Retreat

Dharma Talk: Community as a Resource

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We can make people happy. One person has the capacity to be an infinite resource of happiness for others. The more we practice the art of mindful living, the more we become a source of happiness and joy. This is possible.

But we need a place, such as a retreat center or a monastery, where we can go to renew ourselves. The features of the landscape, the buildings, and the sound of the bell should be designed to remind us to return to awareness. Even when we cannot actually go to the retreat center, we can think of it, smile, and feel ourselves becoming peaceful.

The community does not need to be big. It is enough to have ten or fifteen permanent residents who emanate freshness and peace, the fruits of living in awareness. When we go there, they care for us, console andsupport us, and help us heal our wounds.

From time to time, the residents can organize large retreats so that we can learn the arts of enjoying our lives more and taking good care of each other. Mindful living is an art, and this community can be a place where joy and happiness are real. They can also offer Days of Mindfulness, so that people can come and live one happy day together in community. And they can organize courses that teach The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and other courses on Buddhist psychology and healing in a Buddhist way. Most retreats will be for preventive practice, practicing mindful­ness before things get too bad. But some retreats should be for people who are undergoing a lot of suffering, although even then two-thirds of the retreatants should be healthy, happy people. Otherwise it may be difficult to succeed.

Practice has a lot to do with the happiness of the people in a family or a community. We practice not only in the meditation room, but in the kitchen, the backyard, the office, and in school as well. How can we incorporate practice into our daily lives, so that our daily lives can be joyful and happy?

The sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. When you are with your family and you practice smiling, breathing, recognizing the Buddha in yourself and your children, then your family becomes a sangha. If you have a bell in your home, the bell becomes part of your sangha, because the bell helps you to practice. If you have a cushion, then the cushion also becomes part of the sangha. Many things help us practice. The air, for breathing. If you have a park or a river bank near your home, you can enjoy practicing walking meditation. You have to discover your sangha. Invitea friend to come and practice with you, have tea meditation, sit with you, join you for walking medita­tion. All these efforts can help you establish your sangha at home. Practice is easier if you have a sangha.

The foundation of a community is a daily life that is joyful and happy. In Plum Village, children are the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children be happy, because we know that if the children are happy, it is easy for the adults to be happy. In old times, families were bigger. Not only nuclear families, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all lived together. Houses were surrounded by trees where they could hang hammocks and organize picnics. In those times, people did not have many of the problems we do now. Today, our families are very small. Besides Mom and Dad, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the whole family feels the effects. The atmosphere in the house is heavy, and there is nowhere to escape. Sometimes a child may go to the bathroom and lock the door just to be alone, but still there is no escape. The heavy atmosphere permeates the bathroom too. So the child grows up with many seeds of suffering and can never feel truly happy and then transmits these seeds to his or her children.

Formerly, when Mom and Dad had some problems, the children could always escape by going to an aunt or an uncle. They still had someone to look up to, and the atmosphere was not so threatening. I think that communities of mindful living can replace our former big families, be­cause when we go to these communities, we see many aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that can help us a lot.

You know that aged people are very sad when they have to live separately from their children and grandchildren. This is one of the things in the West that I do not like very much. In my country, aged people have the right to live with the younger people. It is the grandparents who tell fairy tales to the children. When they get old, their skin is cold and wrinkled, and it is a great joy to hold their grandchild, so warm, so tender. When a person grows old, his or her deepest hope is to have a grandchild to hold in his or her arms. They hope for it day and night, and when they hear that their daughter is pregnant, they are so happy. Nowadays the elderly have to go to a home where they live only among other aged people. Just once a week they receive a short visit, and afterwards they feel even sadder. We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.

A community of mindful living should be in a beautiful location in the countryside. In many cities today, you do not see a lot of trees, because so many trees have been cut down. I imagine—and I believe it is very close to reality—a city which has only one tree left. (I don't know what kind of miracle helped preserve that one tree.) Many people in that city have become mentally ill because they are so alienated from nature, our mother. In the old time, we lived among trees and we sat in hammocks. Now we live in small boxes made of concrete. The air we breathe is not clean, and we get sick, not only in our bodies but in our souls.

I imagine that there is a doctor in the city who under­stands why everyone is getting sick, and every time some­one comes to him, he tells them, "You are sick because you are cut off from Mother Nature." And he gives them this prescription: "Each morning, take the bus and go to the tree in the center of the city and practice tree-hugging medita­tion. Hold the tree and breathe in, 'I am with my mother.' Then breathe out, 'I am happy.' And look at the leaves so green and smell the bark of the tree that is so fragrant." The prescription is for fifteen minutes of breathing and hugging the tree. After doing it for three months, the patient feels much better. But the doctor has many patients, and he gives each of them the same prescription.

So I imagine a bus in the city going in the direction of the tree, while people are standing in line, waiting their turn to embrace the tree and breathe. But the line is several miles long, and the crowd is becoming impatient because they have to wait for such a long time. They demand new laws which will limit each person to just one minute of tree-hugging. But one minute is not long enough to be effective, and then there is no remedy for society's sickness. I am afraid we will be close to that situation very soon, if we are not mindful of what is going on in the present moment.

When we practice mindful living, we know what is going on in every moment of our daily lives. When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, we know it is a banana peel, and that banana peels decompose quickly and become flowers. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we have to know that it is a plastic bag. This is a practice of meditation: "I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage can." If we practice mindfulness, we will refrain from using things made of plastic, because we know that they take much more time to degrade into soil and become flowers. And we know that disposable diapers take four or five hundred years, so we refrain from using them. Nuclear waste, the most difficult kind of garbage, takes 250,000 years to become a flower. We are making the Earth an impossible place for our children to grow up.

Practicing mindfulness with friends allows us to get in touch with the healing aspects of life, Breathing mindfully the clean air, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves, our friends, and society. Smiling, we realize peace and joy. Communities of mindful living are very important for us to cultivate these practices.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lecture at the "Cultivat­ing Mindfulness" Retreat, Mt. Madonna Center, Watson­ville, California, April 1989.

To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Raindrops of a Bodhisattva

By Quyen Do

On the third day of our summer retreat at Maple Village outside of Montreal, the mountains around us were enveloped in fog. We woke up in the silence and fresh air, and after hearing the bell, entered the meditation hall for morning sitting. Then the rain started to fall lightly. After a session of sitting, Brother Chan Co led a recitation of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I felt calm and joyful being with my Sangha as we recited the opening verse three times.

After the closing verse and the sound of the bell, Chan Co smiled and said, "It's raining now." He seemed to feel the Sangha's energy and understand our need for a healing process. As the drops fell, they created music on the meditation hall roof. Through the windows, we saw only the blurred shape of Mt. Foster in eastern Quebec. After a few minutes of listening to the rain, Chan Co asked Carol Gover to sing Sister Annabel's song, "The Rain." Carol's soft voice fell harmoniously with the rain outside, and we listened in mindfulness:

"The rain is falling oh... so softly

Washing every leaf of every tree

Washing every care,

Namo Avalokiteshvara."

As we listened, some people struggled with pains brought up in the first two days. Some problems seemed immense: one participant's spouse had just received a diagnosis of cancer. Another had been raising a disabled child for 25 years.

"The rain is falling oh... so strong

Reaching every root of every tree

Reaching every root of affliction,

Namo Avalokiteshvara..."

As the song continued, it seemed that the Bodhisattva of Compassion came to the meditation hall, waving her tiny willow branch ti'om which healing drops of compassionate water fell on everyone of us. I was so moved by the moment that all my small anxieties washed away.

"The rain is falling oh... so loudly

Playing the music of joy

For ten thousands of beings,

Namo Avalokiteshvara."

Carol ended the song softly and total silence reigned in the hall. The raindrops sang on the roof. We sat for a long time, breathing in and out and listening to the rain. Even the bellmaster didn't touch the bell.

I have never participated in such a beautiful recitation. I felt Thay and Sister Annabel as closely as if they were sitting next to us and smiling. We stood up and comforted each other with hugging meditation, then continued the day. After breakfast, we all had joyful expressions on bur faces. In the supportive atmosphere of the Sangha, our individual suffering seemed diluted, dissipating with the rain.

Quyen Do, Chan Huyen, is a co-founder of Maple Village. She lives in Montreal, Canada, where she is a pharmacist.

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The breeze gently caresses my facetouching me in ways not mown before. Its energy reminds me of breath, the breath brings me to one with all that is, then flows out to leave a trace, a gentle breeze upon my face.

I feel the breath and breeze deep in that special place, a place called home from which I have traveled so far so long yet not out of Kwan Yin's palm.

And in this moment I realize, Arriving, I breathed in. looking deeply, I leave breathing out. In-out-my heart is open wide. Guided by the love of a brown-robed nun, chanting opens my heart.

For here I have laughed and cried with gentle touches and gentle eyes. There will be no sighs of goodbyesgreen lawn, green tree, blue sky, warm friendship.

This poem was written collectively by the "Columbine Family" Dharma Discussion Group on the last day of The Path of Emancipation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in June 1998 in Vermont.

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Buddha Eyes

Our dear Thay has done his very best over many years, transmitting the Buddha Eyes to us. The June retreat in Plum Village was a profound experience of this continued Buddha Eyes transmission. We learned of many types of eyes—Heavenly Eyes, Wisdom Eyes, Dharma Eyes, Sangha Eyes, and Buddha Eyes. The beginning of our retreat was spent developing our Sangha Eyes. Sangha Eyes call us beyond our ego eyes, which would have us believe we are substantially separate selves, with individual sensibilities and destinies, concerned only with what matters to us.

During the retreat, we touched the suchness of Sangha, and it healed our pain and transformed the fear in us. The more we were able to surrender to Sangha energy, the more joy we found in each breath and each step. We realized that the practice of the Sangha is the practice of deep interbeing or emptiness. Touching true emptiness, we reclaimed our solidity and freedom and our Buddha Eyes grew bright.

Buddha Eyes allow us to look deeply into the wonders of life, and as we touch these wonders, our peace and happiness are restored. But Buddha Eyes also allow us to see and touch the Sangha everywhere, within us and around us. It is said that upon awakening, the Buddha could see 48,000 beings in a cup of water. Buddha Eyes give us the gift of courage to come home to the present moment and see reality as it is, in its connectedness and wholeness. Buddha Eyes made our Dharma Eyes shine with the light of mindfulness. As the Dharma rain of the retreat fell on us, our understanding of the Four Noble Truths came, like the full moon into the darkness of our times. We dared to look into ourselves and into our new millennium, and we saw alienation, violence, and fear at the root of suffering.

After the retreat, I added a new daily practice. After sitting and walking meditation, I now read our local newspaper, noticing stories of suffering, alienation, violence, and fear. I have found that my heart and mind are open to new levels of identification, loving kindness, and compassion. We learn to practice the Noble Truth of suffering not for its own sake, but to find ways out of suffering. Thay charged us to practice this way during our retreat. We met in Dharma Discussion groups on education, health, and business, non-profit, youth, and others, in order to bring the Four Noble Truth to life.

With Buddha Eyes, we also saw clearly the great temptations of our millennium. We are tempted to believe that genetic and electronic invention and manipulation are our way out of suffering. While genetic manipulation promises new health and longer life spans, it also carries the shadow of seeking perfection disconnected from the reality of Interbeing, and from the causes and conditions that are a powerful part of who we are and who we become. Through insights into the ten realms, we realized that there is no genetic escape from the totality of our store consciousness, which contains all the seeds, both positive and negative, found in the depths of our cells.

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Our only hope is to create causes and conditions that water our positive seeds until they bloom as beautiful flowers, and to wrap our negative seeds within the arms of loving kindness until they fall asleep. The conditions that support healing and transformation must be created within us, in our Sanghas, and in our societies.

