Dharma teacher

Dharma Talk: True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery

August 22, 2001

You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

There is a lot of Dharma talk in the air, and there is a lot of air in the Dharma talk. Today is the 22nd of August 2001 in the Deer Park Monastery.

There is a sutra with the title Yasoja—that’s the name of a monk, the Sangha leader. This sutra is found in the collection called Udāna, Inspired Sayings.

Yasoja was a Sangha leader of a community of about five hundred monks. One day, he led the monks to the place where the Buddha lived, hoping they could join the three-month retreat with the Buddha. Ten days before the retreat began, they arrived very joyfully, anticipating seeing the Buddha and all the other monks. There were a lot of greetings, a lot of talking, and from his hut the Buddha heard a great noise.

He asked Ananda, “What is that noise? It sounds like fishermen landing a catch of fish.”

Ananda told him the Venerable Yasoja had arrived with five hundred monks and they were all talking with the resident monks.

The Buddha said, “Ask them to come.”

When the monks came, they touched the earth before the Buddha and sat down. The Buddha said, “You go away, you cannot stay with me. You are too noisy. I dismiss you.”

So the five hundred monks touched the earth, walked around the Buddha, and left the monastery of Jeta Park. They went to the kingdom of Vajji, on the east side of Kosala, which took them many days to reach. When they arrived on the bank of the River Vaggamuda, they built small huts, sat down, and began the Rain Retreat.

During the ceremony opening the retreat, Venerable Yasoja said, “The Buddha sent us away out of compassion. You should know that he is expecting us to practice deeply, successfully. That is why he sent us away. It was an expression of his deep love.”

All the monks were able to see that. They agreed that they should practice very seriously during the Rain Retreat to show the Buddha that they were worthy to be his disciples. So they dwelled very deeply, very ardently, very solidly. After only three months of retreat, the majority of them had realized the three enlightenments, the three kinds of achievement. The first is about remembering all their past lives. The second is to realize the truth of impermanence, to see clearly how the lives of all beings come and after a time they go. The third realization is that they have ended the basic afflictions in themselves: craving, anger, and ignorance.

One day after the Rain Retreat, the Buddha told Ananda, “When I looked into the east I noticed some energy of light, of goodness. And when I used my concentration, I saw that the five hundred monks that I sent away have achieved something quite deep.”

Ananda said, “That is true, Lord, I have heard about them. Having been dismissed by the Buddha, they sat down in the Vajji territory and began serious practice, and they all have realized the three realizations.”

Buddha said, “That’s good. Why don’t we invite them to come over for a visit?”

Teacher-Disciple Relationship

When the five hundred monks heard the invitation of the Buddha, they were very happy to visit him. After many days of traveling, they came at about seven o’clock in the evening and they saw the Buddha sitting quietly, in a state of concentration called imperturbability. In this state you are not perturbed by anything; you are very free, very solid. Nothing can shake you, including fame, craving, hatred, or even hope.

When the monks realized that the Buddha was in the state of imperturbability, they said, “The Lord is sitting in that state of being, so why don’t we sit like him?”

So they all sat down, very beautifully, very deeply, very solidly. All of them penetrated the state of imperturbability and sat like Buddha. They sat for a long time.

When the night had advanced and the first watch had finished, the Venerable Ananda came to the Lord, knelt down, and said, “Lord, it is already very late in the night. Why don’t you address the monks?”

The Lord did not say anything. They continued to sit until the second watch of the night had gone by. About two or three o’clock in the morning, Ananda came, knelt down, and said, “Lord, the night has gone very far. It is now the end of the second watch. Please address the five hundred monks.”

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

But the Buddha kept silent and continued to sit. All the monks continued to sit also. 

Finally, the third watch of the night was over, and the sun began to appear on the horizon. Ananda came for the third time, and kneeling in front of the Buddha, said, “Great teacher, now that the night is over, why don’t you address the monks?”

The Buddha opened his eyes and looked at Ananda. He said, “Ananda, you did not know what was going on and that is why you have come and asked me three times. I was sitting in a state of imperturbability, and all the monks also sat in that state of being, not disturbed by anything at all. We don’t need any greetings. We don’t need any talk. This is the most beautiful thing that can happen between teacher and student. We just sit, dwelling in a state of peace and solidity and freedom.” 

I find that sutra very, very beautiful. The communication between teacher and disciple is perfect. A student should expect nothing less than the freedom of the teacher. The teacher should be free from craving, free from fear, free from despair. When you come to the temple you should not expect from your teacher anything less than that. You should not expect small things, like having a cup of tea with the teacher or having him praise you. These kinds of things are nothing at all. 

You should expect much more than that. If your teacher has enough freedom, enough peace, enough insight, then that will satisfy you entirely. If he does not have any solidity, any freedom, then you should not accept him or her as your teacher because you’ll get nothing from him or her. 

What do you expect from a Dharma teacher or a big brother or sister in the Dharma? What do you expect from your students? You should not expect small things. You should not expect him or her to bring you a cup of tea, a good meal, a cake, some words of praise. These things are nothing at all. You should expect from your students their transformation, their healing, their freedom. 

When teacher and students are like that, they are in a state of perfect communication. They don’t have to say anything to each other. They don’t have to do much. They just sit with each other in a state of solidity and imperturbability. That is the most beautiful thing concerning a teacher-student relationship. 

I find this sutra very, very beautiful.

When a student practices well, he or she can see the teacher in himself, in herself. And when a teacher practices well, he can see himself in the student. They should not expect less than that. If you always see the teacher as someone outside of you, you have not profited much from your teacher. You have to begin to see that your teacher is in you in every moment. If you fail to see that, your practice has not gone well at all. And as the teacher, if you don’t see yourself in the students, your teaching has not gone very far. 

True Transmission

When I look into a person, a disciple, whether she is a monastic or a layperson, I would like to see in her that my teaching has only one aim: to transmit my insight, my freedom, my joy to my disciples. If I look at him and I see these elements in his eyes, I am very glad. I feel that I have done well in transmitting the best that is in me. Looking at his way of walking, of smiling, of greeting, of moving about, I can see whether my teaching has been fruitful or not. That is what is called “transmission.” 

Transmission isn’t organized by a ceremony with a lot of incense and chanting. Transmission is done every day in a very simple way. If the teacher-student relationship is good, then transmission is realized in every moment of our daily life. You don’t feel far away from your teacher. You feel that he or she is always with you because the teacher outside has become the teacher inside. You know how to look with the eyes of your teacher. You know how to walk with the feet of your teacher. Your teacher has never been away from you. This is not something abstract; we can see this ourselves. When you look at a monk or a nun or a lay disciple and you see Thay in him, you know that he is a real disciple of Thay. And if you don’t see that, you might say that this is a newly arrived person, he has not got any Thay within himself. That is seen very clearly. 

When we look into ourselves, we can see whether our way of walking or smiling or thinking has that element of freedom, of joy, of compassion. If we see it, then we know that Thay has been taken into ourselves; we are a true continuation of our teacher. You don’t need another person to tell you; you can see it for yourself. And when you look at your fellow students, you can see it as well, if the teacher-student relationship is good. If it is good, that transmission is being done in every moment of our daily life. 

Every time we take a step, we know for ourselves whether that step has peace, joy, solidity, or not. You don’t need your teacher to tell you. You know whether your step is a real step, containing solidity and freedom. If your step does not have freedom, you know it doesn’t. If your step does not have the element of solidity, you know it doesn’t. It’s not hard; it’s so obvious. 

[Thay holds up an empty glass.]

Your step is like the glass. It can be empty and then maybe some juice or some tea goes in. 

