ancestors

Outside In, Inside Out

Separation to Inclusion

By Rehena

Reflection along El Camino de Santiago, Spain. Photo by Valerie Brown

Reflection along El Camino de Santiago, Spain. Photo by Valerie Brown

I was born in South Africa during apartheid, with African and Indian heritage in a lineage of slavery and indentured labour. I grew up in a segregated Indian area to a family who lived in a tin house with no electricity, from which we were forcibly removed to make way for white people’s housing. My childhood was full of colour and nature: green trees, blue seas, bright shining sun and people in all shades of brown. 

I grew up feeling both fear and attraction to white people—fear that they had the power to control where I lived, studied and socialized. They could take away my possessions and loved ones any time with no need for justification. At the same time, I wanted to be white. Then I would have access to the best jobs, could choose where to live and go where I pleased whenever I wanted. This would make my family and me very happy.  

I was angry with myself for not being as beautiful as my blue-eyed, pink-skinned, blonde-haired doll, and with the injustice of people and society that created and fostered racial oppression and thrived from it. I became an activist, fighting for equality and to “overthrow oppressive regime,” a cause I was willing to die for. I also did my utmost to become as white as possible, hoping my skin colour would be overlooked and I could gain access to things that would make me happy. If I could fit in, speak properly and not wear Indian clothes, maybe they would realise I was not a backward coolie (laborer) or kerrikop (curry head), that I was almost one of them. Then I would be so happy. 

I first came to the United Kingdom in 1998, after democratic elections in South Africa, as a result of my socio-political change work. There, I saw white cleaners and white people digging streets. “Yes,” I thought to myself. “Here are the British values; equality, justice and meritocracy.” I would no longer have to be ten times better to be accepted as equal. I was now part of the “privileged” group with access to conditions and possessions that would make me happy. I could live where I wanted, eat in any restaurant and buy anything. My cleaner could be white. 

It did not take long to see exclusion was still present in the UK. The class system created privileges for the few at the expense of many. Racism was veiled and difficult to pinpoint, and therefore even more corrosive. My exotic name and brown skin often led to my being paid less or overlooked for promotions. Perhaps, I thought, if I changed my name and became more western; if I learned a European language or kept updated on the latest fashions, labels and gadgets; if I worked and tried harder, perhaps I would fit in and be accepted. But the rules kept changing. 

Suddenly, the traditions I once had been told that were backward, like yoga and chanting, were being sold to me by white people. Indian food was fashionable and was being marketed to me by “white experts,” who started adopting Indian dress and names. I was angry, disillusioned and hurt. I was still no closer to being happy. The never-ending cycle of working harder and keeping up with the latest gadgets and trends was Sisyphean. The harder I worked to fit in, the more I suffered, and so did everyone around me. 

Then a friend introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. I was drawn to his radiant peacefulness and compassion. Here was someone who, despite his experiences of war and conflict in Vietnam, was happy. I wanted this too.

Simply breathing set the foundations for my healing and helped me see my suffering. As I sat and walked, I started seeing how my feelings of exclusion and desire to belong permeated my actions, thoughts and perceptions. I started realising how much I was trying to fit in and earn my place in a group. Through practice, I saw how much I worked to not be rejected and to cover up my shame for being unworthy. 

Through mindful breathing and walking, I am learning to take care of anger that manifests in me at any hint of discrimination and exclusion. I am learning to see that my anger is how I try to protect myself from pain and suffering. Listening to my anger and feeling where it manifests in my body helps me take care of it. Sometimes my anger needs spaciousness, and I take her for a walk. Sometimes she needs love and compassion. As my ability to embrace and hold my anger with love and compassion grows, my compassion for those who make me suffer grows too. I see their anger is also fuelled by pain and suffering.

While working on a Sangha project earlier this year, I grew angry, because someone started taking over my tasks, making decisions without involving me, telling me what to do and not responding to my emails. My tree of exclusion bloomed red flowers; I got very angry. I took my anger for a walk and saw that my old suffering had emerged—the pain of not feeling heard, not being good enough and being excluded. Giving myself spaciousness to look deeply helped me realise my withdrawal from the project would be best. My feelings, still burning and painful, could easily be triggered and cause harm. A few weeks later, I was strong enough to offer the other person compassion and gratitude for all the times they had helped me in the past. As I did this, my anger dissipated. 

My practice has helped me look deeply into the pain of exclusion I carry. I see it is also the pain of my ancestors. In trying so hard to fit in, I was separated from my body, which I only realised after several months of chronic pain. My gruelling exercise regime was driven by anger rather than love for my body. Exercise was punishment for not being like my slim, blue-eyed, light-skinned doll. 

Now, after nine months of sitting with and offering gratitude to my pain, I see the beauty of the earth in it. A woman I met told me that when she was growing up, her grandmother told her, “You are loved so much. That is why you are the colour of the earth, and if you look closely, you will see the sun under your skin.” Now, I see the gold glinting in the folds of my skin in the sunshine; I see the emeralds and rubies too. When I look deeply, I see the strength and power of the earth there. 

Inclusion starts within me. It starts with making myself whole again. I don’t have to be white to be happy. I can be brown and be happy. I can look at my skin and see the earth and look at the earth and see my skin. The source of my happiness is myself. I don’t need to fit in when I can belong to myself.

Reconnecting with my ancestors through Touching the Earth practice is helping me reconnect with aspects of my history and the lineage I have rejected and suppressed. Inclusion is forging connections with my body, culture, traditions and ancestry. I connect with all my ancestors: Indian, African and white. I see ancestors who come from Gaya, those who drummed to hear the sound of rain on the earth, those who sold themselves to labour to seek a better life and those who wielded power to hurt—oppressed and oppressor. 

I am learning to accept them all. Learning to wear Indian clothes again and drumming to the Earth’s heartbeat strengthens my connection with ancestors. I no longer feel weighed down by the burden of my ancestors; I feel I am like a leaf held up by strong, broad trunks and deep, deep roots. I accept that the qualities of strength and fortitude, alongside unskilful habits, have been transmitted to me. Acknowledging my ancestors and recognizing their qualities in me helps me be more compassionate and kind. I have seeds of discrimination and racism transmitted to me; how can I be angry with others who have the same seeds?

Going to a people of colour space supports my healing. And healing the historical dimension helps me touch aspects of the ultimate dimension. I see that peace, social justice and equality begin within me. Fighting injustice from anger creates more division, not peace. Inclusion is about accepting even those whose views diverge from mine. 

Every day I try to communicate more peacefully with those I disagree with. I see being kind to myself is helping me be kind to others. Seeing my own suffering helps me see the suffering in others. 

Having happiness and peace does not require me to work hard to fit in, to change myself or to become someone else. Dr. Cornell West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I think inclusion is how we show love. My skin colour is a daily reminder that, like the earth, I can be peaceful and embrace all views and myself. 

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Rehena, True Deep Source, was born and lived in South Africa. Since 1998, she has lived in the UK, practising Thay’s teachings. She joined the Order of Interbeing in 2016, and practices with the Heart of London Sangha and Colours of Compassion Sangha.

Dharma Talk: Returning Home

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I have arrived.
I am home,
In the here
And the now.
I feel solid. 
I feel free.
In the ultimate
I dwell.

It is important for us to return home — to come back to the here and the now — and make peace with ourselves, our society, and those we love.

At times we suffer so much we want to run away. We feel burned out, overwhelmed, and so we take refuge in our projects, even our projects for social change. At these times we need a source of peace and joy, but when we arrive home, we may find a lot of violence and suffering there. We begin to practice mindful breathing, and, after a while, we are able to touch real peace and joy. Going home and touching peace is a source of great nourishment. The practice is to arrive home in each moment, to touch the peace and joy that are within us, and to open our eyes to the wonders of life around us — the blue sky, the sunset, the eyes of our beloved. When we do this, we experience real happiness.

Touching our eyes with mindfulness, we know that our eyes are a condition for peace and joy. Touching the beautiful trees, we realize how wonderful they are. We feel nourished, and we vow to do whatever we can to protect them and keep them healthy. Then, when our mindfulness has become strong enough, we can touch the war that is also going on inside us. But we must be careful. If we touch the suffering too soon, before we have developed concentration, stability, and the energy of mindfulness, we may be overwhelmed.

Sometimes when we suffer, we blame another person — our partner, our son, our daughter, our parents — as the cause. But when we look deeply in mindfulness we can see that they too are suffering. We see that our enemy is not the person. It is the seed of despair, anger, frustration, or fear in us. In Buddhism, we describe consciousness in terms of "seeds" — seeds of peace, joy, and happiness, and seeds of war, anger, despair, and hatred. All of these are in us. I know that you are not my enemy. In fact, I need you to help me transform my seeds of suffering. We are both victims of our own suffering, so why don't we come together and touch some of the positive things instead? Looking deeply, we can see seeds of peace, joy, talent, and happiness in each other, and we can tell each other how much we appreciate these things.

When two warring parties arrive at a peace conference, they always begin by accusing each other, touching the negative seeds. A third party, someone who can practice "flower watering" — pointing out the positive jewels in the traditions of both sides — is needed. Both sides need more respect and appreciation for each other. These kinds of negotiations can drag on for months just disputing procedures. Why not devote the first days to flower watering? When two individuals are in conflict, when their fears and frustrations are too great for them to reconcile alone, the practice of touching peace and flower watering is also very helpful. In fact, in any relationship, this is a useful practice. Psychotherapists can practice walking meditation, looking at the beautiful sky, and touching the seeds of joy, peace, and happiness that have not been touched in a long time, with their clients. Then, when the balance is restored, it will be much easier to touch the pain, the war going on inside.

There is no need to be afraid to go home. At home, we can touch the most beautiful things. Home is in the present moment, the only moment we can touch life. If we do not go back to the present moment, how can we touch the beautiful sky, the sunset, or the eyes of our dear child? If we do not go home, how can we touch our heart, our lungs, our liver, and our eyes to give them a chance to be healthy? At home, we can touch all the wonders of life, the refreshing, beautiful, and healing elements.

Touching the present moment deeply, we also touch the past, and any damage that was done in the past can be repaired in that moment. We see that the future is also made of the present moment. There is no need to worry about the future. The way to take care of the future is to take good care of the present moment.

