calm

Closing the Door

By Mushim Ikeda-Nash On Thursday, April 11, my father, Robert Yoshizo Ikeda, died in his sleep at his home on Lake Anna in Virginia. My son Joshua and I were visiting at the time, mostly to help my mother, who is recovering from lymphoma and needs to be driven back and forth from a hospital in Richmond for blood transfusions. My father was 71 years old and his death was almost completely unexpected by everyone except his doctor, who diagnosed massive cardiac arrest without an examination.

At the time my father died, my mother was in the coronary ward of the hospital in Richmond, receiving some tests and being observed for effects of a new medication to regulate her heart beat. My sister, who lives in Charlottesville only 50 miles away, was in Honolulu delivering a talk, ironically enough, on "Japanese Death Poetry." My brother, an M.D./Ph.D. research scientist, was in Georgia. I felt quite alone when I discovered my father's body on Friday morning. He was lying on his left side; his face and hands were dark blue and very cold and stiff.

My heart was pounding and I began to feel faint. I saw clearly what I needed to do. I left the room, closing the door behind me, and walked slowly around the living room, breathing deeply and slowly. At that moment, I felt the responsibility to become calm and clear for Joshua's sake; he was still sleeping in the family room in the basement and would wake up soon. The sun was shining through the big windows that cover one whole side of the house and open onto a view of the lake. During those moments of walking meditation, I felt that the meditation practices I began in 1981 were resources I could draw upon to stabilize me, even to give me some joy that there was no sign of struggle or suffering in the room where my father's body lay. I knew this would be a stressful day with many pressures and decisions, and I felt that I wanted it to be a good day.

When I felt calm, I went downstairs and woke Josh up. He is seven years old. "Something important has happened," I told him. "Grandpa died last night." He put his head under the blankets, then raised it and said, "Maybe if we go out for a long walk and come back, Grandpa will just be in a deep sleep." I told him that this was not the case, and Grandpa really was dead. I said he needed to put on his clothes, come upstairs and have breakfast, after which I would be very busy making phone calls and arrangements. We had a quiet and peaceful breakfast looking out at the lake, then I called the neighbors and set in motion the official investigation and removal of the body. My brother-in-law, a Jodo Buddhist priest from Brazil, and my five-year-old nephew arrived from Charlottesville to help. As the funeral service men carried my dad out of the house, Josh stood at attention with a toy Japanese sword that my grandpa had sent my brother from Hawaii at least 35 years ago. Although the funeral home men had suggested I take the children into another room, I had asked Josh what he wanted. My father had died very naturally; I did not want it to become a secret and scary process. "I want to watch," he told me. "This is the last time we will see Grandpa in his earthly form."

A light rain began to fall as they loaded my father's body into a van. I placed my palms together and bowed as they closed the doors.

Although my father was against organized religion, we ended up having a small Buddhist funeral, with my brother-in-law, Kensaku Yuba, presiding. This was according to my mother's wishes. Seven days later we held another service with my father's ashes at the lake house. My cousin, Mary Oshima-Nakade, flew in from San Francisco with her two children and her mom, and brought some copies of a service from the Plum Village Chanting Book. As part of the service, I read the "introduction" part of the funeral service, requesting the community to listen calmly and clearly, and to recall that the joy of the children and grandchildren is the joy of the deceased as well. We sang "Breathing In, Breathing Out" together. My husband Chris had flown in from Oakland, and, with Josh sitting on my lap, I felt happy and secure. During Ken's Japanese chanting, which was very beautiful, Joshua and Mary's four-year-old son Ryan both fell asleep on their mother's laps.

I wish to thank all of you for your work in making Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings available to me and to my family. I have always felt profoundly influenced by Thay's emphasis on relaxation, joy, and slowing down the pace of one's life in order to appreciate and feel what is truly around and within us. My father suffered a great deal from massive anxieties, racial discrimination and isolation, financial hardship, anger, and paranoia during his life. He grew up on a farm in Indiana during the Great Depression and was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after World War II ended. The extent that we were able to create an atmosphere of spiritual support, joy, and loving kindness after he died was of benefit to my whole family and to my father. I really cannot adequately express my gratitude for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I bow to all of you.

Mushim Ikeda-Nash lives in Oakland, California with her partner and son. She is a writer and proofreader, and a former nun in the Korean Zen Buddhist tradition.

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Balancing

By Peggy Denial For about a year, my husband and I were involved with our son's biological family in a major legal battle over adoption, custody, and other aspects of Matthew's daily life. After living in six different homes, Matthew moved in with us almost five years ago. His maternal grandparents, who rarely visited him, had most of the legal control over his life.

In these circumstances, I've been more dependent on practice, while at the same time, it has been more difficult for me to practice. I had to return to the most elementary practices, especially when my fear of Matthew's being taken away was highest. While meditating, I could follow my breathing using the words "in" and "out," but not a more complex gatha. Some days all I could do was recite the three refuges, and I needed to recite them almost all day long to keep a minimum of calm in my life. I did almost no work. I wasn't able to write. I had difficulty seeing other people.

