and resources at no charge to inmates. The beauty of Bo’s writings is that he makes complex principles more “user-friendly” for those in the prison system.

In his book We’re All Doing Time Bo shares: “One of the main rules we need to appreciate is called the Law of Karma. In the Bible, the way it is put is ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. The way it’s said in prison is ‘what comes around goes around’. “Every thought, word, and deed is a seed which we plant in the world. All our lives, we harvest the fruits of those seeds. If we plant desire, greed, fear, anger, and doubt, then that’s what will fill our lives. Plant love, courage, understanding, good humor, and that’s what we get back. This isn’t negotiable; it’s a law of energy, just like gravity.”

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Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart shares: “The heart is a garden, and along with each action there is an intention that is planted like a seed. We can use a sharp knife to cut someone, and if our intention is to do harm, we will be a murderer. We can perform an almost identical action, but if we are a surgeon, the intention is to heal and save a life. The action is the same, yet depending on its purpose or intention, it can be either a terrible act or a compassionate act.”

The Buddhist teachings regarding karma are encapsulated in Thây’s teachings, and in understanding karma it may be helpful to review the concept of consciousness. According to Buddhist psychology, we all have a mind consciousness and a store consciousness. Our store consciousness includes everything that we have experienced during our life, metaphorically stored in the form of seeds (it also contains the seeds from the lives of our ancestors). Positive and negative seeds are planted through the thoughts and actions of our past. Our mind consciousness contains the present activity of the mind. Our mind and store consciousness are like gardens where we have activated, planted, and watered the seeds of our feelings and experiences.

The practice of mindfulness helps us look deeply to know which seeds to water and how to transform the negative seeds that arise in the mind consciousness. Our practice reminds us that every moment offers us an opportunity to be aware of how our thoughts, feeling, perceptions, and mental formations are constantly affecting our actions and subsequent karma.

We all have accumulated negative seeds in our consciousness. For example, if a person has been emotionally abused in the past, the seeds of anger, sadness, and grief may be buried in their consciousness. When these seeds are activated intentionally (in meditation) or unintentionally in daily interactions, we have the opportunity to transform this suffering through various gathas such as “breathing in I am aware of my anger, breathing out I embrace my anger.” Mindfulness and concentration make it easier to transform the negative seeds so they are not passed on through further actions that can contribute to negative karma.

Thây’s concept of “interbeing” helps us to understand the significance that each one of us has on the lives of others. Aware that we are connected to all beings including animals, plants, and minerals, it seems clear that every action has the potential of affecting the lives of many others. If our thoughts are negative, these seeds are watered and most likely behaviors and actions will follow and karma continues.

Finally, in a public talk in Vietnam last year, I recall Thây offered a beautiful way to personalize and realize the impact of karma in our life. To paraphrase, “Every one of our actions is like putting our signature on everything we do.” This makes every day, every moment, every thought, feeling, perception, and mental formation significant. This is so easily forgotten in the busyness of life. Our practice offers us a powerful means to live our lives in ways that have the potential to break the karmic cycle.

The Path of Transformation

So Claude, these are some insights on karma.

I hope this helps. Claude, over the past six years (has it been that long?) what I have seen in you is a sincere, good, and dedicated individual – dedicated to transforming yourself and to helping others. This is excellent karma! I know that if I let my anger take over, I feel really bad afterwards and sometimes I feel like I have done damage I cannot heal, but then I take faith in the Dharma, and I know that this is a long path we’re on, this path of transformation. We are graced with some small insight, which leads us in the right direction, and that is all we need. We don’t need to judge where we are, we just take the next step in mindfulness, the next breath in freedom, and we’re already there.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the former editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Zen Noir: Mindfulness in Moviemaking

By Marc Rosenbush

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master: Okay. Give me your mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I began to write Zen Noir again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letter from the Editor

mb48-First1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

It is impossible for me to read this issue without thinking of our recently deceased son, Jesse Toy. Everything I see and do is through the lens of his sudden passing on February 4. We are thankful for the hundreds of cards and letters from you, our Sangha — from Germany, Norway, the U.K., and across the U.S. As Jesse’s father Philip and I walk the changing landscape of our grief and joy, there is one image we will not soon forget: Jesse’s pink baby blanket spread on the floor in the meditation hall, covered with colorful origami paper cranes, bright flowers of peace and hope.

This is the cream of our practice: the blanket — a symbol of birth and the ground of mindfulness; the color — pink for the new life of Jesse’s continuation; and the joyful cranes — emblems of our transformation body. The origami peace crane project was launched by our friend Teijo Munnich, a Soto Zen Dharma teacher. In the two months since Jesse left his physical body, we have fully celebrated his life. We were joined by former Sangha from Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania at our Quaker service. We hosted an elegant Ceremony for the Deceased in Thay’s tradition at Cloud Cottage in North Carolina. Next week our Sangha will plant a weeping willow in honor of Jesse. Yet the cranes have touched us most. The care and cherishing in every fold of each colorful bird speak of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The birds on the blanket look like they’re having a party!

This issue of the Mindfulness Bell is like that blanket — a Dharma party. These pages are the blanket: the expression of the practice of our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, of our blood and spiritual ancestors, and the skill and love of our editor, Janelle Combelic. Each story, poem, letter, and prayer is like one hopeful paper crane. Each crane is distinct, yet each is the same as the others. Tears fell on the origami paper as we folded together. And from our suffering fly the wings of peace.

Paper crane-making for those who are sick, dying, or have died springs directly from the suffering of World War II after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, and the little girl Sadako who touched hearts around the world with her suffering. So, too, in the stories of this issue the wars and tribulations of life are present. Every story, poem, and image tells us transformation is possible — that through our precepts, concentration, and insight, we can gently invite ourselves back to the present moment, this wonderful moment. In February, our son passed away. This spring the forsythia shines brighter than any spring before.

Sister Annabel Laity wrote us a letter to help prevent us from drowning in our grief after Jesse’s passing. She invited us to touch and learn to liberate the anguish of our ancestors who lost their sons in wars and other sudden, tragic ways. She wrote, “I have confidence you can transform this grief into a beautiful flower, and that your son lives on in the fruits of transformation that you realize.”

From out of our season of sorrow and wonder, Philip and I offer you crocus buds of gratitude, dear Thay, dear Sister, dear Sangha.

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace
Associate Editor

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Vesak — and More — in Vietnam

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In May 2008 Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha made a third voyage to Vietnam, this time for a historic occasion: the United Nations Day of Vesak. This was the first time this biannual gathering of the world’s Buddhists was held in Vietnam. As the official U.N. report stated, “Thich Nhat Hanh and his delegation contributed an important spiritual energy to the UNDV events with three retreats offered in Vietnam in the weeks leading up to the UNDV conference. They held two retreats for young people, attended by over 3500 people with a thousand who took refuge in the Three Jewels and Five Mindfulness Trainings… A retreat for Westerners had over 400 participants from forty-one nations. A busy city hotel was transformed into a peaceful monastery … demonstrating the transformative and healing nature of the Dharma.”

Inspired by Thay and his Engaged Buddhism, the three-day conference that followed the celebrations focused on “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.” It featured presentations by dozens of teachers and practitioners, including many disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh, who gave the principal keynote address.

In addition to Thay’s Dharma talk from the Hanoi retreat, we offer a couple of essays about the events, along with an interview of Thay Phap Kham, one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s senior monks from Plum Village who now lives primarily in Vietnam. The next issue of the Mindfulness Bell will feature more articles about the UNDV, including some of the presentations from the conference.

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Report of the United Nations Day of Vesak 2008

National Convention Center, Hanoi, Vietnam May 13-17, 2008

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Vietnam hosted the Fifth United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations 2008 (UNDV 2008) entitled “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society,” with great joy. Over six hundred Buddhist delegations consisting of about five thousand Buddhist monastics and laypeople from seventy-four countries came to find, in the spirit of compassion and wisdom, the solutions to pressing world issues.

Dressed in many-colored Buddhist temple robes — brown, gray, orange, red, and yellow — the delegates who assembled to open the three-day celebration represented many traditions and lineages. They offered a moment of silent prayer for victims of recent natural disasters in Myanmar and China, followed by an opening address by Prof. Le Manh That, Vice President of Vietnam Buddhist University and Chairman of the International Organizing Committee for UNDV 2008. His Holiness Thich Pho Tue, Supreme Patriarch of Vietnam Buddhist Sangha offered a congratulatory message, followed by a welcoming address by Mr. Nguyen Minh Triet, President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Keynote speaker Ven. Mathieu Ricard stressed the importance of first transforming ourselves if we want a wiser and more compassionate society. He said that cultivating our mind is the best service we can do for society. Keynote speaker Most Ven. Prof. Dharmakosajarn shared that the goals of the UN are similar to the goals of Buddhism in the search to attain peace and security in the world and establish conditions of respect for international law and human rights.

The important keynote speaker was Zen master, Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. He urged delegates to commit themselves to not only support building a just, democratic, and civilized society in theory, but also in practice. “We have to change ourselves before we can make the change happen in our society. Being peace is the foundation of making peace. Without transformation and healing we are not calm and compassionate enough to use loving speech and deep listening, and our efforts will not help change our society.”

Cultural Activities

Cultural highlights of the UNDV celebrations included a Buddhist art and photo exhibition, as well as special processions of lights and decorated floats. On May 14 a spectacular candle-lit procession started the evening performance, which included a Vietnamese fan dance, traditional drumming, and musical offerings. On the evening of May 15 a rich and moving theatrical performance on the life of Buddha was portrayed in Vietnamese opera style. Cultural activities were organized not only in Hanoi but also in fifty-five cities and provinces.

The final evening, after the closing ceremony, there was a candlelight vigil praying for World Peace with thousands of people. Sanghas throughout the nation of Vietnam and around the world were asked to join in a simultaneous prayer vigil.

Panel Workshops

The heart of the conference was seven workshops, each of them with three panels, one in the morning and two in the afternoon. Buddhists from around the world  shared their practices, teachings, experiences and research on the topics related to the conference theme, followed by question-and-answer periods.

War, Conflict and Healing: A Buddhist Perspective

The international gathering investigated the causes of war, conflict and disharmony among different cultures, nations and religions, and tried through the light of Buddhist doctrines to find solutions. With twenty-two presenters, many coming themselves from recently war-torn areas like Israel and Palestine and Northern Ireland, they concluded that for society to be healthy the individual must be healthy. To do this, we should practice non-attachment to views. When we go into regions of conflict we see that suffering is experienced on all sides. But we have difficulty acknowledging that the suffering of “the other” is the same as our own. Buddha’s teachings help us recognize this. We need to look deeply into the roots of our own suffering and develop the capacity to also see the suffering of others. If we look deeply, hope is possible.

Social Justice

In the Social Justice Panel, presenters shared that the way to peace and justice lies in peaceful personal and collective action. We heard examples of the practice of mindfulness applied to the training of police officers and lawyers, as well as in mediating and resolving community disputes, and the negotiations between an international corporation and indigenous tribes.

In assuring social justice, we must acknowledge our interconnectedness. Buddhist ethics, grounded in this understanding of interconnectedness, play an important role in the development of a just society. On a personal level, the application of mindful, deep listening and peaceful, loving speech in a context of social action can support and promote the transformation of the society.

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Engaged Buddhism & Development

This panel emphasized that development must not only be defined as economic growth and material prosperity but also as the growth of happiness and peace in society. Many societies that are so-called ‘developed’ have high rates of crime, depression, suicide, family breakdown, and deep unhappiness, brought about precisely by the materialism and drive to consume that is the mark of our current definition of ‘developed’ societies. Specific examples of efforts to engage in development work integrating the Dharma included a plea for support for the efforts of Sanghabuilding in Africa.

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Care for Environment: Buddhist Response to Climate  Change

The panel recommended that the Buddhist world prepare itself for climate change and promote more education about the issue. It also asked both lay people and monastics to set an example and that Earth Day be recognized and honored in the world.

Family Problems and the Buddhist Response

Many local Vietnamese delegates attended this panel. Everyone was very moved and inspired by the concrete, practical sharing of how to resolve conflicts, the importance of deep listening and loving speech, and the role of mindful breathing in creating deep transformation in ourselves, families, and society. The central message was the important role of the Five Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in healing family problems and preventing them in the first place. The sharings were personal while remaining very relevant, and at times the audience was moved to tears. There was a real cross-cultural dialogue and experience of deepening understanding across many different barriers of language, culture, and generations.

Symposium on Buddhist Education: Continuity and Progress

The thirteen presenters at this workshop spoke of the important role that Buddhist teaching and practice can play at all levels of learning, from grade school to university, serving as a stabilizing and transformative force of wisdom for the individual and collective consciousness. The continued growth and maintenance of these centers of teaching is critical to the well-being of people within these societies as well as in relationships with other nations. There is a growing interest in Western countries to integrate Buddhist teachings into the very foundation of education in schools, from primary level to university programs.

Buddhism in the Digital Age: Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative

The panel presentations discussed many ways that Buddhist texts, art, culture, artifacts and temples can be detected, preserved, and shared using various digital technologies. The panel subjects were divided into three general categories: digitalization and preservation of historical sites; preservation of texts through digital media; and the location and mapping (via technology such as Google Earth) of Buddhist sites.

Conclusion

We would like to thank all Venerables and delegates from ninety different countries for your participation at this Fifth UNDV conference.

You are invited to attend upcoming international Buddhist events including the 2nd World Buddhist Forum in August 2008, the Fifth World Buddhist Summit in Japan in November 2008, General Conference of the International Association of Buddhist Universities, Bangkok, Thailand, 2008, the activities of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) and Inner Trip Reiyukai International (ITRI), and especially we hope you will come join us for the Sixth World Buddhist Summit in Vietnam in 2010.

This report, edited here for length, was a collaborative effort of Dr. Manpreet Singh, Sr. Thong Niem, Sr. Chau Nghiem, Sr. Nhu Nghiem, Ven. Thich Nhat Tu, Avi Magidoff, Karen Hilsberg, Loan Phan, Sita Ramamurthy, Sally Tinker, Carmen Kuchera, Kate Ettinger, David Haskin and other lay practitioners who reported on the different workshops at the Vesak conference. Also see http://vesakday2008.com.

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The Sangha Carries Everything

An Interview with Anh-Huong Nguyen

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Anh-Huong Nguyen has been practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh for more than thirty years. She has led mindfulness retreats in the United States since 1988, and in 1992 was among the first students to be ordained as meditation teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh. She and her husband, Thu Nguyen, founded the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia, in 1998. The center offers sessions of mindfulness training and practice in a nonsectarian way. MPCF (www.mpcf. org) is located in the beautiful, secluded setting of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, Virginia.

In a phone interview with Natascha Bruckner for the Mindfulness Bell in September 2013, Anh-Huong shared these stirring Dharma teachings in a gentle but passionate voice.

The Mindfulness Bell: You’ve been practicing for many years in the Plum Village tradition. I’m curious to know how you started, especially how you first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh and what effect his teachings had on your life then.

Anh-Huong: I met Thay long ago, when I was still in my mom’s belly. My mom and dad came to Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon to say goodbye to Thay when he left Vietnam the first time, on a fellowship to study comparative religion at Princeton University. It was in the summer of 1961, when I had been in my mommy’s tummy for seven months.

When I was ten, while sitting in our living room, I picked up the book Hoa Sen Trong Bien Lua (Lotus in a Sea of Fire). On the back was a photograph of Thay pouring tea from a teapot. I felt very drawn to the photograph, so I looked at it for ten or fifteen minutes.

MB: What did you receive from the photograph? It sounds as if a transmission was happening.

AH: It’s hard to describe. I felt a sense of warmth and peace inside. I felt happy just looking at the photograph. It reminds me of Thay’s story about looking at the drawing of a Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine when he was a boy.

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MB: When did you meet Thay in person?

AH: Our family escaped Vietnam in a small boat on February 14, 1979. We almost lost our lives several times on the sea because of high waves. We were moved around to several locations and finally settled in a big refugee camp on Pulau Bidong Island in Malaysia. Our family––my parents, my two younger sisters, and my younger brother––flew to Philadelphia on December 13, 1979. We were sponsored by a Catholic church and settled in Audubon, New Jersey.

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About six months after that, I met Thay. I still vividly remember him giving me my first lesson on mindful breathing. He said, “Lie down, my child. Put your hands on your belly, and breathe.” That’s all! Not even, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

I put my hands on my belly and began to feel my breath. My family was Buddhist. We prayed and chanted at home. Occasionally we went to the temple. But this was the first time I received direct teaching from a Buddhist monk. I found my breath. I was aware that something very important had just happened to me. The first lesson on mindful breathing stayed with me and sustained me from that point on.

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We all studied hard in school. After high school, I went to Rutgers University. I had learned English when I was in Vietnam but it was still hard to understand and to speak. So when I began at Rutgers, I took a tape recorder with me and recorded some of the lectures. I listened to them again at home and if there were things I did not understand, I would be the first student waiting to ask the professor for clarification. I was very enthusiastic. I wanted to learn and to do well because in my heart, I wanted to go back to Vietnam and other places in the world to help in any way I could.

But, after the first exam during my first year, I lost interest in studying. I looked at the textbook but nothing would sink in. Only in recent years, I realized that I had been in depression. I missed home so much; I missed my friends. And I knew that the suffering was still going on in my homeland.