To transform and heal our alienation, violence, and fear, Thay encouraged us to create lay residential practice communities. He said that there are not enough monks and nuns, or enough time to provide the refuge needed to create the conditions for the healing and transformation of our suffering. Lay residential centers are crucial to transmit the field of energy, environment of safety, and presence of Dharma and Sangha that our times so desperately need. With our monastic centers, locals Sanghas, Mindfulness Practice Centers, and lay residential centers, we have a powerful way out of our suffering.

I am grateful for the Eyes of the Buddha retreat. I am grateful for the monks and nuns of Plum Village whose efforts made it possible. I am grateful for our dear teacher and his unselfish transmission of the Buddha Eyes.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, heads Community of Mindful Living and Parallax Press in Berkeley, California. He practices with the Stillwater Sangha in Santa Barbara, California, whose members have begun to look for property to establish a residential lay practice community.

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Announcements

Passages Married: On June 17, Lyn Coffin, True Mirror, and Paul Norton, Boundless Attentive Caring, were married in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Dharma Teacher Jack Lawlor (True Direction) performed the ceremony. The happy couple lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Community of Mindful Living Update

We at the central office of Communities of Mindful Living in Berkeley, California have been working mindfully on a number of projects.

Our staff of seven people has been working hard organizing Thay's West Coast events for this Fall—working with volunteers, coordinating publicity, logistics, administrative, and registration processes to make it possible (and easy) for thousands of people to practice with Thay.

We are in the process of creating two new pamphlets: "Welcome to the Order of Interbeing" and "The Communities of Mindful Living Network." These pamphlets are being developed to further connect individuals to one another and to support and nourish lay practice in the United States. We are also compiling data from the Sangha Survey responses and preparing a summary report for interested individuals and Sanghas.

We practice mindfulness in the workplace by enjoying telephone meditation, weekly Beginning Anew practice, and daily meditation in the afternoon. We continue to embrace "don't know" mind as we transition into our new manifestation as a division of the Unified Buddhist Church. Our mindfulness practices in the workplace have been nourishing and deeply healing elements in our daily work lives.

Notes from the Ottawa Sangha

The Ottawa community had three memorable days with Sister Annabel during the weekend of April 14,2000. The study program started with a Dharma talk by Sister Annabel to the Vietnamese community on Friday night. The subject was mindfulness practice and guarding of our six senses. Our community was delighted with the chanting ceremony and singing practice led by Sister Chan Hoa Nghiem in Vietnamese.

The next day was a Day of Mindfulness, organized by the Ottawa Buddhist Society together with all Thay's practice groups in Ottawa. Many people from different traditions and cultures came together for this one-day event. Sister Annabel gave a wonderful talk on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and seven people received the Trainings at the end of the day. Everyone cooperated and practiced beautifully and it felt that this is what the world could be like Sister Annabel's talk was taped and put on the Ottawa local Website by Andre Vellino. The website address is www.ncf.carleton.ca/dharma/.

On Sunday, Sister Annabel and Hoa Nghiem visited the Chanh-Kien Buddhist Youth Family downtown at MacNabb Center. There, Sister Annabel gave another meaningful talk to the young people and their parents.

Notes from Maple Village Sangha

About sixty Order members and friends gathered for the Vietnamese Order of Interbeing annual retreat at Maple Village (Bolton West, Quebec, Canada) during the long weekend of May 19, 2000. During the retreat, a new bell tower was erected in front of the Dharma hall. We now have a beautiful place for the bell, with flowers all around.

Live-in-Mindfulness at Haus Maitreya

Throughout the year, Haus Maitreya in Germany offers the possibility for friends to live and practice. Karl and Helga Riedl, who lived in Plum Village for several years, are the Dharma teachers in residence. Haus Maitreya advises guests to come for at least a week, but shorter periods are possible. For more details or a sample daily schedule, please contact Intersein-Zentrum fur Leben in Achtsamkeit, Haus Maitreya, Unterkashof 2 1/3, 94545 Hohenau, Germany; Tel: (49)8558-920252; Fax: (49)8558-920434; e-mail: intersein.maitreya@t-online.de

MB Subscription Manager Needed

The Mindfulness Bell needs an experienced subscription manager or database manager to manage our subscription list (on Access, Excel, Panorama, or Acumen), input new and renewal subscriptions, and work with the mail house as each issue goes out. If you are interested in focusing loving energy and expertise on The Mindfulness Bell 10-20 hours a week (more just prior to and after each issue's release), please call or send your resume and letter of interest to Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707, USA; Tel: (510)527-3751; Fax: (510)525-7129; cml@iamhome.org

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Helping Congress Be Like a Sangha

By Scott Nance

The next time a congressman or congresswoman is waiting at the airport, maybe he or she won’t be caught up thinking about his or her next meeting, or an upcoming vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, he or she may be doing mindful breathing or mindful walking. That’s because Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and other monastics from Plum Village recently brought the importance of mindfulness and going home to ourselves to members of Congress at an evening presentation at the Library of Congress on September 10th. A special retreat for members of Congress and their families followed two days later.

The idea behind meeting with members of Congress, their families, and their staffs was not to offer political ideas or suggestions, Thay said a few days before the retreat.

Co-sponsored by The Faith and Politics Institute, an independent organization in Washington, the purpose of the events was to share the practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking with U.S. lawmakers, their staffs, and their loved ones.

It’s been forty years since Thay first visited the U.S. capital. He first came in 1963 when the South Vietnamese regime repressed Buddhists and kept them from celebrating the Buddha’s birthday. Thay noted that he visited Washington a lot during the Vietnam War. “I came to bring information about the Vietnam War; information that was not available through the warring parties,” he said.

Thay recalled a particularly memorable visit during the war when he met with six senators, including Senators Edward Kennedy and George McGovern. “Six senators were eating lunch and asked me questions. I did not have the time to eat one spoonful of soup,” he remembered.

For this most recent trip, Thay and Sister Chan Khong began their visit by meeting with reporters. The press conference was the morning of September 10, just hours before Thay’s talk in a packed auditorium at the Library of Congress. “We have come as a group of people who know the practice,” Thay said. “That is why in the retreat, there will be a collective energy of mindfulness that can support those who are beginners in the practice.

Congressman Brian Baird of Washington has been reading Thay’s books for more than ten years, and gained a lot from participating in the retreat. “I thought it was outstanding,” the congressman said following the retreat. “It was a privilege and honor to meet Thich Nhat Hanh. I thought many of his ideas--particularly the practice of meditation as he teaches it--can be very beneficial. “Both my wife and I have tried to incorporate the practice of meditation--especially walking meditation concepts--and mindfulness in general in our daily lives,” he added. Congressman Baird said he and his wife find themselves eating differently after the retreat. He also practices walking meditation at work. “When walking to and from votes, for example, I’ll use that opportunity to be aware of breathing, and think of some of the concepts that Thich Nhat Hanh shared with us,” he said.

Participating in the retreat has already had a positive effect on his job in the House, the congressman said. “I think it tends to make it both more effective and more enjoyable,” he said. The congressman believes he will be more effective by being focused on core values and awareness, then interactions with others will be more positive and more successful. “And much of this job is about interactions,” he said.

Introducing Thay for the evening talk, Congresswoman Lois Capps of California acknowledged that Thay’s talk coincided with the observance of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

Congresswoman Capps said that “it is very appropriate that he be here with us, particularly that he be here on this eve of this momentous day in our nation’s history…”

To begin the evening at the Library of Congress, Sister Chan Khong sang a beautiful song, encouraging the audience to breathe mindfully in preparation for Thay’s talk. By surprise, another of the notables who made introductory remarks for Thay was well-known television comedian Garry Shandling. Mr. Shandling followed Sister Chan Khong, and he asked the audience for a round of applause for her lovely, inspirational song. The audience responded with a rousing ovation. “Sister Chan Khong, along with all of us who are fighting our egos, still wants a little applause now and then,” Mr. Shandling said playfully. “She is a fantastic woman.”

Then, with a smile, he said, “The question that must be in your mind: What am I doing here?” He revealed that he has practiced Zen Buddhism for twenty-five years. “I never talk about it,” he said. “My comedy certainly deals with the human condition and the suffering, and the pain, and the emotions that we all live through. Thank goodness I have a way to express it through my comedy. Behind that, I am someone who has meditated, and had a path--and a serious path--all these years.”

“The magic of Thich Nhat Hanh--and it’s nothing short of magic--is that he invited me, knowing that this sense of humor---this child-like art---is really part of life,” he added. Mr. Shandling said he has known Thay for two years. “I love him. I know him after those two years. I knew him after the first moment I looked in his eyes,” he said. He said that Thay really has touched in such a gentle, special way so many countless numbers of lives. “I’m one of them, and that’s what brings me here tonight,” he said.

Scott Nance is a professional journalist living and practicing in the Washington, D.C. area. Photography by Eric Alan.

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Without Blame or Judgment

Reflections on Engaged Practice in the Holy Land By Mitchell Ratner

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We did walking meditation together, each of us silently breathing and stepping, opening ourselves to the moment. We formed a circle and chanted together, giving homage to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva who hears and responds to the suffering of the world. All of us had walked and chanted before, but this time the atmosphere was noticeably different—our walking trail was the approach to the Israeli military checkpoint that separates the Palestinian authority-controlled city of Nablus from the rest of the West Bank.

This checkpoint is often in the news. Many West Bank Palestinians need to cross it each day, to work, study, do business, or seek medical treatment. Journalists and foreign observers have substantiated Palestinian claims of needlessly long waits and degrading treatment by the guards. We had come to the checkpoint to offer a healing presence.

There were about twenty of us at the checkpoint that day in June of 2003. Eleven of us had come from outside Israel, including four Plum Village monastics, three lay Dharma teachers, and several Order of Interbeing members. We had come to Israel to share the practice of mindfulness and to open ourselves to the suffering, resilience, and wisdom that is present in Israel and the West Bank.

The international program began with a five-day mindfulness retreat at Givat Haviva, a kibbutz education center in the rural heartland of Israel. The international community joined with 50 Israelis to develop our practice of mindfulness. During the Dharma talks we talked about the Buddhist understanding of suffering and the overcoming of suffering. In Dharma discussion groups and private sharings, we talked about the particular suffering that Israelis felt, especially the daily fear that some unforeseen incident will bring great harm to them or their families, and the larger, overhanging sense of despair, that the situation will not improve.

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Three themes emerged for me during the Givat Haviva retreat that helped me frame what I saw, heard, and experienced in Israel.

The first theme was about blame. With mindfulness we can develop the capacity to relate to ourselves and others without blame. As Thay Phap An noted in one of the Dharma talks, “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” In the context of Israel, the words resounded. Almost every public or private discussion of the Jewish-Arab conflict focuses on attributing blame. Each side justifies the suffering they have caused in terms of the suffering they have received. The suffering is not abstract or distant; almost everyone in Israel and the West Bank has a relative, friend, or acquaintance who has been killed or wounded.

The second theme was about the importance of our daily practice, of working with our own suffering. Sister Gina shared with the community how important it was for her to be able to take care of her own anger, fear, and defensiveness:

“I really have to practice. Only if I can do it, can I expect others to do it. If I cannot do it my daily life, there’s no hope. . . I would sink into despair for myself and for the world.”

This focus on the connection between our inner lives and the conditions we wish to see in the world is a special gift that mindfulness practice offers the peace movement.

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The final, third theme was about the power of history, our own history and that of our community. At Givat Haviva most of the participants were Jewish and many of the discussions led back to the Holocaust. The question was often raised in terms of whether Israeli Jews, as individuals and as a community, had worked through the Holocaust—whether that unimaginably searing and painful experience had been fully processed so that it no longer clouded understanding of the current reality.

