#38 Winter/Spring 2005

Dharma Talk: The Power of Visualization

By Thich Nhat Hanh

From talks given June 11 and June 14, 2004, at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat, Plum Village

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

In June, 2004, Thich Nhat Hanh offered teachings on the nature of consciousness at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village. Expounding on the material published in Transformation at the Base, Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness (Parallax Press, 2001) Thay offered methods of practice that will deepen our understanding of ourselves and of reality. 

Here, Thay speaks about the practice of visualization, explaining how it can enhance our mindfulness through such diverse examples as recent information from nuclear science and a marvelous story about the mother of the Buddha. 

Also included in this section is Learning to Speak the Truth, an excerpt of a talk given at the same retreat by senior student and Dharma teacher, Thay Phap An, who shares stories of some of his difficulties as a young monk in the early days at Plum Village. 

The practice of visualization is very important in Buddhism, but practitioners of other disciplines need imagination and visualization too. In order to learn, in order to create, we need the capacity to imagine and to visualize. For example, studying mathematics takes a lot of visualization. If your power of visualization is weak you cannot learn a kind of mathematics called projective geometry. If you are an architect, you have to visualize in order to create new forms of architecture. Many scientists have to visualize a lot, because they have to see molecules and atoms with their mind, since they cannot see them with their eyes. Theories concerning the elementary particles of the cosmos come from visualization.

While scientists use instruments and tools to empower their vision, practitioners use visualization to purify their minds so they can look deeply at the nature of reality.

Visualization While Walking 

Using the techniques of visualization during walking meditation can bring us love, wisdom, and joy. When we study the levels of consciousness, we see that the sixth––mind consciousness, also called the gardener––has the power to imagine, to visualize.

When you make a step, you might visualize that your mother is taking the step with you. This is not difficult to do, since you know that your feet are a continuation of the feet of your mother. As we practice looking deeply, we see the presence of our mother in every cell of our body. Our body is a continuation of our mother’s body. When you make a step you might say, “Mother, walk with me,” and suddenly you feel your mother walking with you. Perhaps during her lifetime she did not have a chance to walk in the here and the now, and to enjoy touching the earth like you have. So, suddenly compassion is born in you, because you can see your mother walking with you. Not in your imagination, but as a reality. You can invite your father and other people you love to walk with you, and you feel they are present in the here and the now. You don’t have to be with them physically in order to touch their presence.

If we know that all our ancestors are fully present in every cell of our body, then when we make a step, we know that they are all taking that step with us. Your mind can see the feet of all your ancestors, millions of feet, making a step with you. Using visualization in that way will shatter the idea that you are a separate self. You walk, and they walk too.

Our Perceptions are Mental Constructions 

There are many incorrect things on the screen of our consciousness, and if we know how to focus we can erase them. We bring our wisdom to that view of illusion projected on our screen, and we recognize it as an illusion. Then we press on the mouse, and it is erased from our screen.

When illusion is erased, something appears. The disappearance of ignorance (avidiya) helps the light, the wisdom to arise. So when you use your mind to erase the illusion, the truth appears. Thanks to our practice of looking deeply, we know that what appears in our consciousness is the collective construction of our mind. With practice, we are no longer sure of our perceptions. We become more careful. We know that what is perceived is very much the collective construction of our consciousness.

Parakalpita means collective mental construction. In the past, when we did not practice, we believed that the world of mental construction is a solid, objective world. But now as we begin to practice, we learn that what we touch, what we see, what we hear, is only a collective mental construction. We begin to understand that what we perceive is very much the construct of our consciousness. To recognize parakalpita as a mental construction is a step toward wisdom. And our practice will help us to see that the nature of the world as we see it is the nature of parakalpita, the nature of mental construction.

So with the practice of mindfulness you become more alert. Anything you hear, you touch, you see––you know that it has the nature of mental construction, and you do not consider it as reality. The world of representations may carry some substance of the world, of things in itself, but it mostly consists of representations. And it is collective in nature; for example, the person sitting next to you will see and hear almost the same things that you see and hear. Because you are made similarly, you perceive in the same way.

The Process of Seeing and Hearing 

We know that the images we see are projected onto our retina, and our brain translates them into electrical impulses, which forward them to the center of sensation in the occipital lobe. We don’t see with our eyes; our eyes only receive images which are translated into the language of electrical signals. And an image does not come as a whole; it comes as millions of dots, received and processed by more than thirty different regions of the cortex.

The same happens with sounds. A sound is received and translated into electrical signals, then goes to an area just below the occipital lobe, and then is transferred to many areas of the cortex, and finally sent to the parietal lobe. Then we become aware of it.

Whether it is sound or image or touch or smell, all are translated into electrical signals so that the mind can receive and process. It is very, very complicated. That is why the teacher Vasubandhu said that the processing of store consciousness is not something that mind consciousness can access. And that is why we agree with what the Buddha said in the Diamond Sutra: All conditioned dharmas are like a dream, are like magical performances, are like water bubbles, are like reflected images, are like a drop of dew, are like lightning. The Buddha said, “Dear one, you have to train to look at them like that.”

Because of what we know, we don’t believe that what we perceive is objective reality. It is the mental construction of our consciousness, and we know that is the nature of our perceptions. What we conceive to be personalities, people, atman––what we conceive to be entities, dharmas––are just mental constructions. They are evolving in many ways, but they are all manifestations from consciousness. That is the first verse of The Thirty Verses on consciousness, offered by Vasubandhu.

Touching Interbeing

Knowing that we live in the world of parakalpita, we should practice looking deeply in order to discover the nature of interbeing, because if we look deeply into the world of mental construction, we can touch the nature of interbeing, the nature of paratantra. Paratantra means “leaning on each other,” depending on each other in order to manifest. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with everything else.

For example, a flower has to rely on many non-flower elements in order to manifest. That is why when we look at a flower we don’t see a separate entity. If we see a flower as an entity, then we are still in the parakalpita world. And when we see another person as an atman, a separate self, then we are still in the world of parakalpita. That is why using mind consciousness, we are not focused on these so-called selves and dharmas in order to discover the nature of paratantra. Empty inside, empty as a self, empty as an entity: for that you need the energy of mindfulness and concentration. You live your day mindfully. You look deeply at anything you come in touch with, and you are not fooled by appearance. You are not caught in a world of parakalpita; you are capable of seeing that those you meet are devoid of any solid entity, any solid selves.

Looking into the son, you see the father and the mother and the ancestors; you see the son is not a separate entity. Looking into yourself––your suffering, your happiness––you don’t see you as a separate self, you see a continuation. This is to learn how to see everything in the light of interdependence, interbeing. Everything is based on everything else in order to manifest. Slowly the notion of one and of many vanish.

Training to See the True Nature of Reality 

The nuclear scientist David Bohm practiced looking deeply, and he said that an electron is not a separate entity; one electron is made of all the other electrons. He seemed to understand that the one is made of the all, and just touching the one deeply, you touch everything.

So touching the nature of paratantra, we understand that there are no separate entities. There are only manifestations that rely on each other to be possible, like the left and the right. The right is not an entity that can be by itself. Without the left, the right cannot be. Everything is like that.

The first verse of Vasubandhu’s thirty verses is that the metaphor of selves and dharmas are evolving in several ways. They are creations of consciousness, mental creations. The sixth, the seventh, and the eighth levels of consciousness create.

The Buddha offered us the insight of impermanence and the insight of no-self, as tools for us to touch the world of parakalpita so that we can discover the nature of interbeing, the nature of interdependence, which is devoid of any solid, separate self. One day the Buddha told his beloved disciple, Ananda: “Whoever sees interbeing, that person sees the Buddha.” If we touch the nature of interdependence, of interbeing, we touch the truth, we touch wisdom. We touch the Buddha.

During the day, while walking or sitting, eating or cleaning, you dwell in the concentration of paratantra, so that you can see things as they are, not as selves, not as entities, but as mental constructions that rely on each other in order to manifest. This is the process of training. And finally, when the training is complete, the nature of parinispanna will appear, will reveal itself entirely, and what you touch is no longer a world of illusion, but the world of thing-in-itself. These are the principles of the practice.

First of all, we should be aware that the world in which we live is being constructed by us, by our mind, collectively. That if we look deeply, if we know how to use mindfulness and concentration, we can begin to touch the nature of interdependence. And when our practice is deep, we can erase the illusion of parakalpita so the true nature of reality can be revealed: the nature of parinispanna.

Visualizing Before Touching the Earth 

Visualization can be very helpful. When I was a young novice in Asia, this practice was taught to us, but most of us could not do it. We memorized very well, we chanted very beautifully, but we could not do this visualization for the first ten or fifteen years. The moment you can do it, you feel wonderful. You can erase the notion of self through this practice.

If you are an intelligent practitioner, you do not touch the Earth with the intention of begging the Buddha to give you something, or to forgive you for having done something. That practice is still based on the notion of separate selves: the belief that you and the Buddha are different; that you are almost nothing, and the Buddha is everything; that you need him to give you a little bit of wisdom or happiness. With that kind of intention, you still live in the world of parakalpita. So before touching the Earth before the Buddha, you have to visualize that you are empty of a separate self, and also that the Buddha is empty of a self. The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty. It’s difficult to find another tradition with a similar practice. For instance, you cannot stand in front of the deity you worship, and say, “You, my God, you are empty!”

Before you bow, you say something like this: “Dear Buddha, I am bowing to you, but I know deeply that I am empty and you are also empty, because you are in me and I am in you. When I am touching the Earth before you, it may look ridiculous. But looking deeply, I see that I bow like this in order to touch you in me, and so that you can touch me in you also.

Then you visualize countless Buddhas appearing, like the image of Indra’s net. This is a net made of jewels, and in each jewel you see reflected all the other jewels. Looking into the one you see the all. Suppose you build a hall made of mirrors, and then you enter holding a candle. Looking into a mirror you see you and the candle, and when you turn around you see that each mirror reflects you and the candle in the mirror too. You just need to look into one mirror to see all the reflections of you and the candle. Countless yous and countless candles are reflected in just one mirror.