In my heart there was an urgency to do something to help. I could not go back to Vietnam or to the refugee camp. I felt helpless and paralyzed. Despair built up inside me. But I still had to study. My parents were working hard to support us so we could focus on our studies. As the eldest, I had to set a good example for my younger sisters and brother. But my heart and my mind were still in Vietnam, which pulled me away from my desire to study. As I say these words, I have so much compassion for this nineteen-year-old girl in me.

A True Rebirth

MB: What got you through that time?

AH: Mindful breathing and writing letters to Thay and Sister Chan Khong. Sister Chan Khong shared with me how she sent packages to poor families in Vietnam, so I started doing that. I sent packages to the families of some of my friends, especially those whose parents were put into reeducation camps because they worked for the old government.

Thay wrote to me and gave me an assignment. He said, “Write down all your conditions for happiness, all the things that you still have.” I started writing, and to my surprise, I ran out of paper. I was learning not to be so caught up in what I couldn’t do for the people in Vietnam and in the refugee camp. I cried and cried. Tears of awakening. Even before I finished the assignment, transformation already happened inside of me. I felt more present, peaceful, and happy. In fact, that assignment is not to be finished.

So I continued going to school and sending letters and packages to poor families in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong taught me to use different names when sending the packages, so the communists wouldn’t question why one person was sending so many packages to so many families. I would use the family name as the sender, as if I were a member of that family.

In my letters, I tried to water the good seeds in them and encourage and comfort them. I shared about my life in the U.S., both the challenges and the beauty of what I encountered. Sometimes I wrote in the voice of a woman who was twenty years older than me, sometimes in the voice of a younger sister or brother. This work and mindfulness practice made it possible for me to have the balance I needed in order to continue my studies.

Sometimes when a big wave of despair suddenly came upon me, I could not go to class. It happened less and less as time went on. But when it did, I would choose to miss the lecture and walk through the campus. I did not know that I was doing walking meditation, but I was breathing and walking. I felt more relaxed, solid, and calm walking among the trees and flowers on the campus grounds. Then I would go to the next class.

The teaching on mindful breathing that was transmitted to me nourished and sustained me each day. I was told that Thay and Sister Chan Khong fasted one or two evenings a week because they wanted to remember the hungry children in Vietnam. I also decided to skip one meal each week. Small things like that helped me stay connected with those who were less fortunate and keep my heart warm.

We had survived the perilous trip by boat. It was a miracle that our family of six could make it to the States, to this “land of freedom,” in my dad’s words. My parents said that they would sacrifice everything in order to free their children from the communist regime. But the transmission I received from Thay and Sister Chan Khong was the most precious gift of all. It opened my eyes and my heart. I was reborn.

I was happy and grateful to be reborn. My deepest wish is to share this happiness with others. What happened to me when I was at Rutgers was a true rebirth. And since then, I have been born again and again. Each day, I continue to receive transmission from Thay and Sister Chan Khong, and I continue to pass it on to family and friends.

Sharing with Others

MB: I’m curious how you have shared that with others. Have you helped people to experience that kind of rebirth?

AH: My desire to share this practice springs from a deep well of gratitude. I share through Sangha building; the Sangha is the place through which I can share all of my life experiences.

My story from Rutgers is about maintaining a balance between being present with the pain arising in you, and at the same time embracing the joy of being alive. When our deepest desire is to understand the suffering that is there, mindfulness practice is not hard work. Each breath or each step taken in mindfulness is a pure delight. It is in the places where there is suffering that the practice of mindfulness becomes clear and alive––whether it is the practice of cultivating joy or transforming suffering. True healing and transformation cannot happen without insights. When we practice together as a Sangha, the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration is steady and strong, which becomes fertile soil for the ripening of seeds of insights.

The Sangha helps us to be present with our pain and to nourish joy and happiness in a way that no one individual can. We may learn how to breathe, walk, release tension in our bodies and minds, how to cultivate joy, and how to be there for a painful feeling. But sometimes our mindfulness is not strong enough to hold the pain that arises in us. We need to lay this pain inside the Sangha’s cradle, so that it can be held by the collective mindfulness and concentration.

When I was in New Jersey, I did not have a local Sangha to practice with. Although Thay and Sister Chan Khong were in Plum Village, I felt their presence in me. I was nourished and sustained each day by the teachings that they had transmitted to me. The trees and the birds and my friends at school were also part of my Sangha.

We need a Sangha in order to practice. Sangha is our refuge. Our pain is not only individual pain, but also ancestral pain, collective pain. Without a Sangha, it’s very difficult to embrace and transform this pain alone. And when we talk about building Sangha, we talk about building brotherhood and sisterhood.

MB: What does building brotherhood and sisterhood mean to you?

AH: Brotherhood and sisterhood are the substance of a true Sangha. When we can listen deeply to the stories of our Sangha brothers and sisters, we may be able to hear their ancestors and ourselves at the same time. Their stories are never theirs alone. The joy and pain that we share in the Sangha are held by the entire Sangha. When the discrimination between my pain and others’ pain is not there, the false separation between me and others disappears. Struggles that are shared in the Sangha circle can help us touch the pain that lies deep within, and our hearts may feel tender for the first time.

When I take care of a brother or sister in the Sangha, I take care of myself. When my Dharma sister or brother is in pain, I want to be there for the pain. It’s not my obligation as a Dharma teacher or a senior member of the Sangha. Building brotherhood and sisterhood, taking care of the Sangha, is taking care of myself. It’s taking care of my mother, my sister, my family. It’s natural. I see myself as a small segment of a long bamboo, and the ancestral teachers’ wisdom and compassion flow through the entire bamboo. The energy that runs through me and allows me to serve the Sangha is not really mine. My practice is to keep my segment hollow so that water from the source can pass through easily.

MB: To follow up on what you shared before––are you still sending packages to Vietnam, or are you currently engaged in supporting people there?

AH: I stopped sending packages to Vietnam after I was allowed to visit when the Vietnamese government loosened their travel policy. I visited the orphanages and the poor families. Now instead of sending packages, I send money. With the help of a number of friends, we started a non-profit organization, Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam. People can send money to us, and twice a year we send it on to Vietnam to support several projects. You can learn more about the work we’re doing at www.crpcv.org. This work sustains me and sustains our Sangha. One member of our Sangha often brings vegetables from her garden to share, and the dana she receives goes to help the poor children in Vietnam.

MB: What helps you to sustain a connection with Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and the teachings?

AH: What sustains my connection with Thay and Sister Chan Khong as well as the Buddha and the Dharma is Sangha building. We are like trees that grow in the Sangha soil. Without the Sangha, we cannot grow beautifully and strongly. For me, the Sangha is everything. When I sit with my Dharma brothers and sisters, sharing stories, I feel all of our spiritual and blood ancestors are present with us. Whenever I take a walk or give a talk, Thay and my Sangha and all of my ancestral teachers are always with me.

MB: So there’s no reason to feel alone.

AH: I’ve never felt alone. Even in the most challenging times in our family and in the Sangha, I deeply trust that everything will be all right. We just need to allow ourselves to be carried in the stream of our ancestral teachers. I do not have to make any decisions or solve any problems alone. Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and all of our ancestors are doing everything with us. The Sangha is like a float. When we left Vietnam, my dad hung tires around our small boat. If he hadn’t done that, the boat would have sunk immediately as soon as we encountered high waves. For me, the Sangha is like those tires; it keeps us afloat.

The Sangha is a body. Some of us happen to be the head, some happen to be the belly, and some to be the feet. We are different parts of that body. A Dharma teacher is often perceived as Sangha leader, which can be a misperception. A Dharma teacher may belong to the head part of the Sangha body, but he or she does not have to be the leader. I or we do take care of the Sangha. But believing in the idea that there is an “I” or “we” who take care of the Sangha may take away the joy, freedom, and happiness of Sangha building. There’s taking care of the Sangha, but there’s no one who’s taking care of the Sangha.

MB: If someone has that perception of “I am taking care,” or “we are taking care of the Sangha,” how do you suggest that people work with that perception to open their minds?

AH: We are so conditioned to living, practicing, and helping in that way. When we walk in the mist, our shirt gradually gets wet. If there is one person in the Sangha who serves the Sangha without thinking that “I am taking care of the Sangha,” that spirit will penetrate into the entire Sangha. Building Sangha in the light of interbeing can bring us endless joy and freedom. People often say, “Oh, you’re an OI member, you have these responsibilities. You have to build Sangha. You have to do this and that.” Or, “As a Dharma teacher, you take on a lot more responsibility.” But I don’t feel that way because I never thought of myself as a Dharma teacher. [Laughs.]

Receiving Lamp Transmission from Thay or entering the core community of the Order of Interbeing can only help us feel more free and happy, because we are now entering the stream of our ancestral teachers. We should not let the “brown jacket” or the title “Dharma teacher” get in the way! If you’re happy, you are already a true Sangha builder. Responsibility is a wholesome trait, but when it is mixed with the notion, “I have to carry it,” then it becomes a burden, a source of unhappiness. We don’t have to carry anything. The Sangha carries everything.

Embracing Our Pain

The message I’d like to repeat is: Don’t run away from the pain, sadness, or depression in you. Sometimes there’s a voice inside saying that if you go back to your pain, you will die. This voice may tell you not to trust the Sangha, and that this practice can only take you thus far. I name this destructive energy “ill will,” which is present in each of us. It prevents us from taking deep root into the Sangha soil. It threatens and prevents us from opening our hearts to our Sangha. It instills us with fear and doubts. We don’t need to argue with or listen to this voice. You know the mantra I’ve been sharing with my friends in the Sangha? If you hear this voice, take a few deep breaths and practice this mantra: “Okay. I will die. I accept dying. If I die in the Sangha’s arms, that’s the best place to die. If I die in the Buddha’s arms, what could be a better place to die?”

mb65-TheSangha7Regardless of what happens, we are committed to showing up at our Sangha. I have a Dharma brother who carries deep suffering and old traumas. In the past, he didn’t come to Sangha when emotions arose because he wasn’t able to drive. Now, when that happens, he can take a taxi to Sangha. He shows up. Sometimes when old trauma returns, we suddenly do not feel safe coming to the Sangha. I suggest to him pinning a note on his shirt, saying, “Dear Sangha, I need your support so that I may rest in the Sangha today,” when he comes and lies down in the Sangha.

At the end of the day, when we are tired, we go home and rest. We can lie in bed, relax, and drop all our self-images. I wish that my brothers and sisters can find that same rest, that same comfort in their Sangha. Sangha has to be a place where people can feel safe so that they can close their eyes, relax, and enjoy their breathing. When Sangha becomes a safe place, we’re not just talking about being cells in the Sangha body, we’re living it. Brotherhood and sisterhood come alive when we go through difficult as well as happy moments together. Sangha practice weaves threads of individual practitioners into a Sangha blanket, keeping everyone warm and comfortable.

That’s why Thu quit his job as a software developer and I quit my job as a biochemistry researcher, so that we could devote our lives to Sangha building. During the first year of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, there were many days that the dana basket was empty. We lived on our savings. Our son Bao-Tich, who is now twenty, was still in kindergarten at the time. We wondered how the future of the MPCF would unfold. Many moments, we looked at each other and smiled, then looked up at Thay’s calligraphy on our altar: An Tru Trong Hien Tai (which means “Dwelling happily in the present moment”). We left it all in the hands of our ancestors and of the Sangha. We continued to share our lives and practice with friends near and far. We are happy.

Engaged Buddhism

MB: How do you define “engaged Buddhism,” and how do you practice it?

AH: Engaged Buddhism begins with being there for our pain. Not only our individual pain, but also our collective pain. We learn safe and gentle ways to pick up that baby of pain, to hold and soothe that baby with mindfulness. When our son was born, even though my mom had taught me how to hold him, and I had seen mothers holding their babies, I had to feel my way through. You have to hold the baby in your arms to bring alive that experience, not just intellectual understanding. With mindfulness and concentration, both mother and baby will be safe, comfortable, and happy.

For me, engaged Buddhism is like water. Water has no shape. When we put water in a square container, it takes on a square shape; in a round one, it has a round shape. The mindfulness practice center comes out of Thay’s brilliant idea to share the practice of mindfulness in a nonsectarian way. The Dharma takes no form, or any form. We would like to make the capital “B” of Buddhism into a small “b.” We do not need to have Buddha statues or burn incense. We do not need to bow to each other or use Buddhist terms. We learn to be present to the situation at hand and share the Dharma in a way that can help people feel safe, so that they can release tensions from their bodies and minds.

This explains why a Day of Mindfulness at MPCF begins with total body relaxation. People are so stressed. Guided meditation that is offered in the lying down position helps people to stop and connect with their bodies easily, especially for those who are new to mindfulness practice. Their minds become quiet and their hearts open. When we can be truly present, a new Dharma door will be open for that particular situation. So the format at MPCF comes from the needs of those who attend, not from us who facilitate.

Thay’s dream is to see a mindfulness practice center in every town and city. I have an image of mushrooms––centers sprouting up everywhere. Many Sangha brothers and sisters have already brought mindfulness into schools, prisons, and other places, without Buddhist form.

Once we are able to cradle the pain in our own hearts, understanding and compassion will guide us in every step along the path.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Natascha Bruckner

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The Buddha’s Medicine

By Larry Ward

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Many of us understand the Buddha as a doctor who shared and continues to offer his medicine of the teachings and practice to us. This great offering is to help us in healing and transforming our individual and collective suffering. One can say the medicine of Buddhism is truly deep and lovely. It is the medicine of waking up the good within our hearts and minds.

Something today is different. And I’m kind of slow so it takes me a while to figure things out. What I finally realized is that for thousands of years the question of salvation has been “What must I do to be saved?” This is the central question of our spiritual traditions. But you and I live in the first moment in history in which this question is now expanded to “What must we do to be saved?” And by “we” I mean the whole planet. I mean every person, every race, every tribe, every nation, every organization and wholesome spiritual tradition. I am aware that this is a challenging way to describe the salvation question. However, it does not leave behind the question of individual liberation but dares us to remember our deep Bodhisattva vows.

It is not only humans and institutions who are asking this question of salvation. The snow-capped mountains and the deep blue oceans are asking the question. The trees and the land itself are calling to us: “What must we do to be saved?”

Opening Dharma Doors

We have been experimenting in the Plum Village Sangha with ways of opening Dharma doors in response to this question. I want to name a few of the doors for you so that you might get a fresh idea on a door you might open where you practice, where you live, and where you serve the Dharma.

Recently I was involved in leading a retreat for an organization in Canada that is committed to working with AIDS in Africa. The retreat was designed to help those involved in the aid work to be nourished and not to burn out or to be overwhelmed by the grief they experience every single day that they give their lives to the service of the children and the women and the men suffering from AIDS.

A few years ago we had a wonderful retreat for individuals involved in law enforcement and criminal justice — police officers, lawyers, parole officers, and social workers. We engaged that group of people in exploring what it means to be a Bodhisattva, what it means to engage mindfully in their work in the world. We offered the Five Mindfulness Trainings to many who desired to practice them in the context of their daily life and work.

I can tell you that the retreat, which was attended by several hundred people, was a transformational experience. I am sure that the communities and institutions they went back to serve found that the quality of kindness and thoughtfulness and compassion had been nourished and grown.

We’ve offered a retreat for individuals connected to the entertainment industry — filmmakers, artists, writers, and poets. It was held at Deer Park Monastery in Southern California, not far from Hollywood.

In the fall of last year we participated in a conference for people who are therapists and psychiatrists, called Mindfulness in Psychotherapy; 1800 people showed up at UCLA. Their capacity to embody mindfulness while they care for and serve their clients increased in wholesome ways.

We now offer annual family retreats for couples and for families with children. Young people are getting together for camps — songs, art, poetry, yoga, and meditation practice; this is a very successful annual gathering of young people. Students have had special retreats designed to introduce them to the benefits and principles of mindfulness practice.

Over the last few years we have offered “people of color” retreats in the United States for minorities to support these individuals and groups in the practice of mindfulness. This effort is enabling the teachings to go with people back to the neighborhoods, communities, and local institutions. I can report to you that there are schools in the United States where the classroom morning begins with the sound of the bell. I can report to you that there are young people in difficult situations who come to class and enjoy meditation and the tea ceremony.

Thay has already mentioned the work at Plum Village with Palestinians and Israelis, but you should also know that many of our colleagues are creating special initiatives on their own that are taking place every week, every day, to build peace and to foster reconciliation.

We have had gatherings of business people to talk about mindfulness and ethics and what it means to be a business person who practices mindfully. This includes mindfully developing products and mindfully managing their profit. The Buddha did not complain about business people, the Buddha only wanted to make sure that we made money the right way, without causing suffering, and that when we made it, we spent it the right way, without causing suffering.

We’ve had veterans’ retreats in the United States, for many years offered by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. You may have already encountered the tremendous transformation and healing of some of the veterans of many wars, including the Vietnam War.

What We Are Learning

What we are learning through the process of offering so many different kinds of retreats and mindfulness days to so many different people and professions is three-fold. First, the post-modern mind or soul is seeking an experience of transformation and healing more than an explanation of transformation and healing. If an explanation comes along after I’m healed, or while I’m getting healed, it’s deeply appreciated.