[He pours tea into the glass.]

If there is some tea in the cup, it is obvious. With the tea in the cup, you can drink and enjoy it.

[Thay sips the tea. He draws a row of circles indicating steps on the whiteboard.]

Suppose I make a step here, a step here, a step here. My practice is to fill each step with the elements of solidity and peace, because I know that each step like that is highly nourishing and healing. When I make a step, I say, “I have arrived, I am home.” There is the element of arrival here, and you know whether you have arrived or not. 

We have been running all our lives. We do not know how to enjoy every step we make. Now that we have become a student of the Buddha, we want to make real steps. Every step should be full of the element of arrival, full of the element of here and now, full of the elements of stability, solidity, and freedom. 

In the time of the Buddha, there were no airplanes, there were no buses, there were no cars. The Sangha just walked from one country to another. They spent time in many countries, and yet they only walked. With their way of walking, they were able to enjoy every step. The Buddha was a monk, and many of his disciples were monks. They were traveling monks, walking from one place to another. They only stopped traveling during the three-month retreat, so they had plenty of chances to practice walking meditation. Wherever they went, they inspired people because of their way of walking and sitting. 

Walking is a kind of sitting. You can arrive fully when you walk, just like when you sit. You are not in a hurry; you are not looking for something outside yourself. You know that everything you are looking for is in the here and the now. That is why every step you make helps you to arrive in the here and now. That is why the teaching and the practice of arrival is so wonderful, so marvelous. 

Our society is characterized by running. Everyone is running to the future. You want to assure a good future, and since you see other people around you running, you cannot resist running too.

We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

We do not have peace; we are not capable of being in the here and the now and touching life deeply. Running like that, we hope to arrive. But running has become a habit, and we are not able to arrive any more. Our whole life is for running. 

In this teaching and in this practice, the point of arrival is not somewhere else. The point of arrival is in every minute, in every second. Life is like that. Life is a kind of walk. [Thay taps each circle on the board.] Life can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, making a step. Here, here, here. We continue like this. So life can be found in a step and in the space between steps. If we expect to see life outside of these steps and the space between steps, we don’t have life. The great majority of people are running, and that is why the practice of arrival is so important. It’s a drastic kind of medicine to heal our society and ourselves, because we carry, in each of us, the whole of society. The whole of society is running, and therefore we are running. So awakening can bring the desire to resist, to stop.

The Three Doors of Liberation

The teaching of the three doors of liberation is crucial. The door of emptiness, the door of signlessness, and the door of aimlessness. Aimlessness means that you are not running anymore because you already are what you want to become. What you are searching for is already there in the here and the now. 

Your peace, your happiness, your solidity, your freedom are available in every step. Aimlessness means you should stop, you should not run anymore. If you think of getting peace and freedom, peace and freedom are right here, right now. The belief that peace and freedom are somewhere else is an error. That is why every step you take should be able to bring you to the place where freedom and solidity exist. Freedom and solidity are the grounds of true happiness. Without solidity, no happiness is possible; without freedom, no happiness is possible. That’s why every step can generate stability, solidity. Every step can generate the energy of freedom. If you practice walking correctly, then the energy of freedom and solidity can be generated in every step. Happiness is right there, in every step. 

Another person watching you walk is able to see whether your steps have the elements of solidity and freedom. But you don’t need him to tell you; you know very well whether the step you take has the elements of solidity and freedom. You are walking but you have already arrived with every step, and walking like that is your daily practice. Arrival is achieved in every step. It would be nice to send Thay a postcard with the inscription, “Thay, I have arrived.” It will make him happy. “I have arrived, I don’t run anymore.” 

The habit of running has become very strong. It is a collective habit, a collective energy. Mentally, you find it normal to run. But it’s not normal, because if you continue to run like that, happiness will not be possible, peace will not be possible. We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

Freedom from Afflictions

The Buddha and his monks did not have a lot to consume. They did not have a bank account. They did not own big buildings and houses. Each monk was supposed to have only three robes, one begging bowl, and one water filter, which they carried with them. The monks and the nuns of our time try their best to follow this example.

If you want to become a monk or a nun, you should know that a monk or a nun should not have a personal bank account. No one in the Deer Park Monastery has a personal bank account. No one has a personal car. Even the robes we wear do not belong to us—they belong to the Sangha. 

If you need a robe, your Sangha will provide you with one, but that does not mean that it becomes your robe. It remains a robe of the Sangha. Even your body is not your personal property. When you become a monk or a nun, your body doesn’t belong to you as personal property. You have to take care of your body because it is part of the Sangha body. Other monks and nuns have to help take care of your body, and you have to allow them to take care of you. They can intervene in the way you eat and drink, because your body does not belong to you, it belongs to the whole Sangha—the Sangha body, Sanghakaya. You don’t own anything at all, including your body, and yet happiness is possible, freedom is possible. Happiness and freedom are easier if you don’t own many things. Usually if you don’t own anything, you are very afraid, you don’t feel any security. But the practice of a monastic goes in the opposite direction. What guarantees your well-being is not possessions but the giving away of all possessions. 

I remember when Sister Thuc Nghiem, Sister Susan, became a nun, along with others. They took everything from their pockets and they gave it to Thay, everything from coins worth thirty-five cents to the key to their car. They gave everything to Thay. To become a nun or a monk, you should give up everything. You have to donate everything before you can be accepted as an ordained novice. You are advised not to donate it to the temple where you are going to become a monk or a nun. You have to donate it to some other organization, not the temple you accept as your home.

One day Thay gave an exercise to all the monks and nuns: “Tell me of your daily happiness. List your daily happiness on a piece of paper.” Many of them filled up more than two pages. Among the things Sister Susan wrote down was, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore, even one cent.” That is true. Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. But after becoming penniless, she got a lot of liberty, a lot of freedom, and that is the foundation of happiness. That is why she wrote down, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore.” That is what she really felt. 

Many people believe that practicing as a monk is the hardest, but that is not the case. It is easy to practice as a monk or a nun. You have entrusted yourself entirely to the Sangha. You don’t have to worry about anything: food, shelter, medicine, transportation. Everyone around you is practicing walking mindfully, enjoying every step, so it would be strange if you didn’t do the same. You are naturally transported by the boat of the Sangha. Even if you don’t want to, you go anyway, in the direction of peace and freedom! You have left behind your family—your father, your mother, your friends, your job—to become a monk or a nun. Your purpose is to be free because you know that true happiness is not possible without freedom. You aspire deeply to freedom, and freedom here means freedom from afflictions. 

Of course, political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions, then political freedom does not mean anything. You are a refugee and do not have that piece of paper that allows you to go anywhere you want. The deepest desire of people is to have a piece of paper called an identity card or passport. There are those of us who waited ten, twenty, thirty years, and still didn’t get that piece of paper. They believe that when they get that piece of paper they can become free, and they can go anywhere they want. But there are also those of us who have that passport, that piece of paper, but don’t feel any happiness, and many have even committed suicide. 

Political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions—namely craving, despair, jealousy—suffering is still there within you and around you. That is why the purpose of the practice is to get free, so the Kingdom of God is available to you, so true life is possible for you in the here and the now.

We have the impression, very clear sometimes, that the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha and all its marvels are very close. In fact, everything in us and around us is a miracle. Your eyes are a miracle, your heart is a miracle, your body is a miracle, the orange you are eating is a miracle, the cloud floating in the sky is a miracle. If they do not belong to the Kingdom of God, then to what do they belong? In our busy lives we sometimes have the clear impression that the Kingdom is there, available, but since we are running all the time, thinking we do not have freedom, we cannot get into it; it is not available to us. 