According to the Buddha, most of our suffering is caused by wrong perceptions. One man I know believed that the baby his wife gave birth to was really the child of his neighbor, and he held onto that wrong perception for twelve years, too proud to talk about it with anyone. The man became distant and cold to his wife, and the whole family suffered deeply. Then one day, after twelve years, a house guest observed that the twelve-year-old boy looked exactly like his father, and only then did the man abandon his wrong perception. A lot of damage was done during those twelve years. Wrong perceptions, like walking in the twilight and mistaking a length of rope for a snake, are common in our daily lives. That is why it is so important to practice mindfulness and stay in close touch with our perceptions.

Each of us has habit energies that cause us difficulties. One Frenchwoman I know left home at the age of seventeen to live in England, because she was so angry at her mother. Thirty years later, after reading a book on Buddhism, she felt the desire to return home and reconcile with her mother. Her mother also felt the desire to reconcile, but every time the two of them met, there was a kind of explosion. Their seeds of suffering had been cultivated over a long time, and there was a lot of habit energy. The willingness to make peace is not enough. We also need to practice.

So I invited her to come to Plum Village to practice sitting, walking, breathing, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness. Through that daily practice, she was able to touch the seeds of her anger and her habit energies. Then she wrote a letter of reconciliation to her mother. Without her mother present, it was easier to write such a letter. When her mother read it, she tasted the fruit of her daughter's flower watering, and peace was finally possible.

If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give is your presence. If you are not really there, how can you love? The most meaningful declaration you can offer is, "Darling, I am here for you." You breathe in and out mindfully, and when you are really present, you recognize the presence of the other. To embrace someone with the energy of mindfulness is the most nourishing thing you can offer. If the person you love does not get your attention, she may die slowly. When she is suffering, you have to make yourself available right away: "Darling, I know that you suffer. I am here for you." This is the practice of mindfulness.

If you yourself suffer, you have to go to the person you love and tell him, "Darling, I am suffering. Please help." If you cannot say that, something is wrong in your relation­ship. Pride does not have a place in true love. Pride should not prevent you from going to him and saying that you suffer and need his help. We need each other.

One day in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village, I saw a young woman walking alone who looked like a ghost. I thought she must be from a broken family, from a society that does not appreciate her, and from a tradition not capable of nourishing her. I have met many people like that, without roots. They are angry, and they want to leave their parents, their society, and their nation behind and find something else that is good, beautiful, and true. They want something they can believe in. Many people like that come to medita­tion centers, but because they have no roots, it is difficult for them to absorb the teaching. They do not trust easily, so the first thing to do is to earn their trust.

In many Asian countries, we pay a lot of respect to our ancestors. We have an ancestors' altar in each home. On the full moon day of the seventh month, we offer flowers, fruits, and drink to them. It is a happy day, because we feel that our ancestors are with us. But, at the same time, we are aware that many souls, "hungry ghosts," have no home to go back to. So we set up a table for them in the front yard and offer them food and drink. Hungry ghosts are hungry for love, understanding, and something to believe in. They have not received love, and no one understands them. They have large bellies and their throats are as small as a needle. Even if we offer them food, water, or love, it is difficult for them to receive it. They are very suspicious. Our society produces thousands of hungry ghosts like that every day. We have to look deeply if we want to understand them, and not just blame them.

To be happy and stable, we need two families — a blood family and a spiritual family. If our parents are happy with each other, they will be able to transmit to us the love, trust, and the values of our ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, we are connected with our ancestors through them. But if we are not, we can easily become a hungry ghost, rootless. In our spiritual family, we have ancestors, too, those who represent the tradition. If they are not happy, if they have not been lucky enough to receive the jewels of the tradition, they will not be able to transmit them to us. If we are not on good terms with our rabbi, our pastor, or our priest, we will want to run away. Disconnected from our spiritual ancestors, we will suffer, and our children will suffer too. We have to look deeply to see what is wrong. If those who represent our tradition do not embody the best values of the tradition, there must be causes, and when we see the causes, insight, acceptance, and compassion will arise. Then we will be able to return home, reconnect with them, and help them.

Transmission has three components — the one who transmits, the object transmitted, and the receiver. Our body and our consciousness are objects transmitted to us; our parents are the transmitters; and we are the receiver of the transmission. Looking deeply, we can see that the three components are one — this is called the "emptiness of transmission." Our body and many of the seeds we carry in our consciousness are actually our parents. They did not transmit anything less than themselves — seeds of suffering, happiness, and talent, many of which they received from their ancestors. We cannot escape the fact that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. To be angry at our parents is to be angry at ourselves. To reconcile with our father and mother is to make peace with ourselves.

One young American man who came to Plum Village told me that he was so angry at his father that even after his father passed away, he still could not reconcile with him. The young man put a photo of his father on his desk, with a small lamp near it, and every time he got close to the desk, he would look into the eyes of his father and practice conscious breathing. Doing this, he was able to see that he is his father, a true continuation of his father. He also saw that his father was incapable of transmitting seeds of love and trust to him, because his father had not been helped by anyone to touch these seeds in himself, seeds that were covered over by many layers of suffering. When the young man became aware of that, he was able to understand and forgive. His father had been the victim of his father. He knew that if he did not practice mindfulness and deep looking, the seeds of love and trust in him would remain buried, and then when he had a child, he would behave exactly as his father did, continuing the wheel of samsara. The only thing to do is to go back and make peace with his own parents, and through his parents, reconnect with all of his ancestors.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we can also discover important jewels and values in our spiritual traditions. In Christianity, for example, Holy Communion is an act of mindfulness — eating a piece of bread deeply in order to touch the entire cosmos. In Judaism, you practice mindfulness when you set the table or pour tea, doing everything in the presence of God. Even the equivalents of the Three Jewels and the Five Wonderful Precepts can be found in Christianity, Judaism, and other great traditions. After you practice mindfulness according to the Buddhist tradition, you will be able to return home and discover the jewels in your own tradition. I urge you to do so — for your nourishment and the nourishment of your children.

Without roots, we cannot be happy. If we return home and touch the wondrous jewels that are there in our traditions — blood and spiritual — we can become whole.

I would like to offer an exercise that can help us do this. It is called Touching the Earth. In each of us, there are many kinds of ideas, notions, attachments, and discrimination. The practice is to bow down and touch the Earth, emptying ourselves, and surrendering to Earth. You touch the Earth with your forehead, your two hands, and your two feet, and you surrender to your true nature, accepting any form of life your true nature offers you. Surrender your pride, hopes, ideas, fears, and notions. Empty yourself of any resentments you feel toward anyone. Surrender everything, and empty yourself completely. To do this is the best way to get replenished. If you do not exhale and empty your lungs, how can fresh air come in? In this practice, the body and the mind are working together, in harmony, to form a perfect whole.

We prostrate ourselves six times to help us realize our deep connection to our own roots. The first bow is directed towards all generations of ancestors in our blood family. Our parents are the youngest, closest ancestors, and through them we connect with other generations of ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, the connection is easy. But if we are not, we have to empty our resentments and reconnect with them. Our parents had seeds of love and trust they wanted to transmit to us, perhaps they were not able to do so. Instead of transmitting loving kindness and trust, they transmitted suffering and anger. The practice is to look deeply and see that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. When we understand the "emptiness of transmission," reconciliation is possible. Bowing down, touching the Earth, we should be able to surrender the idea of our separate self and become one with our ancestors. Only then should true communion become possible and the energy of our ancestors able to flow into us.

The second bow is directed towards Buddhist ancestors who came before us, those who have transmitted these teachings and practices to us for more than 25 centuries. The third bow is directed towards our land and the ancestors who made it available to us. The fourth is to channel and transmit the energy of loving kindness to those we love. We touch the Earth, look deeply into our relationship, and see how we can improve it. The fifth bow is directed towards those who have made us suffer. Looking deeply, we see that these people suffer also, and do not have the insight to prevent their suffering from spilling over onto others. Motivated by compassion, we want to share our energy with them, hoping it will help them suffer less and be able to enjoy some peace and happiness.

The sixth bow is directed towards our own spiritual ancestors. If we are lucky, it may be easy for us to connect with the representatives of our spiritual tradition — our rabbi, pastor, or priest. But if we have had problems with them, our effort is to understand how they themselves were not able to receive the jewels of the tradition. Instead of feeling resentment toward them, we vow to go back and rediscover the jewels of our tradition ourselves. Getting connected with our church, synagogue, rabbi, or priest will enable us to touch all our spiritual ancestors.

Photos: First photo by Karen Hagen Liste. Second photo by Stuart Rodgers.

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Poem: Untitled Poem 2

In the kitchen late at night,
my mother takes care of an injured wild bird
to show her daughter how to love.
I bathed my mother's cold and still body
as best I could.
I started the fire and went outside
to watch my mother's warmth
rise into the tree, into the birds, and the sky.

I have a face that only a mother can love.
Do you too?
How miraculously poignant
is the love a son can give his mother,
especially a son who knows he has the face
that only a mother can love.
If only we could bottle that tenderness
and give it away on street corners.
But of course we can.
One of my teachers is a tree by a meadow.
I think it is also the teacher of my teacher,
and the student of our great, great,
great grandfather ancestor
which must be the reason I am here today.

Sister Thuc Nghiem
Plum Village, France

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We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan) Sister Thuc Nghiem's Insight Gatha

Just one instant of the present moment and something knocks so loudly at my heart; The love that we all belong together. A star at dawn above the darkened earth, they talk together of this. The blades of grass, the dew and the sunshine, they talk together of this. My in-breath, the apples and the soil, they know this together. The breeze, the flowers, the moon beams and my heart, we interare. My teacher, my sisters, brothers, my children, ancestors and all people did you know we talk of this all the time. My out-breath and my smile, the rain and my tears, the trees and my carbon, they just can 't stop talking together of this.

Six birds flying overhead with the rising sun, I suddenly wonder if any of them feel exhausted or have a deep pain in their wings. I see it must be so and I am shaken by compassion. Who am I, if I am not these birds? Who am I, if I am not all things? We do this together, what happiness, what joy.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

The full moon that looks like a ripe fruit, is used as a mirror by a beautiful lady. The autumn hills stand quietly and majestically around us. As soon as you smile at someone's footprints on the Ben Duc harbor, the Lord of Compassion 's boat of loving-kindness will have already brought you to the other shore.

note: The Ben Duc harbor is the harbor you must use to go to the Perfume temple in North Vietnam. The water is a little muddy at that harbor.

