Agent Orange

Reversing the Legacy of War

A Veteran’s Story

By Jeff Nielsen

mb66-Reversin1

I first went to Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old Marine in late 1965. It was a big adventure. I was greeted by many children, lush green countryside, and happy people harvesting rice and fishing. It seemed the people always had smiles upon their faces and a playful curious attitude toward us Marines. It was fun to engage with the children and villagers as we conducted morning patrols outside the barbed wire of our artillery post in Da Nang. I had no real fears on these patrols. On one occasion, I used a blasting cap from a disassembled hand grenade to assist children with their fishing. The blasting cap stunned the fish, and the children eagerly collected them up. They were amazed. I was amazed.

Many positive seeds were nourished during my first trip to Vietnam, as I interacted with a new culture. The hard-core stories of the war were on the edges. But, what began as an adventure in a strange, foreign land would later transform my life.

I volunteered to go back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967. That was the Summer of Love in the United States, but in Vietnam there was no Summer of Love. The war had escalated. I was assigned as a field radio operator with a Marine Infantry unit on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), much further north than where I had previously been stationed. The war was real here. There was a tremendous amount of suffering, pain, and fear.

mb66-Reversin2

Our unit was under siege from the communist North at Con Tien, or “hill of angels.” I was witness to a brutal and vicious war. In the two weeks prior to and after my arrival, our unit suffered one thousand casualties and seventy dead at Con Tien. The DMZ was a battle of artillery duels, and the Marines were sitting targets inside their wire perimeter. Communist 122-millimeter rockets arrived regularly with howling screeches, creating mass scrambles for cover in red clay trenches. I was scared. There were no more smiling children. This was no longer an adventure. It was war with victims. Suffering and death were everywhere.

Marines lived in primitive, often muddy, unsanitary conditions. We bathed in rivers contaminated with the dioxin Agent Orange. Agent Orange was used to defoliate the jungle and deny the communists cover. The jungle countryside was also hostile. At night, we stood guard duty inside our wire, and rock apes, or monkeys, roamed outside the wire in the jungle. These monkeys can weigh over one hundred pounds, and at night they can resemble a person. Occasionally they, too, would throw rocks at our defensive perimeter. Everyone outside the wire was a potential enemy. Whatever moved was a potential rifle target. We were prisoners within our own barbed wire.

My job as a trained field radio operator was to maintain communications among the small units within our battalion, the individual line companies, and the battalion headquarters. This meant I had to go into the field or bush on a regular basis with fighting units. It was my duty to carry a twenty-five-pound field radio on my back, along with my own equipment: food (Crations), a shovel for digging in at night, two canteens, a pistol, and an M-16 assault rifle with 175 rounds of ammunition. Many Marines got heat exhaustion walking all day in the one-hundred-degree tropical jungle.

One of my assignments was to work as a relay operator on a prominent hilltop outpost called the Rockpile. There were ten of us up there. The Rockpile was accessible from the ground only by helicopter. It was the highest peak along the DMZ. There I provided clearance for aircraft and ground resupply convoys. I could observe and listen to most major military action from my nine-hundred-foot perch on a crag of rock.

From the Rockpile I was able to witness our weapons of mass destruction: the B-52 bombers with their two-thousand-pound bombs. These bombs would relentlessly pound the earth into submission. Fires erupted on the horizon, and the ground shook with enormous rumblings. Other aircraft also attacked the earth with Agent Orange. Agent Orange not only destroyed the jungle, but it also produced many major agricultural problems for the local farm people who lived off the bounty of the Earth. It also destroyed the farmers’ health. It was an evil tool of war that continues to create a lot of suffering.

mb66-Reversin3

One time I was giving radio clearance for a CH-46 cargo helicopter to pass over the Rockpile. I gave the signal. I looked up a second later and there was only a wisp of smoke where the helicopter had been in the sky. A communist gunner had fired a fifty-caliber machine gun accurately. The CH-46 had been flying low because of visibility and low ceiling in the early morning humidity. Eighteen marines perished. I was on the recovery team. We found one survivor, barely alive, and it looked as if all the bones in his body were broken.

I volunteered toward the end of my tour to accompany a resupply convoy to Khe Sanh. I was standing in the lead vehicle. On this occasion the communists must have been only a few feet away, hiding in the thick elephant grass that lined the narrow one-track highway, when I passed. Minutes later we heard their distinctive AK fire, four or five vehicles back. They had waited to open fire until they had more numerous targets. Sixteen Marines died on flatbed trucks that day. The next day we revisited the area. The dead lay where they had been killed.

