Thay’s Dharma talks

Letters to The Mindfulness Bell

There isn't anything that touches my soul more deeply than your newsletter, especially Thich Nhat Hanh's Dharma talk. I cherish it, I carry it with me to many places, I reread it when I need to be reminded of the Way. I have read many important messages, good articles and books, but none have touched me more than Thay's words. They have literally transformed me, although I keep working on all of the precepts. Thank you for being there and taking the effort to transmit his teachings, which are so in touch with human weaknesses.Lorraine Keller de Schietekat Mexico City, Mexico

I am a hospice nurse and carry a pager whenever I am away from home. Usually when I am paged I don't get upset, but yesterday morning I was on my way to work, my pager went off and, much to my chagrin, my reaction was "!*@*!" I realized that, to the person who paged me, it was necessary and not done to annoy me. I drove back up the mountain road to my home, phoned in, took care of the  problem, and went on to work.

Issue 17 of The Mindfulness Bell was waiting for me when I got home that night. The next morning I read the tributes to Jim Fauss. I first heard of Jim when I read of his death in the last issue. I, too, was struck by his smile. I read Maxine Hong Kingston's words, "He has an immortal smile, which he taught to the people who rode his bus. A passenger pulled the bell cord, and Jim took a joyful breath and smiled." Those words rang a bell in my mind and I immediately thought of my reaction to my pager. I decided that my pager would become my "pager of mindfulness." Each time it goes off I am reminded to breathe joyfully and smile. Thanks to Jim and to Maxine for sharing her story of him. I am reminded by this how interconnected we are, how we truly are a part of one another. Even though I never met Jim Fauss, I have been profoundly influenced by him and will continue to be each time my pager goes off. Tina Moon Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Thank you for the recent issue of The Mindfulness Bell. I especially appreciated the many articles on Jim Fauss. Although I did not know him when he was alive, I now feel that I do know him and I am enriched for the experience. Bob Repoley Charlotte, North Carolina

I was particularly pleased that you printed Fred Eppsteiner's letter in the last issue, as I felt that he raised substantial questions regarding Sangha building in a genuinely kind way. I was also interested in the article in a previous issue of The Mindfulness Bell which raised the issue of finding ways to invite African Americans into the Order of Interbeing.

These invitations to dialogue will, I feel, serve The Mindfulness Bell very well in its long-term commitment to growth and to reaching a wider reading public. Mushim Ikeda-Nash Oakland, California

I agree with Fred Eppsteiner's letter that longer articles, where issues could be discussed in greater depth, would make The Mindfulness Bell more interesting to a wider range of readers . In addition, I would like to see more articles on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. This is our "ancestral tradition," but it is virtually unknown in the West. Western Buddhism must find its own forms and expressions, but a greater knowledge of those who went before us would certainly be useful.

Fred also commented, "I sometimes wonder if anybody in the Sangha is having traditional spiritual experiences in meditation, awakenings ... which have been the experience and hard-won fruits of Buddhists for thousands of years." I think people in our Sangha do have such experiences, but they are not much talked about. This may be a good thing. In the Rinzai Zen tradition where I practiced before, one pursued such experiences relentlessly, putting a lot of pressure on people and sacrificing interest in ethics and daily life practice. This strongly goal-oriented attitude made it very hard to enjoy the present moment. Probably too much of the focus in Western Zen has been on experience, satori, sudden awakenings, etc., and we have tended to neglect the gradual practice of transforming mental knots. Thay's teachings address all kinds of suffering-psychological, interpersonal, social, ecological- as well as the great spiritual questions.

