Vesak Conference

Rejoicing with the Sangha in Hanoi

By Sister Hanh Nghiem mb49-Rejoicing1

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The seven-day retreat on Engaged Buddhism in Hanoi was truly wonderful. I was touched by the rooted feeling of being a community.

Before the orientation, the Order of Interbeing, monks, and nuns were on stage ready to invoke the name of Avalokiteshvarya. Looking out at the audience, I saw a sea of bluish grey robes — I was totally surrounded by spiritual grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. I could even feel the presence of my ancestors coming up to support this event. I could only do mindful breathing during the chanting because my attention was on gratitude to my entire line of spiritual and blood ancestors. My lips could not open to sing the chant but the chant resonated in my heart.

Getting enough favorable conditions for the retreat to take place was not an easy task. But with the practice of mindfulness and keeping to our breathing, our patience and faith worked their magic and the fruit of much hard work ripened to perfect sweetness and maturity. We managed to turn the Golden Lotus Hotel into the Golden Lotus Monastery. For seven days, three hundred and fifty people from all over the world stayed in closed quarters. We were able to utilize every inch of space in the Golden Lotus Monastery to practice walking meditation, gather for Dharma discussion, do chi qong, and even find space to be with ourselves. Since we had nowhere to go and nothing to do, it was so easy to dwell joyfully together in our Golden Lotus Monastery!

For the first time, we got to hear Thay share his story about Engaged Buddhism. We listened to the history and rise of this tradition. During the guided meditation in the morning, we were able to come back to ourselves in a very gentle yet powerful way to heal our hearts and to recognize our path to transform our suffering. Tears were shed, leaving our hearts light and giving us a true sense of liberty. The Dharma talks offered inspiration to reach out and help people in the here and now without the need to worry that we will lose our practice. We learned to see that by being mindful, it is only natural to help those in distress. When we help them, we also help ourselves.

The Brothers and Sisters caring for the Dining Meditation Hall did a superb job making the meal time into a period of practice for deep looking and transformation. They invited the bell to welcome us all to come eat together as a family. The manager of the hotel worried when he saw how simple our meals were; he was afraid that we were suffering! Quite the contrary was true — everyone enjoyed the meals. They could feel the goodness and love and care put into preparing the dishes and serving the food.

The ceremony for transmitting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing was like the Grand Ordination Ceremony during the winter retreat. Both lay and monastic practitioners received the Trainings. Although we didn’t see a statue of the Buddha or any Patriarch, I am sure they were smiling and proud of us.

Surprisingly, there were a number of young people (nineteen to thirty-five years old) attending the retreat. We had a marvelous time together. We felt so safe with each other that we could share things we would never imagine sharing with other people. We could recognize our practice was vital to our future. We even had T-shirts made as a bell of mindfulness to practice wholeheartedly and diligently to aid in reducing the suffering in the world. The T-shirts said “Let the Buddha Breathe.” We just need to welcome the Buddha into our life and trust that this awakened being knows what to do and we take the joy ride with the Buddha.

When the seven days came to an end, the retreat was not over. We continued dwelling in our energy of peace and healing and nourishing it. We did walking meditation around Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi, seeing the morning life of the Vietnamese. People were jogging, doing aerobics, playing badminton, doing other kinds of exercises, and going to work. We also did sitting meditation in front of the memorial statue of King Ly Thai To. He offered the longest period of peace in Vietnamese history — two hundred years. The following day we had a Day of Mindfulness. We broke out into affinity groups according to the panels that would be discussed at the Vesak Conference the next day

At the opening day of the Vesak Conference we processed into the convention center on a red carpet and we mindfully ascended the long wide staircase between the Dharma Protectors into the hall. We were the largest group at the conference. It was nice to be at the conference as a practitioner and not as a business person with an agenda.

My happiness from the conference came when I met up with the young people’s group at the end of the evening to reflect on the day, to hear other people’s take on the event. I could see that my Sangha was boundless as long as I took the time and saw the joy in being together with those around me. The other part of the conference that touched me were the blown-up pictures of the Requiem Ceremonies from last year. I saw that love was timeless and nothing can stop love from entering the hearts of people.