The second thing we are learning is that offering the medicine of our tradition is not a matter of conversion. It is not a question of religious roots but rather a question of generating authentic aspiration. This is a matter of offering the Buddhist teaching with clarity and practical relevance through humble sincerity.

The third aspect is that this way of transmitting the teachings is about application and translation. Depth scholarship is certainly important but we must find new ways it can be applied to the suffering that is pervasive in our time and space. This is crucial if we are to untie the internal and social knots that block us from our best selves and best societies.

Seeds of a New Society

So the true value of the teaching is not trapped in the form of its delivery. Skillful means is one of the fundamental teachings the Buddha has given us to help living beings to relieve their suffering. The practices that we have been given by the Buddha and all of our teachers after him can be applied in every kind of situation — if we apply them without attachment to form.

In the midst of these very concrete retreats and mindfulness days we have found that sometimes the Dharma Gates of Liberation open wide. While sharing the practices of sitting, walking, eating meditation, deep relaxation, Dharma talks and discussion, deep listening, and loving speech, people find themselves not only healed but transformed.

If you look and listen closely, you will see that we are in the midst of a new kind of society. But the kind of society that you and I would be happy living in, and most people I know on this planet would be happy living in, is not yet here. The seeds of it are here. However, the new society that is just, democratic, and civilized can only take place on the ground of a new spiritual sensibility. And, brothers and sisters, we are that ground — the ground of that fresh spiritual sensibility of the post-modern age.

You may ask where the Buddha is in all of this. Master Lin Chi reminds us that the Buddha is not a statue. Other ancestral teachers remind us if we are going to find the Buddha we should look close, close to where we are, close to our heart, close to our own mind, or we will not find him, or we will not find her.

In closing I offer you a poem from this week’s experience:

We engage through our love,
opening 10,000 Dharma Doors
with a true mind and a true heart.
What do we call this urgency, this Buddhism?
It matters not.

The sun rises and the moon shines without confusion.
Listen to the frogs — do they remind you of anyone?
The bamboo chimes dance in the wind without clinging.
Our chants sing out beauty
like the birds greeting the morning sun.

We are here to be engaged, to remember the promise
we made, many lifetimes ago,
the promise not to leave anyone behind,
the promise not to ignore the suffering of any being.
The promise to remember our noble calling —
It has not changed.
It is still: Wake up, wake up, wake up.

Larry Ward is a Dharma Teacher in the Order of Interbeing and he is currently pursuing a doctorate in Religious Studies (Buddhism) from Claremont Graduate University in California. He is co-author with Peggy Rowe-Ward of  Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships (Parallax Press, 2008).

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Sangha News

Buddhist Institute Opens in Germany

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The European Institute of Applied Buddhism was opened in September 2008 in Waldbröl, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. Thay’s first visit to the EIAB after it had been acquired by the Unified Buddhist Church was during the second week of September 2008. During this visit some monks and nuns came to stay in the building. There was no heat or hot water, and since the building had been uninhabited for two years, there was a great deal of cleaning to be done. The Mayor of Waldbröl kindly offered the services of the town to clear up the grounds before an important press conference presided over by Thay.

The building was constructed in 1897. It was founded by a local philanthropist, a pastor and doctor from Cologne, Dr. Hollenberg, and three other doctors, for the treatment of the mentally ill whose families were too poor to pay for their treatment. Dr. Hollenberg was responsible for other philanthropic works in the town of Waldbröl and is remembered on the ancestral altar in the Institute. On 14 November 1938, 700 people were removed from Waldbröl, including some from this hospital; they were taken to unknown locations where their fate was uncertain.

Many were put to death by injection or sterilized by the Nazi regime. The hospital was turned into one of Hitler’s recreational centres. Since the fall of the Nazi regime the building has been a hospital and then a NATO military academy. The legacy of this building is one of philanthropy and compassion as well as ignorance and suffering.

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House of Transformation

The large building consists of 400 rooms on four floors. In September Thay visited each of these rooms and sprinkled each with consecrated water. He was accompanied by a number of monks and nuns who chanted the name of Avalokiteshvara. It took four hours to complete this ceremony. The aim of this visit was to begin the process of healing that the monastic residents of the Institute have been doing their best to continue ever since. Interestingly enough the house was called House of Transformation when it was a military academy and we are happy to keep that name. Our daily practice is to take every step in mindfulness and offer up the energy to heal the suffering that has happened here. The stairs are made of marble as is the main corridor of the ground floor. It seems strange for monks and nuns to be living in such luxurious surroundings but we know that the laying of these marble floors cost much sweat and hardship for many people and our steps respond with compassion to this.

mb50-SanghaNews3Thay visited us again in November and wrote a letter to be read to those who suffered here. This letter is read aloud every day before the sitting meditation and during the offering ceremony to the wandering spirits. [See sidebar page 42.] This offering ceremony is performed daily by the monks and nuns in residence. Its purpose is to give rise to compassion that is able to heal the legacy of suffering in this building that has still not been wholly transformed. Please be assured that we are very happy to play a part in doing this work of transformation and are grateful to have this privilege.

One day when we were gathered to sing before walking meditation in the grounds of the Institute Thay told us that we do not need to avoid hardship and difficulties. These things can be causes and conditions for us to solidify our practice of mindfulness, understanding, and compassion. They give us the motivation to take refuge in each other and do what Martin Luther King most wanted, build the Beloved Community.

In the town of Waldbröl we have the support of the Mayor and his deputy. We also have the support of the Catholic priest and Protestant pastor, who have invited the monks and nuns to their churches to speak to their congrega-tions. The county construction committee has the duty to make sure that we bring the building up to date with the latest safety regulations. It seems that the military did not need to fulfill these require-ments and so we have a great deal of expensive work to complete. Until this work is completed we are not allowed to receive overnight guests in the building. Fortunately right next to us is a school for conscientious objectors who are training in voluntary service and this school has beds for rent on the weekends. This means that we can organise weekend retreats.

Traveling With a Bag Full of Moon

When Thay visited us in November, many monks and nuns also came. They drove from Plum Village, stopping overnight in the Paris meditation centre La Maison de l’Inspir. Once everyone was here Thay led us on a wonderful walk around the grounds of the Institute. This included the beautiful apple orchard on a hill with wide views and the local park just below the front of the Institute. Thay pointed out that the feng shui of the building is good, with the high mountains lying behind and the valley in front. We were delighted to find three bushes still in fragrant flower amidst the falling golden leaves.

The next morning the full moon was in the early-morning sky and a bell at 5:30 invited us to full moon meditation. There is a court at the top of the steps that is the perfect place to see the full moon. At first the sky was clear and we saw that bright reflection of the sun’s light. Then clouds came and we saw the moon go into her room but the radiance still came through its walls. In freedom she came in and out of the clouds. After twenty minutes outside we came into the building and sat in the hall where Thay had given the press conference in September. We watched the moon through the large windows. Then Thay spoke about poems describing the moon. We heard an explanation of the Vietnamese expression, “traveling with a bag full of moon.” This refers to someone like Thay Giac Thanh who needed few material things because he had plenty of freedom to enjoy the wonderful and beautiful things in life.

On the weekend a public talk and Day of Mindfulness were given for the people of Waldbröl. For this the auditorium of the neighbouring hospital was rented. Over three hundred people attended, including Sangha friends from Holland.

Thay gave warm and inclusive teachings on mindfulness and  the non-sectarian nature of Buddhist practice. The mindfulness day began at 5:30 with walking meditation to the auditorium while it was still dark. This was followed by sitting meditation, breakfast, and then a Dharma talk on the Four Mantras and how we can deal with our angry feelings. We had walking meditation in the park below the Institute and sat for a while together.

Future Retreats

We are now practicing the three-month winter retreat. Our doors are open for the local people to come and join us for walking and sitting meditation as well as two mindfulness days every week. We have an overnight retreat at the end of each month and go to the library to lead a two-hour session in basic mindfulness every week. Local people express their appreciation of the peace and joy they feel when they are with us.

After the winter retreat we shall be organising more retreats. The Dutch Sanghas have already asked to organise a retreat for them on Buddhist psychology at the Institute.

Please let us know if you would like a retreat for your Sangha. Our e-mail address is eiabmcampus@gmail.com. And our temporary website is www.eiab-maincampus.org.

—Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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For the 700 people taken from their home on 14 Nov. 1938

Dear friends, dear children,

Seventy years ago, you were treated badly. They took you from your home and forced you into camps, they sterilized you so that you wouldn’t have a continuation, and they killed many of you through euthanasia. The  was enormous. Not many people were aware of what was happening to you. You have suffered from that time on.

Now the Sangha has come, the Sangha has heard and understood your suffering and the injustice you endured. The Sangha has practiced mindful walking, sitting, breathing, and chanting. The Sangha has asked the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Patriarchs, and other great beings to transfer to you their merits and their freedom, so that you have a chance to be released from ten injustice you suffered and remanifest in beautiful new forms of life. The people who caused your suffering have also suffered a lot. They did not know what they were doing at that time. So please allow compassion and forgiveness to be born in your heart so that they also can have a chance to transform and heal. Please support the Sangha and the next many generations of practitioners so that we can transform these places of suffering into places of transformation and healing, not only for Waldbrol but for the whole country of Germany and the world.

mb50-dividerA Report on the India Trip

The trip was divided into three parts: three nights each in Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, and Rajgir. We traveled in 11 buses with about 300 participants and 30 monastics. The trip was very well organized. Each bus was designated a number and color, and everyone got a cloth bag matching their bus color. Each group stuck together throughout the trip, staying in the same hotel, eating together, and meeting to exchange how the trip was going.

Varanasi

On October 20 we checked into our respective hotels in Varanasi, had lunch there, and went to the Tibetan Institute in Sarnath for a general introduction. The Tibetan Institute served as our home base for three days and is where the monastics stayed. On October 21 we visited the Sarnath Museum and had lunch at the Tibetan Institute. That afternoon Thich Nhat Hanh gave a public talk at Deer Park in Sarnath. Everyone sat in the shade of the Dhamekh Stupa, which commemorates where the Buddha gave his first teachings. Many monks from Sarnath were in attendance. Afterwards Thay led walking meditation around the ruins of the site, lasting long past sunset, so that we were walking much of the time in almost total darkness. The next morning, in 11 rented boats, we watched the sun rise over the Ganga while drifting slowly downstream. Even Thay came for the boat ride! That day we returned to the Tibetan Institute for lunch and for Thay’s lecture to teachers who had been invited from the area.

Bodh Gaya

At 9:00 a.m. on the 23rd we boarded buses for the long ride to Bodh Gaya, where we arrived shortly before dinner. On the 24th we spent the day at the Mahabodhi tree temple for a public Day of Mindfulness, which was accompanied by some official fanfare (many children in uniforms, lots of lotus flowers). Thay gave a public speech attended by quite a number of people, including a large group of female teachers and a large group of monks. The Mahabhodi Society hosted everyone for lunch. Afterwards, Sister Chan Khong offered a session of Deep Relaxation and Touching the Earth. Shantum Seth (who organized the trip) led a tour of the temple grounds. The day ended with a candlelight procession, with the entire group doing walking meditation around the temple at three different levels successively. This was quite moving and beautiful.

On the 25th, we visited Sujata village across the Neranjara river, with a view of the Bodh Gaya temple. Sujata was the young girl who found Siddhartha at the end of his most ascetic phase and offered him food daily. A podium had been prepared under a large bodhi tree, and Thay spoke about Siddhartha’s experiences in the area. We were offered warm Kheer in bowls made of sal leaves. This is what Sujata had to offer Siddhartha on the first day she met him. The Ahimsa foundation (organizing the trip) has bought a plot of land here, where Thay planted four trees. Then we walked through the village, arousing quite a bit of curiosity. We spent time near the large stupa that commemorates Sujata, enjoying the view of mountains and rice fields — much like scenery in Vietnam! Lunch again at the Mahabodhi Society and an afternoon off. Some people visited the various Buddhist temples in Bodh Gaya.

Rajgir

mb50-SanghaNews4On Sunday October 26 we departed Bodh Gaya at 8:00 a.m. headed for Rajgir in a caravan of 11 buses. The route we took was very rough and bumpy. Most of the way we traveled along one-lane dirt roads. The scenery was beautiful. Occasionally we wound through small enclaves of houses, not even villages, really. Children ran towards the buses waving their arms in great excitement, and women stopped their work to stare at the passing parade of buses filled with foreigners. I never figured out why we took this route. Were no larger roads available or convenient? Or did someone decide we should travel along the kind of path which the Buddha would have taken between Bodh Gaya and Rajgir? Probably neither the scenery nor the way of life has changed that much since then.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Rajgir and checked into our “hotels” in a rather strange complex housing a former (and future?) munitions factory. The whole scene was a bit unsettling – many modern buildings, all several stories high and empty, no people in sight anywhere, lots of power lines between us and the view of the mountains. But the three nights we spent there were good ones. Shortly after arriving at the hotel, we headed off to Gridhakuta Mountain. Vulture Peak there was one of the Buddha’s favorite places. He and his main disciples are said to have had huts up there. King Bimbisara, the Buddha’s first wealthy patron, built a path up to Vulture Peak and donated land nearby for the Buddha’s first monastery, Bamboo Grove Monastery. We assembled at the start of this brick path and followed Thay up the mountain. There we watched the sun set, the monastics chanted quietly, and we walked back down in silence.

The next morning we all left at 5:00 for Bamboo Grove. This was a wonderful morning. The park was beautiful, the atmosphere very special. Thay led walking and sitting meditation. After breakfast, we headed to Nalanda University where Thay received an honorary doctorate and gave a speech — perfect speech. He described, among other things, how Buddhism can help restore communication in families and communities. He urged Buddhist scholars not to indulge excessively in intellectual debate. Instead they should make Buddhist teachings simple and applicable to daily life. Only in this way can interest in Buddhism be revived in India, the goal of the Nava Nalanda Mahavira. An elegant buffet lunch was served and then we visited the ruins of the ancient Buddhist site of learning. In the evening those who wished to could return to Bamboo Grove.

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On the next day we departed before dawn for Gridhakuta Mountain. We walked up the brick path in complete darkness, carefully winding around cows lying or standing along the way, for sunrise meditation. Then Thay made some comments on a portable loudspeaker. We are lucky, he said, that we can enjoy the same sunset, the same vegetation, the same landscape as the Buddha did here. We can also look at this all with “Buddha eyes.” Later that morning Thay led the transmission ceremony for the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I had a view of the beautiful setting from above: to the left and right I could see green hills and trees; in the center was a kind of amphitheater formed by huge boulders where the monastics were seated, dressed in their yellow ceremonial robes. Afterwards we were free to spend the whole day up there together as we liked: in silence, in quiet mindful speech, meditating, or exploring about. I talked with friends, napped in the shade of a big rock, picked up some trash.

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Late in the day we assembled again to watch the sunset. A small Japanese group carried out their own ceremony in front of the makeshift “altar” on Vulture peak. Our group just sat in silence. After they had finished taking pictures, we watched the sun set in silence and then walked back down the mountain, also in silence. While descending, Thay turned around several times to look at the departing scenery. One time he turned around and bowed. Later we realized that this was his goodbye. That evening there was an elaborate buffet dinner for Diwali and a musical performance sponsored by the state of Bihar. The next morning buses left in several shifts to Patna, according to when people had flights and trains. After a day-long ride to Patna, we checked into a hotel for one night before our own flight to Frankfurt via Delhi.

Reflections

A few times before and during the trip, I became a bit uncomfortable with the whole idea of a pilgrimage. But repeatedly Thay returned to a theme which addressed exactly this matter: urging us to get in touch with the Buddha inside ourselves. Especially at Bodh Gaya, many people were perfoming loud and elaborate ceremonies, perhaps intended to get them in touch with the Buddha, the Buddha outside of them, the God Buddha. But Thay kept encouraging us to look inwards: to think, speak, breathe, walk, and act mindfully. This is what he always teaches regardless whether the location is southern France, the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, or Buddhist sites in Northern India!

Sangha Mourns the Loss of Peter Kollock

Brother Phap De writes: “It is with deep sadness that I inform you of the death of Peter Kollock, UCLA professor, who was instrumental in developing the very successful College Student Retreats at Deer Park. Those of you who knew and worked with Peter found him to be our brother, friend, and teacher. He was an inspiration to his students and to professors from other universities, who followed his lead in taking the mindfulness practice into many universities.

“Peter was a very skillful and careful motorcycle rider. He had just said good-bye to his wife, Ellen, and, apparently, was on his way from Calabasas to UCLA. According to the police, Peter, was hit by a powerful cross wind, causing him to hit the curb. His body was catapulted into a tree, killing him instantly.

“Please keep Peter in your hearts, sending loving energy to him, Ellen, and family.”

Claire Venghiattis, Great Courage of the Heart, lives in Mannheim, Germany.

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The Plum Village Sangha in India

Autumn 2008

By Sister Chan Khong

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The Plum Village delegation arrived in New Delhi on 24 September 2008, and the next day the delegation met with some Indian journalists. The Ahimsa Trust, organizers of Thay’s tour of India, had arranged for the press conference at the French Embassy. During this meeting the French ambassador, Jerome Bonnafont, launched the release of two new books by the publishing house Full Circle: The Sun My Heart, and Under the Banyan Tree, a book transcribed from teachings given by Thay at the Krishnamurti headquarters in Chennai during Thay’s India trip in 1997.