So you are standing there, about to touch the Earth and get in touch with the Buddha. And you have to visualize countless Buddhas appearing around you, and in front of each Buddha there is one you who is touching the Earth. You touch the Earth in such a way that the barrier between you and Buddha is no longer there. You use the tool of your mind to erase the distinction between you and the Buddha, so that you can touch the nature of interbeing, and you can be free of the notions of one and many, the same and different. And that is the purpose of visualization––to erase the duality between you and Buddha. Before you can wipe out that kind of separation, the practice of bowing is not deep. You have to see the nature of interbeing between you and Buddha before the bowing can bring a deeper result.

So touching the Earth before a Buddha is not an act of superstition. You develop your wisdom by doing so, and you realize freedom. You transform your suffering, your loneliness, by this kind of practice.

The Mother of the Buddha

In the Avatamsaka Sutra there is a delicious portion describing the young man Sudhana looking for the mother of the Buddha. Sudhana’s teacher is the great boddhisattva Manjushri, who encouraged his disciple to go and learn from many people. Not only old teachers, but also young teachers; not only Buddhist teachers but also non-Buddhist teachers. And then one day he was told that he should go and meet the mother of the Buddha, that he would learn a lot from her. So he looked hard for her, but he couldn’t find her.

Then someone told him, “You don’t have to go searching, you just sit down and practice mindful breathing and visualization, and then she will come.” So he stopped searching. He sat down and he practiced. Suddenly he saw a lotus with one thousand petals come up from deep in the Earth. And sitting on one of these petals he saw the mother of the Buddha, Lady Mahamaya, so he bowed to her! And suddenly he realized that he was sitting on one of the petals of the same lotus, and then each petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals.

You see? The one contains the all. The lotus has one thousand petals, and Lady Mahamaya was sitting on one petal when suddenly that petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he saw himself sitting on one petal. And suddenly he saw that is petal had become a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he was so happy. He joined his palms and looked up, and a very nice conversation began between the mother of the Buddha and the young man Sudhana. Lady Mahamaya said, “Young man, do you know something? The moment I conceived Siddhartha was a very wonderful moment! There was a kind of bliss that made my whole body and mind feel wonderful. The presence of a Buddha within yourself is a wonderful thing! You cannot be happier than that.

“You know something, young man? After Siddhartha came to my womb, countless boddhisattvas coming from many directions came and asked my permission to pay a visit to my son in my womb, to make sure their friend was comfortable in there. And before I had a chance to say yes, they all entered my womb. Millions of them. And yet I had the impression that if there were more boddhisattvas who wanted to come into my womb, there was still plenty of room for them to enter.

“Young man, do you know something? I am the mother of all Buddhas in the past. I am the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And I shall be the mother of all Buddhas in the future.”

That is what she said. Beautiful, very deep. And that is the work of visualization: to show you the nature of interbeing, to show you the truth that one contains the all. The smallest atom can contain the whole cosmos.

We all Carry Buddhas Within 

You know that the human body is made of cells, and now science has declared that cloning is possible. From one cell they can duplicate the whole body. How is it possible? Because one cell contains the totality of the genetic heritage of that person. If not, how could we, from one cell, bring the whole body into full manifestation? So current science has proved not only in theory but in practice that, in the one you touch the all.

And we all have all our ancestors fully present in every one of our cells. We carry all of them while we walk, while we eat, while we do things. Without visualization you cannot see it. That is the power of the sixth consciousness, called the gardener.

Who is Mahamaya, the mother of the Buddha? Is that someone outside of you? Or is she you? Because all of us carry in our womb a Buddha. Mahamaya is very careful because she knows that she carries a Buddha within. Everything she eats, everything she drinks, everything she does, every film she watches––she knows that it will have an effect on her child. The Buddha Shakyamuni said, “You are a Buddha. There is a baby Buddha in each of you. Whether you are a lady or a gentleman, you carry within yourself a Buddha.” We also carry a Buddha but we are not as careful as Mahamaya in our way of eating, drinking, smoking, worrying, projecting and so on. We are not responsible mothers of the Buddha.

Like Mahamaya, there is plenty of room inside of us, not only for one Buddha but for countless Buddhas. We can declare, like Mahamaya, that we were the mother of all Buddhas in the past. We can be the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And we shall be able to be the mother of all Buddhas in the future. Mahamaya is hope. Is she outside in objective reality or is she inside ourselves?

So if you visualize like that, all negative feelings, all complexes will vanish. All doubt that you can behave with the responsibility of a Buddha’s mother will disappear and the Buddha in you will have a chance to manifest for yourself and for the world. And that is why visualization is a very important tool of meditation, of transformation. With a mind that is polluted by greed, by anger, you cannot do it well; that is why the purification of our thinking, of our mind, is very important. The practice of the Mindfulness Trainings, the practice of mindfulness of walking and sitting, the practice of samadhi to help purify the mind and to bring the fire of concentration to burn away the ignorance, the delusion. Through these practices, we erase all the wrong perceptions in us so that reality can reveal itself very clearly to us.

When mind has become true mind, when mind has become beautified in true mind, the world parakalpita is no longer there. Instead, the world parinispanna reveals itself completely. There is no longer any fear, any craving, any sorrow, any anger, because all these have been created by our wrong perceptions and our complexes.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Barbara Casey.

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

Letter from the Editor

To Our Readers

It is a rich blessing to be sitting here, receiving treasures of the practice from all over the world to share with you in the Mindfulness Bell. During the months of developing the material for an issue, I go through many changes. At first, I am inspired to create a new weaving of insight from the material I have waiting and from the transformation happening in my own life; and I am also a little anxious that I won’t receive enough material (that’s the part of me who thinks I am in control).

Then, inevitably, the river of insight flows forth and so many of you offer wonderful teachings. My confidence becomes strong and my appreciation for this wonderful path of practice deepens as I work with each piece, watching how each one becomes a beautiful thread in the overall design, both lovely and strong.

Because we have been in such a tumultuous time with the recent U.S. Presidential election, I wanted to address how to practice with politics and how to engage without becoming embroiled in partisan conflicts. Being quite involved in the campaign, I had a chance to look daily at this issue. I saw that first of all, I needed to stop. I needed to stop feeding my prejudices and judgments about others, and to start every day with an open curiosity about each person I would meet. I needed to listen deeply, both to the stories in my head and to what I heard from others and from the media. I had to look for the truth, and to learn to let go of all the rest. I had to have confidence in my own true nature and in the foundation that my practice has built for me to rest on. I had to take refuge in myself, in the strength of my spiritual and blood ancestors. I needed to nourish myself every day, with the presence of supportive and loving friends, and in the beauty of nature. And I had to work every day, to uproot my limited views and to open my heart to life in this moment.

The morning after the election, as I went out to retrieve all the political signs from my front yard, the neighbor dog ran over to greet me, wagging his tail in great happiness. In that moment I realized that to him, this morning was just as new and full of possibility as was the morning before. I realized that I needed to renew myself by spending time with the trees and the deer, with the moon and the stars.

The teachings in this issue speak of these practices. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us the power of visualization and gives us ways to explore the nature of our minds. Four lay sisters share stories of taking refuge in their spiritual and biological roots. A group of practitioners encourage us to go further with the transformative practice of deep listening. Thay and other wise teachers offer views on the political situation and our place in stepping forward as mindfulness practitioners. A guided meditation helps us to learn to continually let go.

Perhaps the most important personal result of my participation in politics over the past year has been the establishing and deepening of friendships, resulting in strong community-building. Acquaintances became friends as priorities shifted and people stepped forward to live their highest good.

May we all rest in the net of Sangha, offering one another the power of our mindfulness and deep faith in the beauty of life as it is.

In gratitude,

Learning to Speak the Truth

From a Dharma Talk by Thay Phap An

June 13, 2004
Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

Respected Thay, respected brothers and sisters, and the whole community: Today is June 13th, 2004. We are in Dharma Cloud Temple in the Upper Hamlet.

In the last two weeks, we have learned that we can depict our consciousness as a circle with two parts. The lower part is called store consciousness, and the upper part is the mind consciousness. In our store consciousness there are many seeds––seeds of joy, seeds of happiness, and seeds of tolerance. But there are also seeds of anger, of frustration, and of jealousy. Our practice is to water the positive seeds so they will manifest and try our best not to invite the negative seeds to come up into our mind consciousness.

The Early Days at Plum Village

When I first came to Plum Village I had many ideas about the practice. I had ideas about the Buddha from books I had read. I had ideas about how a teacher should be and ideas about what monks and nuns should be like. At first, the Sangha was very small. There were only four monks, and there was a lot of work. My perception was that life in Plum Village was not well organized, so I volunteered to be the work coordinator, and I worked very hard, trying my best to organize Plum Village.

I had the idea that my teacher should be available to me, giving me affection when I needed it, and spending a lot of time talking with me. One time in 1993, when I had been a monk for about a year and a half, I went to America to lead a retreat. I missed Thay a lot and I hoped that when I saw Thay again, he would ask me, “How are you doing? Are you doing fine?”

Upon my return, Thay visited the Upper Hamlet, and he walked by the temple office where I was standing, waiting patiently to see him. I joined my palms and bowed to Thay sincerely and with respect, and Thay continued his practice of walking meditation. He didn’t even look at me! And I felt very sad. I said to myself, “Well, it seems that Thay doesn’t have any sense about the student-teacher relationship.” [Laughter.] “He doesn’t seem to look at me at all; he just continues walking and disregards his student.” At that time most of us were new to the practice, so our understanding was still very weak.

I had so many ideas about how monks should be. When an elder brother would do something different from my expectation, I would feel sad and want to leave Plum Village. The seed of wanting to run away is very strong within me. Thay used to call me Hungry Ghost, because I have a very big seed of hungry ghost within my consciousness. Growing up in America, I was trained to be judgmental and critical.

Often we do not have much opportunity to touch the goodness and beauty that is around us. When our practice is weak, we continue to allow the seeds of frustration, anger, and judgment to come up from our store consciousness into the mind consciousness. And if our mindfulness is weak, we allow ourselves to be carried away by those energies.

Learning to Speak the Truth

In the summer of 1994 I made a big mistake while preparing for the great ordination ceremony. I was the work coordinator, and it was a difficult job because the Sangha was small and we had to do all the cooking, and we also had to be attendants for many elder monks and nuns who were coming for the ceremonies.

