death

Dharma Talk: Free from Notions

The Diamond Sutra

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Ocean of Peace Meditation HallDeer Park MonasterySunday, September 25, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Right view is the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path presented by the Buddha. Right view helps us to think correctly. It helps us to say things correctly, and to do things correctly, so we don’t create suffering and despair for ourselves and for others. When we practice mindfulness, we produce thoughts in alignment with right thinking, full of understanding and compassion. Then we only create happiness; we do not create suffering. With the practice of right speech, we say things that move us in the direction of understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. With the practice of right action, our physical action will only protect, save, help, and rescue. That is why the practice of mindfulness based on right view can help heal ourselves and help heal the world. We can start right away if we have a friend or a community of practice supporting us.

We have to cultivate right view. If you listen to a Dharma talk or read a book, you’ll get some ideas about right view. But right view is something you experience directly, not through concepts and ideas. Right view is the kind of insight, the kind of under-standing, that can transcend the notion of being and non-being. It is not easy to understand.

When we speak of the birth of something, the creation of something, we are already caught in the notion of being and non-being. To be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. And to die means from the realm of being you pass into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. That’s how we think, but that is not right thinking.

So if you are caught in the notion of being and non-being, you are caught also in the notion of birth and death. When you observe reality as it is, you can touch the truth that reality is free from the notion of birth and death, being and non-being.

Can we speak about the birth of a cloud? According to our thinking, to be born means from nothing you become something. But looking deeply, you know the cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from the water in the ocean, the heat gener­ated by the sun, many things like that. So it is very clear that our cloud has not come from the realm of non-being.

The moment you see the cloud, that is a new manifestation. Before that, it was there in another form. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth. The cloud has never been born. It has not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being.

When you look up into the sky and you do not see your be­loved cloud anymore, you think your cloud has died, has passed from the realm of being into non-being, and you cry. But the fact is that your cloud has not died. It is impossible for a cloud to die. A cloud can become rain or snow or ice, but it is impossible for a cloud to become nothing. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. And the same thing is true of everything else, including ourselves, including our grandfather, our great-grandmother. They have not passed into the realm of non-being. If we look deeply, we can still see them around very close, in their new manifestations.

[Thay pours a cup of tea.] I’m pouring my cloud into the glass mindfully. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness, you can see the cloud in the tea. Your cloud has not died; it has just become the tea. The tea is the continuation of the cloud. When you drink your tea mindfully, you know that you are drinking your cloud. You already have a lot of cloud inside. This is only another cloud coming in to nourish you.

You are like a cloud. Your nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Being afraid of dying is not right thinking, because nothing can pass from being into non-being. Nothing can pass from non-being into being. If you cannot see the cloud in this tea, you have not really seen the tea. Mindfulness and concentration bring insight, which allows you to look at the tea and see the cloud.

In the Diamond Sutra, a very famous sutra in the Zen tradi­tion, we learn that there are four notions that you have to remove if you don’t want to suffer. These four notions are the crown of discrimination and fear and hate.

The Notion of Self

First is the notion of self. You separate reality into two parts. You distinguish between self and non-self. One part is yourself, the other part is the non-self. But looking into what we call a self, we see only non-self elements.

As a practitioner of mindfulness, you look deeply into this flower and you see that it is made only of non-flower elements. There’s a cloud inside also, because if there’s no cloud, there’s no rain and no flower can grow. So you don’t see the form of a cloud, but the cloud is there. And that is the practice of what we call signlessness. You don’t need a sign, a certain form of appear­ance in order to see it. There’s the sunshine inside. We know that if there is no sunshine, no flower can grow. There is the topsoil inside. Many things are inside: light, minerals, the gardener. It seems that everything in the cosmos has come together to help produce this flower. If we have enough concentration we can see that the whole cosmos is in the flower, that one is made by the all. We can say that the flower is made only of non-flower elements. If we return the cloud to the sky, return the light to the sun, the soil to the earth, there is no flower left. So it’s very clear that a flower is made only of non-flower elements.

What we call “me,” “myself,” is like that, too. We are also a flower. Each of us is a flower in the garden of humanity, and each flower is beautiful. But we have to look into ourselves and recognize the fact that we are made only of non-us elements. If we remove all the non-us elements, we cannot continue. We are made of parents, teachers, food, culture, everything. If we remove all of that, there is no us left.

When a young man looks into himself, he can see that he is made of non-self elements. If he looks into every cell of his body, he will see his father. His father is not only outside; his father is inside of him, fully present in every cell of his body. Suppose he tries to remove his father; there’s no son left. If we remove the father, remove the mother, the grandfather, the grandmother, if we remove our education, our culture, the food we eat, then there’s no us left. So the young man can see that his father is in him. He is the continuation of his father. He is his father.