Thay's Words of encouragement

Avalokiteshvara is always there around us and inside of us. In a time of confusion and suffering we need the bodhisattva of deep listening and of great compassion to be with us . The bodhisattva may manifest herself in every step we make, in everything we say. Our daily life should embody the capacity of deep listening and compassionate action. The seeds of compassion should continue to be planted in our society. Whether that seed can sprout today or tomorrow depends on many conditions. But the bodhisattva does not worry about the outcome. The bodhisattva takes care of the action only. Every day we keep sowing the seeds of understanding and compassion and we have the conviction that alI these seeds planted today will sprout tomorrow or after tomorrow. That will bring enough happiness and peace. We try to do this together as a Sangha.

There are many seeds planted by Shakyamuni Buddha. Some seeds waited for 2600 years in order to sprout. The same thing is true with us. The essential thing is to plant the seeds of understanding and compassion. This is the meaning of the lamp transmission, the continuation of the practice. It is wonderful that the light of the Buddha has still come to us as bright and alive as ever. Now the light is being transmitted to you, Sister Susan.

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem's Dharma Talk

A tool that Thay has given us is the ability to find healing in nature, to go sit in the middle of a field and do nothing. In the past two years I have found an apple tree out in front of the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Is it under it, near the fence, every morning. I see the same patch of earth, the same landscape in front of me and the same trees, in the springtime, in the summer, in the fall and in the winter. I think I began doing this because one morning I saw a bird watching the sun come up. I felt that that bird was more wholehearted than I was in being with the sunrise. About a month later I was taken by surprise and I really saw the sun come up. [t pierced me straight to my core.

I wanted to watch the sun come up and after a while I noticed the earth also. When it was cloudy, rainy or snowing I didn't see the sun but the earth was very wonderful. I began to feel very close to the earth. It was so wonderful to go and sit cross-legged on the earth every morning. I began to appreciate the apples in the different seasons and the chipmunks and the squirrels who would run by me. One time a chipmunk landed on my head. One time a bird landed on my head. I think from this, on a deep level, I began to feel the interbeing of the earth and the sky and the chipmunks and the raindrops and I certainly saw them interbe with my happiness. It was this time I spent under the apple tree that really gave me a smile so easily. It gave me love in my heart so easily. I could see that everything was connected. The teachings on Buddhist psychology also helped me to see that everything is connected. In nature it is easy to see that everything is connected. I think that is why I can sit and stare at it for so long because something in me recognizes that I am looking at everything.

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I could see that my sisters and I were connected very deeply and we affect each other. Perhaps the greatest happiness is knowing that we live in a community. It doesn't matter if sometimes the community has difficulties or I can't get along with someone or a million other things that can happen in a community that lives together twenty-four hours a day. But the fact that we are living together, that we are trying to make the Sangha work and we are making it work, that we support each other by practicing the same guidelines (the mindfulness trainings) and we are really there for each other, to me that is one of the most beautiful things on earth. To me it makes all the difference when I recognize the fact that we all belong together, that you can't take the father out of the son, you can't take us out of each other, you can't take anything out of us . We all belong together.

On our trip in China last fall on the last morning Thay woke up very early to see some of us off who were leaving for America, after a late night at a public talk. He was sitting outside with us. I was sitting at a table with another sister. She turned to Thay and said, "I want to thank you for allowing me to come to China and I want to apologize for any mistakes I have made." She went on to say, you know I have many weaknesses and I am trying to overcome them and it is difficult. And Thay quietly stopped her and said, "We do it together." To me that was the most incredible thing to say.

All our pain, all our difficulties, all our joy, we do it together. And when we do this we are following the truth of things and that brings about our greatest happiness. What if all the Sanghas we know have that idea, we do it together, for each other. If in a family something comes up, they can do it together, they work it out together. As a nation, we can all help each other to do it together. So when some group suffers, we do it together. We think about it, we look deeply into it. And as a world we do it  together. We have many ways of diplomacy and we know we are doing it together for all of us. We know we alI belong together as one family and so we will find the best ways to bring about happiness for all of us.

Sister Thuc Nghiem, True Adornment with Ripeness, lives in the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael) Brother Phap Hien's insight gatha

Remembering your peaceful steps along the ancient path, the sound of the old bell carried me out into the night sky. I return now with a bright message from faraway stars, and Oh, how my weary feet adore the tender earth. We have always known each other. There are thousands of generations of tears, smiles and laughter echoing through the great hall. In this endless embrace with this unfathomable aspiration, my teacher, my brother, my friend, what have we possibly to fear?

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

The Dharma handed down by wise ones from long ago is like the sound of the rising tide, echoing tens of thousands of songs and poems. Having been brothers and sisters to each other during innumerable past lives we should hold firm to the door of the practice so that the true vehicle can go vigorously far into the future.

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien's Dharma Talk

It's hard to say anything to a community that is you. When I was six-years-old I went to the dentist and the dentist asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I had never thought about that question before, but I remember I answered him very quickly. I said, I want to be a farmer. He looked at me and he said, a farmer? What about a doctor or a scientist? I said, no I want to be a farmer. The seed of the simple life and the family life living close to the land was very big in my ancestors.

And then when I was about twelve-years-old my parents separated. That was a great wound for me, a big wound in my heart. I lost all my trust and faith in my family. I remember also at that time someone asked me a question of what I wanted to do with my life and my answer was completely different. My answer was, I want to be alone. I wanted to live in a little house all by myself way up in the north of Canada with no one else around, with long, cold winters. Still a simple life, but with no more family. Actually what I really wanted was to be in the embrace of Mother Earth. But that dream to live alone didn't last very long. When I was seventeen I fell in love. That gave me the incentive to open up a little bit, to try to learn to be honestly close to someone, to share my life with someone. It was a very good thing that that happened. The inspiration ofthe family life came back into my dream.

About a year later when I began college I did a solo retreat for three days all alone in a desert canyon. I didn't eat anything. It was very hot. I barely wore anything. I just sat on a rock and did nothing for three days. I had never done anything like that before. During that time, without any kind of words or cognitive process, I understood something very deep about myself. When I tried to put it into words it didn't work. But I knew deep inside I had found something that resonated deeply with a place, a home within.

When I was twenty-one I was living in Northern California in the redwood forest. On my twenty-first birthday I received a book, Peace is Every Step, from my next-door neighbor. I was very happy to receive the book and I asked her, what is it? She just said, it's a lot like you. A few weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again. She is a kind of bodhisattva for me because giving me that book opened a big door for me. I read Thay's teaching and I felt as if someone was speaking what was inside of me. But he was able to put it into words, to give clear examples of what it meant to have that inside of oneself and to live it. I tried my best to practice walking mediation right away, but I didn't really understand it. But I did understand that my life had to be about what was going on in the here and now from that point on or it wasn't life. That is what I wanted. I had met the Buddha and the Dharma and a little piece of the Sangha. Soon after that I found myself here in Plum Village.

When I was twenty-four I became a novice monk and I started my life all over again. I didn't realize that I was doing that, but I did. I don't think I have fully realized it yet actually.

Before I became a novice I had had a dream of going to India and Nepal. This was before I had fully met and experienced a Sangha body. I had the idea that I would go there and find a place to touch something ancient. When I arrived in Plum Village and I heard the monks and nuns chanting at a formal lunch in the summer retreat I felt that something ancient, something very powerful. It is strange, but I gave up that dream to travel to the East and then eight months after becoming a novice I went to India with Thay and the Sangha. That next fall I also traveled with Thay and the Sangha to America and I found myself doing walking meditation in the redwood forest in Northern California at Kim Son Monastery one morning. I suddenly realized it was only ten to fifteen miles from the spot where I had first received Peace is Every Step. I had also been very intent on having a family life before I became a monk. In giving up that dream I got the biggest family I could possibly imagine.

The Dharma is very powerful. To be in touch with the Dharma through the Vietnamese Buddhist culture and community has been very important for me. Through my life in the monastery I have learned a lot about place, relationships to others and to environment, which I never knew before; relationship to elder brothers and sisters, relationship to younger brothers and sisters and so on. Being born in Plum Village as a monk is to be born in a group of several brothers and sisters who ordain together on the same day, sometimes as a tree, sometimes as an animal , a fruit or a flower. I was born in the coconut tree family. There were five of us; Phap Kieu, Thuc Nghiem, Ha Nghiem, Phap Hien and Hy Nghiem. We had many elder brothers and sisters who ordained before us also in groups, like batches of children or batches of cookies. There are many ofthese batches in our community but we make up one family and we are all children of Thay, our teacher. Thay has also been in that same place. He has been a child of his teacher in a community of monks and nuns and so on and so on.

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It has been very important to experience that kind of connection as part of my life .  When I was growing up I only knew my mother, my father and my two sisters. I didn't have much connection to other people around me. Then my parents divorced and my family broke up and I felt I had nothing. Living in the community of Plum Village I have learned roots. I learned to open my heart and to see my roots, both in my blood family and in my spiritual family. To experience a lineage, a transmission, a continuation has brought stability into my heart. It has brought non-fear into my heart.

This is a great medicine for westerners, wandering souls that we are. Many of us have not grown up, as many brothers and sisters from Vietnam have, with a lot of family members around and a culture that waters the seeds of being rooted, having a lineage, and being aware of one's ancestors and descendants. We have not had that in America for a long time. Many of us wander around in a lot of pain, with a lot of loneliness because we don 't know who we are and we don 't know where we come from. It has been really important for me to enter into the awareness of being a part of a lineage and to experience it living all around me in the community of Plum Village and also in the culture of Vietnam.

I said to Thay several years ago that while practicing touching the earth I suddenly discovered who I was and because of that I was not afraid anymore. I knew who I was and where I had come from. Sometimes the seed of fear still comes up in me. But when I can remember my roots, through my brothers and sisters in my spiritual family and through the generations of my blood family, I can feel within me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

The gatha that I offered to Thay is about that. It is about entering into the stream of practice, discovering my afflictions and about getting grounded in the practice, down through my belly into my feet. I really love to walk on the earth now. It is about understanding, I am you and you are me. It has been that way for a long, long time.

Brother Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained in 1996 in Plum Village. He received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

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Buddba Body

Larry Ward mb31-Buddha1

Larry Ward's Insight Gatha

The sound of the great bell has awakened the Golden Buddha in my heart. Grace arrives on the holy wings of a breath, in the here and now. I am at home without desire. The cloud of forgetfulness fades away. My eyes open wide to the wonders of life, each a Buddha land. Bright light shining in every direction, healing and transforming me. My happiness and freedom overflow into the river of great compassion.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

When the great Drum begins to play, we hear the thunder its sound vibrates even the golden moon light Beams from the four directions are projecting in witnessing to a mind that manifests both purity and oneness If one is attentive, one will notice that both the cam and the sat are still playing the harmonious song of great courage.

