Estes Park Retreat 2009

Letter from the Editor

mb52-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha, As you may know, our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was hospitalized after the retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts for treatment of a chronic lung infection. Thay has recovered well and as I write this he is teaching at the retreat in Deer Park Monastery. But he was unable to attend the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, eerily titled “One Buddha Is Not Enough.”

“Dear friends,” Thay wrote from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, “if you look deeply enough, you will see me in the retreat, walking with you, sitting with you, breathing with you. I feel clearly that I am in you and you are in me.” The nine hundred participants, after feeling everything from dismay, frustration and anger to sadness and grief, experienced the truth of Thay’s words . Everyone’s practice deepened tremendously. (I was pleased to learn later that very few people actually left the retreat.)

By the end of the retreat, several long-time practitioners — including monastics — told me that this was their best retreat ever. Here in Colorado we have been fortunate to have had two monastic retreats, in the summers when Thay did not come to the US. So we know what incredible Dharma teachers we have among our monks and nuns. This was one of the blessings of this retreat — we had the great fortune to hear some voices we normally do not get to hear. Thay Phap Niem gave a powerful Dharma talk on no birth no death; Sister Chau Nghiem, Thay Phap Dung, Sister Tue Nghiem and others gave memorable talks; and a panel of lay and monastic Dharma teachers did a masterful job of answering questions.

Thay continued in his letter: “In this retreat, you will witness to the talent of the Sangha: you will see that Thay is already well continued by the Sangha, and the presence of the Sangha carries Thay’s presence. Please let me walk with your strong feet, breathe with your breathing lungs and smile with your beautiful smiles.” This is our summons to carry Thay with us always. I believe that our Sangha is vibrant and powerful enough to ensure Thay’s continuation, a continuation in beauty. The Colorado retreat was proof of that.

Please send us your stories and photos from the U.S. tour as soon as you can; we will feature some of them in our upcoming issues.

However, I am sad to say that I will no longer be editor of the Bell. I am moving on to other adventures, starting with a course in storytelling at Emerson College in England. Editing our Sangha’s journal has been a joy and a privilege.

Allow me to express my deep gratitude to all who contribute to making this magazine a reality: our talented staff, David Percival, Helena Powell, Brother Phap Dung, Sister Annabel; and wonderful volunteers Barbara, Matt, Judith, Elaine, Brandy, Richard, Peggy. It has been an honor to work with you. And to all who have participated these past four years — writers, photographers, subscribers, donors — I bow to you all. It’s been a delightful journey. I will miss you very much, but I will continue to enjoy you through these pages — and you may see one of my stories now and again.

May you be well in body and spirit. May you meet adversity with courage and grace. May you rejoice in the love that surrounds you always.

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Letter from the Editor

mb53-LetterFromEditorDear Thay, dear Sangha, It is with deep gratitude that I write this letter to you. Gratitude for the honor of editing this much-loved magazine; gratitude for every writer, artist, volunteer, and supporter who brought this issue to life; gratitude for your hands holding these pages. I’m indebted to Sister Annabel, the senior editor, for her discerning wisdom; to each prior editor whose mindful steps created a path to follow; and to Janelle Combelic, whose patient assistance was a clear and guiding light.

Our local Sangha, the Heart Sangha in Santa Cruz, California, recently hosted a weekend retreat, led by Dharma Teacher Wendy Johnson and writer Maxine Hong Kingston. One of the themes was “moving from war to gratitude.” Maxine told us about a group of young soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and formed a writers’ group. “They had faith that writing would bring them home,” she explained. She showed us a small book of poetry with a rough, scratchy cover, which the veterans had created. They’d cut up and boiled their uniforms and used the remains to make book covers. As a Sangha, they transformed their suffering: their war clothes became book jackets; their pain became poems.

This issue offers powerful stories about the transformation of suffering into love. Heartfelt stories in “Death and Dying” show us how mindfulness, kindness, and Sangha building can nourish us through the uncertain terrain of loss. “Mindful Living” includes stories about transforming busyness and distraction into mindfulness at home and at work.