I always say the Kingdom of God is available to you, but you are not available to the Kingdom. That is why we learn to breathe and to walk in such a way that we become a free person. That is the meaning of all the practice. 

To practice is not to become a Dharma teacher. A Dharma teacher is nothing at all. It does not mean to become a Sangha leader. Being a Sangha leader does not mean anything at all. What is the use of being the head of a big temple if you continue to suffer deeply? The purpose of practice is to become free, and with your freedom, happiness is possible. When you have freedom and happiness, you can help so many people. You have something to share, you have something to offer to them. 

You don’t share what you have accumulated from your Buddhist studies, because even professors of Buddhist studies may suffer deeply if their Buddhist studies haven’t helped them. Buddhist studies may be helpful, but what you need is not really Buddhist studies; what you need is freedom. 

So our happiness is the accumulation of peace. What we study, the authority we get in the Sangha or in society, the fame we get, are things that people are looking for in society. Many of them get plenty of these things, but they aren’t truly happy. Many of them commit suicide. Our way should be different. Our way is the way of freedom. 

Is it possible to be free? Looking into the person of a practitioner, whether that is a Dharma brother, a Dharma sister, or your teacher, you can see how much freedom and happiness she has. You would like to have true Dharma brothers and sisters. Sitting close to them and living close to them, you profit from their happiness and freedom, because their happiness is based on their freedom and not on anything else, like fame, authority, or power. What we profit from in a Sangha is the opportunity to do what the other people are doing—namely sitting, walking, smiling, breathing. In arriving, all are having freedom. 

The Brown Jacket: An Opportunity to Practice

What is the meaning of wearing a brown jacket? It is not to say that I am an ordained member of the Order. That’s nothing. It’s like the value of a student identity card. You got into a famous university, and it has given you an identity card. But if you don’t study, what is the use of having the identity card? Having the ID is so you can make use of the library, go to classes, and have professors. It means to study. So when you get the ordination, when you receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, when you get a jacket, that is the identity card, and that allows you to profit from the Sangha, from the teaching, from the practice. 

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

There are Dharma centers, there are monasteries, there are teachers, there are Dharma brothers and sisters who practice. Our being a member of the OI helps us to profit from all these things in order to advance on our path of freedom. As we have freedom, we can begin to make people around us happy. We know that practicing without a Sangha is difficult. That is why we try our best to set up a Sangha where we live. To be an OI member is wonderful. To be a Dharma teacher is wonderful—not because we have the title of OI membership or the title of Dharma teacher, but because we have a chance to practice. 

As an OI member, you have to organize the practice. Wherever you are, it’s your duty to set up a group of people practicing; otherwise it does not mean anything to be an OI member. An OI member is expected to organize the practice in her or his area—a group of five people, six people, ten people, twenty people—and to practice reliably on a local level and sometimes on a national level. So the advantage is that having a Sangha, you have to take care of the Sangha, and the Sangha is what supports you in your practice. Thanks to the Sangha, you have to practice. The Sangha is there to support you in your practice. So building the Sangha means building yourself. If the Sangha is there, you practice with the Sangha. So a Sangha builder can benefit. She has an opportunity to practice. 

Being a Dharma teacher is also an opportunity, because as you teach, you cannot not practice! As you teach, you have to practice in order for your teaching to have content. How can you open your mouth and give a teaching if you don’t do it? Teaching is an opportunity. Even if you are not an excellent teacher yet, being a Dharma teacher helps very much, because when you open your mouth and begin to share the Dharma, you have to practice what you are sharing. Otherwise it would look strange. It’s like a monk living with other monks, all doing walking meditation; it would look strange if that monk did not practice. Being a Sangha builder, you get the opportunity to practice; being a Dharma teacher, you get the opportunity to practice. 

Every member of the Sangha can be a favorable condition to you, whether that member is good in the practice or not so good in the practice. Each inspires you to practice. So being a Sangha builder, being an OI member, being a Dharma teacher, is a very good thing, if you know what it means. 

It would be strange if we got the precepts, the transmission, and got a jacket, but we didn’t have a Sangha to practice with. It would be exactly like getting a student ID and not going to the library or to the classes. So Sangha building is what we do, and Sangha building is the practice. Sangha building means to help each element of the Sangha to practice. You are like a gardener; you take care of every member of the Sangha. There are members who are so easy to be with and to deal with, and there are members who are so difficult to be with and to deal with. And yet, as a Sangha builder, you have to help everyone. There are members of the Sangha you can enjoy deeply. They’re so pleasant to be with. There are other members of the Sangha with whom you have to be very patient. 

Please don’t believe that every monastic or layperson in Plum Village is equally easy for Thay! That’s not the case. There are monastics who are very easy to be with and to help, but there are monastics who are so difficult. As a teacher, you may have to spend more time and energy with those who are so difficult. You may want to say no to these elements, but you need to surrender. You cannot grow into a good practitioner, you cannot grow into a good Dharma teacher, if you only want the easy things. 

Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. 

In a Sangha, it is normal to have difficult people. These difficult people are a good thing for you. They will test your capacity of Sangha building and practicing. One day you’ll be able to smile and you won’t suffer at all when that person says something not very nice to you. Your compassion has been born, and you are capable of embracing him or her within your compassion and your understanding. And you know that your practice has grown. You should be delighted when you see that what they say or do does not make you angry or upset anymore, because you have developed enough compassion and understanding. That is why we should not be tempted to eliminate the elements we think to be difficult in our Sangha.

Sangha building needs a lot of love and compassion. If you know how to handle difficult moments, you will grow as a Sangha builder, as a Dharma teacher. Thay is speaking to you out of his experience. He now has a lot more patience and compassion. His happiness has grown much greater because he has more patience and compassion. You should believe Thay in these respects. We suffer because our understanding and compassion aren’t large enough to embrace difficult people. But with the practice, your heart will grow, your understanding and compassion will grow, and you will not suffer any more. You have a lot of space, and you can give people space and time to transform. Thanks to the Sangha practicing, thanks to your model of practice, they will grow, they will transform. The transformation of difficult people is a greater success than for only pleasant, easy people. 

Love is not only enjoyment. We enjoy the presence of pleasant people, lovely people, but love is not just that. Love is a practice. Love is the practice of generating more understanding and compassion. That practice generates true love. Please always remember that love is not just a matter of enjoyment. Love is a practice. And it is that aspect of love that can bring you growth and happiness, the greatest happiness. 

There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second. Happiness, joy, peace should be every moment. Peace is every step. Happiness is every step. It’s so clear, it’s so plain, it’s so simple. 

Four Levels of Sangha Practice

[Thay writes on the board.]

Suppose I draw a circle representing my root Sangha, where I have gotten my ordination in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, where I have gotten a teacher and many Dharma brothers and sisters. I’m born from that place. The root Sangha is my spiritual birthplace, and every time I think of it I should feel joy, pure joy, and hope. That is a lovely place, that is my birthplace. I have so many brothers and sisters living there. I have many teachers living there. When I think of it I feel inspired, I feel happiness. All of us should have such a place, and we carry that place with us everywhere we go. That place is situated not just in space; it is within us. Those of us who do not carry such a place in our hearts do not have enough happiness. It’s a pleasure to go back to the root Sangha and to be there. I have my function, my role in society, but I hold my root Sangha within my heart, a source of inspiration, a source of energy for me, and around me I build a local Sangha.