My friend Arthur and I drew straws after that attack to see who would accompany the new lieutenant. I won the draw and accompanied the more experienced captain. Arthur was killed accompanying the less experienced lieutenant, with a few days left in his tour of duty. I visited with the captain not long ago, in 2006. He was dying of Agent Orange-related cancer. I attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetary.

I was unhappy in Vietnam. There was so much suffering all around, daily. The only escape was booze during the intermittent R&Rs.* I wanted to go home to the USA. I wanted to begin a new life. But I now know that home is where you are; it is up to us to create the conditions for our own happiness.

mb66-Reversin4

A Difficult Journey

I survived Vietnam. I was lucky. But it was a difficult journey home. There was guilt leaving Vietnam, as our brothers were still there facing the suffering. In Okinawa, my friend Norm and I received word that our medic had been killed. Norm and I drank beer to excess every night during our transition back to the United States. We always ordered three beers––one for Norm, one for me, and one for the doc who was killed.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, I was admitted to the Oakland Naval Hospital. My “jungle rot” skin disease was severely infected from cuts and constant humidity. I was bandaged in gauze, like a mummy. I could not get discharged from the Marines in my condition, but my friend Norm was okay to go. It was a difficult farewell. I felt alone. I had lost the doc and now Norm.

In July 1968, I was discharged and left for home in Connecticut. There were many hurdles to face. I had to finish where I’d left off in high school. There were very few job prospects, as I had little training other than with a field radio and an M-16 rifle. Additionally, I had drinking and emotional problems: anger, resentment of my peers that didn’t go to war, and poor family relationships. The American culture was in a political turmoil. I felt the troops coming home were blamed for this war. This made me even angrier and more resentful.

My wife and I experienced many of the residual effects of the Vietnam War, and our marriage ended after eighteen years. In my thirties, I had a heart attack and two types of cancer, all related to Agent Orange. My wife had five miscarriages, also related to Agent Orange. My doctor advised us to stop trying to conceive a child. Later, we were denied adoption due to my past heart condition and limited family support.

In 1982, I went with a friend to the opening ceremony of “the Wall” in Washington, D.C. Of the fifty-eight-thousand-plus names on the Wall of American Soldiers Killed in Vietnam, most were in their early twenties––all with so much more to live. On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, many, many more were killed in this senseless war. Some Vietnamese people have told me that the hills in northwest Quang Tri Province cry at night with the hungry ghosts of the war.

Many Conditions for Happiness

My story gets better. Although there are many seeds of suffering in me, there are more than enough conditions for happiness.

I was first introduced to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh at a Veterans Retreat at Omega Institute in New York in the 1990s. I attended on scholarship. During this retreat, the seeds were planted; I began to look more deeply into the roots of my own trauma and guilt. I began to rethink my Vietnam experience.

I struggled with my education, hindered by my drinking. However, I completed college and earned three masters’ degrees, in counseling, educational psychology, and clinical social work. I began the course of study in social work, with a focus on international issues, in the late nineties after taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The seeds for my aspiration for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings were planted. I feel fortunate to have had such wonderful teachers as Lyn Fine, Helen Hunt-Perry, and Roberta Wall on my path.

My studies took me to Vietnam. Since 1999, I have been to Vietnam six, soon to be seven times:

1999: I did an independent study on post-war issues as a graduate social work student. I fell in love with the country and people again, as I had in 1965 with the children of Da Nang. I learned to sing songs.

2000: I completed an internship with Asian Family Services in Hartford, Connecticut. I returned to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with a group of ex-refugee Southeast Asian staff to explore orphan issues.

2003: I returned to Vietnam with the non-governmental organization PeaceTrees Vietnam.** Its mission is to reverse the legacy of war by clearing unexploded war bombs and planting trees in their place. I was told last year that eighty-two percent of Quang Tri Province is contaminated by these unexploded bombs. Children and farmers continue to die.

2005: I returned with Thay and friends and became acquainted with the root temple in Hue. My practice deepened. I took a small group to visit PeaceTrees Vietnam. On my return, I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing by Thay in Massachusetts. I received the name True Pure Peace.

2008: I attended Vesak in Hanoi with Thay and the Sangha.

