I Have Arrived: I Am Home

By Cindy Sheehan

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I was honored and humbled to be in the presence of a holy man, Thich Nhat Hanh, today [October 8, 2005] at MacArthur Park in a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Thay (teacher), as he is known, walks with an aura of peace and acceptance radiating from him. Thay teaches: “Every day we do things that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life, our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment we are alive.” This is what we see Thay doing.

In a speech I delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on the one-year anniversary of my son Casey’s death, which was also the thirty-seventh anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., I said: “We must all do one thing for peace each day.” I now know that is not enough. We must live peace and embody peace if we want peace on earth. Our entire lives must be for peace. Not just one activity a day.

Every Step Is Peace

That was the theme for today’s walk in MacArthur Park. Thay reminded us to be in the present and take every step in peace and know that we are walking on the earth in peace. He lovingly admonished the hundreds of people who came to hear him, to do everything in peace: eat, walk, talk, breathe, sleep, work, play, etc. There was to be no yelling, no angry words, no harsh statements. This admonishment struck me to the bone, because I have been so strident in my criticism of the Bush administration in what I have seen as a greedy and destructive quest for power. The way Thay teaches can truly help our country to live in eternal peace and not eternal war.

“I have arrived. I am home. “

This was the first sign we passed as we started on our walk. Thay told us we should say with every step, “I have arrived, I am home,” and that every second we newly arrive in the present. I see so much conflict and struggle in our world because we don’t live in this second. Instead, we are worried about the next second and are mourning the past second. Camp Casey taught me to live each moment in the arrival moment. One of the reasons I have been able to remain calm in the face of an onslaught of troubles and calamity is because I realized in Camp Casey that I could not struggle against the current of my life and change my destiny any more than I could bring my son back from the land of the dead. Each second of each day is our precious arrival and we should honor each moment. Jesus Christ also said: Why worry about tomorrow? Today has enough worries of its own.

I Am Home

I met a new friend today named Jewel, whose son was a medic on the front lines in Iraq and has tried to commit suicide three times since he returned from the desert of pain. The distraught mother is beside herself with worry, said she feels her boy is dying. His superiors will not allow him to be diagnosed with PTSD so he can’t get the treatment he desperately needs. Jewel is Buddhist and I told her: “You realize your son died in Iraq.” She replied to me: “We have all died because of this war.” She is right. On April 4, 2004, Cindy Sheehan died, and Cindy Sheehan was born. The dead Cindy Sheehan lived for her home and family. She kept a neat and tidy house, often cooked meals, did everyone’s laundry, entertained friends, laughed more than she cried, worked at various jobs, and her family meant the entire world to her. She lived an insulated life filled with Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays and other celebrations.

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The Cindy who was born on 04/04/04 still adores her family above all things but now knows that the human family is worth struggling for too. The lifelong cause of peace with justice is worth leaving her home for and traveling around and being home wherever she is. I pray for Jewel and especially for her son, that he realizes that he “died” in Iraq but he can be a much better person than the one who left his loving home and mother. Tragically, the story of Jewel and her son is not an uncommon one.

“In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

This has been one of my feelings and themes for months. I know that during the terrible war [in Vietnam] Thay had no enemies, but the perceived enemy was communism. Now, in this evil war that we are struggling against, the perceived enemy is terrorism. I just saw a poll that said only thirteen percent of Americans fear a terrorist attack but the war machine has taken over and created this perceived enemy.

Last week, George Bush said things were going to be far worse in Iraq in the next few months. He likened Iraq with World War 1. Why do we allow our leaders to sacrifice our young to the war machine? War will stop when we as parents, educators, religious leaders, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives refuse to live and think in a way that allows our loved ones to be taken to a war of someone’s choice and killed. I wish I had refused to allow Casey to go to Iraq. I wish I had knocked him out and taken him to Canada or anywhere far enough away from the war monster, but I know that that would not be enough to stop the war. We all need to change our way of living and thinking so that young men no longer need to be sacrificed. I pray that the sacrifice of my son’s life will help me and others to dedicate ourselves to walking in peace.

Thay has said: “Some people think it’s a miracle to walk on water. I think it is a miracle to walk on the earth in peace.”

If we don’t learn how to do this as a people we are in for a hard time. Thay has shown hundreds of thousands of people in the world how to walk in peace. Now that we have identified the war in Iraq as insane, we need to walk on earth in peace in order to go forward. I am committing my life and Casey’s life to peace. An exit strategy from Iraq is not enough if we cannot learn to change our way of walking.

Let’s walk each step away from the killing, and walk each step in peace towards the answer. Let us join hands in working always for peace, in peace: being peace.

Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq, made international news when she traveled to Crawford, Texas and camped there to get President Bush’s attention. She is a founding member of Gold Star Families for Peace.

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an excerpt of a talk at the Sandy Beach Hotel in Da Nang on April 10, 2007. Thay spoke in Vietnamese to an audience of intellectuals and answered some fascinating questions from the audience. 

Thich Nhat HanhMost of us think that happiness is made of fame, power, money. Every one of us wants to have more power. We want to have more fame and money, because fame and money give us more power. We keep believing that when we have more money, fame, and power we’ll be happy. I have met a lot of people with great power, with a lot of money and fame, but their suffering is deep. They are so lonely.

William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company in America, is the fourth generation of the billionaire Ford family. He came to practice with us in our practice center in Vermont. I offered him the gift of a bell, and I taught him how to invite the bell each day. He told me stories of millionaires and billionaires in America who have a lot of fear, sadness, and despair.

mb46-dharma2Who has more power than the President of the United States? But if we look into the person of President Bush we see he’s not a happy person. Even President Bush doesn’t have enough power to take care of all the problems that confront him. He’s so powerful — he has a great army, a great amount of money — but he cannot solve the problems in Iraq. He can’t spit it out and he can’t swallow it. You’re very lucky that you’re not the President of the United States! If you were the President of the United States you would not sleep all night long. How can you sleep when you know that in Iraq your young people die every day and every night. The number of American young people who have died there has gone up to more than three thousand. In Iraq — in that country that you want to liberate — nearly a million have died. The situation in Iraq is desperate.

The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the people with the most power feel that they never have enough power, and this is true. We believe that if we have power, we will be able to do what we want and buy what we want. We can buy a position, buy our enemies, buy anything. If we have power in our hands, we can do anything we want. We have to re-examine that belief, because in reality, I have met people who have great power and money and fame, and who suffer extremely.

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

In Buddhism we also talk about power. But power in Buddhism is very different; it is a kind of energy that can bring us a lot of happiness and bring a lot of happiness to others.

In Eastern philosophy and literature, we talk about the spiritual path. Each one of us has to have a spiritual direction in our lives. Whether we are business people, politicians, educators, or scholars, we should have a spiritual dimension in our daily lives. If we do not have that spiritual dimension, we cannot take care of tension and despair, or the contradictions in our mind. We can never establish good communication with our co-workers, our family, our community. Each one of us must have the power of the true spiritual path.

In Buddhism, we talk about the three powers that we can generate through our practice: cutting off afflictions, insight, and the capacity to forgive and to love.

The first one is the power to cut off our afflictions — to sever our passions, hatred, and despair. If we cannot cut off passion and hatred, we cannot ever have happiness. We can learn concrete practices to do this. Once we sever the ties of passion and hatred that bind us, we become light and free and spacious. If we have passion and hatred we suffer — both men and women, you have experience with this. We cannot eat, we cannot sleep; that is hell. So the first power is the capacity to cut off afflictions.

The second power is the power of insight — in Buddhism it is called prajna. It is not knowledge that we have accumulated from reading books or learning in school. Knowledge can be beneficial, but it can also become an obstacle. In Buddhism we say that the only career of a practitioner is insight. The insight of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — what we call enlightenment — has the capacity to cut off afflictions and to generate the noble sentiments of compassion, loving kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity. That’s our only career, to give rise to insight. Once we have insight we can unravel our afflictions and help others to take care of their difficulties very quickly, just like a medical doctor. You only need to listen to the symptoms and you’ll be able to make a diagnosis and give the appropriate treatment.

mb46-dharma3The third power in Buddhism is the capacity to forgive. When we have the capacity to accept and to love, we do not have reproach or enmity. That love manifests in the way we look, in the way we speak. When we look with the eye of compassion and loving kindness, when we speak loving words, we are the ones who benefit first of all. In the Lotus  Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks at all beings with compassion. Looking at all beings with the eye of compassion is a wonderful way of behaving like the bodhisattva — without reproach, without hatred. And the person that we are looking at in this way feels forgiven and loved. We can help others to be liberated from ignorance and from the traps they are caught in.

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

When we have these three powers — the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to accept, love, and forgive — then fame, money, and power become wonderful tools. It is then that the more money we have the better, the more power the better, because they become means to help people, to enhance life. Buddhism does not accuse or judge people who want to become rich or successful in politics or business, but while you’re pursuing these things you should have a spiritual dimension. We must behave on a foundation of love, insight, and wisdom.

In the time of the Buddha, Anathapindika was an example of this kind of businessman. If you are a business person or a politician and you have love and compassion, then you become a bodhisattva. You have the capacity to cut off your passions and your hatred; you have insight to help resolve problems at your work; you have the capacity to accept and forgive people’s mistakes. You have a lot of power — spiritual power.

As Buddhist teachers we should not abuse our power. It is not because you are the abbot of a temple or the eldest in a temple that you have power. It is because you have the capacity to cut off afflictions, to forgive, and to love. It’s not because you are the abbess or the teacher that people listen to you, it’s because of your love and compassion.