There was one elder brother who had been a monk for many years. He had studied in India and then went to Holland; gradually he left his path as a monk. But that spring he had come to Plum Village and was to be ordained as a monk again. I respected him a lot, but I also had a lot of ideas about him.

During our planning meeting he volunteered to organize the Full Moon Festival. I was very happy, because it is difficult to find someone to do this during the summer retreat. But the next day as I was washing my dish, he came up and said, “Well, I’m not going to organize the Full Moon Festival because the monk who did it last year refused to help me by passing on his experience.”

I said, “ What?! You promised that you would organize the Full Moon Festival, and now you won’t do it? How can you do that to me? Everyone already has jobs, so who’s going to organize the festival? Nobody can do it. Will you please do it?”

But he refused again.

A few days later, under the linden tree, we had a Sangha meeting to water the positive seeds within ourselves before the retreat. Thay gave a good talk, watering the flowers of everyone in the Sangha. Then he asked, “Are there any questions?”

I raised my hand and said, “Yes, I have a question.” I stood up and asked, “How can we organize a summer retreat when someone here refuses to take the responsibility of doing his work?” [Laughter.] Right in front of the Sangha, I continued explaining and complaining.

In this meeting, Thay had tried his best to bring all of the good seeds from our store consciousness up to our mind consciousness, and then I turned around and invited all the negative seeds up. The whole Sangha became very tense.

Thay was not very happy. He said, “Sit down and shut up!” [Laughter.]

I was very upset because I thought I was only speaking the truth and had asked for help. I didn’t realize that I had watered the negative seeds in everyone’s consciousness. When the meeting was over, I went and bowed to Thay and said, “Thay, please forgive me. I have made a mistake, but I don’t understand what I did, because I was only speaking the truth.”

Thay said, “What you spoke was not the truth. Truth is something that has the capacity to reconcile, to give people hope, to give people happiness. That is truth! When you speak and it causes damage, even though it may be correct, it is not truth.”

I come from America, where we are taught that we should be honest, direct, and straightforward. So if I don’t like something, I want to say it directly. But sometimes you need to use skillful means to speak, and that skill for me is truth. Truth has the capacity to reconcile, has the capacity to bring harmony and peace.

Slowly I began to learn that some of my perceptions were not in accord with the practice. I needed to learn new ways of perceiving. I needed to learn to look at things positively.

The Secret of Plum Village Practice

Many people come to Thay and talk about issues that come up in the community, and they are earnestly looking for answers from Thay. But being a Zen master, usually Thay doesn’t respond directly. Instead he helps that person to return to his or her practice, to touch what is beautiful in that moment. And that is the secret of the practice of Plum Village.

If we do not have happiness within ourselves, if we do not have peace within ourselves, whatever we do is only a reaction. Action is based on joy and happiness; reaction is based on suffering and pain. Slowly I learned to act, and not to react.

Many times I have said, “Well, Thay only talks about breathing in, breathing out, year after year––water the good seeds––he has nothing new to talk about with us!”

But after five years of listening to Thay’s Dharma talks, I understood what he meant when he said that life is a miracle and it’s possible to touch joy and happiness in the here and now. It’s possible to see the beauty of the blue sky, and to be able to have deep joy in the present moment.

In every single retreat Thay tells us that when we walk, we should not talk. And when we talk, we should stop and be truly present to each other. But as soon as we leave the Dharma hall, we continue walking and talking at the same time. So we listen only with our ears, not with our heart. And we are not able to really practice.

When I have a problem, when I have sadness, I approach Thay. He listens to me, then takes my hand and we walk into the garden. He points out the beauty: “Hear the sound of the creek, see the bamboo, the blue sky, the flower.” To go beyond the net of our thinking and to touch the Ultimate dimension is the essential teaching of Zen practice. To touch life deeply in the here and now. When Thay teaches us about the Four Noble Truths, he first teaches us to water our positive seeds, to get in touch with the positive element around us. He teaches that it is possible to be happy in the here and now, regardless of how much suffering we have. And then, once we are strong enough, that tiny bit of happiness and joy is the ground on which we will stand when we begin to look into the big block of suffering that’s in our store consciousness. Without this ground of happiness and joy, it’s very difficult to touch our suffering. Without it, we will be carried away by our suffering, and we will have no chance to recognize it, understand it, and transform it. So the foundation, the first stone we put our feet on, is our tiny bit of joy, our tiny bit of happiness, before we can go farther.

So don’t hurry to jump into the suffering within you and the block of suffering in the world around you. We need to touch the joy and peace within ourselves, to make ourselves strong before we dive deep into our suffering. The practice of Plum Village is to touch the Ultimate Dimension, to touch the peace and the joy, regardless of how tiny it is. And that is the ground from which you will transform the big block of suffering within yourselves.

Thay Phap An is a Dharma teacher and senior student of Thich Nhat Hanh, currently living in Plum Village.

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From Sicily with Love

Finding My Family

By Name withheld by request

“In Gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family. I see my father and mother, whose blood, flesh, and vitality are circulating in my own veins and nourishing every cell in me. Through them I see all four of my grandparents whose expectations, experiences, and wisdom have been transmitted from so many generations of ancestors. I carry in me the life, blood, experience, wisdom, happiness, and sorrow of all generations. The suffering and all the elements that need to be transformed I am practicing to transform.

I open my heart, flesh, and bones to receive the energy of insight, love, and experience transmitted to me by my ancestors. I see my roots in my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and all ancestors. I know that I am only a continuation of this ancestral lineage. As a continuation of my ancestors, I bow deeply and allow their energy to flow through me. I ask my ancestors for their support, protection, and strength.”

—Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh

“Margherita.” My mother’s name means daisy, and she is indeed as delicate and as beautiful as that flower. Born into a large family in Sicily in 1950 during an economic depression, she was introduced to the dark demon of abandonment at an early age. The Puzzo family had three boys and two girls, and was not able to financially support them all. Knowing that the boys could provide income for the family by working in the fields, the family gave their two little daughters to the local orphanage, “Il Boccone dei Poveri”—roughly translated: “A bite of bread for the hungry.” At just four years old, my mother was alone, scared, and without a family.

Four years later and six thousand miles across the Atlantic, Mary had just finished burying her forty-five-day-old son who had died of pneumonia in Brooklyn, NewYork. Overwhelmed by grief, yet still full of the desire to love and to nurture, Mary and her husband, Joseph set about organizing an illegal adoption for an orphan child. At eight years old, my mother found herself on a boat with a lawyer, headed in true United States-immigrant-style for the Statue of Liberty.

Unable to overcome the loss of her first child, my grandmother, although still yearning to be a loving mother, treated her adopted daughter with anger and resentment. If Margherita misbehaved, she was reprimanded with such comments as, “You are not my real child, anyway.” Or, “Is this the thanks I get for taking in a rejected orphan?” This lack of nurturing and the concrete garden of the Brooklyn sidewalks made it difficult for my mother to blossom into the beautiful flower she was born to be.

As the years passed, the communication between my mother and grandmother did not improve. At twenty-two, my mother left my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn for an apartment in Manhattan where she spent a year working at Saks Fifth Avenue and enjoying financial freedom for the first time. It was then that she met my father, who was traveling from South Africa on business. At a party of a mutual friend, Albert and Margherita got drunk on red wine and fell headfirst into what they both thought was love. My father returned to South Africa, but after telephoning and writing each other for six months, they decided to get married. Seeing this as an opportunity to begin anew, my mother flew to South Africa with visions of creating a secure and loving family of her own. She invested her idea of happiness into her marriage and two years later, in a small clinic in a suburb of Johannesburg, I was born.

It was a turbulent marriage from the beginning, as my father had a restless heart. On his frequent business trips he met many women who were responsive to his good looks, quick wit, and irresistible charm. After eight years of marriage and the birth of my brother Joe, my parents divorced.

My mother’s world was shattered as she confronted the ruins of her broken dream with two small children. Filled with anger, the three of us returned to the United States. She did not tell my father that we were leaving, and forbade us to ever speak to or see him again. “He is the ruination of our home,” she would often say. “If I ever find out that you love him, or that you speak with him, you no longer have a mother.” At four and six years old, my brother and I took these words to heart, and promised our mother that to us, our father was as good as dead.

Starting My Healing Journey

As the years passed, I began to feel an undeniable longing to know my father. As this longing grew, so did anger and resentment towards my mother. Though she worked hard to give my brother and me everything we asked for, and though there was always delicious home-cooked food on our kitchen table, we were emotionally starving. My mother’s inability to forgive my father was poisoning us all. I began to feel a strong compassion for my father. I knew that he had attempted to contact us children many times, but that my mother had prevented it. I understood how my father must be suffering, feeling rejected and abandoned by his own children. At age sixteen, I began to communicate with him secretly through letters and telephone calls. Initially, he resisted my attempts to get to know him. He felt hurt, and believed that my brother and I hated him. He had constructed a wall of guilt, sadness, and confusion. It took several years of loving and compassionate listening to earn back my father’s trust, but today I enjoy an open, loving relationship with him, though our communication is infrequent and he still lives far from me in South Africa.

Ironically, it is the parent I lived the closest to geographically with whom I felt the most distance. The anger I had built up for my mother was insidious; it grew and disguised itself so well that I did not recognize its true face until one day, I found myself with no desire to speak to or see her. I left home at sixteen, eager to leave New York City and my mother’s biting resentment. For ten years I traveled around the world searching for a place I could call home. At age twenty-two, just like my mother, I found myself in a foreign country, engaged to be married. But several months before the wedding, I became very ill. I developed a severe hormonal imbalance, producing seven times the amount of male hormones normal for a woman, and three times the normal amount for a man. My subconscious rejection of my mother and my own feminine self was physically turning me into a Superman! Sometimes not able to leave my bed for days, I fell into a deep depression—vomiting, crying, and yet praying constantly. The wise insight of my body told me that I was not ready to provide my partner with a stable love and home. One month before the wedding—dress made, invitations printed—I broke off the engagement. Although I desperately wanted to stop traveling and to plant my roots somewhere, the anger that festered in my heart against my mother prevented me from being able to love myself fully. I knew that in order to be able to settle into my own skin, I’d have to deal with my internal rage. How could I ever expect to be a loving mother if I could not love my own?

