India

Announcements

Thich Nhat Hanh to Visit India and Israel  Thich Nhat Hanh will be traveling through India in February and March. For information about joining all or part of this journey, please contact Shantum Seth, tel/fax: (91) 11-852-1520, email: shantum@artisan.unv.ernet.in.

In May, Thay will lead two weekend retreats at Kibbutz Harel and give public talks in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Bethlehem. The donation requested for Dharma talks is $15, for each retreat weekend $160. To register, Europeans and others should contact Partage in Paris, tel: (33)1 -44-07-06-07. North Americans may register with the Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707. If you are unable to attend, please consider donating to provide the opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to share Thay's teachings. Donations may be sent to CML and marked for the "Israeli/Palestinian Scholarship Fund." Please see p. 37 for schedules for both of these trips.

Transcribing Talks

Local Sanghas are encouraged to help transcribe Vietnamese and English tapes of Thich Nhat Hanh's Dharma talks. For Vietnamese talks, contact Hoang Khoi, 14 Maitland Avenue, Kingsford 2032, Australia, tel: (61 )2-9313-8489, fax: (61)2-9697-9007, email: K.Hoang@unsw.edu.au. For English talks, contact Michelle Bernard at Parallax Press, tel: (510)525-0101.

AIDS Anthology

The Buddhist AIDS Project is compiling an anthology on Buddhist practice and AIDS tentatively entitled, Heart Lessons from an Epidemic: Buddhist Practice and Living with HIV. The working deadline for submissions has been extended to January 30. The anthology editor, Steve Peskind, specifically requests submissions on practicing and living with the promises and challenges of protease inhibitors and other medical advances. Please call Steve at (415) 522-7473 in San Francisco for more information.

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Passages

Born: Jonah Lieberman Flint was born to New York City Sangha members David and Ann Flint on May 23, 1996.

Married: Shantum Seth, True Right Path, and Gitanjali Varma celebrated their wedding vows with Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village on September 14, 1996.

Died: Greg Keryk, 44, died of cancer on August 16, 1996 in Santa Cruz, California. Greg was a member of the Order of Interbeing, the beloved husband of Irene Keryk, and the father of Diane Keryk. Please see tributes on pages 16-17.

Died: On August 8, 1996, Jusan William "Frankie" Parker, 42, died by lethal injection at Cummins Prison in Arkansas, after 10 years in prison for the murder of two people. His conversion to Buddhism in 1988 and wholehearted practice inspired people inside and outside of the prison. Frankie's spiritual advisor, Kobutsu Kevin Malone, ordained him before his death. Despite letters from H.H. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh and petitions signed by hundreds of Buddhist practitioners, the governor of Arkansas refused to commute Frankie's sentence to life in prison.

Frankie spent his last day answering letters and calling teachers and friends. On the night of his death, family and friends gathered to support Frankie and oppose the death penalty. Rev. Kobutsu accompanied him to the execution chamber where they chanted the Three Refuges. At the moment of his death, Frankie was shown a picture of the Buddha by the executioner.

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Poem: Untitled Poem 4

India seizes us from the first moment, rushing, a confusion of horns, hands, language, faces. Children ragged, women as silk, flowers smell of fuel, sweat, curry, fire. India fumbles, lurches, swirls, collides, crushes, unfolds. We learn to walk with a slow stroll. Mother Earth, Mother Earth, I am here, I am here. Thay is our tender face, our wise child, our oasis. We allow his peace to teach us.

Ruby Odell, California

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Surrender and a Lotus

By Ian Prattis After Thay's "Heart of the Buddha" retreat in the fall of 1996 at Plum Village, I went to India to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga, a system of meditation for adults and children. Committed to global religious harmony, program participants work to heal and transform deeply rooted schisms in Indian society—through rural development, civic responsibility, and anticorruption programs. and through praying regularly with all the religious communities in India. It also has a marvelous outreach to introduce meditation into schools. training colleges, universities, and factories. I was privileged and honored to experience so many treasures of India.