“Miracle of Sangha” offers stories from the Estes Park, Colorado retreat. This retreat was just one of several in the 2009 U.S. Tour. From Massachusetts to Colorado, and California to New York, practitioners gathered by the thousands, strengthening the collective energy of mindfulness. The Estes Park retreat was unique—the largest retreat ever conducted by monastics without Thay’s physical presence, it demonstrated that each of us is a continuation of our teacher, and that many beautiful flowers can blossom when “over one thousand Thays” practice joyfully together.

“Embracing Vietnam” calls our attention to the young monastics who were forcibly removed from Bat Nha Monastery in September 2009. Dear friends, please do everything you can to support our Vietnamese sisters and brothers. Look at page 18 to find out how to help. And enjoy the essay about Maitreya Fonds, a German organization enriching children’s education in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us he wouldn’t want to live in a place where there is no suffering, because there would be no compassion. The Mindfulness Trainings encourage us to spend time with beings who are suffering, “so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.” May the stories in this issue show us ways to transform war into gratitude, suffering into peace. May they help our hearts to open and to love.

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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The Miracle of Sangha

Dear Brothers, Sisters, and Friends, A miracle took place at the One Buddha Is Not Enough retreat in Estes Park, Colorado. Each person at the retreat experienced that he or she was surrounded by Thich Nhat Hanhs (Thays) and that he or she was indeed also Thay. In fact, there were over one thou- sand Thays practicing deeply and joyfully together. The retreat came to be affectionately known as “One Thay Is Not Enough.”

It all started when Thay was unable to attend the retreat. He was diagnosed with a severe lung infection while conducting a retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, and he was admit- ted to Massachusetts General Hospital for a two-week course of IV antibiotics. Seven monastic brothers and sisters stayed with Thay; the rest of us, over sixty people, went to the YMCA of the Rockies to prepare for the retreat as it had been planned. It was the largest retreat that the monastics would conduct without Thay’s physical presence.

Even though the retreats on this teaching tour were advertised as led by both Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Sangha, all of the retreatants expected to be with Thay. The monastic brothers and sisters had several meetings to discuss the best way to support our teacher and our retreatants. The practices of deep listening and loving speech were followed more earnestly than ever. Unified by the urgency of the situation and by our love for Thay and for our lay brothers and sisters, we experienced a profound solidarity. Every person stepped up to take on responsibilities, even those who might have hesitated in other circumstances. We realized that the success of the retreat depended on each one of us contributing our best.

On the night of orientation, all of the monks and nuns ar- rived early. Without planning it, when we got on the stage, we stood closely together as one unit. Those of us who were present will always remember that moment. The Sangha was invited to listen to three sounds of the bell and touch a spacious and calm place within, so that Thay’s love letter could be received. As it was reported later, many people became immediately alarmed: “Love letter! What?” “Where is Thay? Is he O.K.?” “Where is Thich Nhat Hanh? Why is he not on stage?”

Brother Phap Khoi read Thay’s letter slowly and clearly. “Boston, August 21, 2009.... My dear friends, I am writing to you from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I know the Sangha has manifested today in Estes Park. I miss the Retreat. I miss the beautiful setting of the Retreat. Especially I miss the Sangha, I miss you....”

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Tears were streaming down faces. One retreatant later shared that she felt a strong urge to scream at that moment, but everyone was so still, she did not dare to. People said that they felt over- whelmed by disappointment, worry, and grief; but as Noble Silence started immediately after the orientation, no one gave voice to these feelings. Instead, there was an opportunity to listen to one’s unpleasant and painful feelings and to embrace them. Leaving the meditation hall that first evening, everyone walked ever so quietly and attentively.

Many of us had to ask ourselves: did we come to a retreat to see Thay in the same way we would go to a concert to see a rock star? If the rock star did not show up, we would be entitled to a full refund. Then, should we also demand a full refund and leave the retreat, since Thay was not there?

Thay’s absence forced everyone to re-evaluate their intention for the retreat. Thay could not be looked to as the main focus, nor could he be relied on for energy and inspiration. During the next five days, the retreatants came to a decision to invest wholeheartedly in the practice. The monastic and long-term lay practitioners became Thay in the way they walked so stably, in the way they spoke so compassionately, and in the way they thought so gratefully—for Thay, for each other, and for the shared path of practice.