2013: Now retired from work, I took a course, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I went to Vietnam for three months with my wife, June, and taught English part time as a volunteer. I taught young children in a primary school in Hue. We sang many songs. Following that, I went on the Roots of Buddhism in Vietnam Retreat with Trish Thompson.

2014: I leave in a few weeks for our second mindfulness retreat in Vietnam with Ms. Thompson. Following this retreat, I will tour Vietnam with Veterans of Peace. We plan to raise money and create awareness about issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.

mb66-Reversin6

I am now remarried and have three wonderful stepchildren. I retired after twelve years as a psychiatric social worker on a mental health unit within a maximum-security prison, and five years as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapist, counseling returning war veterans with the Veterans Administration.

I am writing this in Southeast Asia, where the warm breeze flows, the air is fresh, the sun is out, birds chirp, local fruit is succulent, orchids are in blossom, and there is an absence of war. I look around at many smiling faces and say to myself, “Thank you.” I have gratitude for my many conditions for happiness.

Our practice continues to transform my life. I take my refuge with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings continue to be my liberation from suffering. I write this for all my friends on the path of understanding. May I be free from suffering. May you be free from suffering. May I be happy and well. May you also be happy and well.

*“R&R” is military slang for rest and recuperation, rest and relaxation, or rest and

** For information or to support PeaceTrees Vietnam, visit www.peacetreesvietnam.org. To support efforts to restore the environment and neutralize the effects of the war, visit www.landmines.org.vn.

Jeff Nielsen, True Pure Peace, practices with the Heart of the Valley Mindfulness Practice Center in Norwich, Vermont. He lives with his wife, June, and Jack Russell terrier, Mr. Watson. He is willing to accept any donations towards resolution of the issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange in the name of Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Chapter. He can be reached at jeffreyrnielsen@msn.com.

PDF of this article

School of the Beloved

By Janelle Combelic mb40-School1

On this rainy day, Sister Chan Khong has led the lay delegation into the shiny, sodden, impossibly green countryside around Hue. She is exposing us to the social service work of the Order of Interbeing sponsored by Plum Village—a life-giving well dug for a farmer, a vibrant preschool, a small temple and school built among the rice paddies. We end the day at an extraordinary place run by an extraordinary woman, Sister Minh Tanh’s school for disabled children.

mb40-School2

The Beloved School is unique in Vietnam, a place where children with moderate to severe handicaps, both mental and physical, receive education, food, and love. Some of them, who in the West would have been treated long ago, get medical care and surgery.

The school was founded in 2001 by Sr. Minh Tanh, Dr. Ha Vinh Tho and his wife Lisi of the Eurasia Association and Dr. Alan Sandler. It receives considerable support from the Dutch Sangha, among other sources of funding. On our visit we were fortunate to have with us Rochelle Griffin and Jantien Lodder, from Heerewaarden, Holland, both passionate sponsors of the school.

“In Vietnam there is no money for any kind of special care for medical procedures or for education for disabled people,” says Rochelle. “They feel left out of society, shame for their handicap, guilt for their bad luck and the extra trouble that it creates for their family; and because of their poverty, they experience a great deal of helplessness and hopelessness.” The school gives them a place to go during the day, transporting them by cyclo (bicycle taxi) if necessary. That way both parents can go to work.

As an American, I was shocked to learn that many of the children’s handicaps are due to Agent Orange, the defoliant dropped by the tons on this region of Vietnam during the war more than thirty years ago. Sadly, some 500,000 children have been born with birth defects attributed to the dioxin that contaminated the soil and water. For them, the war is not over.

Sister Minh Tanh, director of the school, radiates kindness and efficiency. She has devoted her life to improving the quality of life for handicapped children and poor families. (There are over 150 disabled children in the village.) Abbess of Long Tho Temple

in Thuy Bieu Village, she is also treasurer of Tu Hieu, our root temple in Hue, and coordinates all the funds collected through Plum Village and other organizations.

The school is financed entirely by donations. In addition to medical care for the children, this includes paying the teachers’ salaries and health insurance, purchasing food and supplies, and providing additional assistance to the poorest families.

Since 2001, when Rochelle and Jantien first traveled to Vietnam, they have been energetic fundraisers for the school. Rochelle, an American who has lived in Holland for many years, was disabled in a car accident in 1980 and suffers from chronic pain. She often used a wheelchair during the trip, powered by the tireless Jantien. Rochelle directs the Vuurvlinder Foundation, a center for people confronted with serious illness and other kinds of loss and change who are looking for inspiration and quality of life.

