#56 Winter/Spring 2011

Dharma Talk: The Fourth Establishment of Mindfulness and the Three Doors of Liberation

By Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talk at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom

August 17, 2010

Thich Nhat HanhGood morning, dear Sangha. Here we are in the University of Nottingham, at our retreat, “Living Mindfully, Living Peacefully.” The other day, we spoke about the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the four domains of mindfulness. The first is the body, the second is the feelings, and the third is the mind. The fourth foundation of mindfulness is the objects of mind, which we will talk about today.

There are also four exercises of mindful breathing to recognize and look deeply into every mental formation. Mind here is a river, and the drops of water that make up the river are mental formations. Mental formations are born, stay for a while, and die. There is hate, anger, fear, despair; there is mindfulness, concentration, love, and so on. We sit on the bank of the river of the mind and recognize, contemplate, and look deeply into each mental formation as it manifests.

The first exercise is to recognize the mental formation. The second exercise is to gladden your mind. If we know how to recognize the good seeds in the bottom of our consciousness and help them to manifest, then we can create joy. When our nourishment and healing are strong, we will be able to handle the afflictions, the despair, the suffering in us. The third exercise is concentrating the mind. With mindfulness, we begin to focus our attention on a particular object. That object might be our joy or our unhappiness, or our pain. That object might be a cloud or a pebble. Using the strength of mindfulness and concentration, we look deeply into the object of our meditation with the power of concentration. The fourth exercise of mindful breathing is to liberate the mind. Salvation, liberation comes not by grace, but by mindfulness and concentration. So with the power of concentration, we can burn away the afflictions that are in us, like a lens concentrates the power of the sun to start a fire.

Four Exercises with Perception

When we work with the object of mind, we deal with the problem of perception. We believe that there is a mind that’s trying to perceive an objective reality. Many scientists of our time still believe that our consciousness is something in here, trying to reach out, to understand the objective reality out there. But in fact, the object of perception and subject of perception cannot be separate. They manifest at the same time. So the object our perception in Buddhism is called the object of mind.

The first exercise that the Buddha proposed in working with perception is contemplating impermanence. Breathing in, I contemplate impermanence. I see everything is changing. Nothing stays the same in two consecutive moments, including my body, my feelings, my perceptions, all my mental formations, and my consciousness. Everything is moving, is changing.

Intellectually that is not difficult to understand, but impermanence should not only be a concept. It should be an insight. Many of us accept the truth of impermanence, but we still behave as if things are permanent. We think of ourselves, our beloved ones, our institutions of society as permanent. And when things are impermanent, and we believe them to be permanent, we suffer. We have to cultivate the insight of impermanence in order to liberate ourselves.

Impermanence is a kind of medicine that can help cure the disease of permanence, but if you get that disease of permanence, it’s very difficult to heal. Suppose the notion of impermanence is like this match, that you must use to produce the flame. It is the flame that we need, and not the match. But without the match, we cannot produce a flame. When the flame is born, it begins to consume the match. So when the insight of impermanence is born, it begins to free you from the notion of impermanence. And that is why in the First Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, it says not to be idolatrous about any doctrine and teaching, including Buddhist teaching. You have to free yourself from ideologies and doctrines and teachings.

The second exercise is to contemplate non-craving, nonlonging. When we long for something very strongly, when we crave something very strongly, we lose the present moment, we lose ourselves, and all the wonders of life available in the present moment. We lose life. And we know that happiness is not possible when you are sucked into the future, always desiring something. We practice: breathing in, I release my longing, I release my craving for something in the future; breathing out, I contemplate no longing, no craving.

The third exercise is the contemplation of nirvana. Nirvana is our true nature of no birth and no death, no coming, no going, no being, no non-being. Nirvana is the extinction of all notions. In fact, the word nirvana means extinction. This is a very deep, very strong practice of concentration to touch our true nature, the nature of no birth and no death, nirvana.

And the fourth exercise is to release all notions and ideas. The Sanskrit word means to throw away, very strongly; to throw away ideas, notions, concepts.

These four exercises help us to look deeply into the nature of our perception of reality and scientists are trying to do the same thing. They use the language of mathematics, splitting atoms and particles. In the field of meditation, we use the instruments of mindfulness and concentration. Today we are focusing on the exercises using concentration in order to break through to the heart of reality.

Three Doors of Liberation

The teaching on the three doors of liberation is available in every Buddhist tradition. Also called the three concentrations, they help us to touch the nature of impermanence, of non-longing, of nirvana, and of throwing away.

Emptiness

The first door is called emptiness. Emptiness is a profound teaching. It would be helpful to answer the question: empty of what? This glass is empty of tea, but it’s full of air. So empty is always empty of what? It’s like consciousness is always consciousness of something.

When we look into this beautiful chrysanthemum, we get the impression that this flower is full of the cosmos. Everything in the cosmos is there in the flower, including the cloud, the sunshine, the soil, minerals, time, and space, everything. It looks like the whole cosmos has come together to manifest the flower. The one contains the all.

There is only one thing that is not there: that is a separate entity, a separate existence. The flower is full of the cosmos, of everything else, but the flower is empty of a separate self. No separate self, that is the first meaning of emptiness. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with the cosmos. And we are all in you. If you look deeply into yourself, you see all of us in you. That is the beginning of the contemplation of interbeing, focusing on the teaching of emptiness.

How do we apply that teaching to our daily life, so it has value for us? When a father looks deeply into his son, he sees that his son is his continuation, that he is fully present in every cell of his son, and making his son suffer is to make himself suffer. He begins to see the truth of interbeing: the father is in the son, and the son is in the father. Thanks to the father, the son can connect with and feel that all the ancestors are in him. When the son walks, all the ancestors walk too. And if the son makes a peaceful, joyful, happy step, all the ancestors in him enjoy that. It’s so kind of you to walk for your ancestors, for your parents. Maybe your parents did not have a chance to learn about walking meditation. And now you walk for your parents, you walk for your ancestors, you walk like a free person on this beautiful planet. So every breath, every step, everything you do can be done with the insight of interbeing, with emptiness.

The nature of the Buddha is also the nature of interbeing. A Buddha is made only of non-Buddha elements. So when you look into the Buddha, you don’t see him as a separate entity, outside of you. You see his nature of interbeing. And when you look at you, you see the same. And that is why you know that the Buddha is not someone out there. The Buddha is right here in you. And because the Buddha is empty of a separate self, and because you are empty of a separate self, that is why communication is very deep. So interbeing is right view. Right view, according to Buddhism, is the abolishment of all views, the absence of all views, so that the insight of impermanence, the insight of emptiness, the insight of interbeing can manifest.

In a relationship of teacher and students, I have always seen that everything I do for myself, I do for my disciples, and the happiness and the suffering of my disciples have to do with my happiness and suffering. We know that we inter-are, and with that kind of awareness, we help each other, we belong to one body, the Sangha. When you have the insight of emptiness, interbeing, you don’t suffer anymore from separation, hate, anger, or despair. And that is the fruit of the contemplation on emptiness.

Signlessness

The second door of liberation is the door of signlessness. “Sign” means the appearance, the form. You might be fooled by an appearance, you might be fooled by the form, and that is why we have to train ourselves to see beyond the forms, beyond the signs.

Suppose you have a particular sympathy with a certain cloud. I wrote a poem about a river that was chasing a cloud all day long, and he suffered because clouds are impermanent. When your cloud is no longer there in the sky, you cry, “Oh my beloved cloud, where are you now? I miss you. You have passed from being into nonbeing. I cannot see you anymore.” That’s what we feel when we lose someone who is close to us. Just yesterday, he was still alive, she talked, he walked, she smiled, and today nothing. She looks like she has passed from being into non-being.

But in fact, our cloud is still there. In the beginning, maybe half the cloud has become rain and the other half has become snow. We should train ourselves to see the continuation of our cloud, for it is impossible for a cloud to die. Because to die means from something, you suddenly become nothing. From someone, you suddenly become no one. Looking deeply into the heart of reality, you don’t see anything like that at all. Nothing can be reduced to nothingness. It is impossible to pass from being into non-being. Your beloved one is still somewhere, and if you have the eyes of the bodhisattva, you can still recognize your beloved one in her new appearances, in her new signs. So you have to look beyond the sign, and that is the wisdom of signlessness. In order to remove our grief, to remove our despair and our fear, we should get behind the signs. The Buddha said where there is a sign, there is a delusion, and that is why we should not count on signs. You have to learn how to see things in the light of signlessness.

