bell of mindfulness

Dharma Talk: Unified Buddhist Church - Community of Mindful Living Merger

Transcription of a Dharma Talk Given by Thich Nhat Hanh on March 2, 1999 at Plum Village Monastery, Dieulivol, France

Dear Friends, it is now the beginning of March 1999, and we are in Floating Clouds Meditation Hall, New Hamlet, Plum Village. We have just completed the Transmission of the Lamp ceremony for twelve monastics. Their training has been very steady, including a three month retreat each year. Of the twelve Dharma teachers that we ordained yesterday, many of them are very young. Most of them began practicing at the age of 22 or 23 as a monk or nun, and they have spent six or seven years practicing as monastics. Last year, the Sangha appointed 17 apprentice Dharma teachers. Out of this 17, the Sangha selected ten here in Plum Village and two in America to become this year's ordained Dharma teachers.

Each year we will be able to produce new Dharma teachers. The plum trees are beginning to yield fruit. The procedure used to select Dharma teachers is that, rather than being nominated by Thay, they are now selected by the Sangha. It is the Sangha who has decided who will be  a Dharma teacher this year. Every year, the Sangha will appoint new apprentice Dharma teachers, and each year we will give the Lamp Transmission to a number of new Dharma teachers. We do it by way of voting. We have applied democracy to the foundation of our Sangha. One week before the Transmission of the Lamp, no one knew who would be selected to be this year's new Dharma teachers. We prepared the ordination ceremony for the Transmission not knowing who would actually receive the Lamp and become Dharma teachers this year.

Each hamlet and each temple received instructions on how to select the Dharma teachers. I only suggested to the community how Dharma teachers should be selected using two criteria. The first is that future Dharma teachers must be people who can teach with their own life as an example and not just with words. The second criteria is that the Dharma teacher should demonstrate his or her ability to live in harmony with the Sangha and be able to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.

Everyone in the community considered these two criteria, and they were given time to meditate, to think about, and then to vote to select which apprentices met these qualifications and criteria. Thay did not have anything to do except to add up the votes and to announce the names to the community of the new Dharma teachers. All of these votes and records are in our files here. Anyone can consult them. This has been a wonderful experience, especially to see that a few Dharma teachers got a unanimous vote of the Sangha, to see that everyone thought that this person or that person is a good candidate to be a Dharma teacher. We are very happy, because of this new democratic development. We are very happy that we are now able to combine the principles of democracy and the principle of seniorship.

The training here at Plum Village and at the Green Mountain Dharma Center is very steady. It is training not just of retreats from time to time, but a training 24 hours a day for many, many years. Living together 24 hours a day, we understand and know each other very well. Therefore our judgment and our selection of Dharma teachers is based upon direct experience of each person. Living in the Sangha, we have the opportunity to try out things we have learned and to succeed or to fail. And everyone knows of and can see our success or failure.

The Transmission of the Lamp was not a big ceremony this time. We only had in attendance people who were here for our retreat. There are over 100 monastics living here and in the Green Mountain and Maple Forest Monasteries. We also have a number of laypeople who practice with us during the winter retreat.

The night of the vote and the selection of the Dharma teachers, I stayed up very late. Of course, I had my own ideas about who I thought should be the Dharma teachers and be selected this year. But I chose to practice taking refuge in the Sangha. We all have to rely on our Sangha, because we believe that the Sangha eyes are always brighter than the eyes of anyone individual, including the teacher. So I stayed up very late that night in order to count the votes. I told Sister Chan Khong that we were like being in the U.S. Congress or in the French Parliament-staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning in order to attend a meeting and make a historic vote.

You know we have three temples here, three hamlets here, and there were temples that replied very quickly and brought us their votes very quickly. But, there were also temples which took a long time to send me the results of the vote. In particular, Maple Forest Monastery took a long time. The first time, they did not understand the instructions properly. That is why they did not select according to the kind of criteria that I suggested, and we had to ask them to do it again. So it was 2:00 in the morning before I knew the names of the new Dharma teachers that had been selected. But even at that late hour, I immediately sent the names to the three temples here and the temple in Vermont at the Green Mountain Dharma Center, and I asked the abbots and abbesses to please release the results in the early morning. Of course, there were some people who were disappointed because they were not selected this year. They know that they have to begin to practice again with the Sangha in such a way that next year they will be accepted. So there will be great efforts on the part of these candidates.

I feel wonderful that this is the way we are now choosing our Dharma teachers, and this takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders. It is not Thay who decides, but the Sangha who decides. Thay of course has the right to veto, but I very rarely do. So, the community chooses, and they inform Thay of the names of the new novices and the names of the new Dharma teachers, and then Thay informs them of the date of ordination.

If the community of monks and nuns judges that a monk or nun is ripe, then they will decide and send the nomination to Thay. For the Dharma teachers, we will do it in the same way. Dharma teachers are selected and nominated by the Sangha.

Offering Guidance

I would like to talk about a very important practice here at Plum Village, the practice of offering guidance and in the principle of Sangha eyes. The Sangha eyes can see thoroughly. Many people think that the Sangha does not know, but the Sangha knows. It can see much better than you can. This practice comes directly from the tradition that on the last day of the winter retreat, the rainy season retreat, a monk should bow down in front of his brother and ask him, "Please with compassion shine light on me so that I can see my strength and my weakness during the past three months of this retreat." He must prostrate deeply in order to receive this guidance. Here at Plum Village, we have developed it into a practice that is not only used at the end of the winter season retreat, but also, from time to time, when any of us needs the guidance of the Sangha. We can come forward and make deep prostrations and ask for guidance. Even senior teachers, like Sister Annabel Laity, come from time to time to the Sangha and prostrate, and she asks her younger sisters to shine light on her practice. Most of the people who were there, whom she bows before, are her students.