It’s like the tea is a continuation of the cloud. Suppose the tea hates the cloud. The tea says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with the cloud!” That’s nonsense. And yet there are young men who are so angry at their fathers, they dare to say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that person.” Because they have not looked deeply, they do not see that they are the continuation of their father. They cannot remove their father from themselves; they are their father. So to get angry at your father is to get angry at yourself. That is the insight you get from the practice of mind­fulness and concentration. If you have that insight, you are no longer angry at your father. You know that if your father suffers, you suffer. If you are happy, your father is happy also. No more discrimination between father and son, because father is made of non-father elements and son is made of non-son elements. Everything is like that.

So the first notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of self. If you can see, in the light of interbeing, that you are in me and I am in you, you’ve got the insight. Anger and the desire to punish are no longer there. Removing the notion of self is the basic action for peace.

If the Palestinians look deeply, they see that the suffering of the Israelis is their own suffering, and that their happiness is also the happiness of the Israelis. If they can recognize that they inter-are, that their happiness and suffering depend on each other’s, then they will release their anger, their fear, and their discrimination, and they can make peace easily. If the Hindus and the Muslims look deeply and see they are in each other, then there will be no conflict, no war.

So the removal of the notion of self is crucial for peace. If we can do that, we can be free from discrimination, separation, fear, hate, anger, and violence. With mindfulness and concentra­tion, you can discover the truth of no self, the truth of interbeing.

The Notion of Being Human

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to re­move is the notion of man, human. Man is made only of non-man elements. Man, we know, is a very young species on earth. We are made of minerals, vegetables, and animals. Humans have human ancestors, but we also have animal ancestors, vegetable ancestors, and mineral ancestors. They are still in us. We are the continuation of our ancestors. We still carry the minerals, the vegetables, and the animals within us. If you have the insight that man is made only of non-man elements, you will protect the ecosystem. You will not destroy this planet. That is why the Diamond Sutra can be seen as the most ancient text on the teaching of deep ecology. In order to protect man, you have to protect minerals, vegetables, and animals.

The Notion of Living Beings

The third notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of living beings. When I was ordained as a novice monk at the age of sixteen, my teacher showed me how to bow to the Buddha. “My child, before you bow to the Buddha, you have to meditate.” He gave me a short verse to memorize: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to, the nature of both is empty.” That means that I am made of non-self elements. I am empty of a separate self. And you, the Buddha, you are also made of non-you elements. That means that you are in me, and I am in you. There is non-discrimination between the Buddha and a living being.

If you do not have that kind of insight, communication is impossible. You have to see the true relationship between you and Buddha. You must see that the Buddha is made only of non-Buddha elements. And you must see that you are made of non-you ele­ments. You must see that you are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you. Before you have that understanding, you should not bow, because you think that you and the Buddha are two separate enti­ties. So there is a discrimination between Buddha, the enlightened one, and living beings; a discrimination between the creator and the creature. You have to see God in yourself, and you have to see yourself in God, in order for true communication to be possible.

Looking into a buddha, what do you see? You see a lot of afflictions, sickness, and despair that has been transformed. So a buddha is made of non-buddha elements. Before that person became a buddha, she suffered from anger, fear, hatred, and wrong perceptions. But because she knew how to practice mindfulness and she got insight, she became free. She became a buddha.

So looking into a buddha, you see non-Buddha elements. If you do not see non-Buddha elements in the Buddha, you have not seen the Buddha. Don’t imagine that the Buddha is an entity that is separate from us human beings. The safest place to look for a Buddha is in yourself.

If you know how to grow lotus flowers, you know that a lotus flower is made only of non-lotus elements. Among the non-lotus elements is the mud. The mud does not smell very good; it is not very clean. But without mud you can never grow a lotus flower. So if you look into a lotus flower, and you have not seen the mud in it, you have not seen the lotus flower. It is only with mud that you can grow a lotus flower. It is with the suffering, afflictions, fear, and anger that you can make the compost in order to nourish the flower of Buddha within ourselves.

That is why in the Lin-chi Zen tradition, when you look into the living being, you see the Buddha. When you look into the Buddha, you see the living being, because you are made of non-you elements and the Buddha is made of non-Buddha elements. If you have that insight, communication between you and the Buddha will be very deep. Otherwise, you will be worshipping an idea that is not reality.

You are the Buddha. You have Buddha nature, and if you practice mindfulness and concentration, you can transform afflictions. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove the notion of living beings.

The Notion of Life Span

The fourth notion is the notion of life span. Suppose we draw a line from left to right, representing time. And suppose we pick one point here and call it B, representing birth, and another point, we call it D, representing death. Usually we think that birth is the point where we start to exist, to be. So the segment from birth, from B on, is being. Before we are born, we did not exist. So the segment starting with D represents non-being.

