Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax

Taking a Breath

By Bill Welch

Last August, the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax opened, operating in rented space at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The church, located in Oakton, Virginia, offers several advantages to the center: eleven wooded a res; a supportive congregation, staff, and ministers; proximity to Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen, the primary teachers at the MPC; and its location approximately in the center of Fairfax County, Virginia, a large suburban area directly west of Washington, D.C.

In the short time the center has been open, many participants have experienced significant, positive changes. Kay, a therapist, shared her thoughts in a letter to Anh-Huong and Thu.

"I hold on to the practice much better since attending the Center. I notice the moon often, when I attend the Center often. Instead of noticing the moon only on vacation, I now find it is there on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well. ... The practice of maintaining my center while increasing my field of awareness greatly enhances my work as a therapist. After a few mindful breaths in the midst of a chaotic family, I am present to offer my best. I have also incorporated the practice of conscious breathing into my work by introducing bits of it to interested people."

Jim, interested in Buddhism since childhood, was well read on the subject of meditation, but "had a difficult time comprehending the instructions, much less putting it into practice." He longed for a place that could offer him instruction. Plagued by anger, stress, and addiction, he decided to visit the center every day for meditation. "I could feel the walls that I had built around my heart and mind start to come down, brick by brick. I started to learn to love again- most importantly, how to love myself. I learned that to love and respect others, I must first love and respect myself. A cigarette smoker for fifteen years, I finally realized how beautiful my breath is, how beautiful my lungs are. It did not take long after that to pluck that habit from my life. I pray that centers like this pop up all over the planet. The world would be so peaceful."

Thu offers deep relaxation meditation to parents while their children are in church choir practice. The parents found they had more patience for their children, and were better able to handle stress as a result of the sessions. Based on their own refreshing experience, several parents encouraged Thu to teach deep relaxation to the children. None of them knew how long it would take the children to settle down. They were surprised and pleased that the children were able to enjoy deep relaxation the very first time. One parent, Susan, reports on the benefits:

"For our family, it was a huge success, and my son looks forward to going to the MPC every Monday, even when it's a school holiday and there is no choir practice. He just wants to go because it makes him 'feel good.' My husband and I have noticed that his disposition is much more pleasant after the Monday session. He has had difficulty controlling his anger most of his young life, and has made so much progress in controlling his temper during the last four months. I attribute much of this improvement to the relaxation sessions at MPC."

Hal , a recovering alcoholic and longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous, finds practicing mindfulness and meditation enriching to his AA program. Hal was instrumental in having Anh-Huong and Thu offer a Day of Mindfulness for People in Recovery. In expressing his gratitude after this initial offering, Hal said:

"Living in the here and now is a matter of life and death when recovering from addiction to alcohol and other drugs and is of bedrock importance to developing a happy sobriety over the long term. Your teaching had a profound effect on all the attendees with whom I spoke afterward."

Since this first offering, one other daylong workshop for people in recovery has been held. The current plan is to offer such an event all day one Saturday every other month.

Alice began attending the MPC soon after it opened and has found relief from a fear and anxiety syndrome which had bothered her for more than a year. When she recently had a rather serious leg injury treated in the Emergency Room, she practiced mindful breathing, and remained calm and relatively pain-free while the wound was cleaned and stitched. Alice finds that reminding herself to live one minute at a time helps her relax and reduces her stress.

For me, Thu and Anh-Huong have really become colleagues in ministry. As someone who has a real interest in spiritual growth- my own and others-I find the MPC a wonderful resource and support. It provides a regularity and structure that my own practice needs. Having an instructor conveniently available and having other people to practice with is very valuable. All of us associated with the MPC in Oakton hope others will make the effort to find and join us.

Bill Welch is the Assistant Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax.

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Married: John Balaam, True Original Mountain, and Charito Sanchez were married in Waipio Valley, Hawai'i on January 1, 2000.

Ordained: A warm welcome to new Order members, Virginia Bollero, Sheila Klein, Judy Weaver, Karen Zampalia, Chau Yoder, Peter Hawkins, and Bethany Freshnock.