In the political or business arena, the power of the owner or the leader has to be based on the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to love and forgive. Then you use your position skillfully and the things you do will not cause dissension. If you do not generate these three virtuous powers, power and money will corrupt everything, including the life of the owner or the leader. That is why spiritual direction is very important.

The Greatest Success 

The Buddha taught that we do not have to hurry towards the future to have happiness; we can be happy right now and right here. The greatest success is to live with love right in the present moment. We have the time to take care of ourselves. If we have pain, tension, irritation, and agitation, we suffer and naturally we cause others to suffer, including our loved ones. That is why we have to have time for ourselves. Then we’ll have time for our family and our community.

Come back to the present moment, do not allow the future to occupy all your energy and time. That is a very important principle from Buddhism. To come back is not easy, because we have the habit energy of running towards the future. Stopping that momentum, coming back to each step, to each breath — that is the basic practice. By living each moment of daily life, living in a way that is deep and free, we can be in touch with the wonders of life.

In a practice center, the basic practice is to use the breath and the steps to bring us back to the present moment. For example, when you listen to a bell you stop all your thinking and speaking and you come back to your breath. You breathe and you bring the mind back to the body, you are truly present in the present moment. In our daily life there are a lot of times our body is here but our mind is wandering in the past and the future. Our minds are not truly present in the body and we’re not present for ourselves. How can we be present for our loved ones, for our wives and husbands? These practices are very practical and clear, and they’re not difficult if we have the chance to begin.

I would like to leave the rest of the time so that you can pose questions related to the topic that we discussed today. Thank you for listening.

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

Man from audience: First, I’m very surprised when your disciples still keep their religion. For example, if they are priests or pastors or ministers, do they keep their religion? Second, I know that besides being a monk, you are also a scholar. I have read a few of your writings, and I see that you have done work to spread and explain Vietnamese Buddhism to the world, just like Master Van Hanh (1). How have you contributed to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism as a scholar?

Thay: Back when Christian missionaries came to Vietnam, they often tried to convert the Vietnamese people and force them to give up their tradition to embrace the new religion. This caused a lot of suffering.

mb46-dharma4When we had boat people dwelling in refugee camps in Thailand or in other countries, there were also missionaries. They wanted to help those boat people and also tried to lure them to follow their religions. It’s a great pity to force somebody to lose their roots. That is why when we bring Buddhism to Westerners, we tell them, “Do not give up your religion; you can study Buddhist practices to help you take care of your difficulties of body and mind and to learn great love and compassion. You do not have to lose your root religion, because we don’t think that’s the best way.”

In the West, there is a great number of young people who leave their Christian religion because that tradition does not provide the practices that people need today. A lot of people give up their religion and many of them come to practice with us. I have told them, “Once you practice with us, you can go back to help renew your own tradition and religion.” If a country does not have a spiritual foundation, that nation will not endure. So the Westerners see that Buddhism is very inclusive, accepting all and embracing all without denying other traditions.

In Buddhism, we call that spirit of inclusiveness equanimity or non-discrimination. It means that we embrace all. If we say that you have to leave your religion so that you can take refuge in the Three Jewels — that’s not very Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. That is why we have been able to help the pastors and ministers. In their hearts they still love their religion, but they practice wholeheartedly because in Buddhism we have very concrete practices to help them take care of their tension and stress, and help them to help people. If we hold that only our religion has the right view, and other religions do not have absolute truth, this will cause war. Buddhism does not do that.

When we organize retreats or have public talks in the West, many thousands of people come to listen to me, but they’re not Buddhists. Most of them come from a Christian or Jewish background. Sometimes I give a teaching in a church and more people come than at Christmas time, because they see that Buddhism is very noble, very open. It is inclusive and non-discriminative. Moreover, now scientists find inspiration in Buddhism because they see interdependence and emptiness; these teachings attract a lot of scientists to Buddhism.

The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.

You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and whose mother was a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.

In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning  the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.

Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That’s why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.

When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?

Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils. That is something I can share.

The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties (2) they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.

If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new Dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.

We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.

Question: Thinking About the Future

Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to reexamine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.

mb46-dharma5The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.

What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.

In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.

Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.

Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.

We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.

Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.

To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.

People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.

The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.

That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

1 This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.

2 The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.

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Sitting in the Spring Breeze

The Sangha in Vietnam, February–May 2007

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In a letter from Hue, Brother Phap Lai wrote, “Tomorrow the Sangha flies and will land in Hanoi for the final leg of this 2007 ‘Sitting in the Spring Breeze’ Vietnam trip.”

These sketches from monastic and lay participants give us a glimpse into the power and beauty of the Sangha’s historic journey to Vietnam with Thich Nhat Hanh.

Brother Phap Lai continues, “So far the ancestors, patriarchs and Vietnam’s present-day Sangha have been taking wonderful care of us, opening the door for the Dharma, for Thay and the Sangha to touch the hearts of so many people. The trip continues harmoniously although there is plenty of diplomatic work going on behind the scenes to help it be so. Thay is tired at times but you seldom know it as he shines, offering his best each and every day. At ease connecting with the old and new generations of Vietnam, whether it be monastics or devoted congregations of women, intellectuals, politicians or business people, Thay disarms folks with his warmth and humor.”

Flow

When I fi st stepped out of the airport of Ho Chi Minh City, I thought I would never survive crossing the amazing flood of motorbikes. How could I imagine the great lesson I would learn by first being forced to jump into this phenomenon, and then by looking deeply into it. This experience is all about the collective and individual management of constant change, of confidence and the vital importance of connection and absolute awareness of the present moment — “Go with the flow!”

—Dagmar Quentin

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Ceremonies to Heal and Transform

In Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] the first of the three “Great Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All to Untie the Knots of Great Injustice” was conducted at Vinh Nghiem Temple. The second of these took place in Dieu De Temple in the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue, which, as a battleground between the North and South, suffered terribly with many thousands of civilians killed. Thousands of lay people came to both Vinh Nghiem and Dieu De Temples over the course of the three-day ceremonies. Many Sanghas in the West as well as those in Vietnam who were unable to come conducted their own ceremonies in their own centers and homes.

The three days included daily Dharma talks by Thay in which he particularly encouraged us to generate wholesome, forgiving, and loving thoughts, and to purify the three karmas or actions of body, speech, and mind. Thay shared about the practice of beginning anew, even for those who have committed the worst of bodily actions. If we know how to begin anew and purify the mind of wrong thinking, then like a phoenix rising from the ashes we can free ourselves from the complex of guilt and despair to become a true bodhisattva. Thay also read several times “Prayers and Vows to Be Expressed During the Great Requiem Ceremony,” which set the spiritual intention and offered a common aspiration for all [see page 16].

In Saigon, ceremonies were led by Master Le Trang, Abbot of Vien Giac Temple, whose concentration and wholehearted intention as well as his expertise in chanting and mudras enriched the event tremendously. Each day it seemed he donned a different and more elaborately embroidered sanghati. For the opening ceremony Thay was persuaded to wear the dress reserved for the highest master. After that Thay was happy to return to wearing his own simple sanghati.

As well as the dress many of the ritual instruments and other ornamentations are rarely if ever used, instead being preserved as precious antiques, relics of the tradition. Traditionally dressed musicians playing the old instruments — percussion, a single stringed box guitar, and a reeded woodwind horn — accompanied the chanting master and the processions in general. Monks also sounded conch horns at various stages of the procession. The musicians were able to continuously follow, build, and crescendo with each nuance of the chanted texts for the whole three days. Their contribution was magnificent. The second evening ended with a grand procession of monastic and lay people to set thousands of candles in origami lotus flowers floating down the river along with our prayers and vows for those who were killed in the Vietnam war. In Hue a similar event had our whole sangha board a flotilla of large tourist boats and after some time traveling upstream we congregated to set the lighted candles on the Perfume River while chanting. The image of hundreds of floating candles emitting their soft light could not fail to touch our hearts and the onlookers from the bridge.

In Saigon, the entire floor area underneath the Buddha Hall was converted into a maze of altars draped with golden yellow fabrics. Incredible artistry went into decorating many altars, each with their own bodhisattva, some fierce looking, some gentle. Part of this was an inner sanctum that served as the main area for the long chanting sessions. During these sessions only monastics could enter in order to generate and maintain the high level of concentration necessary. Lay people followed these on a big screen outside but at various points the chanting master would lead a procession outside to the temple gates and back. Outside the inner sanctum altars held food offerings and lists of hundreds of loved ones with the date they were killed in the war. After the very final chanting of the three-day ceremony at 2:00 a.m. all the decorations, altars, papier-mâché statues made especially for the Grand Requiem Ceremony and the lists of countrymen and women who died were burned together as an offering.

With the support of the monastic and lay community of Saigon and the cooperation of government officials, the ceremony that took place in Saigon was a major success. Mass ceremonies of this scale and intention are a unique occurrence in Vietnam. It is not surprising they are controversial — they bring up past suffering and require acknowledgment that great injustices were suffered on both sides. It has not always been possible to attain the official acceptance of a ceremony that acknowledges that people suffered unspeakable injustices on both sides and that asks that we pray equally for all without any discrimination across the old divides of geography and ideology, man and woman, civilian and the army. Imagine previously warring nations coming together in this spirit and one begins to understand the significance of these ceremonies, the potential healing but also the obstacles in the mind that prevent them from taking place.