Then, in November and December of 1996,I became seriously ill in India. As I observed my body's systems crashing one by one, I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. I was surprised by my calm and lack of panic. As December drew towards its close, I totally surrendered. I will always remember Saturday, December 21, 1996. On that day, I let go of all attachments to my body. Throughout the day and evening, I read The Blooming of a Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh, from cover to cover, practicing those meditations that spoke to me. I felt at one with all my spiritual ancestors. I felt Thay's wisdom, love, and gentleness as a tangible presence. I was in a small ashram in the city of Mumbai, reserved for saints and holy men, and I also felt their grace close at hand.

The meditations in The Blooming of A Lotus took me deeply into my roots of being, and I felt very calm about the impermanence of my bodily existence. My heart opened wide. While I did the meditations on "Looking Deeply and Healing," I thought about my many mistakes, and chose not to deny them or brush aside the bodily pain in this moment, for I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom that were flooding through me were dissolving both. I felt very simple, that I was living properly. I was without panic and present with whatever arose. I did not fear death. This lack of fear gave me freedom and strength, and opened a huge door to send love and joy to all. I felt my true self, peaceful, not pulled in any direction. Despite all that was going on, I was solidly and timelessly present. I could freely share whatever gifts, skills and energies I had. I finally understood the real significance of the Buddha's words about 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.


To be with myself at this time—happy and content in the moment—was all I had, and it was enough. As I practiced this meditation, I felt that each moment of life was absolutely precious and somehow I was communicating this to all that I connected to. Before I slept that night, one last meditation secured me in the refuge of all my spiritual ancestors. Although the focus was on the Buddha, I felt all my teachers and guides throughout lifetimes gathered together inside and around me, without boundaries, and they stayed while I slept. When I fell asleep, I was content and happy.

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The next morning, to my surprise and joy, I woke up! Over the next six months, I slowly recovered my health. Friends in North America who tune in to me very closely had booked airline tickets in December to take me out of India to recover. While I was touched by their love, I said no to their proposal.

Whatever the outcome, this particular journey was to be in India. I had written countless Christmas cards to friends and loved ones all over the world and signed them with "Blessings and Love from Ian." That is what I had wanted to send before my death. Then I lived! And I was even more happy that the cards were sent.

I am glad that at the last moment before leaving for India I intuitively put The Blooming of a Lotus into my backpack. It has always been one of my favorite books, as it never fails to take me deeper into myself. I love it for additional reasons now. I can recommend it to people I meet as a "lifesaver," for it was exactly this for me—a Lotus that carried me through.

Ian Prattis, True Body of Understanding, practices in Canada


mb26-DiaryDiary Entries

Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India

December 20, 1996

Feel weaker than ever this morning. Could hardly make it from my bed to the bathroom. Hope the saints who have passed through this little ashram are casting a protective eye over me. Perhaps they can cheer up Chotolal, the Nepali cook here, who has become quite anxious, especially as I have not had the energy or inclination to eat the special dishes he prepares. He only has me to look after at the moment, and my state of health is not a good advertisement for the care he gives. He is watching me write in my diary, so I will change hands and write with my left hand so he can laugh and feel less anxious about me. It worked! Is there some major purification going on in my body, is there something I do not see? What lessons are there in this for me? Or are my days drawing to a close in the silence of this ashram? My blood tests from the hospital show that I am low and deficient in just about every category, and the antibiotics and other medications only make me feel worse. So many questions and worries, yet they do not seem totally important. I ask them, then they fade away. It is a bit strange. A few days ago I collapsed and passed out while at dinner at Madhuma's house. I know she and her family would take me in, yet this saint's refuge is where I feel most comfortable right now. The quiet and simplicity of the place speaks deeply to me. I guess it allows me to prepare.