After the press conference, the big newspapers of New Delhi publicized the teaching tour of Zen Master Nhat Hanh. For many days the television channel NDTV announced the tour schedule; text scrolling across the bottom of the screen indicated details of where Thay would be teaching or doing walking meditation in New Delhi. Thanks to such publicity the people of India knew all about the teaching tour offered by the Plum Village delegation.

A Retreat for Educators

On September 26, the first retreat of the tour began at Doon School, the most famous secondary school in India. Located in the highlands of northern India, the Doon School is one of the wonders of the Uttarakhand state capital city Dehradun, with its rich past and beautiful architecture. Many famous political leaders of India spent their youth at this school, before going abroad to study either in England or the United States.

Five hundred eighty-five educators, among them many headmasters or directors of well-known elementary or secondary schools, came from all over India, some traveling for two days by plane. The state governor came to the opening of the four-day retreat, titled “Towards a Compassionate and Healthy Society.” The Plum Village monks and nuns had the opportunity to participate in activities and sports with Doon students. The educators learned and practiced wholeheartedly, attended all the activities such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, total relaxation, Touchings of the Earth, and eating in mindfulness. On the third day ninety people received the Three Refuges and the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

The retreat was very nourishing and brought transformation and joy for everyone who attended, among them the headmaster of Doon School. At the beginning, although he had helped tour organizer Shantum Seth send out invitations to other educational institutions, he admitted he did not have much faith in the effect of the retreat, but by the end he was transformed.

The next day the delegation visited the new Mindfulness in Education Centre, at the foot of the Himalayas not far from the city of Dehradun. Thay did the ceremony for Protecting the Land and planted a bodhi tree, two banyan trees, and several other kinds of trees on the site.

During the rest of the tour, thirty young Plum Village Dharma teachers visited to share the joy of mindfulness practice at a dozen elite schools. The monks included Brothers Phap Dung, Phap Hai, Phap Thanh, and Phap Luu from Deer Park Monastery, as well as Phap Trach, Phap Don, and Phap Chieu. The nuns included Sisters Anh Nghiem, Kinh Nghiem, Luong Nghiem, Chau Nghiem, Tung Nghiem, Dinh Nghiem, and others. The monks and nuns also shared the practice in an educational center with programs for poor children and street children. These children also attended the children’s program in a five-day retreat in Delhi.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Newspaper Editor

October 2 was the International Day of Non-Violence, commemorating the 139th year of the birth of Gandhi. The Times of India, the largest national daily newspaper, invited Thay to be the guest editor for a special Peace edition. Thay went to work with the editorial team, presenting several themes for the journalists to investigate and research:

  1. Who are the Buddhists in India?
  2. Would it be possible to organize a national No-Car Day in India to bring awareness to and educate the people on the problem of global warming?
  3. Are families in India able to sit down to eat together at least for one meal together each day?
  4. Would it be possible for teachers in all the educational institutions in India to have opportunities to train the students how to transform the emotions of anger, violence, and despair?
  5. Has anyone written love letters to a bombing terrorist to help them let go of their wrong perceptions and vengeance in their hearts?

In six hours the journalists had written a multitude of articles. On the front page of the October 2 edition appeared the lead article, “Quest for Peace in Troubled Times.” This article was printed next to the most shocking news of the day: A bomb had exploded in Agartala, killing four persons.

In a related article on the newspaper’s website, “Terrorists are victims who create more victims,” the editorial team reported:

Midway through the news meeting on Wednesday, the grim news came in: Agartala had been rocked by serial blasts. All eyes immediately turned to Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, the Guest Editor for our special Peace Edition. As journalists, what should we do on a day like this?

The Zen master, who has rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centres, resettled homeless families and for a lifetime advocated tirelessly the principles of non-violence and compassionate action, pondered for a while.

When he spoke, it was with great clarity, “Report in a way that invites readers to take a look at why such things continue to happen and that they have their roots in anger, fear, hate and wrong perceptions. Prevent anger from becoming a collective energy. The only antidote for anger and violence is compassion. Terrorists are also victims, who create other victims of misunderstanding.’’

This, remember, is the monk — now 82 years old — credited with a big role in turning American public opinion against the war in Vietnam — for which Martin Luther King, Jr. had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. And so, his words are not to be dismissed lightly.

“Every reader has seeds of fear, anger, violence and despair, and also seeds of hope, compassion, love and forgiveness,’’ said Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called Thay.

“As journalists, you must not water the wrong seeds. The stories should touch the seeds of hope. As journalists, you have the job of selectively watering the right seeds. You must attempt to tell the truth and yet not water the seeds of hate. It’s not what’s in the story, but how you tell it that’s important.’’

Several other articles appeared in the Times that day and on the website, written by the journalists and the monks and nuns who assisted Thay [and also one reprinted from the Mindfulness Bell].

The Sankassa Story

Legend has it that the 14th of October was the day when the Buddha returned to Earth after a time visiting his mother, Queen Mahamaya, who was in the thirty-third Heaven. When he was back on Earth he took his first steps in the land of Sankassa, where many of his disciples were waiting to greet him.

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Several thousand people of the Shakya lineage came to attend the retreat led by Brothers Phap Son and Phap Do and Sisters Chan Khong Nghiem and Chan Luong Nghiem. The people had been informed that on the morning of 14 October, the third day of the retreat, Master Nhat Hanh would arrive to offer a ceremony of transmission of the Three Refuges and Five Mindfulness Trainings. And Master Nhat Hanh, too, would be arriving from the sky — in a helicopter.

At Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, the morning fog was thick, and it wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. that permission to fly was given. In the helicopter with Thay were three lay Dharma teachers: Shantum Seth, Ann Johnston, and Pritam Singh, along with educator Irpinder Bhatia and Simran, daughter of Pritam. Shantum, the main organizer of Thay’s tour, was holding a professional camera with which his younger sister had asked him to record the event at Sankassa. Shantum’s sister Aradna was making a documentary film of the whole tour.

The young people of the Shakya clan were sitting and practicing together with the brothers and sisters in the meditation hall. When they heard the helicopter they could not contain themselves; everybody stood up and ran out of the meditation hall to look up. They had been waiting for the helicopter since 9:30 and now at noon the sun was directly overhead. In this remote part of the country the people live in huts made from earth, without electricity, without pumped water; their way of life is still very primitive, perhaps not unlike the way of life in India over 2500 years ago. They had never seen a helicopter up close.

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The youth stood in line to welcome Thay. After cutting a ribbon to inaugurate a Shakyamuni Buddha statue for the practice centre, Thay went straight into the meditation hall, where there were about 200 monks wearing the robes of the Theravadan tradition. Thay taught the Three Refuges and Five Mindfulness Trainings and how to apply them in daily life. Thay began as follows: “Queen Maya was still in good health. She was very happy and proud to have a son, Siddhartha, who had attained enlightenment and was able to liberate countless beings. She sends her love to all the people of the Shakya clan. I am also a member of the Shakya clan. I have come to transmit to you the teachings taught by the Buddha Gautama.”

After the transmission ceremony in the afternoon, Thay reminded them to regularly come together to recite, study, and discuss the Trainings. Thay promised that if they practiced diligently there would be a day when we would meet again. Everybody expressed their happiness by applauding enthusiastically.

Time arrived for the helicopter to take wing. Thousands of the Shakyan people came to bid Thay farewell, including many children. Thay wished that some of them could come to Plum Village to learn and practice so that one day they could return to be of service to the Sanghas from their clan. Many people cried, their eyes red.

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From the report by Irpinder Bhatia [see below], we know that hundreds of thousands of the Shakyan people have abandoned their tradition and completely forgotten that within their lineage was someone named Gautama Siddhartha, who had become one of the greatest spiritual masters of the world. Buddhism was suppressed in India starting in the eleventh century, when Buddhist monks and nuns had to flee and find refuge in other countries further north. Some people returned to the Hindu tradition, some converted to Islam; from their rich heritage they retained only their name Shakya. It was less than twenty years ago that they were reminded by the Dalit Buddhists of their Buddhist heritage.

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Today the number of Buddhists in India has risen to about 10 million. However, the teachings that they were given were often about how to fight injustice and the discriminating caste system. Even though they have returned to their Buddhist roots, they have not truly tasted the fruits of the Buddhadharma.

Hopefully the Plum Village Sangha will be able to help train a number of young people from the Shakya lineage to become Dharma teachers so that they may return to their people the spiritual tradition that they lost over a thousand years ago.

For more information about the India tour, go to www.ahimsatrust.org and select “Thich Nhat Hanh.”

Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been working side by side with Thay to fight injustice and teach mindfulness since the 1960s. She is a tireless champion for the poor in Vietnam, especially children.

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Letter from the Editor

mb53-LetterFromEditorDear Thay, dear Sangha,

It is with deep gratitude that I write this letter to you. Gratitude for the honor of editing this much-loved magazine; gratitude for every writer, artist, volunteer, and supporter who brought this issue to life; gratitude for your hands holding these pages. I’m indebted to Sister Annabel, the senior editor, for her discerning wisdom; to each prior editor whose mindful steps created a path to follow; and to Janelle Combelic, whose patient assistance was a clear and guiding light.

Our local Sangha, the Heart Sangha in Santa Cruz, California, recently hosted a weekend retreat, led by Dharma Teacher Wendy Johnson and writer Maxine Hong Kingston. One of the themes was “moving from war to gratitude.” Maxine told us about a group of young soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and formed a writers’ group. “They had faith that writing would bring them home,” she explained. She showed us a small book of poetry with a rough, scratchy cover, which the veterans had created. They’d cut up and boiled their uniforms and used the remains to make book covers. As a Sangha, they transformed their suffering: their war clothes became book jackets; their pain became poems.

This issue offers powerful stories about the transformation of suffering into love. Heartfelt stories in “Death and Dying” show us how mindfulness, kindness, and Sangha building can nourish us through the uncertain terrain of loss. “Mindful Living” includes stories about transforming busyness and distraction into mindfulness at home and at work.

“Miracle of Sangha” offers stories from the Estes Park, Colorado retreat. This retreat was just one of several in the 2009 U.S. Tour. From Massachusetts to Colorado, and California to New York, practitioners gathered by the thousands, strengthening the collective energy of mindfulness. The Estes Park retreat was unique—the largest retreat ever conducted by monastics without Thay’s physical presence, it demonstrated that each of us is a continuation of our teacher, and that many beautiful flowers can blossom when “over one thousand Thays” practice joyfully together.

“Embracing Vietnam” calls our attention to the young monastics who were forcibly removed from Bat Nha Monastery in September 2009. Dear friends, please do everything you can to support our Vietnamese sisters and brothers. Look at page 18 to find out how to help. And enjoy the essay about Maitreya Fonds, a German organization enriching children’s education in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us he wouldn’t want to live in a place where there is no suffering, because there would be no compassion. The Mindfulness Trainings encourage us to spend time with beings who are suffering, “so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.” May the stories in this issue show us ways to transform war into gratitude, suffering into peace. May they help our hearts to open and to love.

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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One Rock Star is Not Enough

By Angelina Chin

I came back from the Colorado retreat totally transformed. Before the trip to Colorado I’d read several of Thay’s books but had never been to a retreat or practiced with his Sangha before. Nor had I ever met Thay in person.

To be honest, when I arrived the first evening and realized that Thay was not there, I was very disappointed and felt cheated. I even told one friend that it was as if I had gone to a rock concert but the rock star had bailed out!

I was a night owl, so I couldn’t fall asleep on my first night, and by the time I finally felt sleepy it was time to get up to do walking meditation. It was very difficult for me to keep up with the activities of the first two days. Because of the lack of sleep, I slept through the Dharma talks. And while many of the Sangha members found the food to be quite decent, I didn’t enjoy it during the first two days. I wasn’t used to a vegan diet. Of course I practiced eating meditation, but the more I meditated, the more I thought about the food I enjoyed outside the retreat. I also formed negative perceptions of some Sangha members.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to me in the following days, but gradually I found myself enjoying every moment of the retreat. I think the wonderful songs were a great help. It was very healing to be able to sing and practice with a Sangha of nearly 1,000 people. Everyone was so friendly, focused and happy. It was very comforting to me, especially because I grew up in a different cultural environment and always have felt racial and gender discrimination around me. Toward the end of the retreat I became quite mindful. The food became tastier. Before the retreat I had only known Thay’s works by their titles, but his teachings really sank in during the retreat.

After a few days I began to realize that Thay’s physical absence was a good lesson in itself. It had been so silly of me to compare the retreat to a rock concert! I’d attended the retreat to practice mindfulness, not to look for the rock star! I think because Thay was not there, the members were less attached to his presence and became more focused on the practice itself. I did feel Thay’s spiritual presence, and I missed him very much. But I also want to express my gratitude to the monastic brothers and sisters who tried so hard to make the retreat possible. It must have been a great deal of pressure on them. I could totally see both the Buddha and Thay in all of them! Thank you, Thay, for training our future teachers.

I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings on the last day. I hadn’t planned to do so. But since the day after the retreat was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate my transformation (rebirth?) and show my commitment to becoming more mindful, I decided to receive them. I also was given a beautiful Dharma name—Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart. I felt peaceful when I left Colorado.

Here are a few of the ways my life has changed since the retreat:

  • I had insomnia before, and couldn’t get up until around 10:00 a.m. Now the insomnia has been cured and I wake up at 7:00 every morning.
  • I practice walking meditation every day.
  • I’ve cut down my meat and seafood consumption by 40%. I’ve also decided not to cook meat at home.
  • I try not to kill any living beings.
  • I can concentrate much better at meetings.
  • I’ve practiced “beginning anew” with friends. These friendships are now better than ever. I will continue to listen to them with my heart.
  • I used to have an inferiority complex, which had been affecting my life in many ways. Now I am more aware of my mental formations and try not to water my negative seeds. Life is more pleasant and I feel more confident and engaged.
  • I’ve become less judgmental of others and have built new relationships!
  • I drive more mindfully. I think I’m a safer driver now.
  • I’ve witnessed some improvement in my meditation and breathing practices.
  • Even though negative emotions still visit me frequently, I’ve learned to be patient and try my best to take care of them.

I was so inspired that I attended a Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery for the first time and finally met Thay! It was a blessing.

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Angelina Chin, Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart, lives in Southern California. She was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She teaches East Asian history at Pomona College.

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Letter from the Editor

mb54-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

When I was young I wanted to be a teacher. I held summer classes for the neighborhood kids, complete with handouts, recess, and homework (and they tolerated it!). Later I set aside that dream, believing I lacked the authority and knowledge to teach. But having taught meditation for the past year, I’ve learned that compassion and mindfulness are the most powerful teaching tools—much more powerful than knowledge.

This summer I’ll be teaching creative writing to children. To prepare for the job I observed a young teacher at the writing school. He gave his undivided attention and encouragement to each six-year-old budding writer. I realized that to teach, we don’t need to know everything about our subject. We only need to love the topic and give the class our full, caring attention. In mutual exchange, we discover and learn with our students. Similarly, if we love eating our meals with mindfulness, love being fully present with each footstep, we’ll naturally share this beloved practice and exchange discoveries with friends who practice too.

With its theme of Mindful Education, this issue offers a wonderful collection of stories, photos, activities, and resources on teaching and learning. This issue isn’t just for classroom professors and students. It’s for all of us. As students of Thay, of the Buddha, we are studying the way of awareness and always teaching by example. These stories show us how we might bring mindful practices not just to schools, but also to our families, friends, and co-workers—the people we teach every day with our actions, our words, our presence.

One of my Sangha mentors, Glen Schneider, shared an insight he learned from Thay: “What should a student expect from a teacher? The student should expect that the teacher is a free person, free from craving, fear, and despair. What should a teacher expect from a student? You should expect from your students their transformation, their healing, their freedom.” Such simple, profound expectations can alter the course of an education, a relationship, a life.

Instead of a Dharma talk from Thay, in this issue we include his essay, Bat Nha: A Koan. Thay shines a penetrating light on the coercion and violence that happened at Prajna Temple in Vietnam. Our teacher guides us to cultivate insight by looking compassionately into the hearts of others, and invites us into a fearless practice of interbeing.

May you be peaceful and at ease, enjoying your breathing as you read this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. May these stories enrich your practice and awaken your bodhicitta, your mind of love.

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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Letter from the Editor

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha,

One thing that amazes me about human beings is our limitless capacity to be creative in how we transform our suffering. We all suffer; we all live with craving, aversion, and delusion. Yet suffering takes unique forms within each of us. And remarkably, if we rise to the challenge, we are able to respond uniquely and creatively—to find our own personal means of making the compost that turns into flowers. There are wonderful tools that all of us can use, like mindful breathing and mindful walking, and yet the ways we apply these tools and invent new ones are as varied as our fingerprints.

The Mindfulness Bell is a place for recording these unique prints— for sharing how we have changed hardship into something nourishing or beautiful. Each story is new, never lived before. Yet all the stories shine a light. “Look,” they all say, “I found a way to use my trouble to learn love. If I did it, you can too.”