I’m aware that although it is my local Sangha, it will be the root Sangha of many other people. Whether it is in Chicago, in Buffalo, in Montreal, my local Sangha will become the root Sangha for friends who come. So the root Sangha is not out there; the seed of the root Sangha in me will help make this local Sangha into a root Sangha. I am a member of the OI. I have to make it into a home for several of my friends who constitute my Sangha here. And my Sangha here reflects the image of the root Sangha there. 

In my Sangha, people know how to enjoy every step, every breath. They know how to take care of each other. They know that the purpose of the practice is to get freedom and nothing else. I build my Sangha out of love, out of my deepest desire. That is the path I undertake, the path of freedom. I devote my time, my energy to building a Sangha of brotherhood. If brotherhood is not there, happiness is not possible. The mark of an authentic Sangha is brotherhood of those who come to the Sangha because they want to have brothers and sisters in the practice of freedom. If the practice is correct, then brotherhood will grow and sustain us. Even in difficult moments, brotherhood is always there to sustain us, to help us stand firm in our practice. 

Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second.

We know that nearby there is another local Sangha, with an OI member who is doing exactly what we are doing. So weekly, we practice with our local Sangha. We organize local events such as Days of Mindfulness, short retreats, Dharma discussions, tea meditation, and walking meditation. From time to time we invite other local Sanghas to join us and create a regional activity. We combine our talents and our experience with other OI members and Sangha builders to create the regional event. Everyone can contribute, and everyone can learn a lot from activities on the regional level. 

illustration by Felicia Spahr

illustration by Felicia Spahr

Then from time to time we organize activities on a national level. You might organize at a Dharma center like Deer Park or Blue Cliff to hold national activities. And finally, there will be activities on an international level, where we meet with practitioners from all over the world. Together we share our practice and learn from one another. 

So there are four levels of practice: local, regional, national, and international. Happiness should be possible on the local level, in our daily practice. 

The Living Dharma

We recognize the suffering that is going on around us and inside of us. Our practice is not to get away from our real problems, our real difficulties, our real suffering. The practice, according to the path shown by the Buddha, is to recognize suffering as it is, to call it by its true name, and to practice in such a way that we can identify the deep causes of suffering. The division in families, the violence in school and in society—all these things have to be confronted directly with our mindfulness in order for us to see deeply the nature of suffering, of how the suffering has been made. 

Ill-being, that is the First Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is the making of ill-being. This understanding of the making of ill-being should be very clear. We have to consider every cause that has led to suffering, such as alcoholism and drugs, AIDS, violence, the coming apart of families. We have to look deeply into the nature of ill-being to see their causes. We have to call these by their true names. 

Understanding the nature of suffering is the practice, the Second Noble Truth. When understanding of the Second Noble Truth is deep, then naturally the path will emerge: the Fourth Noble Truth, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It means the birth of well-being. So with the understanding of the nature of ill-being, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being becomes apparent. The Third Noble Truth is just the cessation of ill-being. 

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It has been repeated and repeated that once the Second Noble Truth is understood, then the Fourth Noble Truth will reveal itself. That is the true Dharma. The true Dharma should be embodied by the practitioner, by the Sangha leader, by the OI member. You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

It is great happiness when someone in the Sangha embodies the living Dharma. Your Sangha may be five people, ten people, twenty people, fifty people. If there is one of you who embodies the path, the living Dharma, that’s wonderful. And everyone can look to him or her as a model for practice. Very soon the Sangha will carry the Dharma within herself. The Sangha will embody the Dharma. That is when the Sangha becomes the most convincing element, because it is a true Sangha, a living Sangha. The Buddha and the Dharma are contained in it, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. 

If you are a Sangha builder, be sure that in your Sangha there are those who can embody the living Dharma. They live in such a way that makes the Dharma apparent—the Dharma not only in cassette tapes, books, and Dharma talks, but the Dharma in the way you live your daily life. 

Training OI members does not mean to acquire a lot of Buddhist studies, although Buddhist studies are very helpful. But we want something more. When Sister Annabel offers training for OI members, she doesn’t just offer Dharma talks. Everyone participates in walking, in sitting, and in other practices. This method presents more than a set of theories; it presents the living Dharma. 

After having practiced for one year, a person might like to ask for ordination and become a member of the core community. But if during that period, she or he has had no chance to train, then the ordination ceremony is not possible, because the ordination ceremony is offered based on the training and not on the desire of someone to become a member of the core community alone. The desire is good, but it’s not enough; there needs to be training. If you are a member of the core community, it is your task to train people in your local Sangha so that they know the practice, know what the true Dharma is, and know how to apply the Dharma in their family life, in the workplace, in social life. The Dharma should be their way of life, the art of mindful living. 

Many of you may come together to discuss how to organize a regional event of seven to ten days, so OI members and aspirants for ordination can be trained. You might ask two or three sisters from the root Sangha to come and help you, or you might ask a lay Dharma teacher.

Of course, on the national level the root Sangha will be involved. There should be documents and materials for training. But the training should be done in concrete terms, so that transformation and healing is possible. In six-day retreats, we see a lot of people transform, like the one we had at the University of Massachusetts. Eight hundred and fifty people came for a retreat of six days. The quality of the retreat was very high, and people enjoyed it so much. Many reports of transformation came each day. Reconciliation was made among members of families, even with people who were not present, through telephone calls. If you have been in a retreat, you know that the presence of those of us who have a solid practice is very helpful to retreatants. 

In the retreat at the University of Massachusetts we had seventy monastics, many OI members, and many experienced practitioners. There were so many new people who had come to a retreat for the first time. They arrived and joined the practitioners very naturally, like a small stream of water joining a big river. The sisters and brothers who attended the retreat shared many stories of transformation. That made us very happy, because the retreat helped so many people, including many young people. 

I remember one day I invited all the children to sit on my right, around one hundred of them, from little children to teenagers. And on my left I invited all the schoolteachers to come, one hundred of them. I asked them to talk to each other about their sufferings and their expectations. It was so wonderful. 

Many people cried during the retreat because they listened to their own suffering and they learned the practical way out of suffering. They got a lot of energy because many of the good seeds inside themselves were watered. All of them wished the retreat would last longer. 

At the regional level, we get the training not only in how to help other people, but also in how to help ourselves. At the end of a retreat we should come out as a stronger practitioner, a stronger Sangha builder, a stronger and more skillful Dharma teacher. This should be organized regularly. 

Please do use your intelligence and your power of organization because Sangha building is the most noble task. The way out is Sangha. The most precious thing we can offer to our society is Sangha. Everyone has to learn to be a Sangha builder. There are many monks and nuns and laypeople who are excellent Dharma teachers. They can teach Buddhist studies very well in Vietnam and in other countries, but not many have the skill of Sangha building. 

My expectation, my desire is that every OI member will learn the art of Sangha building, because Sangha building will bring you a lot of happiness. Sangha is desperately needed in our society, a place where people can come and feel embraced and understood, and learn to see the path of emancipation. A true Sangha is what we need, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the Buddha and the living Dharma. It is the living Dharma that makes the Sangha into a true Sangha, a real refuge for us and for our society. 

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey.

The Sangha Carries Everything

An Interview with Anh-Huong Nguyen mb65-TheSangha1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mb65-TheSangha2

MB: When did you meet Thay in person?

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

mb65-TheSangha3

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

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

mb65-TheSangha4

mb65-TheSangha5

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

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

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

A True Rebirth

MB: What got you through that time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing with Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing Our Pain

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

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

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

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

Engaged Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Barbara Casey and Natascha Bruckner

PDF of this article

The Fifth Child

Supporting Thich Nhat Hanh’s Legacy

By Lorri Houston

Thich Nhat Hanh has been transforming suffering into joy around the world for many years through his mindfulness teachings and loving practice. Thay has helped millions of people transform their feelings of loneliness, despair, anger, and emptiness into joy, peace, love, and understanding.