One Hundredth Monastic: During the Winter Retreat in Plum Village, sixteen new monastics were ordained—the sixteen "cherry trees." Newly-ordained Sister Man Nghiem is the youngest nun in Plum Village. She was also the one-hundredth monastic ordained in Plum Village.

New Website Address

The Community of Mindful Living website has a new address: www.mindfulnessbell.org. The Parallax Press website address remains www.parallax.org. Please come visit.

Southern California Practice CenterAn Update from Sister Chan Khong

Thank you for contributing generously during the past year to our Southern California Center. On May 2nd, 2000, San Diego County auctioned the 436 acres in Escondido that we had hoped to obtain. Senior monastic Dharma Teacher Thich Giac Thanh and Order of Interbeing members Larry Ward and Pritam Singh attended the May 2 auction. But we were not the highest bidder. A neighbor won the auction with a bid of $4 million. After the neighbor won the bid, we began conversations with him and found him to be a very spiritual man. We discussed the UBC buying the property from him. After these discussions, he said that among the three competitors that morning, he felt that we are the kindest. He told our real estate friends, "The Buddhist are good people who deserve to live on the Deer Park Property." So, we hope to buy the property after all.

We chose this property in part because it has 17 lots that could be available for friends to build homes. These lots range in size from 1.5 acres to 4.5 acres, and could be purchased for $120,000 to $ 189,000. Buying a lot at Deer Park to build your home will help pay for the monastery property.

Deer Park is about ten minutes from the intersection of Highway 78 and Highway 15. It is 40 minutes from San Diego and an hour and 40 minutes from Los Angeles. Surrounded by a National Park and beautiful mountains, the land is much like Thay's Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery in the highlands of Vietnam. Deer and many other wild animals live here.

Entering the property, you first drive past the lots reserved for friends' homes. Two miles beyond, an oak forest offers shade. The oak grove also has seven bungalows with three rooms each, which we could use for a monastery. A large garage could be transformed into a meditation hall with a room for Thay. These buildings could also house the many monastics who will join Thay for the United States retreats this fall.

From the oak grove, the road leads to a eucalyptus grove, higher in the mountains. Here, there are five houses, each with approximately 700 square feet, and five larger buildings in poor condition. We do not need to repair all the buildings, but for $10,000, we can get one in good condition for the nuns to use. For Thay's retreats to California, we will hire a large campus, such as the University of California at Santa Barbara or San Diego. But Thay could also offer Days of Mindfulness at Deer Park, like those offered at Spirit Rock.

THE GOOD NEWS! On May 17, the neighbor agreed to sell the Deer Park property to us! But $4 million plus is a lot of money. We have $227,000 in donations now, and can borrow $600,000 from the part of Thay's royalties reserved to build Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont. Also, 1,007 friends have pledged monthly donations totaling $10,700. And San Diego County agreed to loan us $3.2 million at 9% interest. We are grateful that we may be able to borrow this money, but are afraid of being indebted at such a high interest rate. We appreciate your support through donations of funds, stock gifts, and monthly pledges. And we would also like to invite friends who are financially able, to please consider supporting the new Dharma Center by loaning us money at a very low rate. We have 90 days to decide whether to purchase the Deer Park Property, but we need your support.

Please send a check or credit card pledge or stock gifts to Unified Buddhist Church, Attn: Sisters Chan Thuc Nghiem and Chan Thang Nghiem, Green Mountain Dharma Center, P.O. Box 182, Hartland-Four Corners, VT 05049; Tel: (802) 436-1103; Fax: (802) 436-1101 ;or Email: mfmaster@vermontel.net. You  may also contact Sister Chan Khong by Email at chankhong@plumvillage.org or Fax: 011 (33) 556 61 6151. Please leave your phone number and the best time she can reach you. Thank you.