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After Givat Haviva, the international participants, along with some of our Israeli hosts, spent a long day in the West Bank. In the morning we visited activists from a Palestinian village that will be cut off from its agricultural land by the new Israeli “security wall.” In the afternoon the residents of a small Palestinian community, near Nablus, offered us mint tea and told us about the struggles of their daily life, including attacks and harassment from an Israeli-Jewish settler community that has established outposts on the hills over their village, the general economic and social instability arising from the Israeli control of the West Bank, and the daily difficulties caused by the many blocked roads and Israeli checkpoints—what was a fifteen minute drive to Nablus had become at least a two-hour ordeal, and some days it was not possible to go there at all.

Following our stop at the Nablus checkpoint, we returned to Israel, and arrived late at night at Neve Shalom/Wahat alSalam (Oasis of Peace), an intentional community founded in the 1970s by a Dominican priest in the foothills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For more than twenty-five years Israeli Jews have lived as neighbors with Palestinian Arabs and Christians. Together they have created an international peace center, a bilingual/bi-national elementary school, and a retreat program that brings together Israeli Arab and Israeli Jewish high school students. A bumper sticker they make and distribute reads simply, in Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace Is Possible.”

Our next stop was Jerusalem, where we stayed for several nights with host families and together visited historical and spiritual sites, such as the Church of the Sepulcher (built on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion) and the Western or Wailing Wall (the last remnant of the second temple). One morning we visited the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem—a harrowingly effective presentation of what it meant, life by life, for six million people, one and a half million of them children, to have died, only because they were Jewish. Afterwards, we did walking meditation together in the hall of memory, holding each other’s hands, calming ourselves, struggling to simply breathe and remain open: not to close to the suffering, not to be overwhelmed by it.

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An hour later we had lunch at the Jerusalem office of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a remarkable German non-governmental organization started in the 1950s by Protestant theologians. The organization’s founding principle was that when a great harm has been committed, there must be atonement before there can be reconciliation.

We Germans began World War II and for this reason alone, more than others, we are guilty for bringing immeasurable suffering to humankind. Germans have murdered millions of Jews in an outrageous rebellion against God. Those of us who did not want this annihilation did not do enough to prevent it. For this reason, we are still not at peace. There has not been true reconciliation. ...

We are requesting all peoples who suffered violence at our hands to allow us to perform good deeds in their countries, ... to carry out this symbol of reconciliation.

As Sabine Lohmann, the Jerusalem office’s director explained, more than thirty-five years after that statement, young Germans still come each year to Israel, and to similar offices in eleven other countries. In Israel they learn Hebrew, provide personal care to Holocaust survivors, and work in special education classes and with people with disabilities—classes of people especially affected by Nazi policy.

The still vivid images from the Holocaust museum, coming together with the German organizations efforts to reach to the roots of reconciliation, encouraged us, right there in the organization’s meeting room, to have an intense and cathartic sharing about World War II, Jews, Germans, cruelty, guilt, blame, and atonement. Thay Phap Minh, a Plum Village monk, born and raised in Israel, reminded us that demonizing almost always accompanies blaming. We separate ourselves by highlighting certain characteristics and ignoring others. For him, it was important to remember that “the dark side of the Nazi is within me and there’s great love in the heart of a Nazi.”

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After several more events in Jerusalem, we headed north to Nazareth. While the retreat at Givat Haviva followed closely the structure of a standard mindfulness retreat, the events in Nazareth also included exchanges between the Israeli mindfulness community and other groups working for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

During the days preceding the public events in Nazareth, the international group and Israeli organizers met with two extraordinary Arab groups. Memory for Peace was started in Nazareth by Father Shoufani, an Arab Greek Catholic Prelate. He brought together Christian Arabs and Islamic Arabs who felt that there was no place in the public dialogue for the positions they held in their hearts. Nazir Mgally, a journalist, shared with us:

We are Palestinian people. We are also part of the Israeli state. We suffer with the people in the West Bank. We suffer with the Israelis. We said we were the bridge, and we didn’t do it. . . . I felt the best way to stop the bloodshed was to return to our roots as human beings. I felt I needed to understand his [the Jewish persons] suffering. Maybe he will understand our suffering.

The Memory for Peace group began by studying Jewish history together, and, after some time, they invited Israeli Jews to study with them. Just weeks before we met with six members of this group, they had traveled together to Auschwitz, 150 Arab-Israelis and 150 Jewish-Israelis.

A Nazareth building contractor explained why, as an Arab, he went to Auschwitz:

We are living here together and recent events have hurt us. We’ve seen the Jewish people close down and distance themselves. We wanted to see the roots; wanted to go to the place of greatest disaster. Today we know the main problems of the Jews. The Jewish people have fear. They have always been chased. We want to support them. Our aim is holy. With all our might we want to bring together the people who are living here.

The next day we met with a small delegation led by Sheikh Abd Elsalem H. Manasra, the head of the Salam Qaderite Sufi Order in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He explained that while Sufis are Muslim, their tradition differs from many other Islamic traditions in that they try to penetrate into the texts, rather than interpret them from above. In Arabic, the words “Islam”, “peace”, “surrender”, and “wholeness”, all have the same linguistic root. The Sheikh’s spiritual vision was open and embracing:

I’m speaking as a human being, as an Arab, and as the Muslim. I begin with human being. This is what I share with you. Everything else is less.

Sufis say they have the truth, but not the whole truth. Others have a truth as well.

The holy man gives peace to the earth. We should break down the borders in order to reach the man.

There are only two commandments: love of God and love of man. This is enough for a universal religion.

The holy land can include all the Palestinians and all the Jews, if we love.

Before leaving, the sheik taught us to rhythmically chant, in the Sufi style, the name Allah, the pronoun of God. We stood and joined together our voices and spirits: Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, holding a sacred space together.

The retreat program in Nazareth, at the St. Gabriel’s Hotel, included elements from a standard mindfulness retreat, such as Dharma talks, sittings, and walking meditation, along with several public events. On Friday night, two hundred people sat in the church of St. Gabriel to listen to representatives from eight groups talk about their experiences working for reconciliation and peace. On Saturday afternoon, the retreat ended with a silent peace walk through Nazareth, to Mary’s well, in the heart of the city.

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Often during the weekend, around meals and odd moments, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Jews, and members of the international community shared personal stories and reflections. In Hebrew, Arabic, and English, sometimes all three languages at once, people talked about their roots, their desire for peace, and their frustration with the distrust and fear that separated communities. Afterwards, both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews mentioned that this casual sharing from the heart, across customary boundaries, which had happened in Nazareth, was rare even at peace and reconciliation events.

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Several days after the retreat, on my last full day in Israel, I sat with a Jewish Israeli friend talking about what I had seen and learned. I struggled to pull the parts together. When I talked about the spiritual lessons I had learned while in Israel, my comments centered on all that we gain when we let go of blaming. I felt I had gained insight into what Thay Phap An had said, that “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” When we blame we distort. When we blame we highlight an individual’s or group’s actions, we ignore the context, and we ignore the contributions we or others may have made to the situation. When blame is in my heart, the other person naturally becomes defensive. Communication breaks down. Authentic dialogue and reconciliation cannot occur.

And yet, a few minutes later, when I talked about the reality of daily life I had observed in Israel and the West Bank, I dwelled on the defects of Jewish Israeli society. In me were feelings of disappointment and anger. The distrust and institutional racism was more extensive than I had imagined. I asked my friend, “Of all people, after the experience of the Holocaust, how could Jewish people be so intolerant of Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank? How could they be insensitive to their pain?”

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For several hours we talked, working our way down to the roots of the incompatibility between what I was feeling and saying about Jewish Israeli society and my increased understanding of the corrosive effects of blaming. I shared with my friend that the trip had made me aware of how often blame crept into my thinking and speaking. To use words such as racism and intolerance almost automatically steers a conversation toward blaming. Often, however, it is much more subtle--spontaneous remarks directed at loved ones, and seemingly objective discussion of social issues which slip into blame. (How could you/they do that?)

Why was it so hard for me to let go of blame? For the next two months I pondered the question and talked about it with friends. Finally the realization came that in my life, in an odd way, blaming was connected to caring. When it seemed that someone else’s actions were causing pain to me or to those I cared about, my response was to blame them. When I acted in ways that seemed to undermine the goals I had set for myself, I blamed myself. When people close to me acted in ways other than what I thought was in their best interest, I blamed them. That was how I was raised.

My strong reaction to what I saw as Jewish Israeli insensitivities came out of a deep caring. I did not want that community, which had suffered so much, to be destroyed again. I deeply wanted Israeli Jews to act in ways I believed would lead to a just and lasting peace. I saw that in my reactive blaming I underplayed how debilitating the historical wounds might be (Who was I to judge that enough time had past?), and I underplayed how many causes and conditions from outside the Israeli-Jewish community contributed to what I perceived as Israeli-Jewish insensitivity to the pain of others.

For me, the great challenge, in Israel and elsewhere, is to let go of the blame and not let go of the caring. Without blame, we can still work and hope for peace. Without blame, we can still bring attention to situations of injustice. We can even ask people to act in a different way, or, when necessary, forcibly prevent some persons from hurting others. Without blame, rather than closed and angry, our hearts are open and accepting.

Mitchell Ratner, True Mirror of Wisdom, is a Dharma teacher living in Takoma Park, Maryland and practicing with  the  Still  Water  Mindfulness  Practice  Center.

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Peace Is Mandatory, Plumbing Is Optional

by Margaret Kirschner mb36-Peace1

Visualize Deer Park during winter retreat. Imagine the logistics needed to accommodate 250 monastics and approximately 250 lay retreatants, up to 1,000 or so on Days of Mindfulness when the local community visits. Picture the kitchens that prepare the food, the dishes, pots, pans, and silverware that need to be washed after each meal. Estimate the number of showers, hand washings, toilet flushings, tooth brushing, tea making, and the amount of water needed to keep the gardens alive and flourishing.

During the afternoon free time, a retreatant goes back to her room, ready to take a shower. She turns the faucet. Nothing happens. The water is off. She checks with neighbors. Theirs is off also. Next with the kitchen, and the restrooms near the Meditation Hall. Solidity Hamlet, Clarity Hamlet–all are without water. The pumps had stopped working. Was there panic? Was there grumbling and complaining? Was the water restored shortly thereafter? No, no, and no. The aridness of the desert enclosed the Deer Park retreatants.

Shortly after, the monastics announced a plan. They said the kitchens had reserve tanks that allowed enough water for meal preparations and cleanup. Large trucks would bring barrels of water, which would be placed outside our dormitories, along with buckets so we could bring in water to flush the toilets. We were asked to use the old slogan, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” Packets of chlorinated wipes appeared here and there. Mindfulness practice continued as if nothing troublesome had occurred.  The water did not come back on until the next day, at least eighteen hours later. But even when it returned, only one pump was working, so we were asked to continue to conserve as much as possible in the week to come.

What caused peace to pervade the difficulties created by this situation? Was it the calm manner of the monk who made the announcement that solicited the acceptance of the water shortage? Was it the mindfulness practice of the participants? Surely both contributed, but the initial meeting of the monastics who were charged with responsibility must have been a generating source. There had to have been a committee of calm thinking ones, with an awareness that nothing is permanent. There must have been trust in the skills of those who were to do the repairs and an understanding that creative solutions come from serene minds. I’d have loved to have been a mouse in the corner watching the mindfulness that contributed to everything working out so harmoniously.

And so it goes at our retreat, day by day. Each small activity, imbued with mindfulness, builds further mindfulness and takes us through life’s vexations with equanimity and joy. May we show our gratitude by remembering this experience and by sharing this accepting awareness with our families and communities.

Margaret Kirschner, True Silent Sound, lives in Portland, Oregon and practices with the Portland Community of Mindful Living.  She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing during the winter retreat.

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Teens, Yoga, and Nature

An Interview with Holiday Johnson by Terry Masters

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Holiday, tell us about your yoga classes for teenagers.

I know that some people are hesitant to work with teens; they regard them with suspicion, or fear. But my experience with teens has been wonderful. I’m encouraged by their enthusiasm, creativity, and their delight in life. I really love them!