Before anyone receives full ordination, they receive guidance so they can prepare themselves for ordination, and we have seen that in only a few days, a person can make a lot of progress and undergo considerable transformation. In the beginning many people are afraid of guidance because they do not like to see their weaknesses. But everyone, after having received their guidance, has realized that this is the voice of the Buddha telling him or her how to practice, how to advance.

In the newsletter that we recently published, we printed a few letters about guidance and the experience of those who received guidance and how they practiced in order to overcome their difficulties. In Plum Village, I think we have a laboratory to try out new methods. After we have succeeded in the methods of practice, we share it with the communities outside.

One of the things we have done is to deal with attachment. For instance, when someone in the community falls in love with someone else in the community, especially in the case of a monk or nun, in the past, if the teacher and the board of teachers realized that there was this attachment on the part of a monk or nun, then that person would be expelled. They would not be allowed to stay in the monastery any more. When I was a novice, one of my fellow monks wrote two lines of poetry and gave it to a young girl down the hill from the temple. When the faculty learned about it, he was expelled from the monastery, and he went back to his lay life. I thought this was much, much too strict. He was not given the chance to begin anew and to learn. I was only 18 years old, and I saw that as a kind of injustice.

So I have been thinking about it for many years, and at Plum Village we have found many methods to help people who have gotten themselves into situations of attachment. Because we think that falling in love is an accident, you should help this person who had this accident and not kill him. It is like when a friend is struck with malaria, you have to help the person to kill the bacteria in the blood and not to kill the person.

We have been successful in dealing with this in some circumstances, and we are confident that later on we can share the method with other communities. Without the support of the Sangha, you cannot solve these problems. If I did not have a loving Sangha, I would have been expelled also. You may have read my book Cultivating the Mind of Love. In it, I tell the story of when I was a young monk, and I fell in love with a nun. It is surprising that now the mainland Chinese have chosen to translate this very book. I will be very famous in China!

Autonomy

Here in Plum Village, we have three temples: the temple we are sitting in is called "Adornment with Loving Kindness." Each of the three temples has its autonomy. Each temple has an abbot or abbess. The office of an abbot is like being an accountant-handling accounting and bookkeeping-and each temple is free to make projects or building more dormitories, Buddha Halls, etc., and if they are short of funds and need help they can get the help from the other temples.

But, there are things that concern the whole Sangha, that need the whole Sangha to decide, and there are other things that can be resolved just in one's own temple. Like the temple of Thay Nguyen Hai; we call it the Dharma Cloud Temple or the Upper Hamlet. They select their own head of community, they select their own treasurer, they select their own registrar, they do everything. They can decide about all these activities within the temple. But when it comes to a major decision-one that has to do with and effects the other temples-the Upper Hamlet Abbot, of course, will consult with the other abbots and abbesses.

There is only an intervention by me or by the greater Sangha of monks and nuns only when things are not going in the right direction of practice. Otherwise, each of the temples has its own autonomy, and its own independence. The schedule of the Winter Retreat is very much the same in each Hamlet, because we need to have it so in order for the three temples to join together in activities that necessitate the presence of everyone. Therefore, these decisions are made collectively. As you know, twice a week there is a Dharma talk from Thay, and everyone from every temple has to arrange it so that everyone can be present at the same time. Even the cook has the opportunity to sit in the Dharma talk, and this is possible because we work together. Here at Plum Village we do not have a special cook because everyone has the opportunity to practice mindful cooking. We always arrange our cooking in such a way that everyone has an opportunity to participate in all the activities of the Sangha.

Transfer to UBC

I would like to tell you about a night recently I had at the Hermitage. I received a fax from our lawyer, he was working on my estate plan and the tax-exemption documents for our organization in the United States. He sent me a transfer document to sign that would transfer my copyrights to the UBC, the Unified Buddhist Church. In it, he was talking about my death. He was talking in the same way that the Sutra says that death comes without warning. So, he suggested that it was better for me to sign this right away, because legally, under French law, one of my nephews or one of my nieces or some other relative could come in and claim the copyrights to my books. Instead of my copyrights being owned by the Unified Buddhist Church, which is my intention, my relatives could claim the copyrights, and that would be a pity. I would not want one of my nieces or my nephews to come in and make such a claim.

So, at 11 :00 p.m., I stayed up and signed the document and faxed it back to my attorney. It's funny that the Dharma comes to me from lawyers, that lawyers can teach us about impermanence. Although the document was not perfect, and we have made some later revisions, the document could have been used in case that very night I passed away.

A Bell of Mindfulness

As you know, I am, in principle, a lazy monk. If you do not force me to look deeply into matters, I may not do it because there are many other things I would like to do. The day after I signed my Will, I received another document from my attorney to sign. This, as you know, was a contract that he proposed between Thay and Parallax Press so that Parallax would pay royalties to UBC for my books. I signed this document upon the urging of my estate attorney.

The following day, I received a letter from CML/Parallax Press's attorney, Mr. Bunnin, making a counterproposal to my attorney's contract. Reading the letter from Mr. Bunnin and reviewing the contract that I had signed, I could not sleep. Mr. Bunnin's letter was to me a bell of mindfulness. I could not believe the tone of Mr. Bunnin' s letter and that things could turn out this way-that I had to ask an attorney to help me, that Arnie and Therese of CML had to ask an attorney to help them; that I had to negotiate with Parallax Press and CML and Arnie, my student, and that Arnie would have to sign a contract with me.