Have been in an almost constant state of mediation for days now, a deep quiet silence. Making entries in this diary is almost an interruption to the silence. Yesterday, Tom and Bev phones from Tucson in the States and it was wonderful to talk to them. They know how ill I am and sent prayers from the desert. Another friend, Barbara, from Michigan also phoned. She tunes into me very closely and was sufficiently alarmed to offer to fly to Mumbai and take me back to the States to get well in her home. Their love and care is very moving, but I know that whatever is to happen is to be here in India. For sure.

Have sent Chotolal on an errand as he was moping a bit an needed something to do. I gave him some money and asked him to buy some cards and stamps for me. The cards are beautifully hand-painted ones on pipal leaves, and have pictures of the Buddha, Krishna dancing and other such scenes. Want to make sure I finish my Christmas list. Sending tons of Christmas cards to friends and loved ones. Feel such a calm about all this that would normally surprise the heck out of me. The calm is just there, sitting with me, just fine. I know there is a distinct possibility I will not live beyond Christmas and want to send out a Christmas message from India--"Blessings and Love from Ian." Guess there is some ego in that, but it is what I want to do. Just addressed a card of the Buddha to Thay Nhat Hanh in France. Writing and addressing the cards has exhausted me, but feel very satisfied and full--a sort of mission accomplished. Chotolal brought in a package of mail from Canada: letters and cards from family and friends. Made me very happy, also made me cry as I thought of friends I may not see again. Yet they were strange tears--not full of sorrow or anything, just tears as I thought of loving friends.

I keep falling asleep very quietly, then waking up very quietly. Sleep is like a light breeze that seems to visit now and then. Ate a little bit of dinner to allay Chotolal's anxiety, but it is my supply of rice malt and vitamin C that is keeping me going. Chotolal is usually very jolly but I think my poor health has caused him to become quiet. He left some fruit and water on the table by my bed, then left to spend the next day with Nepali friends in another part of the city, taking my pile of Christmas cards to post. Care and love just beam from his eyes and drip off his moustache. I am enjoying the silence and aloneness, now that he has left. Going to bed now, it is about nine o'clock in the evening and I am drifting off to sleep as though gentle wings are carrying me.

December 21, 1996

Waking up was easy, getting up was a bit of a struggle but did that in stages. The quiet and silence inside the ashram is quite palpable and almost visible--maybe the lack of noise from the kitchen. But that is not it. I remembered my shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. Had a dream about her during the night but do not totally recall all the details. I do remember that she told me to call in my guides, and construct a mental medicine wheel around me, and include all my spiritual ancestors. Did that  and feel an incredible constellation of energies, like millions of guardian angels from every conceivable dimension. This place is really hopping with energy. I just know that today is about surrender to Go'd wisdom, and I freely place myself in His hands. Feel a funny kind of delight inside me, want to dance to an imaginary orchestra, but do not think my legs would move too well.

Took some fruit and returned to my book of meditations and began to read. The book is by my Buddhist teacher and I feel so grateful to have been around long enough to receive his teachings. I read slowly, stop frequently to close my eyes and feel the words. Doing quite a number of the meditations and have no sense of time or space today, as each meditation seems to move me with its own measure and carry me along. Feel such a deepening in my heart, all the way inside my body. Aware that there is no fear or panic, just a sort of simple and happy acceptance. That is all that is there. I have never experienced anything like this. Have no thought of anything and feel deeply content for no apparent reason. is this surrender? Peace with God? No flashing lights, visitations or visions--only a quiet surrender and being with the inevitability of it all, whatever "IT" is.

December 22, 1996

I woke up this morning, heard the crows saying hello from the tree outside the window. Feel so happy to be alive. Chotolal is singing in the kitchen and rattling his pots and pans, so I will celebrate this new day with a little breakfast. That will make us both very happy. A clear insight that this "death" is a spiritual one, as is the "rebirth." I feel completely new this morning, as thought I have been rewired and plugged into sockets with a bigger voltage. Part of my preparation to continue moving along. I feel such gratitude to all the saintly energies, guardian angels and spiritual ancestors that supprted me thorough the most important experience of my life. I will eat a good breakfast for all of them.