Four years have passed since the onset of my illness. I can now see that my anger at my mother for not being able to let go and forgive my father was part of my problem. However, my own inability to forgive my mother mirrored her difficulty and prevented me from feeling compassion for her and for our relationship. I am tired of fighting with my anger, and am ready to forgive. When my grandmother passed away three years ago, my mother yelled and cursed at her until the last breath left her body on her deathbed. I do not want to repeat this.

My spiritual practice is helping me to dig into my dirt, to unearth the brittle and withered roots of the maternal and the Goddess within me. Today I celebrate the eight-year-old Sicilian orphan girl who still dances in the music of my mother’s laughter, basks in the sunshine of my mother’s eyes. I embrace this little girl as the same uprooted little child taken from her home in South Africa. Breathing in, I smile at the wounded Sicilian cells within me. Breathing out, I prepare myself for the road of practice which lies ahead.

I know that I need to go to my mother’s village in Sicily to look for the family that she believes has forgotten her, in order to start this healing process with her. I have only the family name and the name of the village. So I go forward, step by step, with forgiveness in my heart and love as my guide. I try to remember the uncanny parallels in my mother and in myself, both in our internal and external lives. I trust that the daisy-bud within me, the precious Margherita, has already begun to blossom, and that one day I will be able to pass this beauty on to a small flower of my own.

Traveling to Sicily

It’s seven in the morning, and already the blistering eighty-degree weather has filled the hotel pool with several guests and their children. It’s one of the hottest summers in Southern European history, and Sciacca, a popular tourist destination in Sicily, is filled to capacity. I’ve ended up at the only hotel room available, at the five star Hotel delle Terme—way beyond my budget.

I pick up my knapsack, slip on my Birkenstocks, and head down to the bus stop, in front of the Franciscan monastery at the piazza in the center of town. I’m armed with only my mother’s last name and the name of her village. Deep breath. I’m on a mission to find my family. I’m in God’s hands.

After a pleasant walk through the bird-filled central park, I arrive at the modern, bright blue bus parked with its doors closed. In front of it, smoking a Marlboro light, stands a young guy. With his stylish haircut and sunglasses and his golden chain glistening over his dark curly chest hair, he looks stylishly out of place in this antiquated little town. He smiles as I approach him, and I find the strength to mutter my pieced-together question: “Scusi, ma voglio andare a Montevago. Cuando parte il pullman?”

He takes off his sunglasses and looks at me with kind blue eyes and a big smile. He tells me that the bus leaves in twenty minutes, and asks me where I am from.

“New York.” I say.

“Me too!” His response surprises me, but immediately I can see him blending in with the Brooklyn Italians that hang out every day at Sal’s Pizzeria on my corner. His name is Vito and he was born on Grove Street in Ridgewood –– the same street where my mother’s high school still stands, the same sidewalks that my mother walked on to school for four years. We are both amazed at this coincidence, and immediately he becomes a sacred ally on my mission. I confide that I am going to Montevago to look for my mother’s lost family, but have no information other than her last name. He asks me her name.

“I know everybody here and there is only one Puzzo left in Montevago, my friend Guiseppe’s girlfriend Maria’s father, Vincenzo. All the others left for other parts of the world, or died.”

Vito assures me that if my family name is Puzzo, then this Vincenzo will know something about them. Maria works at Guiseppe‘s flower shop on the outskirts of Montevago, and he says that he’ll take me there directly. The monastery bells chime eight o’clock and Vito turns to open the bus doors.

Finding My Family

On the ride to Montevago, I notice how the landscape of Sicily is a beautiful balance of masculine and feminine. In between rugged lines of jagged brown stones sprout bushels of bright green prickly-pear fruits and deep purple grape vines. The horizon is vast, open, and welcoming, yet the valleys run deep and feel in places desolate and abandoned. I can feel the appropriation, the subjugation, and the violation of this island’s history embedded like ancient seeds in its soil. Simultaneously, its resilience, pride, and commitment to survival spring forth in every flower blossom and luscious ripe melon.

The big blue bus pulls around in front of a tiny yellow storefront. “Maria!” Vito yells, while honking the horn. “Maria!” Again, I am instantly transported back to Brooklyn.

“Che? Che?!” A tiny yet tough female voice calls out from behind the plants and trees lining the bright stone storefront. A few seconds later, peering nervously from behind the tinted bus windows, I see a short girl of nineteen or twenty sprint from behind the green jungle and walk defiantly towards the bus. “Si, whaddya want?” Her gait and her energy are feisty and strong, though physically she is very skinny and delicate.

Vito tells her that I am here looking for my family. Maria’s expression changes to one of profound curiosity. I feel my mother’s fiery energy coming from her. Even her eyes radiate my mother’s temperament. I can feel my blood in her. My heart beats faster.

Maria boards the bus cautiously, peering in at me. “Are you Theresa’s daughter?” Maria asks me, studying my face carefully. Theresa is my mother’s sister, and I know that I have found my cousin.

“No, I am Margherita’s daughter.”

A space of silence hangs heavy in the humid air of the bus before Maria’s big brown eyes begin to well with tears. Overwhelmed by relief and disbelief, my heart is swollen and sits heavy in my heaving chest. Maria and I stare at one another, speechless.

“Mamma mia....” Vito’s deep voice breaks the weighted silence, and Maria and I turn to see him taking a handkerchief from his shirt pocket to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks. Vito seems to be both a man and a very old woman. I recognize him as my angel, my divine charioteer.

Vito’s reaction brings Maria’s composure back, and, wiping her eyes, she snaps back into her old self. She remembers that my mother’s brother is about to have one of his life-long wishes fulfilled––to reconnect with the sister he never knew. Grabbing my hand, she looks me squarely in the eye. “Come on, let’s go. My father will want to meet you...what is your name?”

Deep breath...my mother has finally come home.

Sharing with My Mother

My short time in Montevago was filled with love, joy, tears, stories told over espressos and home-baked Italian pastries. Pictures were taken, gifts given, and lots of spaghetti was eaten. However, it was the anticipation of my return home to my mother in New York that filled me with the sweetest delight. I was eager to share with her the pieces of her past that I had found, and to see how she would respond. I knew that this was a sensitive part of her life, and I was curious to see if she would open to it.

Returning to New York, my mother seemed overjoyed at my journey, willing to receive what I had brought back. Sitting at the dining room table, I spread out the pictures of me with her brother and her aunts. I placed the rock I had taken from the rubble of what was once the house she was born in on the table, and shared stories of each wonderful family member I had met. “They love you so much, mama. They miss you so much.” She looked at each picture carefully, curiously fingering the outline of her brother’s face. “I don’t have his nose, thank God.” She laughed. There was a precarious joy in her, an awakened inquisitiveness, still too new to be understood or defined. “I’m going to visit them.”

A few months later, my mother left for Sicily. She stayed a week with her brothers, met the townspeople, and traveled, seeing everything as if for the first time.

The meeting with her family was not one of carefree joy and celebration. With hearts still heavy, heads still carrying years of confused stories and misunderstandings, my mother’s return home was wrought with anger, confusion, and many unanswered questions. Upon her return to the States, she said that although she may never return, she felt that she had fulfilled a kind of duty and for that she is happy. Though she may never fully understand exactly what happened, she knows that a bridge has been re-built, a severed root re-connected so that new stems may grow—and in their own season, bear bright new blossoms.

Author information withheld by request.

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Reflections While Sitting in a Catholic Church

By Starr DiCiurcio

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.— From The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings

Recently I was sitting in an old Catholic church for the funeral of a dear friend’s father. The massive stone building reminded me of the church I attended every Sunday as a child. Memories came up from the familiar smells of incense, candle wax, and dampness. I began reflecting on the intertwined relationships of religious institutions, the larger experience of spirituality, and culture. I am an American Buddhist, a member of the Order of Interbeing. I am also a Christian. The first fifty years of my life were spent as a Catholic, if not always a happy one. There was a certain discomfort with the institutional church that came early in my life, leaving me feeling such a lack of identity with the community that participation became rote and empty. In Buddhism, I have found the spiritual home that I had lost in Catholicism, but I do not reject that great wisdom tradition that formed so much of my spiritual life. Many parts of the church might reject me today, but I do not feel any impulse to reject in turn.

As I sat sharing my friend’s grief, I thought about all I had learned as a teacher of English as a second language to students transitioning to America. I repeatedly told them to value their homelands, their roots, their heritages. Now I was telling myself the same thing. There is no need for me to dismiss the great teachings and beauty of the Church of my youth in order to embrace my new spiritual life.

My Real Jesus

Jesus is real to me, but the Jesus I love is not the one many others profess to follow. I love the Jesus whom I understand to be Buddha’s brother—full of compassion and all inclusive in his reaching out in love to the world. He is not the Jesus known to some as a judge, a strict interpreter of right and wrong. Nor would he condone his followers becoming judges of others in his name. It does not matter to me whether Jesus rose from the dead in a physical sense; whether he was immaculately conceived; or whether he walked on water. It does matter to me that he gave the Sermon on the Mount to help inform my life, and that he reached out to everyone around him, even the lowest of the low. The Jesus I know was a great reformer who came from the fringes of society. He prayed in solitude before performing his public work. He was alone, and he was also in community. This Jesus called on all his followers to live lives of lovingkindness, above all else.

In the quiet of the church the vibrant jewel tones of the stained glass windows shone even on that gray, rainy morning. I looked at the old statues around the sanctuary that some artisan lovingly and with great devotion sculpted. I felt unmoved. But as the elderly priest came in and prepared the altar, compassion arose in me. This is not an easy time to be a priest. Certainly over the years this man has witnessed many of his contemporaries’ departures from the priesthood, through choice, accusation of misconduct, and death. Few young men have joined these communities and the priests who are left in the ministry commonly experience declining respect and great loneliness. As he genuflected before the altar and put flowers in a vase before the Blessed Virgin, I remembered that in my youth a priest would never have performed this simple task of flower arranging. Where are all the ladies of the Altar Society? They are part of a lost culture.