This issue shares potent examples of how people have creatively transformed their suffering. Our Sangha friends tell how they have worked with Lyme disease, schizophrenia, abuse, the trauma of war, and their own anger. They tell us the steps they took and the practices they applied, and show us how they realized understanding and compassion, how they flowered beautifully out of dire circumstances.

This issue also offers wonderful essays about the continuation of Buddhism in the young generation, as well as of travel and cross-cultural exchange. It is clear that our internal and external journeys are interwoven, and that, in transforming our inner world, we can bring beauty and joy to the world around us.

Our teacher’s Dharma talk, “To Make Reconciliation Possible,” is a powerful framework for these stories. Thay gives us keys for working with the suffering caused by difficult relationships between individuals, ethnic groups, and nations. He tells us it is essential to reduce the fear, anger, and suspicion underlying conflict and violence. He encourages us, once we’ve understood our own suffering, to say to our loved ones, “Please tell me what is in your heart, your difficulties, your suffering, your fear, your anger, so that I’ll be able to understand.” He counsels us to listen so deeply that “even if the other person says something wrong or provocative, you still continue to listen with compassion.”

Have you ever practiced this kind of deep listening? What have you learned? Have you found creative ways to turn your life’s rare blend of compost scraps into flowers of inner peace, of compassion? How did you do it? Please consider sending your story, your unique bouquet of insight, to the Mindfulness Bell. Or send your thoughts and feelings about the stories you read in these pages. We love to hear from you.
May these offerings be nourishing and healing for you and the entire Sangha body.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

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Scorpion Nature

By Sister Dang Nghiem 

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There is a story about a scorpion and a frog. One day, the scorpion needs to cross a pond. So the scorpion tells the frog, “Frog, my friend, would you please take me across the pond?” The frog replies, “Well, I want to be helpful to you, but what if you sting me midway? I will die.” The scorpion says, “Why would I do that? If I sting you, you’ll die and I’ll die too.” The frog feels reassured, so it says, “Okay, that is reasonable. I do not mind carrying you across the pond. You can jump up.” The scorpion jumps on the back of the frog, and the frog gets into the water and begins to swim. Everything is going well until, halfway across the pond, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog is in deep pain, and as it is drowning, it cries out to the scorpion, “Why did you sting me? Now I’ll die, and you are going to die, too.” The scorpion replies, “I know that, but I cannot help myself. It is my scorpion nature.”

When the scorpion stings the frog, it knows that it is going to harm itself and the frog, and yet it still does it; that is the scorpion nature. Do we have scorpion nature? What is our scorpion nature? Certain things we do and say, certain thoughts we have—we know that they are not going to help anybody, including ourselves, and yet we still do them. Why is that? It is because we cannot help it; we simply cannot resist it.

One time, Thay said to me, “It is not an issue whether you like it or not.” I did not understand what he meant, but I did not like what he said. However, out of total respect and confidence in my teacher, I received his teaching and kept it in my mind. After a few years, suddenly it came to me: when we like something or we do not like something, that is our habit energy, and it is already ingrained in us. “I like this color. I hate that color.” “I want this iPad.” “I want to sleep in, and I don’t want to wake up early in the morning to go to sitting meditation.” “I need another degree.” “I need another outfit.” There are things that we like and things that we do not like. There are things that we want and things that we do not want. These likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs are clearly defined in our minds. We can understand this as our scorpion nature, driving us to think, speak, and behave reflexively.

Our deeply ingrained instinct is to survive and to avoid death. The sense of “me” and “mine” is essential to the survival of the “I”—which is reflected in our likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. Our tendencies and habit energies have their roots in our animal ancestors, their aggression, and their primal fight-flight-freeze response. Through evolution, humans have also developed the capacity for self-awareness and inhibition. Unfortunately, many of us resort to our primal instincts more often than to our highly developed capacities, and we easily identify ourselves with our habit energies. For example, you can claim righteously, “That is the way I am! I can say whatever I want to say, and I can do whatever I want to do!” I used to say these things to my beloved friends. I said those things out of frustration, sadness, and restlessness, and still I justified them.

If we keep doing that, with time, people put up a wall to protect themselves against us. They are not open to be there for us and to listen to us anymore, and so we become more frustrated, our speech becomes harsher, and the vicious cycle continues. Before we know it, we are far apart as parents and children, as friends, as brothers and sisters. We are like separate cosmos because we think, “I am like that. This is how I am, and this is my nature. You are like that. This is how you are, and this is your nature.” If you look deeply, you will realize that this is the scorpion nature because it bites us and it bites our loved ones, severing us and killing us slowly.

In medical school, when I rotated through the hospital ward with patients with Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other chronic intestinal problems, I was told that they could be the most irritable and needy patients. Now I can understand this phenomenon from an insider’s perspective. Chronic physical pain can cause a person to feel uncomfortable, restless, irritable, and reactive. When you are sick for a long time, your family members and friends become used to your illness, so they may not pay as much attention to you. It is easy to feel lonely, deserted, depressed, and needy as a result. If people say something insensitive or unskillful, you may replay their words a thousand times, harboring feelings of unworthiness, disappointment, resentment, and even hatred. All of these emotions are harsh and powerful, and they can cause your speech and bodily actions to be unpleasant and difficult for others to tolerate. Therefore, others avoid you, and your negative feelings are confirmed and strengthened, creating a vicious cycle. These fleeting feelings, if fed day after day, can become our attitudes and then our personality.

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From my own illness, I have learned to pay close attention to my likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. For example, monastic brothers and sisters are preparing to go hiking. Usually I would not miss a chance to go hiking, but when my energy level is low, the thought of walking under the sun for a long distance feels repugnant, and the mind translates this feeling with conviction: “I don’t want to go hiking.” It even goes so far as to say, “I don’t like hiking anymore.” Aware of this thought, I breathe and smile, returning my mind to right view: “It is not that I don’t want to go hiking or that I don’t like hiking. I simply do not have enough energy to do that right now. Perhaps I will have enough energy to do it tomorrow or some other time.” When you are not well, you find yourself not wanting to do many things and not liking many people. It is important to recognize the reason behind your likes and dislikes and not to identify yourself with these feelings, which can mold you into a certain personality.

Transforming Scorpion Nature 

Mindfulness will help us to recognize our Buddha nature as well as our scorpion nature as they are. For example, you can have a beautiful flowerbed, but if a lot of tall grass grows, you will not be able to see the flowers. Once you are able to identify the grass and weed it, the flowers can reveal themselves more clearly. Earlier today, I was doing walking meditation with the Sangha. The heat was scorching, my headache felt worse, and I began to hear myself wishing that I were in a cool room. Then I touched the cone hat that I was wearing, and I felt grateful for it. I had a pair of sunglasses on, too. Otherwise, the sunlight would have been too bright for my eyes and worsened my headache, and so I was grateful for my pair of sunglasses. Then I heard the breeze moving through the trees, so I stood waiting for it to come and felt it brushing my cheeks with its coolness. In just a few seconds, my awareness and my gratitude cooled down the heat that was inside of me.

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Walking meditation is one of the practices that can help us to transform our scorpion nature. The scorching heat is there, but there are also conditions that we can be grateful for, like the cone hat, the pair of sunglasses, the occasional breeze, and the presence of the community. Mindfulness helps us to take care of our scorpion nature, which is complaining, “Gosh, it’s so hot! Why do we have to walk in the heat like this? I must be crazy. I want to be inside doing something better. Why do I have to be out here?” One of the characteristics of the scorpion nature is that it complains. Aware of our steps and breaths—one step at a time and one breath at a time—our mind becomes more focused, the inner chattering quiets down, and we become aware that many conditions of happiness are supporting us. Mindfulness helps us to recognize the negativity in our internal dialogue, be present for it, and quiet it down.

If we do not recognize the negativity as it is, then it goes on and on in our mind without our awareness. Suddenly, we can explode and yell at somebody, because the undercurrent has built up enough momentum to surface as a powerful wave. Therefore, it is important simply to recognize something as it is. We can say to ourselves: “Breathing in, I am aware that this experience is unpleasant. Breathing out, I am here to relax the tension in it.” Or: “Breathing in, I am aware that there is something unpleasant arising in me. Breathing out, I am here for you.” This practice of simple recognition helps us to face a situation or person with more stability and equanimity.

The cultivation of gratitude is essential to the transformation of our suffering. If a person is blind, what she wants the most is to be able to see. If a person is having an asthma attack, what he wants the most at that moment is to be able to breathe in and breathe out normally. If you are having chest pain or a heart attack, what you want the most is for the pain to go away and for the heart to function normally again. What conditions are we in right now? Can our eyes see? Can our lungs breathe normally? Can our heart function normally? Yet, we may not recognize or acknowledge them, and so we are not grateful for them. Instead, the scorpion nature will say, “I wish I could be here or I could be there. I wish I could have this or have that.” The wanting never stops, driving us to be restless and dissatisfied, which is the source of our suffering. We want things other than what we already have, but in the most critical moments, what we truly wish is for things to be normal again. Our practice is to recognize daily the positive conditions in our lives and to be grateful for them, so we don’t wait until they are gone and then yearn for them.

There is a practice called “tri tuc,” meaning you know that you have enough. “Tri” means “to know, to master, to remember,” and “tuc” means “enough.” Interestingly, this character “tuc” also means “feet.” You remember that you have enough and you master what you have. It also means you remember that you have feet, and you master your feet! In your daily life, do you have awareness that you have feet? When you walk across the parking lot or around your office, do you have mastery of your steps?

To know that we have feet—that is enough to make us happy. Therefore, our feet symbolize all the conditions of happiness that are available to us right here and right now. Without mindfulness, we take what we have for granted, and we feel forever impoverished. We can even take the mindfulness practice for granted; as a result, we are actually less fortunate than those who are sincerely seeking a spiritual path. With awareness of our steps, of our bodily movements, of the in-breaths and out-breaths, we train to dwell stably and gratefully in the present moment. This is also a concrete way to check whether we are practicing correctly and authentically or not.

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Learning to Be Grateful to Our Illness 

A teenager in a retreat shared, “I have asthma, and I hate it! I just hate asthma!” He said it with all of his conviction. Should we hate our illness? Hating our illness is our usual response. However, we can learn to be grateful to our illness. When I was in medical school, I was strong and athletic. From my school on 3rd Street, I could run through Golden Gate Park all the way to the ocean, which was near 57th Street. Then I swam in the ocean even though the water was perpetually cold. After that, I jogged back to my school. It was something fun and effortless to do. Then, I developed low blood pressure in my late thirties and contracted Lyme disease in my early forties. Right now, I cannot run as I used to. I even feel out of breath walking from the dining hall to my room at times. Yet, instead of feeling distraught about what I have lost, I am learning to be more grateful for what I still have. I am also more grateful for the moments when I am well.

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When you have limitations or discomfort in your body, you can practice sitting still and coming back to your breathing, or you can lie down and put your hand on your abdomen and say, “I am here for you. It is okay.” You learn to recognize the fragility of your body, feeling deeper love and appreciation for your body because against all chances, your body is often healthy and forgiving. Even if you stay up until one in the morning or even if you drink and smoke, your body still tries to heal itself. It will heal itself repeatedly so that you can wake up the next morning and function normally. It continues like that year after year, until one day it is not able to recover so well. You start to cough and feel tired walking up a hill because of the damage that has been done to your body. At every stage, we can recognize what is going on and what we still have. We can say “I am here” for the losses as well as for the gains of life.

Often I say “I am sorry” to myself. I did not know to say “I am sorry” to myself before. I just expected things to be a certain way, and when it was not like that, I felt frustrated, angry, or despairing. As a monastic practitioner, I have learned to be grateful and to be sorry for my own unskillfulness. It is a sign of true love when you can say “I am sorry” to your own body. You learn not to show off your body because it is beautiful, because it has nice clothes on, or because it is attached to a nice looking car or a cool phone. You learn to love your body because you realize that it is the best friend that you can ever have, and that it is the most forgiving partner that you can ever find. This is “tri tuc:” to know, to remember, and to master what you already have.

If you have a bell, you can invite one sound of the bell while you sit beautifully, with your back upright and relaxed. As you listen to the sound of the bell, scan through your body slowly and say to yourself:

Breathing in, I am aware of my head.
Breathing out, I relax my head.
Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, thank you, eyes. You are still in good condition. Thank you for allowing me to see the beautiful nature and the lovely faces around me.

Take time to scan each part of your body: the ears, the nose, the mouth, the hands, feet, the lungs, the heart, and all the other organs. They are always there for you, taking good care of you and forgiving your unskillful thoughts and deeds.

This Too Shall Pass 

When we experience something pleasant, we want more of it. When we eat an ice cream cone and it tastes good, we eat quickly while thinking about the next one. When we have a lot of fun, we wish it would last forever. However, in our practice we also learn to recognize that “this too shall pass.” This practice helps me to cherish deeply what I have in the moment and, at the same time, to release it from my grasping. Even when I am very happy being in the presence of a particular person—we can truly connect and understand each other—something in me whispers, “This too shall pass.” It is bittersweet, because you remember that everything is impermanent; it comes and it will go. Every so often I look at myself in a mirror and say, “My youth is passing by me right now.” It was yesterday that I was a child singing to myself on the street, and today I am already confronting early premenopausal symptoms.

When we listen to the sound of a bell, we simply stop to follow our breathing and we let go of our speaking, moving around, or doing things. Even if a thought or a feeling arises, we smile and release it with our out-breath. When impermanence becomes a concentration in our daily life, our capacity to let go deepens. Slowly and steadily, we train ourselves to be aware of the arising and the disappearance of the in-breaths, out-breaths, thoughts, and feelings, as well as all other phenomena. Even the most beautiful things we have to let go.

The awareness that “this too shall pass” helps you to be there, thoroughly and wholeheartedly, in that moment. You do not take the person in front of you for granted and think, “Oh, I will see him again,” or “This situation is always like that.” Then when the person walks away, or when the situation is no longer there, you will not regret. We only regret because we don’t touch the moment deeply. When we touch something deeply, it is always there inside of us, and we have access to it to nourish us in times to come. Therefore, the concentration on impermanence and the understanding of “this too shall pass” helps us to enjoy the present stage of our life. We do not have to regret the past or feel afraid about the future. This is it, and we are free from worries, fears, and grasping.

mb64-Scorpion6Sister Dang Nghiem received her Doctor of Medicine degree from UC San Francisco School of Medicine. She’s been a monastic practitioner for thirteen years. Her deep joy is to be with teenagers and young adults. She is currently at Blue Cliff Monastery. This article was adapted from a Dharma talk she gave at Magnolia Grove Monastery in June of 2011.

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Dharma Talk: No Birth, No Death, Only Transformation

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh

Upper Hamlet, Plum Village July 24, 2012

 Thich Nhat Hanh

Thay: Today is the 24th of July, 2012, and we are in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village during our third week of the Summer Opening. We are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Plum Village.

Today we have a session of questions and answers. We know that a good question will help many people. A good question has to do with our practice, with our difficulties, with our suffering, with our happiness, with our experience. That is why we should ask a question of our heart, a question that has been there for a long time.

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Child: If you just moved into a new school, and you’re finding it hard to make new friends, how can you make new friends?

Thay: If you’ve just moved to a new school, that is very exciting. Many things will happen and you will have to be ready to encounter new events and new friends. Don’t worry. Just allow things to happen. New friends will come to you if you are ready. Just practice pebble meditation, breathing in and out, to help yourself relax. It’s like when you go to the mountains for a vacation and there are many beautiful trees and flowers that you have not seen before. You will be happy to see them. You cannot predict what you will see, but you know that you will see many beautiful things, animals, vegetables, and minerals. Going to a new school is like that. There will be many new things that can make us happy. So don’t worry. Prepare yourself. Tell yourself, “I am going to have new friends. And I allow it to happen. I don’t have to choose.”

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That girl that you will meet will be a good friend of yours, or not a good friend of yours: that depends on you. She might be very lovable. The way you look at her, the way you talk to her, can make her even more lovable. If that person is not very lovable, your way of looking and smiling can make her more lovable. So it depends on us also, not only on them.

We wish you a lot of luck and success, and maybe next year you will come to Plum Village and report to us how things are with the new school, okay? Remember. Thank you.

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Adult: If there is no such thing as death, then why is it wrong to kill?

Thay: Very good question! When you want to kill, when you think that you can kill, you have wrong perceptions. Suppose you want to kill a cloud, because you don’t know that a cloud can never die. A cloud can only become snow or rain. So the willingness to kill is a kind of energy characterized by ignorance, wrong perception, anger, and violence. That is why the act of killing is wrong. It is wrong because it does not have intelligence, wisdom. It has a lot of violence and suffering. Even the idea before the act of trying to kill is already wrong. What is wrong can bring a lot of suffering. Not to the other person, but to ourselves.

The person who killed Martin Luther King, the person who killed Mahatma Gandhi, the person who killed John F. Kennedy, the person who killed Jesus Christ, they were people who suffered a lot. They had a lot of anger, of fear, of violence, because they had a lot of ignorance and wrong perceptions. They thought they could kill. You cannot kill Martin Luther King. He becomes very strong after your attempt to kill him. Martin Luther King is now stronger than before.