When we come to D—we are very afraid of coming to this point. [laughter] It’s not pleasant to think of D. But if you can remove your notions, your wrong thinking about D, you are saved by right understanding and you are no longer afraid of D; not by a god, but by right understanding.

We believe that to be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. To die means from the realm of being you pass again into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. You are caught in the notion of birth and death; in the notion of being and non-being.

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Many of us believe that the cosmos has come from the realm of non-being into being. That is how we understand creation. Both believers and scientists believe that the cosmos has a beginning. Scientists speak about how the cosmos has come to be, with theo­ries like the Big Bang. It means before that, there was no cosmos; there was no universe. The Big Bang, and then later on, the Big Crunch. [laughter]

We need the practice of mindfulness and concentration to get the insight that liberates us from these notions. The notion of birth and death. The notion of being and non-being.

A well-known theologian named Paul Tillich described God as “the ground of being.” But if God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of non-being? You cannot conceive of God in terms of being and non-being. God, the ultimate, must transcend both notions. So to describe God in terms of being is to reduce God to something much less than God.

Many of us try to have life and to eliminate death. But how is life possible without death? Death is the very foundation of life. Life is the foundation of death. They always go together. Do not believe that death is something that waits for us down the road. No. Because life is here, death is also here at the same time. You cannot say that now is birth, now is life, and death is for later. That is not right thinking.

Science can help us understand this. We know that at every moment, many cells in our body die, right? And every day new cells are born. So many cells are dying in one second and we are too busy to organize funerals for them. [laughter] Birth and death happen in the here and the now, in every moment, in every mil­lisecond. Why are we afraid of death? We are experiencing death in every moment, because where there is life, there is death.

The same is true of happiness and suffering. Many of us think that happiness alone is enough; we don’t need suffering. But suf­fering is something that helps create happiness. If we look deeply into the suffering of the other person, we will come to understand the root of their suffering. Understanding suffering gives rise to compassion and love. Understanding and love are the foundation of happiness. If you do not have understanding and compassion, you are not a happy person. Compassion is born from understand­ing. If you understand your own suffering and if you understand his or her suffering, then love and compassion will be possible.

It is the mud that helps to produce the lotus. It is the suffering that helps produce the flower of happiness. Let us not discriminate against the suffering. Let us learn how to make good use of the suffering in order to create happiness. Let us learn how to make good use of the mud in order to produce lotus flowers.

If you believe that you are born at one point and you will die at another point, after which nothing remains, you are caught in the notion of life span. It is impossible for you to die. It is impos­sible for the cloud to pass into the realm of non-being. Right view transcends the notion of being and non-being, birth and death. That is why this insight can help produce right thinking, right speech, and right action. It has the power to heal and to nourish.

Many of us think that happiness is made of power, fame, sex, and wealth; but many people running after these objects suffer deeply. Those of us who practice mindfulness and concentration know that every moment can be a happy moment, because a mo­ment of happiness is a moment when you are truly in the here and the now, and you notice that so many wonders are in you and around you. You can be happy right here and right now.

That is the teaching of the Buddha. It is possible to be happy and joyful in the here and the now. Every in-breath, every step can help you touch the wonders of life. Recognize that you are luckier than so many people. And if you are happy, you have an opportunity to help other people.

Edited by Barbara Casey, Sister Annabel (True Virtue), Alan Armstrong, and Natascha Bruckner

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact The Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Letters to the Mindfulness Bell

I was first drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching during the Gulf War when a friend gave me Peace Is Every Step. I felt open to the truth of his words because of his work with veterans and because of what he suffered in Vietnam. I felt that if he could make peace in the midst of that fire, I ought to be able to make a little peace in my own life. I continue to draw benefits from the mindfulness retreats I have attended at Omega, and I look forward to more. I feel like I'm in kindergarten practicing awareness and mindful breathing, and kindergarten is not a bad place to be.Susan Fanti Spivak Cobleskill, New York

Thank you so much for The Mindfulness Bell! I love the magazine, and it means a lot to us to get it here in Bermuda. John Shane Paget, Bermuda

On the morning I was to leave for the Northern California retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh last fall, my favorite human being—friend, teacher, AA sponsor—suddenly began to die. She had been sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 13 years and, throughout that time, she had cancer and was in pain, often near death. Her courage, humility, common sense, and great compassion helped countless people, including others suffering with cancer, alcoholics trying to get sober, and even her doctors and caregivers. I am seldom as clear and centered in decision-making as I was when I gave up the opportunity to be on retreat so I could stay with my friend.