There were over four hundred first-time retreatants, and they, too, practiced deeply. From the early morning first activity to the late evening last activity, all were fully present. Thay was not at the retreat.Yet, Thay was everywhere. All of us experienced Thay’s presence, in ourselves and in one another. This powerful energy of our collective practice enabled everyone to look into their own past experiences with love, loss, expectation, and disappointment. By staying together as a Sangha, we broke through habitual pat- terns of avoiding and running away from pain. Transformation and healing took place in every person, monastic and lay, long-term practitioner and beginner.

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We experienced directly the immense value and strength of the Sangha. We realized that Thay and the teachings will be continued well into the future because we are a Sangha. Wherever we are, as long as we come together as a community of practice, we can generate this powerful energy of peace and healing. The miracle of Sangha manifested because each one of us took the practice to the deepest level, in which we experienced the nature of interbeing with Thay and with one another. No individual talent could have performed this miracle. It was the success of a com- munity of practitioners.

The Be-In on the last night of the retreat was truly a joyful and meaningful feast of the practice. Thay’s second letter was read at the beginning. In response to Thay’s proposal that a retreat in Colorado should be conducted every year, with or without Thay’s physical presence, we all bloomed flowers with our hands.

One teenager said he was very happy that there would be a retreat in 2010, since he could not bear the thought of having to wait for it for two years. Over seventy-three people signed up to help organize the 2010 retreat in Colorado. One person reported that after he left the YMCA, he shared with many friends about his wonderful experience at the retreat. He realized that he was saying to them, “I was at the retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh.” Indeed, we were all at the retreat with Thay in the deepest possible way.

Dear spiritual family, together we can continue our aware- ness and realization of the miracle of Sangha. Thay has suggested that we write a book about our beautiful experience at the One Buddha Is Not Enough retreat. Please send us your writings and photographs from this retreat. Already we have received many poi- gnant, enlightening letters and articles from both lay and monastic brothers and sisters. Thay has thoroughly enjoyed reading each one of them. For those of us who did not attend the retreat in Estes Park, Thay encourages us to write about our direct encounters with the miracle of Sangha in other places.

May we allow the Dharma and the Sangha to take care of us in our daily lives. May we take good care of the Dharma and the Sangha, so that all beings may receive their wonderful benefits.

Sincerely,

Brothers and Sisters of the Plum Village Sangha

Please send your writings about the YMCA retreat in Estes Park to clarity@dpmail.net, with subject line: Sister Dang Nghiem (or Sister D), re: YMCA (or Miracle of Sangha).

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Every Waking Moment

By Mariann Taigman mb53-Every1

I was so excited to be in the presence of Thay for the first time. I knew that it would be a unique and loving experience. I made a beaded pouch that I was hoping to place in Thay’s hands as a gift, in gratitude for all that he had taught me over the years and for opening his heart to all of us.

Like all of us who heard the news, I was saddened and concerned when I heard that Thay was in the hospital. However, fairly quickly, I looked at it as an opportunity to “be in the moment,” as Thay has taught us all to be. It was also a good lesson in not being attached to expectations. I decided that I would give the beaded pouch to one of the monks or nuns to give to Thay. I made a vow to myself that first night that I was going to “be in the moment” every moment during the retreat and experience it all for what it was, however it unfolded.

It was my first retreat, and I had no idea what to expect. What an amazing, wonderful, peaceful and loving journey I had the pleasure of experiencing! This retreat far surpassed anything I could have begun to imagine. It was six of the best days of my life, with the exception of the day I met my soulmate and best friend, who also happens be my husband.

Throughout the retreat, I continued to be amazed at how quiet 900 people could be. When we were all doing sitting meditation together, you could hear a pin drop. I found myself frequently gazing at the altar and the beautiful words, “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” All of us were there to help expand that statement.

We all know how challenging it is to apply the teachings to our daily life, but I am beginning to incorporate them into my work and personal life. One example was a difficult meeting that I had the other day. I work with children with special needs, and this meeting was with parents, their attorney, and the school district team. I was feeling stressed about it in the days prior to the meeting. That morning, I did a sitting meditation and a walking meditation. I practiced mindful walking as I approached the building where the meeting was to be held, and watched my breath.