Suppose you want to kill a cloud. How can you kill a cloud? Your attempt to kill someone, to destroy someone, will only lead to your suffering. That is why we have to touch the true nature of no-birth and no-death.

Someone who commits suicide brings a lot of suffering. He thinks that he can kill himself, but the fact is that he cannot. His attempt to kill himself makes him suffer more and makes people around him suffer more. You cannot die and you cannot kill someone. Mahatma Gandhi is still alive and is very strong now. He is in every one of us. Martin Luther King, also; Jesus Christ, also; the Buddha, also.

The willingness to kill is suffering because it has ignorance, anger, and violence in it. Modern science agrees with the Buddha that you cannot kill anything; you cannot make anything disappear. Nothing can die. Rien ne se crée; rien ne se perd, tout se transforme.* There is only transformation; there is no death. It appears that there is death and birth, but if you go deeply, you see that it’s not true. If you study science, chemistry, or biology deeply, you will touch the truth of no-birth and no-death.

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Teenager: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I suffer a lot from my father. It’s difficult for me to see him, and it’s almost become dangerous. I don’t want to see him anymore. I’ve given him several chances to change. I have forced myself to go see him. Now I can’t. My question is, do I still have to try and change him, and try to go to him? Even though it is making me very tired?

Thay: This is a very important question, and many of us have that question in our heart. The other person does not seem to change after many of our attempts to help change him or her. Should we continue or not? In order to find the right answer, we have to look more deeply to see the relationship between us and the other person. Whether we are son and father, or daughter and mother, or partner and partner, if we have difficulty with the other person and if we want to change him or her, the first thing we should do is to look deeply into ourselves and into that person, to see the relationship, the connection.

Usually we think that the other person is outside of us. That is not right view. In this case, we think that our father is outside of us, and we need only to change the outside and not the inside. We need to see that our father is in us; our father is present in every cell of our body. We are the continuation of our father. It may be easier for us to change our father inside first, and we can do that twenty-four hours a day. You don’t need to go and see him, talk to him, in order to change. The way we breathe, the way we walk, can change him in ourselves. Invite him to walk with us, to sit with us, to smile with us, and the father inside of us will change. Otherwise we will grow up and behave exactly like him.

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There are many children who hate their father, who promise that when they grow up they will not act and say things like their father. But when they grow up they will act exactly like their father, and they will say things exactly like their father. That has happened many times. You hate it, you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to say it. And yet you will do exactly that, and you will speak exactly like that. In Buddhism, that is what we call samsara, going around. You continue your father, not only with your body, but with your way of life. That is why when you encounter the Buddhadharma, you have a chance to change your father in you first. When you have been able to change your father inside of you, he will not go to samsara again. And you will not transmit that kind of habit to your children. So you end the round of samsara going around, recycling. When the father inside has been transformed, the transformation of the father outside will be much easier. That is my experience.

I have fellow monks who are difficult. They are dignitaries in the Buddhist church. They are very conservative. They do not allow transformation to take place in the community. You know that in order to serve society, you have to renew your community, whether your community is Christian, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Jewish. Many of us are eager to renew our tradition to serve our society and human beings, right? But there are so many conservative elements in the church or religious institution. That is true in my case also. I noticed this very early. I said, “They are in us. We have to change ourselves first.”

So if you are a partner, and your partner does not change, don’t think your partner is only outside of you. Your partner is inside of you, even if you have divorced him or her. Yesterday I received a question, “Can we reconcile, can we begin anew with the one whom we have divorced?” This is exactly the question we have to answer. In the beginning you believe that after divorce you can be yourself entirely and you can take him out of you completely. That’s wrong! You can never remove him from you. You can never remove her from you. No way. Before you attempt to do something with the other person outside of you, try to help him transform inside of you, try to help her transform inside of you.

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With this practice, we can succeed in transforming ourselves and become a model. We become fresh. Our way of being is exactly the way we want him to be. So by speaking, by acting, by living, you begin to change him. You don’t change him by talking alone. Maybe talking cannot change him. But your way of acting, your way of responding instead of reacting, will help change that person. And because he also has intelligence, he can notice that.

You know that to succeed in the work of changing yourself and changing the other person, you also need a Sangha, you also need friends to support you. That is why you have to take refuge in the Sangha. You have to know how to make good use of the collective energy of the Sangha to support your transformation and healing and to help us transform the other person.

Don’t be too eager to transform him right away. You have to accept him as he is first. You have to accept her as she is first. After acceptance, you feel much better already, and you begin to change him inside of you. This is a very deep practice.

Since our friend has come to Plum Village every year and practiced with us since he was a small child, I believe he can do it. And we’ll try to support him to do it. We never lose our hope. The way not to lose our hope is to make progress every day by the practice, daily practice. Thank you for asking the question; it was very good.

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Child: How do you become a monk?

Thay: In Plum Village, we have a program of five years of monastic training and service. If you want to, you can take five years and live as a monk or a nun. If you are young, from sixteen to thirty-six, you may try living with us as a monk for five years. You will practice three years as a novice and two years as a fully ordained monk. During that time you learn more of the Dharma, you learn to apply the practice in your daily life, you live in community, you practice monks’ or nuns’ precepts, and you help your monastic brothers and sisters organize retreats for other people. You can train and serve at the same time. Your way of walking, sitting, organizing, can already inspire people. Every time we have a retreat, you have a chance to practice, and you can see the transformation and healing of the people who come to the retreat. That makes you very happy because the Dharma works, the Dharma is effective. After five or six days of practice, people change; people restore their joy and their peace, they reconcile with each other. That helps you believe that your life can be useful, your life has meaning. You can help make people happy.

In Plum Village this year, at the Summer Opening, four thousand, five thousand people came and practiced with us. Among them were many children. You can see their transformation, their healing, their joy. That is something that can nourish you very much.

After five years of monastic training and practice, you can go back to lay life or you can continue as a monk. Ninety percent of us monastics here, we are monks or nuns for our whole life. Less than five percent are five-year monastics. After five years as a monastic, you can either continue as a monk or a nun, or you may go back to lay life and become a lay Dharma teacher, because after the fifth year, you become an apprentice Dharma teacher for one year. After that year of practicing as an apprentice Dharma teacher, you’ll be transmitted the lamp and become a Dharma teacher.

So on this occasion I would like to invite the young people to think about it. Is it possible to live as a monastic for five years? To directly experience the joys of brotherhood, sisterhood, generated by the practice, and to have a chance to serve also?

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Adult: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I have two questions. My first question is: I am the last child from the lineage of my ancestors, and so there is a lot of suffering to transform. But also I was very lucky to have enough conditions to encounter the Dharma and not to be running after survival, so I could practice. Now I just came back from a long journey, and I can see very clearly how the suffering was built up in our family, generation after generation, through historical conditions. So I am trying to share with my elders so that they might also find relief, but some of them are very hardened. They have a lot of anger. They have become very mean and very desperate. Even though I have some understanding, I know I am also not stable enough in certain situations. I don’t know what to do anymore to help them. I’m very worried, because I have seen some from my parents’ generation, who escaped from the war, become completely insane and really destroy themselves. So this is my first question.

And my second question is: Why is it, in the Buddhist tradition, that even today there is still so much discrimination against women?

Thay: Do you think that in Plum Village we discriminate against women? The nuns and some laywomen practitioners in Plum Village play a very important role in organizing the lives and the practice of the Sangha here and the practice of the larger Sangha.

The tradition of bhikshunis** still exists in many countries. There are countries that have lost the bhikshuni Sangha. That’s not because of Buddhism, but Buddhist practitioners. They allow that kind of discrimination from society to penetrate into their community. In Thailand and in Sri Lanka, they don’t have bhikshunis anymore, and many of the people in these countries are trying to restore the order of bhikshunis. So Buddhists are not practicing well enough. That is why you have to do better than the former generations.

Thay is one of those who tries to restore the spirit in each order, the original spirit of Buddhism, because the Buddha removed all kinds of discrimination. He received all kinds of people, all races, all castes into his community. He welcomed women to become bhikshunis. He was a real revolutionary in his time. It was very difficult, but he was able to do it. So we who are the continuation of the Buddha should practice well enough in order to maintain his heritage, to preserve his heritage of no discrimination.

Suffering is overwhelming. There are those of us who came out of the Vietnam War full of wounds. We have seen our brother, our father, our mother, our sister killed, destroyed, maimed during the war. We have seen many of them imprisoned and tortured during the war. The foreign ideologies and the foreign weapons had been brought in from all over the world to destroy us, to kill us, and we were forced into a situation like that for a long time. Each of us, each Vietnamese of the new generation, carries within himself or herself that kind of suffering.

And Thay, after forty years of exile, has been able to go home a few times, organizing retreats in order to help heal the wounds of the war in people, in the younger generation. He tried to do his best. He tried to do it as a Sangha, not as a person. Thay went back to Vietnam not as an individual, but as a community. Three hundred practitioners went back to Vietnam with Thay for the first time after forty years of exile. That was in 2005. Our practice was very solid.

Imagine the hotel in Hanoi where we stayed. Secret police came and observed us because they were afraid of us. Everywhere we went they followed us. They wanted to know what we were telling people, what we were doing. They were forced to allow Thay to come home, but they were afraid that we might say something, we might urge the people in Vietnam to say something against them. Several hundred of us practiced with solidity. The way we walked, we way we breathed, the way we ate our breakfast, the way we encountered the people in the hotel and those who came to see us, including the secret policemen, reflected our practice.

The hotel where we lived looked like a practice center. There was mindfulness, there was peace, brotherhood, sisterhood, and they were very impressed. One time we did walking meditation around Hoan Kiem Lake, and for the first time people of the city saw such a large number of people walking with peace, joy, and happiness. They were struck by the sight. That had a big impact on the population. They saw solid practitioners, and we were able to share the practice with so many people in our public talks and in our retreats.

After that, we organized ceremonies of prayers. We prayed for the millions of people who died during the war, and thousands of people came and practiced with us and prayed together. We promised, each of us, that never again would we accept such a war of ideology and kill each other with foreign weapons and foreign ideologies. That was possible. We practiced to help with the healing of the whole country.

So my answer here is that in order to succeed in our attempt to help, we have to do it with a Sangha. We have to belong to a Sangha. We have to be powerful enough to be able to handle the suffering. There’s a lot of garbage, and since many of us do not know how to transform garbage into flowers, making good use of suffering in order to create peace and healing, we need a Sangha to support us.

When we practice alone, self-transformation is already difficult, not to say transformation of others. That is why we have to try to build a Sangha, to be with a Sangha. Without Sangha, you cannot do much of the work of transformation and healing. Without the Sangha, even the Buddha cannot do much. That is why after enlightenment, the first thing he thought of was to go and identify elements of his Sangha.

You have to do the same. Thay is very aware of that. Thay knew that if he went home alone, he would not be able to do anything. So he put forth a condition: I will come back only if you allow me to come with my Sangha. With Sangha we will have the collective energy powerful enough to take care of our suffering, to transform our suffering.

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Adult: Is there life after death?

Thay: Life is always with death at the same time, not only before. Life cannot be separated by death. Where there is life, there is death; and where there is death, there is life. This needs some meditation to understand. In Buddhism we speak of interbeing, which means that you cannot be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with the other side. It’s like the left and the right. If the right is not there, the left cannot be. If the left is not there, the right cannot be. It’s not possible to take the left away from the right. It’s not possible to take the right away from the left.

Suppose I ask one of you to bring the left to the Lower Hamlet, and one of you to bring the right to the New Hamlet. It’s impossible. The right and the left want to be together, because without the other you cannot be. It’s very clear. Like the above and the below. The above cannot be there if there’s no below. That is what, in Buddhism, we call interbeing. They have to be there at the same time.

So when God said, “Let the light be,” the light said, “I have to wait, my God, I have to wait.” God asked, “Why are you waiting?” And light replied, “I am waiting for darkness to manifest together with me.” Because light and darkness inter-are. Then God said, “Darkness is already there.” And light said, “In that case, I’m already there.”

That is true of good and evil, before and after, here and there, you and I. I cannot be there without you. The lotus flower cannot be there without the mud. Without the mud, a lotus is not possible. There is no happiness without suffering. There is no life without death.

When biologists observe the body of a human being, they see that life and death happen at the same time. In this very moment, thousands of cells are dying. When you scratch your skin like this, many dry cells fall down. They have died. Many cells die every moment of our daily life. Because you are so busy, you don’t notice that you are dying. If they die, you are dying. You think that you don’t die yet. You think that you have fifty or seventy years more before you die: that’s not true. Death is not down the road. Death is right here and right now.

Death is happening right here and now, at each moment. Because of the dying of a number of cells, the birth of other cells is possible. So many cells are being born in the present moment, and we don’t have the time to organize a happy birthday for them. The fact is that, scientifically speaking, you can already see birth and death happening in the present moment. Because of the dying of cells, the birth of cells is possible. Because the birth of cells is possible, the dying of cells is possible. They lean on each other to be. So you are experiencing dying and being born in every moment. Don’t think you were only born in that moment written on your birth certificate. That was not your first moment. Before that moment, there were moments you were already there. Before you were conceived in the womb of your mother, you had already been there in your father and your mother in another form. So there is no birth, no real beginning. And there’s no ending.

When we know that birth and death are together always, we are no longer afraid of dying. Because at the moment of dying, there is birth also. La vie est avec la mort. They cannot be separated. This is a very deep meditation. You should not meditate with your brain alone. You have to observe life throughout your day, so you see birth and death inter-are in everything—trees, animals, weather, matter, energy. Scientists have already pronounced that there is no birth and no death. There is only transformation. So transformation is possible, is real, and birth and death are not real. What you call birth and death are only transformation.

When you perform a chemical reaction, you bring a number of substances together. When the substances meet each other, there is a transformation. And sometimes you think that a substance is no longer there; it has vanished. But in fact, looking deeply, you see that the substance is still there in another form.

When you look at the blue sky, you don’t see your cloud anymore. You think your cloud has died, but in fact your cloud continues always in the form of the rain and so on. Birth and death are seen only on the surface. If you go down, deep down, there is no birth and no death. There is only continuation. When you touch the continuation, the nature of no birth and no death, you are no longer afraid of dying. Not only the Buddhists speak of no birth and no death, but science also speaks of no birth and no death. They can exchange their findings. It’s very interesting. It’s an invitation for us to live our life more deeply so that we can touch our true nature of no birth and no death.

Thay’s answer, I know, is only an invitation to practice. We have to live our life more mindfully, with concentration, so that we can be deeply in touch with what is happening. And then we have a chance to touch the true nature of reality, no birth and no death. We describe it in Buddhism with the term nirvana. Nirvana is no birth and no death. In Christianity you may call it the Ultimate, God. God is our true nature of no birth and no death. We don’t have to go to find God. God is our true nature.

It’s like a wave who believes that she is subjected to birth and death. Every time she comes up and then begins to go down, she’s afraid of dying. But if the wave realizes that she is water, she’s no longer afraid. Before going up she is water, before going down she is water, and after going down, she continues to be water. There’s no death. So it’s very important that the wave does some meditation and realizes that she is wave, but she is at the same time water. And when she knows she is water, she is no longer afraid of dying. She feels wonderful going up; she feels wonderful going down. She’s free from fear.

Our clouds are also like that. They are not afraid of dying. They know that if they are not a cloud, they can be something else equally beautiful, like the rain or the snow.

So the wave does not go and look for water. She doesn’t have to go and search for water, because she is water in the here and the now. The same thing is true with God. We don’t have to look for God. We are God. God is our true nature. You don’t have to go and look for nirvana. Nirvana is our ground. That is the teaching of the Buddha. A number of us have been able to realize that. We enjoy the present moment. We know that it isn’t possible for us to die.

The earth is the most beautiful thing in the whole solar system. We should be able to enjoy walking on this beautiful planet, which is our mother, the mother of all Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and saints. The mother of Mahatma Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, of Jesus Christ, of the Buddhas, our own mother. And we enjoy being with our mother. Our mother is outside of us, and she is inside of us. Walking down the hill, we can enjoy every step, enjoy ourselves, enjoy the presence of our beautiful mother, the earth. We should walk in such a way that with each step, we can touch our mother deeply for our healing and also for the healing of our mother.

* “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, all is transformed,” a maxim attributed to the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, 1743–1794

** bhikshunis – Buddhist nuns who have received the full ordination

Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Living History in Belfast

By Peter Doran

In April 2012, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke in the Senate Chamber at Parliament Buildings on the outskirts of Belfast, Ireland, where former combatants and political opponents now serve together in the government.. Thay addressed an audience of ministers, legislators, and a cross-section of representatives of civil society who have played their own quiet roles in supporting the peace through their actions in the therapeutic community, spirituality, social activism, regeneration, and investment. Mindfulness practitioners from the Buddhist and other traditions were present, including members of a local ecumenical society dedicated to the work and memory of Thomas Merton.

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Addressing the theme of “building peace,” Thay began to describe how mindful breathing and mindful walking put us in touch with the wonders of life and support us in recognising the pain, sorrow, fears, and anger within us. His words took on an immediacy in the context of the journey out of conflict. “There is suffering inside every one of us. And that suffering inside of us may reflect the suffering of our own parents, our ancestors who may have suffered a lot. But because many of them did not know how to handle, to transform their suffering, that is why they have transmitted their own suffering to us,” he explained. “That is why it is very important to get in touch with our suffering, to embrace it, to listen to it, to take a deep look into the nature of suffering, and to find out the roots of our own suffering. And our own suffering also somehow reflects the suffering of the world. That is why to understand our own suffering helps us to understand the suffering of other people more easily.”