Thought, speech, and actions: everything you produce in these three aspects continues, and that is your continuation. The Buddhist term is called karma, which means action. If we know how to practice according to the recommendation of the Buddha, with right thinking, right speech, and right action, we are sure to be a beautiful continuation, a happy continuation. And if you don’t know how to do that, if you produce thoughts of anger and fear and hatred, if you speak in a way that destroys, that is not a beautiful continuation.

Nothing is lost, in terms of action. When this body disintegrates, our actions continue us, like a cloud. So to say that you don’t exist after the disintegration of this body, that is not the truth. In the morning, if I have a cup of tea, it will help to make my Dharma talk a little bit more beautiful. So if you look into the Dharma talk, you can see the tea in it. So the tea is not just in the pot; it has a journey, it travels, it has many forms. When you produce thought, speech, and action, your actions continue. We continue always, even after the disintegration of this body.

Aimlessness

The third concentration is called aimlessness. The meditation on aimlessness helps us to see that everything is there already. You don’t need to run anymore, and you can let go of your longing, your craving, your desire. When a flower practices aimlessness, she feels that it is wonderful to be herself. This form is a wonderful manifestation of the cosmos. She does not have to be something else. She does not want to become a daffodil or a lotus flower; she is beautiful as she is.

You are already what you want to become. You don’t need to be another person or to run anymore. You are the manifestation of the cosmos. Thanks to the practice of aimlessness, there is no longer any complex, any longing, any desire; there is complete satisfaction, complete fulfillment. What you want to achieve is already there.

Every bodhisattva tradition has the teaching of the three doors of liberation. Practicing these three concentrations, we are able to touch nirvana, our true nature of no birth and no death. We can throw away all notions, like the notions of birth and death, coming and going, and so on.

Suppose we draw a line from left to right, representing the course of time. We pick up one point here, and we call it B, birth. Someone is born in this moment, and they make a birth certificate for him. They forget that that child has been nine months in the womb of his mother. They think that person exists only on point B, but in fact, before B, the child was there. And even before the moment of conception nine months before, the child was in the father and the mother somehow. So this is a moment of continuation. There is no beginning.

And yet we believe that before we were born, we did not exist, and we call this segment non-being. So we think that there will be a moment when we stop being, and we call that D, death. We believe we have passed from non-being into being, and we will pass from being into non-being. So birth and death are two notions that go together. The fourth exercise recommends that you throw away the notion of birth and death, because your true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Before your cloud appears in the form of a cloud, she had been the water in the ocean, and the heat produced by the sun. A cloud has not passed from non-being into being. So there is no birth; there is only a continuation. Maybe for your next birthday, you will sing, instead of “happy birthday,” “happy continuation day to me.”

Looking into the nature of the notion of being and non-being, you see that being and non-being are just notions; they cannot be applied to reality. You cannot describe a cloud in terms of being and non-being. You cannot describe your beloved one in terms of being and non-being. And you cannot describe God in terms of being and non-being.

When you look at the family album, you can see yourself as a five-year-old boy, or a five-year-old girl. Ask yourself: am I the same person as that little boy? Or I am a different person? You look so different from the little boy, the little girl. Your form, your feelings, your perceptions are quite different. You cannot say that you are identical to that little girl or little boy. Because of impermanence, you have changed into an adult, and if you compare the two persons, you cannot say that you are exactly the same person. Maybe your name remains the same, but in reality, the five skandhas have changed a lot.

You are a continuation of that little boy, or little girl, and the question is: if you are not the same person as that little boy, are you a totally different person? No, you are not a totally different person. You are a continuation of that little boy. It’s like the child is a continuation of his father and mother. The word continuation is good. And that is why the answer cannot be either “the same” or “different.” So there is a pair of notions that should be removed, so that freedom can be possible. After you have removed the notion of birth and death, being and non-being, you remove the notion of sameness and otherness. You are not exactly the same as your father, as the little boy, but you are not entirely another person. So this is the middle way. Transcending both notions, sameness and otherness.

Living mindfully and with concentration, we witness impermanence and we touch the truth of no sameness, no otherness. And it will reduce greatly the suffering and fear in us.

In order to touch the ground of your being, in order to touch your true nature, nirvana, in order to touch God, it is important to learn how to remove these pairs of notions. Because the absence of all these notions means the manifestation of God, of nirvana, of true nature. And classically, there is another pair to consider, that is the pair of coming and going. Where have I come from, and where shall I go? You ask that question for yourself. And you ask that question for your beloved one. “Darling, where have you come from? Why have you left me?”

So the exercises of the practice of the fourth establishment include: contemplating impermanence in order to touch non-self, interbeing; releasing the longing, the craving for something, which cultivates aimlessness; contemplating the ultimate, nirvana, no birth, no death, which releases us from being caught in the appearance, the forms of things. It is with instruments such as the three doors of liberation that you can touch directly your true nature. And then you will be able to throw away all the notions that are at the foundation of your fear and despair and separation.

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

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha, Many times in my life, I’ve wondered: what is love? How can I love better? Lately, some of my dear friends have been faced with intense suffering. One friend is dying of cancer and his wife was just diagnosed with it, too. Another is having surgery on her spine. Another is feeling waves of anxiety. Daily, I search my heart to find ways to love them more skillfully. The stories in this issue are lanterns illuminating my path. I hope they will help light your way, too.

Ursula LeGuin once wrote, “Love does not just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” In this issue, writers tell us about practical tools that renew and enliven their love—hugging meditation, shared sitting practice, Beginning Anew, metta, and the root of it all, mindfulness. With mindful awareness, we continually wake up to sources of joy, rediscover our own smile, and come home to the love we are.

This issue takes us to Indonesia and Thailand, two of five petals on the“beautiful flower of the Southeast Asia Tour,” as Thay expresses. We witness the alms round at Borobudur and drink Dharma rain in Yojakarta. We journey to “Plum Village Thailand” in Pak Chong, where the Sangha plans to build two monasteries and an Institute of Applied Buddhism. We learn about the first retreat at Nhap Luu Monastery in southern Australia. The fledgling Thai and Australian practice centers need our support; please see pages 45 and 46 to make a financial gift.

Crowning this issue is a rich Dharma talk from our teacher. Gently, he guides us to work with our perception of reality. He walks us through the three doors of liberation—emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness—which “help us to touch the nature of impermanence, of non-longing, of nirvana, and of throwing away.”

Holding this magazine, you hold the fruits of many practitioners’ attention and love. This publication is brought to life by their contributions, but also by your support. Please visit www.mindfulnessbell.org to renew your subscription, give a gift subscription, or donate. Your offering will help sustain our beautiful Dharma flower and lift us closer to our goal of creating an online magazine.

May the insight, beauty, and joy in these pages bring understanding and peace. May they light our way home.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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Watering the Seeds of Love

Growing Mindful Relationships By Jerry Braza

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The Talmud says, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” Imagine the face of a child when he or she hears, “You are so precious. You can do it. I’m so glad you were born.” Picture the look on a loved one’s face in response to, “You are perfect as you are. You are such a joy. I am here for you. Thank you for being in my life.”

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What if—like a blade of grass or a tender seed waiting to become itself—you were the recipient of continual whispers of, “You are enough, just as you are”? And how would the lives of those you love be different if you were the whisperer?

Becoming a Master Gardener

Becoming a master gardener of our relationships, and ourselves, requires us to learn how to become intimate with the garden of our consciousness. Initially the seed of mindfulness develops into a wholesome formation through the repetition of returning to whatever is happening in the present moment. With the lens of mindfulness, it is easier to observe the seeds that lie deep in our consciousness, to learn how to water or transform these seeds, and to aerate the soil so there is healthy circulation between the soil and garden of our consciousness, between the store and mind consciousness.

The Master Gardener as Gatekeeper

The first step toward becoming a master gardener is to develop our awareness of how the quality of our lives is influenced by the seeds that have been watered. Everything that affects our consciousness enters metaphorically as a seed. The work of the master gardener is that of gatekeeper and protector of the garden of our consciousness. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “Our mind is a field, in which every kind of seed is sown—seeds of compassion, joy, and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties.” Seeds refer to all the information that enters our awareness and gets stored in our consciousness. Using this awareness, think of a typical day. What kind of seeds or information are you allowing to enter your consciousness via the media, people in your life, and your everyday conversations? As parents and those who are responsible for or involved in the well-being of others, how do we protect the consciousness and the precious potential of the human gardens in our care?

