connectedness

Walking in Nature

Brother Phap Son The earth never tires, The earth is rude, silent, and incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first, Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d, I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

– Walt Whitman

The other day, some of the brothers at Maple Forest Monastery went for a hike. It was a beautiful day, there was a sparkling freshness in the air.  The white, puffy clouds contrasted with the blue sky and the bright sun, making the day feel radiantly and intensely alive.

We walked on a trail that takes us through the property of a neighbor. Suddenly the trail became narrower and was flanked by large, old trees. There are not many trees around here that are as old as these. As I looked at the trees, my eyes moved across the old stone wall behind them and I contemplated the fields of waving long grasses, flowers of many kinds, and the forest beyond the fields. I felt that I was very fortunate and very rich.

I wondered how many people have had the opportunity to spend time with these trees and if their awesomeness, their subtle but clear message, is perceived and heard by many. These trees have been alive for many years, they have seen seasons come and go, people come and go, events come and go; yet they are still standing in the same place where they began as small seeds. Their message is their presence. I once had a group of trees say “hello” to me, as I felt their presence near the walking meditation path of the Upper Hamlet at Plum Village. I invite all of us to stop, listen, and experience the beauty of nature for ourselves. Whatever it is you may feel, be open to feel that and receive.

We continued our walk down the forest path, feeling a light joy and happiness, like children running through the forests, free and without concern. A couple of brothers took time to examine the different kinds of wild mushrooms that grow in the forest, with an eye to their edibility! The rest of us enjoyed the sounds, the smells, and the sights before us. The forest is quiet, but the trees make their solid and gentle presence felt, with their straight trunks blending with the thick green foliage. I felt small in comparison to their size, but somehow I also felt connected to them, as if I were part of them. This brought me a sense of peace and tranquility, a feeling of completeness within myself.

As a European, living here in the United States has made me appreciate the beauty and significance of nature. It is rare to find places where nature is relatively unburdened by human activity. I have come to see that places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake in Alaska, the Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe, and Death Valley are truly part of the great heritage of the people of this country. By being in touch with the preciousness of these places, I also feel compelled to understand what people like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ansel Adams touched in nature that moved them to dedicate themselves to defending and protecting these treasures. These men are also part of the rich heritage of this country.

Thay has spoken often about the need for people to have roots, to be rooted in something good, wholesome, and beautiful, and how our modern way of living creates many hungry ghosts, people who don’t feel deeply connected to anything. Through these roots, these connections, we are able to feel the energy of love and caring. I think cultivating these roots, helping them grow, is more important than ever. Seeing the effects of the events of September eleventh here and on countries throughout the world, Thay’s instructions to develop roots makes more sense than ever. I see it as indispensable to a happy life. Through our practice of stopping, of coming back to ourselves, to mindfulness of our breathing, of our walking, our eating, our speaking, we can ground ourselves and open our eyes to the beauties around us. This results in our feeling nourished and more integrated, more whole.

Some of the brothers here at Maple Forest have offered part of their monthly allowance to environmental groups that help to defend environmental laws, that educate young people about the wilderness, that help to protect and preserve these precious places. There are many caring groups doing good work that can benefit from our support and concern.

There are things we can do to help heal our planet and preserve the natural treasures we have inherited. Part of the practice of Engaged Buddhism is to support groups and individuals who are doing their best to care for the environment.

Brother Chan Phap Son, True Dharma Mountain, is a monk and Dharma Teacher in Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont.

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My Responsibility for the War in Iraq

By Bruce Campbell What Sacrifices?

But I haven’t really done anything about it. My lifestyle has not changed one bit since the war started. I have not had to make any sacrifices as a result of the war. I have not attempted in any way to help those who have been impacted by the war. And I haven’t gotten involved in the political process to help shape the U.S. government’s position on the war. So, I’ve decided that it is time for me to do a few things with respect to the war in Iraq.

First, I am determined to keep in touch with the suffering of the U.S. service men and women in Iraq and with the suffering of the Iraqis and others impacted by the war. This does not mean that I can’t enjoy my idyllic life in Boulder, or that I should be remorseful or angry. But it does mean that I need to cultivate a sense of connectedness to what is happening. And I will try and find a way to have some direct interaction with those who are suffering.

Second, I am determined to find a way to help those who are impacted by the war. I will need to explore this in coming months, but it will at least include donating time and/or money to charities that are involved in assisting veterans and Iraqis.

Finally, I am determined to get more involved in the political process in the U.S. I am still feeling my way around this one, as I don’t want to create more aggression through political action. I do not believe in denouncing others for their views. I am not interested in action that encourages anger or division, but I would like the voices of non-violence and compassion to be heard.

Taking Action

I am still in the process of exploring how I can best turn my expressed intentions into action. As a first step, I shared my concerns by e-mail with family, friends, and members of the wider Sangha. It was difficult to open up in this way to so many people, especially to people outside the safety of our local Sangha meetings.