He went on to describe the other capacities generated by compassion, including the art of gentle, loving speech and compassionate listening, the tools for a new kind of liberation, a liberation of hearts and minds. Recalling his proposal after 9/11 for organized sessions of deep listening and workshops with Palestinians and Israelis in Plum Village, Thay issued a similar invitation in Belfast. He called for wise and compassionate people to lead sessions of deep listening and loving speech, and for such sessions to be televised. He offered this suggestion not as a political solution but as a spiritual practice with the power to heal and transform and prepare the ground for political solutions to come more easily. 

Peace Is Personal and Political 

Martina Anderson, then a Junior Minister who has now taken up a seat in the European Parliament, affirmed the need for legislators working to build a better society to draw on the practice of mindfulness. She recounted her time as an Irish Republican Army prisoner in Durham Prison, when she was visited by Buddhist monks. “I became very interested in what they were saying. I began to practice Buddhism with them and Buddhist meditation.” Holding a well-read and marked copy aloft, Anderson continued, “Little did I know then, when I was given the book The Miracle of Mindfulness, that I would not only meet the author of that book, but that I would meet him here in Parliament Buildings in Stormont, and that I would do so serving as a Junior Minister in the Executive.”

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Anderson remembered how the book stayed with her throughout the years. “I have read many sections because there is one thing about life, nothing ever stays the same. The perspective I have learned about engaged Buddhism is something that I have also carried down the years. It is something that has assisted me as I have made my journey from jail to being a minister in our Executive,” recalled Anderson. “The peace process has at least two important elements for all of us. It has the personal invitation to examine our respective contributions and to mindfully embark on a journey of transformation informed by compassion; and it has a political dimension that takes our compassion and energy and enables a different kind of future.”

“Today you [Thay] are visiting a very transformed society, one that is still transforming,” she continued. “It was not long ago that political opponents who now sit around tables in this Chamber could not enter into one room together. And yet, all of the major political parties are now involved in a power-sharing Executive. It has been a difficult journey for some, but for many of us it is a journey that has involved mindfulness, and that has been part of the transformation. Your message of nonviolent social change is as relevant today as when you wrote to and later met with Martin Luther King Jr. regarding the war in Vietnam. There are, perhaps, phases of struggle where different approaches are felt to be more appropriate, but I have no doubt that we are living in a society where the challenge of nonviolent social change is one that we have embarked upon, and we are building a society that will be at peace with itself. In building that peace we know we will have to respect each other and understand each other in order to meaningfully engage with one another; and most importantly, we need to remember our interconnectedness, our compassion, and common humanity.”

As lead sponsor of Thay’s visit to Parliament Buildings, Conall McDevitt, also a Member of the Legislative Assembly, said it was wonderful “to be in the presence of living history.” As a member of John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, which grew out of the civil rights struggles of the late 1960s, McDevitt represents a generation who took to the streets in the north of Ireland with the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. ringing in their ears. The debates on the merits of nonviolent social change also crossed the Atlantic in that period. When Thay spoke in the Senate Chamber in 2012, his voice was a familiar one; it carried words that had formed part of a backdrop to the struggle and pursuit of transformation in the late 1960s. It was a voice that found a ready echo in the lives of those in our community for whom mindfulness formed part of a new story of personal liberation that helped to unlock history for all of us.

The visit by Thich Nhat Hanh to Parliament Buildings was sponsored by Members of the Legislative Assembly who represent the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Alliance Party. He was initially received by the Democratic Unionist Party Speaker, William Hay. Sinn Fein was represented at the event by two Ministers, its Chairman, and other party members and staff.

mb62-Living3Dr. Peter Doran is a lecturer in environmental law and sustainable development at Queens University, Belfast. His research interests include mindfulness and sustainable consumption. He practices at the Black Mountain Zen Centre and worked on the Mindfulness Ireland organising team on the Belfast leg of Thay’s visit to Ireland.

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Avant-Garde Dharma

For “People in Sorrow”

By Karen Hilsberg and Peter Kuhn

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On October 2, 2011, in downtown Los Angeles at the REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater), an unusual fusion of jazz legends and the Plum Village Sangha converged. The occasion was the world premiere of “For People in Sorrow,” arranged by Alex Cline (True Buddha Mountain). Cline, a world-class percussionist and composer, has been working for years to integrate elements of his mindfulness practice and our spiritual tradition into cutting-edge musical expressions.

Dharma teacher Larry Ward offered an opening benediction in the form of his poem, “A Wild Thing,” written for the occasion (see p. 43). The concert was attended by many friends from local Sanghas as well as by luminaries in the jazz community, including Roscoe Mitchell, whose composition “People in Sorrow” received Cline’s new treatment. Sister Dang Nghiem, a Dharma teacher and friend of Cline and his family, contributed a Vietnamese chant which was recorded in advance and projected on a large screen above the eleven-piece band. In Cline’s words, “After accepting my rather unusual invitation, Sister D (as she’s known) chose to chant the following verses, presented here in English translation: a gatha for listening to the bell and the Verses of Consecration used as part of the Ceremony for Closing the Coffin.”

Listening to the Bell
Listen, listen,
This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.

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Verses of Consecration
This water’s shape is round or square
according to the container that holds it.
In the spring warmth, it is liquid; in the winter cold, it is solid.
When its path is open, it flows.
When its path is obstructed, it stands still.
How vast it is, yet its source is so small it is difficult to find.
How wonderful it is in its streams which flow endlessly.
In the jade rivulets, the footprints of dragons remain.
In the deep pond, water holds the bright halo
of the autumn moon.
On the tip of the king’s pen, water becomes
the compassion of clemency.
On the willow branch, it becomes
the clear fresh balm of compassion.
Only one drop of the water of compassion is needed,
and the Ten Directions are all purified.
Cline was inspired to rework this piece, which orchestrated a rich blend of composed and improvisational sections, in honor of the original composer, Roscoe Mitchell. “People in Sorrow” was first performed by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969. It profoundly expanded the language of modern jazz, utilizing a wide range of small sounds and percussion to create layers and subtleties of expression that helped define a new era of post-Coltrane modernism. It clearly made a strong impression on young Alex, who was a teenager at the time.

Cline recalls when he first heard “People in Sorrow” on the LP of the same name and, in the concert’s program notes, he also reflects on the genesis of the current project and the connection between being a jazz musician/composer and a student of the Buddha.

mb62-Avant-Garde3 “[When I first heard Mitchell’s piece, it] was an unprecedentedly miserable time of my life, but it was also an exciting time, as I was hearing a lot of creative music, most of it in the ‘jazz’ genre, that was tremendously inspiring to me, something that awakened in me a sense that perhaps there was something akin to a greater purpose in life and which I feel ultimately contributed heavily to my surviving that otherwise grim period.

“The music itself became like some sort of raft carrying me safely across seas of my own bitterness and confusion or a torch lighting the darkness. …While I didn’t know what inspired Roscoe Mitchell to title his piece ‘People in Sorrow’ (and I still don’t), as I listened to its meditative and poignant collective creativity I felt in touch with both my own suffering as well as the world’s, and was somehow consoled by the beauty and immediacy of the music at the same time. For me, ‘People in Sorrow’ was one of the deeply influential musical performances I experienced at the time that served as a potent example of magnificent validity of free improvisation and of the transformational power of music.

“Today, as a musician who chooses to follow in the footsteps of the many great artists who inspired me so many years ago and continue to do so, and as a person who aspires and practices to understand and ultimately transform suffering, this occasion holds special significance for me. Performing this piece offers me a unique opportunity to enable and enjoy an overt confluence of the streams of both my musical and spiritual practices.

“I bow deeply and humbly in gratitude and offer this music to all who suffer, to all people in sorrow, that all may embrace and transform their suffering and find peace, healing, and happiness, the true happiness that our suffering helps make possible.”

The performance was not foot-tapping music. The listener was asked to let go of his or her notions of what can be defined as music or beauty, and to embrace the offering as practitioners learn to embrace all that arises in meditation. Letting go of conditioned responses and suspending judgment, the unfolding transformations of the theme created a visceral experience that was transcendental for some listeners. The all-star ensemble created a musical tour-de-force in celebration of Cline’s deepening practice and engaged life. Mr. Mitchell, who shared the concert bill, expressed his humble appreciation of the tribute and was obviously moved by the performance.

The ensemble featured: Oliver Lake (saxophones, flute), Vinny Golia (woodwinds), Dwight Trible (voice), Dan Clucas (cornet, flute), Jeff Gauthier (violin), Maggie Parkins (cello), Mark Dresser (bass), Myra Melford (piano, harmonium), Zeena Parkins (harp), G.E. Stinson (electric guitar, electronics), Alex Cline (percussion), Sister Dang Nghiem (chant, bell), Larry Ward (opening poem), and Will Salmon (conductor).

The CD/DVD “For People in Sorrow” will be released in March of 2013 on Cryptogramophone Records. Find it on www. amazon.com or www.crypto.tv.  

mb62-Avant-Garde4Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, works as a psychologist in correctional mental health at Los Angeles County Women’s Jail and is a founder of the Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City, California.

Peter Kuhn, True Ocean of Joy, practices with the Shared Breath Sangha  at Donovan State Prison and Open Heart Sangha in San Diego, California. He coordinates “True Freedom,” a prison Dharma sharing (pen pal) program, and recently started a twelve-step Zen group.

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More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder 

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ChauYoder, Tam Luu Ly / Chan Tham Tue, was born in Hanoi, Vietnam and lives in Walnut Creek, California with her husband Jim, to whom she has been married since 1971. They have two adult daughters, Ann and Lynn. Chau earned her Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronic Engineering (B.S.E.E.E.) from California State University at Fresno and worked for twenty-five years at Chevron Corporation—as a manager in Chevron Information Technology, then Manager of Network Operations, and later as a consultant in Applied Behavioral Science.

Chau has a deep aspiration to share specific and important methods and techniques for enhancing mindful living, all emphasizing self-awareness of body and mind. She studied with Master Ce Hang Truong to become a trainer in Integral Tai Chi and learned MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. She is currently an active Dharma Teacher, ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003. Since 1989, she has offered workshops and classes on mindful leadership, mindful living, and qigong to promote healthy and happy living. She has presented her programs in youth, corporate, and retreat environments.

ChauYoder was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 17, 2012, for this special anniversary issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share a meaningful experience from your time there?

Chau Yoder: In 1997 I went to Plum Village for the first time, and in Thay’s first Dharma talk, he encouraged everybody to be in extended silence. I spent about ten days in silence except during Dharma discussions. I discovered the power of silence. Once during the week, a young nun misunderstood my actions and she scolded me, but I hadn’t done what she was accusing me of. I caught myself ready to respond and heard my inner voice: “Oh! I’m in silence.” So I just stayed quiet. I was so free. I felt so good. That’s why now I talk about the power of silence.

MB: Did you notice a deeper silence internally because of the external silence?

CY: I recognize that I catch my own thinking more. I am able to sort it out, able to understand myself better. I call it peeling the onion. I recognize my bad seeds and my good seeds.

mb61-MoreJoy3MB: When and how did you first meet Thay? As a young practitioner, did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CY: In 1987 I read Thay’s books, Peace Is Every Step and Being Peace. His writing is so clear. Thay’s Dharma body exhibits a peace and calmness that I really like. I observed his mindful walk—he was so there in the moment. I felt like when I found Thay’s teaching I returned to my roots, both with blood and spiritual ancestors.

In 1991, I had a pivotal moment during a five-day retreat at Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. I was sitting with my mom next to me when Thay Phap Dang chanted a sutra. Suddenly, tears poured down my face and I couldn’t stop crying through the lunch that followed. I couldn’t eat.  After lunch, I wrote a letter to Thay and put it in the bell.

When you ask Thay a question, he’ll often answer it in public somewhere, and you feel like, “Oh, he’s talking to me.” That afternoon Thay said in his talk, “Watch out for your desire. Don’t think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” I felt like he was talking to me. I had signed my name to the letter, so the abbot of Kim Son, Thay Tinh Tu, came out and touched my head and talked to me, trying to console me. That was a pivotal moment. That’s when I recognized that the seeds in me of wanting to be a nun were so strong.

Years later, Thay talked to me when I was at his hut in Plum Village with a few others. Thay was talking about people like me, who are married. He turned to me and said, “If your will is strong, then you can do it. Right, Chau?” I knew he was right. I knew that my will was not strong enough to become a nun. More and more, people keep encouraging me to nurture the seeds inside of me to be a monastic and maybe one of these days, one of these years, at least next lifetime, I can be. And that’s my vow. Next lifetime, I want to be a little boy novice. [Smiles.]

mb61-MoreJoy4My parents didn’t want me to be a monastic, so I studied hard to get a scholarship and came from Vietnam to the U.S. The first day I arrived at California State University, Fresno (which was about two weeks after I arrived in the U.S.), I saw my husband, Jim, and fell in love and that was it!

MB: You’ve devoted your life to the practice as a layperson. How have you manifested a devout daily practice?

CY: I believe that practicing with Thay Tu Luc, the abbot of the Compassion Meditation Center in Hayward, California, is one of my key activities that help me to be on the path of mindfulness. I am lucky to have this condition in my life, so I don’t have to go to Deer Park Monastery or wait until Thay Nhat Hanh comes. Thay Tu Luc represents Thay Nhat Hanh’s teaching here for me.

When I went to the retreat with Thay at Kim Son Monastery in 1989, the abbot, Thay Tinh Tu, taught us the sixteen health stick exercises, the ones that Plum Village does now. Every morning, I went and practiced with him at 5:30, before Thay’s events. One morning, he handed the stick to me and said, “Take this home and practice.” So I took it home, practiced, and eventually taught it along with meditation to my work colleagues at Chevron. It really helped them with their stress. That started my teaching career.

Then Jim and I went to the retreat for business people at Plum Village in 1999. There, Sister Chan Khong asked me to lead La Boi Publishing [publishers of Thay’s books in Vietnamese]. The more I got to edit Thay’s books, the deeper I got into his teaching. I really treasure that.

MB: Can you tell me a little bit more about La Boi Publishing?

CY: At the beginning, I headed a team of volunteers. Every year for a while, we published two or three books of Thay’s in Vietnamese. It was really active. But in 2005, when Thay started to go to Vietnam, more books were printed in Vietnam. They’re much cheaper to publish there. Eventually we lost our free storage space for La Boi, so it became more practical to print all the books in Vietnam.

Thay also encouraged us to share the Dharma and to practice together. In 1999, we created a monthly meditation group called La Boi Sangha. At first it was purely Vietnamese, and then a few English-speaking people joined us. We became bilingual. But now we’ve returned to only Vietnamese. I feel like I’m a bridge between Vietnamese and English, so I encourage people to do both.

MB: I am curious about your work with bridging between the Vietnamese and Western cultures. How are you a bridge, and how does that feel for you?

CY: It’s just natural, I think, because I’m married to Jim and because I came here when I went to school in 1967. My English speaking and understanding is pretty good, so I can connect with English-speaking people and I still have the roots of Vietnamese, especially after I started to edit and publish Thay’s books in Vietnamese. Also conditions have been right, because in 1999 I started to be more involved with the English-speaking Community of Mindful Living in Northern California and with Parallax Press.

MB: Did you find that your practice changed after you received the Lamp Transmission?

CY: Not really. Like I mentioned, I have been teaching since 1989. After the Lamp Transmission, maybe people notice you more. Thay said that we are all Dharma teachers already, and we just have to share what we learn. The key thing is that we have to stay fresh and joyful and we have to watch out for becoming cocky. Of course, I’m very honored. The lamp is in the front of my house, so I’m reminded and thankful for Thay and the community to keep the trust in me, to give me that opportunity.

MB: What activities are you involved in that bring the Dharma to life for you?

CY: For sixteen years I have been teaching mindful leadership to 147 senior high school students and twenty adults at an annual Rotary Leadership camp. Since 2007, about once a year I travel with my husband to a foreign country to deliver several hundred prosthetic hands and train people who have lost their hands.

MB: Your email address includes the phrase “high spirits.” In my perception, you’re a person of very high spirits and joy. How do you keep your joy alive every day?

CY: Every day I lie down and appreciate the Buddhas in the ten thousand directions who help me and the people around me to see and follow the path. Namo Amitabha, Namo  Avalokiteshvara. I also write in a little notebook all the affirmations for my five organs, for my mind and body, to stay centered and happy. Every morning before I get up, I recite in Vietnamese the waking-up gatha that Thay wrote. I pray that beings around me help themselves and protect themselves, and if I accidentally harm any beings, then please help them to go to nirvana. That’s my normal routine. Then I get up, and I sit and meditate and pray and chant and invite the bell. I walk here and there mindfully every day. For exercise I do tai chi, qigong, and yoga.

