abbot

A Pilgrimage Tale

By Canyon Sam Oi! I called to the cyclo driver, swinging my arm back towards two white columns he'd just cycled past. My companion and I had started off early that morning with rented bikes to find Thay's home monastery, Tu Hieu. All I knew was its name and its location southwest of Hue. After getting lost for a few hours, we'd taken all manner of conveyances to find our way here. Now it was late afternoon. The two white columns were the one distinguishing feature that indicated its presence down a red foot path leading into a pine forest.

I was struck by the triple-arched ornate gate and lovely crescent-moon lake at the entrance, not unlike the imperial entrances we'd seen the last two days at the Forbidden City and Mausoleums of former emperors. The sound of chanting resonated in the air. Soon we saw saffron and grey-robed monks standing in a gorgeous, 19th century, ope-doored temple. We found our way to the abbot and a layman, who invited us to have tea with them on the rosewood outdoor patio. They were very pleased to hear we were students of Thay. In fact, they said, "You see?" and pointed at a poster-size photo of Thay on the wall. It was the photo from the cover of Being Peace.

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It seems the abbot was ordained at the same time as Thay years ago, the same generation, but now Thay is higher, the highest, they told us. The layman said something about having been sent or gone with Thay to Princeton years ago. Every time they referred to him, they called him Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.

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We talked for awhile, overlooking a courtyard of meticulously tended potted bonsai trees. I quickly realized that not only was Thay trained as a young monk at this temple, and revered as an alumnus and Sangha brother, but that the entire spiritual training and philosophy here was his. Sitting, walking, nourishing the seeds of enlightenment in each other-even lazy days.

Thich Minh Nguyen, an English-speaking monk, gave us a tour to the meditation hall. The long, light-filled hall in the forest had a large color-coded chart in one corner, showing seven generations of the ordained members of this order, dating back to the 1843 founding. I saw Thay's name written on a green-lined nameplate among maybe three dozen others, preceded by the name Trung. On a red-lined nameplate below, among even more names, I found Sister Chan Khong's name. Each generation had one family name that preceded the member's own name. Thich Minh Nguyen asked my friend and me our Dharma names and when we told him, he told us we were the Tam generation, which meant heart. All the names in our generation were Bouquet of the Heart, or Lamp of the Heart, etc.

A poem handwritten in black-inked calligraphy on a lime green scroll hanging in the hall was written by Thay, Thich Minh Nguyen told us. We walked back through acres of fruit trees, past half finished brick buildings with stacks of red cinderblocks and wheelbarrows in front. New housing for monks, Thich Minh Nguyen said. How much like Plum Village it is, I thought, even down to the construction projects. The place had a sense of well-being, very grounded, and I sensed it was thriving. A schedule posted on the wall began at 3:30 in the morning and went till past 10:00 at night. Thich Minh Nguyen read it for us: sitting, walking, working, eating, Dharma study, prayers. The only surprising thing was the monks' session of Kung Fu every evening! Suddenly I understood the model after which Plum Village had been established. And I understood the full meaning of bowing to our spiritual ancestors in the Five Prostrations.

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We saw the altar to the monastery founder, his hand-drawn portrait framed in black lacquer, and walked among the graves of all the temple's abbots in a cool, pine-shaded grove. I had been in Vietnam for two weeks, touring the main sites. It had taken days to get here from San Francisco, and though I loved being in Asia and seeing Vietnam, because of the language and the tourist groove we were in, I hadn't made a strong connection. Out of this, and out of hours and hours of cycling around lost through the countryside we had arrived here and found these deep spiritual roots, this never-before-seen part of our spiritual lineage, and found a whole community practicing as we were taught to practice on the other side of the world.