Embracing the Gifts of My Root Faith

This faith of my youth is an encompassing culture that has defined much of me: my sensitivities, my values, and my spiritual awareness. It has brought its great history and scope to my days and, in turn, I have given back through devotion, study, and teaching. This is the faith experience of my early childhood when I knelt at Mass alongside my rosary fingering, Irish father who was one of the most faith-filled people I have ever known. This is the faith experience that rejected my mother’s belief system – also Christian but of another church. This is the faith experience of my college life and studies, and also the faith experience that guided my teaching of theology. This is the faith experience I have passed on to my children who came to us through Mother Teresa. We know nothing of their birth parents except that they chose to leave their children with the sisters, and that is a connection full of meaning and import that we, as a family, continue to honor.

This Catholic Church has all the earmarks of culture––art forms, language, rituals, and belief systems. Gregorian chants can lift me emotionally and spiritually and remind me of robing with my college classmates to sing Benediction every Thursday. Their Latin brings back my earliest profound experiences of prayer. The structures of European cathedrals inspire and call to mind spiritual ancestors who labored to place stone upon stone until they erected something far greater than the sum of each daily effort. Entering many churches, old or modern, grand or modest, can be conducive to reflection, meditation, prayer, and spiritual opening. As a mother, during rough times I have always found comfort in contemplating Mary and her extraordinary experience of motherhood. I also take refuge in Avalokiteshvara, but Mary holds a special place in my heart since she was a mother figure for me through my formative years. It is interesting that statues of Mary and Avalokiteshvara have been used interchangeably in times of persecution of Asian Buddhists and Catholics. Shouldn’t that teach us all something?

For those of us coming to Buddhism later in life, it can be refreshing and nourishing to reflect upon the earlier lessons of our spiritual lives. As we open our hearts and minds to the past, we create a wholeness within that allows us to enter the present fully, with our entire being. This is an acknowledgment of the nonduality of existence that can be gleaned and nurtured within us as we mature. Being inclusive of the differences within ourselves is helpful as we try to be inclusive of differences in the larger contexts of our world. Our compassion as Buddhists is transcendent. It includes that which we have appeared to have left behind on our journey. It shows us ways to incorporate old practices we wish to retain with new practices we have come to love. Perhaps that is one of the richest opportunities for spiritual growth––embracing what in our past religious or spiritual practice has disappointed or wounded us, as well as what has enriched us. If anger is there, instead of pushing it down or away, we can embrace it and learn as we heal.

Practicing Interfaith Dialogue

Thay has taught us that the most basic principle of interfaith dialogue is that it must begin within ourselves. It may take time to look deeply at all the aspects of our spiritual histories and the institutions that have attempted to hold them. But like so much in life, it is the challenging nature of this quest that brings great fruit to the practitioner. If we understand the major wisdom traditions as dynamic and living entities, we realize that this is an ongoing process. Bringing the practices of deep looking and deep listening to interfaith experiences can lead to greater understanding and progress for peace. But first one needs to establish that understanding and peace within one’s own being.

Over the ages we have seen borders drawn, walls erected, families splintered and wars fought over religious differences. Over and over, we witness people claiming to know the best, or even the only true way to spiritual fulfillment. Misinformation, stereotyping, deep prejudice, intolerance—all abound. More than ever, the stake in these dangerous human games is the very existence of humankind. Our reasons for fighting are discouragingly unchanged over time, but the instruments of battle evolve in more and more far ranging and catastrophic ways.

A Call to Step Forward

For the practitioner who has a deep experience of more than one spiritual root, there is a real call to step forward and create opportunities for healing. It seems all too common in religions institutions to find extremists who are counterproductive to helping create a peaceful world of true brotherhood and sisterhood. Isn’t it wiser to look at all spiritual life as a mere glimpse of the Ground of Being, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land? How blessed is the person who gets to really see through more than one of these lenses! And with that blessing comes a responsibility to use the enlightenment of the resultant understanding to help others come together—not just in tolerance, but in true appreciation of the great depth, beauty, and opportunity offered by each tradition.

Many spiritual leaders have understood this need for healing and have had keen appreciation of paths outside their own. What is desperately needed today is to take that understanding out of our individual spiritual lives and into religious institutions. Thay has modeled this brilliantly in his own life, and in the life of his community. The first several of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are beacons of hope for the world. They call us to practice openness, truth, freedom, compassion, and understanding. They warn us against judgment, intolerance, rigidity, and self-righteousness. As we support one another in our Sanghas we can bring this healing to each other, our communities, and to the world; we can be peacemakers all, taught by the Buddha, his brother Jesus, and our other precious spiritual ancestors.

Starr DiCiurcio, True Understanding of the Sangha, lives in Schenectady, New York and practices with the Kingfisher Sangha.

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The Scent of Oranges

By Nancy Hom

Note: this article comes from Spoken Like a True Buddha, a compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

Death, and the notion of aging, has always hung over me like a heavy cloud. I have sought ways of avoiding the topic, such as staying away from hospitals, funeral parlors, and nursing homes. But here I find myself visiting my mother, recently confined to a home. All around me, I hear death hissing through the clang of bedpans and squeals of wheelchairs, through the endless drone of catatonic dining companions. Amid the vacant eyes of childlike faces, the tired bodies draped before the dinner trays, my mother sits facing me. She glances at the gift of oranges I have brought her and nods her approval.

I have come 3,000 miles to be with her, but silence forms a wall between us now. Advanced Parkinson’s has already claimed her voice. Her legs, long withered, dangle uselessly. I wheel her into her small room, still stupefied by the disease that chains us both to these white walls away from life.

My mother’s eyes are luminous, glistened pearls. Once they flashed indignantly at the thought of being in a nursing home, then accusingly, then beseechingly. Now they simply look at me with resignation. Sometimes they stare into a far off place.

I watch her helplessly as the minutes tick by. My mind races to fill the space taken up by silence. I think of meetings missed, the dinner not yet eaten, the bus and train I have to take in the cold windy night. I think, If only she had been diagnosed earlier, if only I didn’t live so far away. Then hope, not guilt, would be a visitor. I remember the warmth of her back when she carried me, my small arms wrapped around her like a shawl. How, when I was red with fever, she rocked my blistered body until I fell asleep. The hot nights on the rooftops of Kowloon eating watermelon seeds and watching the neon lights twinkling in the streets below. The first days in America, when I clung to her like a shadow. The dark times, too, when I cowered in a corner before her wrath. These thoughts I hold onto like photographs in an album, stilled images of the mother I no longer have access to.

She points a gnarled finger at the orange I had left on her table. I peel it carefully, glad to have something to do. A spray of citrus fills the air and her eyes widen like a child anticipating sweets. I hand her a slice, which she grasps unsteadily. She brings it painstakingly to her mouth and sucks with soft smacks. I eat my slice too, squeezing the little beads of juice with my teeth until the flavor bursts over my tongue like a rainshower.

Oranges were always around in our house when I grew up. They cleansed the palate after every dinner; topped pomelos on New Year’s altars, were the calling cards of visitors who always brought the fruit as a gift to the host. To me they were heavy sacks of obligation during holidays and weekends, when my mother and I wended our way through tenement buildings to visit fellow immigrants from China. The tables were littered with melon seeds and orange peels as I waited impatiently while my mother and her friends chatted; conversations I found hard to relate to, preferring instead to bury my head in a Nancy Drew book while they reminisced about the old village.

Now this bright leather-skinned fruit is the only bridge between us. We eagerly suck the memories the piquant flavor evokes. The tart vapors tickle our nostrils. I can see from my mother’s twitch of a smile that she remembers, too. She chews slowly, savoring each bite, as if the thoughts will fade away as soon as the orange is eaten and more slices of her life will peel away.

We finish the whole orange. She belches in satisfaction. I wipe her chin; then we sit and gaze at each other. There are so many words that will never get spoken; dreams that will stay unfulfilled; regrets that are etched in our skins like birthmarks. But in this moment it does not matter what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. There is only the room, the faint scent of oranges, and us, breathing in unison.

If I cease my mind’s constant chatter and look deeply, I see that she is still here, still my mother. She is different and she is the same. She will be here after her body has deteriorated. She will be in the air I breathe and in the earth I touch. Her brightness will shine through her children’s eyes, and those of their children. Although I have a long way to go with my practice, this fleeting insight becomes stronger whenever I stop my thoughts long enough to see my mother as she truly is instead of what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. We sit and breathe together. In this moment is the whole of our lives.

Nancy Hom lives in San Francisco. Her experiences as an immigrant, a mother, a community leader, and spiritual seeker provide the framework for her visual and literary pursuits.

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A Sweet Reunion

Transcending Birth and Death

By Beth Howard

I first heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on transcending birth and death in August of 2002, while on retreat at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. My father had just been diagnosed with terminal chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I was fortunate to have many months to help my father and to live with these teachings until he died on May 5th, 2003. The following September, I attended another retreat with Thay and the teachings really came home to me.

Up early one morning, at the YMCA of the Rockies, I lit a candle and dressed in its small circle of light. Leaving the room, I joined the others in the chilly, pre-dawn darkness, in the parking lot outside the building.

Hundreds were gathered as the monks and nuns began gracefully and wordlessly leading us in mindful movement –– humans moving powerfully, silently like the wind. I could see the power of the practice shifting and sweeping away old paradigms so that new thoughts might take hold and grow. This movement through consciousness is as dramatic as a forest fire destroying old growth. At first, it is the loss that is most obvious, but quite soon the new growth becomes apparent.

The group began walking meditation, moving as a human river, flowing down roads and walkways, pooling into a field for sitting meditation. We faced northeast, embraced and surrounded on all sides by mountains. In this cold darkness, we anticipated the light and warmth of the sun before its arrival, reminding me of the Sanskrit term, anahata, meaning unstruck, as in hearing the sound of the un-struck bell.

In this pre-dawn stillness, my father came to sit with me. I was so warmed by his presence that my eyes filled with tears. I held my left hand with my right hand, imitating how I had held his hand often at the end of his life. I thought, “It’s good to sit with you again.”

He replied, “You know what I remember best about you?”