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On the Way Home (part 3)

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue mb44-OnTheWay1

In this series of essays, Sister Annabel, one of Thây’s most senior students, shares memories and insights from her life at Plum Village—and the path that led her there.

The Lower Hamlet of Plum Village somewhat resembled the farm where I grew up. It had barns, muddy lanes, fruit trees, no heating except for wood stoves, stone walls, and a vast star-filled sky at night. Maybe that is one of the reasons I feel at home there. One day when I first came to the Lower Hamlet we were practicing slow walking in the Red Candle meditation hall. My eyes turned to the stone walls and suddenly I felt those stones were old friends and relatives; I had found the home that I had missed for so long. Then we went outside and I looked up to the hills of the Dordogne and I felt as if I had lived there long ago. Now I had come back.

Lower Hamlet was a place where I could walk on my own or with Be Tam. Be Tam was the third of the four children of the Vietnamese family that lived in Persimmon House. When I arrived in Plum Village Be Tam was five years old. He was entrusted to my care when his mother was busy. During our walks he would hold my hand and lead the way. In the blackberry season, he would take me to all the blackberry bushes near the house. He ate one blackberry from each bush and told me whether it was sweet or sour, good or bad. If it was sweet he would encourage me to eat one from the same bush. Be Tam believed that if one blackberry on a bush was sweet, then all the blackberries would be sweet. We never ate more than one from any bush and then we picked all the ripe ones. Actually the degrees of sweet and sour were very subtle because he ate each blackberry with mindfulness. Every blackberry does indeed taste different when you eat slowly and mindfully. Every blackberry is a miracle of earth and sky.

Be Tam was born in France but at five years old he had not had contact with French society, so he was more of a Vietnamese boy than a French boy. In the kitchen we had a washing machine. It had a transparent glass door so that you could see the water and the soap and the clothes as the machine washed them. Be Tam enjoyed watching this process very much. Whenever he came into the kitchen and someone was washing clothes, he would bring a chair and place it right in front of the washing machine. He would sit still, watching the process from beginning to end. It made me think that in previous life times he had not met a washing machine. I do not know what was happening in his mind as he watched but I remembered that as a child I had looked into a kaleidoscope; the miracle of its changing shapes and colors never grew stale. Maybe the washing machine was a kaleidoscope for Be Tam.

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Biscottes for Breakfast

In those days in Plum Village we were not rich. The doors were opened once a year for the summer family retreat, from July 15th to August15th. During this time we hoped to receive enough donations to last us throughout the year.

During the first summer opening we just had biscottes and tea for breakfast. [A biscotte is a commercially packaged bread, toasted to a crisp golden brown. Editor] The reason we had biscottes was because the owner of a biscotte factory was a lay practitioner of Plum Village and he donated them. We were never hungry, though. When I came to Plum Village I learned to eat in mindfulness. Eating in mindfulness I appreciated Vietnamese food. I learned to see how precious food is. For someone who has known real hunger each mouthful is very precious.

During my first weeks at Plum Village, I was sitting next to Thây one day at lunch. At that time I had the habit of not eating every grain of rice on my plate. Thây said to me: “Thây sees that you know how to use the chopsticks well and could pick up every grain of rice on the plate.” Eager to please, I did just that, although I did not know why Thây was telling me this. Then Thây continued: “In Vietnam the mothers always tell their children that if they do not eat every grain of rice in their bowl, in the next life they will be born as ducks and need to go around picking up every grain of rice that they had thrown away in this life.” It is not only because we are aware of what hunger means that we do not want to leave a single grain of rice. We also understand through our practice of mindfulness that cultivating rice is not an easy matter. Much effort and some suffering goes into the making of every grain of rice.