But the results have been heartening. I have initiated dialogs with people that I might not have otherwise considered as sources of information and support with respect to these issues. Many people shared their own experiences and heartfelt thoughts on Iraq and war in general. Perhaps most importantly, the public expression of my aspirations strengthened my resolve to take action.

I also received some practical feedback about people and organizations that I could contact to help me turn my expressed intentions into action. Here are just a few:

  • The List Project (www.thelistproject.org) aims to resettle Iraqis that have become targets of violence due to their support of the U.S. effort in Iraq.
  • The American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org/iraq/default.htm) is sponsoring a “Wage Peace Campaign,” which offers direct assistance to Iraqis (including resettlement of refugees) and resources to support political action for peace.
  • The Coming Home Project (www.cominghomeproject.net) offers mindfulness-based retreats and counseling for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
  • The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is developing a directory of sanghas for veterans; it also has resources available to help educate sanghas about working with veterans (www.bpf.org/html/current_projects/peace_pages/wc_info.html).

Through his contact with Thay and time spent at Plum Village, Anshin Thomas experienced how a mindfulness practice and a supportive community could help to transform the suffering from his violent past. And although I cannot pretend to understand the depths of Anshin Thomas’ suffering, I have touched in my own life the transformative power of Thay’s teachings and the Sangha’s love.

So, over the past couple of months, I have focused my efforts on making the practice and community we share accessible to veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our greater Sangha, I have talked to Vietnam veterans and a veteran of the Gulf War who are willing to share their practice with our most recent veterans. In Colorado, we are organizing a group of Sangha members that want to help facilitate programs for veterans. We have the Mindfulness Trainings to guide us, and decades of collective experience in peace work through engaged Buddhism.

I am a part of the Iraq war, and the Iraq war is a part of me. I am, therefore, responsible for healing the suffering it has caused— in myself, in those around me, and in those far away. I am deeply grateful that so many resources are available to help me heal and transform that suffering and to prevent more wars from happening.

Bruce Campbell, Freedom of the Heart, lives in Boulder, Colorado where he practices with Mountain Stream Sangha. He is an attorney and a core member of the Colorado Community of Mindful Living. He can be reached at Bruce.Campbell@bdclaw.com.

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Together in Beauty, Together in the Everyday

Sangha Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery By Sara Becker, True Wonderful Path, with insight from Danielle Rinnier, David Snelbaker, Harold Adams, Jay-Philippe Myerson, Lee Alter, Maria Rodriguez, Compassionate Light of the Heart, Push Mukerji, Gentle Voice of the Heart, Steve Becker, Harmonious Wholeness of the Source, Susan Saltzman, and Tara Swartz.

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It’s early morning and the sky is still dark: fresh cold, deep silence. Stars shine on snow. In the great meditation hall, candles and incense are burning. The bell is invited. The Sangha sits together, breathing, as the sun begins to rise.

One winter Friday in 2009, eight members of Peaceful City Sangha in Philadelphia drove up to Blue Cliff Monastery for a three-day weekend. Carpooling was a joyful opportunity to get to know each other better. At Blue Cliff, the women shared a room, the men, a dorm, and we ate breakfast with the nuns and monks respectively. Together we enjoyed other meals, morning sitting, walking meditation in the woods, total body relaxation, touching the earth, Dharma sharing … and also time to rest, or connect over a cup of tea. In the evenings and mornings, we shared silence.

Being engulfed into the practice in this beautiful and conducive setting, surrounded by monks and nuns that embraced with their largest hearts this practice day in and day out, was sublime.

Guy time was cool!

Spending nights in community and hearing each other’s snores, washing up in the early morning, and cleaning the washroom when it was time for working meditation — these experiences foster a tender familiarity.

Time to bond with fellow Sangha members — especially with members you have never talked to or thought you would not be able to connect with — allowed a warm glowing feeling to transpire.

Whether we were feeling deep peace and joy, deprogramming from our lives, or gnarly stuff was surfacing inside us, we experienced this within ourselves, within the body of the larger fourfold Sangha, and within Peaceful City’s own Sangha body.

To look inside and touch my rawness, my bareness, in the presence of our Sangha was so scary! And amazing — you’ve seen part of me that scares me and you still love me as a sister.

The retreat was an exceptional experience of community. One that comes close to my family experience.

Traveling and returning as a Sangha continues the energy.

The retreat taught me how to integrate mindfulness into my everyday life as a way of life and also that the Sangha can be part of that life, not just an isolated few hours each week. I feel as if I am an active participant now rather than just a guest or visitor.

Folks who weren’t able to attend the retreat are also enjoying new vitality and cooperation in our practice sessions. At the same time, the retreat shines light on experiences of separation in ourselves, our Sangha, and society.

I’m happy that many members of our Sangha have been able to attend a retreat together, but I feel sad not to have been able to deepen my practice or connection with the Sangha in this way.

As a result of not taking part in the retreats, I do feel a little like an outsider, part of the group, but not really in it. But I probably would feel that way even if I went. I sort of go through life feeling that way. I think I must like or feel familiar with that feeling — not committed.