As a practitioner, you are already a part of this transformation. You have helped by practicing mindfulness and by being an example of peace to those around you. Loving practitioners like you can bring Thay’s message to thousands more with a bequest gift to the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.

mb65-TheFifth1One of the beloved members of our fourfold Sangha recently told us that she is including the Foundation in her will. As a mother of four children, Jeanie Seward-Magee was inspired by Thay, who lovingly refers to our monastic sisters and brothers as his “spiritual children.” Jeanie considers her bequest gift for Thay’s community as a way of taking care of her fifth child, and she has chosen to bequest a portion of her estate equally among her five children.

Twenty years ago, Jeanie experienced a series of tremendous personal losses over an eighteen-month period. Her beloved father-in-law was killed in Northern Ireland; her eighteen-year-old nephew died in a car accident; a favorite uncle passed away; and her mother’s three sisters––the aunts who had cared for and loved Jeanie since she lost her own mother––also died. She was experiencing difficulties in her marriage at the time, and her eldest son had left home to go to a university three thousand miles away.

As a consequence, Jeanie experienced what she now refers to as her “biggest loss.” She had lost herself completely. Jeanie had been caring for everyone else but herself, while also trying to cope with the loss of so many loved ones. She became clinically depressed and knew she had to do something. Jeanie decided to take a year off to travel with her husband John. It was during visits to Buddhist countries, Jeanie said, that she found a great peacefulness in the people living and practicing  Buddhism.

In 1997, Jeanie went to her first retreat in the Plum Village tradition. She found herself singing “Breathing In, Breathing Out” afterwards, and it planted a seed. But Jeanie knew a lot of work would need to go on after that, and she began practicing diligently, attending more retreats, and deepening her practice.

Jeanie remembers that at a 1998 retreat, Thay encouraged the establishment of practice centers. Inspired, Jeanie and John started the Vancouver Mindfulness Practice Center. Subsequently, Jeanie established a mindfulness community in Bermuda (where she lived for seven years), and spent summers at Plum Village, assisting with children’s programs. She worked as the lead volunteer of the steering committee for Thay’s Vancouver retreat in 2011.

In 2000, Jeanie was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and she received the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma teacher in March 2012. Last year, Jeanie volunteered for Thay’s North America tour and lent a helping hand with everything from staffing the Foundation tables to washing pots! Being of service and taking care of others remains deeply meaningful to Jeanie; however, through Thay’s teachings and in deepening her own mindfulness practice, Jeanie has learned to include taking care of herself, too. Her aspiration when ordained was to teach other women the importance of taking care of themselves fi so that they are able to help others. The practice has brought Jeanie immeasurable joy, and she is returning it tenfold to our beloved community.

Lorri Houston, True Tao Garden, serves as the Community Liaison for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.

If you would like further information, visit www.ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org or email info@ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org

YOUR LEGACY

Please consider leaving a lasting, meaningful gift in your estate plans to continue sharing our practice with the world. The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation would be happy to be of service to help honor your legacy of compassion. Contact us if you would like further information. If you have already included the Foundation in your bequest, please let us know so that we may have an opportunity to express our gratitude and ensure that your gift intentions are honored. Thank you for your beautiful practice.

“Late last year I was getting ready for an extended trip and decided to set up a trust for my business and also revise my will. Thay’s message has had such a profound impact on my life, and the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation is providing much-needed resources to leverage his teachings, so I named it as a beneficiary in my will.” – Spence Davis

“Practicing in the Plum Village tradition has brought a deep sense of well-being and joy into my life. To contribute to ensuring that this practice tradition continues beautifully in the future,  and to honor Thay’s seventy-one years of extraordinary service, I decided to include the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation in my will. It makes me smile to know my material resources will continue working for peace after I pass.” --Laurie Brewer

“Making a provision now to leave a legacy to the Foundation makes wonderful sense, to support Thay’s children of the future.” --Jeanie Seward-Magee

PDF of this article

Fierce Compassion

By Cheri Maples mb52-Fierce1

Cheri Maples received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and became a Dharma teacher on January 9, 2008 at Plum Village. Here is part of the Dharma talk she gave to the Sangha that day.

Since I was very young, I have had a passion for justice, which led to my work as a police officer and my work in other parts of the criminal justice system. However, I began working for social justice, not from a peaceful place, but from the place of an angry rebel. Looking back, I realize that fighting for social justice in various forms was one of the fuels I used to keep the unconscious habit seeds of anger burning strongly. As a result, the unskillful behaviors I engaged in created some harm in my personal and work relationships.

mb52-Fierce2

I attended my first retreat with Thay in 1991. That retreat started the beginning of the mindfulness journey I have been on ever since. I have lots of habit energy and karma to transform, so this lifelong journey, while not a speedy one, has been and will continue to be a journey characterized by constancy and right aspiration.

For me, the path of mindfulness continues to be about waking up to the mystery that is right here in the present moment. Although there continue to be painful experiences and cycles in my life, I get increasingly frequent and reassuring glimpses of my vastness and my interconnection with everybody and everything in the universe.

As my practice has progressed, I have begun to understand that working for peace and justice is a journey of gentle honesty and a process of learning how to be present so that every interaction with another person is an opportunity for authenticity and understanding.

I was such an unlikely candidate for this path that I consider finding my way to it nothing short of a miracle. Today, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I have internalized about Thay’s teachings.

Suffering as Compost

First, I have learned that our personal suffering is the richest compost of our practice.

I experienced much pain in my relationship to my parents as a child, in my relationship to my children as a parent, and in my other intimate relationships. I have learned how to use this pain to understand more about what it is to be human.

I now understand that blame has often been a barrier I erected not to take responsibility for my own emotions. As I learn more about how to understand and frame my own suffering, I continue to see my own preciousness and that of others. I have learned that imperfection is not a thing to be avoided or blamed on others and that the very things that make me feel so very unlovable, all those defects I tried so hard to hide, are precisely what I have to offer others.

I have learned to remind myself that I need to stop relating to what I would like to fix in myself and replace the seeds of project mentality with loving kindness and unconditional friendship with myself and others. It’s helpful to remember that what I am doing is unlocking a softness that is in me and letting it spread in order to soften the sharp edges of self-criticism and complaint.

The Path of True Redemption

Second, I have learned that the truth is many-sided and can be approached from multiple perspectives, and that it is important to develop a deep sense of openness.

I see multiple doors to the Dharma around me every day and understand that different people enter through different doors. To me, any door that helps people lead a more ethical and compassionate life is a legitimate Dharma door. My challenge as a Dharma teacher is to find and invite people through the Dharma doors that they can relate to by translating Thay’s teachings into a language they can understand. Of course, a major focus of mine will be bringing Thay’s teachings to those who work in the criminal justice system because I understand not only their language and fears, but also the injustices committed when people abuse the trust and state authority bestowed upon them.

I hope I can help people to understand the difference between fear and faith, between doing the right thing and righteousness, between action and compulsion. I hope I can help them internalize Thay’s teaching that when we stop seeing ourselves solely as victims or oppressors, we can develop a sense of forgiveness for ourselves and others that leads to true redemption. And, in finding their way, I hope I can encourage people to think enough of themselves to claim the right to question what is offered, to investigate what they are being told, to trust their own experiences, and allow others to do the same.