One day Thây picked a large quantity of blackberries and asked me to make jam with them. I did not need much encouragement to make jam. My mother and grandmother had always made jam at home: blackberry, damson, apple, marrow and ginger, raspberry, apricot jam with the kernels—a few floating on the top of each pot—and bitter orange marmalade. I felt very at ease making jam and when the plum trees were mature enough to produce their first fruits, I made plum jam; there were not enough then to dry and make prunes. The wild blackberries and apples were made into jelly and on the walking meditation path there were quince trees. The Lower Hamlet had the most delicious apples, which we stored for the winter months.

A Sacred Place

The simplicity of Thây’s way of life has always been apparent. Although Thây has not always been able to live in a monastery, Thây’s place of abode always has the simplicity of the truly monastic way of living. The hermitage where Thây has been based since the founding of Plum Village now serves as a cloistered environment for the monastic sangha. It is a large house with a large garden. Before Thây lived there it was the home of a school mistress. From the outside the house does not look very special. It withdraws a little from the narrow road, secluded by old trees.

The extraordinary ambiance of the house comes from the practice. Everywhere there is a restful feeling, a freshness. Thây has planted deodara cedar trees, a bamboo grove by the stream, and other shrubs. There is a very fragrant old rose that Thây has named Elizabeth, after the previous owner of the house. The part of the garden furthest from the house is planted with poplar trees; their straight trunks are a place to suspend hammocks. The deodara trees, whose wood is used in India to make statues of the gods, are the object of Thây’s particular care. These trees frequently practice hugging meditation with Thây and his disciples.

The hermitage is not grand or luxurious but it is a place that is loved. Thây has loved this place with every footstep and every breath. Sister True Emptiness [Sister Chân Không] has loved it with her commitment to helping others by sending letters and parcels, or making telephone calls to those in need. When a place is loved like that, it becomes lovely. Just as a person who is loved and understood can blossom, so a place—a garden and a house—can become a sacred place.

Lessons from Ants and Prayer Wheels

At Lower Hamlet, I was enjoying Sister Thanh Minh’s help in the vegetable garden.

There were two other reasons that made me happy for Sister Thanh Minh’s arrival. One was that she was vegetarian and the other was that she was always ready to teach me to speak Vietnamese. She would point out to me the different objects and call them by their Vietnamese names.

When you learn a language, you also learn a culture and a way of life. Thây said that Sister Thanh Minh was very Vietnamese; she had had virtually no contact with the European way of life. Looking at her I was looking at someone who was no different from the people who were living and had lived all their lives in Vietnam.

Sister Thanh Minh came in May and it was still quite chilly at night. When she complained of being cold, I thought that the problem would be easy to solve. I gave her more blankets. She told me that the weight of the blankets stopped her from sleeping. My first reaction was to think that this was a little absurd, because I had grown up in a cold bedroom where the thick woolen blankets were piled on top of us in the winter. To me this was something perfectly natural. When I reconsidered, I saw that in south Vietnam a bed consists of a rush mat, a thin covering on the coldest days, and a mosquito net. Even one woolen blanket could feel unbearably heavy.

Plum Village is a multicultural community; many of us are people of two or more cultures. It is easy to judge what is different as incorrect. And it is wonderful to learn how not to react to what is different as being incorrect. When I was a child and spent summer holidays in France and later when I lived in Greece and then with a community of Tibetan nuns in India, I had opportunity to learn to be open to other ways of life. Learning languages and how to live in different cultural situations was something very enjoyable as long as I did not feel threatened by the difference.