Cam and sat are ancient instruments that are always played together. They are associated with husband and wife, who compliment each other, creating a harmonious duet together.

Thay's words of encouragement

The gatha I just chanted is about the moment when the Buddha attained Great Awakening at the foot of the bodhi tree after having defeated Mara, the energy of darkness, the energy of fear, the energy of ignorance, craving, and discrimination. The Buddha and many generations of practitioners have followed his example and succeeded in defeating the power of darkness. We need the light and courage of the Buddha especially in this time of distress and fear. We need a long process of education in order to transform fear and discrimination in our society and within ourselves. Through the light of the Buddha we can see habit energy deeply rooted in our society - the tendency to lose hope, to be overwhelmed, to be taken by despair, the tendency of craving, of fear, of discrimination. We have to be patient, we have to continue with our practice and our work of education in order to uproot this negative energy.

It's wonderful not to have any desire in our heart. It means that we only have one desire, the desire to uproot evil, to uproot the negative energy within our society. This lamp transmitted to you today, Larry, is the symbol of love and trust from the Buddha and from our ancestral teachers that you will continue to do your best to improve the quality of life in our families, in our communities, in our societies and never lose hope. I have faith in you; the Buddha and the patriarchs have faith in you .

Larry's Dharma Talk

To go with my whole life for refuge is to put my life in the Buddha's life and to find my story in the Buddha's story, to find the Buddha's story in me. And to surrender having to be someone else other than the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To surrender to my Noble Teacher, the Venerables here and the Noble Sangha. To be willing to be taught by the ancestral teachers, to be willing to be taught by each breath, each step, each sigh, each star, each blade of grass, and each smile, each heartbreak and each disappointment. To surrender. To be willing to be taught. And so the transmission continues.

Finding the heart of the Buddha in my heart, finding my heart in the Buddha's heart, my heart is as big as the whole world.

Finding my feet in the Buddha's feet. Two years ago during our retreat in China we had wonderful walking meditations. One morning during one of our walking meditations I looked down and I didn't recognize my feet. I could not find Larry 's feet, and realized they were becoming Buddha feet.

And my ears becoming Buddha ears. Hearing the cries of the world, the laughter, the tears, the unspoken dreams and hopes and the whispers of love quietly held in the night.

And my eyes becoming Buddha eyes. Seeing wonder everywhere I look, beholding a miracle in every moment.

And my mind, slowly, and forever becoming the Buddha's mind, the mind of practice, the mind of coming back to the here and now, the mind of knowing when I'm not back in the here and now and the mind that gently brings myself back.

Our beloved teacher has been transmitting no less than 100% of himself to us, as his teacher did for him, and his teacher before him. And the Buddha has transmitted no less than 100% of himself to us. And so this coming summer I am preparing to receive the Buddha's hands. And I surrender having to have Larry's hands, I surrender having to be somebody so I can happily be nobody and so I can serve the world in that way. And so our bodies are becoming the bodies of the Buddha, our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears, our smile. And so the transmission continues.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives in Clear View practice center.Peggy Rowe Ward also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh Lisi's Insight Gatha

A tear from the ocean of suffering fell into my hand. Looking deeply into this tear, I found a precious jewel. Looking deeply into this jewel, I found an open heart. Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. Walking this path, I found the ocean Embracing it all.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

You have always embraced with all your heart the great cause. That is why crossing so many paths and bridges you are still able to walk with freedom and ease. Since the beginning of time clouds are always traveling, water is always flowing And it could be lovely to learn to sing the song of the ultimate every morning when the east gets rosy.

Excerpt from Lisi's Dharma Talk

My husband and I decided to step out of our very busy lives and take a sabbatical. We spent part of this sabbatical in a Swiss mountain village on retreat. Every morning we read one of the fourteen mindfulness trainings and then during the day we went for long walks in the mountains, feeling the training that we read in the morning sinking into our consciousness. In the evening we would sit by the warm fireplace and share what feelings and thoughts had come up.

When we read the fourth mindfulness training about the reality of suffering, I remember sitting in meditation and suddenly feeling tears running down my cheeks, warm, wet tears. And one tear fell into my hand. Have you ever looked at a tear? It's something really beautiful. If you have a chance to look at a child and a little tear is caught in the eyelashes, it's like a dew drop in the heart of a lotus leaf. It reflects the whole universe, it's shining bright like a jewel. Tears are truly a universal human language. A mother whose child has died - maybe in Israel, maybe in Germany, maybe in Afghanistan - has the same tears. She might express them differently, but the tears are the same, wet and warm and salty. I once had a tremendous privilege to hold a mother whose eighteen year old son had just died. I held her and cradled her for many, many hours and the tears were running down my shoulder and making my clothes wet. I had the feeling I was holding the most precious jewel in my arms.

Jewels are something that you take good care of. They are in the crowns of kings, they are on the engagement ring of your beloved. When you look at jewels, they are so pure and so transparent and so full at the same time. Human suffering is the same, it is extremely precious. You don't throw jewels on the floor or put them where you keep your shoes; you keep them in a special place. And human suffering is the same, you have to take really good care of human suffering.

In my gatha, I said, "Looking deeply into this jewel l found an open heart." I am Austrian, coming from a Catholic tradition. When my parents took me to church when I was small, you could buy pictures of Mary and Jesus. There was one picture that intrigued me immensely, the picture of Jesus with an open heart - he was standing there and his breast was torn open and you could see his heart. When I saw this picture I was always so worried, thinking how could you live like that, it's so dangerous, somebody bumps into you and you get hurt. At the same time I was incredibly amazed at the look on the face of Jesus, which was somehow fearless. To me an open heart and fearlessness go together. A vulnerable fearlessness of an open heart.

Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. So I come back to the mountains where we walked every day. Every step was pure joy and pure gratefulness for this incredible beauty of nature. There was one little path that went through a forest with pine trees that lose their needles in autumn so they turn yellow and orange. One time we walked through this forest and all the golden yellow pine needles had fallen on the ground and it was like walking on pure gold. I can fee l right now the happiness of that moment. I can still hear the sound of the silence of our steps . Beauty is always available at every moment.

Walking this path I found the ocean embracing it all. The tears of pain and the tears of joy all contained in the ocean of life. And I wish us all a safe and joyful journey on this ocean.

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Lisi Ha Vinh, True Great Bridge, was born in Vienna, Austria. She has developed educational and humanitarian projects in Vietnam together with her husband Tho, True Great Wisdom, over the past twelve years. Lisi and Tho have been married for thirty years, have two grown up children, one grand child, and they consider their couple and family life as an important part of their spiritual path. Tho also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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Poem: petals of insight

in the morning, i breathe the cool air,
moist with dew all around the earth is waking up,
soaking in the fresh warm light.
i too, turn to face the sun, sweet joy.

in the afternoon, i take gentle steps
on this precious soil of my mind.
i lay my body down, in the shade of a healthy pine tree.
my arms crossed over my chest, embracing myself

tenderly i hold the pain of many lifetimes.
my precious companion,
teaching me the way of acceptance,
compassion.

written in my breath is a loving word, a peaceful smile.
i rise, following the rhythms of the sun. i recall my teacher's words,
"My child, we walk among stars. Can you see this is true?"
each flower, a cosmos of sun and Earth, ancestors and loving kindness.

in this moment, it is not an external notion,
i see i am the sunshine.
my suffering is not mine,
is not encased in this body alone, is not caught in you and me,
is not separate from the sunshine.

to embrace is to include, to surround, to surrender.
i asked my teacher, please show me how to transform my suffering,
how to bring peace to my heart and my mind.
my teacher said, my child, embrace yourself, include yourself.
do not cut yourself with fear and jealousy.
do not be ashamed of your pain.
it is precious, it is the fertile soil of enlightenment.

that beautiful rose that touches your heart,
look closely, you will see some petals are withering,
some are just beginning to bloom.
the beauty is not found in its perfection,
but in its wholehearted offering.
fragrant and fresh, withering and worn.

breathing in and breathing out.
one action lights up the mind
of understanding and love.

21 may 2002

by Sister Steadiness

Chuc Mung Nam Moi

Happy New Year
January 22, 2004
Year of the Monkey

By Hope Lindsay

I came to the Ocean of Peace mediation hall early today, soon to be filled with monastics and lay retreatants for the Asian New Year celebration. I am drawn to the beauty of this new hall at Deer Park Monastery. I want to fill my spirit through my eyes before the festival begins.

The altar area is filled with living color. There are mums, tulips, bamboo, and several species of orchids. Large vases contain pussy willows and reeds tied with tiny red ribbons. Bright red gladiolas repeat the color of good fortune. On the central altar, candles and incense are burning. Here are towers of fruits: mangos, apples, oranges, pineapple, and papayas. Sky and earth cakes wrapped in banana leaves remind me of the patient monastic and lay hands which made them the day before.

But perhaps the loveliest arrangement is the “tree.” It is Zen symbolism at its finest. Rocks arranged in classic patterns of heaven and earth support the large oak limb which has clusters of yellow blossoms attached to complete the appearance of spring. Red kites with words of peace and wisdom dangle from the tree.

Now Thay has arrived and the hall has filled. We are awaiting the Chinese dragons (in lion form) to announce the beginning of the five days of fun and reverence. Here they come turning, and rearing! They are led by a paunchy red-faced figure representing the Earth. No one can resist laughing out loud as the lions blink their large eyelids and open their mouths in pretended ferocity, except Thay, who remains in meditation until the procession reaches him. Then he breaks into a sweet, almost twinkling smile.

Thay was presented with a collage of miniature photos shaped in the form of the single pillar pagoda which replicates the stained glass window in the hall and expresses the theme of Tiep Hien, interbeing. The monastics wished Thay a long life, filled with good health and loving kindness. I also wished  him  long  life,  motivated  by attachment. I need this soft-spoken, wise being awhile longer to help me awaken. Long, long life in this form to you, dear teacher.

Thay’s New Year wish for us is for our health.    For the Asians in residence, he requests remembrance of their ancestors, and to carry their memories into enlightenment. For Westerners, he wishes rest and mindfulness. Also, he wishes us mindful consuming, the single most important mission for the Western world. In consumerism lies the cause of poverty and war. Wise consuming is the key to world peace.

I am aware that I came to this ceremony to “fill up my senses.” My eyes were filled with the sight of the  monastics, dressed  in earth brown under their bright ceremonial robes, looking like mantles of sunshine. My ears were blessed with Vietnamese music sung by Sister Chan Khong, Ha Thanh, a visiting opera singer, and Sister Thi Nghiem. I hear this haunting music in my mind, even now. I can also feel the wonderful rhythmic challenge between the large brass bell and taiko drum speaking from opposite sides of the hall.