She died the next night of massive pneumonia, her body too weakened to fight it off. Her living will was eloquent and specific in expressing her view of death, and refusing to be artificially maintained beyond the moment when true recovery ceased to be possible. For me, being with my friend while she was dying was a blessing and a valuable exercise in mindfulness, in staying in the present moment.

As I sat vigil with my friend, I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and the many retreatants who were enjoying sitting and walking meditation together. The practice of mindfulness enabled me to be present during this precious time, and I am grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for bringing these teachings into my life.

Susan McCarthy Taos, New Mexico

Receiving The Mindfulness Bell brings me back to my true self. It enriches the quality of life for weeks and months. Kim Cary Massies Mill, Virginia

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Poem: Untitled Poem 2

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

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

Sister Thuc Nghiem
Plum Village, France

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Astrid Myreng, Source of Courageous Engagement

Jan. 5, 1926 - Oct. 27, 1997 by Svein Myreng

The greatest loss of my life has happened: Mother died. She taught me so much about lIfe and death, helped me through many times of painful or life-threatening illness. A fiercely engaged person, she worked against social injustices and environmental destruction. She left me a valuable heritage: her love of literature and nature; a fearless openness in expressing views and feelings and dealing with difficulties; and genuine care for other people-so many have been touched by her life.

She had little interest in possessions. Once, by accident, she threw a diamond ring in the garbage and was unable to retrieve it. Before long, she relished this incident as a good story. She was so alive!

We had no "unfinished business"-the last thing we said to each other was that we love each other. She died suddenly and painlessly at four in the morning. Her last words were: "I know I am dying, and I wish to die." She had seen her two great hopes come true: I had married Eevi a year and a half earlier and my recent surgery in Boston had given me the strength she always hoped for. Her greatest desire was for my happiness.

In her later years, she became very fond of Buddhism, through Thay's books which I read for her, and through meeting and housing monks, nuns, and lay teachers who visited Norway. She was amused by imagining what the neighbours might think when exotic-looking people came to our flat.

Brother Doji transmitted the Refuges to her during her funeral and gave her the Dharma name "Source of Courageous Engagement." We created a traditional Norwegian ceremony but with Buddhist elements, and received many positive, even grateful, comments. This was a worthy conclusion for a life of great engagement. She was a bodhisattva. What efforts I make in the Dharma, to a great extent, stem from her. I miss her so much!

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Dharma teacher Svein Myreng, True Door, practices with the Sangha of Floating Clouds in Oslo, Norway.

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The River Koan

By Mark Vette mb21-TheRiverOne evening I invited my eight-year-old son, Koan, for a river walk under the near full moon. He lit up, reminding me of my promise to show him the wild duck nest. The dogs joined us. In the joyous fracas we passed Mother Kaihikatea, a huge native tree of great spiritual significance to the Maori people. My mother's ashes are buried there, along with many animal friends. Koan and I bowed. He spoke of burying a pukeko chick he had tried to save. We talked about Pip, a friend we worked with as she died. I realized how maturely he understood death and how fortunate we were to have direct experience of impermanence.

We climbed the fence into the meadow, where I normally begin formal walking. My breath hugged me in the quiet night. The silver river reflected the moonlight filtering through the leaves. Flap-flap-swoosh!! Koan started as the mother duck flew from her nest in a small bush. He rushed to pull back the branches and looked in as if he'd found the king's jewels. In the moonlight, the eggs looked like huge pearls as they were reflected in his joyful face. Koan felt the eggs to see if the mother was sitting, then lectured me not to disturb her nesting.

A short time later, I left him watching a possum and walked quietly on to sit under a tanekaha tree at the water's edge. I slipped into the silver flow of the river and the image of Thay's teaching came back vividly: allow your mind to become as immense as the great river and the muddiness of life is washed clean. Within minutes, I felt fresh and clear.

Koan's muttering to the dogs edged nearer. He spoke to them as if they were human, looking down a rabbit hole with Polly-his blonde hair and muddy pants, and her we€d-ridden coat and wagging, excited tail. Koan rushed over and asked how big I thought the underground rabbit town was and what might they be doing? He asked why I was sitting, not walking. I explained I wanted to sit with the river for a while. He understood, dropped between my legs, and snuggled up.

We sat meditating on sticks and weeds. Bubbles. "Could that be an eel?" We sat. He enjoyed my warm presence and stability. I enjoyed his freshness and energy.

Walking back slowly, we held hands. When I hold Koan's hand as we walk, he quiets and seems to know I just want to walk and be with him by touch. The walk ended with one tired boy falling asleep on my lap. I watched the beauty and peace of my child's sleep. Practice with children is wonderful when it is natural and unnamed.

Mark Vette, True Great Root, is the father of three children and practices with Long White Cloud Sangha in Auckland, New Zealand.