Almost every day, it seemed as if the practice was not working. The pain did not go away. I stayed calm as long as I kept my focus on practice, but once I let my mind wander, I immediately lost my calm. I thought about Sister Chan Khong's recommendation in her book, Learning True Love, to stay mindful of each task. I tried to be aware of what I was doing. "I am chopping vegetables." "I am washing dishes." "I am putting my son to bed." I was deeply aware that Matthew was with us now, and I tried to stay mindful of that fact in the present moment. But the moment also included the court battle, and I was deeply afraid. Each day I'd alternate between feeling that this practice does not work and feeling that I don't do it right. Yet each day I returned to mindfulness. I had nothing else to lean on. My husband encouraged me, and I reminded myself that practice has always worked in the past.

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I see now that the practice was working all along It was keeping me calm and present. A lot of the time, the present moment was very difficult. It wasn't that I wasn't present; I just didn't like it. However, by staying calm and present those many months, I was able to practice Right Speech and Right Action so as not to make a bad situation worse. I was also able to seize an opportunity to change the situation.

After one court session, I saw an opportunity to meet Matthew's birthmother, Linda. I had to make a split-second decision. Because of my daily practice, I saw the opportunity and knew how to use it. We had been kept away from Linda by her parents, and I was unaware of how much she wanted to talk to me. When he was three, Matthew was taken from her because of criminal abuse and neglect. She had not taken advantage of her right to visit him in seven years. For about forty minutes, I was able to listen deeply to Linda. And I held her for a long time after that. I was able to let her know that I did not judge her for what she did to Matthew. 1 was able to assure her that we would take care of him, and to let her know how deeply grateful we are to her for bringing him into the world. Without the practices of deep listening, deep looking, and deep holding, I could not have been there with her. And I could not have helped her turn this situation around.

Two weeks later we met in court again. Linda told the judge that she no longer wanted to fight the situation. She said that she had been very angry, thinking that we were taking Matthew from her, but now she understood that this was in Matthew's best interest. She talked about her love for him and the deep pain in her life. She said she understands that Matthew wants to be adopted and that she wants to be able to give this to him. Later, I told Matthew what she had said. Now he feels differently about her. In time, when they meet again, it will be possible for them to heal their wounds.

Peggy Denial, True Spiritual Wonder, practices with her family and the Sonoma County Sangha in northern California.

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Surrender and a Lotus

By Ian Prattis

After Thay's "Heart of the Buddha" retreat in the fall of 1996 at Plum Village, I went to India to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga, a system of meditation for adults and children. Committed to global religious harmony, program participants work to heal and transform deeply rooted schisms in Indian society—through rural development, civic responsibility, and anticorruption programs. and through praying regularly with all the religious communities in India. It also has a marvelous outreach to introduce meditation into schools. training colleges, universities, and factories. I was privileged and honored to experience so many treasures of India.

Then, in November and December of 1996,I became seriously ill in India. As I observed my body's systems crashing one by one, I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. I was surprised by my calm and lack of panic. As December drew towards its close, I totally surrendered. I will always remember Saturday, December 21, 1996. On that day, I let go of all attachments to my body. Throughout the day and evening, I read The Blooming of a Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh, from cover to cover, practicing those meditations that spoke to me. I felt at one with all my spiritual ancestors. I felt Thay's wisdom, love, and gentleness as a tangible presence. I was in a small ashram in the city of Mumbai, reserved for saints and holy men, and I also felt their grace close at hand.

The meditations in The Blooming of A Lotus took me deeply into my roots of being, and I felt very calm about the impermanence of my bodily existence. My heart opened wide. While I did the meditations on "Looking Deeply and Healing," I thought about my many mistakes, and chose not to deny them or brush aside the bodily pain in this moment, for I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom that were flooding through me were dissolving both. I felt very simple, that I was living properly. I was without panic and present with whatever arose. I did not fear death. This lack of fear gave me freedom and strength, and opened a huge door to send love and joy to all. I felt my true self, peaceful, not pulled in any direction. Despite all that was going on, I was solidly and timelessly present. I could freely share whatever gifts, skills and energies I had. I finally understood the real significance of the Buddha's words about the Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

To be with myself at this time—happy and content in the moment—was all I had, and it was enough. As I practiced this meditation, I felt that each moment of life was absolutely precious and somehow I was communicating this to all that I connected to. Before I slept that night, one last meditation secured me in the refuge of all my spiritual ancestors. Although the focus was on the Buddha, I felt all my teachers and guides throughout lifetimes gathered together inside and around me, without boundaries, and they stayed while I slept. When I fell asleep, I was content and happy.

The next morning, to my surprise and joy, I woke up! Over the next six months, I slowly recovered my health. Friends in North America who tune in to me very closely had booked airline tickets in December to take me out of India to recover. While I was touched by their love, I said no to their proposal.