We don't need to create barriers between psychotherapy and meditation, but must remember that meditation has a dimension of silence and going beyond personal issues that we may rarely find in psychotherapy. Iffew people write about this aspect, it may be out of modesty-not wanting to claim "great insights"-but it may also be for lack of language! I suspect that many modern people have become alienated from the language of Christianity (and possibly Judaism), and experience it as too filled with dualistic connotations. And we don't always know the language of Buddhism well enough to express spiritual insights. The old Chinese Zen masters were great artists when it came to giving new and fresh words to the practice and insights of Buddhism. It's silly to copy them, but their challenge is valid: how can we express our deepest, most transforming experiences? Svein Myreng Oslo, Norway

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Retreating to My Roots

By Loan To Phan mb50-Retreating1

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I am a Vietnamese-born Australian citizen. While attending a winter retreat at Plum Village in November 2007, I got in touch with my ancestral roots on a level that over the last twenty-three years has been unacknowledged and unexplored, almost foreign. “Boi dap goc re, khai thong suoi nguon” (nourishing our roots, clearing our streams) were the themes at Plum Village that awoke a deep gratitude and curiosity about my blood ancestors. I realized that my existence came from a life force that runs through my parents, grandparents, and continuing back and back through many generations before them.

Growing up in a generally individualistic society has distanced me from my roots. Ironically, this has created a blank space that allows me to bring a beginner’s mind to explore and understand myself through knowing my ancestors. What better way to find answers to these questions than a trip to Vietnam?! And what better conditions than Buddhist retreats — with opportunities to deeply contemplate myself and hence my ancestors in me?! It was particularly meaningful to be able to do this with my parents.

Dharma Rain at Bat Nha

The first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh or Thay (Vietnamese for Teacher) was a five-day retreat at Prajna Monastery in Bao Loc, Lam Dong province. The spacious monastery and temperate weather of the green highlands near central Vietnam were ideal conditions for practice. In total there were approximate 3500 people of all ages attending this retreat. I was surprised to see so many young people there, some as young as fifteen — students and young people working in business, film industry, social work, health, etc. They all shared a search for meaning as well as relief from the difficulties faced in their increasingly demanding and pressured  environment.

Vietnamese people really enjoy socializing; in particular they like to be lively and vocal. However, during meals together and walking meditation all one could hear were the click-clacking of plastic cutlery and crockery, or the melodies of bird songs and rustling of leaves.

Thay spoke lovingly to the young people about having ideals and purpose in life, recounted funny love stories, and explained how having values or guiding principles as outlined in the Five Mindfulness Trainings can help restore and improve the quality of our relationships. He urged the young people to be determined and diligent in their practice of returning to the present moment by focusing on their breathing as they go about daily tasks. He explained how to listen deeply to cultivate understanding and Beginning Anew, a practice of reconciliation and expressing hurt in a constructive way. Brother Phap An gave a compelling account of his personal experience in dealing with a block of suffering he had gained during his childhood as a result of the war. Brother Nguyen Hai’s explanation on the Five Mindfulness Trainings contributed to inspiring about a third of participants to take the commitment to study and practice the Mindfulness Trainings and take refuge in the Three Jewels.

The regular afternoon exercise time came to life with traditional Vietnamese games such as bamboo stick jumping and Vietnamese hacky-sack, singing songs of meditation and joyful practice, or just walking around the beautiful gardens of Prajna.

The question-and-answer session contained some queries about forming and maintaining a Sangha for young people.

As a Viet-kieu I was impressed at the openness, depth and wisdom my young Vietnamese friends had drawn from their experiences. For some, Thay’s Dharma talk was a confirmation of their hard-earned life lessons, while for others the retreat planted a seed of curiosity about what it means to live engaged Buddhism.

The pouring monsoon, symbolising Dharma rain, came down generously as we shared deeply our experiences of life’s challenges and successes during Dharma discussion groups. The tents that we slept in became soaked but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We just rolled up our sleeping mats and joined the snoring choruses of the “young at heart” participants in the main meditation hall. In fact, the hard floor, lack of sleep (because it was colder than expected so some of us could not get good sleep) actually made our memories of the joy and peace in newly found friendship even more memorable!