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Pain and Reconciliation

Anonymous Last month I had a big gift. I realized that as a child under massively abusive and insane circumstances, I often "mistook the assignment." Did you ever get the homework wrong, do the wrong page in grade school? Well, I realized the same thing happened. For years I agonized over my own "cowardice and powerlessness" when at eight years old, I stood by watching my three-year-old brother be beaten almost to death and did nothing but walk away quietly into this 40-acre mango grove. I could hear his screams-but just sat at the center of the grove on a tree stump. So all these 30 some years, I tried to forget it, because to look at myself as a coward was just too terrifying. In meditation I was able to see that my "assignment" as an eight-year-old was not to be heroic, but probably to allow some force of the universe to lead me away from the scene-so that I could survive physically and emotionally intact enough to someday be able to "be the light at the tip of the candle," as Th~y has so kindly expressed it. So the real work of that event-protecting an eight-year-old-did take place. And my brother was not killed, which was very lucky.

I really identified with the story in Teachings on Love by Thay about the Vietnam vet who couldn't let go of the hammock. As I read it, I thought, he may have misunderstood his assignment, he may have done exactly what was required of him by the universe. Maybe his assignment was to just be with her when she died.

I was a perfectionist in school. I always got the assignment right. But, my realization through the practice is that in reality, in life, I often was blinded by fear and misperception. I was almost killed innumerable times before the age of 17. Many of these experiences can also be viewed as times my life had been saved. Seeing this perspective is a big change for me, very much thanks to the safety of mindfulness and the Buddha's protection. Without mindfulness practice and the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I would have no sense of what to cultivate in the safe container of my consciousness.

In terms of reconciliation with my mother, I'm very lucky to have remembered the wall in my Grandma's apartment in Brooklyn. There was a photo of my mother at about age 5 or 6. She looks pretty disgruntled! But in my meditation, I can place myself in the safety of my grandmother's house and focus on that photo on the wall. I try to send loving-kindness to that little girl in the picture. In "real time," my Grandma's apartment, the wall, the photo are long gone-but I'm glad to be able to retrieve them. This practice allows compassion for me too.

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In Memoriam: Mary Lenker

By Bob Schaibly We gather on the occasion of death to honor the spirit of life. We gather to honor the work Mary Lenker did and the love she showed us. We do not know one another in totality. Mary kept her depression from most of us. She coped with it all her life. It led her to previous suicide attempts. Those of us who knew how Mary struggled, encouraged her and were present for her. But, she had a particularly virulent form of depression that came on quickly. It wasn't Mary talking when depression seized her mind and heart. There was no reasoning with her then. She said things she did not say and did not believe when she was herself. She loved her family and her friends. Her love for life motivated her to fight the depression courageously all her life.

Mary lived life well when she practiced the meditation that brought her serenity. She studied Zen for many years at the Southwest Zen Academy. She practiced with the Houston Zen Community in First Church. An important Zen teaching is that each person persists even after the body is gone. Barbara Holleroth writes, "It is sometimes said that we are born as strangers into the world and that we leave when we die. But in all probability we do not come into the world at all. Rather we come out of it, in the same way a leaf comes out of a tree or a baby from its mother's body. We emerge from deep within its range of possibilities, and when we die, we do not so much stop living as our living takes a different form. So the leaf does not fallout of the world when it leaves the tree. It has a different way and place to be within it."

Every life has many different meanings. Because each one of us has a different perception of Mary, her life will hold a different meaning for each of us. I remember her overall as a person thrilled to be finding her own fulfillment. She smiled and was excited and strong and happy.

Mary was a Registered Nurse. Connecting with the AIDS Care Team was a very good meeting of her skills and attributes. She loved visiting clients in the Care Team's program, and became very knowledgeable about AIDS medications and complications.

Let us remember that even when things are beyond our human understanding, love is greater than sorrow and endures through pain and grief. That love can bind all hearts in companionship and bring courage. So, we say farewell, dear friend. We loved you living and we love you now. Rest now in peace and in the love we bear you. Amen.

Dharma teacher Bob Schaibly, True Deliverance, is the minister of First Unitarian Church in Houston, Texas.

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Pauline Asthita Vegting

True Torch of Understanding

By Anneke Brinkerink

With great sadness, the Dutch Sangha learned of the sudden passing away of Pauline Asthita Vegting on Ascension Day, 21 May 1998. She was 65 years old. A Buddhist ceremony in celebration of Pauline's life was led by Nico Tydeman. Participants came from many Buddhist groups—Maha Karuna Ch'an, de Noorder Poort, Tiltenberg, Kanzeon Sangha, Buddhist Broadcast, Dutch Sangha of the Order of Interbeing, Vipassana, from the interreligious movement, and from students in Pauline's newly founded center, "The Rainbow Sangha," located in Stone Bridge.