Whatever the outcome, this particular journey was to be in India. I had written countless Christmas cards to friends and loved ones all over the world and signed them with "Blessings and Love from Ian." That is what I had wanted to send before my death. Then I lived! And I was even more happy that the cards were sent.

I am glad that at the last moment before leaving for India I intuitively put The Blooming of a Lotus into my backpack. It has always been one of my favorite books, as it never fails to take me deeper into myself. I love it for additional reasons now. I can recommend it to people I meet as a "lifesaver," for it was exactly this for me—a Lotus that carried me through.

Ian Prattis, True Body of Understanding, practices in Canada

Diary Entries

Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India

December 20, 1996

Feel weaker than ever this morning. Could hardly make it from my bed to the bathroom. Hope the saints who have passed through this little ashram are casting a protective eye over me. Perhaps they can cheer up Chotolal, the Nepali cook here, who has become quite anxious, especially as I have not had the energy or inclination to eat the special dishes he prepares. He only has me to look after at the moment, and my state of health is not a good advertisement for the care he gives. He is watching me write in my diary, so I will change hands and write with my left hand so he can laugh and feel less anxious about me. It worked! Is there some major purification going on in my body, is there something I do not see? What lessons are there in this for me? Or are my days drawing to a close in the silence of this ashram? My blood tests from the hospital show that I am low and deficient in just about every category, and the antibiotics and other medications only make me feel worse. So many questions and worries, yet they do not seem totally important. I ask them, then they fade away. It is a bit strange. A few days ago I collapsed and passed out while at dinner at Madhuma's house. I know she and her family would take me in, yet this saint's refuge is where I feel most comfortable right now. The quiet and simplicity of the place speaks deeply to me. I guess it allows me to prepare.

Have been in an almost constant state of mediation for days now, a deep quiet silence. Making entries in this diary is almost an interruption to the silence. Yesterday, Tom and Bev phones from Tucson in the States and it was wonderful to talk to them. They know how ill I am and sent prayers from the desert. Another friend, Barbara, from Michigan also phoned. She tunes into me very closely and was sufficiently alarmed to offer to fly to Mumbai and take me back to the States to get well in her home. Their love and care is very moving, but I know that whatever is to happen is to be here in India. For sure.

Have sent Chotolal on an errand as he was moping a bit an needed something to do. I gave him some money and asked him to buy some cards and stamps for me. The cards are beautifully hand-painted ones on pipal leaves, and have pictures of the Buddha, Krishna dancing and other such scenes. Want to make sure I finish my Christmas list. Sending tons of Christmas cards to friends and loved ones. Feel such a calm about all this that would normally surprise the heck out of me. The calm is just there, sitting with me, just fine. I know there is a distinct possibility I will not live beyond Christmas and want to send out a Christmas message from India--"Blessings and Love from Ian." Guess there is some ego in that, but it is what I want to do. Just addressed a card of the Buddha to Thay Nhat Hanh in France. Writing and addressing the cards has exhausted me, but feel very satisfied and full--a sort of mission accomplished. Chotolal brought in a package of mail from Canada: letters and cards from family and friends. Made me very happy, also made me cry as I thought of friends I may not see again. Yet they were strange tears--not full of sorrow or anything, just tears as I thought of loving friends.

I keep falling asleep very quietly, then waking up very quietly. Sleep is like a light breeze that seems to visit now and then. Ate a little bit of dinner to allay Chotolal's anxiety, but it is my supply of rice malt and vitamin C that is keeping me going. Chotolal is usually very jolly but I think my poor health has caused him to become quiet. He left some fruit and water on the table by my bed, then left to spend the next day with Nepali friends in another part of the city, taking my pile of Christmas cards to post. Care and love just beam from his eyes and drip off his moustache. I am enjoying the silence and aloneness, now that he has left. Going to bed now, it is about nine o'clock in the evening and I am drifting off to sleep as though gentle wings are carrying me.

December 21, 1996

Waking up was easy, getting up was a bit of a struggle but did that in stages. The quiet and silence inside the ashram is quite palpable and almost visible--maybe the lack of noise from the kitchen. But that is not it. I remembered my shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. Had a dream about her during the night but do not totally recall all the details. I do remember that she told me to call in my guides, and construct a mental medicine wheel around me, and include all my spiritual ancestors. Did that  and feel an incredible constellation of energies, like millions of guardian angels from every conceivable dimension. This place is really hopping with energy. I just know that today is about surrender to Go'd wisdom, and I freely place myself in His hands. Feel a funny kind of delight inside me, want to dance to an imaginary orchestra, but do not think my legs would move too well.

Took some fruit and returned to my book of meditations and began to read. The book is by my Buddhist teacher and I feel so grateful to have been around long enough to receive his teachings. I read slowly, stop frequently to close my eyes and feel the words. Doing quite a number of the meditations and have no sense of time or space today, as each meditation seems to move me with its own measure and carry me along. Feel such a deepening in my heart, all the way inside my body. Aware that there is no fear or panic, just a sort of simple and happy acceptance. That is all that is there. I have never experienced anything like this. Have no thought of anything and feel deeply content for no apparent reason. is this surrender? Peace with God? No flashing lights, visitations or visions--only a quiet surrender and being with the inevitability of it all, whatever "IT" is.