Thay sometimes takes a pencil or a chopstick during a lecture and holds it horizontally to illustrate his point, and then turns it vertically and talks some more. I saw these lines again in my mind. I saw the vertical line. Below midpoint were all our ancestors who had come before us; above midpoint were all in the future who would follow us. Our responsibility to the generations who follow us is to do the same that has been done for us, or better, and our responsibility to the generations before us is to honor them for all they had done. We were no more and no less than part of this continuum of awakening. When I see the horizontal line, I see ground zero, that all of us on the earth now doing the practice are linked together. And then we are linked to the vertical line, at the midpoint. Therefore the place of the most energy and possibility is this center axis the here and now. The inhale and the exhale. The precious moment and the only moment. Here and now we inter-are across time and space from practitioners in pine forest temples in Asia, to traintrack-lined warehouses in Oakland, to hays tacked hills in France, and across the generations. I saw this, like this, as if for the first time.

Canyon Sam, Bouquet of the Heart, is a San Francisco writer and performance artist. Her nationally acclaimed solo show, "Taxi Karma and the Dissident, " about her travels in Tibet and work with Buddhist nuns, plays in March at the Working Women's Theater Festival. She is author of the forthcoming book, One Hundred Voices of Tara: Untold Stories of Tibetan Women.

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Book Reviews

mb51-BookReviews1Peaceful Action, Open HeartLessons from the Lotus Sutra

By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2008 Softcover, 287 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the strength of the Lotus Sutra is its ability to present deep teachings in a clear, easy-to-understand way that applies to all walks of life. Composed during the second century CE, this “King of Sutras” is known for its open arms. It moderates between what was the old Buddhist guard, the shravakas, and the newer schools of the Mahayana canon, and reconciles the two. It was the Mahayana School that claimed we are all Buddhas, and offered the bodhisattva path. The characters, or bodhisattvas, of this Dharma revolution each represented a paradigm. They are known by such colorful names as Never Disparaging, Medicine King, Earth Store, and King Fine Adornment.

To read this rare, reissued translation of the Lotus Sutra is to read ancient history and the daily news simultaneously. One bodhisattva who bridges past and present is Kshitigarbha, or Earth Store Bodhisattva, whose delight is to enter hell realms to rescue those in need. Although only briefly mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, this protector is considered by the author a role model for today’s world. It is Kshitigarbha’s energy of salvation and protection of the Earth that we need to save our wounded planet and offer balm in places like Rwanda, Iraq, Iran, Madagascar, Afghanistan, and the long-wounded Vietnam, not to mention the whole Western world. Earth Store Bodhisattva keeps a deep relationship with beings of the earth — humans — and with those below it — hungry ghosts and hell beings. He asks, “If I do not go to hell to help them, who else will go?” We well remember how Thay’s students in his School of Youth for Social Service walked the killing fields of Vietnam to help. Likewise, Kshitigarbha represents a realm of action very much needed here and now.

Similar to the language of the Pure Land Sutras, the Lotus Sutra’s metaphorical images, like poems and paintings, speak to the heart. Think of the thousand arms of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara. Imagine cosmic beings with eyes like “broad, great leaves of the green lotus” and bodies “the color of pure gold.” Hear bodhisattvas gifted with the ability to speak with “unobstructed eloquence.” And you have the saddharmapundarika, The Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful Dharma.

Presented as twenty-eight chapters in two parts, this sutra first focuses on the historical dimension, or what happened during the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the second division, the sutra deals with the ultimate dimension, “beyond our ordinary perception of space and time.”

In this selective re-telling of the Lotus Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a handbook for life. To help us on the bodhisattva path, he includes his explications of the Six Paramitas, that we may, together with all beings, pass over the sea of suffering to the shore of freedom. And he even gives us this encouragement, that it is possible for us to take only a few seconds to make the crossing!

mb51-BookReviews2Tuning In Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, A collection of essays for teachers by teachers

Irene McHenry and Richard Brady, Editors Friends Council on Education (available from Parallax Press) Softcover, 144 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

When I was seven years old, my parents bought our first television. I jumped up to hug my father and accidentally jabbed his chin with my fingernail, and he bled. This feels to me like a metaphor for what has happened since then with our cell phones, iPods, digital TVs, Internet, DVDs, video games and all the wonderful/terrible what-nots of our age. The world is bleeding. Yes, we can get Dharma talks online. Yes, we can call 9-1-1 immediately in an emergency.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that, despite all the electronics meant to promote togetherness, communication within families remains difficult. More sinister is the cyber-bullying and cell-phone pornography prevalent now among teens. More than ever now, we need to rediscover for ourselves and pass on to our children ways to calm them and ourselves. We need to listen to one another. This book of essays, gathered by OI senior Dharma teacher Richard Brady, a lifelong educator and co-founder of MIEN, the Mindfulness in Education Network, with Irene McHenry, Executive Director of the Friends Council on Education, offers methods from eighteen authors for K-12 teachers to bring mindfulness into the classroom.