—Brother Phap Lai

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A Miracle at Bat Nha

In the magical mountainous region described by Thay in Fragrant Palm Leaves near the town of Bao Loc, Lam Dong province, about six hours north of Saigon, is Bat Nha Temple. Sadly, much of the ancient rainforest once inhabited by tigers has been cleared for coffee and tea plantations. Many in this region form the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. A long tradition of trust has developed between these indigenous people — some of whom ordained at Bat Nha — and our community, thanks to long-time funding for social projects from Plum Village. Arriving in Bat Nha, we were hosted by some three hundred young monks and nuns, nearly all under twenty-five, who were ordained as novice monastics under Thay since the last Vietnam trip in 2005. At that time the Abbot Duc Nghi, a devoted follower of Thay, offered the temple to Thay and the Sangha. Since then, with funding from the Western Sangha via Plum Village and lots of dedicated work from the Sangha and local people, many new buildings have sprung up including a very large Dharma hall, the Garuda Wings Hall, and two residences for the hundreds of newly ordained.

The first major event held in Bat Nha on this trip was a four-day residential retreat for lay people. Prior to the retreat the limit of those registered had been set at 2000 but by the evening before we had more than 4000 names registered. After hearing that a full bus of people from Saigon (six hours away) had been turned back by the monastery guards because they weren’t registered, Thay made it clear he did not want to turn away anyone who had come for the Dharma. But numbers were growing and where to house everyone? As planned the big new hall was used as one dormitory but many more had to fit in than was first intended. For instance, the football field with the help of acres of tarp was transformed into a dormitory for 1000. From the first day the cooks say they prepared for 7000 but there were as many as 10,000 people on the Sunday of Mindfulness. Considering the huge number of people attending everything went extraordinarily well. The registration team kept their cool, practicing mindfulness and compassion, and all who came found a place to sleep and go to the toilet! The cooking teams of Bat Nha’s brothers and sisters along with local supporting lay friends performed daily miracles preparing three good meals a day for everyone. Forty lines for food provided a good flow and everyone was able to eat together in families at one sitting.

—Brother Phap Lai

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Phuong Boi Ordination

Our time together on this trip has given the monastics of Plum Village and the centers in the United States and our young brothers and sisters in Vietnam a chance to meet. In Bat Nha we enjoyed drinking tea, making music, working together, two rather serious games of soccer and the odd dramatic downpours from broody evening skies.

The last week in Bat Nha included a five-day Grand Ordination Ceremony given the name “Phuong Boi” (Fragrant Palm Leaves). It included transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to 100 monks and nuns and forty lay practitioners, all Vietnamese with the exception of our German brother Kai presently living in Hanoi. There was also a ceremony to transmit the ten novice precepts; it is always an exciting and heart-warming day when a new family of novice monastics are brought into the Sangha. We now have the sweet young Sandalwood family of eighty-nine young novices in our fold. An age range of 15 to 25 limits the numbers although there were some exceptions.

Fifty-three bhikshus [monks] and fi y-four bhikshunis [nuns] were ordained by a special envoy of Venerable Monks who came especially to form the official presiding Ordination Committee. The Lamp was transmitted by Thay to twelve new Dharma Teachers.

—Brother Phap Lai

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Receiving the Lamp Transmission

Several of you asked me before I left about my gatha. It really started to come together when we visited a beautiful waterfall near Bat Nha. I sat there watching the 200-meter-tall streams of water falling and felt so peaceful and calm. Then I saw this old, kind face in the rock, smiling mischievously to me! I had to laugh back. My father [OI member Al Lingo] was one attendant for the Lamp Transmission, Sr. Dao Nghiem, a younger sister from the Persimmon family, was the other. I shared a little in Vietnamese at the beginning and cried quite a bit. I spoke mostly about my gratitude to Thay and the Sangha, and about my monastic path as a journey of self-acceptance. I sang “Amazing Grace” at the end.

This is my gatha:

A face in the wet rock smiles to me
Wise, loving eyes twinkle with laughter
Everything I need is already here
I am totally at ease
Before I was born, my work was already accomplished
At every stage of manifestation we are complete
There is no final product. No progress needs to be made.
You don’t have to change!
Just be yourself, love yourself
It is the only way to make progress.
Let go, fall without fear
Like the waterfall, dancing its endless dance of freedom.
Wheeee!

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Bowing to the Mystery

Following Thay and the monastics our Western delegation moves into the An Quang Temple in Saigon. We are greeted by Vietnamese men and women in the same grey temple robe we are wearing on this trip. Again a woman bows to me, her hands folded in front of her heart. I stop and return the bow. As we both straighten up and look at each other, she has tears in her eyes — and me too. How old is she, seventy, eighty years maybe? What may she have experienced during the war? Who does she see in me? What do I represent? I allow myself not to know, as I so often do on this trip. I practice simply trusting that Thay’s wish to bring healing and transformation to Vietnam will be fulfilled and that wondrously I can make a tiny contribution to it.

—Heike Mayer

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Treasure of Healing

I was so moved by the chanting and Grand Requiem Ceremonies in Saigon. Many of us had powerful experiences of connection and healing and reconciliation. I touched my own ancestors in a new way during the last night of eight hours of straight chanting. I felt their presence and their happiness, even those I never knew. I also felt connected to the many land ancestors throughout the history of the U.S.—all the injustices and tragedies they suffered, from the decimation of native peoples, slavery, to the many wars. I invited them to come into the space we created for healing, for peace. I was surprised that I could sit still for so long, peaceful, concentrated, and present. The monks who led the chanting and all the thousands of people practicing with us outside the hall at Vinh Nghiem temple created a powerful atmosphere of transformation. Afterwards, instead of feeling tired I was energized by this rare and precious event.

Sister Chan Khong told us many monasteries brought out statues and artifacts for the ceremonies that had not been publicly displayed in years — national treasures held in secret for preservation. Many sanghas joined to host this event, unprecedented in Vietnam on such a large scale. I feel so grateful to Thay for holding his vision. In the West, we have so many unhealed, misunderstood, unacknowledged wounds. If only we had taken time to be with the suffering of the Vietnam war, to recognize and heal it, the war in Iraq would never have happened.

–Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Kitchen Mindfulness

I was on a cooking team at Tu Hieu for working meditation. In the kitchen as we made breakfast starting at 3:30 a.m., the energy was peaceful and calm, everyone still sleepy and soft. Everywhere in Vietnam we cooked with wood. One of my favorite jobs was to sit in front of the stove fanning the fire. I did whatever task I was given, finding each enjoyable. Many lay people came to help—even lay men cooking along with women! Once when we were making lunch, we ran out of things to do at 9:00 a.m. so we all sat in the dining hall and taught each other songs until the food arrived. Just being together, the smiles, the care, we weren’t really there to work, yet everything happened as it needed to and the meals were always on time.

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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A Chorus of Grass Birds

Today, after sitting meditation we practiced walking meditation through the peaceful temple grounds of Thay’s root temple in Tu Hieu. We gathered to sit silently in a circle on the same grass where he played as a child monk. I was four feet from Thay — just breathing, smiling, joyous — a treasure I will never forget. Then he delighted us all — picked a wide blade of grass, put it in

his palm, and suddenly impishly blew, making grass sound like a bird — gleeful as a boy! This started a chorus of monks and nuns chirping with their own grass leaves, a veritable bird chorus! A light private moment, a glimpse into the playfulness of a forever young 82-year-old poet.

—Harriet Wrye

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An Offering of Shoes

During the last powerful evening of chanting in Hue, I was really present for myself, for my inner child, and for the many who died in the war, seeing them healed, happy, restored. When the monks blessed the rice and threw it into the crowd, people began to push and shove us, trying to get some of the rice. They believe if they make soup from rice blessed in such an important ceremony, any sick person who eats it will heal. So I got up from quiet sitting to become a bodyguard for the chanting monks! Holding back the rowdy crowds, I’ve never seen my sisters so tough.

My shoes stolen, I walked barefoot in the mud among fallen food offerings to burn paper tablets on the ancestral altar, ending our ceremony. Many of our shoes were taken that evening. One barefoot brother casually said, “It was an offering”!

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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“Each of My Steps Is a Prayer”

Upon touching down in California after the Vietnam pilgrimage I felt like I had been put through the wash, then spun partly dry. As a dietitian it’s easy for me to say there was a lot to consume as we went from Ho Chi Minh City to the north in a short time. I see that it took all the ingredients of Vietnam’s wars, including over six million deaths, to have conditions necessary for a compassionate teacher to conduct extraordinary ceremonies of reconciliation and healing. Concurrently, many of us pilgrims were advancing our own personal transformations by leaving our cozy, familiar world to join in one or more of the journey’s segments. My personal experience in several Great Requiem Ceremonies untied my own knots of great injustice. This seemed to be so for others I talked with along the way. We were fortunate to be Thay’s supporting cast during his epic reconciliation and healing production, students and teacher practicing in the spring breeze of Vietnam.

Everyone’s effort, using a solid-as-a-mountain practice, helped transform the government’s distrust of Thay’s sincere intention to help the situation in his homeland. It was amazing to be at dozens of talks, at retreats and ceremonies with tens of thousands of Vietnamese. For most, it was their first glimpse of Thay, the mysterious, most venerable who transforms the suffering of the West and East. To observe Thay’s presence and focus while big crowds bowed, chanted and touched the earth before him was unforgettable and humbling. Westerners who posted words and images during the 2005 trip inspired me to share pictures and a blog. The teacher in me wanted to help sangha friends and family stay tapped in as events unfolded. As a final offering to the Sangha, I produced a 42-minute video, “Each of My Steps Is a Prayer” — words Thay used to describe his practice — presenting sounds and images of transformation and beauty in Vietnam. I am donating the video to the Sangha as a way to raise funds for Vietnam’s monastics.