I thought, This is so stupid. How had I allowed things to go this far. What if the younger generation looked back upon my time here and thought, What kind of teacher was Thay? He signs contracts with his disciples; he has a lawyer on his side; and his disciple has a lawyer on his side.

I could not accept this. So that night, I did not sleep. I said to myself, I must practice looking deeply into this matter. In the morning I knew what I was going to do. I realized that I was not going to sign any contract with Arnie because he and I are teacher and student; we are one. From my point of view, it is fine for me, in the name of the UBC, to sign a contract with an outside publishing house, such as Riverhead Press, Broadway Books, etc., but I knew that I could not sign a contract with Arnie or with Parallax Press.

I asked Sister Chan Khong to please withdraw the proposal that my lawyer had written up and that I had actually signed. I felt shameful to have signed that document. I realized this was the wrong thing to do. My practice is the practice of inclusiveness. When the left hand gets hurt, the right hand comes and takes care of the wound. The left hand does not say, "I am helping you, you are the person that is getting help from me. You have to be kind to me." No, there is no negotiation between the two hands.

If I sign a contract with my student, with my own Press and my own Community of Mindful Living, this is not in the spirit of Buddhism. We have to look in such a way to see that Arnie is Thay and Thay is Arnie and that whatever Thay does, Arnie does, and whatever Arnie does, Thay does. That is what today we beg you to understand and to help us to work with. We should do this in such a way that we can reflect a spirit of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination, so there is only continuation. This is our tradition.

We cannot say to Thay Nguyen Hai, the abbot of Upper Hamlet, we will sign a contract with you. He is the abbot, he has the right of an abbot, and he has daily work, but I do not have to sign anything with him. The Sangha does not have to sign anything with him, because the Vinaya is there, the precepts are there, the teaching is there, and there is no need of signing any contract.

As far as Thay Nguyen Hai is concerned, he practices well as a monk, as an abbot, and he does not violate any precepts. If he does not sleep with any of his female disciples, if he does not break any of the precepts, then no one can evict him from the position of the abbot. I believe we would never allow him to be evicted by anyone if he practices well as a monk and as an abbot and all other monks are helping him to do that and protecting him. So there is no need to fear anything in terms of expulsion.

The same thing is true with Sister Jina. She is not afraid of losing her abbesship. She is abbess of the Dharma Nectar Temple in the Lower Hamlet. She is actually hoping that someone can replace her so that she can travel more. She knows the Vinaya, the Mindfulness Trainings, and the daily practice is formed and created for a nun like her. We do not feel that we have to sign any agreements with Sister Jina.

The same is true with Sister Trung Chinh here, the abbess of "Adornment with Loving Kindness" and also with Sister Annabel. You have met Sister Annabel Laity in the Green Mountain Dharma Center. She is a scholar. She knows Sanskrit and Pali, and she is a scholar on Buddhism. She has been director of practice and a teacher in Plum Village for many years. She was ordained on the holy Gridakuta Mountain at the same time as Sister Chan Khong.

Between Thay and Sister Chan Duc there is something that you cannot describe; it is a perfect trust. I do not think that Sister Chan Duc has to protect herself, has to sign any agreements or contracts with me, and I think that this is thanks to the Dharma, to the Vinaya.

We are together here as a river and not as a drop of water. As a drop of water, we cannot go far, we cannot arrive at the ocean. But, as a river, we will always arrive. So, our practice is to be a river and not a drop of water.

Here every monk, every nun, every layperson does the same and everyone contributes to the collective work to help our entire community. I cherish the presence of everyone here, even a very young novice. A novice, even if she is a novice only for three days, can already make many people happy by the way she walks, the way she sits, the way she smiles, the way she takes care of her sisters. I do not underestimate the value or contribution of even the newest person who comes to our Sangha. Our happiness comes from this, and not from any particular achievement or of such and such work.

I think that if we follow that same kind of practice and behavior, then we will be able to prevent misunderstanding and the kind of suffering that is completely useless. Then we will be able to take at least 90 percent of the burden of worrying from our shoulders.

Unification and Inclusiveness 

Who is the UBC? The UBC is all of us. The UBC is not monastics alone, because the UBC is also for the Order of Interbeing and laypeople. The UBC is for the entire Fourfold Sangha. The UBC is for every one of us.

That is why I propose that every organization, every institution that we and our friends have set up, that we all come together and adopt the same kind of attitude and procedure as are used in Maple Forest, Lotus Bud Village, Maple Village, Green Mountain Dharma Center, and the three hamlets and temples of Plum Village. That we come together as one organization, but within that organization, each one of us can keep our autonomy, just as we do here in Plum Village. We can go on as we have before, but now we can join together and gain the support of everyone in the Sangha.

Suppose this circle represents UBC (Figure 1). Before we set up the UBC in America last year, we had already set up the UBC here in France in 1969, during the war in Vietnam. Then we set up Sweet Potatoes in 1975 and then Plum Village in 1982 in France. Then, we added the  Dharma Cloud Temple and the Dharma Nectar Temple in 1988 and the Adornment with Loving Kindness Temple in 1995. And now, in 1998, we have added the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

Each endeavor has its own authority and autonomy, but each is linked intricately to the UBC. Within the Unified Buddhist Church, we have a monastery for monks and a monastery for nuns. I drew these monastic institutions inside to show that they are monasteries only for monastics. I would like to see the Community of Mindful Living become one of the institutions that is part of ourselves, and that Parallax Press also becomes one of these institutions within the UBC.