The meeting started out with some friction, but then it transformed. The facilitator had a very calm demeanor. I focused on watching my breath go in and out. When it was my turn to talk, I realized that I was talking slower than I normally do and was much more thoughtful before speaking than I ever have been before. The magic of the Sangha, Thay’s teachings, and my daily practice all were contributing factors. I felt very good after leaving the meeting, and it has given me renewed hope that I will be able to apply the teachings to my every waking moment...if I just remember to be mindful...and watch my breath.

mb53-Every2Mariann Taigman is an occupational therapist who works with children with special needs. She has been following the Buddhist path for the past twenty years.

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In the Eyes of the Sangha

By Soren Kisiel mb53-InTheEyes1

“Thay…will not be coming to Colorado.” My friend’s words were carefully chosen: neutral, to lessen the blow.

Volunteering at the Order of Interbeing sign-in table, I heard those words before most people. Some of the Dharma teachers had been informed, and I found myself privy to their whispered conversations.

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My first thought was for Thay’s health. But once it had been explained to me that he was in good hands and didn’t seem to be in danger, disappointment came to me in such a rush that my head swam. I thought of my wife’s efforts, single-parenting for a week so I could be here, and of the money I’d spent to get here. I would be ordaining in the Order of Interbeing at this retreat. But without Thay? What would that mean? Could one be ordained without Thay?

A line was forming at my registration table. “If you can’t practice nonattachment here,” I whispered to myself, “where can you?” I took a few breaths, found a smile, and continued signing people in.

the morning sun brightens the mountainsides whether my heart is light or not

Thay’s letter was read to us, and the monastics forged ahead with the retreat. I decided: this retreat would be all about my practice. My disappointment began to lift. I could make the best of the opportunity by practicing fervently. I was here.

Then something happened. As the monastics began to share with us, in the Dharma talk and private hellos: there was our teacher! There was Thay, right before our eyes! His teaching, his understanding, his gentleness, so carefully transmitted to our monastic brothers and sisters. We were dazzled with how diligently they’d learned, and I was filled with gratitude for their efforts. In return we all sat a little straighter, practiced a little deeper. More people practiced mindful walking after that first Dharma talk than I’d seen at any other retreat.

Within a day or so, as we became used to seeing Thay in each monk and nun, we began to look for him in every one of us. And there he was. In each person’s eyes, in each smile, in each gentle step. His presence permeated the retreat. Something very precious was taking place. We all felt it. We discussed this in our Dharma groups. Here was interbeing, right before our eyes. Thay and the Sangha were one and the same. We and the Sangha were one and the same. Here was Thay, present with each of us, in each of us.

Suddenly I felt lucky to be at this retreat. The Sangha was crystallizing into a glittering diamond. It was developing confidence in itself, in its strength and ability to support, to carry on. How fortunate to be here for that—to be a part of this magical and precious teaching.

When I shared my feelings with Brother Phap Hai, he joked, “Oh, great. When Thay calls tonight, I’ll tell him you’re glad he’s not here.”

my brother is listening I can see myself in his eyes

When I first came to the practice eighteen years ago, I was living on my own in Sri Lanka, and the practice for me became wrapped in a sort of lonely romance. It wasn’t something I wanted to share with others; it was my own pursuit, meaningful, intimate, and private. I practiced alone.

After more than a decade of this style, I found Thay’s teaching, and it turned my practice on its head. Thay stressed Sangha, community, to a degree that I found startling. My mentor for ordainment, Rowan Conrad, tells a story of first arriving at Plum Village in the late 1980s. “You think you are here to see Thay,” he reports Thay saying, “but that is a misperception. You are here to see the Sangha.”

Once that seed was planted, Sangha became key to my practice as well, its support taking me to depths I hadn’t imagined possible, teaching me that compassion was every bit as important as wisdom. My practice began to bloom, but as one blossom in a wide field of flowers.

without a sound a dewdrop has fallen into the lake

As my ordination into the Order of Interbeing approached, to my surprise I found myself feeling that Thay’s absence made a sort of sense. I missed Thay that morning, and wished he were there to be a part of it. On my way to the Dharma hall, I sat on a bench to quietly thank Thay for all I was learning. In my heart I sent my ordination to Thay as a get-well gift. But as I took this step into the community, I knew the only individual that had to be there was me. Me, and the Sangha.