I remember Thay said it is important to be fresh as flowers. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Morning and night, I focus on my joyful and beneficial daily spirit with a beginner’s mind vow and appreciation. Since 1989, I’ve been teaching at a weekly cancer support group. I also teach at a Jewish old folks’ home, and I still teach at Chevron once a month. I’ve pretty much surrounded myself with these things. I’m just so thankful, sitting here, looking out the window, thankful for this little awesome place we have to remind me of nature and practice.

Since I began to practice with Thay, I’ve learned to enjoy nature so much more. I used to be a city girl. And I used to be very scared of death—of my family’s death, of my own death. I had a one-year-old brother who died when I was only five; I cried and cried. When I studied with Thay and understood better about no coming, no going, that helped me so much. I no longer feel fear of death or worry about my loved ones. I learned from Thay and other teachers that we are nothing but energy. That helped me survive raising my two daughters. Now they are thirty-seven and thirty-three. Otherwise I would just worry about them so much. When I learned these things, I would pray to Avalokiteshvara, send Avalokiteshvara energy through me, in me, and then I’d give them loving energy and prayer energy. So I feel much more at peace. All of these practices help me to be in the moment.

Since I began to study with Thay and the community, I understand my body reactions much faster. I used to have pain from worry, from anxiety. I used to be a super Type A person. I know some of that energy is still in me, but I’m a calmer Type A! [Laughter.]

Before I studied with Thay, I learned from another practice how to transform my migraine headaches into nothing. No more migraine headaches! If I don’t do the mindful practices, both physical and mental, I can see the impact on my body.

MB: It sounds like you’ve had some deep transformations thanks to the practice.

CY: Yes, definitely. Someone who worked for me told me, “I used to be very scared of you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, we used to call you dragon lady! We were so scared of you.” If they didn’t perform, I would nail them, I guess. But then he said, “But now you’re very nice. You’re the best manager. We love you now.” So I learned to listen to people better, and understand them better, and empathize better. I know that when I first studied these things, I was so critical of myself. I was a perfectionist, and very critical of myself and of others. So I just created suffering for myself and others.

I have to agree; I have transformed a lot. My life is much more peaceful and joyful. I still yell back at Jim sometimes, but I know how to apologize and I stop myself much faster. I rarely have the blow-ups that I used to have frequently! I still have fear, anger, and anxiety when dealing with the difficulties of life; however, I feel that they are much less than before. I have to constantly work on being mindful and peeling my onion to transform my bad habit energy.

I am so thankful to the practice for my transformation. This is the momentum that helps me help others. I have found this path helps me have more joy and less suffering. That’s my vow, now—to help others and equally, myself, to have more joy and less suffering in life.

MB: What guidance would you like to share with young practitioners?

CY: PBS (Pause, Breathe, and Smile). Practice mindful breathing even just ten minutes a day to be a balanced, ethical, and compassionate leader—a leader of yourself. Treasure your greatness. Appreciate your youth and live mindfully in the moment. Practice when you are young; then you will have a much fuller life and balance in all areas of your life. You will definitely be happier. Practice a new routine for twenty-eight days straight to change your habits.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

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The Hands of the Bodhisattvas

By Sister Hy Nghiem 

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Dear Thay, dear Brothers, dear Sisters, and dear Sangha,

Today is February 19, 2012, and we are in our final week of the winter retreat here at Magnolia Grove Monastery. Today we continue our investigation of the Fifth and Sixth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing.

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THE FIFTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING: COMPASSIONATE, HEALTHY LIVING

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying, nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness, such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, well-being, and joy in our body and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth.

This mindfulness training wants us to know that true happiness is not something that we can find outside of us. If we want to have true happiness, then we need to know how to create the conditions for happiness to manifest. The Buddha taught that we must know how to take care of our body and our mind. He showed us how to do that through the practice of mindful breathing.

We depend on our breathing to live. If we breathe in and we cannot breathe out, then our life ends. Sometimes when we are busy in our daily lives, we don’t have the capacity to get in touch with our breathing. That is why in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha taught us a very simple and concrete practice: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Awareness of breathing helps us to cultivate and establish wisdom, and that wisdom gives us the capacity to recognize what really brings us happiness. Do money, fame, or praise bring us happiness?

Recently, the famous singer Whitney Houston died. She had a special voice and she could sing many styles of music. She was very famous and very wealthy. But let us ask ourselves, did these conditions bring her happiness? Even though she used her money to help organizations that alleviate hunger in Africa, she was not able to find peace and happiness. The loneliness in her was too immense. She used drugs to cover that loneliness and one day she overdosed and died.

We may have looked at her talent, wealth, and fame, and wanted to be like her. But the truth is that all those things didn’t alleviate her loneliness and sadness; they were not able to give her true happiness and peace. If we want true happiness, then we must live with mindfulness. And if we want to be mindful, we must use many methods to help ourselves, to develop peace in our body and in our mind. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing teaches us to become aware of our in-breath and our out-breath, and in this way, to calm our whole body and mind. Our mind’s tendency is to think about the past and the future instead of staying in the present moment. We only need to be dwelling in the present moment and we find happiness here. We see that happiness is very simple.

Offering Dharma to Ourselves 

In 1999 there was a flood in Vietnam and many people died. When I first entered the monastery I really wanted to do charity work, so I helped with the Love and Understanding program. In this program, we send letters to our friends who have participated in our retreats, inviting them to give us a helping hand to alleviate the suffering in Vietnam. I worked with so much love and inspiration. And in one day I received hundreds of letters from friends. When we receive a donation, we send out a thank you letter. But one day I received so many letters, and I began to feel, “How come no one is helping me?” And suddenly I began to blame others, and sadness and anger arose.

So I lost my peace for a few minutes. Fortunately, I did not let that energy carry me for long. A few minutes were enough to destroy me. I could see that I was making myself suffer because of blaming. As practitioners, we bring our compassion to many places, but if we lose our peace, then the work we do only becomes an outer form. No real helping can happen.

And that is the lesson I learned. From then on, each time I worked I became more aware of bringing my practice into the work that I did. When we want to offer compassion to other people, the first thing we must do is to learn to love ourselves. We come back to our breathing to calm down the negative thoughts, the negative mental formations. That is why the Buddha taught us to use mindful breathing to calm our body.

This precept also says that we do not take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Our practice is to know how to live satisfied with what fulfills simple needs. In the Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, the third realization says that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled. This searching brings about unwholesome activity. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, know the value of having few desires. They regard the realization of perfect understanding to be their only career. For example, sometimes we need electronic devices to keep in touch with the news, but we should not waste too much time with them. We should not think that in order to have happiness we need them. We should not run after them.

So first we must offer the Dharma to ourselves, transform our suffering, transform our pain, transform what has become stuck in our heart. When we are able to practice like this, then the spirit of this precept will give us happiness in the present moment and we won’t need to seek material goods, wealth, or fame.

THE SIXTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING: TAKING CARE OF ANGER

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are committed to taking care of the energy of anger when it arises, and to recognizing and transforming the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger manifests, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking to acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We know that the roots of anger are not outside of ourselves but can be found in our wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in ourselves and others. By contemplating impermanence, we will be able to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger, and to recognize the preciousness of our relationships. We will practice Right Diligence in order to nourish our capacity of understanding, love, joy, and inclusive- ness, gradually transforming our anger, violence, and fear, and helping others do the same.
When our anger arises, we must use our eyes of compassion to look at the situation. For example, when a person does or says something that makes us suffer, if we can look with compassion at that situation, then we are able to understand the reasons why this person acted that way. And if we know how to practice, to nourish that peace inside of us, then this becomes a source of energy that can help us to deal with our strong emotions. If we do not practice, then suffering will always be there. The Buddha taught us in the Four Noble Truths that there is suffering, and that we have a path to overcome that suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the path of practice.

There is a story about a couple who didn’t know how to speak lovingly or nourish each other’s happiness, so, day by day a distance grew between them. They lost their ability to communicate, and irritation, loneliness, and fear manifested. The husband began to go out and get drunk, then came home and hit his wife and reprimanded her for being the cause of his misery.

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The wife suffered so much she decided to go to the temple. She told the abbot her family situation. The wise abbot told her, “Let me give you the nectar of compassion and if you use it right you will suffer less. Each time your husband comes home and yells at you, you must drink it but don’t swallow; just let it stay in your mouth. If you swallow it, the sacredness will not be there to protect you.”

When her husband came home, she took a sip of the nectar of compassion and kept it in her mouth. No matter what her husband said, she could not say anything in return. For many days he came home and yelled at her, and when she didn’t respond, he fell asleep. And then one day the husband thought to himself: Why is my wife being so kind? Before, whenever I came home and said something to her, she would say something back. And if I threw a small bowl, then she would throw a pot. He told her, “My darling, recently you seem kinder, you are not angry like before. And thanks to your kindness, today I am able to transform.”

The wife told her husband about the nectar of compassion given to her by the abbot. So the husband went to the temple and told the abbot the nectar of compassion given to his wife was wonderful. The abbot responded, “It is not the nectar of compassion; it’s just water! When you are both angry, you can create a fire that will burn the whole house. But when you hold the water in your mouth, you cannot say anything, and your anger dies.”

This method helped the family to reestablish harmony, but they still didn’t know how to transform their anger. To do this we must know how to look deeply to find the roots of suffering. When we see someone act in anger, we bring our mind of compassion to look deeply into it. Then we do not blame or punish the person, but we want to find the best ways to help them transform their suffering and find happiness. This is the practice called Right View that leads to Right Thinking and Right Speech, through which communication can be established.

Refuge in the Practice

If our anger is triggered, we must take refuge in the practice; we must come back to our breathing so that we can control our body and our mind. Then we can bring the energy of love so that we can understand the situation. To do that we must know how to stop. We stop our bodily movements and our speech, and then we stop what is not so beautiful in our mind. And then we are able to see the roots of the suffering in this person: their family history and the long process that has created this person. And we are able to let go of that anger.

This precept tells us that each time we have anger we should not do or say anything. We take refuge in our breathing; we practice walking meditation. When we are calm, we are able to reconcile what is in ourselves and we learn to look at other people with eyes of compassion.

Once there was a young gentleman who got angry very easily.  And each time he got angry, he would hit things. His mother could not stand it. One day he went into the forest, where he found a cave. Into the cave, he yelled, “I hate you.” The echo from the cave came back to him, saying, “I hate you.” When he heard this, he was so disappointed and so sad. He went back home and asked his mom, “Why does everybody hate me?” When his mother asked what had happened, he told her about the message from the cave, and that it meant that in the whole world, nobody loved him. The mother told him to go back to the cave, and this time to say, “I love you.” When he did this, of course the cave answered back with love. When your mind has love, your eyes shine, and when you shine with love, the world responds with love.

These two precepts show us how to live the simple and healthy life of a practitioner. When we know how to take care of our body and our mind, our understanding and love grow. When we are able to make one step in peace, when we sit with our minds peaceful, the person next to us can feel that energy.  As practitioners we must know how to love ourselves, to establish peace in our body and our mind. Then we have the capacity to share our practice with the world. We can be the hands of the bodhisattvas.

Translated by Sister Boi Nghiem Edited by Barbara Casey

mb61-Hands4Sister Hy Nghiem (Sister True Joy) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1996. Sister Joy enjoys coming back to herself to be present for her body and mind. Reading sutras from the Buddha is also a source of nourishment for her daily practice.

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

mb19-dharma2

When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain

How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice

By Paul Tingen

Around twenty-five years ago, neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners, and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories,  emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” writes Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.1

Until the 1980s, conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood. This belief in the brain’s static cellular circuitry gave rise to a very limited view of human consciousness, a “neurological nihilism,” in which consciousness was seen as no more than the byproduct of these fixed pathways. With the emergence of the computer, the analogy was made that the hardware of the brain determined and limited the software (our feelings and our thoughts).

However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich,2 this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer language, the software and the hardware inter-are: the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way around. Neuroscience today is governed by what is known as Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.

The idea of neuroplasticity has given new hope to people with physical, emotional, and mental impairments that had hitherto been regarded as unchangeable. Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the more they resist the process of rewiring. The older, entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thoughts, and actions. Every time we use a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood that we will do it again.

Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering, we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again. Suffering is not a free ride.

Rewiring for Well-being

There are many parallels between these theories of neuroscience and Thay’s teachings. The essence of our Buddhist practice is to use mindfulness to develop singularity of thought (concentration/samadhi), which can help us to get out of habitual thinking and feeling and help us to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering. Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for improved well-being.

Mindfulness is intentional and based on our free will. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them. Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware, and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.

The way we use the mantra, “This is a happy moment,” is a good example. We train the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might not otherwise be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthening the neural pathways associated with our suffering. We know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not. Another factor is whether we look at our suffering with Right View; wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being. The light of mindfulness cooks the raw potatoes, so they become a joy to eat.

Thay has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings. Neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathways indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thay has long recommended that people who come to Plum Village don’t immediately start digging into their suffering, but instead begin with watering their seeds of well-being. Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough, we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.

Our Sun of Mindfulness

To describe these processes more clearly, I would like to build on Thay’s analogy of our practice as that of a gardener. A gardener transforms compost (the mud) into flowers (the lotus). A skillful gardener knows how to create a pleasant garden with lots of flowers and just enough compost to feed them. Being a skillful gardener of our own inner garden is our spiritual work of self-love. To offer another analogy: neural pathways can be described as a collection of gullies, brooks, canals, and canyons; our feelings and thoughts can be considered the water in them. Mindfulness has often been described as a light, and in this case we could extend the analogy by describing mindfulness as the sun.

And so, it rains and a rivulet forms: the first arrow has hit and we suffer. The Buddha’s teachings tell us this is unavoidable; life will fire us arrows. Suffering is inevitable. But if we don’t handle this arrow correctly, if we add other arrows to it with wrong thinking, the rivulet turns into a stream, a river, and eventually a flood of suffering. The one neural connection has turned into a pathway and is likely to join with other similar pathways, and all of them may be deepened. As these neural pathways are strengthened, so are the corresponding mental formations, and they will be more difficult to transform. And once this gully or canal or canyon has formed, new rain will be drawn to it, deepening these pathways still further.

There is a belief in Western culture that we have to go through our suffering (the dark night of the soul), but from the perspective of neuroplasticity and our practice, we cannot transform our suffering from inside our suffering. We cannot affect the course of a canal while being caught in the stream. We cannot dissolve neural pathways while firing them simultaneously. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. We have to step out of the stream and shine our sun of mindfulness on it. Only with the healthy parts of ourselves can we heal our afflictions.

When we’re suffering, streams (or storms) of thoughts and feelings run through us; and when we manage to breathe and become mindful, these streams calm down to a gentle trickle. As the water slows down, as the storm abates to a gentle breeze, the neurons stop firing together, and we no longer strengthen our neural pathway of suffering. The suffering, the neural pathway, may still be there, but it is no longer a danger to us. It is like the mother embracing her angry child: she holds him firmly, so he can do no damage, and also lovingly, so he can come back to his true self. At that point, the water can mingle with the earth and turn into mud, or it can evaporate in the light of the sun of our mindfulness and fall down as rain (our tears) somewhere else in our garden. In both cases, the water will help grow flowers rather than deepen the pathway of suffering.

When we consider this analogy, it’s easy to see why Thay so often stresses that we should not judge or suppress our suffering. In seeing our suffering as water flowing through a canal, we realize that we need that water to tend our garden. If handled unskillfully, the water can deepen the groove of our suffering; if we know how to practice, we can use it to grow flowers in our garden. The analogy can be extended yet further. Sometimes our suffering has become frozen, hidden, inaccessible: we may have become bitter or repressed our feelings. One can’t grow flowers with ice, so we have to first melt our frozen feelings.

Mindfulness practice in general, and sitting meditation in particular, are ways of strengthening the power of the sun of our mindfulness, or the power of our concentration (samadhi). But sometimes, if our sun of mindfulness isn’t strong enough to transform our suffering, we need the compassionate and mindful presence of another person. As the water starts to flow, we cry, and we begin to disarm and transform our suffering with our collective mindfulness. This is one of several reasons why practicing in a Sangha is so important. Neuroscience offers an additional reason, emanating from its research of a particular class of neurons called mirror neurons, which are triggered when we observe the actions and/or feelings of others, and which then fire in corresponding ways. Neuroscientists have argued that mirror neurons make empathy possible; and even simply being in the company of other practitioners will trigger mirror neurons that strengthen our own practice.

What Thay calls our store consciousness can be seen as the network of neural pathways in our brain, much of it inherited from our ancestors, with each seed corresponding to a neural pathway. Intense feelings, addictions, and many of the noxious things we consume in our society can strengthen our neural pathways of suffering (hence the importance of the Fifth Mindfulness Training). By contrast, the calming nature of our entire practice makes it easier to rewire our brain. There are no magic formulas or strategies; the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful, at all times, of whether we’re transforming our suffering or merely rehearsing it.

Living lightly offers more freedom and clarity to practitioners and also makes it possible to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones—in other words, to turn neutral and often forgotten neural pathways into pathways that trigger well-being. It is, so to speak, far easier to cultivate flowers in the gently rolling hills of Plum Village than in the steep crags of the Grand Canyon.

© 2012, Paul Tingen

1) All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:

* Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005).
* Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008.
* Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007).
* Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Harper-Perrenial, 2002).

2) Carr, pages 24-26.

Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of  a book about the electric music of  Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album titled Metamorphosis. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.