Veterans Scholarship Fund 

Since 1991 Thay and our community have welcomed veterans of war to our retreats. Our Veterans Sangha has continued to grow and flower each year. The need for financial support also has grown! We have instituted a Veterans Scholarship Fund and offer to you the opportunity to support us. Last year several local Sanghas sponsored veterans to attend Thay's retreats in the U.S. This year we hope more local Sanghas will do this, and also that individual Sangha members will consider sponsoring a veteran to attend the Ascutney and San Diego retreats with Thay. If we raise enough money, we will be able also to help veterans attend retreats offered by our local and regional Sanghas. Please make checks payable to Unified Buddhist Church with a clear notation that this is for the Veterans Scholarship Fund, and mail them to Brother Ivar (Phap Tri), Maple Forest Monastery, P.O. Box 354, South Woodstock, VT 05071. Also, you may address questions and suggestions to Roberta Wall, 338 4th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215; Tel: (718) 965-1992; Email: robertawall@hotmail.com.

Prison Project Update

In June 1999, Michael Trigilio, True Birth of Peace, became the new Prison Project Coordinator at Community of Mindful Living (CML). The Prison Project responds to dozens of letters each week from inmates around the United States by sending books, correspondence, and loving kindness to these practitioners behind bars.

The Project has worked closely with Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), Green Mountain Dharma Center, and the Human Kindness Foundation to help coordinate our mutual efforts to support and encourage our co-practitioners in prison. CML's Prison Project and BPF worked to develop strategies to defeat California's Proposition 21, which, having passed, allows the state to incarcerate children as young as fourteen in adult prisons. On Tuesday, March 13, 2000, the Prison Project participated in a midnight silent sitting vigil outside San Quentin Prison, bearing witness to the execution of Daniel "Young Elk" Rich. We were also involved in editing and distributing Thay's new booklet, Be Free Where You Are, based on his talk in a Maryland prison. (See page 20.) If your Sangha would like to help distribute copies of the booklet to prisoners from whom we have received requests, or if you need copies for prisoners with whom your Sangha is already practicing, please contact Michael at the address shown below.

The Prison Project is one of the strongest programs of social engagement currently facilitated by CML. We are glad to be working with Sanghas around North America to develop creative and localized strategies that help cultivate and nourish prisoner Sanghas, and our own. One Prison Project volunteer offered these inspiring and heartwarming words: "It's been a wonderful experience writing to prisoners. I've found a compassionate part of myself that I never knew existed and I'm very grateful to have the privilege of corresponding with them." We are aware of Sanghas working with prisoners in Oregon, New York, Idaho, and elsewhere. We look forward to hearing from all Sanghas interested in this important work —in the United States and around the world, in prison or out—so we can share and support each other. Please write Michael at the Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707, USA.

Parallax Press and Community of Mindful Living Update 

In October 1999, the staff of Parallax Press and Community of Mindful Living were invited, along with a few other friends, to spend four days in Plum Village with Thay. At that time, in preparation for Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald's move to Hawai'i, a new management committee for Parallax and CML was established. The committee is composed of Thay Phap An, Sister Chan Khong, and Order of Interbeing member Larry Ward. We listened deeply to each other, offered insights, and explored how the work of Parallax and CML could continue in a beneficial way for the entire Sangha.

Since October, the staff of Parallax and CML have continued to deepen their practice as a mindful workplace through sharing Days of Mindfulness, Beginning Anew, and listening deeply to each other. Together, we have worked on the booklet for prisoners, Be Free Where You Are. The April 2000 publication of the booklet has met with enormously positive response from inmates and Sanghas working with inmates. We are grateful to the Human Kindness Foundation for helping inmates learn about the booklet. We are pleased to announce that The Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book and Path of Emancipation will be available during the Summer 2000. Thay's United States tour organizing is also well underway. We are responding to many inquiries to register through CML's new website.

CML continues to support Sanghas and Order of Interbeing members in a variety of ways, including the publication of The Mindfulness Bell Together with Green Mountain Dharma Center, we continue to support the Prison Project and to develop other mindfulness-in-society projects. Through the Sangha survey, we have invited the larger Sangha to participate in our ongoing developments and to help clarify the emerging framework for the Dharma service of Parallax and CML.

Note: Please be touch with Melanie Phoenix at CML to receive or respond to a Sangha survey; CML, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707; Tel: (510)527-3751; Fax: (510)525-7129.

UBC's Support of the New Center in Hawaii and Thay's Teaching on Sangha Building and Dharma Work 

After many trips to Hawai'i over the last two years, Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald left their California home in December 1999 to set up a Retreat Center on the big island of Hawai'i.