Seeds of Suffering and Seeds of Love

Seeds of consciousness fall into two distinct categories— seeds of suffering and seeds of love. Consider what happens in our relationships when we witness or experience someone’s anger, hatred, violence, abuse, jealousy, or craving. The act or behavior is first noted in our mind consciousness. Immediately, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions arise and cause us to create a mental formation, or a story in our mind. We then experience this story in our mind consciousness—the part of the garden that we see— which simultaneously triggers a response in our store consciousness, underground. When the seeds of suffering are experienced or watered, our typical response is to avoid or suppress them by pushing them deep into the store consciousness. The same holds true in our relationships, when the seeds of love are experienced or nurtured. We don’t suppress them, but we do allow them to take root in our store consciousness. Thus, becoming aware of and watering the seeds of love, and embracing and transforming the seeds of suffering are essential to a healthy and mindful relationship with ourselves and others.

The Power of Metta

Several years ago, my wife and I began an evening practice of sharing metta, or loving kindness, with each other as we prepared to sleep. In doing so, our sleep has become deeper and more restful. In our practice, we begin with ourselves:

May I be filled with loving kindness.

May I be free from suffering.

May I find joy.

May I be well.

May I find peace.

After directing loving kindness to ourselves, we extend thoughts of loving kindness to each other by repeating the above phrases, replacing the “I” with “you.” We conclude by sending this loving kindness to people that we love and especially to those who we know are struggling at this time. Invariably we sleep better and wake up more cheerful and more likely to share that good will with others.

Selective Watering

Learning to love requires an understanding of ourselves and our relationships. When we understand another person, we will know which messages will reinforce our relationship with them. There are myriad seeds, some of which need more attention than others. Each person is unique—there is not one “love map” or seed planting guide that works for all.

A Seed Sampler

Here are some mantras that will help us strengthen the master gardener in ourselves.

Loving Kindness: “I love myself so I can love others.”

Compassion: “My practice is to keep my heart open to the suffering in others.”

Joy: “I bring joy to every person I meet.”

Loving Speech: “I speak from the heart when it is true and when it is appropriate.”

Fear: “When fear arises, I am aware of it and consciously shift to loving myself and others.”

Anger: “Today I aspire to look deeply at the source of my anger.”

Violence: “I aspire to avoid contact with violence in all forms.”

May you be filled with loving kindness and may you be well on your journey to watering the seeds of love.

This article contains excerpts from Watering the Seeds of Love: Growing Mindful Relationships, to be published in 2011 by Tuttle Publishing. In this book, Jerry Braza offers a secular interpretation of the teachings of the wisdom traditions and Thich Nhat Hanh. The book offers insights on how to take care of the gardener (all of us) and the garden (the soil of our consciousness) and how to water the seeds of love and transform the seeds of suffering, using mindfulness as a guide. Visit http://www.wateringtheseedsoflove. com/ or  http://peripluspublishinggroup.com/tuttle/

mb56-Watering3Jerry Braza, Ph.D., True Great Response, spent a career as a professor of Health Education and recently retired from Western Oregon University. He is the author of Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness. Jerry is a Dharma teacher in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh and offers retreats and days of mindfulness.

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Wedding Meditation

By T. Ambrose Desmond mb56-Wedding1

On August 28, 2010, surrounded by family and friends on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Annie Millar and I were married. It was an extremely moving experience for us, and a deep teaching.

Upon becoming engaged, we had decided to wait a full year before getting married. We knew that organizing a wedding is often experienced as stressful and harried, and we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to go slowly and enjoy the process. For the first few months, we didn’t think much about logistics at all, but just enjoyed the solidity of our decision. It was also a time of contemplating what marriage meant to each of us, and asking our friends and family to share their stories of getting married.

During this time of reflection, each of us came into contact with some of the cultural habit energies about marriage within us. While our processes with these energies were different, the main theme for each of us was the tension between commitment and freedom. How can one promise to do or be something in the future and still remain free and open to impermanence?

Ultimately, we decided to make our ceremony about the present rather than the future. We held a circle and asked our friends and family to offer their Sangha wisdom about caring for a relationship. People shared poems, songs and reflections on love, creating a beautiful collective energy. Then, instead of exchanging vows or promises, Annie and I committed to the practices that we had found to be the most supportive so far in our relationship.

Annie’s practices are:

I will practice using our experiences of both joy and pain to grow in my love for myself and for you.

I will practice sharing myself with you, especially when it’s hard, and trusting the love, safety, and power for transformation in our relationship.

I will practice loving you unconditionally, appreciating the beauty in every aspect of you.

I will practice letting you know what I want and feel, and listening to what you want and feel, knowing that both of these are a gift to myself and to you.

I will practice knowing and loving myself so that I can most fully love you.

My practices are:

I will practice letting go of my ideas of who you are in order to see your reality in every moment.

I will practice to recognize and transform the energies of fear and criticism in me in order to protect our connection. Instead, I will focus on what we both feel and need.

I will practice caring for our relationship so that it can thrive. I will try to recognize when our relationship needs more attention and make it a priority.

I will practice giving you all of the freedom and space you need so you can be happy. I will let go of demands and expectations and trust that the life within you is perfect.

I will practice trusting that you love me and want to make my life more wonderful. I will share my whole self with you.

We plan to continue reciting these practices together in order to begin anew and strengthen our connection.

T. Ambrose Desmond, True Mountain of Joy, joined the Order of Interbeing in Estes Park in He works as a therapist in private practice and directs a program for emotionally disturbed children in Oakland, CA.

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The Love of a Mother

By Bettina Romhardt

“A mother’s life is not confined to her alone. She is the starting point of life that unfolds into the infinite future. With this in mind, a mother should be careful in thoughts, choice of words and behavior, and live her life with reverence.” – Shundo Aoyama, a Japanese Zen priest

The love of a mother is highly valued in different religions and cultures. It is often evoked as the highest expression of unconditional and selfless love. Many mothers share that they hadn’t experienced this kind of devotion before giving birth to a child. In the Discourse on Love, we find: “Just as a mother protects and loves her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos.” Yet many mothers don’t appreciate that motherhood can be a kind of spiritual training, a path to explore love and to learn true love.

I became a mother one year after I left Plum Village, where I had lived in Lower Hamlet for five years. I’d made a big change from life in an international community to life within a small family. For me, giving birth was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and our son Jonathan filled my husband Kai and me with love and amazement. My husband and I had both lived in Plum Village before our marriage, and as a married couple we continued to live a life centered in the practice, but I could not appreciate being a mother. I was used to offering my time, energy, and care to the members and guests of the Sangha, and now I found myself caring for one little being, twenty-four hours a day. It felt somehow narrow.

It took time to discover that I was being asked to cultivate and strengthen the same qualities I had practiced in Plum Village: presence, discipline, patience, kindness, devotion, and letting go. One night when I got out of bed to tend to Jonathan, I remembered how much I had appreciated getting up to greet guests when they arrived late at night at the Lower Hamlet. I smiled, seeing that life always asks us to respond to what is needed in this very moment in whatever form it appears, no more, no less. In the faces of mothers and fathers I met, I began to see their dedication and effort, their steadiness and generosity, their tiredness and exhaustion, and I felt much appreciation and compassion for them.

Looking Deeply at Motherhood

But amazingly, when I looked more deeply, I saw many mothers who could not appreciate themselves as mothers, or who appreciated themselves very little, and I began to wonder why this was so. One aspect is that our modern society doesn’t really value being “just a mother,” but there are also inner attitudes that contribute. One is the ideal of the “perfect” mother as a source of never-ending energy for her children, which is very hard to live up to and can lead to feeling “never good enough.” There are many such ideals, personal and collective, transmitted to us by our mothers, grandmothers, ancestors, and society. We need awareness of these expectations to be able to relax into the challenges of daily life with loving kindness towards ourselves and acceptance of our limitations.

Listening to mothers talking to one other, I also discovered that about eighty percent of their conversation is about the life, growth, and development of their children, and very little of it is about how they themselves are growing as mothers and what they are learning about themselves. Becoming a mother seems so natural that there is often little awareness about what it really means in one’s personal life and growth. It is very beneficial to look at this.

After offering days of mindfulness for families for some years, I started to offer retreats for mothers so that they could take time and space to deeply look into motherhood. In guided meditations we look into what we have learned as mothers, what we have given to our children, and what they have given to us. One participant said, “I learned with my children something I could not accept before: that I can’t control life. With my children I constantly need to let go of my plans and see my needs as only one part of the whole picture.” Another said, “I feel so challenged to develop patience, seeing my daughter forgetting her jacket here and there.” Just by giving attention, mothers see so many of the wholesome qualities they have cultivated. Joy, appreciation, confidence, and strength grow out of this awareness. If I appreciate and love myself as a mother, appreciation and love for my child can flow naturally.