It is my hope to transform The Mindfulness Bell into a magazine, and we may ask Leslie Rawls to continue to be editor. We can then add the support of all of us so that we can make this into a real magazine. We can send articles for it; we can invest a lot of energy in this new magazine because it can play a very important role in North America; it can help many people. In Europe, we have lntersein magazine which serves the German-speaking world. It is a beautiful magazine and lci & Maintenant, a French-language magazine, very professionally designed by a good artist in Belgium who is also a member of the Order of Interbeing. With the help of every temple, we can make The Mindfulness Bell into a real magazine, and we can ask Leslie to continue to be editor. But, we also could create an advisory board to help her, to get more news, more articles, more input. That is something that is very easy to do.

The role of Parallax Press, as in the past, remains very important. We want Parallax Press to continue and to grow. In my mind, although Arnie may have to take care of the new Great Island Center, we would wish that he also continue to be the director of Parallax Press. As the director of Parallax Press within UBC, he will be able to sign contracts not only with the United States and the English-speaking world, but also with Germany, France, Italy, everywhere, because now he will be signing in the name of the Unified Buddhist Church.

Together with other friends and advisors in the Sangha who will collaborate with him, he will publish books by Parallax Press, and he also can work together with these friends to determine which books should be published by mainstream publishing houses, such as Riverhead, Ballentine, Doubleday, and Dell and which should be published by Parallax. In this task, Arnie will be supported financially, spiritually, and technically by laypeople and monastics.

I would like to repeat what I said at the beginning, that here we try to combine the principle of seniorship and democracy. I would like to see this principle implemented at all levels of the Sangha. Because in the lay Sangha, there are many people who are very experienced in practice and in Sangha building, they should be given special status in decision-making. Because there are people who just come to practice, and they know very little about Sangha building and about the Dharma, they will not be given the same vote as a very senior member of the Sangha.

In the spirit of seniorship, each level of our Sangha will have its own boards of advisors. We will have democracy, but we would like to respect seniorship. If we can incorporate the spirit of democracy that would be a plus to the Sangha. I would like to see the same kind of practice realized in the circle of the lay Sangha as is practiced by the monastic Sangha. In the monastic community, every monk or nun is supposed to attend the Rainy Season Retreat which lasts three months. Here in Plum Village, we make the Winter Retreat the equivalent to the Rainy Season Retreat. Without participating for three months in this retreat, we would not be able to count the particular monk's or nun's year in assessing seniority.

In the tradition, it is written like this: five Rainy Season Retreats allow you to be a teacher; your position is equivalent to the position of a teacher; you have the right to share the Dharma after five Rainy Season Retreats. After the tenth Rainy Season Retreat, your position will be equivalent to Upadhyaya. This term refers to someone who can transmit the precepts. It was written in the Vinaya like that. But, you cannot count any year alone. A year without a three month retreat is an empty year. If you are a monk, you should be able to tell us how many Rainy Season Retreats you have done and so what your position might be. Even if you are ordained before another monk, you cannot sit on the right because we count in terms of retreats. We do not count in terms of years.

I think that the same type of practice could be applied to laypeople. You may have someone who has been ordained as an Order of Interbeing member for ten years, but during those ten years she does not recite her precepts and she does not attend any of the mindfulness retreats, and so those ten years are considered as empty. She cannot count those years in terms of seniority. That principle is already there in the tradition. You only need to apply it to your daily life. In the time of the Buddha, decision-making was only done by fully ordained monks and nuns, by the procedure called Sanghakarma.

In Plum Village, the novices and those who have been accepted into the family of monastics but are not fully ordained are consulted for every decision. We allow them to speak out and to share their insight. Then the fully ordained monastics will meet in private to make the decision. Last month, when we decided who would be nominated to receive the Dharma Lamp Transmission, we allowed the novices to vote, but after the voting, only the fully ordained monastics met in private to review and qualify the votes, because they have the ultimate right to make such decisions.

Because monastics and laypeople have to be together in order to serve the Dharma, that is why it is called the Fourfold Sangha. Although the UBC has two monasteries here, which contain only monks and nuns, we still need laypeople as friends, advisors, and practitioners. So the Fourfold Sangha is present everywhere. If we organize our entire community like this, Thay, the UBC, does not have to sign anything with Thay Nguyen Hai, and with Sister Jina and with Sister Trung Chinh, or with Arnie. We are all together as one river.

PDF of this issue

Fierce Bodhisattvas

By Daryne Rockett mb66-Fierce1

If you ask my ninety-six-year-old grandfather about his participation in World War II, he might tell you that he was disqualified from service because of his flat feet. His wife, Laura Blackwood, is another story. Fit enough for the typing pool, my grandmother served as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the United States Navy during the war. She died two summers ago. My grandfather will tell you that he gave the Navy the “best years of my wife.”

If you ask my dad about his participation in the Vietnam War, he might tell you that he would rather not discuss it. It was thirty-five years after his service when I learned he had been awarded a Purple Heart, because he does not believe that he should be in the same company as those who lost a limb or lost their life in that war. He served in the “brown water” Navy (a term used for a Naval force carrying out military operations in a river) in Vietnam. The very little information that I have about my dad’s service I learned from my mother. I am respectful of his preference for privacy. His is not my story to tell.

If you ask my first husband about his service in several modern wars, there will be very little that he is able to say. He was a pilot of the U-2 Reconnaissance Aircraft, and most of what he did prior to his retirement, and in the years since as a contractor, is highly classified. He and I met in South Korea during my service in the Air Force. The nation was still legally at war with its neighbor to the north, functioning under a cease-fire since 1953. We were there together in 1994, on the first of many occasions that North Korea announced it would no longer abide by the armistice agreement. I was a Korean linguist, and there is very little that I am permitted to say about my service in the Air Intelligence Agency or the Air Force Information Warfare Center. We both might say that we have lost a number of close friends in U-2 crashes.