Retreat for the Young People of Hanoi

Continuing their tour to the north, Thay and the Plum Village delegation held another four-day retreat for the young people of Hanoi, at Bang Temple, Hoang Mai province. Bang Temple was still under construction when over a thousand people crammed into its grounds, overtaxing its already limited accommodation and sanitary facilities. I was particularly moved to see elderly women bent over from their hard laboured life as well as young people from well-to-do families determined to receive the Dharma so much that again, the wet weather, hard floors, simple meals did not deter them from fully participating in the mindful practices.

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My Dad, who only attended the last session and lunch, was moved to tears by the collective energy of the four-fold Sangha eating mindfully. The walking meditation through the narrow local streets brought curious faces to the doors, preschool children offering their joined palms in respect and bright smiles as the river of Sangha flowed past, silent and reverent.

A highlight of this retreat was the session between young people and young monastics of Western and Vietnamese background. There was lively singing that accompanied eager questions about monastic life and faith. These questions illustrated the young people’s collective responsibility through concerns about their future as a generation facing the challenge of living in a society with increasing materialism and consumerism, corroding morality, and where Buddhism is a religion rather than a way of life and practice. The question-and-answer session with Thay was also dominated by questions from young retreatants about monastic aspirations and how to deal with the tribulations of romantic love.

Busy Hotel to Tranquil Monastery

There couldn’t be more of a contrast between the last two retreats and the twelve-day retreat titled “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” held at the Kim Lien Hotel in central Hanoi. This included the UN Day of Vesak 2008 and a three-day conference on the theme “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civil Society.”

I went from a traditional incense-perfumed, spiritual environment with austere facilities to a relatively affluent, Western, secular hotel in downtown Hanoi. From sleeping on the floor and using squat toilets to serviced beds in air-conditioned rooms — I realised how attached I am to Western creature comforts! I am amazed at how in both of these environments the mindful practices can create wonderful and joyful energies, which confirms the universal nature of the Buddha’s teachings.

I am blown away at how a few simple collective practices of over four hundred participants from forty-one different countries can transform a busy worldly hotel into a tranquil monastery (not that there are any real differences in the ultimate sense!).

This retreat was special in that there was an ordination ceremony for the Order of Interbeing with over fifty people committing themselves to living the Fourteen Precepts, and close to one hundred taking refuge in the Three Jewels and Five Mindfulness Trainings.

After a week of solid practice one young person felt glad to call the hotel “home” after spending a day out in the hectic streets of Hanoi. Other under-thirty-five-year-old participants reported that their discussion groups provided an open, safe, and honest context where young monastics were accessible to lay friends, and together we listened and shared deeply our inner suffering, challenges, and experiences in living the Buddhist teachings. These were precious moments where we felt connected and supported to express ourselves; we could practice being the change we want to see in our lives and relationships with others.

The whole Sangha really flowed and practiced as one body as we did walking meditation around the beautiful Hoan Kiem (Returning Sword) Lake. Physically we must have looked quite impressive, all wearing the uniform grey robes or brown of the monastics, walking with each step contemplating the gatha: “Life is every step. Healing is every step. Miracle. Freedom.”

We ate together in silence and stayed within the hotel compound to preserve the wonderful collective energy, which was contagious as the hotel staff reciprocated our calm and respectful manners.

In his Dharma talks Thay warmly and humourously talked about the Four Noble Truths, Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Four Practices of True Diligence, and Three Doors Liberation. His presentation was always captivating, down to earth, and relevant to the current times, so that we could see daily applications.

Equipped with a week’s solid practice and new-found friendship and connectedness we attended the UN Day of Vesak 2008 with a strong and wonderful collective energy that moved and inspired other conference participants.

May all find a Sangha and flow as a river of clarity and freshness.

Loan To Phan, Tam Tu Hoa (Loving Harmony of the Heart), lives with her parents in Brisbane, Australia. She practices with the Solid and Free Sangha (Vung Chai Thanh Thoi) while working as a psychologist in a mental health service.

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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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