In a text filled with both quirky and inventive exercises using raisins, beanie babies, spinning tops, micro-fiction, gardening, chanting, yoga, singing bowls, and talking pencils, this book is worth its weight in mindfulness to teachers. Alone worth the price of the book is Richard Brady’s tale of how he introduces mindfulness to youth with a five-minute exercise in silence. He follows with a group of questions about body, mind, and environmental awareness, the last of which is: “How many of your negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the present?”

“Ultimately I point out that what our minds do during this particular five-minute interval of our waking life is repeated about 70,000 times each year. If we multiply the number of negative thoughts and feelings we observed by 70,000, we might understand why the mind plays such a significant role in creating stress. However, if we are able to become more aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that enter our minds and develop ways to replace them with positive ones, we will be able to live happier, less stressful lives — in school and beyond. Meditation, I explain, is one way to help our minds respond to negative thinking in a healthy way.”

The book is divided into two parts: Teaching Mindfulness, and Quaker Practices that Center in Mindfulness. In Part II, Hope Blosser brings us the message of St. Francis, “that which is within you will save you,” and Denise Aldridge writes lyrically about “Nurturing the Inner Garden.” Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this a lovely compilation of stories, ideas and suggestions that reflect delight in both learning and teaching.

Indeed, this book offers medicine for a wounded world.

mb51-BookReviews3Be Like A Tree Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh

Edited and Illustrated by Karen Hilsberg Jasmine Roots Press, 2008 Paperback, 218 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Karen Hilsberg has collected eleven talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh, spiritual elder of Deer Park Monastery, known to his students as the Venerable. With these teachings, she has interspersed her gentle brush paintings in the Asian style. Hilsberg’s relationship with Phuoc Tinh runs deep. It was he who helped carry her — even joyfully — through the death of her husband. In the preface, after describing how the Venerable helped her clearly see death just as it was in the moment, she explains the book’s title: “What it means to me ... to be like a tree is to be myself, to be grounded, to bend with the weather but not to break, and to be a home and safe haven for others.”

In Chapter Seven, “Gratitude,” the teacher’s talk begins: “I offer you a handful of diamonds. Your house, your children, the water, your shoes, your breath, each is a diamond. I have given you a handful of diamonds. May you reflect on how they sparkle day and night.”

This message is the heart of the book and the heart of Thich Phuoc Tinh. Its arteries are the Dharma, its muscle is love, its blood is the body of the Buddha. In Phuoc Tinh’s voice, one hears the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh reflecting the voice of the Buddha. He recounts a touching memory of his mother during the chaos of 1975 when the North had taken over the South in Vietnam. The Venerable is traveling on foot toward his mother’s village among lost and displaced people, bombed-out villages and dead bodies. She sees him coming and runs toward him, falling and running and falling again, so happy to see her son alive. When he arrives, she dares not hug him because he is a monk. They stand close. “I did not know about hugging meditation then,” he says.

Thich Phuoc Tinh’s message to America is: “... if you don’t suffer from a lack of material comforts, then you suffer from a lack of spirituality. In other words, if you don’t suffer from lack of food then you suffer from the fact that your mind is always looking for something else outside of itself and in the future. When you can come back to yourself and recognize the energies within you and be mindful, then you can release yourself from suffering.”

Be Like A Tree offers generous appendices following the teacher’s talks, transcribed and edited by Hilsberg: a biography of Thay Giac Thanh, the beloved former abbot of Deer Park Monastery; a letter from the Venerable to the Hilsbergs when Karen’s husband was dying; a questionand-answer session with the Venerable; and Tea with the Venerable, Parts I and II.

mb51-BookReviews4The Best Buddhist Writing 2007

Edited by Melvin McLeod and the Editors of the Shambhala Sun Shambhala  Publications, 2007 Softcover, 334 pages

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

Reading a Dharma book is not my favorite way to spend an evening, I confess. I will read one selected by my OI study group and enjoy it fully, but left to my own desires, I will pick up a novel or biography any day. I love stories! I also enjoy reading magazines because the pieces are shorter and I can jump around. The Best Buddhist Writing anthologies satisfy all my wishes, while providing profound insight and food for thought.