Blessings to us all in the year of the monkey. Play more, be joyfully spontaneous, and at the same time calm our monkey minds.

Hope Lindsay, True Flow of the Heart, spent the winter retreat at Deer Park. She is a founding member of the Umpqua Area Sangha in Roseberg, Oregon, and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing.

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Finding Home

by Earthlyn Marselean Manuel mb37-Finding1

Enchanted are the souls of Africans whose bloody feet cracked the seashells that lay beneath the sand on the seashores of my beginnings. I call for the healing of those feet in me and in those around me, breathing wind a million years old, left in the thicket of trees and foul marshes. Come my ancestors to the table where I eat rice that you have given me. Come feel the cotton clothes I wear because of the crops you harvested. Come let me kiss your hands that swelled long after sunset each day. If only all that you loved and lost came back from the heavens, back from beneath the sea.

Walking sacred land where you withered and rose again despite the horror, I give honor, thanking you for surviving my beginnings, for the world that shares in the abundance created by you. We must remember you stained the sand that washes beneath our feet, pushing us deeper into it, turning us into purple sand dunes in your honor.

I lost sight of home, the trees planted in my name, ceremonies, sight of waterfalls; and I have lost the smell of certain flowers and fruits. Rage stays a memory of you on this planet, a memory that will not pain us forever.

And now I’m finding home, close to the sacred earth your bones have settled, nestled close to each breath. I climbed the heavens and saw you there; your face alights from resting. Where the sea delivered you to this land is where you are too. I move on in your honor, your stories unburied, your spirit alive in everything.

I go now speaking your names, finding home in the way I walk across the street. Being so close to home that one day, someone will yell out to me, “Hey this is not Africa.” And I will respond, “It certainly isn’t.”

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The Six Points Suggested by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

on the Openness of the Vietnamese Communist Party

  1. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease with the cultural traditions of Vietnam and is determined to live in such a way as to make it more beautiful day by day.

  2. The Vietnamese Communist is aware that trees have roots, water has its sources and that ancestors are one’s origin, from which one has received many insights, experiences, and good and beautiful ways of

  3. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease while wearing the national dress and while offering incense at the shrine of King Hung, at their home’s ancestral altar, and at memorials to deceased The shrine of King Hung, the ancestral altars, and the memorials to deceased soldiers are symbols of gratitude towards and respect and love for one’s origin. They are not the objects of a deity faith. (The Ho Chi Minh Memorial is also a symbol of origin and gratitude.)

  4. The Vietnamese Communist understands that religious beliefs are not the essence of The essence of Buddhism is the source of insight that transcends perceptions of being/non-being, mind/body; that has the capacity to embrace, to cultivate brotherhood (love and compassion), and to transform hatred and discrimination. The essence of Buddhism is a wealth of concrete practices which help one to untie internal knots, to reestablish communication, and to bring about reconciliation in oneself, in one’s family and in society. This source of insight and these practices, if applied properly, have the capacity to rebuild peaceful and happy families, villages, and cities free from social ills such as crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and debauchery. This tradition of love and understanding has helped build a gentle and peaceful way of life, helped create many centuries of peace and prosperity, and has become the character of the national culture. This character is in the blood of every Vietnamese, including those who do not consider themselves Buddhist.

  5. Even when seeing those who consider themselves Buddhist but who only know to worship and to pray for favor, the Vietnamese Communist still feels at ease, and does not discriminate against He or she is aware of being more fortunate, of having had the chance to study and to utilize the insight of Buddhism in order to develop a profound internal life, to have more strength to overcome difficulties, to create sympathy and happiness in his or her family, and to organize and to succeed swiftly in his or her career.

  6. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease living together with all traditions (including those introduced into Vietnam long ago or just recently) that incline to become nationalized traditions and thus a part of the people’s The brotherhood among these nationalized traditions is a fact that does not need to bear the title of religion, race, doctrine, or ideology.

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Poem: Thien Mu

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By Larry Ward

Around the bend of the Perfume River
Our Dragon Boat took time
Above steep ancient stone steps
Stood a golden pagoda constructed by an Emperor,
Silently resting on the earth
Seven levels reaching for the sky

Surprised with its simplicity, grace, and beauty
The grounds, the temple, the sound of the big bell still echoes in my heart
Touching the earth three times
In touch with my breath
In touch with my heart
In touch with my devotion

The old blue Austin that Thich Quang Duc rode
That day in Saigon 1963
A vehicle for offering his life
Engulfed in flames perfect peace,
lotus in a sea of fire Compassion speaks

The Bonsai trees laugh at my notions of age
Surrounded by the living graves of ancestors
The Temple and pine trees,
Thousands had gathered here for a day with Thay
A striking view of Hue
A red tea house peaks at me through the jackfruit trees
A gentle smiling monk

I make this pilgrimage three times
Who knew?
I would be
So moved
By quiet love

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Letter from the Editor

mb45-LetterFromEditor1Dear Thây, dear Sangha, The Buddha taught the nature of interbeing. In our own time scientists have discovered the non-local nature of elementary particles. We feel in our daily lives that one nation is deeply connected to all nations of the world — we call this globalization. As Thay travels the world we feel the appropriateness of this way of teaching.

Thay goes to Vietnam and whether we stay behind in the U.S. or buy an air ticket to join the Plum Village delegation in Vietnam, we share in the karma of Thay and Vietnam.

The Grand Offering Ceremonies Bringing Relief without Discrimination from Past Injustice taking place in Vietnam during Thay’s visit are certainly very grand and powerful. Here at home we can set up our own little altar and gather as a family or sangha to read the Five Mindfulness Trainings for the souls of those who laid down their lives willingly and unwillingly during, or as a result of, the war in Vietnam four decades ago. The souls find relief in our own home although it may be far from Vietnam because they are non-local and our commitment to practice sila, the mindfulness trainings, is strengthened. As we gather before the altar our compassion is aroused for beings who are visible or invisible, already born or yet to be born, alive or departed. Here in the U.S. we have our role to play in practicing the mindfulness trainings, so that the tremendous inequity that lies between developing countries like Vietnam and over-developed countries can be redressed.

Still, in developing countries material development is already damaging the spiritual and moral dimension of life as it has done in the overdeveloped countries. With the destruction of this dimension the family breaks up because communication breaks down. Sila no longer has its place. The three spiritual powers — putting an end to the mental poisons, understanding, and love — give way to worldly and material power. Globally we need a practice of redeeming the three spiritual powers; this is what Thay is teaching in Vietnam and teaching the whole world.

We are praying that in August we shall have enough good merit to receive Thay in the U.S. so that Thay can encourage us and show us how to develop the spiritual and moral dimensions and powers in our own lives.

On a local level the Maple Forest Monastery of Vermont will move to the Blue Cliff Monastery of New York at the beginning of May. We hope to see you there in a spacious, beautiful, and comfortable setting at our opening (June 2), Wesak (June 3), OI Retreat (June 29, if you are an ordained OI member), or at our Summer Opening (July 6-20, for anyone who cares to come). Thay has given us the name Blue Cliff, so that we can work on the koan of our life: the koan that has practical meaning in terms of our everyday suffering and obstacles. (The Blue Cliff Monastery in China is the monastery where the most famous record of koans was compiled in the 12th century.)

May the monks and nuns of Maple Forest take this opportunity to thank all of you who are so generously supporting the purchase of this monastery with your material and spiritual support.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Spanning a Bridge

For Love to Deepen

By Sister Dang Nghiem

During Thich Nhat Hanh’s trip to Vietnam in early 2007, several Great Requiem Ceremonies were held, to help heal the wounds of war. Here, Sister Dang Nghiem continues her recollections of those powerful events and the deep transformation she experienced. (See part one of her article in the Autumn 2007 issue).

Each day when a ceremony began, the monastic Sangha would do walking meditation from outside the ancestral hall to the front courtyard, then to the main hall of Temple Vinh Nghiem (Adornment with Eternity). Sixty young monks from Prajna Temple walked in front, holding up ceremonial instruments, followed by the Chanting Master of Ceremony (Venerable Le Trang), Thay, the assisting chanting monks, the musicians, the high venerables, and over two hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, Prajna, and Tu Hieu.

Thousands of people watched the procession in complete silence and respect. Most ceremonies took place in the main hall, and lay people could only observe them by looking in or by watching two big screens in the courtyard. Still, everyone participated wholeheartedly and offered up their concentrated energies to the souls of the departed. Some people had wondered why Thay, a Zen master, would have these ceremonies performed in the Vajrayana (Tantric) tradition. Suddenly, I appreciated the wonderful meaning of ‘‘skillful means.’’ With certainty, thousands of beginners like me would not be able to meditate and concentrate their minds continuously for three days, but they could more easily follow these Tantric ceremonies and benefit from them.

I Stand Still

My thorax feels like a heavy cement block. The in-breaths and out-breaths are superficial and laborious. I intentionally make my abdomen rise and fall, but oxygen seems not to have enough space to enter the lower parts of the lungs. Strange, I had assisted in surgical procedures that were eight to ten hours long when I did have back pain and abdominal pain, but I never experienced chest pain like this. I relax my shoulders and arms, and I continue to follow my breathing.

The powerful chanting of the monks stirs my deep consciousness: I see thousands of skeleton figures standing on the water and heading towards the shore without moving. The immense ocean is without waves. Everything about those skeletons and about the space around them is gray and foggy. Suddenly, I realize that I saw these images fifteen years ago, when I was still a medical student at UCSF. There were afternoons when I wandered aimlessly along the beach. I stood watching those gray skeleton figures, not knowing how they were related to me and to the pervasive sadness always haunting me. I had written about them in a poem, titled “Dreams”:

…These days my limbs guide me near the waters.
The sky is gray.
Still, the waves are grayer.
I see stick figures through the mist.
Forever claimed by the sea,
They walk without moving.
Something whispers:
‘‘Walk straight. Walk straight.’’
My heart pulsates, but I am drawn to silence.

I also see people falling down in an open field; I see little children screaming wide-mouthed and lying exhausted on their mothers’ corpses; I see a naked woman curling up in a bush; I see layers of people stacked on each other. I see.

I continue to follow my breathing. I did not know that these images and the innumerable possible deaths were stored in my consciousness. Everything I had ever seen, heard, and perceived; everything my parents, ancestors and society had ever seen, heard, and perceived — they all have been imprinted in my mind. Tears stream down. Sweat oozes in big droplets, even from places I had not known could perspire. My whole body seems to be excreting, and purifying.