Our time together in Hanoi made its impression in history and in our hearts. It was a very special twenty-one-day retreat condensed into two weeks of retreat, days of mindfulness, conference, and holiday celebrations. Quite the gift!

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

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Letter from the Editor

mb50-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha, Today is Martin Luther King Day here in the United States. Tomorrow we inaugurate a new president, the first black man to serve in that post. Along with what seems to be the whole world, I rejoice in the dawning of a new era.

Perhaps we are truly approaching what Thay mentions in his New Year’s letter (see the Mindfulness Bell website), what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” At least I dare to hope so, though I know that much will be required of each one of us for it to become a reality.

In my own life the political excitement of the last few months has been overshadowed by the illness of my sister-in-law, dying of ovarian cancer. For much of that time she lived in our home and we were blessed with the presence of many

angels, including hospice staff and volunteers and friends. Now she has moved to a nursing home where she receives better care. By the time you read this, I suppose, her body will be ashes.

How can it be that the person I know and love will no longer be here? Of course, in the ultimate dimension, she’s not going anywhere. As Thay says in this issue’s Dharma talk, “We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean the end — we always continue!” I have been with other loved ones as they died, and a palpable energy is released that fills the room with love and enters the heart like grace. Still, the wrenching away, the physical loss of a loved one is ever so painful and the grief is as sharp as a sword.

In this issue Lauren Thompson shares her transformation as she journeyed with a Sangha sister during a terminal illness. She writes that “through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing.”

Glimpses of interbeing can not only guide us through personal loss but may be critical in solving global issues. “Unless we are aware,” said Angela Tam in a powerful talk at the Vesak Conference, “of the connection between our habits and the planetary problems we have, nothing will change.” Her solution: interbeing, mindfulness, Sangha. Brother Phap Lai similarly points to a spiritual solution for the complex problem of overpopulation: “We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community.”

As Martin Luther King wrote fifty years ago, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

May the vision that Martin Luther King lived and died for become reality here on earth. May the Buddha-to-be that Thay has foreseen be born in each of our hearts. May we practice with diligence, wisdom, and compassion so as to bring about the beloved community of all living beings.

Blessings to you all,

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War, Conflict, and Healing in Belfast

By Bridgeen Rea This talk was presented at the Vesak Conference in Hanoi in May 2008.

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I first went to Plum Village for a week of the summer retreat in July 2005. Sitting with Thay and the Sangha around the lotus pond in Upper Hamlet — following my first-ever walking meditation— had a massive impact on me. Maybe it was the strong French sunshine or the beautiful pink lotuses, which I’d never seen before in my life, but I was deeply touched by the peace and the happiness all around me in Plum Village. I had a joyful, wonderful time and I felt lots of love. I decided to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings that week.

Back in Northern Ireland I went to meditation once a week in the Belfast Zen Centre, which follows the Soto Zen tradition. I feel like the Mindfulness Trainings worked on me, rather than me working on them. I was training to be a yoga teacher and tried to be as mindful as I could — when I remembered!

In August 2006 I went to the Neuroscience Retreat at Plum Village, where I met a psychologist from Dublin who told me I should go to Vietnam. I thought it was impossible, but I went! Many friends supported me to go and even my family were happy for me.

For the whole three weeks of segment two, I shared a room with Gladys from Hong Kong, who has now been ordained as Sister Si. I felt so happy to have met such a beautiful person. In Vietnam many of the lay friends encouraged me to start a Sangha in Belfast. In Belfast it’s not really possible to be Buddhist — if I say I practice Buddhism, people say ‘but are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?’ and it’s only half a joke!

Growing Up During “the Troubles”

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1974, five years into what is known as “the Troubles.” Growing up in a divided society rife with sectarianism, hatred, and fear was the norm, but I had a happy childhood and enjoyed school.