The Beloved School is close to Rochelle’s heart. “Becoming involved in this project,” she says, “is helping me to heal many wounds, some stemming from the American-Vietnam war that I was so angry about in the 1960s. It’s also been a means of honoring my mother who was a pioneer in the field of special education; she integrated disabled children in a vocational program into the public school system in the 1980s. And it allows me to help other disabled people.”

During our visit a dozen children sang a song for us. Some of them were shy and withdrawn, some bursting with enthusiasm. All of them touched our hearts.

Janelle Combelic, Sweet Wisdom of the Heart, lives in Loubes-Bernac, France, and practices at Plum Village. She is a contributing editor to the Mindfulness Bell.

PDF of this article

Healing in Vietnam

mb45-Healing3 In early 2007 Thich Nhat Hanh led a ninety-day pilgrimage to Vietnam. Fifty monks and nuns from the monasteries in the U.S. and France accompanied him, along with a hundred lay Westerners, in each of four three-week segments. On this second historic visit to his homeland, Thay was also accompanied by Vietnamese monks and nuns numbering in the hundreds, from the three monasteries in Vietnam that practice in the tradition of Plum Village.

As of this writing, Thay has offered two Great Ceremonies of Healing, also called Grand Requiem Masses, for the souls of those who perished during the Vietnam War. Never before has Vietnam seen such ceremonies. In the first ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City, as many as ten thousand people participated.

Here are writings and photos from two lay participants. David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, recently retired after eighteen years working in public health on Indian reservations in the southwestern U.S. He now practices with the Organic Garden and Ripening Sanghas in southern California. Madeline Dangerfield-Cha from Cleveland, Ohio, will enter Columbia University next fall; she has four half-brothers and one half-sister under the age of seven. Look for more about this historic trip in the next issue of the Mindfulness Bell, and view additional photos by David Nelson at www.flickr.com/photos/rezdog/. Hear Dharma talks and interviews from the Vietnam trip at www.dpcast.org.

mb45-Healing1

mb45-Healing2

Arrival Day in Ho Chi Minh City

At the Quang Duc Temple, there was a great welcoming ceremony for Thay and the sangha. After a long formal procession, Touching the Earth was offered to the temple’s venerables for a long life to the patriarch that may continue to benefit many. The most venerable offered warm greetings and wishes for a successful trip. Next we took buses to An Quang temple. Thay shared that at this temple he became a Dharma teacher, giving hundreds of Dharma talks in that hall. Afterwards our procession slowly passed by smiling and bowing crowds and made its way to a most delicious Vietnamese feast. We dined to the sounds of up-beat popular music. That night at Phap Van, Thay gave his first talk of the trip. We in the lay sangha were fortunate to witness the talk from directly behind Thay, and to see the faces in the audience. Thay encouraged us to practice coming back to our breath as taught by the Buddha in the Anapanasati Sutra on mindful breathing. [Read part of this Dharma talk on page 4.]

—David Nelson

All photos in this section by David Nelson and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing4

Thousands on a Few Green Acres

The five-day lay retreat at Prajna Temple near Bao Loc was a wonderful gift. I hardly expected such intense practice! And so many people! Upwards of seven thousand Vietnamese retreatants came. You’d think it would be chaos, thousands of people on a few green acres. How on earth could seven thousand people remain meditative and quiet for five days in 90-degree heat? But these people are truly devoted: three thousand could cram into the meditation hall for Thay’s Dharma talks, the rest sprawling on the steps and lawn outside. Thay was so inspiring, so down to earth.

mb45-Healing5

For Dharma discussion, I was lucky enough to be included in a bilingual, multi-cultural, youth exchange extravaganza! A large group of monks, nuns, Vietnamese, and young Westerners, we discussed our experiences and challenges. The Vietnamese young people were slow to share, really hesitant, since “sharing,” they explained, is not a part of their culture. Yet after just a few minutes on the first day they began to share their suffering so we could join their journey. We played high energy games and goofy challenges. Everyone could shout and laugh, Vietnamese or English!