December 22, 1996

I woke up this morning, heard the crows saying hello from the tree outside the window. Feel so happy to be alive. Chotolal is singing in the kitchen and rattling his pots and pans, so I will celebrate this new day with a little breakfast. That will make us both very happy. A clear insight that this "death" is a spiritual one, as is the "rebirth." I feel completely new this morning, as thought I have been rewired and plugged into sockets with a bigger voltage. Part of my preparation to continue moving along. I feel such gratitude to all the saintly energies, guardian angels and spiritual ancestors that supported me thorough the most important experience of my life. I will eat a good breakfast for all of them.

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Peace Is Mandatory, Plumbing Is Optional

By Margaret Kirschner

Visualize Deer Park during winter retreat. Imagine the logistics needed to accommodate 250 monastics and approximately 250 lay retreatants, up to 1,000 or so on Days of Mindfulness when the local community visits. Picture the kitchens that prepare the food, the dishes, pots, pans, and silverware that need to be washed after each meal. Estimate the number of showers, hand washings, toilet flushings, tooth brushing, tea making, and the amount of water needed to keep the gardens alive and flourishing.

During the afternoon free time, a retreatant goes back to her room, ready to take a shower. She turns the faucet. Nothing happens. The water is off. She checks with neighbors. Theirs is off also. Next with the kitchen, and the restrooms near the Meditation Hall. Solidity Hamlet, Clarity Hamlet–all are without water. The pumps had stopped working. Was there panic? Was there grumbling and complaining? Was the water restored shortly thereafter? No, no, and no. The aridness of the desert enclosed the Deer Park retreatants.

Shortly after, the monastics announced a plan. They said the kitchens had reserve tanks that allowed enough water for meal preparations and cleanup. Large trucks would bring barrels of water, which would be placed outside our dormitories, along with buckets so we could bring in water to flush the toilets. We were asked to use the old slogan, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” Packets of chlorinated wipes appeared here and there. Mindfulness practice continued as if nothing troublesome had occurred.  The water did not come back on until the next day, at least eighteen hours later. But even when it returned, only one pump was working, so we were asked to continue to conserve as much as possible in the week to come.

What caused peace to pervade the difficulties created by this situation? Was it the calm manner of the monk who made the announcement that solicited the acceptance of the water shortage? Was it the mindfulness practice of the participants? Surely both contributed, but the initial meeting of the monastics who were charged with responsibility must have been a generating source. There had to have been a committee of calm thinking ones, with an awareness that nothing is permanent. There must have been trust in the skills of those who were to do the repairs and an understanding that creative solutions come from serene minds. I’d have loved to have been a mouse in the corner watching the mindfulness that contributed to everything working out so harmoniously.

And so it goes at our retreat, day by day. Each small activity, imbued with mindfulness, builds further mindfulness and takes us through life’s vexations with equanimity and joy. May we show our gratitude by remembering this experience and by sharing this accepting awareness with our families and communities.

Margaret Kirschner, True Silent Sound, lives in Portland, Oregon and practices with the Portland Community of Mindful Living.  She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing during the winter retreat.

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Blowing Our Anger

By Marie Sheppard mb39-Blowing1

Anger and I go back a long way. These seeds have been well fer­tilized, for generations, and I was doing my best to keep up the tradition until I began to practice mindfulness.

Being a parent has motivated me to work harder than I oth­erwise would have with anger. I didn’t want our children to be on the receiving end, as I had been. I knew that if they were, the cycle would continue and they would end up giving just as they had received. I hoped that they would have a different relation­ship with anger. I wanted to give them tools to help them to work with anger in ways that would deepen their understanding and compassion for themselves and those around them.

About three years ago we were visiting extended family when a huge fight erupted. Our three-year-old son Rowan and I were sitting at the far end of the picnic table as the voices escalated and the tears came. This was Rowan’s first exposure to such a heated argument, and my immediate impulse was to protect him. I wanted to distract him and, at the same time, give him something that would help him to be with this expe­rience. I started telling him a spontaneous story about looking deeply at our anger. The story introduced a practice we call “blowing our anger” that we are still using, three years later.

A little girl named Jess wakes up from her nap and becomes very cross that no one has come in to give her a cuddle. She stomps through the house and wreaks havoc on her family. She knocks down the block tower that her brother is carefully building. She yanks a ball out of her dog’s mouth, puts it in a drawer and slams it shut. She tells her Daddy (who had just told her that he was making her favorite dinner—sushi) that she hates sushi and that he is a dreadful cook!

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She stomps out in the garden to find her Granny. Granny asks her how she is feeling, and Jess tries the same behavior with her. Granny observes that Jess seems upset and encourages Jess to blow her anger up to the sky. Granny explains that anger is sticky, and if you blow it at other people, it will stick to them and they will become angry. If you blow it to the sky, the wind will carry it away. Jess does this, and a scarlet red fireball of anger floats up into the sky and dissipates.