In finding my own middle way between action and compulsion, I try to remind myself that although my spiritual practice requires me to take action, it should not be one more thing to judge myself about or be compulsive about. In every major step along my own path, first in receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, then in receiving the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and now being made a Dharma teacher, I have gone through what I call an “I’m not worthy crisis.” When I really get scared that I am not worthy, my partner will say to me, “Do you trust Thay?” I say, “Of course. I trust Thay with all my heart.” She says, ”Then, trust him not to make a mistake. Get out of the way and let the Buddha be the Dharma teacher.”

I do trust that the process of becoming a Dharma teacher will work in a similar manner as the process of receiving the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The trainings and the possibilities contained within the trainings work on me as I work on them. As my understanding and practice deepens, old habit seeds and energies are transformed as new seeds get watered by living up to the possibilities of the path.

So I have decided that the purpose of being a Dharma teacher is no different than the purpose of any student on the path. The purpose is not to do it right but to reside in the joy and possibilities provided by the opportunity to commit more deeply to the Dharma and reap the bountiful harvest that this possibility offers.

In finding my way between fear and faith, I have learned that faith is about discovering the existence of an ultimate dimension and learning to live with heart. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart and letting the world tickle your heart with the wonders of the present moment and your relationships with others. It comes from being willing to open up, touching your own vulnerability, and having the courage to share your heart with others. This is the path to the authentic relationships that are the litmus test of spirituality.

In discovering the difference between doing the right thing and righteousness, I have learned that dogma and righteousness are subtle forms of violence. In contrast, faith enables us to meet life with a sense of curiosity rather than a definition of reality.

One of Thay’s greatest gifts to me was the teaching that if we truly understand our interconnection with others, we can all find a victim and an oppressor within ourselves. I can look back and find painful examples of my own mistakes and unintentional abuses of power. Likewise, I can find painful examples of my own victimization. When we learn to acknowledge and make friends with these parts of ourselves, it enables us not to become one or the other.

mb52-Fierce3

As long as we see ourselves solely as victims, our anger will fuel a dangerous sense of entitlement that can be just as destructive as the oppressor’s abuse of power. When I see all the ways that I have been a perpetrator and a victim, I can relax. I can hold more paradoxes, more dichotomies. I can also let go of my guilt about the past and understand that redemption lies in the correction of the course of my mistakes. I can continually begin anew by taking the opportunity the present moment puts in front of me to make a different choice.

mb52-Fierce4

An Unwavering Commitment to Non-Violence

Third, I have deeply internalized Thay’s teaching that it is impossible to end violence with violence.

I believe this is the biggest challenge and the most important lesson for all those working in the criminal justice system. Working to provide public safety means working for peace and justice, and requires an unwavering personal commitment to non-violence in our own lives and in our environments and systems. This requires a personal aspiration not to contribute to violence or aggression in any form. If the personal is indeed political, the most radical political act of all is to learn how to live in more harmony with everyone and everything.

When we understand our interdependence deeply, we understand that when we care for ourselves, we care for others; and when we care for others, we care for ourselves. This understanding enables us to effectively work for peace in ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Unfortunately, I work in a criminal justice system based on the premise that punishment of the perpetrator will heal the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator. Of course, people insistent on punishing each other usually become allied in making each other suffer more.

I have observed that it is not the wrongdoer’s repentance that creates forgiveness, but the victim’s forgiveness that creates repentance. This is where forgiveness enters the realm of spirit and paradox. Because it becomes a mysterious gift offered to one who does not necessarily merit it, it becomes the essence of compassion itself.

In conclusion, my own path has taught me how important it is to be present to my own life, to trust myself and help others to do the same, to allow my heart to be torn open in love rather than protected in fear. I have learned to keep asking myself if what I am doing is making me kinder, more understanding, and more loving.

Cheri Maples, True Jewel, worked in the criminal justice profession for twenty-five years; she is also a licensed attorney and clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Cheri practices with SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin.

PDF of this article

On the Way Home

By Eileen Kiera mb60-OnTheWay1

In the early years of Plum Village there were only two hamlets—Upper Hamlet at Thenac and Lower Hamlet at Meyrac. The hamlets were open for visitors one month each summer from mid-July to mid-August. A few dozen Westerners from all over Europe and North America stayed in Upper Hamlet, and Vietnamese émigrés stayed in Lower Hamlet. Thay gave several Dharma talks each week at one of the hamlets, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, and sometimes in Vietnamese. We walked back and forth between the hamlets to her Thay speak and to visit with our friends in the other hamlet.

One day, I was late for the Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet, and was hurrying along the road when I saw a small yellow Renault, clearly a Plum Village car, come trundling along. I waved at the car, somewhat frantically, and stood in the road in such a way that the driver couldn’t miss seeing me. I really wanted a ride. I really didn’t want to miss the Dharma talk, and my gestures made clear that I needed the car to stop and pick me up. The car came to a halt and I saw it was Sister Chan Khong (Chi Phuong in those days) driving Thay up for the Dharma talk. Embarrassed by the demanding and impatient demeanor I had shown in flagging them down, I nevertheless crawled into the back seat and offered apologies. Sister Chan Khong gently admonished me, saying something to the effect that of course they would stop and pick me up, and then she turned around to drive us up the hill.

mb60-OnTheWay2

The ride was short, maybe fifteen minutes, and we passed the time in silence. But it was a silence that was infused with a feeling of love. It was palpable. The air of love was thick enough to touch, and I was humbled by it. I knew this love wasn’t about me, particularly, but that I was included in it. Eventually, after many more years of practice, I came to realize that I and all beings were always embraced by this love. As I sat in the back seat, quiet and at peace, I rested in the warmth of love. The Dharma talk had touched me with no words at all.

Carrying the Light

I carried Thay’s teaching with me whenever I left Plum Village and came back to my home in Western Washington. Once again I entered the life of a householder, with job, husband, daughter, and many friends. Sometimes I would long for the love and ease I felt when I was at Plum Village. I knew it was in me, as well as at Plum Village, so my practice became to create within my family and community the peace and love Thay had shown me. And what a sweet practice it was. It began with being aware of what I was thinking and feeling throughout the day. When my mind was distracted, I would let go and come back to my breathing, particularly when I saw that my thoughts and feelings were creating harm or suffering within me. I knew that if I held on to these thoughts I would believe them true, and from them I would create suffering around me. I saw all of this clearly, over and over again.

One time, when my two-year-old daughter fell from a countertop onto the floor, I was flooded with anger. I’d frequently lifted her down from high places and told her of the dangers of climbing on things, but she persisted when my back was turned. After she fell, she was scared and crying, but initially my anger prevented me from going to her. When I felt the heat of my anger, I turned my awareness to my breath, and took a few conscious breaths to see her with fresh eyes, remembering how I’d felt when I saw her for the first time. Instantly my anger melted. I was filled with love for her. Instinctively I went to her and cradled her in my lap. After a few more sobs, she jumped out of my lap, smiled, and said in her baby-talk way, “That why no climb, Mama.” I never had to rescue her again from high places.

In 1990, Thay transmitted the lamp to me and asked me to begin teaching. In spite of feeling unworthy, I felt honored to accept the transmission and to carry the light of Buddha’s lamp forward in North America. But in my mind, I wasn’t a teacher unless I had students. So when I came home from Plum Village that summer, I waited to see if people would invite me to teach. And they did, so along with students came the new practice of sharing the Dharma by words and activity. My model was Thay. Through the many years of teaching, I still look to him whenever there is a difficulty in Sangha or with Sangha members. I always ask myself, “What would Thay do here?” And I pull up all of his patience, his love, his gentle spirit and rest there for a while. Then, when I am solid, I step forth with the Thay who lives within me, in honor of Thay, who continues to show me the way in this life.

mb60-OnTheWay3Eileen Kiera, True Lamp meets regularly with Sanghas in her area and has led retreats throughout the United States, in Europe, Australia, Canada, and Mexico. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp community, a rural lay practice center in northwestern Washington state, where she lives with her husband and community of practice.