The video is currently in English and works on NTSC DVD players; a version formatted for European PAL players is also available. Please send two checks or money orders, one for a tax-deductible $13.00 donation made out to “UBC Deer Park” and the other $3.00 for shipping made out to “David Nelson,” to: David Nelson VN07, 4360 Jasmine Avenue, Culver City, California 90232. Make sure to include your shipping address. Or contact David at rezdog_latte@hotmail.com for information.

—David Nelson

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Prayers & Vows

To Be Expressed During the Great Requiem Ceremonies to Untie the Knots of Great Injustice

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear ones who have passed from this life,

You are our fathers and mothers, our aunts and uncles, our husbands and wives, our sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters, who have died during the war. When our country was on fire with all the fighting, you left us tragically, suddenly, forced to abandon your precious body. We have lost you, dear ones. We know that you fought courageously for our nation without regret for your precious body and we are proud of you. But you lost your body under very tragic circumstances, and the injustice could never be expressed.You died deep in a distant jungle or were lost at sea or in a dark prison cell. You may have died because of bullets or bombs, or from starvation or sheer exhaustion. You may have been raped and then killed with no way to resist. How many of you have died in despair, in injustice, the remains of your body lost somewhere in the ocean or the jungle where we who love you could not get hold of them. To fight for our independence and freedom, our country has had to bear great tragedy and injustice, and it is you who have shouldered the burden of the whole nation in your death.

We ymb46-Prayers1our relatives, your fellow countrymen and countrywomen, we come here — some of us are before our own altars at home — and among us there are  those  who still continue to suffer from injustice. Fortunately the nightmare has ended, the country is now at peace, and we have the chance to rebuild the country, to heal the remaining wounds. Thanks to the merits and good deeds of our ancestors, we have a chance to come together and offer prayers together to the Three Gems.

With the support of the powerful Dharma, we request you to come back all together to reunite with each other, embracing each other, loving each other like sisters and brothers in one family. We will not distinguish between North or South, women or men, adults or children, by race, religion, party, or ideology. We are all fellow countrywomen and countrymen, but because of past bad fortune, we have been pushed to fight each other in our drive for independence, for freedom. Thanks to the merits of our ancestors we can now come back together, recognizing each other as siblings of a single family, to promise each other that we will not forget this painful lesson of the past now engraved on our hearts:

We vow that from now on we will not let the country be separated again, not even one more time. From now on, when there are internal difficulties, we will not request the help of any foreign power to intervene with weapons and troops in our country. From now on, we will not start a war for any ideology. From now on, we will not use foreign weapons to kill each other. From now on, we will use our best efforts to build a society with real democracy, to resolve all kinds of disagreements by peaceful democratic methods. We will not resort to violence against fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

Respected Blood Ancestors, Respected Spiritual Ancestors, please bear witness to our profound sincerity. We respectfully make these deep vows before you. And we know that once we have sincerely expressed ourselves in this way, all the knots of injustice can be untied, and the deep wounds in each of us will start to be healed.

Today this Great Chanting Ceremony to untie all injustices equally without any discrimination starts here; but at the same time, countless Vietnamese and friends of Vietnamese throughout the world are setting altars in front of their houses, too, to pray for you all. We touch the earth deeply to request the grace of the Three Jewels to carry to the other shore of liberation all of you dear deceased ones, so that, dear ones, you can be carried by the strength of the Dharma to understand, to transform, to transcend, and to know you are free.

We your descendants, we promise to continue your aspiration. We vow to carry you in our hearts, to build brotherhood and sisterhood, to practice mutual love of fellow countrymen and countrywomen. We will remember that pumpkin vines and squash vines can share a single frame, that chickens from a same mother will never fight each other. This insight from our Ancestors will shine out its light for us now and forever.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh read this statement several times during the Great Ceremonies held in Saigon, Hue, and Hanoi in early 2007.

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Poem: Question

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Marine, why are you in my country?
You tell me you are here to save me.
I don’t believe you.
Marine, you are not listening to me.
I don’t hate you and your eyes tell me you don’t hate me.
Marine, why are you in my country?
Open your eyes. What keeps my words
from reaching your heart?
Why did you kill me?
Why did I kill you?
I died before you knew me.
You died before you understood.
Come to me – open your heart.
I will hold you and you will know me
and understand.

— Paul Davis

Paul Davis, Authentic Connection of  the Heart, read this poem last year at the retreat in Stonehill. He explains: “In 1965, as a nineteen-year-old Marine, I went to Vietnam knowing little about life and nothing about the Vietnamese people and culture. My belief system, developed as a child in rural America in the 1950s, sheltered me from seeing the reality of that war. However, at a deeper level my experiences in Vietnam were being stored. Later, as my desire to look deeply grew and as my heart opened, I was able to re-examine my experience. Several years ago while on retreat with Thay and the Sangha, I wrote this poem. It was inspired by a question a young Vietnamese girl asked me in 1966 and I wrote it in her voice.”

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Dharma Talk: History of Engaged Buddhism

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanoi, Vietnam – May 6 -7, 2008 

At the beginning of the seven-day English-language retreat in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a rare glimpse into his early career. This excerpt from two Dharma talks reveals Thay as a teacher, social activist, and prolific writer – and revolutionary advocate of Engaged Buddhism, also called Applied Buddhism. 

In 1949 I was one of the founders of the An Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, and I taught the first class of novices. The temple was very simple, built of bamboo and thatch. The name of the temple was actually Ung Quang. A Dharma teacher came from Danang, the Venerable Tri Huu, and we both built Ung Quang temple. The war was going on between the French and the Vietnamese resistance movement. 

Five years later, in 1954, the Geneva Accord was signed and the country was divided into two parts: the North was communist, and the South was anti-communist. Over one million people migrated from the North to the South, among them many Catholics. There was a lot of confusion in the country. 

At the Ung Quang temple from time to time we received French soldiers who came to visit us. After Dien Bien Phu the war with the French ended, and it was agreed that the country should be divided and the French would withdraw from the country. I remember talking to the French soldiers. Many of them came to Vietnam and died in Vietnam. 

A Fresh Look at Buddhism 

In 1954 there was great confusion in the minds of people in Vietnam, especially the young people – monks, nuns, lay practitioners. The North was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the South, president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was trying to run the country with another kind of ideology called “personalism.” It seemed that the ideological war had begun. 

Buddhism is a very ancient tradition in Vietnam, and most of the people have a Buddhist seed in them. Mr. Vu Ngoc Cac, manager of a daily newspaper, asked me to write a series of articles about Buddhism. He wanted me to offer insight as to the spiritual direction we should take in order to deal with the great confusion in the country. So I wrote a series of ten articles with the title, “A Fresh Look at Buddhism.” 

It is in this series of ten articles that I proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism — Buddhism in the realm of education, economics, politics, and so on. So Engaged Buddhism dates from 1954. 

At that time I did not use a typewriter, I just wrote in the oldfashioned way. And they came and they took the article, and the article was always printed on the front page with a big red title. The newspaper sold very, very well because people were very thirsty. They wanted spiritual direction because confusion was so huge. 

Rose Tea and Fresh Corn 

That series of articles was published as a book later on. Not long after, I visited Hue. Duc Tam, who had been in the same class as me at the Buddhist Institute, was the editor of another Buddhist magazine. His temple was on a small island in the Perfume River, Huong Giang, where they grow a very tasty kind of corn. He invited me to stay a few weeks in his temple. Every morning he offered me tea with a kind of rose — it’s a very tiny flower, but it smells nice when you put it in the tea. Every day we did walking meditation through the neighborhood, and we bought some fresh corn. He nourished me with rose tea and fresh corn, and he wanted me to write another series of articles on Engaged Buddhism! [laughs] 

In fact, I wrote another series of ten articles with the title “Buddhism Today,” which was also on the theme of Engaged Buddhism. This series was translated into French by Le Vinh Hao, a scholar who lives in Paris. The title he took for the book is Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme. 

In 1964 when I visited America to give a series of lectures, I met Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and I gave him a copy of Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme; he wrote a review. 

Buddhism That Enters Into Life 

In 1963-64, I was lecturing on Buddhism at Columbia University. The struggle led by the Buddhists for human rights ended the regime of President Diem. Maybe you have heard about the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself with fire, and who drew the attention of the whole world to the violation of human rights in Vietnam. That was a completely nonviolent movement for human rights. When the Diem regime fell, I was asked by my colleagues to come home and help. 

So I went home. I founded Van Hanh University, and I published a book called Engaged Buddhism, a collection of many articles I had written before. 

I think this is the first time you have this information. [laughs] 

This is the beginning of 1964. I had written these articles before that, but I put them together and published under the title Engaged Buddhism, or Dao society. Di vao cuoc doi. Cuoc doi here is “life” or “society.” Di vao means “to enter.” So these were the words that were used for Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam: di vao cuoc doi, “entering into life, social life.” 

Six months later I produced another book, Dao Phat hien dai hoa, “Buddhism updated,” “Buddhism renewed.” This is the Chinese — Buddhism made actual, the actualization of Buddhism. So all these terms, all these documents, have to do with what we call “Engaged Buddhism.” And after that I wrote many other books – Buddhism of Tomorrow. [laughs] 

But at that time already, my name was banned by the government of the South, the anti-communist government, because of my activities for peace, calling for reconciliation between North and South. I became persona non grata. I could not go home anymore, and I was in exile. 

So my book, Buddhism of Tomorrow, could not be published in Vietnam under my name. I used a montagnard’s name — Bsu Danlu. You may wonder where that name came from. In 1956 we founded a practice center in the highland of Vietnam called Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery, Phuong Boi. We bought the land from two montagnards, K’Briu and K’Broi. The name of the village where the Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery was situated is Bsu Danlu. 