Sound of trees in snow. Kiss of cold night air. Silence. In loving community, may the energy of this retreat continue, finding forms to support and nourish us as a lay city Sangha, flowing, in all our connections, out into the world.

Peaceful City Sangha, Philadelphia, has been meeting since 2005 and offers practice sessions on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings, as well as a twice monthly Thich Nhat Hanh Reading Circle (currently reading Old Path, White Clouds). As a group, we tend to enjoy a good meal, cherish companion animals, and care deeply about relieving suffering and offering love in the world.

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Sangha Building Within Prison

By Nancy Lee Koschmann I have two Sanghas in my life. My home Sangha is a group of mostly working, middle-class people like myself who have discovered Thay’s writings or have attended retreats with him. My other Sangha is composed of inmates at a nearby men’s maximum security prison who have difficulty even acquiring Thay’s books.

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On Friday mornings I sit as a volunteer with the prison Sangha, hopefully providing support and encouragement to the inmates as well as the official leaders, a nun and her assistant from the Syracuse Zen Center. Recently we held two partial day sittings — the first in the history of the prison — during which the men who gave the Dharma talks spoke of the immeasurable comfort and strength they drew from our small but committed prison group. While my home Sangha plays a central role in my life, the prison Sangha has also become a place of deep motivation and supportive connectedness. It has offered me valuable Dharma lessons, companionable meditation, and regular guidance in mindfulness. If that is true for me, think how true it must be for my incarcerated Dharma brothers who have very little else in their lives.

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Thus I think a great deal about Sangha building in prison, wondering how to create a supportive Buddhist community within those tall, thick stone walls. One way, I believe, is to maintain contact with Sangha on the outside, but prison regulations make that very difficult. Those of us from the outside try to bring in materials from our home and affiliated groups: magazines, newsletters, and thoughtful writings. We have to get permission for any items we bring; in addition we must arrange several days in advance to have everything listed on a gate pass. We are in the process now of getting approval for several volunteers so that they can visit the Sangha as embodied proof that those on the outside care and know about the men. The process includes forms, background checks, fingerprinting, and a great deal of time.

The Nail That Sticks Up

While maintaining the strength of our little prison Sangha is crucial, equally important is the effort to reach out and include other inmates in our practice and our services. Prison regulations in New York declare that each inmate may designate only one religion and attend only one type of service. This is, of course, rather antithetical to the way Thay has taught us to think of the Dharma, but there seems no way around the rules at present. To change affiliation is to call attention to one’s self — not a good thing to do in a prison environment where, as the Japanese saying goes, the nail that sticks up gets hit on the head — so unless people are unusually motivated, they are unlikely to request a change. Inmates are allowed to attend a religious service as a guest three times, but for most people this is not enough exposure to determine whether or not they want to change affiliation and forgo the formal services of their root tradition.

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Last summer I decided to offer a course on Buddhism so that more inmates might have an opportunity to explore the ideas and practice of meditation. I offered a four-week course on “The Science and Practice of Meditation,” and while the men seemed to enjoy it and attended regularly, it was much too short to scratch the surface of either the science or the practice! This term I am doing a fourteen-week course, entitled “Introduction to Asian Meditation.” We are fortunate to have the official backing of both the Cornell Prison Education Program and Cornell University’s East Asia Program to help pay for books and photocopying. My local Sangha paid for the first course’s texts, Be Free Wherever You Are and The Heart of Understanding by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Twenty-one men joined the present class. Together we are reading about and discussing the benefits of meditation — mostly research reported in the Mind-Life Institute of the Dalai Lama. We will study the historical life and context of the Buddha and then move on to the teachings, including Thay’s Being Peace and several articles from the Mindfulness Bell. We meditate briefly at the beginning of class and then again for the last forty minutes or so, alternating guided meditation with walking meditation and silent meditation. The men are keeping a journal on their attempts to meditate on their own during the week. One man wrote in his journal this week, “I love this class. I haven’t figured out how to concentrate yet, but at least I know it is possible. When I leave class, I am calmer and happier than I’ve been for years.”

No Stone Walls

Will any of these men join our prison Sangha? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: the men in the Sangha are encouraged to know that there are others out there in the cell blocks who are at least exploring the same path. I remind my students often that this is a class about Buddhism, with some practical experience in meditation, but that it is not a class that aims to “convert” anyone. Meditation, I tell them, is part of all religious traditions and if they practice, they will learn more about themselves, about others, about compassion and how to handle destructive emotions and be free and peaceful wherever they are. The teachings are about a more skillful and peaceful way to live. Yes, I hope they come to our Sangha, at least to visit, but whether they do or not, I believe I am contributing to the real meaning of Sangha: a broad community of people walking the same path — whether we call ourselves Catholic or Sufi or Jew or Zen Buddhist, whether we are in prison or on the outside. In such a Sangha, there are no stone walls.

mb52-Sangha4Nancy Lee Koschmann, Opening the Path of the Heart, taught psychology and women’s studies for twenty-five years; she is now a life coach and volunteer who practices with Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, NY and ShoShin (Beginner’s Mind) Sangha at Auburn Correctional Facility, Auburn, NY.

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