Granny explains that once the anger has blown away, Jess can look underneath it to see what is there. These are the feelings that caused the anger to come. If we share the feelings that fuel the anger, other people can understand what we are experiencing and try to help us. Jess does this and realizes that she felt hurt because no one seemed to care about her or give her any attention when she awoke from her nap. She tried to hurt her family because she was feeling hurt, and she understands that they are probably feeling angry with her. She guesses that under their anger, they are probably feeling hurt or frightened by the things that she did.

Granny encourages Jess to go back into the house and ex­plain what happened to her family. Jess brings her family to the garden and describes how she blew her anger and what she found underneath. Then, she invites them to practice in the same way. Jess holds their hands and as they blow, the colors fly up to the sky and float away.

We have used this story (with lots of rousing sound effects) to help us manage our anger and look at what is underneath it. By “managing,” I mean not blowing anger in hurtful ways at those around us. Blowing is really breathing and calming. Once we have released the force of anger, we can identify its cause.

After I first told the story, I began going outside to blow when I became angry. I would then return to the family and explore what was underneath my anger. Once he had seen me practice this way, I invited Rowan to go outside and blow when he became angry. It’s been important that it not be seen as a punishment, but as a way of helping.

The first time he did this, he was in the car. He rolled down his window and blew very hard (and noisily!). He described what his anger looked like, in vivid detail, as it flew up into the sky. As we continued this practice, he wondered whether it would stick to trees or birds, and we agreed that it dissipated in the air so that it couldn’t stick to anything. After he had finished his “blowing med­itation,” I would coax him to share the feelings that had caused the anger. Discussing these emotions, and the events leading to them, was a healing process, for both of us.

As he grows older, Rowan is more focused on looking into his anger. There have been several times where he will initiate, after having blown his anger at us (and then outside), a discussion about what is underneath his anger. While we still encourage him to practice blowing (and vice versa), he needs less help with the next steps then he did before. Just recently, a friend of his had an altercation with another playmate on the playground. Afterwards, his friend stood perfectly still and bellowed at the top of her lungs. She was furious. Rowan was perched on the slide and called down to her: “What’s underneath your anger, Leah? I think you might be embarrassed because of what happened, is that what’s under your anger?”

I stood to the side, listening as he gently tried to help her figure out why she was so upset.

I was deeply moved that he found this tool useful, and of his own volition, was using it to help a friend. It reminded me of one of the Buddha’s teachings that I treasure most: don’t practice because I tell you to. Only practice if it works for you.

mb39-Blowing3Marie Sheppard, Joyful Path of the Heart, practices with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center and the Washington Mindfulness Community. Marie and her family (partner Scott, children, Rowan and Ela, and dog, Bicho) enjoy the outdoors.

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Poem: Tranquil Sea

By Luan Dinh mb40-Tranquil1

I sit and breathe gently, Waves that wash my lungs. The surges of rising tides, Swelling inside my chest.

Turbulence from deep within, Swirling like a whirlpool. Thoughts scattered everywhere, A sea of spinning driftwood.

But I know it will be all right, This muddy mix of water. I observe the frantic swirling, I observe the ceaseless flowing.

There is beauty in this chaos, This mass of rapid turning. Absorbed in observation, I find a centre of calming.

The spin has great momentum, Spraying great arms of froth. Bits and bobs of floating, Hard to recognize clearly.

As I continue to observe, Watching this transformation. The sea that once was raging, Is now quietly subsiding.

Breezes are gently blowing, Waves rippling on the surface. What once was dark and murky, Is now wonderfully clearing.

The surface is gently stirring, Above the forests of shades. Objects that are long forgotten, Old shipwrecks and lost treasures.

Still I carry on observing, Curious to see much more. The wind gives way to silence, A tranquility that is immersive.

Stretching across the horizon, A lake as far as the eye can see. Its murky depths are clearing, Fish appear from deep shadows.

Their fins break the surface, Sending ripples in all directions. Returning beneath the water, Fading in the depth of the ocean.

As I sit and breathe gently, This great ocean is a lake. Within this body of breathing, All things are clearly reflected.

Luan Viet Dinh was born in Vietnam and lives in England, practicing with the Guildford Sangha and the Vietnamese Sangha TTT. His Dharma names are Tam Tu Quy and Compassionate Refuge of the Heart.

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The Wonderful World of Gathas

By David Percival mb45-TheWonderful1

The mind can go in a thousand directions, But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, a cool wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.

If your path is like mine, you often find your mind jumping into the future, back to the past, fabricating ridiculous situations, and taking you to places you don’t want to go. Before you know it your path is littered with boulders of fear, anger, despair, frustration, and forgetfulness.

Thay tells us that the practice of Plum Village is to come back to the present moment and take care of the situation. Wherever we are — at home, at work, driving, gardening, at a meeting — we can use the energy of mindfulness to bring us back to ourselves, to the present moment. One powerful resource available to all of us is to make use of gathas throughout our day. Gathas are short poems or verses that we can recite, regardless of where we are, to help us return to the present moment and to dwell in mindfulness. Monastics in Thay’s tradition practice gathas throughout their day.