Wisdom in the Here and Now 

I continued to publish my books in Vietnam with many other names. I wrote a history of Vietnamese Buddhism in three thick volumes and I signed the name Nguyen Lang. So although I was away from the country thirty-nine years, I continued to write books and some of them were published in Vietnam under different names. 

As we have said, the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy! 

Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now. 

A Fresh Take on the Four Noble Truths 

We can speak about Engaged Buddhism in terms of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is dukkha, ill-being. Traditionally Buddhist teachers have spoken of the First Noble Truth in this way: old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, separation from those you love is suffering. Leaving all those you love; wishing for something but never obtaining it. But these are old ways of describing the First Noble Truth. Now as we practice mindfulness we have to identify the kind of ill-being that is actually present. First of all we know there is a kind of tension in the body, a lot of stress. We can say that suffering today involves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, violence, broken families, suicide, war, conflict, terrorism, destruction of the ecosystem, global warming, etc. 

We should be fully present in the here and the now and recognize the true face of ill-being. 

The natural tendency is to run away from suffering, from ill-being. We don’t want to confront it so we try to escape. But the Buddha advises us not to do so. In fact he encourages us to look deeply into the nature of the suffering in order to learn. His teaching is that if you do not understand the suffering you cannot see the path of transformation, the path leading to the cessation of suffering. 

All of us know that the First Noble Truth is ill-being and the Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. Without understanding the First you never have the opportunity to see the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. 

You should learn to come home to the present moment in order to recognize ill-being as it is; and as we practice looking deeply into the First Noble Truth, ill-being, we will discover the Second Noble Truth, the roots or the making of ill-being. 

Each of us has to discover for himself or herself the cause of ill-being. Suppose we speak about our hectic life — we have so much to do, so much to achieve. As a politician, a businessman, even an artist, we want to do more and more and more. We crave success. We do not have the capacity to live deeply each moment of our daily life. We don’t give our body a chance to relax and to heal. 

If we know how to live like a Buddha, dwelling in the present moment, allowing the refreshing and healing elements to penetrate, then we will not become victims of stress, tension, and many kinds of disease. 

You can say that one of the roots of ill-being is our incapacity to live our life deeply in each moment. 

When we have a lot of tension and irritation in us we cannot listen to the other person. We cannot use loving speech. We cannot remove wrong perceptions. Therefore wrong perceptions give rise to fear, hate, violence, and so on. We have to identify the causes of our ill-being. This is very important work. 

Suppose we speak of suicide, of broken families. We know that when communication becomes difficult between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, people are no longer happy. Many young people fall into despair and want to commit to suicide. They don’t know how to handle despair or their emotions, and they think that the only way to stop suffering is to kill oneself. In France every year about 12,000 young people commit suicide, just because they can’t handle their emotions like despair. And their parents don’t know how to do it. They don’t teach their children how to deal with their feelings, and even school teachers don’t how to help their students to recognize and hold their emotions tenderly. 

When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions. Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed. 

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism. 

So looking deeply we can see the making of ill-being, the roots of ill-being, by recognizing ill-being as the truth and looking deeply into its nature. 

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of ill-being, which means the presence of well-being — just as the absence of darkness means the presence of light. When ignorance is no longer present, there is wisdom. When you remove darkness, there is light. So the cessation of ill-being means the presence of well-being, which is the opposite of the First Noble Truth. 

The teaching of the Buddha confirms the truth that well-being is possible. Because there is ill-being, well-being is possible. If ill-being is described first in terms of tension, stress, heaviness, then well-being is described as lightness, peace, relaxation – la détente. With your body, breath, feet, and mindfulness you can reduce tension and bring about relaxation, lightness, peace. 

We can speak of the Fourth Noble Truth in very concrete terms. The methods of practice enable us to reduce tension, stress, unhappiness, as seen in the Fourth Noble Truth, the path. Today’s Dharma teachers may want to call it the path of well-being. The cessation of ill-being means the beginning of well-being — it’s so simple! 

From Many Gods to No God 

I would like to go back a little bit to the history of Engaged Buddhism. 

In the nineteen-fifties I began to write because people needed to have spiritual direction to help them overcome their confusion. One day I wrote about the relationship between religious belief and the ways we organize our society. I described the history of the evolution of society. 

First, our society was organized in groups of people called tribes. Over time, several tribes would come together and finally we set up kingdoms, with a king. Then the time came when we had enough of kings and we wanted to create democracies or republics. 

Our religious beliefs had been changing along the way. First of all, we had something parallel to the establishment of tribes — polytheism, the belief that there are many gods and each god has a power. You are free to choose one god to worship, and that god will protect you against the other gods and the other tribes. 

When we form kingdoms, then our way of belief changes also — monotheism. There’s only one God, the most powerful God, and we should worship only one God and not many gods. 

When we come to democracies, there’s no king anymore. Everyone is equal to everyone else, and we rely on each other to live. That is why monotheism is changing to the belief in interdependence — interbeing — where there is no longer God. We are fully responsible for our life, for our world, for our planet. I wrote things like that during the time I was trying to build up Engaged Buddhism. 

Birth of the Order of Interbeing 

In 1964, we established the Order of Interbeing. The birth of the Order of Interbeing is very meaningful. We need only to study the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in order to understand why and how the Order of Interbeing was established. 

At that time the war was going on very fiercely. It was a conflict between ideologies. The North and South each had their own ideology; one side was Marxism-Leninism, the other, personalism and capitalism. Not only did we fight with ideologies imported from the outside, but we also fought with weapons imported from the outside — guns and bombs from Russia, China, and America. As Buddhists who practice peace and reconciliation, brotherhood and sisterhood, we did not want to accept such a war. You cannot accept a war where brothers are killing brothers with ideologies and weapons imported from the outside. 

The Order of Interbeing was born as a spiritual resistance movement. It’s based completely on the teachings of the Buddha. The First Mindfulness Training — non-attachment to views, freedom from all ideologies — was a direct answer to the war. Everyone was ready to die and to kill for their beliefs. 

The First Mindfulness Training: “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones…” 

This is the lion’s roar!

“Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.” 

The teaching of the Buddha from the Nipata Sutra concerning views is very clear. We should not be attached to any view; we have to transcend all views.

Right View, first of all, means the absence of all views. Attachment to views is the source of suffering. Suppose you climb on a ladder, and on the fourth step you think you are already at the highest level. Then you are stuck! You have to release the fourth step in order to be able to get up to the fifth step. To be scientific, scientists have to release what they have found in order to come to a higher truth. This is the teaching of the Buddha: When you consider something to be the truth and you are attached to it, you must release it in order to go higher. 

The basic spirit of Buddhism is non-attachment to views. Wisdom is not views. Insight is not views. We should be ready to release our ideas for true insight to be possible. Suppose you have notions about impermanence, non-self, interbeing, the Four Noble Truths. That may be dangerous, because these are only views. You are very proud that you know something about the Four Noble Truths, about interbeing, about interdependent origination, about mindfulness, concentration, and insight. But that teaching is only a means for you to get insight. If you are attached to these teachings, you are lost. The teaching about impermanence, nonself, interbeing, is to help you to get the insight of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. 

The Buddha said, “My teaching is like the finger pointing to the moon. You should be skillful. You look in the direction of my finger, and you can see the moon. If you take my finger to be the moon, you will never see the moon.” So even the Buddhadharma is not the truth, it’s only an instrument for you to get the truth. This is very basic in Buddhism.

War is the outcome of attachment to views, of fanaticism. If we look deeply into the nature of the war in Iraq, we can see that it is also a religious war. People are using religious belief to back up the war. Mr. Bush was supported by many [right-wing Christian] evangelists. The resistance fighters and the terrorists in Iraq are backed up by their Muslim belief. So this is somehow a religious war. Peace cannot exist if we maintain our fanaticism concerning our views. 

Lotus in a Sea of Fire 

In 1965 I wrote a small book on the war in Vietnam, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, published by Hill and Wong in America. The war in Vietnam was raging, it was an ocean of fire. We were killing each other; we allowed American bombers to come and destroy our forests, our people. We allowed weapons from China and Russia to come. But Buddhism was trying to do something. Those of us who did not accept the war wanted to do something to resist the war. 

Buddhists did not have radio or television stations. There was no way for them to express themselves. 

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I do not accept this war,
let me say this one more time before I die.  

These are lines in my poems.

Our enemies are not men. 

Our enemies are hate, fanaticism, violence. Our enemies are not men. If we kill men, with whom shall we live?

The peace movement in Vietnam badly needed international support, but you could not hear us over there. So sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to tell you that we didn’t want this war. Please help stop this war, this killing of brothers by brothers! Buddhism was like a lotus flower trying to survive in an ocean of fire.

I translated the book into Vietnamese, and an American friend in the peace movement helped bring that book to Vietnam. The book was printed underground and many young people tried to circulate that book as an act of resistance.

Sister Chan Khong, who was a professor of biology in Hue University, brought a copy to Hue for a friend. She was arrested and put into prison because she owned one copy of that book. Later on she was transferred to a prison in Saigon.

The School of Youth for Social Service

Young friends came to me and asked me to publish my poems about peace. They called it anti-war poetry. I said okay, if you want to do it, please do. They collected about fifty or sixty poems of mine on this topic and submitted them to the government of South Vietnam. Fifty-five of the poems were censored. Only a few were left. But our friends were not discouraged and they printed the poems underground. The book of poetry sold very, very quickly. Even some secret police liked it, because they also suffered from the war. They would go to the bookstore and say, “You shouldn’t display them like this! You should hide them behind the counter!” [laughs]

Radio stations in Saigon, Hanoi, and Beijing began to attack the poems because they called for peace. No one wanted peace. They wanted to fight to the end.