Another common concern among mothers is finding time and energy to practice a spiritual path. A frequent comment is “I am often too tired for sitting meditation.” A mother of a young child cannot spend hours in sitting meditation, but we are challenged to cultivate and strengthen qualities of heart and mind, which we often attempt to do in extended retreats. In our tradition, we are invited to practice twenty-four hours a day, and we will not find any place or time on earth that doesn’t allow us to practice being mindful. But we need to take care of ourselves and restore our energy in order to sustain and strengthen the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

“Mama, You Can Go Rest”

To take time “just for myself ” is often challenging for a mother. I need to look deeply to see that by respecting myself, I respect my child. Every hour of every day, I transmit everything to my child: my joy, irritation, contentment, sadness, the way I talk, the way I think or handle my emotions. Of course, parents want to offer the best to their children—the best food, the best kindergarten, and the best school—but they also need to keep in mind Thay’s teaching that the best we can offer is our true presence and our own happiness.

The practice of stopping to care for myself and my child is crucial. If I stop and take three breaths, I can come back to myself and remember, “I am here for me and I am here for you.” When I am in touch with myself, I feel my true needs and learn to take care of them. I need to nourish myself with the same wholesome nutriments I feed my child. In my experience, children understand and support our efforts to do this. When Jonathan grew old enough to no longer need a nap in the afternoon, I told him that I still needed this time to stop and renew myself. Nowadays he sometimes tells me, “Mama, you can go rest.” We need creativity to find time for our true needs and we need discipline to take care of them.

It is wonderful to sit in a circle of mothers, sharing our joy and pain, our experiences and questions. Let us create circles of mothers to support one other on the path of learning true love for ourselves, our children, and all beings.

Bettina Romhardt, Tree of True Awakening, is a Dharma teacher practicing with her son Jonathan (7), her husband Kai, and the Sangha  Zehlendorf/Berlin.

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Begin Anew Smile

By David M. Nelson mb56-BeginAnew1

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Today I take time to note the actions that feel like acts of true love toward myself. Waking up, I look deeply into the mirror and find a nearly smiling face. An intention is there. Soon a real smile warms. Within a few breaths, my body and mind feel happier, in harmony. Today I offer my smile to all.

Tweet-tweets dance around my ears, accompanying the wild bird seed tossed into the yard. Since spring, the seeds have attracted the grey squirrels’ appetite. I’ve come to accept their occasional visits. When rodent signs were recently recognized, I set out Havahart live traps. Lately a neighbor’s cat has jumped the fence to hunt the birds. So just a handful of seed keeps the back yard in harmony today. May the animals be well.

I bicycle for grocery shopping and posting a letter, sharing the road with vehicles hurrying past. I smile at the interbeing of road, bike, cars, drivers, and rider. May they be well, see the impending red traffic light, and ease safely to a stop. May they stay present and look out for each other. At the store I breathe with gratitude that advertisements no longer trigger craving. I find a few groceries, then without further browsing, go directly to the cashier who acknowledges my smile with one of her own.

Upon returning home I notice some broken glass on the street in front of my apartment, get my broom, and sweep it up. I smile, knowing that pets and bike tires will be safer. Now filling up several five gallon buckets, I haul the bath water to the yard and offer it to jasmine vines growing along the fence, rose bushes, and geraniums. May the plants be well.

Preparing a simple meal, I slowly eat in silence. When a feeling of loneliness arises, I remember there are friends all over the world, transforming suffering and generating the healing energy of mindfulness for all. I’m now living in this city to offer assistance for the recovery of my mother’s ill health. For the time being, this is where I choose to be. At the effort to do what’s right, I smile. May all beings be well, have enough food, be happy and light in body and spirit.

Getting ready to sleep, once again I find a smiling face in the mirror. It was a good day, simple, not too busy, and often mindful. My intention to show the smile as a symbol of my freedom, letting it support my actions and encounters, was frequently a success. My lotus smile blooms from the mud of my mind. Flowers freshly watered begin anew. As I’m lying down to rest, Charlie Chaplin’s tune “Smile” pops into my mind: “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you’ll just smile.”

mb56-BeginAnew3David M. Nelson, Truly Holding Equanimity, is a public health nutritionist  who has produced practice videos for the Sangha, including “Each of My Steps is a Prayer.” He enjoys sitting with the Morning Light and Mindful Peacebuilding Sanghas in Berkeley.

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The Freedom of True Love

By Keri R. Hakan mb56-TheFreedom

I believe that freedom can be found in true love. My husband and I dated for about ten years and then were married for eight. He passed on in July 2010 from pancreatic cancer. In our eighteen years together, we taught each other a great deal about life and love, without the intention of doing so, but by simply respecting, accepting, and caring for each other in good times and in “bad” times. Our connection was a bond that intertwined us and made us stronger as individuals and as a couple.

I was in my early twenties and in college when we met, and Paul was slightly older. The first time we ever saw each other, there was an instant attraction and connection. When we started dating, I was pleasantly surprised by how respectfully he treated me and how safe I felt with him.

A few years into our relationship, Paul got very sick and almost died from a rare, benign tumor in his intestines. This condition came on without warning in a man who had not had so much as a sniffle in the time we had been together. I would go to my classes and then head to the hospital to sit with him. Paul was my first serious relationship and I loved him, but I was not sure how to handle this situation. The beautiful, intelligent, talented musician that I knew was now lying in a hospital bed being prepped for surgery and waiting to find out if this tumor was cancerous. This was not the “happily ever after” future that I had romanticized, read about, and seen on television. This was messy, crazy life. Was I ready for this? Was he? Yes, as it turned out, we were.

At My Side

He recovered from that illness, but it was a precursor of what was to come. In February 2007, five years after we were married, I suffered a brain abscess that almost killed me and left me with serious side effects. My left leg, arm, hand, and foot were almost useless for several months, and I required a lot of therapy and assistance. Paul was at my side the entire time. The only time I felt confident that I would recover was when he was with me. He had to take care of everything, including me, as well as go to work each day. He did it. Every morning he got me out of bed, dressed me, took me downstairs, and made sure I took my medicines and ate breakfast. Then he went to work. He came home on his lunch break to check on me and eat with me. He did this for a year.

I felt very guilty that my young husband had to take care of me this way, but whenever I said anything about that, he would stop me and assure me that he knew I was getting better every day because he could see it in me. When he would tell me that, I believed it. He loved me in my weakest physical and emotional states. He did not see a woman who had lost all her hair, had a huge incision on her head from brain surgery, and was unable to do the simplest human tasks, like walk normally. He saw his wife, the woman he loved. For this love, respect, and compassion I am extremely grateful, because they are the reason I was able to recover.

The Love of My Life

When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2008, it seemed like a nightmare or a horrible joke that was being played on us. Were we being tested? Paul was my rock. How could this be happening? I questioned it all the time, not wanting it to be reality. One night, a dear friend said to me, “Keri, you know that you can handle this; you do know that, don’t you?” I did not know it at the time. My own health ordeal was one thing, but now the love of my life was being threatened. This was an entirely new ball game.

Paul and I sat down together and had several deep, meaningful conversations about what this meant for us and how to deal with it. We made the conscious decision together to be positive, no matter what happened, and to believe in each other. We set our compasses and moved forward into these new rough waters together. Paul entrusted his life to me. He allowed me to take care of him as I saw fit. I mustered everything I had learned about being seriously ill and recovering, and applied to Paul many of the same elements that he had used during my illness. He realized he had to take care of himself and deal with past situations that had festered in him emotionally. He began practicing Tai Chi and qigong and doing other self-awareness work that included being present, releasing the past, and not being concerned with the future. Meditation helped him attain the ability to live in the present moment.

A Sea of Freedom

I also began these practices, and the release that came from practicing mindfulness meditation was like a tidal wave washing away negative energies, worries, and fears. The sun shone brightly through any clouds at those times, as it does for me today. We both marveled at how in touch we were with our bodies and the energies that flowed through us, especially when we concentrated on our breathing.

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In the hospital during Paul’s last weeks on earth, I recited the guided meditation “In, out, deep, slow; calm, ease, smile, release; present moment, wonderful moment,” several times to help him relax and fall asleep. It was the only thing that worked. I believe that because of meditation practice, Paul lost the fear of cancer and death, and realized that there was more beyond his diseased body. We both made the connection between our emotional states of mind and our illnesses, and believed that our bodies and minds were one, as Thay says. Much freedom came to us from living and loving mindfully.

Our illnesses taught us that the love and happiness we shared for so many years was a special connection that not everyone experiences. We appreciated each other and the life we had in us every day, and living mindfully in the present moment helped us to do that. Paul taught me that no matter what is going on, there is room for opportunity, compassion, love of one’s self and others, gratitude, and joy.