Prior to their departure, Arnie and Therese requested from the board of the Unified Buddhist Church $500,000. The board advised them that such a request could only be considered if they accept to enlarge the board of Dharma Friends in Hawai'i, so it will consist of local members practicing and living together in the spirit of harmony and awareness. This will allow the unfolding of a true Sangha. Since Arnie and Therese left for Hawai'i, the UBC board has approved to continue the equivalent of their full-time salary when they worked for CML/Parallax, so they could put all of their efforts into building this new Hawai'i center in its beginning stage. Recently in a letter to an Order of Interbeing member, Thay explained the concept of Sangha building and Dharma work:

"... Many of us take pleasure in doing dharma work and we get satisfaction when the work is done, but not many of us know how to conduct work as a practice. Interacting and interbeing with the Sangha is a wonderful opportunity to practice the dharma. We can learn how to listen and to release our views and help build more understanding, harmony, and love in the process of working and practicing together. The most wonderful outcome of the work is our own transformation and the transformation of our dharma brothers and sisters, and not fame, profit, power, or position.

Thay has invested himself into the work of Sangha building. Sangha building first of all means to be in the Sangha and to live with the Sangha. Sangha here is first of all the people we live with 24-hours a day. If the harmony and the happiness do not exist in that circle then things you do cannot really be called Dharma work. I know that if the Plum Village Sangha is not happy and harmonious, we cannot serve as the roots for any activities and aspirations outside plum Village like Parallax, Order of Interbeing, CML, etc. You would not be happy working in the community unless you accept and trust the Sangha of Plum Village. The more you trust and accept the Sangha, the greater will be your joy and your energy. All of us here in the three hamlets of Plum Village, Maple Forest Monastery, and Tu Hieu Temple feel very much the same.

Love and trust help us in our practice and transformation. Without them, twenty years of Dharma work would not bring about anything. If we do not trust, love, and accept each other while working with each other, how could we describe our work as Dharma work? Suffering comes from the lack of trust and acceptance, made concrete by the practice of taking refuge in the Sangha. If you do not trust the Sangha, you cannot profit from the Sangha eyes and the Sangha energy. If you do not trust your teacher, he can no longer help you. If you do not trust the practice and apply it to your daily work, then you cannot say that you are taking refuge in the Dharma. The Dharma is real; it is to come and see directly. The Sangha is not something you can set up by means of correspondence (Email, letters, magazines, telephone calls, etc.) or even ordinations.

Please reflect on these things and you will understand everything."

On May 4, 2000, Thay and the Sangha of Plum Village sent a letter to Arnie and Therese, inviting them to come and live with the Plum Village Sangha in order to deepen their training in the practice.

Notes from the Community:MPC of Fairfax, Virginia 

Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen have been working for the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (MPCF) since its creation a year and a half ago. Nearly 400 people from different corners of the Washington metropolitan area have come to the MPCF for daily and weekly sessions, monthly days of mindfulness, as well as evening classes. The monthly day of mindfulness has become a regular day of practice and rest for many people. The deep relaxation program for children has been helping many children to become calm, a challenge for many parents in a fast-pace society.

Still Water Sangha-Santa Barbara

By Larry Ward

The Full Blossom Sangha grew out of a 1997 retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. For two years, a small group of dedicated practitioners met to sit, walk, and share the practice. Thay's 1999 retreat brought phenomenal growth to this Sangha, along with a new name, location, and leadership.

The blossom became Still Water. The Sangha meets every Sunday evening at Trinity Episcopal Chruch, 1500 State Street in Santa Barbara. Still Water Sangha serves as a root home to train leaders who come from neighboring communities of Santa Ynez, Ojai, and Ventura.

We schedule Days of Mindfulness bimonthly, and have had three memorable days in community and in nature with our community. This July, we will have our first retreat, with Minh Tranh coming from Montreal. Our community delights in singing, and the simplicity and sweetness that flow from Thay's teachings.

Our Sangha has begun the process of visioning and searching for facilities to establish a Mindfulness Practice Center to extend the Dharma to the many communities and organizations of South Coast California.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, is a member of the Management Committee of Parallax Press and Community of Mindful Living.

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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.


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.


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.



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

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