As always, Thich Nhat Hanh features prominently in this edition, with both an interview by Melvin McLeod and the essay, “Love Without Limit.” “I think the twentieth century was characterized by individualism, and more than 100 million people perished because of wars,” Thay told McLeod. “If we want the twenty-first century to be different, if we want healing and transformation, the realization is crucial that we are all one organism, that the well-being of others, the safety of others, is our own safety, our own security.”

The interview is one of thirty-three essays in this anthology. Other authors include well-known Buddhists like the Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Ajahn Amaro, and Pema Chödrön, as well as some surprising voices like author Alice Walker and feminist critic bell hooks. In “Creating a Culture of Love,” hooks writes: “Dominator thinking and practice relies for its maintenance on the constant production of a feeling of lack, the need to grasp. Giving love offers us a way to end this suffering — loving ourselves, extending that love to everything beyond the self, we experience wholeness. We are healed.” She quotes Thich Nhat Hanh from his recent book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart: “to love, in the context of Buddhism, is above all to be there.”

In “Through the Lens of Attention,” physician Michael Krasner expands on this theme. “Thich Nhat Hanh has stated that one of the reasons to practice mindfulness is that we are actually practicing its opposite most of the time, and therefore becoming quite adept at it. The cultivation of a nonjudgmental awareness of the unfolding of experience from moment to moment balances out these human tendencies to be unaware and inattentive.” I find it heartening to read about his work teaching future doctors to practice mindfulness in their dealings with patients.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, in “Hardwired for Altruism,” describes fascinating research into the physiology of the brain. “Scientific observations point to a response system that is hardwired in the human brain — no doubt involving mirror neurons — that acts when we see someone else suffering, making us instantly feel with them. The more we feel with them, the more we want to help them.... Our brain has been preset for kindness.”

Jarvis Jay Masters practices love and kindness in the hell realm of San Quentin Penitentiary — and not always in the obvious way. With gripping immediacy he writes about an encounter with a crazed homicidal inmate nicknamed “Pitbull.” Here, skillful means involved the use of brute force but Jarvis managed to save Pitbull from the other inmates — and from himself.

As a student of Thay’s I find it gratifying and insightful that Thich Nhat Hanh is referenced so often in these essays. It is clear that Thay has touched many people, including Buddhists from many lineages. But you don’t even have to call yourself a Buddhist (I don’t) — this anthology contains wisdom, insight, and joy for everyone. And lots of great stories!

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A Monk: To Be or Not to Be?

By Brother Phap Kinh (Dharma Meridian)  mb57-AMonk1

I stepped onto the monastic path relatively late, although the seeds were present at an early age. At age fifteen, a group of friends and I meditated together. When that group disbanded, I continued (for the next thirty-five years) meditating twice daily. At age twenty, in 1978, I studied in Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, India. During my stay, I visited many holy Buddhist sites, though I found mostly ruins. I was looking for my Sangha all along, but I could not define it then.

I discovered mindfulness in 2006 at a psychiatric hospital in Paris where I worked. My introduction was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Total Catastrophe Living, which inspired me to practice some mindfulness techniques. Upon finishing the book, I received an email from a friend in the U.S. informing me that an eighty-yearold Vietnamese monk was coming to Paris to lead a peace walk. I wasn’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s name, but later discovered that Thay had written the preface to Kabat-Zinn’s book!

The Paris peace walk changed my life. As Thay and the Sangha began walking, I knew I had found my teacher and community of practice. I began attending the Paris lay Sangha and, two months later, attended my first weeklong retreat in Plum Village.

No grass grew under my feet. In 2007, I joined the historic tour of Vietnam with Thay. At Bat Nha monastery, I received transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Everything I did with the Sangha seemed inexplicably familiar, and I began to wonder whether monkhood was somehow in my future—but soon found obstacles.