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing6

Jungle School Adventure

Ha! I can’t even begin to describe the joy from yesterday’s adventure! The plan for the day was to visit schools in the central highlands around Bao Loc. Plum Village funds the construction, staff, and supplies of over a thousand schools in the whole of Vietnam, a million-dollar charity organization. Yesterday, we visited nine of them, real schools with real kids and real teachers. Just single room, no-frills buildings. Some have desks, some have chalkboards. No books, no toys. But they’re clean, and they’re built! The kids get one well-rounded, nutritious meal per day. Our first stop was a tribal village where most of the inhabitants spoke the local dialect. I played tag with more than forty six- and seven-year-olds. I felt like I was playing with my little brothers. You should have seen their smiles!

But the real adventure began in the jungle. No more plumbing, no more pavement, no more cars of any kind. A nun turned to me and said, “You know, this road gets completely unpassable when it rains. Turns into nothing but mud. The tires can’t move at all. Hey, look it’s raining in the distance!” It did rain cats and dogs — torrential, tropical, southeast-Asian rain, for thirty-five minutes. We were completely frozen, stuck in a muddy river the whole time, twelve of us tucked in our little monastic van. We passed around boiled peanuts and rice cakes and purified water. It was a beautiful storm, like a fever breaking, as the heat and humidity dropped.

mb45-Healing7

As soon as the rain slowed, Sister Chan Khong (the one and only! this woman has lived!) said “Alright, let’s go. The kids are waiting for us!” Our poor driver got us as far as he could, which was about a kilometer down the road. We left the other two vans behind. Sister said, “Can’t drive any further. We walk!” and jumped out of the van. The sky had cleared by this time, and all the dusty vegetation had been rinsed clean and was glowing with color. Muddy red earth, big gray sky.

mb45-Healing8

The walk was long and sticky. I almost lost a shoe at one point, so ended up barefoot in red mud — cool and fresh. Local kids in blue and red uniforms whizzed by us on motorbikes. A man on a motorbike stopped by, asking us if we needed a hand. Sister Chan Khong was all about it! This seventy-year old Vietnamese rock star just tucked up her robes and was off.

mb45-Healing9

The rest of us walked up and down muddy hills through the brush. Coffee plants taller than men. Little kids joining us, then peeling off on tiny paths, presumably to their homes hidden among the plantlife and mist.

At the school, since we couldn’t bring the gifts, a few people offered crackers. Someone had a brick of cheese. We dumped what we had into a cone hat and passed it around to the children, who ate with joy. In one of the poorest areas that Plum Village supports, these people are happy, functioning. They don’t need plumbing or cars in order to live.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing10

Powerful and Jubilant Alms Round

In Bao Loc today, the alms round led by Thay in a black Highlander — the Buddha-mobile — was powerful, jubilant! Two thousand monks and nuns passed through streets mobbed by old women, children, and families offering toothpaste, medicine, sweet treats, yogurt, fruit, and the traditional boiled rice wrapped in a banana leaf with sesame salt. The Western lay delegation stood on the sidelines with Vietnamese locals; we helped collect the unbelievable excess of food, stuffing it into army sacks for later donations.

Playing with small children, we had our pictures taken by the locals, who love taking photos of us. My friends Brant and Ray are both six feet four inches — giants here in Asia. People run up to them and measure themselves, waving their hands over their heads and matching them up with the middle of Brant’s forearm. It’s hilarious.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing11

The First Great Requiem Ceremony

Thich Nhat Hanh declares during his Dharma talk at Vinh Nghiem Temple on this second day of ceremony that we will continue to open the throats of hungry ghosts. Along with powerful chants led by a chant master specializing in inviting spirits, the souls of those who died during the war, whether as heroes, in prison, of sickness, on land or sea, will be purified by the compassion and energy of the Dharma.

Day two begins with chants from the discourse on love, to detach the souls from the bodies. Everyone is requested to bring themselves wholeheartedly into the chants and not disturb the energy by moving around and taking pictures. First there is the Beginning Anew gatha of forgiveness, lightness and freedom. From the depths of understanding, with great emotion and steadfastness, the chants roar and pulsate throughout this huge temple. In the afternoon there is chanting to invoke the presence of the Medicine King, a previous incarnation of the Buddha. Led by the chant master, local traditional chants flow like a mighty river of heart-felt sound, non-stop for nearly two hours, echoing inside and outside among thousands in the courtyard. So many thousands of voices giving energy to the healing! Thay declares that as Beginning Anew transforms our hearts and those of the loved ones departed, the nightmare of the Vietnam War is over. The squash and the pumpkin co-exist peacefully on the same vine.