We loved and lived these past two and a half years with gusto and with cancer, and it was brilliant. True love and the realization that we were living it allowed us to swim in a sea of freedom that can only be described as divine. Even now, after Paul’s passing, that gift continues to warm my heart and mind and enrich my being.

Keri R. Hakan is thirty-seven years old. In early 2010, she and her husband started meditating with The Heartland Community of  Mindful Living Sangha in Kansas City, MO. She recently relocated to Portland, OR.

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The Diamond Within

By Hans mb56-TheDiamon1 mb56-TheDiamond2

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

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

I Had to Live

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

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

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

Look for the Diamond

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

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

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

mb56-TheDiamond4The Third Mindfulness Training: True Love

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

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New Moment of the Heart

By Claudia Baker mb56-NewMoment1

On April 9, 2005, I spoke for the first time to the son I gave up for adoption in July of 1970. I was nineteen years old when he was born. The last time I saw him, he was being carried out of the hospital by a social worker. He was on his way to the parents who would adopt and raise him. And he was on his way out of my life—for thirty-five years.

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After several months of searching, Craig was located, and on a Saturday morning, I phoned him. I can’t imagine how it felt to be my son at that moment, when his birth mother called out of the blue. But I do know that we had a wonderful talk, we talked again the next day for hours, and we both felt a connection. There were lots of emotions and lots of questions, as we both tried to grasp what we were experiencing.

Since then, Craig has come to visit me and I have been to visit him and his wife and children. We also communicate by email and phone. He has met his birth father, four siblings, and about sixty relatives on both sides of the birth families here in Canada. Everyone has welcomed him with love. And he has responded with love.

I have been fortunate to be in touch with Craig’s adoptive mother, once by phone and several times by email. We discovered that we had some things in common. Our own mothers even have the same first name! We acknowledged that somewhere in “time out of mind” we made this agreement with each other: I would bear a child I could not raise, and she would raise that child, giving him everything that I could not.

What I have found, in getting to know Craig, is that he is a very caring and loving individual. This is a reflection of the love and nurturing that his adoptive parents gave him. I have been able to find some peace knowing that Craig had such a loving upbringing. However, total peace was not mine, as I suffered from what is called “the primal wound.” This is the deep sense of loss that both mother and baby feel when separated shortly after birth.

During the only phone conversation that I have had with Craig’s mother, she happened to say, at one point, “present moment, wonderful moment.” I was totally taken aback. I asked her to repeat what she had said, and then I asked her: “Do you mean Thich Nhat Hanh and ‘present moment, wonderful moment’?”

“Yes,” she said. I couldn’t believe that she was Buddhist too!

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She had been practicing in Thay’s tradition for many years. I had been practicing in the same tradition for about three years. “What are the odds,” I thought, “that Craig’s adoptive mother and birth mother are Buddhist, practicing in the exact same tradition with the same teacher?”

mb56-NewMoment5At the Touching Peace Retreat at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, in August of 2005, I told this story one afternoon in my family group. It was a difficult story to tell. It had only been four months since I found Craig and six weeks since I first met him. I was full of emotion and for several minutes, could not say any words or even get my breath. My family waited patiently as I slowly composed myself and could speak. I told my story: how I had given up Craig for adoption. How I had not known anything about where Craig and his family lived or what their names were. How I finally reconnected with him and got to know his adoptive mother a little. And, how his adoptive mother is also Buddhist, practicing in the same tradition.

At the end of the afternoon gathering, as my brothers and sisters left the family meeting, one person stayed behind. I was aware of him, and as I gathered up my belongings and prepared to leave, he said to me: “You know, your son had a very auspicious birth.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “a person who is born with not one, but two Buddhist mothers, has been or done something very special in at least one past lifetime.”

His comment went straight to my heart. “At last,” I remember thinking, “there is some sense to make of all this.” There is a reason that this child needed to be born. The sorrow, the deep sense of loss, the pain—all still there after thirty-five years—suddenly lessened and were replaced by new feelings: wonder and awe. And, at last, some peace.

I will always be grateful to the two wonderful people who accepted with love the son I felt I could not keep. Their son loves and cares for them so much. I will always be grateful for reading a book by Thay, which got me started on the path. And I will always be grateful to the person who stayed behind a few moments to share his thoughts with me about Craig’s birth. It has enabled me to move past some of the pain and loss to freedom, stability, and appreciation.

mb56-NewMoment3Claudia Baker, True Precious Peace, lives outside Ottawa, Ontario, where she practices with the Ottawa Pagoda Sangha. She is a high school teacher and has two other children, now grown.

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Closest to the Heart

  By Athina Rosario

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When the Dalai Lama was asked to address the problem of depression and suicide in the United States, he was taken back that there was a situation to consider. Embedded in Buddhism and much of Asian culture is the idea of respect, not only for others but also for self. The notion of not liking ourselves is as foreign as not appreciating existence. Here in the West, value is not necessarily equated with just being. Our value increases or decreases with the money we make, the possessions and positions we have, or our overall standing compared to others. We live with debilitating core doubts such as, “Am I good enough? Am I lovable?”

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At forty-two years of age, I’ve had my share of relationships. There was friendship, even marriage, but there was also much heartache. For eight years, I stayed in a marriage where I was beaten and threatened with my life if I left. Lacerations to my mouth and strangulation were not enough for me to realize that I deserved to be loved. It took the birth of my son, and another visit to the emergency room, to make me truly consider what a loving, respectful relationship would be. If my son was to have love in his life, it would have to begin with me. I would have to learn how to love myself and not accept the disrespect of someone who could not truly love me.

After my divorce, I had a boyfriend who had the same spiritual practice that I did. Though there was no physical abuse, he belittled those around him. Once, while caressing me, he froze, got up, and walked off without saying a word. Later, he said, “You look like a mother.” From that point on, whenever I looked at my body, I no longer felt lovable.

In our talks, he acknowledged that he felt insecure. In his past relationships, he thought that women didn’t love him, but had an agenda behind the guise of love to get something—a marriage proposal, a baby, security. He believed that it was always something other than him that was lovable. I was the same. We shared the belief that we weren’t good enough as we were, creating the dynamic in which he was belittling and I was belittled. It was only how we manifested our insecurity that differed.

True Love from Mutual Respect

What makes loving so difficult is that as we get closer and more intimate with one another, there is also a greater responsibility. Our dreams and hopes are closest to our hearts. It makes sense that we also guard our insecurities and self-doubts close to our hearts. That’s where they’re most protected. To put one’s ego aside to hear the needs of a lover, listening for what’s not being said, requires great courage. It means hearing beyond words and seeing beyond hurt. That is an act of a true love. It is no wonder that the root word of courageous, “coeur,” means “heart.”

Thay’s commentary on the Third Mindfulness Training makes a distinction between the Vietnamese words tinh and nghia, both associated with the idea of love. Tinh is love that’s passionate and completely absorbing. Nghia may grow from passion, but it’s the love that grows over time out of a mutual respect for one another. Only in the context of nghia can true love exist. As we gain greater access to our lover’s heart, we are also entrusted with the responsibility to safeguard what has been given to us.

In three weeks, I’ll be celebrating my third year anniversary with my partner. For the past three years I’ve had a good friend. He doesn’t share the practice that I have, but he’s learning. He, like me, has insecurities and doubts. However, he doesn’t cringe from responsibility. He takes the time to truly listen, not only to me but also to himself. What’s different about him is also what’s different about me. Though our relationship began with two people seeking solace from the hurt of previous relationships, because of a mutual respect for one another and for ourselves, our relationship continues to grow.

mb56-Closest3Athina Rosario is a mom, daughter, and teacher of  English, yoga, and Tai Chi. She lives in southern California with her son, Zen, and her dog, Boo-Boo.

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Finding Harmony in Beginning Anew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning Anew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reprinted  from  www.deerparkmonastery.org.

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Poem: For My Kilt-Wearing Lover (Fragment)

By Janelle Combelic mb56-ForMy1

It is the first day of October in a golden year. Under Colorado sunshine the abbot Thay Tinh Man – your basketball-playing monk – told us to practice love as we walked together among the pine trees. Send the Four Immeasurables he said loving friendliness compassion joy equanimity to the earth. She needs your love. We amble in procession behind him at Compassionate Dharma Cloud Monastery, all forty of us. Love flows through the soles of my feet down deep into the earth and miraculously flows back from our original mother.

I step surrounded by sangha. I see the green and golden aspen. I smell the end of summer. I breathe. I try not to think of you. I sink into this body made of dust and ashes and miracles. I am nothing.