In 1964 we also established the School of Youth for Social Service. We trained thousands of young people, including monks and nuns, to go to the countryside and help the peasants rebuild their villages. We helped them in four aspects: education, health, economics, and organization. Our social workers went to a village and played with the children and taught them how to read and write and sing. When the people in the village liked us, we suggested building a school for the children. One family gave a few bamboo trees. Another family brought coconut leaves to make a roof. Then we began to have a school. Our workers did not receive a salary. After setting up a school in the village, we set up a dispensary where we could dispense rudimentary medicines to help the people. We brought into the village students of medicine or a doctor and tried to help one or two days. We also organized cooperatives and tried to teach people the kind of handicrafts they could do in order to increase the income of the family.

We have to begin with ourselves, from the grassroots. The School of Youth for Social Service was founded on the spirit that we don’t need to wait for the government.

A New Youth Organization in Europe 

We trained many young people, including young monks and nuns. Finally we had more than ten thousand workers working from Quang Tri to the south. During the war we helped sponsor more than ten thousand orphans. That is part of Engaged Buddhism — the young people.

This year we intend to set up an organization of young Buddhists in Europe: Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society. So many young people have come to us, to our retreats in Europe, America, and Asia. Now we want to organize them. They will use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their practice, and they will engage themselves into society — to help produce a healthier society, one with more compassion.

If my friends here are inspired by the idea, then please, when you go home, invite the young people to set up a group of Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society.

Last month we went to Italy, and we had one day of practice with the young people in the city of Napoli [Naples]. The five hundred young men and women who came to practice with us loved it! They are ready to engage in the practice of peace, helping to produce a healthier, more compassionate society.

Our young monks and nuns will also be involved in that organization.

Foundation of an Institute of Applied Buddhism 

We have also set up a European Institute of Applied Buddhism. I hope that during this retreat, Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, will offer a presentation on the Institute of Applied Buddhism. We shall have campuses in America and Asia also. Everyone who has successfully completed the three-month retreat in Plum Village or Deer Park will be given a certificate of completion issued by the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

The Institute of Applied Buddhism will offer many interesting courses. You might like to help organize a course in your area; we will send Dharma teachers. One example is the twenty-one-day course for young men and women who are preparing to set up a family. There they learn how to make their conjugal life into a success.

There will be courses for those who have been diagnosed with AIDS or cancer, so that they can learn how to live with their sickness. If you know how to accept and live with your sickness, then you can live twenty, thirty more years.

There will be courses for businesspeople, for school teachers, and so on.

This kind of certificate will help you to become an official Dharma teacher. One day you might be inspired to become a Dharma teacher, to go out and help people, to be a continuation of the Buddha.

Nowadays we are using the term “Applied Buddhism,” which is just another way of referring to Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel. 

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

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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Practice in Vietnam: An Inside Look

Interview with Thay Phap Kham

By Barbara Casey in Hanoi, Vietnam

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During the retreat in Hanoi, former Mindfulness Bell editor Barbara Casey sat down with Thay Phap Kham (monks who have received full ordination are addressed as “Thay”) for an extended chat. This energetic and committed monk has been instrumental in establishing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Sangha in Vietnam and Hong Kong. He’s also a longtime friend and supporter of the Mindfulness Bell.

Please tell us your story about being born in Vietnam, about leaving, and then what it was like coming back for the first time.

I was born in a small village in the country, in the middle of a war zone. In the daytime it was controlled by the South Vietnam government, but at night it was under the control of the guerrillas, and at times they would take people away and terrorize them. When I was five or six years old, I saw the consequences of war. My neighbors were killed. I saw people being mutilated and burned like charcoal. I saw soldiers on both sides getting killed. Some of the guerrillas who were killed were acquaintances of my family in the village. As a small child, witnessing those kinds of things made me suffer. And a deep understanding grew in me, that there should be a better way, that something like this shouldn’t happen.

I remember vividly the image of a black GI who came to my village in a convoy. I wasn’t afraid of him; he gave me some candy. But a soldier from the South Vietnamese army told me to go home because there was some fighting about to happen. So, even at that young age I had some kind of human connection with those soldiers.

When I was eleven, my hometown was taken over by the North Vietnamese army, so I moved to central Vietnam, and then to Saigon, with my family. I lived with the communists for three years [after reunification in 1975], and then I left by boat in 1978. From a refugee camp in the Philippines I emigrated to the U.S. in 1979.

Those three years under the communists taught me a lot. I became a responsible young man. And then I left Vietnam with my mother and my five brothers and sisters. After emigrating, I attended the university and graduated, and then worked as an engineer for about thirteen years.

Where was this?

Near Washington D.C. When I was twenty-five I discovered Buddhism through reading Thay’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. It explained Buddhism to me as a way of practice, not as worship or religion. In 1987 I went to Plum Village because I wanted to come back to my cultural roots. I thought Plum Village was a place where many Vietnamese people came and participated in cultural activities, and spoke Vietnamese, and wore traditional clothes, and felt nostalgia for their homeland.

But as Plum Village developed into more of a Buddhist meditation center, I grew with that. Ten years later, in 1997, I came to practice as an aspirant. In 1998 I became a monk, so I have been a monk for about ten years. People who knew me at that time were very surprised to see me as a monk, because they saw that I was already very happy. For ten years I had been a community activist working with Vietnamese youth, teaching them about Vietnamese culture, language, and traditions. I taught Vietnamese language to the children almost every weekend. It was a way for me to serve.

But being a monk I can serve more people all over the world. So I told those people that being a monk makes me happier!

I see that the direction of my life was determined when I was very young. I was sent to a boarding school, and this had a big impact on my life. Almost every month I was allowed to go home from the school in Hue to Quang Tri where my family lived. My father would come pick me up. One day the bridge on the road was broken, because of the floods and the fighting, and my parents were on the other side and I on this side. It’s something I consider very heroic for me, an eight-year-old boy! So I crossed that broken bridge alone, and when I saw my parents, they hugged me and gave me popcorn; I felt a lot of joy!

After that trip, every night before going to bed at the boarding school I dressed up in nice clothes, and I prayed. I would pray, “Dear God, dear Buddha, and dear Jesus Christ, let me be with my family.” I did not know who had the supreme power, so I prayed to them all. But I didn’t want to be selfish, so I said, “Let all the people have a chance to be with their families also, and let the war end.”

I did that for one year. But of course it didn’t happen. The war still went on, so I stopped praying.

So you live in Vietnam again.

Yeah. Returning to Vietnam gave me a lot of experiences. I was born in Quang Tri, the place that suffered from the heaviest fighting. Just in front of my house, there was this place called Old Citadel, where the armies from the North and the South fought many fierce battles. During the two months of a last battle there in 1972, tens of thousands of people were killed or wounded. When I returned to Vietnam, I visited that place three times and contemplated — they say that every square foot of it is covered with blood. But now it has become a beautiful park. I see that people have good intentions, and it was a relief to see that local people made peace with it.

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I’m happy to be back in Vietnam, but also disappointed with the morality and the values of the society now. Before we went to war and during the war, people were taking care of each other. But now, even though we have peace, it seems like people don’t take care of each other.

Vietnam has grown and developed, but if you look deeply there are many poor people, and the gap between the rich and the poor is getting bigger. This has happened in many developed countries, but it should not have happened that way in Vietnam. Also, people have lost their family values. We can see more buildings, more high rises, but if you look carefully, we see that life is difficult for people here. It’s congested and polluted. The people and the country have a long way to go to become a more developed, a more ordered society.

So I’m happy to be back, but I also see a challenge. I think that’s why Thay has made three trips back — to help, to give a hand in this process.

I have met quite a few young people at our retreats and I see their hope and also their disappointment. Having nothing to look forward to, it seems like there are no opportunities for them. In Vietnam I see that Buddhism can offer some hope, some way out.

What is Thay’s Sangha like in the different parts of Vietnam?

Since the trip in 2005, we have set up the practice in Prajna Monastery (in the highlands) and in Tu Hieu, Thay’s root temple [in central Vietnam], and we now have about four hundred monks, nuns, and aspirants who practice in our tradition. The average age is about twenty-two, very young, so they are creating a base of Buddhism for the next fifty years. Prajna is located in a remote area, but whatever we do at Prajna, people all over the country pay attention to it. Prajna is the place that people can think about and know that there is a group of people practicing for them. It gives them hope.

We have plans to expand our practice in the north. The people in the north have just returned to Buddhism after years of absence, and their practice consists mostly of faith and religious rituals. But they seem like they’re very open to our way of practice. It’s up to us to integrate their worship of Buddha with our practice. If we are skillful, we can make a big difference in the north.

There are already many temples in the north, and Plum Village doesn’t need to own a center in order to teach. We would like to be treated as a partner and be invited to teach in the temples that already exist. That makes people more secure and they’re more willing to help that way. We have to integrate with them and offer the practice so that we can spread the teaching. There are eighty-four million people, so five hundred Plum Village monastics cannot do the work alone. We need to have interbeing with other traditions, working together as a team.

We cannot be caught within the form of Plum Village traditions, of Thay’s teachings. It is the content of the practice — love and understanding — that counts.

Our presence in Hong Kong is also a support for Vietnam. The practice there is attracting quite a few people. Like everywhere else, people throughout Asia have suffered with the fast pace of modern life. If the help is there, they come. So we have a very positive outlook.

However, we need to really be careful not to over expand. We need our practice to be strong, to emphasize quality over quantity. Looking back, I think we have made quite big leaps.