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What kind of work do you do with teens?

Thirteen years ago I started a non-profit program for teens which we named Standing on Your Own Two Feet. The purpose of the program is to use yoga to develop skills in teenagers that produce a sense of well-being. In my experience, yoga helps youngsters become strong, centered, and healthy.

Teens can come to any class at our yoga studio seven days a week. But I offer two yoga classes that are designed specifically for youngsters eleven to seventeen years old. Because teens often don’t have much money, the classes are half price, and I offer free classes for two months each year. During those months teenagers can attend classes every day if they want at no charge.

You also sponsor a teen retreat, don’t you? What is that like?

It is so inspiring! This past August, nine girls, ages thirteen to seventeen years old, and two adults gathered at a retreat center in an organic apple orchard in the mountains near Parkdale, Oregon for three days and two nights.

Each girl brought her own vegetarian recipe to prepare for the group. We had some delicious and creative organic vegetarian meals! In appreciation for the wonderful food and the work that went into preparing it, we began each meal with the Five Contemplations.

We practiced meditation every day. We offered formal yoga classes, and informal ones, too: the girls invented their own tree pose in the river! Sometimes the girls were quiet, enjoying the time to reflect and relax. Of course, there were also times when the girls were chatty and giggly.

We hiked. We swam. We sat in awe of nature: one girl found frog eggs for us to admire; another commented on how beautiful it was to be swimming in an apple orchard. One day Judy Bluehorse, a Native American, guided us through the woods, pointing out the various medicinal uses of the plants and trees we saw.

What is especially encouraging for me in working with teens is how they share their ideas with each other so freely. How supportive and kind they are, how sweetly they encourage each other. For example, some of the girls were afraid to swim in the muddy-bottomed lake. After some encouragement from their peers, the timid ones were in there having fun too. That kind of sweetness, that kind of compassion and generosity, gives me hope for the future.

If folks want to find out more about your work with teenagers, how can they get in touch with you?

Our website is www.holidaysyogacenter.com. I'd be happy to share whatever I can with people who are interested in working with teens. And I’d love to know more about what others are doing.

Holiday Johnson, Kind Forgiveness of the Heart, practices with the True Name Sangha in Portland, Oregon.

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Lessons from the Deer Park Family Retreat

By Karen Hilsberg mb40-Lessons1

My plan was to take a friend and my children, Ben, five, and Emily, eight, to the family retreat at Deer Park over the fourth of July weekend. This would be our third family retreat with the Deer Park Sangha. Though my husband, Bruce, recently passed away, my hope was to return to a place where we had shared many meaningful times and to continue our family practice with the support of the Sangha. The week before the retreat, my friend decided not to come. Three days before the retreat, Emily voiced her desire not to come as well. When she told me it was “not right to force her” to attend a mindfulness retreat, I could not deny the truth of her words. She and my son opted to stay home with a babysitter and for only the second time as a parent, I traveled without my husband and children.

I felt a mixture of excitement, freedom, anxiety, and fear as I headed out of town: thrilled at the prospect of having only myself to look after and all the programs I could attend uninterrupted by my children’s needs; excited that my children felt safe, independent, and trusting enough to speak their truth and send me on retreat; delighted that I could release my plans and concerns about what others might think, and just take care of myself. All these feelings were mixed with a strange new feeling of independence after the past year of caretaking during Bruce’s illness and dying process. After dreaming of getting away (and sometimes of running away) during the past year while sitting in doctor’s offices and hospitals, in the fullness of time, I was presented with the possibility of a dream come true. And I had taken it.

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In this state of mind, I arrived at Deer Park, fully expecting the retreat to be a life-changing experience, based on my previous retreat experience there. I felt open in a way that I never had before––expectant, wondering, and alive. I surrendered to the retreat and the time was magical for me. I practiced mindfulness with my whole heart and created my intention to be fully present. with my experiences and to the Sangha. I am so grateful to the Sangha for the support my family has been offered, and I wanted to give back. I let go of my tendency to create arbitrary plans and instead just followed the schedule and my instincts about where I needed to be, what thoughts and feelings were coming up for me, what I needed to be doing and with whom, and trusted in the refuge of the three jewels.

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Besides attending nearly every scheduled activity, I also had the luxury of engaging in many conversations with my lay and monastic brothers and sisters. Highlights of the retreat for me were the Rose Ceremony, the early morning hike up the mountain, participating in a Five Mindfulness Trainings panel presentation, and attending wonderful Dharma talks on parenting. Nourishing moments included laughing with friends in the garden and dining hall after meals, crying about Bruce’s death, seeing a raven for the first time, learning about oak trees, and sleeping in a hut in Clarity Hamlet with the nuns. Everything felt safe and familiar yet totally fresh, surprising, and new to me at the same time.

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I have brought home a recharged spiritual battery, newfound and deepened friendships, a more intimate understanding of myself, my marriage, my children, and my priorities as a mother, daughter, sister, and practitioner. I continue to experience new insights that help me transform my life. Central to my newfound freedom has been an awareness of how my plans and ideas about how to parent interfere with my enjoyment of my life and my children here and now. I’ve noticed since I’ve been home that I’ve been listening more deeply to my children, feeling more patient with myself and with them, and taking more time for myself when I feel sad, tired, irritable, or frustrated. I’ve been aware of not pushing myself like I used to and continue to make time and space for my practice at home every day.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, is a psychologist and lives with her children near Deer Park Monastery.

Lessons from Deer Park Monastery

Money Doesn’t Guarantee Happiness

by Rachel Tripp mb43-Money1

When I was eight years old my mother announced to me that we were doing a very unusual thing on summer vacation. She told me that we were going to Stonehill College for a week. I was very worried that it was going to involve math, but I was even more surprised to find out that it was a meditation retreat. Actually, I wasn’t required to meditate myself. There was a children’s program at which I was going to be dumped every day, under the care of monks and nuns. I had seen pictures of them and they didn’t appear to be having any fun. Boy, was I wrong!

At this and another retreat, I got to know one monk and one nun very well. The monk’s name was Phap Ung and he was thirty years old and had grown up in Vietnam. The nun’s name was Sister Anh Nghiem. She had grown up in Vietnam but was educated in England and spoke with a very funny English accent. They were both the most amazing people. But for one thing, they had no hair. I expected them to be very solemn and serious and was surprised to find them skipping rope with the rest of us, their robe tails flying. No matter how crazy we kids got, their smile was constant and they never yelled or lost their cool.

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They told me how happy they were with their simple way of life, each of them owning only three robes, three pairs of shoes, and one very small bowl. They live according to all sorts of rules regarding when they can sleep and what jobs they do. Sister Anh Nghiem told me a story about how hard it was for her to part with her favorite yellow stuffed ducky upon entering the monastery, and Phap Ung told me how much he misses his country. However, each of them said that it was a small price to pay for the breathtaking freedom from the power of “things.” They were completely devoted to their self-chosen spiritual path.

I would have thought that someone with no checkbook, no cell phone, no fax, and no hair, would be the most miserable person in the world, but in fact they are the most joyous people I have ever been able to spend time with. I learned many lessons from them: how to stay peaceful in the present moment, that a lot of money and things aren’t necessary to be happy, that there are many paths to God, and that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or a nun by her robes.

mb43-Money3Rachel Tripp, Loving Compassion of the Heart, is 13 and lives in Sandwich,  Massachusetts. She received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the GMDC Summer Family Retreat at Stonehill College in June 2006.

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The Leaves of One Tree

By Le Thu Thuy mb48-TheLeaves1

When we arrived, the hallway in the Claymont Court building was filled with light. It was a cold, windy, winter night and the retreatants came in wearing heavy winter jackets. We hugged each other with deep breaths and beaming smiles. At dinner time, the sound of a gentle bell rang, subduing all noise and motion. The whole room became a completely quiet place. We had our first meal in silence.

Before long, [Dharma teacher] Anh Huong appeared and sat in front of my husband and me. She gave us a gentle, motherly smile, and expressed her appreciation to my husband for driving me here. Anh Huong suggested that, as soon as we finished dinner, he should head home to be with our three teenagers, and assured him that I would be safe during my stay.

Being Nurtured in Body and Soul

As Anh Huong promised, I was safe and well taken care of. I was pampered with fresh country air, well fed with organic vegetarian food, and accompanied by gentle friendship. I noticed that the head cook often joined us in the sitting and indoor walking meditation. This time, she also joined us for the Touching the Earth meditation and sat next to me. At the end, Anh Huong carefully guided us through Hugging Meditation. We hugged each other in three long breaths of respect, appreciation, and love. The cook hugged the person on her right, then me, and by that time her eyes and mine were filled with tears. She carried the aromas of the foods that she had prepared. This fragrance touched my heart and carried my memory back to the cozy days in Vietnam, when I was awakened by the smell of the wonderful foods that my mother cooked for the Vietnamese New Year festival. In silence, I thanked the cook for all her tasteful and nourishing food. She was not just a cook, but a dear sister making meals for us. Some of her desserts were incredibly delicious. She baked the best brownies that I have ever tasted; I swallowed them slowly and savored each small bite.

On this three-day weekend retreat, I could do what I could not find the opportunity to do in my busy life — my mind and heart were with the food and drink in each meal. I loved to hold a cup of tea with both hands and let its heat warm my cold hands. I slowly drank one sip at a time. I felt the tea being absorbed gently by the tiny cells of my whole body. As the night came, and in the silence of the warm companionship of my two roommates, I quickly fell asleep. It was more like a vacation than a religious retreat as I actually had the time and space to rest.

A Daughter in a Confucian Home

Within the Sangha’s cradle, I allowed myself to be fragile. The little wounded girl inside of me had a chance to breathe, to sob, and to ask for compassion and acceptance. In her Dharma talks Anh Huong showed us how to practice no-self by looking at our hands. Using mindful and compassionate breathing, we looked deeply at our ancestors’ traits that exist in each vessel of our hands. Joining her invitation, I found my own suffering intertwined with my ancestors’ torments. By deeply contemplating the past, I recognized my mother, the only daughter of a well-established family that was deeply influenced by the teachings of Confucius.

My mother grew up with her voice being ignored and her presence considered irrelevant. In that culture, a daughter was worth nothing because her father believed that she would soon belong to another family when she married; he would invest very little in her education. My mother had a fifth-grade education — her younger brothers went to college abroad and later became a doctor, a professor, and a law enforcement officer.

I was more fortunate. My parents worked very hard to give me the best education in Saigon. Witnessing the lack of education and mistreatment that his only sister endured, my father offered me the same opportunities, attention, affection, and love that my brothers received.

Because we did not carry my mother’s family name, my siblings and I were often treated as outsiders by her father. Sadly, no one was aware of the seeds of unworthiness that played a big part in my mother’s identity and were quietly being passed on to her children. I often felt insecure and left out, while my siblings set ambitious goals to establish their own identities and reputation, perhaps as a way to mask their feelings of being rejected. We may achieve wealth and certain positions in our society, but we are often lost in coping with our frustration and resentment toward the maternal family.

I learned that the collective karma is much more powerful than I realized. As I consider my own past and my present way of living, I realize that I fill my days with activities to expand my intellect, to make acquaintances, to earn a comfortable living, and to help others, without realizing that the deep seeds in my consciousness are controlling my thoughts, my speech, and my actions. My knowledge of Buddhism and Christianity, including the satisfaction of doing good deeds, was not effective in reducing the potentially destructive effects of negative emotions. But in calmness and mindfulness, the Buddha’s wisdom and the Sangha’s compassion helped to shed light on this dark corner of mine.

My Grandfather’s Secret Love

I remembered spending many summer nights at my grandfather’s home. He had shown his care and love for me in private. He boiled hot water for me to bathe, told me stories of his childhood with his younger sister, his love for the first wife who died young while giving birth to their first son, read books, and instilled in me a love for literature and history. I no longer blame him for not being able to display that soft, gentle part of himself in public. I now understand that many men of his generation, living in such a culture, would not have known how to behave any differently. My resentment was melting away as my heart filled with his love for me and mine for him.