In the evening we in the lay sangha are amazed to become part of the lotus lamp ceremony. The procession line forms, with colorful umbrellas, flags, and other ceremonial poles. I stand near the beginning with my palms together to show respect to the monastics as they file by. As Thay arrives, looking over at me, he smiles. Raising his hand, he waves, wiggling his fingers in a cute gesture. I return the wave and smile. As our lay sangha follows, filing through a narrow opening, we pass shrines and a wishing well altar. The people offer us lotus bows and big smiles.

This evening is lit with spotlights, colored lanterns, the booming sounds of a big drum, cymbals, and bells, accompanying chants from the monastics and crowd. After a half-hour of waiting, our line is ushered quickly past attendants who offer us hand-made paper lotuses containing candles. Circling the temple, we glow, a beautiful candle-lit lane awaiting the chant master. More monastics, an entourage of musicians and traditionally dressed young women pass, smiling. We follow them to the Saigon River behind the temple, passing by big, bowing crowds. We place our glowing lotuses into the river where they float like beacons to light the souls lost in darkness — that they may join us during this transformative healing and reconciliation ceremony.

The dead have been invited to the temple to begin anew with us. On day three Thay states that this is the largest such ceremony ever in Vietnam — an action of love to bring individuals, families, and the nation into harmony and peace. We join in untying knots of injustice for all beings. Thay offers prayers for those who lost their precious bodies, that through our consciouness, they might be healed. Thay helps the audience understand how to walk and breathe as he does, with the energy of lightness and freedom.

Sister Chan Khong sings a song of Beginning Anew, teaching it to the audience. With tears in their eyes, they sing along. Greed, anger, passion, and ignorance are offered a chance to transform. People comfort one another. A large indoor screen projects the crowd’s faces of regret, forgiveness, and hope. Thay tells us that even the Communist party has admitted their mistakes of taking land and killing so many, although they refer to it as a correction rather than Beginning Anew. Everyone learns that once the mind is purified there is no trace of past unskillfulness, no guilt, no sin. Sitting in the spring breeze, teacher and students are happy as a family.

—David Nelson

Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh’

Hue is the closest city to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which remains the most heavily bombed piece of earth on this planet. Slowly, I’m formulating a sense of the real devastation of this war and all wars. Agent Orange is still wreaking havoc. Even today, babies are born with terrible deformities due to exposure. Many older Agent Orange victims beg here on the streets of Hue and in the temples where we go to practice. The suffering, I see, is enormous, continuous.

mb45-Healing12

The response that keeps re-surfacing is “Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh” — a leader, a visionary. He’s fighting the bureaucracy with peace and love and compassion and understanding. Without resentment or cynicism or demand. He is fighting and he will win. It may take many more generations, but his message is true. Love all beings. Prevent all possible suffering. Act with compassion. Do not kill. Do not discriminate. The Communist officials here breathe down his neck. For thirty years, they repressed him and killed his supporters. Yet he is here, now, and he will not stop fighting with love and grace and dedication.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

Coming Home to Hue

When we arrived at Tu Hieu, Thay was just finishing an impromptu tour of the grounds, explaining his activities as a young novice. Walking through the front gate, he motioned to the left-most of three stone arches and recounted the details of his first entrance when he was only 16 years old. His older brother was already a novice, and had brought Thay to study with him. His brother instructed Thay to walk through the arch in full awareness of every step and of every breath, invoking the name of the Buddha. Right, I am breathing in. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Left, I am breathing out. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Those, he said, were his first steps on the path of mindfulness. He invited each of us to do as he had done.

mb45-Healing13

Sitting together on the shady grass, monastics and international lay friends, we are all smiling as a great family. Thay is cupping a flower in his left hand, which he brings up to his face every so often, breathing in with great joy. He motions to a young monk, maybe ten or eleven years old, to sit close to him, extending the flower to the boy, sharing its beautiful fragrance. The young novice is nervous and smiling, his legs curled beneath him, his back upright and erect. Thay puts an arm around his shoulders, and invites another young monastic to share a song. Many have been singing traditional folk songs or older Buddhist chants. This young monk sings a popular Vietnamese love song. His voice is warbling and full of laughter. His Vietnamese brothers and sisters laugh through the whole song. Our teacher is bright with joy and humor.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

PDF of this article