If you ask my clients about their service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iraq, or Afghanistan, they may tell you painful stories of loss. They may describe horrible memories from their service––memories of suffering, shame, or death. They might tell you about the losses of relationships, connection, and peace of mind that result from fighting. The losses that bring them to our Vet Center are the ones that hurt the deepest. What many of them will say is that they wish that the military, which taught them so effectively how to fight, had also trained them how not to fight. I had been longing for something similar when I first became familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching.

I had learned from my father how to fight to win, because he loved me and wanted me to be safe and successful. There was much arguing in my home as I was growing up, and the seeds of aggression were watered. During my military service I learned many wonderful skills, including how to speak Korean, but I was also taught with fear and intimidation, and I was encouraged to see a separation between “us” and “them.” The seeds of disconnection and enmity were watered. By the time I began my studies as a clinical social worker at the age of thirty-four, there was a wake of angry tirades and broken relationships behind me. A beginning meditation class introduced me to the practice of mindfulness, and my studies told me to find a teacher and a community of practice.

It Is Not in Our Nature to Fight

Without being trained, our first impulse is to freeze when we perceive ourselves to be in danger. Something in the most primitive part of our brain knows that predators see their prey as movement against a background. This is very likely the reason that a deer will freeze in the road as a car speeds toward it. Believing the car to be a predator, the deer stays still to avoid being seen, sometimes until it is too late. The second option that we will choose when in peril is to flee. That same ancient part of our brain understands that when we are no longer invisible to the predator, we should hurry away in order to avoid harm. Our last choice is to fight, and without training we will naturally avoid aggression because it is very risky. Our survival instincts tell us that if we stay to fight and sustain even a minor injury, there exists a very real possibility of infection, sepsis, and death.

So, in order to overcome our nonviolent nature and survival instincts, the military has developed very specific training techniques for fighting and surviving in a war. For instance, because weapons have been developed to kill, sicken, or incapacitate people with airborne chemicals, military members are trained to be able to retrieve a gas mask from its carrying pouch, place it over the head, clear it, and seal it completely to the edge of the face within nine seconds. This is not a process that we innately know how to do. It must be practiced repeatedly and under duress in order to be learned in such a way that the gas mask will be properly used even if the soldier is waking from a deep sleep, or disoriented by an explosion, or otherwise in a situation where clear reasoning is less likely to occur.

One of the methods used to teach these military skills is called an “Immediate Action Drill.” In the case of the gas mask, soldiers are taught how to use the equipment, and then the process is repeated a number of times in the classroom. Once it has been practiced formally in this way, trainees are warned to be ready for unexpected tests of their skill with the gas mask. At random times, a drill instructor will enter a room and yell, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” If the trainee does not don the mask within nine seconds, he or she is punished. Fear becomes a very compelling motivator to learn. These Immediate Action Drills are used to teach soldiers how to throw a grenade, fire guns, launch mortars, and bayonet an enemy.

In my own life and in my social work practice with war veterans, I sought a way to undo my conditioning to fight. I found guidance from Thich Nhat Hanh on retreats, in his books, and through my home Sangha, Stillwater Sangha in Maine. I found other teachers who were integrating mindfulness practice with psychotherapy, and I attended workshops and seminars and read more books. I received training in Non-Violent Communication from Peggy Smith, a member of the Order of Interbeing. And I practiced. I discovered that the best of my social work practice occurred when it was also a mindfulness practice.

A mindfulness bell is a kind of immediate action drill. First, in our formal sitting meditation, we learn to return to the present moment and bring awareness to what we are experiencing right now. Then, we have the informal practice of stopping and spending time with the breath in the present moment whenever a bell rings. In the treatment groups that I facilitate for post-traumatic stress disorder, we practice mindfulness of the breath formally in periods of sitting meditation. Then, I set a timer with random bells that sound during the ninety-minute group session. Regardless of where the discussion is going, when the bell sounds, we all stop for two mindful breaths. Only now, instead of being motivated by fear of punishment, we are guided by a desire to live freely in the present moment.

Only This Breath Now

Post-traumatic stress disorder is driven by experiences from the past imposing on the here and now, often triggering anxiety about how things might go badly in the future. In our groups, we practice mindfulness of the breath as a way to return from painful,

unplanned trips into the past or future and resume present moment awareness. I cannot breathe a breath in the future or re-breathe a breath from the past. I may only breathe this breath now.

In my practice with my clients, if a veteran comes in feeling angry and argumentative, I may be reminded of my father’s anger and get caught up in my habit of debating. And when this happens, I am no longer able to be compassionate with my client because I am no longer present. I am anticipating what my client will say next and how to counter the argument. After a decade of practice, I am usually able to notice when this habit energy is rising and stop to take a breath. I remind myself that this veteran is in pain and trusts me enough to let me see that she or he is hurting. When I am once again aware, I am able to be compassionate again, and deeply listen in a way that helps to relieve that veteran’s suffering. Because I am no longer fighting an old battle with my father, over and over again, I am also able to heal old hurts and hold both myself and my father with care and gentleness. When this happens, I think of Thay’s teaching about holding your anger like a baby and taking care of it.

My clients are happy to have a new kind of boot camp, where they learn skills to reverse the military’s programming to fight. We practice sitting, eating, breathing, and walking mindfully. We practice mindful speaking and deep listening. We practice empathy and courageous communication (another term for Non-Violent Communication). Over the past decade, as my mindfulness practice has deepened, my therapy practice has also deepened.