“Yes,” I answered, “the time I held your hand all night and you felt the life flow back into you.” He’d remembered this to me many times at the end of his life. Only this time, the energy flowed into me, with his presence as the channel. I received deep love and peace, a blessed gift. My heart filled with gratitude for this sweet reunion.

The sky lightened. The group stood and began walking in silence, moving out of the field and into our day. This new energy would carry me back into the fullness of life.

Later that morning, during the Dharma talk, Thay held up his left hand and said, “This is your father’s hand, for your father lives on in you. If you are ever missing your father, hold your left hand with your right hand and know you are holding your father’s hand.”

I was struck by the powerful confirmation of this message so soon after feeling the fullness of my father’s presence.

These are the messages of mindfulness that remain with me: That which is part of you can never be lost. You may, however, have to find and feel it within you. Also, Something can never become nothing. This is the principal teaching of the Buddha in order to overcome fear. The energy of one you have loved remains. The challenge is to look deeply, to be quiet, aware, and willing to find and feel the energy in a new form. Once you discover this, you will begin to understand that you can never lose someone you love. You will only begin to find them again in a new form.

Beth Howard, Living Dharma of the Heart, lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming and practices with the Bird & Bell Meditation Group at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne. Beth is an artist, weaver, and yoga teacher and she enjoys writing.

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Discovering Levels of Deep Listening

By Ian Prattis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Healing Through Listening

By Margaret Kirschner

If we feel there is someone we cannot help, it is only because we have not yet looked deeply enough into his or her circumstances. —Thich Nhat Hanh (1)

I was feeling a deep and discouraging helplessness about the suffering of a loved one when a dear Sangha friend, Mary, was able to hear my despair Her calm nonjudgmental listening opened the door for me to pour out my helplessness, and I had the strange sensation that I was pouring out my loved one’s pain as well. Through this experience, I gained a new understanding of how to listen. Always before, I had tried to deepen my listening skills by being the listener. This time, I was given a better understanding of what one needs in a listener by truly being heard.

My experience that day was that Mary stepped aside and let me solve my own problems. Her eyes held my pain and soothed me like a gentle mother. They gave me space to acknowledge my mistakes and to find solutions. Here are some things I noticed:

  • It was helpful that she didn’t say “I understand” when I didn’t understand

  • It was helpful that she gave no advice so that I could discover my own

  • It was helpful that she said little, permitting my thoughts to flow without

  • It was helpful that she remained calm in the midst of my chaos, offering an environment in which I could

  • It was helpful that she didn’t give the impression that she knew the answers that I didn’t know

In that listening I began to remember the times when I had not felt helpless, the times when my loved one and the many others who sought my counsel, responded positively. They were the times I kept my balance, when I maintained the nourishment of my positive seeds. As my breathing calmed with my recall, I stopped crying and returned to mindfulness. I began to feel the stability gained through my own suffering. I could recall the Buddha’s trust in our inner awareness and joy, no matter how much pain hides it. I now understand that it is necessary for me to maintain that same trust whenever I am listening deeply. I wrote the following in tribute to Mary:

Listening is what I need when my thoughts are so tangled they have no beginning nor end.

Listening is what I need when my heart despairs into molten tar.

Listening, your silence tells me what I need to know. Listening, your eyes show me I am loved. Listening, your hugs free me from my own judgment.

You listen and awareness untangles my thoughts You listen and a peaceful path beckons to me You listen and your compassion overflows my heart.

Thay teaches us to listen with only one purpose: to offer someone an opportunity to empty his or her own heart. If you are able to keep awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can listen even if what the other person says contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations, and bitterness. You can continue to listen because you are already protected by the nectar of compassion in your heart.

With our listening we offer confidence that the suffering person can find his or her way through. Thay suggests that at some later time we might give a word or two to suggest a better way, warning that “Truth heals, but it should be released in small doses over time, like a medicine. If you force the other person to drink all the medicine at one time, he will die.”(2) The nonjudgmental attitude that allows people to be where they are and the freedom to understand in their own time is essential. The trust in each person’s inner awareness without judgment and often without our understanding is why Buddhist psychology is the most effective approach I’ve found to a happy, healthy life.

My heart expanded with joy the day that Mary listened to me. And I know hers did too.

Margaret Kirschner, True Silent Sound, lives and practices in Portland, Oregon.

  1. Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation at the Base, Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press, 2001, p. 41

  2. Thich Nhat Hanh, “Cultivating Compassion, Responding to Violence,” Mindfulness Bell, (September 13, 2001) p. 8

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Moments of Communion

By Connie Nash

For years, I’ve been hearing and reading about parents –– mostly struggling mothers and other family members –– talk about their beloved children or loved ones who have ended up behind bars. There are all kinds of reasons given for the arrests and imprisonments along with, in some cases, a parent’s confidence his or her child could not be guilty. Some of the unfortunate were in the wrong place at the wrong time; some had committed an awful act under the influence of drunkenness, drug use, despair, guilt, or in a moment of terrible anger. Some were in prison for an act due to post-traumatic stress from fighting America’s terrible wars in Vietnam or Iraq I.

Several years ago I was attending the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty and was listening deeply to a sister of a death row prisoner whose DNA test proved him innocent of the crime he was convicted of, yet he was still not free. Her life was filled with many complications because of this difficult situation. Although I’d been a friend to family members of inmates for years, all at once it struck me deeply that these same events could occur to anyone, even to my family.

My husband and I adopted three magnificent sons who were fourteen, eight, and four years old when they entered our family. The two oldest had experienced disrupted lives filled with poverty, violence, and loss of parents and friends in Africa, followed by many adjustments to life in the southern United States. The youngest had experienced seven different homes and all manner of other abuses in his early youth. We also have a lovely daughter with an artistic temperament. Whenever I would bring up my concern about how our children would succeed in life, my husband would give me all the reasons our kids would survive unscathed. He made it clear he didn’t think our children had special needs.

Listening at this conference brought up my deep fears and panic about my children’s future, and I began crying. At some point I found myself receiving the balm of deep comfort I had been needing for years from a human rights activist I barely knew. This man just stood there in front of me, completely tuned in, unrushed, undistracted, listening so well. My concerns became his for those few precious moments. His eyes seemed to reflect not only my words but my heart’s agony. He seemed able to feel what I couldn’t articulate. As he listened, I could feel my despair slipping away. It felt like magic.

After I calmed down, he shared that his mother was the inspiration for his deep dedication to human rights and the plight of so many behind bars. Then he expressed confidence that my own mothering would help bring about fruit in each of my children, to help them survive no matter what came their way. He offered me a comforting and healing embrace before we each went our way.

I still wonder often, what will become of all our children, particularly those who are traumatized? Yet, because of those few moments with someone so adept and willing, I am less frightened than I’ve been in years. That experience continues to water my faith and encourages me to work hard for the well-being of all children.

I know many who carry deep pain and are afraid to let it out for fear there would be no stopping the tears. Yet I know that I now have greater empathy and strength for my suffering friends, because my own agonizing fears were expressed and heard.

How many more sons and daughters might we raise who do not turn from fear and pain? Mothering –– even with my four children now out of the nest –– has become ever more urgent and important to me. My desire for a just peace has become my very sustenance, as has my need to work for healing, the abolition of the death penalty, and the ceasing of all war. Not least among that which strengthens me is the power of a few moments of communion, and of feeling truly heard.

Connie Nash is relocating to Asheville, North Carolina. As a disciple of Christ, she has been enriched by the teachings of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh and the deep listening of practitioners.

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Deep Listening: A Sangha Exercise

By Bill Williams

Recently, the Greater Hartford Sangha practiced a deep listening exercise during our Day of Mindfulness, held in a cozy home overlooking a beautiful lake in rural Litchfield, Connecticut.

First, I shared briefly from Thay’s teachings about the importance of deep listening. Deep listening is a high compliment to the person who is speaking because it means that I value what you’re saying, I care about you and want to hear your pain, distress, joy, and sorrow. In the Fourth Mindfulness Training we read, “Aware of the suffering caused by...the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating...deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering.” Because we have cultivated a strong tendency to judge, compare, interrupt, advise, or change the subject, we must practice to become empty and open to each other.

In this exercise, four people sit facing one another in a small circle in the middle of the room while the rest of the Sangha watches and listens. One of the four tells a story of deep personal meaning, while the others listen carefully. Then the first responder repeats the facts of the story, the second describes the emotions or feelings conveyed and the third relates the values involved. After that round, a second person tells a story and so on until each person has played all four roles.

The four participants included three men and one woman. Stephen told us how he met his wife; Rickey described a disappointing turn of events when she was producing a TV news segment; Nick recalled a reckless escapade when he was a newly licensed sixteen-year-old driver; I recounted events surrounding the death of my wife in 1998 from breast cancer.

When we finished, we went around the circle giving feedback about the experience, and then invited other Sangha members to do the same. Several themes emerged. There was general agreement about the importance—and the difficulty—of deep listening. It does not come naturally. Good listening is a skill that must be cultivated with patience and practice. We realized how hard it is to repeat the facts of a story, even minutes after hearing it. And it’s not always easy to sort out emotions and values. Variously, the four stories conveyed feelings of embarrassment, sadness, disappointment, fear, love, pride, and frustration. The values included forgiveness, courage, acceptance, commitment, determination, and trust.

Stephen initially was reluctant to take part in the activity, saying he was fearful of being judged and afraid he would not remember the facts of a story. But once we began, he felt at ease, secure in the embrace of the Sangha. Rickey liked the intimacy that was created. Nick found it valuable because he loves to tell stories but believed he was an awful listener. He was touched by Sangha members expressing that his parents were wonderful in showing such loving concern about his safety after he destroyed a family car driving recklessly. I was moved by the validation of hearing others reflect back to me the feelings and values important to me in my story.

Doing the exercise increased the intimacy, sharing, and connectedness between Sangha members. In our Dharma discussion later in the day, one member, a therapist, said she listens to people all the time in her work, but does not often get the chance to be heard. The long-term challenge is to carry the practice of deep listening into our daily lives in encounters with family members, friends, and colleagues. Continued practice with the Sangha will support us in this aspiration.