It had been a challenge when I lived in India. The first thing I had to learn was always to keep my feet tucked in under me when I was sitting. Then as a lay woman I could never sit or stand in a place that was higher than a monk or a nun. If a nun wanted to go under our hut, which was on stilts, to fetch something, I would need temporarily to leave the hut. I should never say, even as only a supposition, that something bad might happen, because the very saying of it would make it more likely that that event would occur. I should never wear someone else’s shoes or allow someone else to wear my shoes. Seeing a dead mouse or rat was a bad omen; this never seemed to be so in my own case but as far as the Tibetan nuns were concerned, whenever they saw a dead mouse or rat, something went wrong for them. I should recite the sutras in Tibetan (because the English was not available), and even though I did not understand a word of what I was reciting, it would be very beneficial for my practice. One time when an ant was crawling over the sutra text I was reciting, I was told that this encounter of the ant with the written word of the sutra meant that the ant would be in touch with the Buddhadharma in a future life.

The prayer wheel was something else that I did not understand. The entrance to the monastery across from us on the other side of the valley had a gate like a turnstile that was in effect a prayer wheel. In order to enter the monastery by this gate you had to turn the prayer wheel. As you did this a bell hanging above would sound and the words om mani padme hung would make one turn inside the prayer wheel.

In order for me to incorporate om mani padme hung into my own way of life, rather than recite the syllables, I tried to sing them. I sang them to the music of the hymn “The King of Love, my shepherd is.” One day I was surprised when I stopped singing that the words came back to me as if from the horizon of the landscape around me. I began to appreciate the mantra more after that. It had helped me clear my mind and be in touch with all that was around me.

Only now do I appreciate the sweetness of the prayer wheel and the ant crawling over the sutra and reciting words that in your mind consciousness you do not understand. Now I see that every little event can contribute to the awakening that is taking place in the deepest levels of the individual and collective consciousness. In the Lotus Sutra there is a chapter that tells us that even a child playing in the sand who draws a stupa is laying down a cause for enlightenment. When a pilgrim walks along, turns his prayer wheel, and recollects the words om mani padme hung, the seed of those syllables associated with Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, are being strengthened in the unconscious mind.

My rational mind, fashioned by European culture, was somewhat aware of how the conscious mind works. But it had no inkling of the workings of deeper levels of consciousness.

My Mother’s Hands

One day Thây gave us a writing assignment whose title was “Washing Clothes.” I could not think what to write about if I wrote about washing clothes in the machine. If we had asked Be Tam to share about that no doubt it would have been very interesting. On the other hand there was much I could write about washing clothes in India. It was a day’s outing to the river or stream. You could almost call it a lazy day, when there was no other schedule. We could enjoy the clear water that came from higher up in the Himalaya and the rhododendron bushes that flanked the stream. There were the smooth stones in the water that you could use to rub the clothes on. There were the large rocks where you could stretch the clothes to dry.

When I was a child my mother had to wash clothes for us four young children. It was hard work. At one time my father bought her a washing machine. It was a relief for her but it was not a very sophisticated machine and she still continued to wash many clothes by hand. Today she says that washing clothes by hand, when she does not have many to wash, is the work that she enjoys most. Many people use a washing machine, not because they have an overwhelming amount of laundry, but because they feel that they can be doing something much more worthwhile than washing clothes. To such people it would seem a little crazy to bring a chair up in front of the washing machine to watch the soap-clothes-and-water kaleidoscope.

In the monastery everything that is done in mindfulness is worth doing. When I ask my mother why she likes washing clothes by hand she tells me that in the past she had to wash so many clothes that it made her tired. Now she only has to wash a few clothes by hand and does not need to feel tired. She sees that washing clothes is something wonderful that she can enjoy. I rarely use a washing machine. When I am washing clothes I see my mother’s and grandmother’s hands in mine and I am happy to continue my mother in mindfulness.

mb44-OnTheWay3Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Buddha Walks Where Buddha Was Born

mb51-Buddha1By Irpinder Bhatia Thay and the monastics spent five days in Nagpur, the nerve center of the Buddhist revival in India. Nagpur could one day be as important as Sarnath. On 14 October 1956, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, the visionary socio-political leader of the Dalits* took a historic step. He converted to Buddhism with 400,000 Dalits and rolled the waves of Buddhism’s return to India. This happened at Diksha Bhoomi at Nagpur.