As Thay says, “when we practice well, the gathas are with us continuously and we live our whole lives in awareness.” Gathas allow us to focus our mind, making it possible to almost instantly return to ourselves. Gathas help us to stop our relentless running, to slow down, to enjoy life in the here and now. While we enjoy walking, sitting, washing the dishes, turning the compost, we can stop our wild thinking; then we see the wonders of life in the present moment.

At my first retreat in the late 1980s, Thay taught us the following gatha, strongly suggesting that we memorize it:

Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!

I did what Thay suggested and I will carry this gatha with me always. It is a continuous source of peace and calm.

Dwelling in Mindfulness

In June 2006 at the Breath of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, Thay told us to use gathas and poetry to help us dwell in mindfulness throughout our day. For example, early in the morning, standing in front of my altar, I start every day as follows:

Waking this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment, And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Start by memorizing a few short gathas (see sidebar). Then add more, including longer ones. Notice the rhythm of the lines: recite the first line as you breathe in and recite the second line as you breathe out, and so on. When you are stuck in traffic, waiting in the queue at the bank, walking down a hallway at work, or going to the restroom, recite this gatha:

I have arrived (in-breath) I am home (out-breath) In the here (in) And in the now (out) (repeat all four lines)

I am solid (in) I am free (out) (repeat two lines) In the ultimate I dwell (in) In the Pure Land I dwell (out) (repeat two lines)

You will be able to sit, stand, or walk at ease. You can calm yourself, you can smile at the chaos around you, and you will be able to continue what you are doing in a focused mindful way. Then, when you find your mind going off in another direction, pull another gatha from your gatha storehouse.

If you do a lot of walking meditation, either slow or fast (for exercise), you will note the built-in rhythm of walking and the gatha adapts well to any kind of walking. For example, with fast walking, my rhythm is four steps to each stanza:

In (in breath, four steps) Out (out breath, four steps) Deep (in, four steps) Slow (out, four steps) Calm (in, four steps) Ease (out, four steps) Smile (in, four steps) Release (out, four steps) Present moment (in, four steps) Wonderful moment (out, four steps)

Or, with slow walking use one step per line. For me, fast walking is a very mindful practice and I try to do it in the present moment, enjoying the blue sky, the flowers, the insects, the birds, and my faster breathing.

A gatha is a poem, a song (see A Basket of Plums), and a guided meditation. They are the same and used in different situations. For example, with “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” I sing or chant it to myself as I walk, as I drive, as I work in my garden. The rhythm of walking, weightlifting, and working adapts well to the stanzas.

A Gatha to Cool the Flames

How often anger creeps into my mind! What a pernicious little seed it is, suddenly sprouting at the slightest provocation. We need to recognize and embrace our anger. When anger arises, stop — do nothing. Let the flames cool. Use a gatha to come back to yourself. Smile at your anger.

Angry in the ultimate dimension I close my eyes and look deeply. Three hundred years from now where will you be and where will I be?

Finally, we can take existing gathas and adapt them to our individual situations – change some words, add your own lines. And, as Thay instructs us, write your own gathas. Encourage your children to write gathas. Ask your sangha to write and share gathas.

Sitting by the Garlic

For example, gardening is a major part of my life, a true meditation, a place to dwell happily in the present moment, a practice of non-self, impermanence, and interbeing:

Walking in my garden I touch the present moment. I am the flower. I am the cloud. I am the butterfly. I hold some compost in my hand And touch the essence of the Buddha.

Sitting by the garlic the turtle moves under the mulch. The beauty of life surrounds me. Breathing in, I sit with impermanence. Breathing out, I smile at the flowers. Breathing in, I enjoy this moment. Breathing out, there is no place to go.

The bits and pieces of our lives may seem routine and mundane – getting up, bathing, going to the bathroom, cooking, eating, washing dishes, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, being with friends, gardening, working, driving, etc. The joy of the practice is doing everything in mindfulness, no matter how routine, because all these little things when put together equal our lives. This is what we do. The practice is now or never, with what we do and where we are. We can experience the joy of moving through our days in freedom and with equanimity, walking with peaceful steps and looking at all beings with our eyes of compassion.

The day is ending and our life is one day shorter. Let us look carefully at what we have done. Let us practice diligently, putting our whole heart into the path of meditation. Let us live deeply each moment and in freedom, so the time doesn’t slip away meaninglessly.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he makes the desert bloom. He practices with the Rainbow Sangha and he keeps the Mindfulness Bell circulating.

Resources for Gatha Practice

All of these are by Thich Nhat Hanh unless otherwise noted, and all are available from Parallax Press (www.parallax.org).

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: A beautiful short book with 49 gathas, featuring Thay’s commentary on each one.

Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training: This book is not just for monastics but is for everyone. It begins in Part One with 68 gathas.

Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices: A basic resource for our personal and sangha practice. See the section on gathas, pp. 37-41.