But the mind will have its way. In the brief bliss of emptiness grief crashes in like one of the trucks roaring up Highway 285 like waves crashing on the beach. How can I leave my loved ones behind – family friends church sangha? How can I leave house and home?

A silent cry wells into tears and I gaze at the impossibly blue mountain sky, the foam of clouds, the green lace of oak leaves. What can I do but turn to God? Beauty grief gratitude joy wrench my heart open wider wider and I know there is room for all.

Just as I hold you here inside me I shall as I cross the ocean hold all my loves inside me. I am big enough. My pain and my happiness dance together, weave a tartan on my heart, a perfect pattern of wholeness. I take a friend’s hand. We walk under the ponderosas where not an hour ago while we sang songs in a circle two mule deer bucks grazed watching not watching then scampered off into the sun-drenched woods.

mb56-ForMy2Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, practiced with Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado and at Compassionate Dharma Cloud Monastery in Evergreen. She recently moved to Scotland to play with the Northern Lights Sangha at Findhorn.

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Hugging with True Love

Thay’s Presence in a  Mother-Daughter Relationship By Bobbie Bosworth

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As many of us know, things can get pretty tense between teens and parents. That was the case with me (the mom) and our daughter when she was a teen. For various reasons, she became very unhappy and directed her unhappiness at those she loved the most. Our relationship became strained, and for a few years, I felt deep confusion about how to help her. It became hard to show love when I was getting messages like “stay away” or “leave me alone” from her. She also needed her parents so much at that time. How to build bridges and yet honor her wish for independence and separation? How to let her find her own way and yet support her when she was so depressed by the huge problems of this world?

One of our answers came from Thay in a very simple practice: hugging meditation. In hugging meditation, when my daughter and I were able to hold each other and breathe, as Thay recommended, there seemed to be an immediate lessening of tension and a recognition of our shared love. When we could drop out of conflict and allow ourselves to just hold each other, it always seemed to help. At times, she didn’t want to do it and neither did I. But if we just held each other, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes for quite a long time, something started to happen. We would relax and feel the warmth of each other. We would remember our basic deep love. We would sometimes cry. We often got to a deeper place with each other, to “big mind” or that to which we all belong. We would get beyond our little lives for a moment.

Happily, my daughter is now in her mid-twenties and is a wonderful mother. Our relationship has gotten much easier. We share so much now that she is raising a child. My daughter and I agree that most humans are starving for true love and connection. We both cannot get enough hugs from her son. We’ve also found that this practice, hugging meditation, is deeper than most people realize.

For me, hugging does not come easily, but I often think back on my daughter’s hard teen years and remember the simple connection we made through hugging with real love. I hug more now, as an expression of true feeling. To hug with intention, to hold another human (or animal) with love and best wishes, is a way to realize our true interbeing. It can be profound, and it certainly helped my daughter and me through a difficult time. We cannot thank Thay enough for his teachings, his writings, and his love for his Sangha and the world.

Editors’ note: To practice hugging meditation, you ask the other person if she would like a hug. If she agrees, following your breathing, take her in your arms and continue to be aware of your breathing as you hold her. You are 100% there for her and contemplate how wonderful it is that she is warm and alive. A hug should last for at least three long inand out-breaths.

Bobbie Bosworth, True Capacity of the Earth, and her husband live in a remote town in southern Utah. The natural environment is their Sangha. Bobbie was the first Buddhist chaplain in Salt Lake City.

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Breaking up as a Mindfulness Practice

By Octavia Baker mb56-Breaking1

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For months, I was clinging to my relationship with my partner, thinking we could somehow stay together without my becoming a parent, although he wanted to have children. I thought my partner could adopt my best friend’s children. He could become a mentor, a big brother. He could co-parent with a yet-to-be identified lesbian couple. I was obsessed with finding a solution. On the cushion, yet another idea would pop into my head. I scoured the library, read Rebecca Walker’s book on alternative families, One Big Happy Family, and searched online for examples of co-parenting that could apply to a straight couple.

Finally, I decided to consider the possibility of motherhood and joined a twelve-week support group with six other women trying to make the same decision. We explored the sources of fear, craving, and delusion within ourselves. At the end, it only confirmed what I already deeply knew to be true—I do not want to be a mother. Mentoring two young women for seven years has satisfied my need to nurture. And although we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the capital of non-traditional relationships, Arthur really just wants an old-fashioned nuclear family.

Growing up taking care of his dad, who suffered from a mental illness, Arthur has always yearned to experience the traditional roles of a father/child relationship. Although we discussed our differences when we first met, he was not ready to become a father then, so we decided to go ahead and explore a relationship with one another. And being with the most charming and attentive man I’ve ever met (and someone that my friends really admired), it was easy to continue year after year, with the parenting question hanging in the air.

Our relationship is hard for some people to understand, so we are often asked if we are wasting our time staying together. On the contrary, I think we have learned to savor our time together because we know it will not last. For the most part, we cultivate the four elements of true love—loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness—and try not to take each other for granted. I have taught him to speak more truthfully in difficult situations and he has inspired me with his compassionate listening. At the same time, we have been able to avoid the landmines that might have broken up other relationships, like arguing over finances or an overbearing mother, because they didn’t really matter in the present moment. If we were not going to get married, we did not have to go to financial counseling, and I did not have to learn to live with his mom.

A Tender Crossroads

Our whole relationship has been based on not knowing, a six-year practice in being present and not planning for the future. We’ve attended ten weddings together, all the while trying not to imagine our own. But at age thirty-four, Arthur decided that he wanted to find a partner who also wanted to be a parent. At first, in some ways, the decision to break up was a relief. I could rest my busy mind and try to fully experience the teaching of nonattachment, to let go of someone I truly loved. But soon I started getting anxious. Should we break up before our seventh anniversary? Were we going to break up, then get back together again? Would I ever find someone else who would treat me nearly as well as he did? Could we still be friends? There was also my ego to contend with, the hope that he would change his mind and choose me over fatherhood. But his decision remained firm, so we agreed to see a therapist to figure things out and to craft a break-up plan.

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We scheduled an appointment with Ann Davidman, the therapist who ran the support group I attended to help people decide whether to become a parent. Arthur and I had both been dreading the end of our relationship, not knowing how or when to break up. With Ann, we talked about planning a goodbye period, weeks or months when we will say goodbye to each other and tell each other everything we’re going to miss. This will be the time to fall apart, to hold each other’s pain. Pema Chodron describes this “inbetween state” as a crossroads marked by anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness. “This open-ended tender place is called bodhicitta. Staying with it is what heals.”

Talking to Ann gave us some hope about remaining in each other’s lives. If we give ourselves enough time to say goodbye, we hope to transition to a friendship that a future partner may be comfortable with. Of course, our intention is to remain friends, but there are no guarantees. So on our seventh anniversary, January 2, 2011, we plan to celebrate the day we met, and begin our journey toward a new friendship. At thirty-two, the age when a lot of my friends are getting married and having kids, it is hard to be starting over again. I have to trust that the voice deep inside me is right, as I step into the world—single again, but not alone.

I hold you close to me I release you to be so free Because I am in you and you are in me Because I am in you and you are in me. --Thich Nhat Hanh

mb56-Breaking4Octavia Baker is passionate about building community among people of color, creating healthy environments for youth, and eating well. She practices with The Hella Just and Compassionate Sangha in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Mindfulness in Marriage

By Lynda Bidlake and Lewis BrightHeart Headrick mb56-Mindfulness1

mb56-Mindfulness2I join my husband for a late lunch in a local restaurant. The waitress comes back again and again to refill our water glasses, even though we’ve only sipped. At our booth by the window, we are softly reading to each other. Transparently, the waitress is straining to see what title engrosses us. I recognize that hunger. Once I spied an elderly couple gazing at each other in open, unbounded joy and love. I knew I was eavesdropping on a private exchange, but I would have given anything to have someone with whom to share such a look. Now I’ve accomplished that vision, and this young woman sees the same caring exchange pass between my husband and me.

Seeing her clear interest, we start talking with the waitress; she forgets all about the water. We tell her that a good relationship requires both time and attention. “We’ve been married for five years, but we meet for lunch when our lives get busy.” She talks breathlessly and fast. She has almost given up hope for her relationship with her boyfriend of five years; it’s gotten tired and stale. He won’t even talk, much less read to her. She avidly asks, “What are you reading? What else do you do?”