What’s your relationship with the government at this point?

I think the Vietnamese government is more open, but being a communist country, they are afraid of some movement becoming too popular. They don’t want anybody to have so much influence. But they are fairly open to Thay’s teachings; for example, now most of Thay’s books have been published in Vietnam. But to spread more into the mainstream to professionals, to people who don’t come to temple regularly, we may have difficulty. We have not been able to go to schools or businesses to share the practice. We need to make the teachings available in other places besides the temple. So we have to think of ways to propagate the Dharma. For instance, people can go online to download a Dharma talk or read articles written for mainstream magazines.

As long as they don’t see us as a threat, the government will allow, maybe even encourage us to spread the teachings. We have to follow the rules, but I don’t think that we are forced to spread the propaganda of communism.

However, there are still political sensitivities. The government asked Thay and the Sangha to refrain from talking about Tibet and Burma, because these are sensitive issues. But we are in the business of practice, so as long as we can do so in a skillful way, we will continue to express our love and understanding to other peoples throughout the world.

Do you think the government sees a benefit to society in Thay’s teaching?

I think so. We have more difficulties with some segments in the Buddhist church in Vietnam than with the government, primarily due to jealousy. I think that by teaching people about moral values, we’ll help build the country. We have to do a lot more and see that this process must continue beyond our lifetimes. But at least Thay has come home and started the process. We have to find skillful ways to continue.

How can people in North America, Europe, Australia, and South America support the efforts of the Sangha in Vietnam?

The practice of other people from different parts of the world helps. On this trip, people have come from forty countries and the peaceful energy generated has impressed people already. Vietnamese people see this and say, These people are from the developed world, and they come from far away to learn the practice with this Vietnamese monk, and we are here in Vietnam, and he’s a Vietnamese man, why don’t we learn from him?

The staff in the hotel have already commented on how quiet, well behaved, and nice to be with we are. And that’s the best Dharma talk that we can give them. People who serve us in the dining hall or at the reception desk, or people doing the room service, notice the difference in a practitioner. I think being where we are, being good practitioners, is the best way to help the practice in Vietnam.

In the next twenty years Asia will be the center of attention, with the big growth in India and China and other countries. So it is good that we are beginning to take root here at this time. But we do not give less attention in the West, because that is where innovations and ideas and support will come from. Financially, Prajna is supported by the Western practitioners; Plum Village is responsible for one-hundred percent of operations and training. By going to retreats, contributing to this and that, practitioners all over the world are supporting our efforts here. That’s interbeing.

Being stronger in the West helps our practice to be strong in Vietnam. And by being stronger in Vietnam it helps us be strong in the West. From the beginning we have sent monks and nuns to Plum Village, from Prajna. And several of us from Plum Village have lived here in Vietnam.

Tell us about the online interview Thay did recently.

Thay gave an interview with an online newspaper, Vietnam Net [http://vietnamnet.vn and http://english.vietnamnet.vn]. It is one of the most visited websites in Vietnam. Quite a few people read it.

The interview lasted for almost two hours, and the interviewer asked quite a few questions — about how the teachings can help people live more moral lives, how the Buddhist values of happiness, stillness, and slowness contradict the ambition to be successful. How we can overcome jealousies among the monastics in the Buddhist church. How Buddhism can advise what a smaller Buddhist country should say to a bigger Buddhist country who always has the intention of invading [China]. He asked quite a few questions about how to apply Buddhism in real life; for example, how can his company practice as a Sangha? And Thay responded to all those questions, giving a Dharma talk to the whole nation.

Do you have any idea how many people might listen to that interview?

They say that it got one million hits. Perhaps several hundred thousand people really listened to it.

So censorship doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue?

Now it’s not an issue, because they already know Thay, so they’re quite comfortable!

Well, good! That’s a lot of penetration.

Yeah. And they transcribed the whole interview, and put the video on the Web so Vietnamese people all over the world can listen to it.

I am optimistic. There are still some hurdles — I’m still not able to get a long-term visa to stay in Vietnam. Every six months I have to renew, at the government’s mercy. But I have been here almost three years, with some break in between. The path is wide open. I am happy being a monk, so it’s the path for me.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.

Bmb49-Practice3arbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, lives in Ashland, Oregon with her husband, Robert, and practices with the Peaceful Refuge Sangha.

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Letter from the Editor

mb65-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

While this issue was coming together, I spent an evening reading our teacher’s poetry on his experiences in war. Afterward, I dreamt that people in my community were drafted into military service and a war was going to break out within a few days. I was very conscious of the peaceful conditions of our lives. The sky was clear and quiet with-out bombers. No grenades were hidden in the fields. The children’s faces were innocent and happy. If war came to our community, I thought, we would look back on this day as a blissfully peaceful time, a day in heaven.

In our world, moments of peace are priceless. Too many people are living in the chaos and terror of war. Even when there’s no external violence, we can have a war going on inside us if the seeds of anger and hatred have been watered. War is never far away. My dream reminded me to cherish peace wherever I find it, and also to cultivate inner peace and use it to nurture harmony in my community.

Thay shows us the way of a bodhisattva, one who continually embodies and generates peace within the crucible of war. He showed us by his example in Vietnam. He shows us by embracing all of our suffering, by meeting one wound after another with the healing balm of compassionate presence. He shows us how places of conflict and suffering are the very places to birth peace.

This issue’s question-and-answer session is an example of Thay’s fearless welcoming of any kind of suffering in order to transform it. The volunteer who transcribed the Q&A shared: “This particular session was so moving that I had to take many breaks to soothe the emotions. I cried so often when listening to some of the deep suffering. Imagine being Thay, sitting there listening deeply to peoples’ struggles and then responding to each individual with such compassion and wisdom! May we all be a source of healing compassion and understanding to ourselves and others.”

Anh-Huong Nguyen, in this issue’s interview, encourages us to embrace our pain and to lean into the Sangha for support, because “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.” Resting in the Sangha’s arms can give us the strength to practice the art of suffering—to engage with our difficulties and transmute them into gifts.

Also in this issue, young practitioners in the Wake Up movement share what it’s like for them to rely on the Sangha and to be transformed by the collective energy of awakening. Their exuberance, deep questions, playfulness, and freshness are inspirations to continue opening new doors in our practice. And practitioners of all ages share stories of their ever-deepening gratitude and compassion.

May these offerings nourish compassion and loving-kindness in us. May we nurture and share our inner peace to help transform war and amplify peace in the world.

With love and gratitude,

mb65-Editor2Natascha Bruckner True Ocean of Jewels

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Dharma Talk: Diet for a Mindful Society

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindfulness is the blood of our psyche. It is exactly like the blood in our body—it has the power to wash away the toxins and heal our pain, the pain in our consciousness.

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When we are not mindful, we ingest many poisons into our consciousness. In fact, we water the seeds of suffering every day, and the people around us water these seeds also. As a result, our suffering increases. When we spend four days together in a retreat, we water the seeds of happiness inside us and around us, and we refrain from watering negative seeds, like anger, hatred, and fear. At the end of four days of practicing like this, we feel much better. We need an intelligent policy concerning our cultural environ­ment so that we do not allow ourselves to ingest indiscrimi­nately TV, movies, magazines, advertising, and other so-called “cultural products.” Many of these things poison us every day with their frantic energy, noisiness, sexual exploitation, and violence. We need a diet for our con­sciousness to avoid ingesting so many of these poisons.

When we ingest toxic substances into our body, we get sick. When we ingest toxic “cultural products” into our consciousness, we also get sick. Our society has so many kinds of spiritual and cultural foods that are toxic. Televi­sion is poisoning us and our children, as are many maga­zines, news images, and so on. We practice watering the seeds of anger, fear, and violence every day. We have to learn to live our daily lives in a way that can help us refrain from taking in more poisons. When these poisons enter our store consciousness, they weaken our power of mindfulness. Without some kind of diet for our consciousness, it is very difficult to practice mindfulness. There are already so many toxins in our store consciousness; we should stop ingesting more.

Many unwholesome seeds have been transmitted to us since our childhood. Practicing mindfulness, we become aware of that pain. But we are not yet strong enough to transform it, so it is important that we stay in touch with the many wonderful, refreshing things that are inside us and all around us—the blue sky, the eyes of a child, the evening sunset. When our mindfulness becomes strong, we will be able to touch our pain with it, and the pain will be trans­formed. I often talk about the mother as the symbol of tenderness, love, and care. When a baby is crying, the mother comes and takes the baby into her arms. Her tenderness penetrates into the baby, and the baby stops crying. When we practice mindfulness of breathing and touch our pain with that energy, our pain will be calmed and will begin to be transformed.

But our seeds of suffering are always trying to emerge, and we try to suppress them. By doing so, we create a lack of circulation in our psyche, and we get sick. As the blood of our psyche, mindfulness can loosen our pain and help dissolve it. Every time our pain is embraced by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength and returns to our store consciousness a little bit weaker. When it arises again, if our mindfulness is there, our pain will be even less. In that way, we create good circulation in our psyche. If the blood in our body circulates well, we feel much better. If our mindful­ness circulates in our consciousness, we also begin to have a feeling of well-being. We needn’t be afraid of our pain when we know that our mindfulness is there, ready to embrace and transform it.

If we have not been practicing for some time, our mindfulness may be of poor quality. It may only be a fifteen-watt light bulb. But if we practice for a few weeks, it will become a one-hundred-watt bulb. For mindfulness to be of good quality, conscious breathing should be practiced. Conscious breathing is the kind of fuel that can keep the light of mindfulness alive. If you practice five minutes of conscious breathing, you will keep mindfulness alive for five minutes. When contemplating a beautiful tree, if you stay in touch with your breathing for five minutes, you will also stay in touch with the tree for five minutes. If you lose awareness of your breathing, thinking may settle in, and the tree will vanish. Breathing is a wonderful way to sustain the seed of mindfulness in your consciousness.