I learned that the maximum age for monastic ordination was twenty at Bat Nha and fifty at Plum Village—and I had just turned fifty. Regretfully, I accepted that I would probably not become a monk in this tradition. I took consolation as an active member of the lay Sangha in France, and clearly saw the applicability of engaged Buddhism in my work at the hospital.

On my way home from Vietnam, I met a venerable Vietnamese monk who asked me why I had come. I told him that I had been traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh. He then predicted I would be wearing brown within two years. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but before I had a chance to inquire, he disappeared. Did he believe that I would become a monk? At Bat Nha Monastery? It all seemed like a dream, and impossible.

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Back in Paris, a group in my Sangha started studying the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I found these precepts extremely inspiring. Half of us in the group decided to become aspirants for the Order of Interbeing (OI). Things were moving quickly, but I felt ready. In 2008, I asked for a sabbatical leave to attend a number of trips and retreats.

It still wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would follow the monastic path. At the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India, I heard Thay say, “It is now or never.” His words resonated with me, and I was ordained as an OI member on that trip. I did not necessarily see monastic life as the next logical step. The venerable monk’s prophecy that I would be “wearing brown in two years” was fulfilled with my OI jacket. During the 2008-2009 winter retreat, I often asked myself what more I could do for myself and for the world as a monk. The answer was not clear.

I sat with this question. It was my koan. It wasn’t something I could think my way through. Thinking about it seemed to drive me crazy. It was a matter of the heart. During this period nothing I initiated came about, yet conditions for things that seemed impossible, such as getting so much time off work and getting ordained so soon as a lay OI member, came together. This was a wonderful apprenticeship in non-pursuit and letting go.

The Bodhisattva Path 

Clarity finally came during a retreat in June 2009. I confided in a number of brothers, both monastic and lay, who served as mirrors for me and helped me recognize my fear. I took refuge in the Sangha, and practiced looking deeply and following my heart. By the end, I realized that there was no going back to my old life. I had already moved on, and my past now belonged to a former life. I spoke to a number of monastics about my intention, and found the courage to make the decision that would free me from all worldly obligations.

That decision took tremendous courage. I had never felt so afraid in my life, beyond all reason. But what was I so afraid of? Making a monumental error? Letting go? Inadvertently abandoning my right livelihood and personal bodhisattva path?

Giving up everything even at the great risk of not being accepted into the monastic Sangha? I loved my job, my Sangha, and my life in Paris. I had nothing to run away from, so why would I uproot myself in such a way? Most of the people I knew outside of my Sangha (and even some inside the Sangha) found the idea puzzling, if not mad.

Making the decision was the hard part. Once I did, there was lightness and ease as everything fell into place. Since ordaining, I have never doubted or regretted my decision and do not miss my former life. The great fear vanished. Fear is, after all, only a mental formation. It can be paralyzing, but mental formations that are not fed shrink.

Why did I choose to become a monk? This is my aspiration: I hope and intend to continue on the bodhisattva path of relieving suffering in the world, but I have much to learn in order to go beyond the horizons that I knew before, in my work and in my life. I also have to learn from my own experience of transformation at the base, for myself, my family, and for my ancestors. I have observed that the most credible and inspiring monastics are those who speak from personal experience and live their path. I probably could have studied the Dharma and transformed many of my afflictions as a lay practitioner, but now I am free to dedicate my whole life to it. I am confident that in time, my vocation of relieving suffering will take other forms, and I will be more effective, being solidly grounded both in the Dharma and my personal monastic experience. To my delight, I am feeling younger and younger since ordination, as if the fifteenand twenty-year-olds in me who wanted to embrace the Dharma have finally found what they were looking for, despite all obstacles.

I don’t know where the Dharma will take me and what the Sangha will call me to do. I don’t think much in those terms. I have faith in the Triple Gem, and know that I am on the right path.

Brother Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Christopher currently lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born and grew up in Juneau, Alaska, and spent most of his adult life in Paris. He loves hiking, singing, cooking, poetry, and the Dharma.

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