A Basket of Plums (ed. Joseph Emet): Gathas as songs; songs as gathas.

The Blooming of a Lotus – Guided Meditation Exercises for Healing and Transformation: While some of the meditations are very long, others are shorter and consist of familiar gathas.

The Energy of Prayer – How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice: See Appendix 2, “Buddhist Prayers and Gathas,” pp.145-155.

Thay occasionally brings gathas into his other books. Some examples: Touching the  Earth– Intimate Conversations with the Buddha, pp. 23, 71, and 72; No Death, No Fear, pp. 43 and 80. In The Path of Emancipation there is a beautiful explanation of “I Have Arrived, I am Home,” pp. 28-31, as well as a discussion of “In/Out, Deep/Slow,” pp. 115-119, and comments on “Being an Island Unto Myself,” pp. 181182.

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The Joyful Buffalo Herder

By Brother Phap Co mb55-TheJoyful1

mb55-TheJoyful2Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

This morning, I was doing walking meditation with the Sangha. I breathed in and out with every two steps, and after a while, I saw that I was becoming calm. I was able to direct my calm mind to the wondrous surroundings, the green trees, warm sun, flowers, and grasses of Deer Park Monastery. I felt light and at peace. I continued to bring my peaceful mind into contact with my brothers and sisters and with nature. Gradually I saw I was a part of nature, so no effort was needed to enjoy it, because nature seemed to have permeated me and flowed inside of me. I realized my past is behind me and my future is in front, and if it is beautiful and clear in front of me, then the past behind me is also beautiful and clear. If we live beautifully and mindfully in the present and in the future, then our past will also be beautiful, with wonderful memories.

I would like to share my memories about taking care of buffaloes. I grew up in the countryside in Vietnam. My father was a farmer with thirteen children and over thirty water buffaloes. I was the herder in charge of the buffaloes. In the morning, I let the buffaloes out into the fields for grazing, making sure they did not feed on rice plants and other crops. This kind of attention required my constant presence, leaving little time for schoolwork. That’s why by the age of thirteen, I was only in the third grade. In our society at the time, the uneducated and illiterate were often called “buffalo herders.”

When herding buffaloes, one has to know how to keep buffaloes of different characters together. Some buffaloes, once out in the field, will look for rice, sweet potatoes, or other crops to eat rather than staying with the herd. Some buffaloes like to walk by themselves. Some refuse to be led to the field. The first duty of the herder is to collect the herd using three tools: a wooden rod, a long piece of rope, and the best-behaved buffalo, called the “herd gatherer.” This buffalo must be the fastest, strongest, and best trained of the herd. If a buffalo decides to leave the herd, the herder must promptly dispatch his gatherer to bring it in.

Buffaloes graze for five or six hours and you have to be with them all the time. When they have eaten enough, the herder takes them to a large, empty field so you can all rest. Buffaloes like to play with the large, beautiful cranes that gather in these fields. Cranes’ songs are very beautiful and so are their dances. The buffaloes lie on the ground and the cranes approach them to feed, sing, and dance.

The herder often relaxes by making up songs which imitate the sounds of the cranes. Vietnamese literature contains a lot of references to buffalo herding. Here is one of the traditional songs:

Who says buffalo herding is a tough job? Sitting on the buffalo I dreamily listen to the birds up high There are days I skip school and chase after butterflies by the pond bridge Caught by mother, I cry even before the whip comes down There is a young girl sitting by, watching me and giggling Aren’t her round black eyes forever so lovely?

 Cranes and Buffaloes inside Us

We have both the crane and the buffalo in ourselves. Taoists love cranes and often praise these birds for their quietude. Cranes are symbolic of nobility and calm. Zen practitioners compare the mind to a buffalo, which tends to wander and run after various distractions. A Zen practitioner is said to be a buffalo herder, keeping his or her mind from causing havoc.

Our mind has many parts; it does not have just one buffalo but a whole herd. Anger, blame, and resentment are not the good kinds of buffaloes. These emotions cause disturbances in our mind, and we have to know how to keep them in check. What are our tools to keep our minds from running wild?

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The rope we use to maintain direction over our buffalo mind is mindfulness. Mindfulness has the capacity to embrace mental formations that are running wild. When negative mental formations arise, we must recognize them immediately and ride the mindfulness buffalo after them. Recognition through mindfulness puts the negative mental formations on hold. How can we use mindfulness to take care of the scattering buffaloes? One good method is to do walking meditation, being aware of the breath and the steps. This form of meditation creates the energy of mindfulness so that we can take good care of our mind.

In order to generate the energy of mindfulness, certain conditions are necessary. A buffalo herder finds time to rest once he has taken his animals to a good grazing field. We must bring our mind to a spacious place so that it can rest and relax. We generate mindfulness so that we may take proper care of the wild buffaloes and the confusion of our mind.