The day of Shakyamuni Buddha’s firstever teaching at Sarnath is known as the Dhammachakra Pravartan Din, the day of Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. On arrival in Nagpur on 7 October, the Sangha found hundreds and hundreds of banners welcoming the Buddhists from all over India to celebrate Baba Saheb’s conversion day. The Dalit Buddhists celebrate it as the second Dhammachakra Pravartan Din, the day of Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. The monastics and the lay Sangha from Plum Village and Ahimsa Trust walked through more than a million Indian Buddhists visiting Diksha Bhoomi on this special occasion and shared with them Dharma, meditation practices and chanted together with them. And, on the evening of 8 October, Thay gave a Dharma talk to thousands of Indian Buddhists assembled at Diksha Bhoomi.

The first evening at Nagpur was spent with the Buddhist intellectuals and monks. In the words of one of the senior bhikkus, both the lay people and the Indian monastics were “startled” by the emphasis Thay placed on the building of Sangha. Thay’s teaching that “giving care to oneself” and “building Sangha” are essential for those who want to work for social change was found striking and led to reflection.

The volunteer team when it first went to Nagpur made a surprise discovery. It found that the Indian Buddhists have formed a very special relationship with the Hindi version of Thay’s book Old Path White Clouds. The book is being read, not just by individuals, but by entire families, and often more than once. “I have read it twice, and my father is now reading it,” is a typical expression. People who have learnt to read for the first time in centuries form the core of the revival of Buddhism in India.

For these newly educated people hungry for Dharma, Old Path White Clouds brings Buddha’s essential teachings in simple language through a story that is easy to understand. A special low-cost edition of the book was brought out for this occasion that sold out to the last copy available in Nagpur. It is felt that this book will be needed in several Indian languages over the years. It could play a vital role in quick dissemination of Dharma to the masses.

The two-day retreat at Nagpur was special for the kind of people it attracted. Most of the retreatants were men and women over forty, and quite a few young men. One of the most beautiful and striking visuals I carry from my first exploratory trip to Nagpur is of the women in the local Buddhist temples. More than once, late at night, I saw groups of ten or twenty women reading Buddhist scriptures by candle light. (Nagpur has long power cuts that can last five or six hours.)

These men and women who are the bedrock of the Buddhist revival in India came to the retreat. They gave the same quality of attention to walking, sitting, and eating meditation as they gave to Thay’s Dharma discourses. On the second day of the retreat, Thay led the walking meditation to a tree. In silence they sat together, Thay and more than 700 retreatants, none questioning, none restless.

At the end of the retreat, a group of young men between 18 and 22 walked up to me to share what the retreat had meant to them. “Listening to each of Thay’s Dharma talks has been like sitting through a meditation session. So simple and so fulfilling.” One of the young men said thoughtfully, “Thay asked us to feel the presence of the body of the Lord Buddha and the body of Baba Saheb Ambedkar within our body. Thay asked us to feel their presence within us and draw strength from them. I could have never imagined that I can connect with Lord Buddha and Baba Saheb in this way. It is so simple and so easy to practice.” A young woman said, “When I saw Thay walk I felt this is the way Lord Buddha must have walked. When Thay stopped and hundreds of people sat around him in silence, I felt that this is how Lord Buddha must have sat and meditated with his Sangha 2550 years ago. Little talking, and much practice.”

This is exactly how I felt too. When I saw Thay walk in Nagpur, on Indian soil, I felt that I was seeing Buddha walk where Buddha was born.

*Victims of the pernicious caste  system of India, Dalits were a dispensable lot who lived a sub-human existence for centuries [also called Untouchable].

Irpinder Bhatia is an educator and documentary film maker.

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Touching the Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For weeks, a child inside me cried inconsolably.

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

A Rare State of Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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