“I am aware that I owe so much to my parents, teachers, friends, and all beings. I vow to be worthy of their trust, to practice wholeheartedly, so that understanding and compassion will flower, helping living beings be free from their suffering.” These words from the Refuge Chant are a loving map, reminding me to recognize the fierce bodhisattvas who courageously put down their weapons and remove their armor in my presence. Though we never call it the Dharma in our sessions, it is undoubtedly the way of joy and freedom from suffering, and I am grateful for my many beautiful teachers.

mb66-Fierce2Daryne Rockett, Blossoming Music of the Heart, plays the harp and practices with Stillwater Sangha in Orono, Maine. She is a clinical social worker at the Bangor Vet Center, where she has enjoyed working with veterans and their families for nearly ten years.

PDF of this article

Anchored in Awareness

Transforming Wounds of War

By Alexa Singer-Telles

mb66-Anchor1

Over the last several years, I have been working on facing deep-seated fear from my historical and cultural roots. My Jewish roots hold many stories of persecution, but until recently, I didn’t feel they affected me personally. Through the deep looking of meditation and Touching the Earth practices, I realized what my father brought home from his WWII military experience in Germany—fear and a silent anger at G-d that penetrated my sense of being Jewish. I was also changed by a powerful conversation with a loving German woman who spoke for her country, describing the shame and guilt she and her people still carry for what happened during the war. Our interaction opened up a river of compassion for her people and for all who silently suffer from the impact of war.

Knowing that many of us carry invisible wounds, I was moved to take action to bring attention to the unspoken, unseen wounds that veterans bring home to their families. I wanted to confront my own fears of persecution as a Jew, honor my father and his experience, and share my realization with others. As a leader in a local organization for marriage and family therapists, I organized a community-wide conference to help mental health professionals increase their understanding of the needs of returning war veterans and their families. The conference focused on the invisible wounds of war, particularly the self-imposed silence of soldiers upon their return from combat—the mental and emotional anguish of men, and now women, who have seen and done horrific things in war that are unspeakable to anyone at home.

At the conference, to give participants a way to manage intense emotions, I introduced the use of the mindfulness bell and shared some of Thay’s teachings on breathing and embracing difficult emotions. When a presenting psychologist shared how people in the military are trained to ignore the sensations and feelings of their own physical and emotional needs to focus solely on their mission, the group began to understand how veterans can be both unaware of their own bodies and hyper-vigilant to their surroundings. Family members, both wives and mothers, described the impact of combat on their loved ones and themselves—a sense of separation, fear, trauma, violence, and addiction.

The realities of war and its aftereffects on veterans and their loved ones are so painful that therapists can feel our interventions are inadequate. Our mindfulness practice of being able to stay present and offer compassion can be an anchor for ourselves and those we serve. At the conference, the bell was used as this anchor. At first, I invited the bell judiciously, but through the day participants began to request the bell to be rung in response to particularly powerful stories that were impacting their hearts and minds. One therapist shared, “Having the opportunity to stop and breathe gave me the capacity to stay present with the suffering described by the speakers. I was surprised I didn’t feel exhausted at the end of the day.”

This day gave tribute and voice to the silent suffering of my father and all veterans, increased therapists’ awareness of what might not be spoken but can be felt in working with veterans, and offered the practice of mindfulness and the bell as ways to sit with the strong emotions associated with war. The conference participants reported a deepening of their understanding of the invisibility and challenges of the wounds of war, increased their capacity for compassionate listening, and vocalized a willingness to reach out to work with veterans and their families.

After the conference, I shared with my dad how meditation, creative art, and Sangha support had helped me to work through my emotions and to understand how his history and my religious fears lived inside of me. I shared how, through practice, I was able to come to compassion and action. At ninety years of age, he understood and expressed his happiness and gratitude for seeing his unexpressed anger transformed in me, his seed bearing good fruit. I see that my healing is his healing as well.

mb66-Anchor2Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, co-founded the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California, in 1991 and was ordained as an OI member in 2004. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, offering the practices of mindfulness and the expressive arts to deepen one’s experience and enliven the creative process.

PDF of this article

Running at Night

By Dave Kenneally mb66-Running1

I have been practicing in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition for eight years and living at Blue Cliff Monastery in upstate NewYork since November of 2012. I am the inaugural intern in a one-year program for laypeople who want a longer and more intensive retreat at the monastery. My position is called “Sangha Outreach,” and I work to keep the monastery connected to lay practitioners all over the world. Last summer I was invited to join Thay and about one hundred monks and nuns on their biennial tour of North America. At one stop on the tour, Thay recounted a dream he had about twenty years ago. (Full disclosure: I’m going to leave out some fascinating parts; this is the dream life of a Zen Master, after all.*)

Thay dreamt he was still in university, in his body as a young man. The school secretary informed him that he had been admitted into a very selective honors course that was starting immediately. Thay hurried up the stairs, thrilled because this course was taught by a highly renowned and much-loved professor. When Thay walked into the classroom he was startled by what he saw. Rather than the small room with just a few students that he was expecting, he saw thousands of students in the grandest of halls. The windows all around him framed the impossibly beautiful view of snow-capped mountains, the sun, moon, and stars. While they waited for the esteemed instructor, Thay asked what the subject of the class would be, as he had neglected to ask the secretary in his excitement. “Music, of course,” was his classmates’ response. They went on to tell him that he would be giving the first presentation as soon as the teacher arrived. Music? Thay was not a student of music! He felt very embarrassed and was not sure how he could possibly give a presentation on the subject. In his nervousness, Thay fumbled around in his pockets, as if something hidden there could save the situation. Sure enough, he found a small meditation bell. Thay had been using the bell to bring himself and others back to the present moment since he ordained as a novice monk. He had been studying a musical instrument after all! With this realization, all of Thay’s confidence came flooding back, and just as the instructor was about to walk in, Thay woke up.