 

Our Shared Practice

We tell her about our practice. Most mornings we get up at 5:30 a.m. She winces, but we jocularly point out that it’s important to find a time when nothing will distract us. Our spiritual life, interwoven with our relationship, comes first. Each morning we take our coffee into our small meditation room. Our altar has cards on it with the names of loved ones in need. An image of Avalokiteshvara hangs on the wall above it. We light a stick of incense and stand it in a small misshapen glass, made by my husband years ago. We light the candle in its salt cylinder, a wedding gift. We ring a bell. These rituals help remind us to be present. We sit, facing the window to the east, and quietly watch the first flickers of dawn.

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After twenty minutes, one of us rings the bell again, and we move to sit on our living room couch, between two of Thay’s calligraphies: “I have arrived, I am home,” and “I know you are there, and I am very happy.” There we read to each other. We pull a book off the shelf, letting it fall open where it will; it’s uncanny how often this provides exactly what we need.

The waitress pulls out her order pad and jots down the names of our favorite books, making a heroic attempt to spell Thich Nhat Hanh. We tell her we started with Teachings on Love, which we read at a pace of three or four pages a day. True Love has also been invaluable, providing precisely scripted words to say to each other, no matter the situation. In difficulty, just finding the passage and saying it aloud reassures us that we both intend to work on whatever has tripped us up this time. On easier days, it helps us express our love and appreciation.

Relationship-Building

We recall how we resisted Thay’s instruction to “make an appointment”: when one of you feels hurt by the other’s words or actions, you acknowledge the injury, then give yourselves time to look deeply at it. You make an appointment, say for the next Friday evening, to talk about it. At first we did not see how this idea could work. We were accustomed to talking about difficulties right away, and we feared that the tension would remain high if we waited for an appointment. But we tried it—and we found it very effective. In this way we have avoided making impulsive and possibly hurtful statements; and often by the time the appointment comes, we have already found new understanding and solutions.

We don’t tell her everything we do to nurture our relationship. We don’t tell her about the poetry (including Rumi) that we read to each other, or that we do Sufi and peace dances. We don’t mention retreats or community. We do tell her how difficult this relationship-building can be, and how much time and energy it takes. And that sometimes we slip away from our intentions. But she can see our deep and vibrant love. We wish her well.

mb56-Mindfulness4Lynda Bidlake, Wholesome Reunion of the Heart, recently retired from a career as a school psychologist. Lewis BrightHeart Headrick, Open Garden of the Heart, is working in mental health after receiving his bachelors in social work at the age of fifty-five.

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To Live In Freedom

Calming Sexual Desire

By Brian Kimmel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Relationship as Engaged Buddhism

By Nathaniel Vose

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

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

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

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

Right Relationship with Sexuality

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

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

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

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

Two Hands of the Same Body

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

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

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

Touching the Master

By Aparna Pallavi  mb56-Touching1“Go back and take care of yourself. The wounded child in you needs you. Your suffering, your blocks of pain need you. Your deepest desire needs you to acknowledge it.”

Each word touched my hurting heart like a tender dewdrop. My whole being ached with the desire to see the writer of these beautiful words—to see the radiant smile on the back cover of his book, Teachings on Love. It was the middle of the night. Unable to remain in bed, I got up, turned on my computer and opened the Plum Village website. And it hit my chest like a hammer, knocking my breath out entirely. Thich Nhat Hanh was coming to India! And to Nagpur, the city of my residence! Had ever a human wish been fulfilled so dramatically!

On October 9, 2008, in the huge marquee at Nagaloka Buddha Vihar, something beautiful happened even before I saw Thay. Sister Chan Khong, leading a team of monastics, was approaching the marquee. My daughter, then barely eleven, cried, “Mom, look what that beautiful grandma is doing!”

Through some misunderstanding, the women posted at the entrance to perform traditional Indian welcome rituals were trying to put flowers on the old lady’s feet instead of scattering them in her path, as is customary. It was a clumsy gesture, but the tiny old woman magically transformed it by bending down to receive the flowers in her hands and putting them on her head in a spontaneous, childlike gesture of joy and gratitude. I’d never seen a simple gesture radiate so much visible, felt beauty before.

When Thay appeared, I found myself leaving my seat and following him to the dais, pulled like a child to an ice cream cart. I stood within feet of Thay, my elbows on the dais, hoping the camera in my hand would help me look less foolish to the sedate audience.

A serene song of piercing loveliness, which I’d never heard before, started playing in my heart the moment I saw Thay. But coiled with it was a terrible, aching sense that this would be over, and soon. My practiced hands were feverishly snapping pictures. A part of me was madly determined to capture this moment for eternity. But the song was still strong, and when the monastics started chanting sutras, the melodies blended effortlessly.

For a long moment during the chanting, Thay very deliberately turned his gaze full on me, where I stood. My heart leapt, but at the same moment my hands, as if on cue, rose and poked the old camera at him. And just then, the camera folded up right under his gaze, its batteries exhausted. I was torn between intense ecstasy and intense anxiety, and now, in addition, an urgent sense of utter stupidity. Camera gone, there was nothing to do but to gather the blessing of that gaze, which miraculously stayed on me for another long moment, looking into my fragile human eyes, so inadequate to the task.

Then the disappointments began. When Thay spoke, I recognized the words from the books I had read. During the two-day workshop, I could hardly see or hear Thay through a throng of more than a thousand people. His translator, whom I knew, laughed at my request for a five-minute talk with Thay. On the last day, I cried in the bus back home.

I rationalised that it was stupid and sentimental to have hankered for a flesh-and-blood encounter with someone as busy as Thay, like a teenager for a movie star. It’s stupid to go to a guru at all. The truth is all in the books, so why bother? But a tender, trusting part of me was deeply ashamed and confused. Had my yearning been sentimental and stupid? What intangible quality had I been looking for in Thay’s presence? What had caused this tangible feeling of let-down that was eating away at me?

For weeks, a child inside me cried inconsolably.

For many months, I continued to read Thay’s books, and tried to practice walking, sitting, and eating meditation, and mindfulness. But given the old habits of my mind, progress was slow. I was frustrated that I had no master or Sangha to help me. I was torn between the desire to seek help and the fear of further hurt. If contact with a living master had failed to help me, how could I trust lesser mortals?

A Rare State of Being

Almost a year and a half after Thay’s visit, I chanced upon a book by a contemporary seeker, which described his efforts to be with his guru, not seeking his attention, but just absorbing his radiance from a distance. The book inspired me to confront my pain directly. Had I gone to Thay with the wrong expectations? What had I expected the brief encounter to achieve? The only time in my life I desired something with my whole being, my wish was fulfilled with near-miraculousness. And yet I was so full of secret misery.

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The more I tried to look deeply into these questions, the more the memory of that ethereal song knocked at my heart, the clearer my beautiful vision of Sister Chan Khong putting flowers on her head became. I was surprised at how fresh and flower-like these memories still were. I allowed myself to look at my memories full in the face, and one afternoon realization burst upon me. These memories had been the whole point of my yearning—the music that had throbbed through my entire being in the presence of Thay, the radiance of Sister Chan Khong’s simplicity that had touched my eyes like a benediction. In these moments, I’d been given the most precious gift. I’d had an opportunity to share the being of these two precious people. I’d been allowed a glimpse of a rare state of being, to see, to know for myself, beyond all doubt, that such a state is possible.

And how I’d fought against the gift! I’d nearly missed Thay’s living presence due to my preconceptions, my egoistic clinging. The only moment I’d been fully alive to the magic of his presence was the moment when my camera failed and I looked into his eyes. But for that, I’d have missed it altogether.

When this simple realization came, it was as if a huge block of stone embedded in my heart had been removed. Practice and life are much more serene and smooth when you wholeheartedly trust something than when you are carrying a pinprick of doubt. Once I allowed myself to fully trust that day’s memories, it became easier not to get carried away by the mechanical habits of my mind.

My progress is still slow, but steadier, as if my energies are flowing together instead of fighting each other. There are times when, in moments of deep calm, the memory of Thay’s penetrating look or Sister Chan Khong’s beautiful gesture (the latter framed in a kind of sunlit halo) come back to me, refreshing me, strengthening me, touching me with a benediction as fresh, as fragrant as the day when they really happened—perhaps even more so now, when I am fully present. My conflict about whether or not to seek a Sangha has been resolved in an unexpected manner. It has disappeared altogether, taking both the “to be” and the “not to be” with it. I am neither seeking nor not seeking. I am just practicing, as Thay puts it, with a rock, with a flower ….

mb56-Touching3Aparna Pallavi is a social activist, journalist, and organic farmer who lives in Nagpur, India, with her husband and daughter. She works for the environmental magazine Down to Earth.

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The Heart Pushup

By Peter Cutler mb56-TheHeart1

I’ve begun doing a practice to transform suffering. It’s been very effective for me. The practice involves a combination of three Buddhist practices—mindfulness of suffering, tonglen, and metta. I call it the Heart Pushup. I often do it lying down the first thing in the morning, just after I wake up. It’s a wonderful way to start the day.