Bill Williams, Peaceful Friend of the Heart, is a host of the Greater Hartford Sangha, in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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A Key to Peace: Listening To Myself

By Peggy Lindquist

Kwan Yin sits on my dresser. Although she has twice taken a fall and there are chips from her veil, her eyes are half closed/half open, listening to the pain of the world. She pours from her bottle a river of endless compassion. I can enter it at any time.

Since autumn of 2002, I have belonged to the Yahoo group “Deeplistening.” Inspired by Thay’s urging for us to listen deeply to the pain of the world, we share our sorrows, our frustrations, even our rage at times. We report when we are able to be calm and when we can listen to people with views different than ours. We encourage each other not to despair and to listen to the birds singing or notice the flowers blooming even when we read of injustice or of the great damage of war.

But only recently did I understand the value of listening deeply to myself. At the winter retreat in Deer Park, I was able to notice when voices arose in my consciousness. The voices were critical, fearful, anxious, doubting. They are with me all the time and have been probably since I was a child, but I have been in the habit of pushing them away. They are uncomfortable––not how I want to feel and not how I want to think of myself. They get in the way of my goals.

Reminding me of voices of children who aren’t getting the attention they need, they repeat themselves again and again and again, getting louder and louder and finally doing something destructive, or becoming silent and withdrawn. With the loving support of the Deer Park Sangha, I began to listen to the voices rather than push them away. I began to ask, “What is it?”

What I heard were stories tucked away in my consciousness from years ago, accompanied by fear, doubt, and anger. Most of these stories were so simple I found that I could just listen. For example, I discovered that when I am in a group, I am sometimes afraid of being left out. I learned that my petty criticisms of people

I don’t know often come from a fear that I am not good, smart, pretty, or likeable enough.

I have also learned to listen when I don’t feel comfortable with a plan and when I just need to stay still and quiet. Sometimes I have recognized a fear and just allowed it time to be. I have been able to be patient and let conditions for a particular course of action arise naturally without forcing them because I listened to my need to move slowly. And I have heard anger arise in me and have been able to take care of it rather than take it out on someone. (Not every time, mind you.)

These discoveries have been very rich, not frightening as I supposed they would be. The inner voices are not those of boogey men or monsters—they are more like uncertain children with something interesting to say. I have gotten to the point that, when I feel an upsetting emotion start to arise, I look forward to the journey of listening and discovering.

Thay says that in order to create peace we must listen to the suffering in the other person. He also teaches that peace begins with each of us. I am finding that deep listening is the key to creating peace within myself and that inner peace and respect create the ground for moving toward peace in the world. As I learn to listen to myself as Kwan Yin does, with an open heart of compassion, I hope I will be able to listen to the suffering of others and take part in their transformation.

If you are interested in joining our discussion, go to yahoogroups.com and register for the deeplistening group.

Peggy Lindquist, Gentle Forgiveness of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing and practices with the Joyful Refuge Sangha in Portland, Oregon.

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Poem: Form, Formlessness

My one small life is formed
from more than a hundred million breaths.
In, out

I am still breathing.
Even as I count the only breath
is now.

This heart that is
my only heart pulses
without a break thousands of times a day
whether I am grateful or not.

Thank you heart.
Thank you breath.

Songbirds ecstatic,
clouds swirl like feathers.
Multiplying cell by cell
I dissolve.

Gratitude is nothing,
a breath nothing you can keep.
Neither a heartbeat.
Neither this moment, formless

more powerful than all
our lives. In one
fleeting sigh a simple feeling
washes through me.
Hello Love,
I recognize your face.

By Janet Aalfs

Janet Aalfs is the poet laureate of Northampton, MA (2003-2005) and the director/ head instructor of Valley Women’s Martial Arts, Inc. She pays attention to her breath in everything she does.

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Poem: How the Dog

is dog white. How he opens himself
to the world each day—every morning

the same—empties himself, then drinks.
How his black pads and variegated claws

click the pavement exactly
in time with the barefoot version

of Ode to Joy and he means it. How in the dignified
winter of his life he’s so willingly

your child. How the dog recovers. How his
heart is an unsealed document and he

writes upon it daily. How inside his small body
is a great hall, a library of smells in which

you’ve been permanently shelved. How the dog
forebears, how the dog goes about doing

the work of dog. How the dog unmirrors you.
How the dog is dog quiet, sprawled

on a pile of clothes. And how the dog allows,
hears violin when you throw yourself

across the bed for effect
whimpering again in that strange

human accent you have. When you’re down
there, trying to tell the dog about your life

how the dog’s best music is listening.

By Kelly Parsons

Kelly Parsons practices with the Mindfulness Community of Victoria, B.C. and the Mountain Lamp Community in Washington.

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Plumeria Tree Buddha

From a Dharma Talk by Eileen Kiera

November 6, 2004

There are an estimated ten to the thirty-seventh, that’s ten with thirty-six zeros after it, molecules in a cubic inch. And within our bodies there are how many cubic inches? There are an inconceivable number of molecules in our body. There are two things about atoms and molecules, the basic stuff that makes up our bodies; first, there are so many of them, inconceivable numbers; second, they are very long lived. They go on and on and on and on. So when I tell a story about a past life of the Buddha, we can see that the molecules that made up the Buddha are still circulating. And who we are will manifest in many, many different forms. It’s maybe not our idea of who we are, but something essential about us will continue to manifest.

So we can see that when the Buddha was speaking about his many lives before he was manifest as the body of Shakyamuni, there is some literal truth there, at some level. In traditional Buddhist cultures they speak about reincarnation very literally, about how this body becomes another body. But the Buddha taught that that doesn’t happen because there isn’t an individual, separate self. Of course we’re not going to manifest again as a self, because there’s no self there to begin with. But the likelihood of everyone in this room having atoms that once lived in the body of Buddha is very, very great, very likely, because they are constantly being mixed up and they keep going on and on and on.

So this story is about Buddha as a plumeria tree. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii you’ve seen plumeria trees. They sometimes have pink flowers, sometimes white flowers, and they’re very velvety, with five or six petals, tinged with a little yellow, and with an absolutely heavenly fragrance. When they’re blooming in the summer, Hawaii is filled with the fragrance of plumeria. One of Buddha’s lifetimes, as probably one of our lifetimes, was as a plumeria tree.

The story the Buddha told of his lifetime as a plumeria tree was that he lived next to a very beautiful lotus pond, filled with fragrant flowers, and not far from him was a very muddy little pool that was filled with shrimp and crab, even a couple of fish. A heron came to that area once, and the heron saw all the life in the muddy pond and thought to himself, “Oh, I would like to eat that life. But if I just go chasing after them, they’ll all hide.” So, being a smart heron, he went over and waded into the pond and he said, “Little fish, little shrimp, don’t be afraid. I’m here to carry you over to that beautiful lotus pond. You can get in my beak and I’ll take you there.”

Because the shrimp and the fish and the little crab were fairly smart, they said, “Oh, we don’t believe you. You just want us to jump in your bill so you can swallow us whole.”

But the heron said, “No, no, I’m not a heron like that; you can really trust me. You can trust me so much that I’ll take one of you over to visit the lotus pond and then you can come back and tell everybody what it’s like.”

None of the animals were willing to do that, except for one very old fish, who had heavy, thick, tough scales and very little meat. Bony, old, ancient fish. And that fish said, “You can take me over to the lotus pond,” because he knew that if he got eaten then nobody else would go. And he knew that he didn’t have very long to live anyway, and besides that, he would not be tasty.

So the heron picked up the fish in his bill and flew over to the lotus pond and let the fish go. The fish swam around the lotus pond and indeed, it was very beautiful; the waters were cool and fresh and there was a lot to eat. It was lovely being in the lotus pond. After he had spent some time there, he came back to the shore and said to the heron, “You can take me back to my pool now.” So the heron took him back to the little muddy pool and let him go.

And the old fish said, “Indeed, the heron did take me to the lotus pond,” and he described the lotus pond to everyone. And he said, “But you should still use your own judgment about whether you want to take that journey or not.”

But needless to say, all the little shrimp and fish lined up and said, “Take me, take me.”

And so the heron picked up the first shrimp and took it over and landed beneath the plumeria tree and proceeded to eat the shrimp and spit out the shells, the carapace of the shrimp. When the plumeria tree saw this, he felt so terribly sad. He said, “This heron has lied. He has not only lied, he has manipulated, he has broken the trust.”

But the Buddha then was a plumeria tree, and could only stand there and feel really sad; he couldn’t change the situation. And after the heron finished the first shrimp, he went back, and got another shrimp and ate him under the plumeria tree. And every time he went back, he would assure the other shrimp and fish that those in the lotus pond were very happy, that he was willing to take them all over, not to worry. And so, one by one, he took all the shrimp and all the fish underneath the plumeria tree, and ate them.

And the Buddha standing there, fragrant flower plumeria Buddha, was so sad, that he could feel tears running down his bark. But standing there as a tree, there was nothing he could do.

Finally the only one left in the pond was crab. The crab was feisty and said, “I don’t entirely trust you. So if you take me, I don’t want to be in your bill, I want to ride with my claws holding onto your neck.”

And the heron thought, and said, “That will be okay.”

So the crab put his claws on the heron’s neck and they flew. When they flew over the plumeria tree he could see all the shells and the bones of the shrimp and the fish, and he knew that the heron had eaten them all. So he tightened his claws on the neck of the heron and said, “You have been lying. You’ve eaten all my friends.”

And the heron chuckled. But when they landed, the crab pressed his claws tighter and tighter on the heron’s neck, until it broke. The heron died and the crab went into the lotus pond.

The Buddha was standing there, just watching it all happen with his full attention. And what the Buddha realized was that when we feel helpless, it is very important to strengthen our intention to practice: to transform suffering, to be a source of kindness and peace. And as a plumeria tree, the Buddha vowed that whenever he had an opportunity to manifest peace, to make a difference, to change something, to transform some suffering in the world, he would do that. And his intention to practice became very, very strong.

Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, lives with her husband and daughter at Mountain Lamp, a rural retreat center in northern Washington. A Dharma teacher for almost twenty years, she is a beloved guiding influence to Sanghas throughout the Pacific Northwest.