In Asia, since early times, we have known that there is no boundary between food and medicine. When we eat and breathe properly, we nourish our blood. Our blood has the power to rinse away the toxins in our body and heal our pain. If we have good circulation, we will have a feeling of peace and joy, because the blood can go anywhere in our body and wash away the debris eliminated by our cells. We know that if we ingest a lot of toxic food into our intestines, our blood will receive many of these toxins and its power of cleansing and healing will be diminished. So we need to practice a kind of diet to help our blood stay clean.

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Following a diet does not mean to suffer. There are many delicious foods that have great nutritional value. And we don’t have to eat a lot. Sometimes, when we are too sad and don’t know what to do, we take refuge in eating. One woman who came to Plum Village told me, “Thay, every time I feel anxious, I just open the refrigerator door and eat. I cannot control myself.” By taking refuge in eating, we stuff a lot of poisons into our stomach that we know are not good for our blood. Sometimes we also take refuge in studying, social work, protecting the environment, or watching television. We have many refuges that we use in order to run away from ourselves, from our own unhappiness.

We should select the things we eat carefully, and chew our food very well, at least fifty times. If you do so, after eating just half the usual quantity, you will feel satisfied. And chewing every mouthful carefully and slowly, your food will reveal itself to you, and it will already be partially digested by your saliva even before it enters your digestive system. Its passage will not be slowed down, and putrefac­tion will not take place in your intestines. Eating in this way prevents poisons from entering your blood.

Massage is also very important. When there is a spot in the body where the blood cannot circulate freely, we feel some pain. The oxygen in the blood isn’t able to go there and flush out the toxins. Massage is a technique to revitalize circulation. If I practice massage on the spot that is sore, fresh blood will come there to nourish the cells and create a feeling of peace and joy in that spot. For healing to take place, we need the blood to circulate into the zone of pain. Blood is the agent of healing.

We know that to improve the quality of our blood, breathing is important. Our lungs have a three-and-a-half-quart capacity, but usually we breathe in and out only one-tenth of a quart. And if we don’t breathe good air, the amount of oxygen we take in will be even less, and the quality of our blood will be poor. Therefore, we practice breathing in and out consciously, and as our breathing becomes deeper, we exhale more carbon dioxide and inhale more fresh, clean air. We have to learn to breathe more deeply, from our abdomen, and to breathe air that is of good quality. Diet, massage, and conscious breathing improve the quality of our blood. They also increase the quality of our mindfulness.

Please write down three things: First, what kind of toxins do you already have in your body, and what kind of toxins do you already have in your psyche? “Breathing in and breathing out, I recognize that these toxins are already in my body.” What kind of toxins do you have in your conscious­ness? A guilt complex is a toxin, anger is a toxin, despair is a toxin, jealousy is a toxin. If you need to practice walking meditation or sitting meditation in order to look, please do so. Look and see for yourself what kind of toxins you have in your body, and what kind of toxins you have in your mind. What makes you suffer now? What blocks of suffer­ing do you have right now? When you have done that, you will know what you have in your body and in your con­sciousness. Then, please go further, and look into the bodies and souls of your children and your spouse, since all of you are practicing together as a sangha. (Practicing as a commu­nity or a family is always easier. Not only will you refrain from watering the seeds of your own suffering, but your spouse and children will also practice not watering the seeds of your irritation, anger, and so on. That is why we take refuge in the sangha, the community that practices together.) When you recognize these toxins and list them on a sheet of paper, that is also meditation—looking deeply, recognizing, and calling things by their true names.

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After that we come to Item Two: “What kind of poisons am I putting into my body and my consciousness every day?” We do this as individuals, as a family, as a city, and as a nation. We need administrators, legislators, and politicians to practice with us. If you are a psychotherapist, a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, a lawyer, a businessperson, or a social worker, you have to practice in this way for all of us. What am I ingesting every day that is toxic to my body and my consciousness? What is my family ingesting? What are my city and my nation ingesting every day concerning violence, hatred, and fear? The beating of Rodney King, the young driver in Los Angeles, by the five policemen is a good example of how much hatred, fear, and violence are in our society. What kinds of poisons do we ingest every day in our families, our city, and our nation? This is a collective meditation. We need everyone to participate.

Third, write down the prescription that arises out of that insight. For example, “I vow from today on not to ingest more of this, this, and this. I vow only to use this, this, and this to nourish my body and my consciousness.” This is the ground of the practice—the practice of loving kindness to yourself. You cannot love someone else unless you love and take care of yourself. Practicing in this way is to practice love, peace, and enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight. When you look deeply, you have insight, and your insight brings about compassion. Before you begin to eat, breathe in and out and look at the table to see what is good for your body and what is not. This is to practice the precept of protecting your body. When you want to watch television or go to the movies, first look deeply in order to determine what should be viewed and what should not be viewed by you and your children. Think about the books and maga­zines you read, and decide what should be read and what should not be read by you and your children. Practicing together as a community, we don’t need to take refuge in eating or entertaining ourselves with any more poisons. Practicing the precepts in this way helps all of us. Buddhist precepts are not imposed from the outside. From our own insight, we decide what to ingest and what not to ingest into our body and our soul.

For example, if all of us practice looking deeply into war, we will see into the true nature of our society and we will know what to do and how to live in order to prevent the next war. If we prescribe a healthy diet to ourselves, our families, our cities, and our nation and practice that kind of diet, another war will not take place. If we do not practice, a war like the Persian Gulf War will happen again in one, two, or five years. If we continue to live forgetfully, we will be overwhelmed again when we have to confront such a war. The true nature of war and the true nature of our collective consciousness are the same. For war not to come, we need to begin now to prevent it. The best way to prevent a war is to change our collective consciousness. As long as people believe that the war in the Persian Gulf was a war of liberation, a clean and just war, they will be tempted to do it again as soon as there is another conflict somewhere in the world. To change that kind of mentality, we have to practice looking deeply in order to understand the true nature of the war, which was not liberation, moral, or clean. If we don’t practice mindfulness, the amount of hatred, illusion, anger, and violence in our society will lead our leaders to adopt such means again. Without an intelligent diet, we cannot reduce the amount of delusion, hatred, and violence in our society. When we practice well, we will stop bringing poisons into our blood, our soul, and our society.

Insight meditation, looking deeply, is a practice of massage. You practice in order to push the energy of mindfulness into your pain. As it penetrates more and more deeply, your pain will dissolve. I offer you an example: There are those who do not get along with their father (or their mother), because their father has made them so unhappy, has created in their store consciousness so many seeds of unhappiness that they don’t want to look at him, they don’t want to hear his name. They may have been abused as children. For these people I offer the meditation on the five-year-old child, which is a mindfulness massage. “Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old child. Breath­ing out, I smile to the five-year-old child in me.” During the meditation you try to see yourself as a five-year-old child. If you can look deeply at that child, you can see that he or she is so vulnerable and fragile, can be hurt easily by anything that is not kind, can be wounded very easily. A stern look from his father can cause internal formations in his store consciousness. A shout from his father can cause another wound within his store consciousness. When his father makes his mother suffer, when his parents fight and scream at each other, the five-year-old receives a lot of seeds of suffering in him. I have heard young people say, “The most precious gift my parents can give is their own happiness.” If parents live happily with each other, that is the greatest gift they can offer their children. This is true, and I hope all parents can understand it.

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By living unhappily, by making his wife suffer, the father is making his son suffer a lot. He may have brutalized him so severely that the young man has not been able to smile or think of his father. But now he is sitting and visualizing himself as a five-year-old child, very vulnerable, easily hurt. When he smiles at that child, he smiles with compassion. “I was so young and tender, and I received so much pain.”

The next day, I would advise him to practice this: “Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old child. Breathing out, I smile to that child with compassion.” We are not used to seeing our father as a five-year-old child. We think of him as always being a big person, stern, with a lot of authority. But we have not taken the time to see our father as a tender, young boy who can be easily wounded by other people. The practice is to visualize your father as a five-year-old boy—fragile, vulnerable, easily hurt. If it helps, you can look in the family album to study the image of your father as a boy. When you are able to visualize him as vulnerable and easily hurt, you will realize that he too may have been the victim of his father. If he received many seeds of suffering from his father, of course he will not know how to treat his son well. So he makes you suffer, and the circle of samsara continues. Grandfather makes Father unhappy, Father makes Son unhappy, and so on. If you don’t practice mindfulness, you will do exactly the same to your own children.

The moment you see your father as a victim of brutality, compassion will be born in your heart. When you smile to him with compassion, you will begin to bring blood into your pain. With mindfulness touching the pain, insight will also begin to touch your pain. If you practice like that for several hours or several days, your anger toward your father will dissolve. This is to massage the pain by way of mind­fulness. It works in exactly the same way as the blood does in your body. One day, you will smile to your father in person and hug him, saying, “I understand you, Dad. You suffered very much during your childhood.”

Therefore, mindfulness is the blood. Whatever it touches, it transforms. When it touches something beau­tiful, it makes it more beautiful. When it touches something painful, it begins the work of transformation.

Please discuss among yourselves a diet for your body, a diet for your consciousness, and also a diet for the collective consciousness of our society. This is the basic practice. It is true peace work. Peace begins with each of us taking care of our bodies and our minds every day.

Photos:
First and third photo by Michele Hill.
Second photo by Gaetano Maida

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