Walking on this path of understanding and love makes my soul soft and cleansed. Mistakes and regrets are a part of the past, while hope and happiness are right here under my steps.

Healing the Past

We live six hundred miles away from where my grandfather was buried twenty years ago. I never went to visit his grave. Modern transportation offered many opportunities to do so, but for many years, I have down-played the importance of such a visit and often found good excuses for not doing so.

Since I got back from this retreat, the newly found understanding and love for my grandfather made me, for the first time, want to visit his resting place. My husband drove my mom and me to Canada to visit his family and my uncle, who liked the idea that all of us would visit my grandfather. My uncle drove his wife, my first cousin, my mother, my husband, and me to the cemetery. He and my husband had a bonding talk in the front seat while my mom and I caught up on the stories of our lives with my aunt and my cousin in the back. We had a lovely time during the ride. It was a cold, windy day at the graveyard, but I dressed properly for the weather and felt warmed by the family love and reconnection. I stood in front of my grandfather’s grave and lit the incense. With mindful breaths, I first expressed my gratitude and respect for all the ancestors and then offered my wholesome feelings to my grandfather.

As we left the cemetery, a new chapter in the account of my maternal family tree was being written. It would record the fact that my grandfather has always been in me and will always be in my descendants. The DNA will always support this and nobody can deny or alter this fact. Gender, last name, and success will not signify how we relate to each other; real blood, true love, and a deep understanding will. Each individual has their own place in the universe. My experience proves that by deeply understanding the past and mindfully living in the present moment, it is possible to transform past mistakes and change the course of the present and future.

To Live as One

We’re all the leaves of one tree, We’re all the leaves of one tree, The time has come for all to live as one We’re all the leaves of one tree

Lately, each time I sing that song with the Sangha, I see that my grandfather is joyfully singing it with me and we let each word sink deeply into each vessel of our body. Nothing could take us apart! I am a leaf of one tree just like my grandfather is and we are “falling gracefully without regrets” into the cradle of the Three Jewels.

Le Tmb48-TheLeaves2hu Thuy, Opening of the Awakening Heart, has been practicing for many years with the Boat of Compassion Sangha and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia (MPCF) Sangha.

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The Journey Home

By Van Khanh Ha mb50-TheJourney1

In May, Van Khanh Ha traveled to Vietnam with her daughter Lauren and her friend Karen Hilsberg. Here are excerpts from the journal she wrote to her loved ones back in the United States.

3 May — Returning Home Again

Yesterday morning our plane landed in Hanoi smoothly. My heart was filled with joy and peace. As I walked out, I was welcomed by so many sweet familiar faces and warm and humid air. The memories of war and its destruction are fad-ing. Hanoi today is alive more than ever.

I stopped and breathed deeply to the fact that, yes, I’m returning home again, after thirty-seven years.

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5 May — A Dream Come True

Hanoi impresses me with its beauty and wonderful culture. I’m taking each step, each breath with deep gratitude to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Lauren and I are happy here. Everyone is wearing the temple robe — ao trang — Lauren is so cute in this outfit.

We continued to explore the historical sights of Hanoi: Chua Tran Quoc, Den Ly Thai To, the botanical garden, and the water puppet show. As I listened to the classical opera, I felt as if Papa was there listening with me and embracing  me  with  his tender love.

This was a promise that I made to  him  before  his death — that some day I would return home to his beloved village of La Chu, to visit his ancestors’ tombstones. And now this is it. My dream has come true for myself and for my dear Papa.

Last night we had our orientation with Thich Nhat Hanh. There were four hundred retreatants from more than forty different countries.  I  looked  around the  room filled with people, as this small, simple, and humble monk talked. His Dharma talk was deep, lovely and with a great sense of humor. He gave wholeheartedly and I received his words with gladness, with joy and tears. The theme was “dwelling happily in the present moment.”

9 May — Peace in Ourselves, Peace in the World

The Golden Lotus Hotel where we are staying has 450 rooms and only two computers for guests to share. So it’s a challenge and we are learning to be very skillful with our time.

The retreat here with Thich Nhat Hanh is wonderful. Early every morning, we start our day with walking meditation. Thay walks mindfully with each step and we follow him with our breath and our smiles. Outside of the hotel, the streets are crowded with people going to work. The sound of silence is mixing with the sound of cars and motorcycles to become an orchestra of real life.

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After breakfast is the Dharma talk. Imagine a big room filled with hundreds of people and it’s quiet except for Thay’s voice. His voice is gentle, yet his message and his mission for peace are very powerful: “With deep listening and loving speech, we can transform our suffering. Peace in ourselves, peace in the world.”

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Last night Lauren woke me up to say: “I love Hanoi, I enjoy Vietnam so much. Thank you, Mommy.” At that moment, I knew deep inside my heart that I’ve made a good decision — for both of us to return to our roots, to our ancestors, and to discover Vietnam together. We are very grateful to be here and to receive the beautiful teachings of love and compassion from Thay with many of our friends.

12 May — Friendliness to Foreigners

The retreat ended, leaving a great impression on me and many others — looking at this gentle monk in his eighties who puts out so much energy for mankind with one simple wish: that the world be a better place to live for all beings.

Today is the beginning of the UN celebration of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. The theme this year is “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.”

Yesterday Lauren, Karen, and I went to the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature. Again, we went to our favorite Indian restaurant. We also had a chance to have ao dai [the traditional long silk tunic] made at the tailor shop; they are going to be so beautiful!

Despite the crowds and noise, Lauren and I embrace Vietnam with the connection to our ancestors. This trip has made me appreciate even more the old values and virtues of Confucius. I still see the happiness of the people, and the friendliness they offer to foreigners, even Americans. Life is difficult for most of the people here, but they accept and find peace in their lives.

16 May — Wholesome Seeds of Compassion and Peace

Today is the conclusion of the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration 2008. The last three days have been so amazing. Being here helped to water and cultivate the wholesome seeds of compassion and peace in me. Many representatives and guest speakers from over sixty countries came together for one purpose — to promote peace in the world. We are united as one to bring happiness and love to all beings on this Earth.

I feel so blessed to witness such a sacred event. This is the first time for Vietnam to host this special event, and the organization did a wonderful job. Every meal, we were served with a banquet of delicious foods, desserts, and fresh fruits. The entertainments were excellent — a combination of old and new — from traditional music and songs to modern dance.

Tomorrow we go to the Avalokiteshvara Cave, Chua Huong and then to Ha Long Bay for two days.

18 May — Ha Long Bay

Today we went to Ha Long Bay. It’s so beautiful. We visited the caves and walked up to the mountain, the scenery is unbelievable. Every moment living in Vietnam made me appreciate the beauty of this land even more. Lauren and I are sharing a room with ocean view.

People here are simple and so loving. They are glad to know that I’m Vietnamese. I thought after living in the U.S. for most of my life, I had lost touch with my own roots but the first step in Hanoi, I know I’m home, with my own brothers and sisters.

20 May — Proud to Be Both

We are in Hue now. It is much more quiet and tranquil, even though our hotel is located in the heart of downtown. Meals are served with many types of special dishes. The dining area is on the balcony of the top floor overlooking the city and the Perfume River. It’s so nice, especially at nighttime.

Yesterday we went to Tu Hieu Temple. Thay with his gentle steps on the ground of his root temple brought tears to my eyes. This trip is more meaningful for us because of the practice and of his teachings. I’m forever thankful.

In the afternoon we visited preschools in the remote areas of Hue. The children sang songs and danced for us. They live on small boats or on stilt homes by the river. The living conditions are very poor but they are full of laughter and big smiles.

Last night we went on a boat to celebrate Vesak. We chanted and then released fish back to the river under the light of the full moon.

This trip continues to nurture my deep connection to my homeland and its beauty. I treasure my time here and just like Papa said: “You should be proud to be an American, but never forget your roots and your values.” He’s a wise man and I know in my heart that I’m proud to be both.

24 May — Visiting Ancestors

Yesterday Lauren and I went to visit my parents’ birthplaces near Hue with my relatives Chu Phu and Cu Chau’s children that I have not seen for over forty years. We went to La Chu, my father’s village, then later to Vi Da where my mother was born ninety-three years ago. Being by my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves, I felt the deep connection to them, even those I never met.

Early in the morning we walked on a narrow dirt road leading to my grandmother’s last resting place. Both sides of the road were rice fields ready to be harvested. The wet roads were so slippery, Lauren almost fell into the ditch. We burned incense and touched the earth three times to each of the tombstones.

Later, we went to Nguyen Khoa cemetery where my maternal grandparents are buried. I knew that Lauren and I are the continuation of our ancestors. There is no birth and no death. They are in us, in our every cell, and in every breath we take. And I could feel their love sent to us from above.

Central Vietnam is hot, with humid weather, and we were dripping with sweat. But we looked forward to being with our ancestors, so we just smiled and embraced the moment.

Today we visited the Emperors’ tombs and the Forbidden City. When Chi Hoa, Mu Chuc’s daughter, found out that we were here, she came to visit us in the hotel. She told us many stories about my family and she warmly greeted us with deep true love.

1 June — Memories and Gratitude

After Hoi An we went to Da Nang, where I spent most of my childhood and where I finished my education from elementary to high school. It brought back many warm memories — of family, friends, and the beautiful beaches. My Papa often took us to the ocean so my sisters and I could play in the water.

Lauren and I took a tour to the Cham Museum. It has artifacts that are thousands of years old. Then we visited my beloved math teacher’s home — Mr. Bui passed away years ago but his lovely wife welcomed us warmly. I sat there holding her soft hands, and her heartbeat and mine became one. We did not say much, but deep inside our love was interconnected. It was a hot, humid day, and our visit was sweet. I was touched by her tranquility and her kindness.

After that, we stopped to see my high school, Phan Chu Trinh. I used to walk with my friends to class; we shared our teenage years with so much laughter and silly jokes. Another stop was the courthouse where my father worked as a judge for twenty years. I could not find our old home in Da Nang because it’s now an office building.

The last stop in Da Nang was My Khe beach. Lauren and I were so happy when our feet touched the white sand and warm water. It was a perfect day, the sky was blue with patches of white clouds. Warm summer breezes caressed our faces softly. I picked up some seashells and feathers on the beach. I took a few deep breaths to treasure my youth, and my presence in the here and the now.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) three days ago. It’s a lovely break: we called our time here are our “lazy days” — great food, and nice times spent with my brother’s family. We also visited with Uncle Tu’s children, Aunt Dieu Phuong’s daughter, and my dear friend Thuy Anh that I have not seen for forty-five years.

Lauren and I feel very fortunate to be able to take this trip together. Vietnam has helped us to open our hearts and our souls, to be touched by the kindness of many people and to be proud of my homeland’s natural beauty.

I’m looking forward to being back in America soon. May all beings be at peace.

Van Khanh Ha, True Attainment of the Fruit of the Practice, left Vietnam in 1971 to study in the United States, where she married and had a daughter, Lauren Mai. Her father, who had been a federal judge before the war, and her mother were able to come to the U.S. and live with Van in their old age. Van practices with Sanghas in Maryland and Virginia.

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Deepening Dharma in Hong Kong

By Sister Hanh Nghiem The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this lovely path I walk in peace. With each step, a gentle wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.

This is a gatha, a practice poem that was sung in the hearts of the monastic and lay practitioners at the seven-day retreat in Hong Kong. The Buddha’s Enlightenment Retreat took place May 24 to 30, 2008 with Brothers Phap An and Phap Trach, and Sister Hanh Lien and myself from Plum Village, along with Brothers Phap Tu and Trung Hai from Vietnam.