For me, the standout detail in the dream is the symbol of the bell. The bell is at the center of our mindfulness practice. Its sound is often referred to as the voice of the Buddha, and listening deeply to it has the power to bring us back to ourselves, back to our true home. Thich Nhat Hanh is a bell. The depth of his mindfulness ensures that his sound is very beautiful and pure. It radiates in a way that penetrates everyone and everything around him. I could feel how all of us on the tour were harmonizing ourselves to the sound of Thay’s practice. Not just trying to mimic it, but using it to gently guide us back to the sound of our own lives. Only in that place of deep and compassionate listening do we have a chance to realign with our deepest intentions. I felt powerfully embraced by the collective energy of thousands of people practicing like this during the tour. The safety and support of it enabled me to listen more closely to the sound of my own bell than I ever have. I was able to hear both its burgeoning harmonies and its lingering discords. This process made the three-month tour simultaneously very joyful and quite painful. Thay spoke again and again about the inseparable nature of happiness and suffering. He instructed us to learn how to “suffer well, so that we can suffer much less.” But what does that really mean?

Twenty years ago, while Thay was visiting nirvana in his dreams, I was a newly minted United States Marine, waking at dawn every morning to run with my platoon. We ran behind our commanding officer, following his pace and his silently chosen route each day. Some days it was three miles on the road, others it was five miles over hill and dale. The pain of not knowing was a practiced torture, meant to bend the iron wills of a hundred young men to an idea of discipline. Among the toughest ores ever to be pulled across that anvil was my childhood best friend, Christian Regenhard. Early on in our training, he started running alone at night. After watching him return home from another punishing session through the hills that surrounded our barracks, I asked him what he was doing. Wasn’t it enough to be dragged around the base each morning? He answered plainly and without hesitation, saying that he couldn’t take the pain of those morning runs. He shared openly, without shame, that he couldn’t bear starting every day at the mercy of another man’s whim. He had decided to train himself hard enough at night to bravely face even the worst of our morning circuits. When the sun rose, Christian was ready and could greet it with a smile. By embracing his vulnerability, he saw that happiness lay in training himself to be with his suffering, so that he could suffer less.

Like anyone, I know the seemingly senseless suffering that any given morning can bring. I remember and carry the pain of many such mornings. The grey day in childhood that I realized my father was an alcoholic. The spring morning of young adulthood, when my brother told me over the phone that our father was dead. The dawn in the South Pacific, when I clearly saw that I had spent three years of my life training to be a blunt instrument in another man’s hand. The fall night in a bar threatened by sunrise, when no amount of drinking or lying or crying could change the fact that Christian, now a firefighter, had died running up into the World Trade Center. In spite of all this and more, happiness is possible.

I can no longer endure the pain of being unprepared for the inevitable. I know that the tender spaces deep within my heart cannot be defended. It is time for me to throw open the doors behind which I have hidden my weakness and shame. Time to be open and vulnerable, so that I can learn how to suffer well. Listening deeply to the sound of Thich Nhat Hanh’s bell, I’ve heard its call. I have asked the brothers of the Blue Cliff Monastery to accept me as a monk. I have decided to train for happiness.

This article was originally published on Dave’s blog, davekenneally.wordpress.com. It also was included in the Blue Cliff Monastery Newsletter.

Dave Kenneally, True Precious Mindfulness, is a native New Yorker and a child of the Rock Blossom Sangha in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He has been living and practicing at Blue Cliff Monastery since November of 2012.

PDF of this article

Heart to Heart

In each issue of the Mindfulness Bell readers take on a different topic, writing in short essays about their personal experience and their practice. mb47-Heart1

The Fourth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

mb47-Heart2

Awakened Silence of the Heart

The Fourth Mindfulness Training has been a bell of mindfulness, a wise teacher, a good friend, and a road back from hell for me.

In my early life, my siblings and I were relentlessly bombarded with violent and angry language between our parents and issued daily reminders of our worthlessness, stupidity, and so on. We internalized the language and began to speak that way to ourselves and to others, even those we loved.

At my first retreat at Omega with Thay and the nuns and monks, I could not keep from weeping tears of gratitude and relief when we lay friends were addressed with so much respect, gentleness, even tenderness. When we were offered the opportunity to take the Trainings, my heart opened with joy. To join such a community and to practice in such a way for myself and for my loved ones seemed a precious gift.

I focused on the Fourth Training in my statement of aspiration and was given the name Awakened Silence of the Heart. The name has unfolded like a lotus, revealing its meaning to me over years of committed and joyful practice.

A small but profound miracle of mindfulness happened recently. I dropped one of my favorite mugs. It shattered. The miracle was that no abusive cascade of internal criticism followed. (“That was stupid. Clumsy fool! Etc.”). There was only compassionate silence, an awakened silence. After cleaning up the shards, a benevolent bell of mindfulness sounded inside me, inviting me to consider that the accident occurred because I was hurrying a bit. The mug and I might have been saved some suffering if I had not been ahead of my breath. The awakened silence, the space in the living room of my mind, made me feel happy. I bowed to the Training in gratitude.

A companion incident occurred later in the week. An office mate, while hurrying to set up for a meeting, broke a lovely piece of pottery made for me by a friend. In the beginning of the practice, I might have exploded with irritation and criticism. In the later years, I would have seethed with resentment and contempt while saying, “That’s okay. It doesn’t matter.” Now, my heart says gently, “All is impermanent. I’ve enjoyed its beauty a long time.” My body, speech and mind are in alignment with that kind remark. The friend who broke the bowl could feel easy.