Mindfulness

Take any pain or suffering, and bring your attention to it. If it’s strong and immediate, this isn’t much of a problem. Now open your heart wider to accept this pain fully. Stop resisting it or wishing it would go away. This will quickly reduce the intensity of it. It’s usually the resistance that creates the most pain.

As you open to the pain, you will find yourself becoming curious about it. If it’s physical pain, notice the quality and texture of the sensations. Where do they start? Where do they end? Is it dull and throbbing or sharp? Is there a color or shape to it? The more we embrace our pain, the less intense and frightening it becomes. This occurs because of love.

Now we’ve reduced the intensity of our pain and come to know it very intimately. We’ve embraced it into our heart. We now know a great deal about this pain and about ourselves.

Tonglen

Now we begin the Tibetan practice of tonglen. Because we are part of the human family, many other people have pain that is similar to ours. Begin to visualize one of these people. You might visualize their pain as a dark black cloud. On your in-breath, breathe in this dark cloud. Let it flow into your heart, where you transform it into a bright healing light that can heal all pain. On your out-breath, breathe all your healing light into this person. On your next in-breath, do the same with a different person. Eventually, breathe in the pain and suffering of many people at once and breathe out healing to all of them.

Most people unfamiliar with tonglen think it is contradictory to healing. After all, we are the ones with the pain. Why shouldn’t we send healing energy to ourselves instead of other folks? But if you try it, you will begin to notice that your heart expands and you feel filled with compassion. You feel connected to all humanity, all beings, the whole universe, and you seem to have forgotten about your pain.

Metta

Now that our hearts are filled with all beings, we send all of them unconditional love. This is metta, or loving kindness. We wish only for their greatest good and happiness. As we do this, we can feel our heart filling with unconditional love. This energy radiates out and fills our entire body. It fills the room, the house, the neighborhood, touching and healing each person. It expands further to encompass the city, the state. It touches and heals everyone we know as it continues growing. It radiates throughout the country and then encompasses the world. It only takes our intention to love this way.

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At this point we are filled with love. The sensation of pain may still be there a little, or it may be completely gone. But mostly we are love. The interesting thing is that without the pain and suffering, the intensity of this practice would not be as strong, nor would the wonderful results. Some people say love conquers all. I try not to indulge in blanket statements, but I am partial to that idea. I do know that this particular practice seems to work wonderfully for me. May it bring peace, love, and joy to you as well.

mb56-TheHeart3Peter Cutler, True Sangha Virtue, practices with Boston’s Old Path Sangha. His Zen brush paintings can be seen at www.zen-brush.com.

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Fertile Ground

Indonesia Teaching Tour By Brother Phap Lai

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Thay and the Sangha touched down in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on September 27, 2010, having just said a wistful goodbye to our hosts in Malaysia, where we enjoyed a successful two weeks offering retreats and public talks. In Jakarta, we were greeted by warm smiles from a team of lay friends and monastics eager to take good care of us, introduce us to their homeland, and help us plant seeds of Thay’s teaching and practice.

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Indonesia is densely populated with 238 million people. Onehundred-twenty-million are concentrated on Java—the political hub of this archipelago of some 17,500 islands—where we stayed for two weeks. We were taken first to Ekayana Temple, our base in Jakarta and the home of Brother Phap Tu and Venerable Dharma Vimala, both of whom have spent long stays in Plum Village. We were then escorted by police for the three-hour journey to Kinasih resort near Bogor, where we were to offer a five-day retreat. Phap Tu said without the escort, he was not sure how we could have made our way through the thick traffic of Jakarta.

It is impossible not to be affected by the squalid conditions of the poor majority of this overpopulated city. However, we were lucky to have some time in more rural mountain areas. Evident on people’s faces and in their interactions was the simple reality that, even though people may be poor, happiness is possible once the wholesome conditions of having enough space to live, clean air, water, and nature are present. We saw families and communities living simply but happily together. Wherever we went, the majority Muslim population was friendly and courteous, happy to return the beautiful Islamic greeting “As-Salamu ‘Alaykum” (“peace be upon you”) with “Wa Alaykum As-Salam” (“and on you be peace”).

In Indonesia, the ethnic Chinese are generally Buddhist by way of family tradition. However, the Plum Village tradition is new and this was Thay’s first visit to Indonesia. We were touched by the openness of Ekayana Temple, and its associated temples outside Jakarta, to our tradition; they made the Sangha’s visit possible. Brother Phap Tu was the main organiser, and the fourfold Sangha of Ekayana Temple worked wholeheartedly with him to make this visit a huge success. In addition, previous Sangha building efforts made Indonesia a fertile ground for Thay’s teaching to take root. Thay Phap Kham made a number of visits, and in May 2009, Sister Chan Khong, along with a group of brothers and sisters, led a four-day retreat in Kinasih Resort for 400 people and offered Days of Mindfulness in Java and Sumatra.

Interfaith Understanding

With conditions so ripe, we should not have been surprised by how well the retreat was attended and how immediately the energy of practice established itself. There were nine hundred retreatants, of which a record three hundred were young adults. Such an inspiring number of youth wouldn’t have manifested without the outreach work of Brother Phap Tu, who offered a series of weekend retreats at universities in the months leading up to the tour. This outreach paid a wonderful dividend. (We hope to emulate this kind of outreach in the UK before Thay’s visit in 2012). Thay gave a talk on True Love especially dedicated to the young people, and they had lots of sincere questions to ask the monastics. The retreat went well for everyone, and over two-thirds of the people attending received the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Some thirty Muslim practitioners attended the retreat. They formed a family for Dharma discussion, led by Sister Jina. Thay shared teachings of Buddhism that highlighted nondualistic thinking, nondiscrimination, and inclusiveness as central to Buddhist wisdom and insight. Thay talked on “the wisdom of nondiscrimination” as the fourth ingredient of True Love—upeksha, often translated as equanimity. Thay said Buddhists and Muslims can say to each other, “Because I love you and your God is Allah, I also love Allah as my God,” and “because I love you and your teacher is Lord Buddha, Buddha is also my teacher.” Thay shared that as Buddhists, we can very well understand Islamic proclamations from the Koran such as “Allah is God, there is only one God,” in the light of the Buddhist insight that the one contains the all. Thay said, “As Buddhists we should study Islam. Thay has studied and sees the five pillars of Islam can be compared with the Five Mindfulness Trainings.”

On the last day, Thay invited the Muslim Dharma discussion group to share with the whole Sangha about their experience and the initiative, following Thay’s request, to establish an interfaith group in Indonesia. One young Muslim lady shared that sadly, the country’s motto, “Unity in Diversity,” does not reflect the real situation. She shared that this retreat gave her hope and a way to contribute to making the motto something to believe in. Separately from this sharing to the whole Sangha, a Muslim lady shared with me about a transformation she experienced. “The ethnic Chinese, although a minority of twenty to twenty-five percent, use economic dominance to discriminate and this causes bad feelings among the Muslim community. But here it is clear everyone is good-hearted and I can relate them to as brothers and sisters on the path. I feel very at ease here.”

I had numerous conversations with our hosts, Chinese Indonesians and Malaysian Chinese, during the stay in these countries and discovered there is a lot of resentment regarding the many ways in which they suffer discrimination by the governments, which favour the Muslim majority. Underneath the occasional eruptions of violence that make the news, there is a pervasive tension among different ethnicities and religions of the Indonesian people. Poverty and overpopulation exacerbate the situation. Misperceptions and discriminatory behaviour fuel more resentment. It seems all the more important to find ways for the two communities to find common ground from which to build mutual respect and love. Conditions seem more favourable in Indonesia compared with Malaysia, where Muslims are barred by law from attending any Buddhist events. Under these kinds of restrictions it is hard to see how interfaith groups can form openly. Yet during the retreat it seemed everything was possible; indeed, understanding, love, and unity manifested palpably.

Back in Plum Village, Brother Phap Tu informed me that the interfaith group in Jakarta is meeting regularly, and Plum Village is to sponsor a Muslim practitioner from this group for a long-term stay in Plum Village.

Thay wrote to his children on the tour, “The Southeast Asia Tour is blooming as a beautiful flower. The flower has five petals. The first three petals are Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and they have manifested elegantly. The happiness of the Sangha has been nourished by the happiness of the local Buddhist practitioners. As teachers and students, we have learned many wonderful things on this trip, being able to drop many of our preconceived notions about these countries.”

Brother Phap Lai is from the United Kingdom and is currently residing in Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, France.

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