We came to the retreat, held at the Kadoorie Agricultural Research Centre of Hong Kong University, to learn about Buddhist psychology. (From the program: “Zen Master Thuong Chieu of Vietnam in the thirteenth century said that our practice would become much easier once we had a better understanding of its process. The teaching of Master Vasubandhu on consciousness will be used as the foundation for the retreat. We will briefly investigate the philosophical atmosphere in the pre-Buddhist period in order to understand and fully appreciate the enlightenment of the Buddha. We will ... then trace the historical development of the Yogacara School, which leads to the teaching of Master Vasubandhu as given in Ch’eng Wei-Shih Lun. The key teachings of the Thirty Verses will be discussed and applied to the daily difficulties of modern life. The basic practice of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and other practices will also be emphasized as foundation for a deep  transformation.”)

We wanted to have a better intellectual grasp, but we came home with a practice to heal our hearts and understand our mind. We were given the tools to live with freedom, more mindfully, in our daily life.

In a city that hustles and bustles from the moment it awakes till it falls asleep, it wasn’t easy for people to get off seven days to come to practice as a Sangha, study the Buddha’s teachings, and realize the Dharma of his or her life. Each of us figured out a way to be present at the retreat or what was called camp. Some of the eighty retreatants had to leave for a night to go work and then they would return to the retreat. Others couldn’t leave their families, so they had to commute every day in order to be able to attend the retreat.

We knew our priority was to learn, study, and practice the Buddha’s teachings, so that is what we did. Most of the retreatants were older in age because the topic for the retreat was quite advanced, but the few young folks sure did bring character and spice to the retreat!

The first few Dharma talks by Thay Phap An were dedicated to the basic practice and a brief history of Buddhism, and then remaining days were devoted to Buddhist psychology. Still, the basic practice was highlighted to take home.

The retreat was organized by the local Hong Kong Sangha from A to Z. The monks and nuns made the schedule and helped lead the activities, but the smooth flow of the retreat was thanks to the Hong Kong Sangha. Every morning we heard the mini-bell invited to wake us up and the bell was also invited before each activity by the lay practitioners. We also had other bells of mindfulness to bring us back to the beautiful environment surrounding us, such as the croaking of the bull frogs, the buzzing and biting of the mosquitoes, the luscious green vegetation, and the peace and quiet. This particular section of H.K.U. was donated by a family with the intention to promote more understanding of the environment and a way to preserve and develop the vegetation that already existed in the area.

The heavens treated us well because every day it rained, but nonetheless when it was time to do walking meditation, the sky cleared up for us. In the East rain is an auspicious sign that heaven is happy and the celestial beings are coming down to hear the Dharma being pronounced.

We also had the opportunity to practice chi qong every day for nearly two hours led by Thay Phap An. It was a great success and very healing for a number of people.

The Beginning Anew presentation and practice were carried out very elegantly by Brother Phap Trach. The contribution of the retreatants brought much enlightenment to our being together. They would go into the center of the circle to pick up the flower and then bring the flower to the person they wanted to share with. Many people shed tears of happiness because they were so touched by the kind calm words that were being spoken to them.

One unusual occurrence during the retreat was that the chief cook hurt her arm and couldn’t cook, so they ordered us pizza. The misfortune allowed us all to enjoy a very pleasant picnic dinner together outside and to bond a little closer before the retreat ended.

We left the retreat with an understanding of how to live our life rather than bury ourselves ten feet underground with the question, what is the meaning of life? We could breathe, because we are alive. Mindful breathing was our peace, joy, and freedom.

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Sister Hanh Nghiem, True Action, lives in New Hamlet at Plum Village.

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Sangha Building in Southern California

By Karen Hilsberg mb51-SanghabBuilding1

Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the Buddha of the twenty-first century may manifest as Sangha. The simplest definition of Sangha is a community of friends practicing mindfulness together and offering spiritual support to one another.

I practiced on my own in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh for ten years before beginning to practice regularly with a local Sangha and with the Deer Park Sangha. And from practicing with a Sangha my mindfulness practice has deepened exponentially. I learn so much from my friends in the fourfold Sangha (monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen)! We grow and develop together through our formal and informal practice together and through our special friendships.

Here are some tips and best practices that have worked to strengthen community and build Sangha in Southern California during the past seven years.

  • If you build it, they will come. My husband and started a Sangha in our home in October 2003. We publicized the Sangha for about three weeks before the first meeting by putting up fliers in health food stores and coffee shops, and sending out e-mails. Nine people attended our first gathering, and the Sangha has been meeting every week for the past six years.
  • Meet for at least two hours at a time so that people can have time to settle in without rushing. The format of many Sanghas is to begin with a silent or guided meditation for twenty to forty-five minutes, followed by slow walking meditation, then more sitting meditation. The second part consists of a Dharma discussion on a prearranged topic, such as a talk by Thay, an article in the Mindfulness Bell, a book by Thay, a sutra, or the Mindfulness Trainings. The Sangha may also learn a song or chant together, or practice inviting the bell. Have a different person lead the Sangha each week.
  • Meet every week at the same time in the same place. This creates continuity and dependability. Recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings or Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings once a month. Sangha members learn about the Trainings, discuss them, and then find ways to incorporate them into their lives if they like.
  • Use e-mail to remind 3angha members of the time and topic of each Sangha gathering. Create a website and add a listing on the worldwide directory of Sanghas at www.mindfulnessbell.org so that practitioners can locate a Sangha in their area.
  • Be inclusive. Welcome new members and make it easy for new members to participate. Some Sanghas offer an introduction at the beginning of each meeting or once a month. Some Sanghas have people who welcome everyone at the door at the beginning of the Sangha and are available to offer basic instruction in mindfulness practice.
  • Move the Sangha to a public space. Everyone loved meeting at our home and practicing walking meditation in the garden. However, we were encouraged to move the Sangha to a public space, which we did. Meeting in a local yoga studio has relieved the responsibility of leading the Sangha every week from any one person. It is often more comfortable for people to meet in a public space.
  • Collect dana each week to support rent for the space, community service projects, or scholarships for Days of Mindfulness and retreats.
  • Encourage Sangha members to subscribe to the Mindfulness Bell and periodically discuss an article or issue as a Sangha.
  • Lead by caretaking council. Share the Sangha leadership among a group of people who meet quarterly to make decisions about Sangha schedule, organize picnics or potlucks, arrange Days of Mindfulness, and attend to other Sangha business. Practice deep listening and loving speech during caretaking council and try to come to consensus when possible.
  • At least once a year, offer a Day of Mindfulness from 10:00 to 4:00 to the community and nearby Sanghas. Either lead the activities of the day yourselves or invite a Dharma Teacher or Order of Interbeing member to support or lead the activities.
  • When possible, attend a practice center or weekend retreat together as a Sangha. This is a wonderful opportunity to
  • get to know one another in a different context, to have unstructured time together, and to deepen the practice of the Sangha together.
  • Create an Order of Interbeing and/or OI Aspirant Sangha. Deer Park Monastery has been offering an opportunity on the third weekend of the month for OI members and aspirants to attend the monastery and meet together as a Sangha to deepen their understanding of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the OI Charter, and to build community in Southern California. This has been a wonderful opportunity for many Sangha leaders to feel recharged and nourished in their practice of Sangha building in their home communities.
  • Welcome and support families with young children. Children are wonderful practitioners and teachers. Children can understand mindfulness practice and families can practice together. Offer gatherings for families that can support parents in the wonderful and challenging task of fostering mindfulness and peace within the family.

The practice of mindfulness takes place at Sangha and increasingly in every aspect of our daily lives. Our Sangha brothers and sisters become our spiritual family with whom we share the landscape of our lives. As Thay has said, a practitioner is like a drop of water. If the drop of water is alone, it may evaporate easily. However, when many drops of water join together to form a river, all the drops of water in the river can travel safely to the ocean. The Sangha is our river that supports our practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of joy and non-fear in our lives.

For further support on Sangha building, refer to Friends on the Path by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, practices mindfulness and builds Sangha in Southern California. She recently self-published her first book entitled Be Like a Tree: Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh.

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Intersein-Zentrum

Ten Years of Practice in Community by Karl and Helga Riedl

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The Intersein-Zentrum, a practice and meditation center in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh, is celebrating its tenth anniversary! This means ten years of concretely and continuously building and maintaining Sangha.

After living in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and this way of life. In May 1999, together with the late Karl Schmied, we founded a residential community in the southeast corner of Germany — the Intersein-Zentrum (Interbeing Center).

Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, living under the same roof in the spirit of the Six Harmonies. Over these past ten years, quite a number of people have been inspired by the practice of Thay and happy to share this lifestyle. For some of them, after months or even many years, different priorities emerged and they went on their way — enriched, happier, and with more clarity. Others have stayed with us for as long as nine years. Today we are ten residents sharing our joy and love for the Buddha-Dharma.

The Four Foundations

The first foundation for a Sangha is to be deeply inspired by the Dharma and the practice of Plum Village.

Together with two other friends we moved into a renovated building in early 1999. At the beginning we felt quite lost in that big house, which can host as many as eighty-six people apart from the family retreats, when we host over one hundred people. The four of us began right away with the same schedule that is used in Plum Village: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, etc. One of the principles of our small Sangha from the very beginning has been to never, even in difficult and pressing situations, put the practice aside or skip scheduled activities. There was and still is a lot to do for a small group of people — running a big center and many retreats, being there for guests, implementing fascinating ideas and projects. However, before beginning a new task, we always ask the question: “Is it in accordance with the practice and our schedule?”

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The second foundation for a Sangha is that through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increases and radiates out.

Living in a residential community, sharing all activities, applying the Six Harmonies, and having only a common income from retreats and guests is a special and demanding practice in itself. The most important practice — and this holds true even for a non-residential Sangha — is to regularly come together and share. To share means to allow everyone to express their joy and their difficulties, inspire others with their insight, and ask for support and understanding. This fosters communication on a very deep level. Furthermore, it is important to be clear about organization, tasks, positions, and the decision-making process, to agree on the structure, and to expose and clarify misunderstandings.

The third foundation for a Sangha is to keep communication alive and open and to make sure the structure is transparent and clear for everybody.

Sharing also means sharing the practice with others — giving and serving. In this way we realize how much we can let go of our self-concern and how well we are rooted in the practice. Once a month we offer a retreat — generally from five days to one week— where we introduce people to mindfulness and different Plum Village practices. Refreshed and with new insight, they return to their families and workplace and when they come back, they report on their experiences: “Just knowing that you are practicing all year round gives us a lot of support and trust.” Most people come back again and again, staying for longer periods to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Each summer we offer a retreat for families, which is one of our most important. We stay connected with most of the families for many years, and we can observe with great joy and confidence that they are applying what they have learned and heard.

The fourth foundation for a Sangha is to have a common public activity and responsibility. Within this field we can express the fruit of our practice and we have the opportunity to respond to the actual problems people are facing today.

As a Sangha we are living and practicing in a non-Buddhist environment and it is very important to establish good relationships with our neighbors. Our connection with the nearby villages, which are deeply rooted in Christianity, is friendly, warm, and openhearted. Schoolteachers come here every year with their classes to experience our way of life and even the Catholic priest has visited us several times with his congregation.

The Acceleration of Wisdom

Last year we initiated a winter study and practice training that will run for three years in a row. This arose from seeing the needs and difficulties of practitioners and especially wanting to give those who are deeply motivated the opportunity to enhance and deepen their understanding. Observing the participation and enthusiasm of quite a number of people gives us the confidence that this training corresponds much to the needs of our time. This is another important aspect of a Sangha — to study and deepen the understanding of the Dharma practice and to be able to explain it to others.