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When we come to a practice center, if we feel spacious and light as a crane, and if we feel there is nothing important we have to do, it means our mind has become relaxed and calm. We do not feel the need to meet the abbot or visit with monastics, because in our mind, the most important thing to have here is spaciousness for our practice. We create merit through our practice, not through contact with someone like the abbot. For the energy of mindfulness to arise more easily, we have to be calm and light as a crane, with a lot of concentration.

When we perform a deed in accordance with the Dharma, our mind is quiet and calm, and we work in mindfulness. When we learn about the Buddha and do everything in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, we are performing a deed in accordance with the Dharma. Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out—that’s breathing in accordance with the Dharma. When we arrange the cushions in the meditation hall, our hands pick up each cushion and place it carefully on the mat in alignment with the others. This is arranging the cushions in mindfulness, in accordance with the Dharma. If we do things with that mind, not being concerned whether a deed is large or small, then even if the work is as small as a speck of dust, the merit associated with the work is so large that it is indescribable.

Imagine seeing a cherished friend off at the train station. We don’t know when we’ll see him again. Our mind is totally concentrated on our friend, not distracted by other people or things. We are with him until the last moment when we shake hands as he boards the train. Our eyes follow the train until it disappears before we turn back. That memory, which we will carry in our heart forever, is possible thanks to mindfulness, which means that our mind is aware of the event that is taking place, and this awareness brings about a deeper understanding of life. That is our memory, and it can take us forward to the future. If we have a beautiful past, then our future will be joyful and beautiful, too.

When we come to the monastery, when we walk very slowly with our mind concentrated, it is a deep practice, and it becomes a part of our memory. When sharing a meal with the Sangha, we do it with a concentrated mind. We sit quiet and upright, let our mind relax, stop and breathe with the sounds of the bell, and have a deep appreciation for the food which is the gift of the earth and sky, as stated in the Five Contemplations. Aware that the food does not come by itself, we eat with deep gratitude. A meal like that, even simple, can be a good memory. It’s rare that we have an opportunity to share a meal with so many friends. Walking, eating, seeing a friend off, we always have the same sense of gratitude because we are aware that these opportunities don’t take place all the time. This awareness helps us feel intimate with life.

Connecting with Others

When we experience the joy of life deeply, we develop a close connection with others, and this generates within us a love for our fellow human beings. If we feel distant from others, it is a sign that we are also distant from ourselves and we lack a deep understanding of life. People are a part of life. The thought that we can stay away from people by living in nature is not logical, because people are part of nature. When we suffer from negative mental formations, we tend to blame it on other people, but the root cause of this suffering is the fact that we are not in touch with life and do not understand life. We may be competent in many fields of study, but we have not devoted enough time to understanding our own mental formations and those of the people living close to us. This creates a separation between ourselves and others, and life. When we live mindfully and wholeheartedly, we learn to be present so we can listen to the other person with an open heart, which relaxes and gladdens our mind. To be able to sit for a cup of tea or to share a conversation with someone, even for a few moments, makes wonderful memories that nourish us, helping us see that we are not alone on our life journey.

We cannot handle such negative mental formations as anger when we are not in touch with our own mind. But when we are mindful and in touch with life, we have a good “herd-gathering” buffalo which enables us to get hold of the anger at the level of mind consciousness, and take good care of it. Because they have such strong momentum, anger, worry, or sadness may not cease immediately when we recognize and try to embrace them. When this happens, we should not try too hard. When we see that the mental formation arising in us is creating tension, we should put only sixty to seventy percent of our attention on it. If the mental formation continues to run wild despite our effort, we develop the impression that we are helpless and powerless, and then our mind may become even more agitated. So we should pay only sixty percent attention to the mental formation, and save the other forty percent for relaxing and getting in touch with wonderful things around us. This is a useful technique when our concentration is not strong enough to completely embrace the negative mental formation and resolve it right away. Patience is important in this situation.

Equanimity is the absence of grasping. With equanimity, our mind is as unencumbered as when we take the buffaloes to the empty field. When the mind is able to observe anger, the anger is gradually subdued, and it merges with the mental formation of mindfulness. The runaway buffalo is gradually brought back by the “herd-gathering” buffalo, and the herd comes together as one. When anger is embraced with mindfulness, it becomes less strong, and it is transformed into the energy of mindfulness, like water and milk mixed together. We need to practice mindfulness diligently so that we gradually develop the capacity to embrace our anger and sadness. Once we are able to do this, we will be able to care for all other mental formations, such as jealousy, hate, love, etc. We begin with simple recognition, calling a mental formation by its true name as it arises. Then, also with mindfulness, we gradually embrace it, feeling the mind calming down, seeing that everything is mind. And when we can see the full depth of the mental formation and pull up its root, transformation happens. The buffalo herder and the Zen practitioner are similar in their approaches. Zen practitioners tame the buffaloes of our minds.

This is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given at Deer Park Monastery in January 2010.

mb55-TheJoyful6Brother Phap Co was ordained in December 1999. He is Vietnamese Australian. He is very loved in our Sangha, because he is always positive and helpful to everyone. He loves to hike, bake bread, and work in the garden.

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