For My Mother in Me

I stand still. So that the young girl in my mother can be absolved from injustice. That young girl had left her arid homeland Quang Ngai to go to Saigon for work. She became a maid, and she saved every penny to send home to her mother. Each night, the owner came to her little corner at the back of the house. She curled up under her bamboo bed, but he would not let her be. He used a broom to poke her and get her out. The young girl wandered on the street; her education was minimal, she had no skills, and circumstances pushed her as they had pushed countless young girls in war time. She worked for American soldiers, and she gave birth to my brother and me — Amerasian children who did not know their fathers’ faces. Then she became mistress to a rich old man, in order to take care of her children and relatives.

There were times when my mother would yell at me and beat me up as if I were her enemy. Afterwards, while I was sleeping, she would rub green oil on my bruises and cry. Her dream was to go to America, and all she thought about was leaving. One day in May 1980, my mother went to the market for work as usual, but she never came back. She disappeared at the age of thirty-six. I was only twelve. I remember squatting on the toilet seat, thinking: “Good, from now on she will not abuse me anymore!”

For My Father in My Brother

I stand still. So that the father inside my brother can be absolved from injustice. My brother was born with blond hair and fair skin. He was so beautiful that I used to wrap the embroidered tablecloth around his face and body. He looked like a princess and I carried him on my hip everywhere. Yet children in the neighborhood yelled at him, ‘‘Amerasian with twelve butt holes!’’ They spit on him; they made him the American prisoner in their war games. Sending him to the United States was like severing her own intestines, but my grandmother was well aware that if my brother had remained in Vietnam, he would be teased and shamed and exploited his whole life.

When he got to the United States, children in school yelled at him, ‘‘V.C. go home!’’ because he did not speak any English. Like a wounded animal, my brother lashed out in fury and beat up those kids with all his might. The psychologist diagnosed him as having ‘‘uncontrolled extreme anger.’’ The United States government paid money to put my brother in a rehabilitation center for rich kids who had problems with drug addiction, gang, and other violence. My brother is thirty-five years old now, and he is built like a football player. In his house, there are over sixty guns of different sizes; stacks of bullets lie all over the room. He is a licensed gun dealer. In his house, there are over a hundred videos about the Vietnam War and other violent crimes. My brother cannot sleep without the television on all night. His eyes are gentle and bright, and he smiles often. Yet, my brother’s mind has a dark side, which continues to damage and torment him.

For My Uncles

I stand still. So that my uncles can be absolved from injustice. My eldest uncle (Uncle Number Two) ran away from home to the North to become a Communist. Every so often, soldiers of the [South] Vietnam Republic would call my grandmother to their post, beating her and harassing her about my uncle. After the fall of Vietnam Republic in 1975, my uncle returned to look for his mother and siblings. He brought with him a white pillowcase with red words ‘‘Returning to Motherland”; he had embroidered it while he was serving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. My uncle enthusiastically took my grandmother to the North to meet his wife and three children. However, he died within six months. Years of suffering from malnutrition, bouts of malaria, tons of bombs and chemical warfare had damaged his heart, lungs, liver, and intestines. My grandmother had to return to the South alone, too stunned to cry.

My youngest uncle (Uncle Number Six) ran away from home to go to Saigon when he was thirteen years old. Not being able to find my mother, he lived on the streets, polishing shoes, stealing things, involved in reckless sexual activities, and later he joined the Vietnam Republic Army. After the fall of [South] Vietnam, my mother sent him to a distant farmland, so that he could avoid the communist rehabilitation camp. He got involved in drinking and womanizing again. The neighbors were angry, and they turned him in to the police. My uncle escaped from prison, swimming over twenty-five kilometers along the river to reach my grandmother’s house. My uncle died before he turned fifty-five. Cigarettes, liquor, and women had drained all of his life energy.

For All the Dead

And I stand still. So that the Vows to the Dead and the compassionate energy of the Three Jewels can absolve injustice for all my people – the people with names but bodies unfound, and the people with bodies but names untraceable. Dying in injustice, and living in repression. Whether or not living people like me are aware, the injustice endured by the dead continues to be choked and repressed in our consciousness. Sometimes we can only breathe at the neck or chest level; our bodies are tense and restless. Sometimes we feel stressed and agitated. We do not understand at times why we think, speak, and behave so negatively and cynically. The undercurrents from countless generations, although invisible, still ravage our lives. Recognizing these forces and calling them by their true names is to span a bridge into the deep consciousness, so that the dead in the living can live with lightness, and so that the living in the dead can truly live.

Tears stream down, but I do not suffer. I give thanks to Thay. He was able to untie the knots in himself, so that today he can establish Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All People and to Untie the Knots of Injustice in them – creating the favorable conditions for his disciples and his people to uproot and remove these deep internal formations.

Sister Dang Nghiem currently lives at Deer Park Monastery; before she became a nun she was a medical doctor.

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A Day in the Life of a Catholic Zen Monk in Plum Village

December 8, 2007 — Feast of the Immaculate Conception By Brother Phap De

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This morning, I awaken and smile, saying “Twenty-four brand new hours are before me! I vow to live each moment fully, mindfully, and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Then, I light a candle and a stick of incense before a picture of Mom, Dad, and my brothers and sisters, saying, “In gratitude, I offer this incense to you and all my ancestors. May it be fragrant as flowers, reflecting my loving reverence and gratitude. May we all be companions of the saints, especially Mary, our Mother of Compassion, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception.”

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Thanks to Thay and to the Vietnamese practice of ancestor worship, this Catholic now feels connected to his ancestors and is nourished by reverential gratitude to his parents and other ancestors

— a practice that the misguided Catholic bishops and priests tried to stop in Vietnam. When I light a candle and make the incense offering in front of their picture, I know that they are not actually in the picture. Rather, I know that they are actually in me. I know that the real altar of my ancestors is my body/mind on which I honor them by the way I live, particularly as expressed in the Fifth Mindfulness Training, mindful consumption. This living connection to my ancestors is helping me let go of my attachment to my ego, my notion of being a separate self and somebody special.

Only Zen Monks Stop

At 4:45 a.m., I quietly brew a cup of tea, without waking up my roommate. Drinking my tea, I gratefully remember that it was Mom who first taught me the devotion to Mary. As a boy, I prayed to Mary for many different things—even for assistance in winning basketball games.

After this, our ordinary day begins with sitting meditation (Holy Hour) at 5:30 a.m.

At 7:00 a.m., the centuries-old church bells sound the Angelus, calling us to stop and remember that Mary said “Let it be” to the Angel, and became the mother of Jesus. In the old days, everyone stopped at the sound of the bells and recited three Ave Marias. Nowadays, only the Zen monks stop. I love the sound and recite an Ave. Hearing the Angelus bells is like hearing the voice of Christ, calling me back to my true self and inviting me to be like Mary: with the energy of the Holy Spirit, to give birth to Christ in my own life, in my own soul and body. I know that if I don’t, then what she did will have been wasted as far as my life is concerned.

As the Angelus bells continue, I remember the Gospel story of how the newly pregnant Mary “set out and walked with haste” (she had not yet learned slow walking meditation) to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, who greeted her with: “Blessed are you among women.” (Luke 1:39 and 42) The sound of the Angelus bells wakes me up to the realization that like Mary, my brothers and sisters embody Christ-consciousness here and now. Thus, like Elizabeth, I say to my sisters and brothers: “Blessed are you.” How lucky we are!

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Then, breakfast at 7:30. We sit, in a circle, on cushions on the floor — twenty monks and six laypersons, breaking bread together. I am surrounded by my companions. I remember that the word “companion” comes from com (together) and pan (bread), that is, breaking bread together. I remember Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. This morning I see the abbot’s mother sitting and eating with us — like Mary did with Jesus and his companions. I look gratefully at the two cooks, a New Zealander and a Vietnamese, who prepared the food, even though they understand very little of each other’s language. This is the Holy Thursday brotherhood meal and Pentecost (enlightenment) in the here and now.

Walking with Mother Mary

We study from 9:15 a.m. until we gather for walking meditation at 11:00. I usually invite Dad and Mom to walk with me. How can they not, for they are in me. Dad is learning how to walk more slowly, keeping his attention on the flowers and surroundings, not on the destination or job waiting ahead.

Today, I also invite Mother Mary to walk with me. After all, she is my spiritual ancestor and I am blessed with her spiritual DNA — the Christ-consciousness in me. Today, holding my hand, Mother Mary no longer walks “with haste.”

The divine feminine energy of Mary is very much with me in this Zen Buddhist monastery. (Buddhists know Mother Mary as Avalokita or Quan The Am or Kwan Yin.) Many of us can experience Mary’s spiritual DNA through our practice of touching the earth, when we lie on Mother Earth and reflect on the presence of her healing energy in each of us and in the body of our community. We chant Namo Bo Tat Quan The Am and send her healing energy to people around the world. This chant often brings tears of joy and gratitude to the listeners. To me, it feels like it generates the same energy that’s found in Lourdes and Fatima, energy that once seemed lost to me.

Now, it is 4:00 p.m. and time to do my working meditation: clean the meditation hall before the community arrives for the evening sitting meditation and chanting. When I was a priest forty years ago, lay persons cleaned the church after I celebrated Mass. Now, it’s my turn. I am learning humility — like Mary. They used to call me Father Adrian, now I am called Phap De, Young Brother. Five years ago, Thay told me that to become a monk I would have to give up my stock portfolio, property, bank accounts, and cars, and he said, “You will learn humility.” It has been surprisingly easy. Phap De is living joyfully and peacefully.

Her Wondrous Light

6:00 p.m. — Tonight, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I was delighted when my Vietnamese brother led us in a chant of praise to the Great Saint of Compassion, Mary. Here are the lyrics:

From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms: The bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death, free from all afflictions. Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable. Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers. Her willow branch, once waved, reveals countless heavens, Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers. We bow to her. We see her true presence in the here and now. We offer her the incense of our heart. May the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening embrace us all with great compassion. Praise to thee, Mary, Our Mother of Compassion.

9:00 p.m. — I am aware that I have come a long way and have let go of some old theological notions about Original Sin and the Fall/Redemption paradigm. “We have entered a broken and torn and sinful world — that’s for sure,” writes theologian Matthew Fox. “But we do not enter as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures. We burst into the world as original blessings.” Now I can see the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary was conceived without original sin) as an effort to help us wake up to the magnificence of Mary.