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We have many Italian friends from Plum Village who come regularly to the retreats we lead in Italy. They have observed over many years the development of the Intersein-Zentrum in Germany. They felt much inspired by how this lay practice center is organized and how the practice is kept alive, so after several years of preparation they are on the way to manifesting a residential practice center in southern Italy. Those who feel committed to living in a residential community are coming here to be trained and some members of our center will go there and support them at the beginning. It is very important for a Sangha to establish a good relationship with other Sanghas, so we can learn from our cultural diversities and open up to each other.

The emphasis in our tradition is the practice of mindfulness and so it is quite natural that we take care of our bodies and our environment. In our center we serve vegetarian food that is based on the principles of Ayurveda and the Chinese five elements; we get protein from a rich variety of beans and nuts. We offer classes in yoga and chi gong. Furthermore we have solar water heating and a very modern wood pellet stove for heat, a large composting pile that we have turned into a beautiful vegetable and flower garden, and a biological sewage system. We are very concerned about driving and we have more than one car-free day. All these different activities are expressions of our practice and they are seen by our guests as examples that they can take home and apply directly in their daily lives.

When we look back over these years, we see that all the difficulties we have faced were indeed “wisdom accelerators,” as Thay calls them. We gained much understanding of the difficulties faced by people who are practicing the Buddha-Dharma in the West, a culture that is deeply materialistic. We continue to learn a lot and to experience more than ever a deep trust in the Three Jewels — while using our modern tools and language that people in the twenty-first century can understand and apply.

Helga Riedl, True Wonderful Loving Kindness, and Karl Riedl, True Communion, were ordained as Dharma teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994. Their spiritual path began in Poona, India, with Baghwan Sri Rajneesh in 1980 and in 1985 they started Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition. They also studied the Theravada tradition in monasteries in Sri Lanka and Thailand and the Tibetan Gelug tradition at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Pomaia, Italy. It was there they met Thay in 1992 and shortly after followed him to Plum Village.

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Mindfulness on Campus

By Simone Blaise-Glaunsinger Our days in academia are marked by a constant hum of activity— the staff working through piles of paperwork, answering phones and typing away on the computer, faculty preparing for classes, grading exams and advising students, and most of all our students, who are studying, writing papers, and often working part-time jobs to make ends meet. What better place could there be than the Mindfulness Practice Center, where one can re-center, breathe, and just be mindful of the present moment?

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The Mindfulness Practice Center was started in 1998, when Thich Nhat Hanh inspired its formation by a large public talk at the University of Vermont (UVM) and a donation of the proceeds went to support it. The Center was founded to help UVM community members cope mindfully with the many challenges of academic life, bringing greater fullness, freedom, and compassion into their lives. We offer a range of meditation opportunities, from weekly sittings to stress management workshops to one-day retreats.

The Center for Cultural Pluralism houses a small meditation room where the groups meet, and is available for students to meditate at other times. Miv London, the Center’s coordinator, works out of the University’s Counseling Center which offers mindfulness-based stress reduction workshops for students. These workshops run over a period of seven weeks, meeting once a week. The workshops are based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program, in which participants learn mindfulness principles, sitting and walking meditation techniques, body scans and hatha yoga to deal with stress, pain, or depression. Last year we started offering this program for UVM staff members. It was such a success that the center continues to offer it for staff on a regular basis. The workshops end with a half-day retreat.

Every semester, a day-long retreat is led by Miles Sherts, a mindfulness teacher and owner of Sky Meadow Retreat in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Mindfulness has also caught on with the psychology department in Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, a class taught by Dr. Arnold Kozak.

As a staff member at UVM, I started coming to the mindfulness meditation group almost six years ago. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step was one of the first books I read about mindfulness, and it inspired me to start the practice. Integrating mindfulness into my everyday life has helped me to deal with my stress and anxiety. Every day, the teachings and my practice enable me to be a more compassionate and patient listener, meditation instructor, hospice volunteer, Reiki practitioner, and receptionist.

Currently I facilitate a weekly mindfulness group on campus. Having a meditation community on campus has expanded my connection with the university and the community as a whole. The people coming to my group, newcomers and regulars alike, inspire me in my own practice as I notice the steady integration of mindfulness into their lives. I asked what it meant to them to have mindfulness on campus, and they shared their insights:

David H., a staff member: “I began this practice almost fifteen years ago to combat severe work-related stress. As I developed my ability, the stress lessened, and I found that the practice helped me in many other, sometimes surprising ways. Today, I continue a practice of mindfulness during the day in order to both maintain a sense of calm and a deeply felt internal energy that ‘ties’ me together.”

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Eric G., a graduate student: “I’m practicing mindfulness mainly to help me get to know myself and stay in touch with who I am and who I want to become. I can look at the direction my academics are taking me and ask myself whether this is in harmony with my values and my vision for myself.”

Amy H., an undergraduate student: “Mindfulness has been very helpful in my life through both practices and various readings by Buddhists. My academic life has somewhat improved by increasing my attention span and concentration, but other aspects of mindfulness are more powerful. For instance, the experience of mindful walking is very fulfilling. Mindfulness also helps us solve deep mysteries within ourselves that have been untouched for many years.”

Many participants have told me it helps them to have a scheduled time during the week they can put aside to come to the group and meditate. They also appreciate the group dynamics, and the ways in which it can create a sense of belonging. We always end meditation groups with a discussion about how it was for all the participants, and what worked or did not work. It is a time for reflection, questions and mindful dialogue.

The Mindfulness Practice Center helps faculty, staff and students to see beyond their wandering minds filled with memories of the past or plans for the future. They experience witnessing their thoughts instead of overanalyzing them. Rather than succumb to the feeling of being overwhelmed or paralyzed by assignments, they begin to approach their projects one small step at a time, and consequently are more productive. The participants go from walking with their minds caught up in thought patterns and their ears plugged into their music devices to an awareness of every step and the world around them, smiling at people they pass, and thereby spreading peace and harmony across the campus.

Whitney H., an undergraduate student, writes: “On campus, I find that I am more empathetic to other students and staff, and with such a diverse group of people all around us on campus, we really have the chance to appreciate and celebrate different opinions and ideas. Mindfulness opens my mind!”

The Mindfulness Practice Center at the University of Vermont has certainly changed my life in a very positive way. Mindfulness is clearly beneficial for the health and well-being of the campus community. My wish is that this message of mindfulness spreads everywhere and continues to bring peace and harmony into others’ lives as it has into my own.

mb54-Mindfulness4Simone Blaise-Glaunsinger works as an office manager at the UVM Department of Art and Art History. She has been a member of the UVM Mindfulness Practice Center (which she considers her Sangha) since 2002. She can be reached at sbhealingsoulstice@gmail.com.

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Homeschooling as Mindfulness Practice

By Lisa Pettitt mb54-Homeschooling1

Our family has been homeschooling for over five years. We had not envisioned this path for ourselves: my partner and I had professional careers, and our kids were in day care as infants. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is because that is, and this is not because that is not.” Our decision to homeschool arose at the intersection of a variety of conditions.

A college friend who homeschools shared her family’s experiences with us. The events of September 11, 2001 led us to reassess our priorities and values. I attended my first mindfulness retreat in Estes Park, CO, very pregnant with our third child in the fall of 2003. Not long after we welcomed this child into our family, my career path reached a plateau and my partner’s demanded more time and attention. Our children were transforming us with their pure hearts, curious minds, and mindful presence. Time with them inspired me to practice more and nourished my practice more than my professional work did. Homeschooling spoke to us because it seemed to provide a healthy blend of intellectual challenge, spiritual richness, family focus, space, and time.

As homeschoolers who have practiced as a family, with family Sanghas, and at days of mindfulness and retreats, we find that our homeschooling and mindfulness practice have enriched each other. The homeschooling schedule allows for a slower, flexible pace and for stopping—we can awaken in the morning without rushing to get everyone out the door, we can take breaks when we need them, we can adjust our schedule to make the most of special opportunities for learning, travel, and time with family and friends.

The flexible schedule promotes being in touch with the present moment. We learned in depth about Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, we studied extensively about southern Colorado before a visit there, and we took one daughter’s participation in a performance of Godspell as a chance to study parables from the Bible.

Because we spend so much time together, we have many opportunities to nourish our relationships and be aware of how we inter-are. We help one another with lessons, we work together on projects, we listen to and support one another during difficult times, and we help each other remember to smile and laugh. We come to recognize and appreciate one another’s strengths and care for one another when we are struggling with difficult emotions. We are aware of how one person’s feelings can affect the rest of us.

In turn, our mindfulness practice and the teachings enrich our homeschooling. Through the practice, we cultivate creative insights for responding to challenging situations. We breathe to calm ourselves before practicing multiplication tables. We smile to our Spanish lessons. Of course, there are times when our practice is not as strong and we are not as skillful as we would like to be, but we have faith that mindfulness is always available to us and we can return to it for nourishment.

In contemplating mindfulness and education, we shared our ideas with one another. Teresa (age eight) said that mindfulness helps her when she’s having a strong emotion; she can sit and meditate in order to calm down. She also told us a story that illustrated how mindfulness can help us understand others better. When she and a friend were being chased by a boy, she stopped to ask him why he was chasing them. He told her he didn’t feel like he had any friends so that was his way of getting attention.

Hugh (age six) shows us all the time how hugs can be bells of mindfulness. When some of us are arguing, he reminds us that “there’s a cake in the refrigerator.” And he told us that when we teach others mindfulness to help them calm their own emotions, the world will get “mindfuller.”

Sophia (age ten) offers us a haiku on mindfulness and education:

The Silent Bell

The silent bell rings. Sit down. Listen to the trees. Mindfully learn today.

Sophia (Loving Nectar of the Heart), Teresa (Crystal Light of the Heart), and Hugh (Tranquil Dragon of the Heart) teach and practice with their parents, Lisa Pettitt (Great Guide of the Heart) and Dave Kenney in Evergreen, Colorado.

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Migrating into Happiness

By Robin Lee Schiff and Joost van Rens Robin: Yesterday evening we were lying on the smooth sunwarmed road that winds its way down the mountain at Deer Park Monastery, watching the moon rise over the crest of the ridge, enjoying the coolness of the evening after a hot sunny day. As we listened to the coyotes calling to each other, we both felt a deep sense of happiness, marveling at the way our life has been unfolding. Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

Joost: We have been visiting Plum Village since 1997 and Deer Park Monastery since 2002. Over the years it has become clear that we are happiest when we are spending time at the monastery with the monks and nuns, being part of the fourfold Sangha. We began to notice after each retreat that our priorities shifted effortlessly into deeper harmony with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and that making conscious decisions and choices to create positive change became much easier. In 2004, toward the end of the nine-week winter retreat at Deer Park, Robin looked deeply in meditation and resolved to change our lifestyle in such a way that we would spend at least three months each year at Deer Park. She called it a ten-year plan, and said, “I don’t know how it will happen; I only know that within ten years we will be doing this.” I readily agreed. In the end it took us only three years to accomplish this goal.

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At Home in the Netherlands

Joost: I worked for almost twenty years as a medical doctor in a non-profit center in a poor neighborhood in The Hague, where I saw thirty to forty patients a day, most of them immigrants. I was also politically active in the health-care field because most of the health problems of my patients were poverty-related. I used all the tools I had learned in Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery to deal with the high levels of stress at my work: mindful walking in my office, conscious breathing during and between consultations, loving speech and deep listening with patients and colleagues. I hung pictures of Thay on the wall as mindfulness bells, and I tried to treat each patient as if he or she were my mother, father, sister, or brother. But I was also in the habit of drinking one to two Belgian beers after work to be able to relax because I would come home tense and exhausted. During the 2004 winter retreat I engaged in several weeks of deep self-inquiry, well supported by Sangha friends, as to why I liked to drink. At the end of the retreat, Robin and I undertook the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided afterward to give up alcohol completely. Within a year after I stopped drinking, it became very clear to me how high and unsustainable the stress levels were at work. This realization catalyzed me to change my life.

mb55-Migrating3Robin: I teach tai chi as a form of mindfulness meditation. In our studio at home in The Hague, employees of UN agencies participated in classes, as did lots of other people who read the brochures I left in public libraries, bookshops, and natural food stores. Joost and I hosted weekly Sangha mindfulness mornings as well.