“You think you are here to ordain with Thay,” I said to myself, “but that is a misperception. You are here to ordain with the Sangha.”

The Be-In celebration that evening was filled with light and love and joy. We had seen something in one another and in ourselves. The energy of our smiles filled the room to bursting. The bears in the hills, I’m quite certain, could hear our laughter.

dragonflies dazzled with one another —late summer in the Rockies

The first time I wore my brown jacket at the retreat, shortly after ordination, a woman stopped me and asked me to instruct her in walking meditation. I was thrilled at the opportunity to share.

After some initial guidance, we walked together. “Picture lotuses blooming in each footstep,” I told her quietly, paraphrasing Thay. “You are leaving a path of lotuses behind you.”

She breathed deeply at the image and smiled, eyes wet. I knew in that moment she saw Thay in me. And, in that moment, I could too. Gratitude flooded through me, deep and strong. And my eyes, too, filled with tears.

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mb53-InTheEyes3Soren Kisiel, True Land of Serenity, was ordained last summer, and is part of the Deer Park Dharmacast team. His home Sanghas are the Open Way and Flowing Mountain Sanghas in Montana.

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A Living Thay

By Caleb Lazaro mb53-ALiving1

Words about a sickly Thay were on the lips of most of us during the first two days of retreat. But as our practice deepened, this notion withered away, it slowly left our thoughts, and the reality of a living Thay––within us and among us––began to fill our broken hearts. Whatever peace, love, and compassion the monks and nuns had during these six days, they poured over us selflessly, as if we were their own blood children. And the very experience of this community became Thay’s presence––the spirit of relentless and compassionate love being expressed mutually, mindfully, and unconditionally wherever we turned. To hear about this is not enough. To experience it is to know that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand.

Caleb Lazaro, Selfless Strength of the Heart, is a member of Sun Mountain Sangha in Colorado Springs. He is developing an innovative Christian community called “The Light.”

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The Buddha of the Future

By Trish Nelson In 2007, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Thich Nhat Hanh quoted Master Lin Chi: “Don’t come to me for your enlightenment!” I was a little stunned to hear him say that. You can imagine how I felt at the Colorado retreat two years later when he was not there at all.

Thich Nhat Hanh is made of non-Thich Nhat Hanh elements. This is the teaching of non-self, and we all got to practice it at the Colorado retreat––like a kid who had just lost the training wheels from her bike, and didn’t know if she was going to wipe out or keep flying down the hill. Non-self means a flower could not be without the sunshine, the water, the earth. Likewise, Thich Nhat Hanh could not be without his students, without the practice, without the community that supports the practice, or without the beautiful earth that is always nurturing the practice through her beauty and freshness.

Facing the absence of our teacher, who turned eighty-four in October, helped prepare us for what it will be like when his form passes. We have been told by him, “All forms are impermanent.” Yes, but, don’t leave us! We saw together that although all forms are impermanent, the seed of awakening is in every one of us. And just as we carry our blood ancestors in our DNA, we also carry our spiritual teacher in our heart.

It has been said that the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, is not an individual but a community. If so, it is certainly a community of people practicing to live in the present, transform their own suffering, and help awaken others. It is a community of people who care about each other. Letting their own light shine, and being a light unto themselves, they also make light for the rest of the world.

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Trish Nelson, Compassionate Understanding of the Heart, practices with the Santa Cruz Heart Sangha after relocating from Oregon to Northern California.