The Troubles did penetrate my life though. I was born on July 8, which is right in the middle of the ‘marching season’ — the guaranteed time for trouble in Belfast. Belfast used to shut down and become a ghost town. I have memories of people protesting out on the streets when a hunger striker died around my eighth birthday and I didn’t get to go on a planned outing. When I was much older and wanted to have a party or an evening out in a local place, often my friends couldn’t come because of trouble in parts of the city.

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As a teenager I had to be aware of going to places wearing my school uniform because it identified me as Catholic. I had to be careful about going out with Protestant boys. Also I was very aware that my name, Bridgeen, labels me as a Catholic, unlike my sister’s neutral name Jenny, which can be either Catholic or Protestant.

My family doesn’t understand the practice. They ask, “What is it you do, worship Buddha?” My parents and friends understand that Buddhism is a peaceful thing, but they worry that I’m too into it. They say, “Why don’t you just go on a ‘normal’ holiday?”

In April 2007 I told my friend Sinead about the idea of Sangha — she is a poet and very open to new ideas. She thought it was wonderful! She had just had a baby and thought that Sangha would be the perfect thing to help her balance her life. So with her encouragement I called a couple of friends who were interested or at least open-minded towards Buddhism and meditation. The Tall Trees Sangha started in my apartment. After a year five of us are still practicing once a week. It is very wonderful and brings all of us many blessings.

How to Be at Peace?

By coincidence when the Sangha started in May 2007, Northern Ireland installed its first power-sharing executive. Ten years after the historic Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland finally has a locally elected government. This is something that my Granddad didn’t live to see and would never have believed could happen. Belfast has been transformed. In some ways the peace is still tenuous and people are now having to learn how to live in a new situation after forty years of conflict.

How to be at peace? My friend Sinead says: “I think there is a psychosis in the society here — there has to be, given our history — and it will take a long time for this to be resolved, even though we are witnessing miracles. They say for every year of conflict you need another year of reconciliation. And I think this affects people who live here on all sorts of levels.”

I work in the new government administration as a Press Officer — for a Minister who belongs to a party that my community once saw as the enemy. But in spite of the many positive events, sectarianism and fear are still rampant. The society is still very much divided in terms of where people live and the schools they go to. There are many social problems of deprivation, depression, and suicide.

My mindfulness practice and Sangha can’t do much on a large scale but on a micro scale five us are learning a lot from Thay and trying to nourish our good seeds. Every week we practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, listen to Thay speak on CD and we have a Dharma discussion. Two of us come from a Catholic background, one was brought up Protestant, one was brought up with no religion; there’s also a German guy whose religious background doesn’t really count in the Northern Ireland context!

Forgiving and Moving On

We don’t discuss politics or the state of society, rather our personal problems and challenges. I really believe in Thay’s saying “peace in oneself, peace in the world.” I aspire to follow the Five Mindfulness Trainings, though sometimes I don’t find it easy to live up to them.

Another Sangha member in his fifties with five children says gratefully that the Sangha nourishes the spiritual aspect inside him and that it makes a space in his week. He remembers being angry and depressed during the Troubles and shouting at the TV. I think every family experienced that.

He says: “Sangha is a space where people can express themselves without upsetting anyone. It is open-minded, far from my dogmatic Christian upbringing. I always feel uplifted after it. It also helps me to relax as I am often an anxious frightened person. As I lived through the Troubles the fear in the community was palpable and people were steeped in it, and they weren’t allowed to question it. The atmosphere was full of tension, hatred and anger — sectarianism and bigotry everywhere. You were constantly waiting on something bad to happen.”

When I am out socialising and people find out I practice meditation they ask me all sorts of questions. There is a lot ignorance, confusion, and misunderstanding about anything that comes from the East. There is fear that it’s some kind of cult or it’s against Christianity. Yet Belfast people are the salt of the earth; they are warm and friendly and funny! If you ever visit Belfast you will find people go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome.

Because of our history we may have a dark sense of humour, but there is also awareness of the importance of forgiveness. People understand about changing and moving on for the sake of future generations.

Bridgeen Rea, Peaceful Gift of the Heart, hosts Tall Trees Sangha in her apartment in Whiteabbey Village, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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