I have had a daily practice of sitting meditation since I was sixteen years old, but Thay’s book Old Path White Clouds inspired me greatly and led me to change to a Plum Village style of practice, particularly after our first visit to Plum Village in 1997. The advice given to me then by Sister Gina was to spend less time sitting and to try to take meditation off the cushion and into every aspect of my daily life. This has been enormously healing and transformative for me, closing the disturbing gap that had widened over the years between my “spiritual” life on the cushion and the rest of my experiences. Each time we came back from Deer Park we noticed that we were less attached to our worldly possessions. It was becoming clear that our true happiness was not dependent upon these things. In 2005, our son Seth graduated university and landed a contract teaching English in Japan. Knowing that Seth could now earn his own living catapulted me into a phase change, which I describe as the end of the nesting instinct. I saw myself as a bird flying out of the nest and into the immense blue sky.

Joost and Robin: After a year of research, planning, number crunching, and deep looking, we were ready to commence the process of selling our house and other possessions, quitting our jobs, and leaving the Netherlands. Our plan was to live six or seven months per year in Australia or New Zealand, where Joost could work as a roving medical doctor. (This is possible because there is a great shortage of doctors in rural areas in both countries.) We would have no fixed base but would move from location to location, wherever doctors were needed.

Joost: Both of us come from families that play it safe in making life choices. We noticed fears arising, triggered by the unconventional choices we were making. We both had to recognize, embrace, and find ways to transform these fears, step by step, as we developed and implemented our plans.

In August 2006, Robin began fixing up our house to put it up for sale the following spring. We started giving away our furniture, library, music CDs, clothing, beds, kitchenware, bicycles—everything—to our families and to friends who were planning to start a Buddhist retreat in England. It took a year to mindfully divest ourselves of all the possessions we had previously cherished. We each left the Netherlands with forty kilograms of possessions. Leaving my family behind, especially my 85-year-old father, was especially poignant because my mother had died just three months before. I taught my father to use Skype, and we now speak on the phone or Skype every two days. We keep in close contact—via Skype—with our son, who is now twenty-six years old and studying law. The other emotional hurdle was fi   a new home for our twenty-two-year-old black cat, Zumbro. As of this writing, Zumbro is still alive and thriving with a couple of our friends in Amsterdam.

At Home Wherever We Are

Robin: Each work assignment in Australia and New Zealand comes with a temporary house and the use of a car. We never know what kind of house it will be until we arrive. People ask us if it is difficult to have no home of our own, but the practices of mindful walking and breathing have helped us to be at home wherever we are. We have stayed in many remote rural locations all over Western Australia and New Zealand, and usually by the time we have unpacked our bags we feel at home. The amount of time we remain in each location averages about five weeks.

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Joost: While I was working in the Netherlands, it felt as though my work never stopped. Now I know that each year I will spend at least three months at Deer Park Monastery. Even though working in rural areas can be very challenging, I have much more joyful energy for my work. We also have considerably more free time to appreciate the beauty of nature and to feel gratitude for our relationship.

Robin: Every day during our first year in Australia, I would imagine, before I started eating breakfast, that one of the trees I could see from the table was Brother Phap Ho, one was Brother Phap Dung, and one was Sister Faith or Sister Tue Nghiem, or whichever monastic arose in my thoughts. Now, two years later, the trees themselves seem to have so much presence, I no longer need to attach images of monastic friends to them to feel as though Sangha is all around me!

Joost: The frequent changes in our work and living environments help us to stay fresh and to practice “beginner’s mind;” they also encourage us to reduce our possessions even more, since we have to carry everything wherever we go. I have worked as a GP in many different types of practices, this year mostly in impoverished Maori towns. Robin works as our part-time manager to organize work assignments, contracts, tickets, housing, insurance, visas, etc. She also swims daily and teaches tai chi and meditation.

Robin: People often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult for you when Joost goes off to work and you are in a new place?” My natural attitude is that in each new place, some special opportunity will arise for me to learn something new, and/or to teach somebody who really wants to learn what I can offer. I only have to be present and aware to see the opportunity, to enjoy it, to give and receive. Of course, our new lifestyle has brought up new and different challenges. Visa immigration rules and medical board regulations change without warning, so we have to adjust our plans often. Fear comes up for us in these situations; but as we gain more experience by solving each predicament, we gain more confidence in being able to find workable solutions.

Joost: We are usually able to keep in contact with friends and family. Sometimes one of us experiences feelings of loss and loneliness when we are in a very remote place without internet or a good telephone connection. We sit with these feelings, let them come up, and hold them gently as if they were crying babies. Because we are a Sangha of two people, we are able to support each other well.

Life has become a journey. Deer Park has become our home base. Since we changed our life in 2007 and are now coming to Deer Park every year for three months, our practice has deepened and our happiness and understanding have been nourished. Each year we make new friends in the constantly changing Sangha at Deer Park, and our capacity to live happily in the present moment grows.

Robin: Friends ask us, “How long do you think you will keep doing this? When will you settle down somewhere, and where?” I tell them, “We’ll wait and see! Life is full of so many surprises; I figure we’ll just know these things when the time comes.”

Joost and Robin: This year when we came back to Deer Park, it felt as if we had been away for a couple of weeks instead of nine months. We just stepped back into the river of the Sangha.

mb55-Migrating6Robin Lee Schiff, Full Awakening of the Heart, was born in 1955 in Brooklyn, NY. Joost van Rens, Compassionate Action of the Heart, was born in 1958 in the Netherlands. They practice three months of the year with the Deer Park The rest of the year, they travel and practice together as the No Coming No Going Sangha.

July Moon

We lie in silence on the warm road As the full moon slips above The great hidden mountain Its light penetrating and spreading Like the Dharma in the Western world And dear brothers and sisters Our communication is perfect --David Percival, True Wonderful Roots

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Fertile Ground

Indonesia Teaching Tour By Brother Phap Lai

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Thay and the Sangha touched down in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on September 27, 2010, having just said a wistful goodbye to our hosts in Malaysia, where we enjoyed a successful two weeks offering retreats and public talks. In Jakarta, we were greeted by warm smiles from a team of lay friends and monastics eager to take good care of us, introduce us to their homeland, and help us plant seeds of Thay’s teaching and practice.

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Indonesia is densely populated with 238 million people. Onehundred-twenty-million are concentrated on Java—the political hub of this archipelago of some 17,500 islands—where we stayed for two weeks. We were taken first to Ekayana Temple, our base in Jakarta and the home of Brother Phap Tu and Venerable Dharma Vimala, both of whom have spent long stays in Plum Village. We were then escorted by police for the three-hour journey to Kinasih resort near Bogor, where we were to offer a five-day retreat. Phap Tu said without the escort, he was not sure how we could have made our way through the thick traffic of Jakarta.

It is impossible not to be affected by the squalid conditions of the poor majority of this overpopulated city. However, we were lucky to have some time in more rural mountain areas. Evident on people’s faces and in their interactions was the simple reality that, even though people may be poor, happiness is possible once the wholesome conditions of having enough space to live, clean air, water, and nature are present. We saw families and communities living simply but happily together. Wherever we went, the majority Muslim population was friendly and courteous, happy to return the beautiful Islamic greeting “As-Salamu ‘Alaykum” (“peace be upon you”) with “Wa Alaykum As-Salam” (“and on you be peace”).

In Indonesia, the ethnic Chinese are generally Buddhist by way of family tradition. However, the Plum Village tradition is new and this was Thay’s first visit to Indonesia. We were touched by the openness of Ekayana Temple, and its associated temples outside Jakarta, to our tradition; they made the Sangha’s visit possible. Brother Phap Tu was the main organiser, and the fourfold Sangha of Ekayana Temple worked wholeheartedly with him to make this visit a huge success. In addition, previous Sangha building efforts made Indonesia a fertile ground for Thay’s teaching to take root. Thay Phap Kham made a number of visits, and in May 2009, Sister Chan Khong, along with a group of brothers and sisters, led a four-day retreat in Kinasih Resort for 400 people and offered Days of Mindfulness in Java and Sumatra.

Interfaith Understanding

With conditions so ripe, we should not have been surprised by how well the retreat was attended and how immediately the energy of practice established itself. There were nine hundred retreatants, of which a record three hundred were young adults. Such an inspiring number of youth wouldn’t have manifested without the outreach work of Brother Phap Tu, who offered a series of weekend retreats at universities in the months leading up to the tour. This outreach paid a wonderful dividend. (We hope to emulate this kind of outreach in the UK before Thay’s visit in 2012). Thay gave a talk on True Love especially dedicated to the young people, and they had lots of sincere questions to ask the monastics. The retreat went well for everyone, and over two-thirds of the people attending received the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Some thirty Muslim practitioners attended the retreat. They formed a family for Dharma discussion, led by Sister Jina. Thay shared teachings of Buddhism that highlighted nondualistic thinking, nondiscrimination, and inclusiveness as central to Buddhist wisdom and insight. Thay talked on “the wisdom of nondiscrimination” as the fourth ingredient of True Love—upeksha, often translated as equanimity. Thay said Buddhists and Muslims can say to each other, “Because I love you and your God is Allah, I also love Allah as my God,” and “because I love you and your teacher is Lord Buddha, Buddha is also my teacher.” Thay shared that as Buddhists, we can very well understand Islamic proclamations from the Koran such as “Allah is God, there is only one God,” in the light of the Buddhist insight that the one contains the all. Thay said, “As Buddhists we should study Islam. Thay has studied and sees the five pillars of Islam can be compared with the Five Mindfulness Trainings.”

On the last day, Thay invited the Muslim Dharma discussion group to share with the whole Sangha about their experience and the initiative, following Thay’s request, to establish an interfaith group in Indonesia. One young Muslim lady shared that sadly, the country’s motto, “Unity in Diversity,” does not reflect the real situation. She shared that this retreat gave her hope and a way to contribute to making the motto something to believe in. Separately from this sharing to the whole Sangha, a Muslim lady shared with me about a transformation she experienced. “The ethnic Chinese, although a minority of twenty to twenty-five percent, use economic dominance to discriminate and this causes bad feelings among the Muslim community. But here it is clear everyone is good-hearted and I can relate them to as brothers and sisters on the path. I feel very at ease here.”

I had numerous conversations with our hosts, Chinese Indonesians and Malaysian Chinese, during the stay in these countries and discovered there is a lot of resentment regarding the many ways in which they suffer discrimination by the governments, which favour the Muslim majority. Underneath the occasional eruptions of violence that make the news, there is a pervasive tension among different ethnicities and religions of the Indonesian people. Poverty and overpopulation exacerbate the situation. Misperceptions and discriminatory behaviour fuel more resentment. It seems all the more important to find ways for the two communities to find common ground from which to build mutual respect and love. Conditions seem more favourable in Indonesia compared with Malaysia, where Muslims are barred by law from attending any Buddhist events. Under these kinds of restrictions it is hard to see how interfaith groups can form openly. Yet during the retreat it seemed everything was possible; indeed, understanding, love, and unity manifested palpably.

Back in Plum Village, Brother Phap Tu informed me that the interfaith group in Jakarta is meeting regularly, and Plum Village is to sponsor a Muslim practitioner from this group for a long-term stay in Plum Village.

Thay wrote to his children on the tour, “The Southeast Asia Tour is blooming as a beautiful flower. The flower has five petals. The first three petals are Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and they have manifested elegantly. The happiness of the Sangha has been nourished by the happiness of the local Buddhist practitioners. As teachers and students, we have learned many wonderful things on this trip, being able to drop many of our preconceived notions about these countries.”

Brother Phap Lai is from the United Kingdom and is currently residing in Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, France.

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