The Buddha’s gift of the communal practice of the mindfulness trainings helps this Catholic to live up to the example of Mary and the teachings of Jesus. We may be ordinary persons, but, like Mary, we are all Immaculate Conceptions. The joyful Angelus Bells repeatedly invite us to wake up to this Good News!

Brother Phap De (Brother Adrian) lives in Son Ha at Plum Village. Once upon a time, he worked as a Roman Catholic parish priest and teacher.

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Dharma Rain

Practice as Inspiration for Artists By Denys Candy

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Stonehill College, Massachusetts, August 2000

It is some ungodly hour of the morning, the room is already warm — it can’t be time to get up already? In the nether world between sleep and waking, I intone, “Twenty-four brand new hours!”

“Are you awake?” asks my Sangha brother Tony, who’s sharing the room.

“I think so.”

“I wasn’t sure if you were awake or just talking,” he says.

I roll to the edge of the bed and peer out the window into the half-light. Figures walk slowly by the trees and buildings, random streams of people converging — a sight I will recall later in the day as two lines come to me:

The scorched earth is waiting, There’s a stirring in the trees.

Eventually, I manage to stumble into the procession toward the meditation hall. I slip off my shoes and stepping inside, I smile to the sound of the huge round air-conditioning tubes cranking up.

I’ve come to see Thay again — to be in his presence — to try to wake up a little. Once in a while during his Dharma talk I think I get it — I sort of feel what he is saying, like a smile in my body -- impermanence — how beautiful — a fleeting moment — I’m really in it — I’m feeling it! Oops — it’s That’s okay. Thay says don’t worry about all of that. He says something like, “Soak it all in like Dharma Rain.”

Next day, a full verse emerges along with a melody, and after another day there’s a chorus:

People slowly walking, aware of any breeze, They’re hearing a monk’s message — it’s simple and it’s plain, Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain. Happy day today and every day We dance in the Dharma Rain! Celebrate the here and now — it’s simple and it’s plain, Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 2004

Another early morning finds me walking slowly from the meditation hall to breakfast. It’s my birthday. I sense my mother’s presence and the stirrings of lyrics for another song:

I see the love-light in your eyes, Your smile is mist upon the pine, I miss you every single day, As I continue on my way.

My friends of Laughing Rivers Sangha organize two retreats a year and Dharma teacher Chan Huy (True Radiance) flies in from Canada to support us. Today, connecting is not a theory. My senses can taste my relatives, feel their blood in mine. My body tunes in to a walk with my cousin Ailbe by the California coast -- talking of our parents.

The ocean rain’s touch is fleeting, Wild lilies bloom, kissed by the spray, Your love is wind upon the bay, It blows on my continuation day.

At breakfast, people are smiling at me and we are sharing little bows all over the place. Sometimes I think all that smiling and bowing is a bit much, but today it’s fine. I am dropping nicely down, increasingly aware of my feet on the ground and the aromas at the table.

As part of his Dharma talk, Chan Huy tells stories of his family. His kitchen and his wife and daughters come alive to us, while outside the window deer are nuzzling the ground for tasty morsels beyond the pines.

The scent of my parents is on the air. What is love without attachment? I wonder.

Another verse plays in my mind, and here comes the sun!

They shine, they shine, They shine on our continuation day.

Estes Park, Colorado, August 2005

On my first retreat here two years ago, Thay reminded us we were on a “Dharma platform eight thousand feet high.” The Rockies held me entranced and the mountain-solid vistas inspired a rock beat, but I hadn’t brought my guitar. Luckily, the monastics lent me theirs:

I have arrived somehow, I am alive somehow, I am solid, I am free in the here and now, Back to my breath I did roam, I have arrived, I am home.

This time my guitar is with me and the mornings have my dear friend Brother Phap Lai and me in a lullaby state of mind. Fiona, my beloved, a writer, takes in the sun nearby, keeping an eye on us to make sure we don’t succumb to too many clichés in our songwriting. I met Phap Lai in Deer Park Monastery the year before at a retreat for artists. Our shared experience of growing up in the same cultural orbit, me in Ireland and he in England, drew us together, along with our love of music. “What’s a nice Yorkshire lad like you doing in a place like this?” I wanted to know, as soon as I heard his voice.

Now we corral time to work on a song — a melody I’ve been messing with for several months has gotten hold of me. At the evening gathering, Phap Lai and I play together:

Ring that bell, soft sweet sound, ringing clarity.

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Claymont Court, West Virginia, October  2006

Fiona and I have come to feel part of the “extended family” that gathers from neighboring states to retreat in the rolling hills with Thay’s niece Anh Huong and her family.

Sometimes I am calm at retreats, other times on the edge of bliss. This time, however, I am emotionally wrought. The practice and the landscape — nearby Antietem and Charlestown evoking the unspeakably bloody battles of the American Civil War — combine to bring forth wisps of submerged sadness. I reach for my guitar and sit alone at the side of the building in the sun. Strumming, I think of the day’s passage — meditation facing a window at dawn, sitting on rocks and feeling paths taken and foregone, managing to stay present, ultimately grateful for all of it:

Dawn is grey upon the new day, A West Virginia field reveals itself As the sun comes up, Morning light, sun is on the rocks, Paused in time is a place for stopping, A place for resting.

Glory, glory Halleluiah.

What I notice about Buddhist practice as refined by Thay is the careful attention paid to establishing the right environment. What is the most important thing to attend to if we want to live mindfully? “It’s the environment, stupid!” Thay joked at one retreat. Silence, mindful breathing, walking, eating — stopping, calming, resting — together lay the ground for an altered, more satisfying, and more real way of moving in the world. They also lay the ground for artistic practice. Vision and inspiration are as important to the artist as are the skills of a given craft. It is crucial to attend to how we feed our creative environment. “What are you feeding?” Thay asks. “Nothing can exist without food.”

At retreats, the artist in me loves to dive deep. It’s like swimming in the Irish Sea when I was a boy — I duck my head under, frolic, and float. Perhaps I should not be surprised at those times when, surrounded by noble silence, a string bean might reveal its true nature, available all along but finally witnessed, and I am moved by a seemingly distant melody that now arises — asking to be sung.

Denys Candy, True Mountain of Loving Kindness, practices with Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh, PA. You can hear his songs on the CD “Dharma Rain,” featuring his band and other Laughing Rivers Sangha members; available from Denys DMCandy@aol.com or Sangha member Patricia Redshaw redshaw@zoominternet.com.

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The Journey Home

By Van Khanh Ha

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.

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.

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.”

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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Resurrection in the Present Moment

By Sr. Chau Nghiem

March 23, 2008,

Cape Mountain Retreat Center, South Africa

Happy Easter to everyone! Easter is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection — resurrection is coming back to life, starting over. We each have a chance to come back to life in every moment. When we come back to our breath, when we really come back to our steps, to the food we are putting in our mouths, to what we are drinking, to what we are saying, we have a chance to come back to life. We can be there in that moment and not be dead to the reality in front of us — not lost in thoughts and worries. The only moment we have is the present moment. It’s the only place where we can really be alive and touch life.

So as we celebrate Easter and the renewing of life, we can touch the resurrection of each of our lives. This retreat is a kind of coming back to life, to touch what is really good and true and beautiful in each of us, in our lineage, our ancestors, and descendants.

We can always begin anew and return to the goodness in us. The present moment contains the past and also the future. What is the present moment but a continuation of the past? What is the future but a continuation of this present moment?

What we do in this present moment is extremely important.

The past can be healed in the present moment; we don't have to worry about the future if we know how to dwell solidly in each breath, in each step.

The past is not separate from the present. What happened in the past still exists in us — things we have done and said, things that we may not have had control over, things that other people have done or said. In fact our cells carry memories. By dwelling deeply in the present moment, we can massage those things in our body and consciousness and liberate ourselves from the wounds of the past — individually and collectively.

Rediscovering Grandparents

I want to tell you a story of a time when I was able to heal wounds from my past. When I was not yet a nun, I went on a twenty-one-day retreat with my dad, led by Thay and the monastics in the U.S. He had been talking about the Five Touchings of the Earth and explained how we can heal our ancestors in us.

My father married my mother in the late nineteen-sixties. My mother is African-American. You know that my father [Dharma teacher Al Lingo] is European-American. My parents are black and white. My father’s parents were very upset. They never met my mother and they didn’t want to meet us when we were born (my brother is three and a half years older than me). When my parents divorced when I was seven or eight, my dad made contact again with my grandparents and we were able to visit them in Houston, Texas. I was eight when I first met them, and my brother was eleven. They were lovely and very warm to us. We were their only grandchildren. We visited them every year. Six years later, when I was fourteen, my granddad died. My grandmother passed away ten years after this so I got to be with her for another ten years. They were very kind to us. They helped my dad treat us to trips to amusement parks and they made sure we had all the foods we liked to eat.

I didn’t think too much about that experience growing up. I was at that retreat and one afternoon I went to the meditation hall to sit by myself and get in touch with my ancestors, as Thay had been teaching us. I just sat and began to breathe and think about my grandparents. A feeling of deep suffering came up towards my grandparents, a huge anger that they had excluded us from their life for eleven years. I felt a deep sense of rejection. I breathed with it as I had been learning to do. I embraced it; I allowed it space to be there. I cried and cried, and I held it with tenderness.

Healing Ancient Wounds

As that emotion was being lullabied by my breathing and my mindfulness, it began to calm. I began to think, “Well, why were they like that? Why did they close their hearts to us?” I saw that they were raised in a completely segregated South, totally white. My grandfather was poor growing up and he made it into the upper middle class through his own intelligence and hard work and lots of help from a society that supported him. But he was a product of all the seeds that were watered in him in that time and place. I saw how much he loved my brother and me and how much excluding us from his life had hurt him. I saw that he was stuck, he didn’t want to be that way, but he didn’t know how to be different. I was also very grateful that he was able to break out of this trap to some extent before he died and have a genuine relationship with his grandchildren.

In that moment, the past was very available to me. I stayed with my breathing, and my grandfather was resurrected in me. I felt so much love for my grandfather. I knew he wasn’t gone to me and that we were still very connected. I’m so proud that I am my grandfather’s granddaughter! There were so many things he was talented at; there was a lot of gentleness, wisdom, and compassion in him. I benefit from that and I want to carry that on. And I know that’s what he wants me to do. I feel a great deal of support and love from and for him now, and my anger and resentment that was buried in me for all those years is completely transformed.