Pauline had been planning many activities for the autumn in her new Dharma and meditation center. In addition to the intensive practice of Vipassana and Zen, she had prepared classes on the deepening of the Heart Sutra and on themes such as suffering, enlightenment, and reincarnation.

After a full life, Pauline was following more and more the voice of her heart, and was deepening her understanding of Buddhism. She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in September 1996 and received the name "True Torch of Understanding." Pauline was a real teacher, who had developed an eclectic method from her Buddhist wanderings.

On the occasion of her recent 65th birthday, I sent Pauline the words of Confucius: When I was fifteen, I dedicated myself to study,When I was thirty, I began to live,When I was forty, I made my choice,When I was fifty, I was aware of the fatethe heavens had destined to me,When I was sixty, I followed what I heard,When I was sixty-five, I followed the voice of my heartand had no need of norms anymore.Pauline answered me: "This is exactly so." Happy Continuation, Pauline.

Anneke Brinkerink, True Compassionate Nature, practices with the Sunflower Sangha in Holland.

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My Father's Teachings

By Fred Eppsteiner

It wasn't easy for my father to age. To see his hair turn grey, his hairline recede, and then gradually disappear till only a few strands remained. To lose the energy of his youth and feel the weariness and discomfort of his aging body. He was both saddened and angered by this "unexpected" turn of events. He mourned the loss of his body, this form he thought he'd always be.

But old age was not the only infirmity my father endured in his golden years. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease. I watched as he lost first much of his short-term memory, then his medium-term memory, and, finally, his long-term memory began to go as well. In addition, his reasoning and cognitive functioning slowly became impaired. His ability to think, to retain and process information, and to converse became confused and impeded. To these losses, he responded with frustration, anger, and despair.

As I watched these profound changes in my father, I realized I was also viewing the disintegration of his self-concept. His idea of himself that he had mentally constructed for seventy-five years and that he had held together by imagining a permanent self that continues over time, moment-to-moment, year to year, was no longer functioning. His self that had accomplished this and done that, a self that could remember itself, a self that came from here and went there, that was productive-he couldn't find any of those selves anymore. He became lost and frightened. He didn't know who he was anymore! And he had lost the ability to recreate a new self to solve this profound dilemma. My father fell into a state of depression, alternating between despair, fear, and rage. It is a common emotional state for people with Alzheimer's in our culture.

As I lived with him, observed, and listened, I realized something else was occurring. As his cognitive capacity diminished and he slowly got used to his new condition, he began to live more and more in the present moment. The whole apparatus of conceptualization through which he had always related to reality no longer functioned, and he just experienced things directly. I joked with him that be had attained what many meditators and seekers worked so hard for-to do nothing, accomplish nothing. I told him that to spend a day looking, sitting, walking, eating was enough; he was enough just as he was.That it just didn't matter that he couldn't remember what he ate five minutes before, or what he did that morning, or even who he was.

And gradually my father began to change, to soften, open, and accept. A complicated man for much of his life, he became simpler and more direct. A man of some hardness and emotional distance, he became much softer and loving. He would constantly tell us, his family, how much he loved us and would ask us to love him. He would want to kiss us and to have us kiss him. A man who would always fall asleep when my mother took him to a classical music concert was now in love with music and dance. And every concert and performance he went to was always "the best one ever."

I want to relate a little story that happened two years ago. My father would come to our meditations, sit and listen, and the people in our Sangha got to know him. One day, one of the men told me that when he had greeted my father before the sitting, my father had asked him, "Lee, do you love me?" Lee, who is sixty-six, told me this anecdote with tears in his eyes. In his whole life, he said, never had a man asked him that question, and it had touched him deeply.

I also watched as my father became a child again (or perhaps one he never was). All his higher cortical functioning, his social training, his adult self-consciousness fell away. He could be impulsive, inappropriate, spontaneous. A man who was never known for his sense of humor, and certainly never the clown, now delighted (sometimes mischievously) in making people laugh, in being a buffoon at times. Music would play, and he would just stand up and dance by himself, impervious to the judgment of others. Like a child, he thought he was always terrific!

For me, the son as caregiver, I had to constantly reaffirm to my father that it's all right not to remember, not to think, analyze or judge; not to retain any information for more than a brief moment. Yet, on the other band, I had a very strong concept, supported by fifty-plus years of experience and memory, of who and what my father was, and should be. I had to deal with my own judgment, evaluations, selfconsciousness, and often embarrassment as I watched my familiar father disappear and become someone totally different from all my prior concepts about him. I had to learn to accept, to let go and to love my father in the most challenging and unusual way of my life.