PDF of this article

Unconditional Acceptance

An Interview with Joanne Friday 

mb62-Unconditional1

mb62-Unconditional2Joanne Friday is a Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing. In 2003, she received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh, her teacher for twenty years. Joanne leads meditation retreats for Sanghas and groups throughout the Northeastern

U.S. She lives in Rhode Island, where she is the guiding teacher for the six Sanghas that comprise the Rhode Island Community of Mindfulness. She is also an Associate Chaplain at the University of Rhode Island. Joanne was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on October 11, 2012 for this issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

 

Mindfulness Bell: October 11, is Thay’s Continuation Day. How do you see his continuation in yourself?

Joanne Friday: My ordination as a Dharma teacher was a clear example of how I see transmission and continuation. I had no thoughts of ever being a Dharma Teacher; it never had entered my mind. One day I received a letter from Plum Village inviting me to receive Lamp Transmission. After opening the letter, I went through feeling completely unworthy, and I thought, “Oh, they’ve made a mistake—my name was switched with some other person.” I really was stunned. After two minutes or so, it was as if I was struck by a bolt of lightning and I thought, “This has nothing to do with you.”

Since my first encounter with Thay, I have felt him to be very alive in every cell of my body. And the transmissions from my parents, from everybody who’s ever loved me, everybody who’s ever cared for me, all of them are alive in every cell in my body. So to say that is not good enough is an insult to all of them. This was not about my little egocentric self; it had nothing to do with me.

To prepare for the ceremony, my normal habit energy would have been to try to come up with the perfect Dharma talk, and have everybody think I knew everything about the Dharma. Instead, I could not even think about it and I had not one ounce of anxiety in those three months before the Lamp Transmission. At that time, as part of the ceremony, each new Dharma teacher gave a short talk after their ordination. Walking to take my seat, I still had no idea what I would talk about, and yet I felt nothing but pure joy, and I thought, “I wonder what I’m going to say.” So I told them the story I am telling you.

I said, “Thay gives a beautiful teaching on no-birth, no-death, using a sheet of paper. I received another deep teaching on non-self from a sheet of paper. I got this letter asking me to be here and this was my experience—I realized it is all about my non-self elements; it has nothing to do with me. It’s been so much fun; it feels so free. This is really amazing. I have almost no self-confidence, but I have total confidence in my non-self elements; clearly I do because I haven’t been the least bit anxious, and so I think I am experiencing non-self confidence.” And Thay was laughing and everyone was laughing.

And that has been the truth ever since. If I get invited to share the Dharma, I do my best to stay out of it. My goal in sharing the Dharma is to transmit what was transmitted to me and leave my little self out of it. And I don’t get tired. If my ego starts getting involved, I get tired, and so it is a good indicator that I need to go do some walking meditation and get out of the way.

MB: I went to your Day of Mindfulness in Portola Valley, California. I remember that you talked about your own life and challenges you’ve had. You are transmitting what you’ve learned and you’re getting out of your own way, and yet you are talking about your own life. I’m wondering about the balance between those two.

JF: I don’t think any of us experience things that are unique to us. When we experience suffering, the story line may be different for each of us, but suffering is suffering and that is universal. I think that’s where we can really understand interbeing. I share my own experience because the Buddha said to trust your wisdom, trust your experience. When I speak from my own experience, I can speak with conviction, because it’s true for me. Hopefully it will be something that others can put to use, too. My interest in Buddhism is how we apply the practices that the Buddha gave us to the suffering we encounter in our daily life, to transform it and become free.

Gentle Diligence

MB: Would you be willing to give an example from your own life of how you have used the practice to get free?

JF: Probably the most profound example was getting a diagnosis of cancer. My mother was dying at the time and she had been in the hospital. I had just signed her over into hospice care, and I went downstairs to the waiting room and got a call saying I had cancer. I remember feeling as if ice water were running over my body. Real fear. But within a minute, I breathed, I sent metta to myself, and then the question came to my mind: “Are you sure?” As soon as I asked the question, I felt peace, because I realized, “I have no idea. It could be almost nothing; it could be death. I don’t know.” So for me to get all wound up about it would really not make sense. I realized, “I need to find out, and that’s it. And right now, I need to be present for my mother in the hospital.”

The first thing was breathing. The breath was right there as the default position. The second was metta. I have practiced metta for twenty years, so it was right there. And then to ask, “Are you sure?” That takes me right to nonattachment to view and “don’t know mind.” And in “don’t know mind,” there’s every possibility. It’s such a wonderful place.

And then I thought, “Wow, I’ve been practicing the Five Remembrances* for years.” I have been aware of impermanence, but never as aware as when I got that phone call. The next thing that came to mind was: “If you have limited minutes to be on the planet”—later I thought it was really comical to think in terms of “if ” —“how many of them do you want to spend in fear and speculation?” And the answer was, “Zero.”

So that, to me, is a clear and concise example of how the practice can be applied in daily life. And the most beautiful thing to me was, going through a year of cancer treatment, I probably didn’t spend more than maybe a half an hour in the entire year in fear and speculation. I told my husband, “You know, the real tragedy wouldn’t be to die of cancer; to me, the real tragedy would be to have wasted this time.” To not have enjoyed the time I did have.

That was reinforced after the first chemotherapy infusion I had. I was treated in New York City, and as we walked out of the hospital, a bus came around the corner cutting in too close, and my husband pulled my arm and yanked me back from it. He said, “Be careful, they’re driving like crazy people.” He looked at me, I looked at him, and we just cracked up. I said, “Wouldn’t that be ironic, here we are, we’re convinced I’m going to drop dead of cancer, and instead we get hit by a cross-town bus.” [Laughs.] It was such a beautiful teaching, because we have no clue when the time will come or how it’s going to happen. Becoming more comfortable with impermanence is such a relief. It really frees us up to enjoy life.

MB: That is an incredible example. Thank you. You used all these potent tools one after the other in a very short period of time.

JF: It’s just following directions. Thay offers the practice in a very gentle way, instructing us to be gentle with ourselves, to not do violence to ourselves. At that point I had been practicing for about seventeen years, and I felt like I had a very laid-back practice. I felt like I was probably not strengthening my mind as much as I could, my practice was not as rigorous as other practices, and I was not sure if it was as solid as it needed to be. But clearly the benefits of gentle diligence over time were there because there had been absolute transformation at the base. I can usually only see progress in my practice by noticing that I am responding very differently to a situation than I would have reacted ten years earlier. In this instance, I would have been completely tied up in knots; I would have been a nervous wreck. I would have been trying to figure out what was going to happen and completely caught in fear and speculation. I know that my mind had been trained in that way.

But the training in gentle diligence, paying attention in everyday life, and taking good care of strong emotions when they come up really paid off. When attachment to views arose, it was such a gift to be able to look clearly, to not get caught in the surface of things. And to just do that over and over and over and over and over and over. If we practice like that, when the going gets tough, the practice is there for us.

mb62-Unconditional3

MB: That’s a beautiful example of how we can train our minds without effort, without stress.