When we really take care of ourselves in the present moment and listen to our own pain and suffering, listen as a mother listens to her child — with tenderness, compassion, openness, acceptance — we can understand our suffering and we can heal our past.

Making Time for our Ancestors

The practice of Touching the Earth can help our ancestors be resurrected in us and help us start afresh, because we have a chance that they may not have had. So when we speak about collective healing — healing the suffering of our nation and our people — we can do that by being very mindful of how we live in this present moment. Our ancestors are us, so whatever we do our ancestors are doing.

One practice that we encourage everyone to do is to set up an ancestors’ altar in your home and spend time there every day.

In Vietnam people have an ancestors' altar in their home; and anything of importance they report to their ancestors. When their child has his or her first day at school, the parents come before the altar, light a stick of incense, and let the ancestors know, “Today your grandchild or great-grandchild is going to school for the first time.” In many places throughout Africa, people do much the same thing.

It’s very healing to call upon our ancestors, because we are so much more than what we think; we are not this separate self.

When we can be in touch with this whole lineage of people who care about us, we have some energy. We don’t know where it comes from, but somehow we have energy to do things that we didn’t have energy to do before. We also have a sense of responsibility because we are aware of the expectations that our ancestors have of us and of the healing that they deeply need. So the choices that we make shift when that awareness deepens in us.

You could put a picture of your parents or your grandparents and just sit and breathe with your ancestors regularly. There is an illness in our society of isolation, loneliness, fear, the inability to connect to other people. When we can heal our connection to our ancestors, we’ll find more and more ways to make connections with people in our lives.

At times I can really touch my ancestors and I feel them very alive in me. They have a great sense of humor. They help me laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously. And they are full of love and compassion for me, too, when I am still enough to be available to them. They let me know that I will never be lost or abandoned, and they ask me to spend more time with them, to take more time to connect, to honor and remember them.

When we talk about healing collective suffering, collective trauma, it has to start with our own personal resurrection. To begin anew in history, to make a really different step as a human race, we start with being compassionate with our body, our mind, our ancestors, our family, our relationships.

The Pain of Exclusion

The experience on this retreat of exclusion, of feeling separate from the people in the village, I’m so grateful that it’s come up, painful and awkward and potentially volatile as it is. People have been coming here for some time and there wasn’t any event that brought the two groups together. Now this occasion of the village children being excluded from our bonfire last night has brought up the real suffering that exists, so we can’t go on with business as usual. It’s good that it’s painful, that this touches some deep suffering and confusion in us. It touches also a deep aspiration for things to change, for us to be able to connect and be free.

We have a chance to apply the practice — to take care of our own feelings, to speak mindfully with each other about it, and to look at how to respond with compassion. We don’t want to close our eyes before suffering, we don’t want to say “Well, that’s their business. We’re just here on retreat, why stir things up?”

Just as our own emotions need to be embraced, racism is a collective emotion that needs to be embraced — it is fear of the Other. We’re so used to thinking of discrimination as evil, so we don’t want to be associated with it. We know we are not like that! But we relate in the same way to our own difficult emotions — we push them away. Racism needs to be acknowledged and tenderly embraced as a collective. We have the compassion and wisdom, the Buddha seed in us, to look deeply at racism, classism, and all the various isms in us that tend to push others away.

We need to wake up together and look at it. People are already doing this in many places so it’s not something we have to create from scratch. The separation that exists in South Africa is no different from the separation that exists in other places. It may be felt quite acutely here, but it is everywhere. Our minds create the world. War and discrimination come from our minds. If we didn’t have violence in our minds, we wouldn’t create war.

The Grand Requiem Masses in Vietnam

I want to share about the Grand Requiem Masses that we did in Vietnam on our trip with Thay last year.

Thay returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2005. The Communist government thought he would cause an uprising against them, but he was so skillful and loving in his speech that they learned they didn’t need to fear him. Thay tenderly expressed the good qualities of the government and spoke very skillfully: “Why don’t you open up more? ... You can do better and this will make people happier.” Because of his skillfulness, people listened. He gave talks to members of the Communist Party, and Thay said to them, “You know, the monks and nuns, we don’t have our own private cars, cell phones, or bank accounts. We’re the true Communists!” And they laughed, they weren’t angry. He was able in a very loving way to touch the need in the Communist Party to reduce corruption and materialism. So they allowed us to come back in 2007.

One of the main reasons we went was to engage in ceremonies to heal the suffering of the war. The pain had been suppressed, it was not allowed to come up and be expressed. They were three-day ceremonies of healing where people wrote down the names of their loved ones who had been killed in the war or who had been killed escaping by boat. We performed ceremonies in the South in Saigon, in the Center in Hue, and in the North in Hanoi. There were huge altars with food and fruit, and then pages and pages stapled to the altars with the names of thousands of people — where and how they died, some of starvation, some killed in the forest, some from a land mine.

We began our chanting, inviting all these souls who had died violently in the war to be a part of this healing. And they came; we felt their presence. I was crying tears that weren't mine and many of us experienced something coming through us to be released — some pain that had been kept down and was able to be released on a collective level. We were encouraged to practice very uprightly, to really be mindful and kind, to be aware of our speech and actions, during those three days. Everyone had to make a special altar outside of their house, to pray for the healing of their family members who had died, and Thay gave talks every morning. I experienced the healing of my own blood and land ancestors in those ceremonies. On the third day of the ceremony, after quite a heat wave, it rained. It did that at each of the three ceremonies — on the last day it rained.

Transformation of the Collective

We can create spaces of healing and resurrection in our communities, by allowing pain to be expressed but held in a very tender, loving, compassionate container of mindfulness. When I first heard about these ceremonies in Vietnam, right away I thought, “Oh, we need these ceremonies in the U.S.” So much suffering is being passed on from one generation to the next. The absurdity of violence in the U.S., with ten-year-old children shooting classmates and teachers in school, is pain from ancestors that has not been healed. The brutality of this deep separation here in South Africa is pain that has not been addressed from our ancestors. If we can address and release that, our future generations will be free to live a very different kind of life.

I’m thinking about how to do some kind of a spiritual healing ceremony that is appropriate for Americans to address the wounds of Native American genocide, slavery, segregation, the witch hunts, and other deep, national wounds. We can also think about this here. I want to invite us all to meditate together, particularly on the situation that has arisen in this retreat. It is clear that whatever we want to suppress will come up some how, some way. We are asked to walk around the village, but we end up meeting some children from the village on the detour we take to the meditation hall. We are so naturally attracted to them! The urge to separate, it can never win! We want to connect; we want to love each other. It’s so natural, so human.

I was very happy to hear some of you share before the walking meditation about how important it is to be skillful and look deeply — not just act out of our goodwill and good intention — but to really think about the best response to this difficult situation.

It’s just not true that we aren’t connected to the colored people in the village. It’s just not true that it doesn’t matter what happens, that we can go about our retreat here and not be impacted by that kind of inequality. To see this, that’s the practice.

Maybe we can find a way as a community to make a true and deep response to this suffering. We know the farmer feels it, the retreat caretakers feel it, the villagers feel it. Everyone is victimized by this kind of separation. Everyone is crippled somehow by this narrow heart, the inability to include. I hope that out of this retreat, we will have a beautiful, strong Sangha that meets regularly in Cape Town. We have a meeting Monday night to be together and offer our support to creating a Sangha. So we can continue to look at how we can respond to this on Monday night.

I want to close by expressing my gratitude to all of you for being here, for having the courage to come on this retreat — for having the willingness to love, to open yourself up to transformation for yourself, your family, your society. All of us who have come here feel enriched and grateful for this time with you.

Sister Jewel, Chan Chau Nghiem, received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2007 in Vietnam. She currently resides at the new European Institute for Applied Buddhism in Waldbroel, Germany.

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Healing Separation

By Sr. Thuan Nghiem and Sr. Chau Nghiem

We held our retreat at the Cape Mountain Retreat Center, a two-hour drive from Cape Town. Thirty adults and eight children came and practiced for three days, many of them for the first time in our tradition. They were professionals, and most were white, though there were a few Indian South Africans, a Burmese woman, and a Xhosa boy, adopted by a white South African mom. The three Dharma Teachers took turns leading the adults’ activities as well as the children’s program.

We experienced very directly the painful residues of apartheid during the retreat. The retreat center was on land rented from a local farmer. On our way to the large meditation hall was a village of colored people* who worked for the white farmer. We met a number of colored children on our walks there who smiled at us with so much desire to connect. We invited the village children to the bonfire we had planned for Saturday night. They happily agreed to come. They were very poor and we heard there was always a lot of drinking in the village over the Easter holiday, so we wanted to provide them with a more wholesome atmosphere and give a chance for the village children and retreat children to enjoy playing together. When the retreat caretakers learned we’d invited the colored children, they informed the farmer and he insisted that the caretakers let the children know that they couldn’t attend the bonfire as there was a farm policy of no contact between retreatants and villagers. We were told that this policy was due to misunderstandings in the past between the Buddhist retreatants and largely Christian colored community, but we also knew it was quite common on South African farms to hold onto traditions of racial separation and inequality. The caretakers went to the village Saturday afternoon and told the children they were not allowed to come. They either didn’t get the message or disobeyed, because at dinnertime, fifteen or so very nicely dressed children came down to the bonfire. We went to greet them and begged the caretakers to let them join us. They were insistent that the farmer’s rules be followed as after all, we were on his land, and we wouldn’t be there to receive the fallout of our actions, either on the caretakers or the villagers. While we didn’t want to be intimidated, we wanted to be respectful of our hosts, but we felt extremely upset and helpless in the face of such blatant exclusion and discrimination. We continued with the bonfire, without the village children, but there was definitely something missing and the energy was dampened.

The next morning, before we transmitted the precepts, I asked everyone to join hands and requested that we send the merit of our transmission ceremony to the village children who had been excluded from the bonfire, to the retreat center caretakers and to the farmer. I asked that we use the merit of the ceremony to water the seed of inclusiveness in each of us and help us to find better ways to create connections with those that are different from us.

One beautiful thing happened after the kids’ Easter egg hunt: we invited the village children to share in the bounty of Easter eggs. We got to take pictures all together and enjoy their delight in the Easter eggs. There was a meeting at the end of the retreat in which we decided to draft a letter to the retreat center owners sharing about the painful experience we had and asking that action be taken to remedy this policy of separation. The letter has been delivered and the newly formed Cape Town Sangha is following up with the retreat owners.

* ‘Colored’ is the term used in South Africa for people of mixed Dutch and African ancestry. They speak Afrikaans and consider themselves distinct from both white and black South Africans.

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