Then, unexpectedly, came death. My father, who had never had a heart problem, had a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. My brother, sister, and I came to New York to be with him and my mother, and to aid in some decision-making about a course of medical intervention. The doctors gave him six months to a year to live. There he lay in cardiac intensive care, hooked up to endless tubes and monitors, and all he wanted to do was "go home" or as he said, "just let me get up and I'll come right back." And then he died. One minute alive and then, all the vital signs disappeared one by one on the monitors. There, before my eyes, he exited his body, he was gone. The doctors and nurses all disappeared and we were alone with him. Holding him, stroking him, kissing him. Expressing our gratitude to him for all he had given us in this life and wishing him well on his journey. We stayed with him for several hours, his face serene, his body becoming colder and colder. For thirty years I've studied and practiced the Buddha's teaching, and yet never so clearly had the truth of impermanence, of birth and death, of death and deathlessness, of change and changelessness, so directly and clearly been pointed out. In that hospital room with my father, mother, brother, and sister, a palpable sacredness emerged, a profound experience of Dharma that brought my palms together in deepest gratitude.

Several days later, my father was cremated. We took his ashes to his family plot in Queens, New York and dug a hole by the graves of his mother and father. Lighting incense and chanting the Heart Sutra, his wife, children, and grandchildren each put a spoonful of his ashes in the hole, said good-bye, and wished him a speedy and auspicious rebirth. Your body, cold to my touch. Your face, peacefully at rest. The candle's wick, all burnt up. Shakyamuni's Truths, totally revealed. With moist eyes, I receive your final gift.

Dharma Teacher Fred Eppsteiner, True Energy, was 52 and his father, Larry Eppsteiner, was 80 when he died. Fred is a psychotherapist in Naples, Florida.

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Letters to the Mindfulness Bell

I received The Mindfulness Bell today and immediately read Leslie Rawls's beautiful tribute to her dad and the 11-year-old girl inside her. Thank you for sharing it. Stories like this help all of us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma. The story was a reminder to me that wisdom is not about escape, but rather about being present to what is —all of it. I found these teachings most helpful when my wife and dad died within a six month period in 1998. I drew strength from the teachings of non-control, nonattachment, impermanence, and awareness of the moment. When my wife was dying of breast cancer, I could be fully present without feeling the need to try to control the outcome. I also was able to look deeply at my feelings in the weeks and months afterward and to accept and embrace all of my feelings, both the negative and positive ones. I could feel loss and sadness, and at the same time feel grateful for the time we had together and the life she lived. As a Catholic, I drew strength from the teachings of both Jesus and the Buddha. That was a blessing for which I am deeply grateful. Bill Williams West Hartford, Connecticut, USA

The Mindfulness Bell has become a nourishing addition to my practice. When I read it, I feel like I am sitting in the presence of the Sangha and feel happy. I am trying to stop my recent practice of reading it while eating, but isn't this a happier practice than reading the newspaper? Lennis Lyon El Cerrito, California, USA

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My heart was so touched by the clarity, depth, openness, and courage of The Mindfulness Bell #26. After reading it, I wanted to renew my subscription, and send a gift subscription to a dear friend. It was a little hard to write on the back cover, but impossible to actually cut the page off to use it as a subscription form. So, I had to put it down, and find another piece of paper to renew my subscription.

I am reminded of Sister Jina's talk about learning to practice meditation so that any arrows coming towards her would be repelled. My feeling is that you have created a Mindfulness Bell that manifests that Buddha shield, that round, strong fullness of quiet energy that will not permit assault. Katharine Cook San Rafael, California, USA

I appreciated the recent Mindfulness Bell articles on healing. ["Fresh Air," Issue #25 and"Surrender and a Lotus," Issue #26.] It is good to share experiences on how to handle chronic disease. Especially with CFIDS, you can get isolated because you don't look sick to others and there is difficulty understanding the illness. It is nice to come back to your breath and be truly in touch with all the wonderful and loving beings around us—families and friends, Sangha, the breeze, the beautiful tree next door, our wonderful animal friends—and to know you aren't isolated at all. Sometimes you can see that you are more than this body, this illness, and you know even in this situation, with true understanding, you can be of benefit and loving to yourself and others. Bronson Rozier Louisville, Kentucky, USA

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Dharma Talk: Knowing We Have Enough

A Dharma Talk by Sister AnnabelAt Maple Forest Monastery, June 25, 2002 Photography by Jan Mieszczanek

This is enough, I know it well. This is enough, I don’t need more. The call of the bird In the bleak gray sky Is the bright pink rose in a sea of green. This is enough. I thought I needed more But now I know I am so rich. My teacher, my Sangha, Are precious jewels. Every moment a gem, alive or dead. Health and sickness are precious gifts, Doors of the practice for all to learn. The great living beings are always there To guard and to guide and bring us home. You are enough, you know it well. No need to do more, just come back home! All that you want is already there, Breathe and take a step to see your home!