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Present in Thay’s Absence

By Lucy Mail I am a Buddhist at heart but I’m not a disciplined practitioner. I come to the retreats every year to listen and see our dear Thay. In 2005, when I first heard Thay speak, he broke my heart and then put it back together with his words, compassion, and wisdom. Since then, my practice has been to do what Thay asks of me. I joined a Sangha, I use the skills he taught me to live in harmony with my significant other, I practice compassion with my co-workers and my patients, and during the retreats, I try to move as one with the Sangha. During the YMCA retreat in Colorado, I worried about Thay’s health to the degree that I was almost unable to participate in meditations or Dharma talks without breaking down. I realized at this retreat that everything I have done in my practice has been to please my teacher and not to find my own way. Thay’s absence helped me realize this. I love Thay dearly and want him to be at peace, not experience pain or disease, and be pleased with the progress of the Sangha, to the point that I missed his message. Thay’s teachings are present even in his absence.

Lucy Mail, Gentlest Diligence of the Heart, is a physical therapist on the Texas Gulf Coast. She finds Thay’s teachings to be very powerful when assisting her patients.

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One Rock Star is Not Enough

By Angelina Chin I came back from the Colorado retreat totally transformed. Before the trip to Colorado I’d read several of Thay’s books but had never been to a retreat or practiced with his Sangha before. Nor had I ever met Thay in person.

To be honest, when I arrived the first evening and realized that Thay was not there, I was very disappointed and felt cheated. I even told one friend that it was as if I had gone to a rock concert but the rock star had bailed out!

I was a night owl, so I couldn’t fall asleep on my first night, and by the time I finally felt sleepy it was time to get up to do walking meditation. It was very difficult for me to keep up with the activities of the first two days. Because of the lack of sleep, I slept through the Dharma talks. And while many of the Sangha members found the food to be quite decent, I didn’t enjoy it during the first two days. I wasn’t used to a vegan diet. Of course I practiced eating meditation, but the more I meditated, the more I thought about the food I enjoyed outside the retreat. I also formed negative perceptions of some Sangha members.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to me in the following days, but gradually I found myself enjoying every moment of the retreat. I think the wonderful songs were a great help. It was very healing to be able to sing and practice with a Sangha of nearly 1,000 people. Everyone was so friendly, focused and happy. It was very comforting to me, especially because I grew up in a different cultural environment and always have felt racial and gender discrimination around me. Toward the end of the retreat I became quite mindful. The food became tastier. Before the retreat I had only known Thay’s works by their titles, but his teachings really sank in during the retreat.

After a few days I began to realize that Thay’s physical absence was a good lesson in itself. It had been so silly of me to compare the retreat to a rock concert! I’d attended the retreat to practice mindfulness, not to look for the rock star! I think because Thay was not there, the members were less attached to his presence and became more focused on the practice itself. I did feel Thay’s spiritual presence, and I missed him very much. But I also want to express my gratitude to the monastic brothers and sisters who tried so hard to make the retreat possible. It must have been a great deal of pressure on them. I could totally see both the Buddha and Thay in all of them! Thank you, Thay, for training our future teachers.

I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings on the last day. I hadn’t planned to do so. But since the day after the retreat was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate my transformation (rebirth?) and show my commitment to becoming more mindful, I decided to receive them. I also was given a beautiful Dharma name—Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart. I felt peaceful when I left Colorado.

Here are a few of the ways my life has changed since the retreat:

  • I had insomnia before, and couldn’t get up until around 10:00 a.m. Now the insomnia has been cured and I wake up at 7:00 every morning.
  • I practice walking meditation every day.
  • I’ve cut down my meat and seafood consumption by 40%. I’ve also decided not to cook meat at home.
  • I try not to kill any living beings.
  • I can concentrate much better at meetings.
  • I’ve practiced “beginning anew” with friends. These friendships are now better than ever. I will continue to listen to them with my heart.
  • I used to have an inferiority complex, which had been affecting my life in many ways. Now I am more aware of my mental formations and try not to water my negative seeds. Life is more pleasant and I feel more confident and engaged.
  • I’ve become less judgmental of others and have built new relationships!
  • I drive more mindfully. I think I’m a safer driver now.
  • I’ve witnessed some improvement in my meditation and breathing practices.
  • Even though negative emotions still visit me frequently, I’ve learned to be patient and try my best to take care of them.

I was so inspired that I attended a Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery for the first time and finally met Thay! It was a blessing.

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Angelina Chin, Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart, lives in Southern California. She was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She teaches East Asian history at Pomona College.

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