One of the most delicious fruits of this practice is with my blood family. When I told my father that I was returning to Plum Village last year for a retreat, he launched into a tirade about cults and craziness. I was able to listen without reacting and to hear what was not being said. My awakened heart understood that he was afraid I would not come home, since I had once referred to the sangha as my spiritual family. Breathing in, allowing him to wind down, I said gently, “You are my father. I will always come home as long as you are alive.” His body softened. His heart softened. “Okay,” he said, “have a good time.”

In the spaciousness opening in the silence of my heart is also trust. I am becoming truthful enough to speak of my suffering and my need and desire for support without feeling painfully imperfect, full of shame or criticizing myself for not being good enough. I am able to more often say: “Dear sangha friend, can you help?” And to trust that they will come and breathe with me and listen deeply and speak lovingly.

As the Awakened Silence of my Heart grows, I am free. I suffer less. And I create less suffering in others, in my family, and in the world.

Diana Hawes Awakened Silence of the Heart, True Wonderful Light Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A.

mb47-Heart2

The Broadway Bicycle Boy

It was summer in New York City. I was walking along Broadway near 112th Street, when a boy about eight years old came riding his bicycle up from behind me and crashed a few yards in front of me. He was wearing shorts and I could see he had skinned his knee. He was hunched over, grabbing his knee, squinching his face in pain, but holding it in and not emitting a sound. I approached him, knelt down and pointed to his knee. “That must hurt!” I said. “YES!!!!!! It really hurts!” he screamed, and burst into tears. As he finished his round of crying, he looked up to see who this stranger was. I smiled, pointed to his knee again and said, “That must still hurt!” “YES!!!!!! It still hurts!” and he was off again, sobbing and pointing to his knee.

mb47-Heart3

I made a simple decision to not rush on. I stayed and paid attention to his hurt. After a few more rounds of crying about his knee, he looked up to see if I was still there. Do you know what he did next? For the following fifteen or twenty minutes, he pointed to scars on different parts of his body and told me how this one happened and that one happened and this one over here happened. It was as if he had never had a chance to tell someone completely enough how much it hurt or how scared he was. He had quite a few stories. After doing this for a while, his tone was happy and confident. He got on his bike and rode away.

As I walked on, I thought how many scars we all carry, physical and emotional, and how we rarely get a chance to really tell the stories to the point of healing. And so we find ourselves, at whatever age, dragging behind us a sackful, or in some cases, a huge trunkful of old unhealed hurts that weigh us down, depress our joy, sap our confidence, distort our thinking, and otherwise cause us to hide our true goodness.

Each of us is just waiting for the right conditions to tell our stories.

John Bell True Wonderful Wisdom Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

mb47-Heart2

Stopping the Avalanche

mb47-Heart4Here at 8000-foot elevation, I am sitting quietly and gazing at an avalanche field near the top of Mount Shasta, California. The forest has been torn and many strong trees lie broken across the field. Jagged four-foot-high dead trunks still stand upright, looking like ghosts of people I have known and lost. So much breakage here even after ten years.

Sadness sweeps through me now as I remember ways that my words have avalanched angrily and broken friendships. I grieve the damage that I have caused. Despite a daily practice of many years, words can rush out of me just as this snow roared down the mountain. And like these fallen older trees even the strongest friendship and community can fall by the power of unmindful words.

“Words once spoken cannot be taken back.”

To understand stopping as a spiritual practice is one of Thay’s most valuable teachings for my fiery energy, because it is so uncomplicated and very clear: Stop when hurrying, stop when gulping food, stop when a friend needs you to listen, stop when driving too fast, stop when the phone rings... stop and breathe at stop signs.

These beloved practices have brought depth and happiness to me. But when emotions are strong and rushing out of your mouth, how do you even wake up enough to stop them?

There are the seven “stop sign” words that stop me before an avalanche and that can even stop me during an avalanche: always, never, all or none of the time, everybody, everything, nobody, nothing.

These seven stop signs tell me that the avalanche is coming or that I am already being carried away. They tell me that I am lost in black and white stories of my mind. After all, these seven words are never true!

If I say one of these words, I know to stop speaking immediately and breathe. I’ve learned to tell my family member or friend that I might need to stop abruptly and talk later. In my time out, as I calm myself, I inevitably realize that my point of view is neither balanced nor accurate! I become more ready to truly listen. (It’s very helpful to let friends and family know about this practice ahead of time so they don’t interpret your leaving as another whack of your anger. We support each other in this practice with an agreement that we will come back together calmer and more able to understand each other.)

If I think one of these words, I know that I am caught in creating a particularly dramatic off-center story. Time to detach from the interior talking and practice re-grounding — walking meditation is especially effective. If I wait (often about forty minutes) until the interior conversation finally comes to balance and compassion, whatever story the mind is creating transforms and becomes more positive.

If someone else says always, never, all or none of the time, everybody, nobody, everything, nothing, whether it’s about me or about somebody else, I am now usually less reactive to what they say. After all I know these words! They come out of suffering and can easily create more suffering. So it’s time for deep listening.

On Mt. Shasta, the avalanche field speaks to me again. Huge chunks of bark are composting into soil. Now there are the tiniest small firs bending into lovely diagonals from harsh winds and winters. They look like delicate bonsais. I see this beauty and the fresh life growing even amidst the wreckage.

We can all take heart to begin anew.

Laurel Houghton True Virtue and Harmony Fairfax, California, U.S.A.

For the Summer 2008 issue, the topic will be the Fifth Mindfulness Training. Please send your story to editor@ mindfulnessbell.org by February 15. Keep your writing personal and concrete, and under 500 words. Include your Dharma name if you have one, and your city of residence.

Photos courtesy of the monastic sangha

PDF of this article