 JF: We don’t have to create a war with ourselves. There doesn’t have to be any judgment, criticism, any of that. It’s just to notice, and to do the practice, then to notice. To strengthen our mindfulness and concentration.

mb62-Unconditional4

 

Healing the Inner Child

MB: In the book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, you tell a wonderful story of transforming your anger to compassion by connecting with your inner three-year-old. Do you connect with your inner child on a regular basis? What have you found helpful in keeping her nourished and happy?

JF: When I went to my first retreat, I signed up for a consultation with Thay Phap An. I was brain-injured from a car accident and I was in a state of real confusion. I wanted to talk about a woman who had been very angry with me, so I said, “There’s this woman, she’s a really angry person.” And he said, “That’s not correct.” He said that whenever we assign a label to anyone or anything, it’s incorrect, because everything is impermanent. So we’re assigning a permanent status to something that is inherently impermanent. That has been a wonderful teaching; I use it all the time.

And then he went on to teach me about healing the past in the present moment and doing Beginning Anew with myself. It was such a training in the ability not to hold on to resentment and anger. And to look at myself and ask, “What is this person bringing up in me?”

I’ve been doing the practice of healing the inner child ever since. There’s hardly been a day that I haven’t used it, in one way or another. When I’m experiencing a strong emotion, I simply notice and embrace that feeling, breathe with it, and hold it. For me, just being with that feeling will usually bring a memory back of another time and place. It might have been last week or it might have been when I was three.

It inevitably takes me to times and places when I needed love and compassion and I didn’t get it. So my job is to provide that for myself. I can show that child a lot of love and compassion. My main goal in the practice is to bring the child into the present moment, to let her know the good news that she is no longer three. We’re adults now, and if people are yelling, we can leave. We don’t have to be there.

Many people do not access memories from the past when they embrace difficult emotions. If that is the case, you can breathe and send metta to yourself in the present because that child is still alive inside of you. A lot of healing can happen by doing this practice—accepting what is in the present moment and accepting ourselves unconditionally.

MB: How is your inner child today?

JF: I think that she is doing better and better, every day in every way. [Laughs.] I find there are fewer times that I need to spend a lot of time with her. Mostly now it’s a recognition, like Thay says about his anger: “Hello anger, my little friend, you’re back again.”

About fifteen years ago, my husband Richard and I were at a retreat and we were practicing noble silence. He gave me a note that said, “I called home, and so-and-so left a message. She wanted to borrow this thing of yours, so I called her back and said sure.” I was over-the-top enraged. And I was surprised at how angry I was, because I thought, “If I had retrieved the phone call, I would have called her back and said sure.” So I knew there was more to this than was meeting my eye.

mb62-Unconditional5

Luckily we were in noble silence, so I couldn’t say a word. I sat myself down, did my breathing, did my metta for myself, and then I invited that feeling up and what I found was [a feeling of] not being considered. When I invited the rage up in me, I was transported back to being eleven years old. At that time, I had a surrogate father. This guy who lived upstairs fell in love with me when I was a month old, and he was a blessing in my life. He showed me unconditional love and was prominent in my life until I was eleven, when he died of a heart attack.

Sitting on my cushion, when I got in touch with the rage, I was transported right back to the conversation when my parents told me he had died. They said he had the heart attack two days before, but they didn’t want to tell me because they didn’t want me to see him with tubes in his body; they thought that would be too upsetting for an eleven-year-old. And now he was dead. I realized that I had completely buried that memory. If you had asked me a week before, I would have had no recollection of that conversation ever happening.  As I was sitting, I realized that to be told someone is dead when you are eleven—there’s nothing you can do about that. So I surmise that I was enraged because they had made a decision concerning the most important thing in my life and nobody asked me.

When I went back to revisit the conversation as an adult, I could give that eleven-year-old all the understanding and love and compassion that she needed, that she didn’t get at that time. I could validate her rage at not being considered. And I could see my parents as only trying to be good parents. It was all with the best of intentions that they created the situation. To see it all with no criticism, no blame for any of us, just understanding and compassion.

Thay says mindfulness leads to concentration, concentration to insight, insight to understanding, understanding to compassion. That’s how it works. I find that to be true every time. When I get to that place of understanding, there’s nothing but compassion. I wind up feeling compassion for myself, feeling compassion for my parents, and feeling compassion for my husband, because I look at him and think, poor guy, there he is trying to do something wonderful and here sits his wife, who is enraged. He knows nothing about this baggage I’m carrying.

MB: That story took place in the context of a retreat, where you were in noble silence and you were able to go deeply and work through these things internally. I’m curious how you would advise people who are in the midst of a busy life, when a trigger like this comes up, but it’s not in the context of a retreat.

JF: Most of the retreats I offer are in silence because of my experiences of this kind of healing. To be able to practice in silence helps me develop my mindfulness and concentration. And it helps me to hard-wire in the practice, so that when I am in the rest of my life, where there is not noble silence and most people aren’t practicing at all, that gentle diligence kicks in; it becomes a default. I can recognize that I have been overreacting to not being considered for over forty years. The blessing is that I don’t have to be controlled by it. I don’t have to react blindly out of ignorance to what I’m carrying around.

Once I know that there’s a block of suffering in me that can be watered and brought to the surface, I can recognize it for what it is and I don’t have to react to it. If I’m in my daily life and somebody does or says something that’s hurtful, I make a note of it. I’ll try to say, “For future reference, the next sit I do, I need to spend some time with that.” I just make an appointment with myself to take good care of that.

The more that I do it, it doesn’t take long at all. It’s not like I have to sit for three hours and work with it. It’s a very quick recognition now, for the most part, and I can go do walking meditation. If I can do a ten- or fifteen-minute walk, I can calm myself, get the mud to settle out of the water, then I know what to do and what not to do.

Making Good Use of Suffering

MB: What experiences in your own life have been most valuable in serving you as a Dharma teacher?

JF: I would say suffering. There’s nothing quite like it to help us to wake up. Thay says that he wouldn’t want a nirvana without suffering, and I can see why. The brain injury from a car accident is what brought me to the path, so suffering got me here. I look back at any suffering I’ve had in my life and ask: “What did it have to teach me? Did I benefit? Did I make good use of it?” If I didn’t make good use of the suffering, then it’s a waste of time.

MB: In Reconciliation, you write that you “discovered that mindful speech isn’t just choosing the right words to say—it’s transforming the ill will in my heart.” What guidance would you give to someone who wants to transform the ill will in his or her heart?

JF: One of the things I’ve been practicing with a lot is looking at stories that I’ve been told about myself or that I make up about myself and others. And getting caught in the surface of those stories and believing them. When someone does or says something hurtful, Thay invites us to look deeply, to not get caught in the surface of things, and that’s what leads to understanding, and with that comes compassion; it’s unavoidable. When I can understand somebody else’s suffering, any ill will is transformed into compassion.

When I’ve been able to cut through the story I’ve been telling myself, I feel almost childlike. I can simply show up without a story, show up not needing to make up one, and experience whatever is happening. It’s so delightful. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I try my best to show up, pay attention, and respond skillfully to life.

MB: It seems like it’s about you, but not about you—like you’ve made yourself into a fertile ground for these seeds to grow, but anyone can do that.

JF: Anybody can. If I can do it, anybody can. I’m the perfect example. I feel so blessed to have come into contact with the Dharma as transmitted through Thay in this lifetime. He has spent his life looking deeply and doing everything possible to make the Buddha’s teachings understandable—even to me. He says he has a fire in his heart. I feel that that fire is what he transmits to us. We are the luckiest people in the world and this is a very happy continuation day for all of us.

*    The Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

 

Edited by Barbara Casey

PDF of this article

More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder  mb61-MoreJoy1

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

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

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

mb61-MoreJoy2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

PDF of this article