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Nothing is Lost

A Response to the Recent U.S. Election from Thich Nhat Hanh

November 7th, 2004

For those of you who voted for John Kerry, we must look deeply to see the John Kerry elements in George Bush. In this long and difficult campaign, Bush has learned many things from Kerry and those who voted for him. We have to see that they inter-are. If there had been no election, Bush wouldn’t have questioned his positions or his approach. He would have been able to assume that his way is best. But he almost lost the election, and he is aware that at least half of the American people don’t believe in him. Now, because he almost lost, he is more humble and must realize that if he doesn’t listen to the other half of the American people, there will be a big disturbance in the country. So we have to see that now all of us are in him. Those of you who didn’t vote for him are in him, are a part of him after this very close presidential race.

We have to help our government so that a president elected by fifty-one percent of the population will not serve just that fifty-one percent but the whole country. We need to keep speaking out, daily letting our government know what we want, expressing our insight and understanding. We need to be very present, very firm, and constantly let the government know we are here. We can support them in our own way, through being present, calm, lucid, and compassionate. Being compassionate doesn’t mean we surrender and give up. It means we see clearly that our country, our government is us and it needs our help. Compassion means acting with courage and deep love to help manifest what we know our country is capable of.

Historically it has happened that the agenda of the left has been realized by the right. We have to speak out and keep speaking out, and it is possible that the Republicans will accomplish what the Democrats, what the left, had hoped to realize had they won. We also need to remember that even if Kerry had been elected, he would also have had to partly realize the wish of those who voted for Bush, and it is not certain that he would have been able to stop the war in Iraq.

Nothing is lost because we are in President Bush. There is a loss only if we respond with anger and despair. We have to continue on, to continue our practice, and remain strong in our role as bodhisattvas, helping the other half of our country by our firm, clear, and compassionate action for peace—the kind of peace in which both sides win because there is mutual understanding.

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Toward Mindful Politics

By Nathanial Cordova

We are encouraged not to shy away from suffering, to take a clear stand against oppression and injustice, to behave responsibly as citizens, and to work for the well-being of all living creatures. But how does our involvement in politics integrate into our practice?

In our tradition a direct admonition regarding the political comes in the Tenth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, Protecting the Sangha. This training reads:

“Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.”

But how do we advocate for certain political positions if we do not engage in partisan conflict? Don’t we run the risk of remaining ineffective if we do not stake out clear positions that align us with certain political orientations?

Not necessarily. Refraining from partisan conflict does not keep us from identifying with particular political orientations or having a standpoint. There are many ways to be politically conscientious and active without partaking of what often passes for political activity, but is actually conflict in disguise. For example, we can look deeply into the roots of the perceived conflict and division. As Thay has noted in Creating True Peace (Free Press, 2003), our enemy is misperception, and right action stems from right understanding. We can work at developing skillful means that allow our voices to be most effective. This begins with internal transformation.

For me, the issue of same-sex marriage has been a compelling way to begin this internal change. On a daily basis I challenge myself to be more understanding of the values, belief systems, and fears that drive those who oppose same-sex marriage. I’m also challenged to be more aware of the fears of those who support it, and how that fear shapes our responses, attitudes, and assumptions about those who disagree with us.

In controversial political issues it is easy to demonize the opposite side, disregarding their concerns and fears as unwarranted, silly, or full of malice. Such an approach increases polarization and anger. Instead, I try to maintain an invitational rhetoric that engages opponents of same-sex marriage.

Not Turning Away

It is also important not to let our fears or a pious concern over the “purity” of our practice or beliefs, lead us away from the political fray. On the contrary, we can seek to transform the political with our compassion and mindfulness. We can employ mindful abiding, looking deeply at the roots of suffering, and careful contemplation of skillful means to water seeds of lovingkindness.

What about the frustration and anger that frequently accompany our forays into the political arena? How do we protect ourselves from the toxicity of politics? A strong and consistent practice allows us to develop the energy of mindfulness so we can embrace such feelings when they arise. Educating ourselves about the political process and political events also means carefully nurturing a good sense of how and where we can be of service, and where we need to step back.

Anger and frustration are normal human emotions, and as they arise they can serve as mindfulness bells bringing us back to ourselves. What is important is how we respond and manage those feelings, and how we work to transform them. Mindful politics is at its best when we understand that the change we seek is greatest when motivated by love and compassion. We must remember to care for ourselves before, during, and after we enter challenging arenas. That is why developing healthy Sanghas within which we can find support, joy, and continued strength is an integral part of mindful politics.

Nathanial Cordova, Spacious View of the Heart, practices with the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon. He is an Assistant Professor in the Rhetoric and Media Studies Department at Willamette University.

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Now is The Time for Engaged Buddhist Practice

By Larry Ward

At this very moment, American society is full of anger, fear, confusion, and reactivity. The recent loss of our perceived psychological safety and physical security has removed the veil of material success as our great protector. With this curtain of affluence and influence torn away the depth of our suffering is fully revealed.

In these disturbing times full of apathy, fear, dispersion, and hope we find ourselves in a state of spiritual emergency. Some of our people of every race and class find themselves seduced by radical extremes of material, religious, and ideological fundamentalism in an attempt to respond to this emergency. In such a time nothing is more important than cultivating our capacities for mindfulness, understanding, and compassion.

As our teacher has said on many occasions, “Meditation is to be aware of what is going on––in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in our world.” True meditation is not running away from ourselves and our world but rather the courageous act of coming home. This is not a grim process, however sobering it might be. Acknowledging and embracing our suffering and the suffering around us is really challenging. But coming home to ourselves and our world is also touching and being touched by the wonders and mystery of life.

I know that many of us feel powerless and overwhelmed by the situation and behaviors of American society today, and we wonder how our meditation practice can help. It can help a great deal because as we personally heal and transform, our society heals and transforms also. If we dare risk deepening our practice of stopping and calming ourselves and deepening our practice of looking and seeing, we can witness miracles in ourselves and our world.

America’s Karma

I invite all of us as individuals and Sanghas to meditate on America’s karma. There are many notions of karma that have been handed down to us through centuries of spiritual practice. We often refer to karma as historical or divine retribution that we will receive by some power at the end of our life.

Thay’s description has been most helpful to my mindfulness practice. Karma is the living reality of our actions of body, speech, and mind that flows through time and space, having our unmistakable signature. Through my daily practice of the five remembrances I try my best to stay aware that “I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech, and mind. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

This living reality continually shapes my being and my becoming, and as it does so it shapes the being and becoming of my family, my community, and my society. The living reality of karma is my continuation and the continuation of my ancestors at every moment. No activity is more important right now to the well-being of our world than our capacity to inquire deeply into the true nature of our actions, individually and collectively.

The Process of Deep Inquiry

Inquiring into America’s karma is not easy. It must be done with stability and compassion. It is easy to get caught in judgment, assigning blame to others and regret to oneself. It is easy to be tempted by despair, for America is so big and we are so small.

During this depth inquiry it is important to remember to breathe and smile. This inquiry is not an intellectual or philosophical exercise. It is a real invitation to practice, to touch life right here, right now.

To look into America’s actions at this moment of history is to encounter many emotions, pleasant, unpleasant, and mixed. In order not to be overwhelmed we must use the tools we have received from Thay. I have found it important to enjoy a mindful walk or cup of tea in Noble Silence, and not to try to take in too much at once. I have learned that if I make such an inquiry without practicing concentration and awareness of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness, it is very easy to get trapped by wrong views. I have discovered that the best place to begin a meditation on America’s karma is with me. Since America is the place of my most recent blood ancestors, I have been deepening my awareness of America’s karma inside of myself. What seeds of thinking, speech, and action are resident in the storehouse of my consciousness? What perceptions of America reside in my mind? What individual and collective nutriments water these seeds?

We have come through another Presidential election season. I find that seeds of fear, confusion, power, and divisiveness have been profoundly watered in us all. Engaged Buddhism is not zendo-only Buddhism. It is the continuous act of coming home to ourselves and coming home to America. Regardless of the outcome of the recent elections, if our individual and collective actions remain without enquiry, the path of our destiny will not be altered.

In an effort to participate in American society, many of us simply substitute the most familiar or latest politically correct ideology. Sometimes we protest the warlike behavior of America with a sense of our own rightness while we remain at war with ourselves, our families, our Sanghas, our communities, and our country.

Bringing Home the Flag

Four days after our national independence day my father passed away. As is a custom for veterans, an American flag was placed on his coffin during the funeral. I have never been comfortable with the flag, especially as an African American, based on how it has often been used and abused.

But I had an insight during the funeral services that this is my flag, the flag of the land of my birth. I brought the flag home and placed it on an altar in my office to remind me of my connectedness to America. While America has negative qualities, she also has positive ones. It is my responsibility to manifest her hope and promise in my own life and the life around me. It is my opportunity to look into her suffering and the causes of her suffering in order to find relief.

Shortly before he passed away, my father shared with me his reflections on war as a WWII veteran. He said, “Please remember that nobody really wins.” So we must go deeper than mere politics in order to heal and transform America’s karma. We must not leave out the political realm but bring deep practice to it. We must bring our Buddha mind, our Dharma mind, and our Sangha mind to our collective life and destiny.

The trees outside my window are turning brilliant colors as they let go of their summer’s disguise. We too must let go of outdated disguises of opinions, positions, judgments, and habits in order to free ourselves to give America true understanding, true peace, and true love.

Larry Ward, True Great Sound, is a Dharma teacher living in North Carolina. This article is from notes on a book he is writing called America’s Karma. He and his wife, Dharma teacher Peggy Rowe are also developing a curriculum for the Bodhisavatta Mystery School of the Lotus Institute, which will include retreats and an on-line learning community, beginning in 2005.

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Poem: Buddha in me

Sometimes I see the Buddha in me
a phrase, a touch, something I see

It touches my heart
And awakens in me

A memory of how to be free

A memory of how to be me

There’s a time the Buddha in me
Comes to surface

As if to say

Remember, life will pass you by

If you forget to stay alive

In this moment

In this place

There’s a time
The Buddha in me

Comes to the surface

As if to see

If I remember

Ariel Blair

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