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Dear Sangha, today is the 25th of June in the year 2002, and we are in the Buddha Hall of the Maple Forest Monastery.

This morning I tried to find a new way to walk up to the Buddha Hall from where I was sleeping, and I lost myself in the heart of the forest! I was thinking, that I should not arrive in time for the sitting meditation that morning and maybe not even for the Dharma talk! I would go a certain distance and then I would have to turn back because the path was blocked by many wild rasp-berry brambles. Suddenly, my mind became very still. I did not know why, it just happened like that. I looked  up,  and  I  saw  the  Buddha Hall. I was just below it. That experience showed me that I often think that what is going on in my mind is disconnected from what is happening in the world. I perceive something outside of my mind. But now I see that the Buddha Hall is also in my mind, and the Buddha Hall symbolizes quiet and peace. When my mind is quiet and peaceful, then the Buddha Hall manifests itself. The hall was so beautiful with the white roof against the blue sky and the sun shining on it through the trees.

Dear Sangha, the practice of tri tuc in Vietnamese, means knowing we have enough. This has become a Buddhist practice, but in fact it was taught by Confucius. Confucius said that the important thing is to know that we have enough. The expression used by Confucius has the Chinese word tri meaning to know, to have understanding, or wisdom. Knowing when we have enough is wisdom. As long as we think that we do not have enough, we shall not have enough. When we know that we have enough, we have enough.

As a Buddhist practitioner, whether monk, nun, layman, or laywoman, knowing enough is an important part of the practice. In the Christian tradition when people take what is called the vow of poverty, it also means knowing enough. This practice belongs at least to Confucianism and Christianity as well as to Buddhism. It is a practice that our world needs very much at this moment.

Knowing enough is not just knowing enough materially – which is very important – but knowing enough spiritually and emotionally, too. Knowing that we have enough materially is based on knowing that we have enough emotionally and spiritually. Often it is an emotional need which craves more material things. Our craving comes from the feeling of insecurity rather than from a material need. That is why we have to practice mindfulness of our emotions in order to reach the root of our desire for material things. I wrote a very simple song about knowing enough. (see above)

When I feel discontent I need to look deeply at my discontent in my daily life. To do this I practice sitting still. As I sit still I begin to feel satisfied with the richness of my life. It is a very gray day with no sunshine, and I could think that the gray sky is not enough, and I need to have the sunshine. I hear the bird call through the sky, and I see that the gray sky is quite enough. The gray sky holds the call of the bird. And although the sky is so gray, there’s a pink rose, it’s very bright, and the grass is very green. The gray sky shows up the pink rose and the green grass. So I feel grateful for the gray sky. Looking deeply I see that the blue sky is always behind the gray sky. So I say to myself, “Well, this is quite enough.”

My thinking in the past made me say, “I need more.” But now I understand that I’m a very rich person already. I have an enlightened, awakened person to be my teacher, to show me the way. I have the Buddha, and all the ancestral teachers. I have my Sangha. It’s the most precious thing. One reason why my Sangha, my teacher, and my ancestral teachers are so precious is because they have taught me to be able to dwell in the present moment. The present moment becomes a most wonderful gem. Every moment is a gem.

The Treasures of Sickness and Death

I could think that when someone I love dies, I don’t have enough, because I have lost the person I love. But when I live deeply the present moment, I know that without death I cannot possibly be alive. When you walk through the forest, and see the dead leaves making room for the green leaves, it is so clear. In Australia, in forests of a special kind of eucalyptus, the seeds will only open and the new trees will grow when they are subjected to intense heat. So the forest fire makes the new forest possible. Without death there cannot be life, for death is something very precious. Death is a precious gem.

In my Buddhist meditation I have learned to look deeply into my fear of death, sickness, and old age. When I say that health and sickness are precious gifts, it’s because so many people who have come to me and have been sick have told me that it is the most precious thing that has happened to them. When we stand on the outside and we look in, without the experience of the people who tell us that, we say, “How can they say that ill-health is the most precious thing?” But that is what people have said to me. When I have been sick I have always been happy to be well again. Having been sick is an opportunity for me to appreciate good health and a wonderful opportunity to begin anew my life anew.

In the past people said that children have to be sick with measles, mumps, chicken pox, to develop an immunity to these diseases and not contract them when they were older when it would be much more serious. Today scientists have developed vaccines so that it is not necessary to go through the sickness in order to be immunized. Since scientists have seen the suffering they have compassion and do not want it to continue any longer. Without suffering there cannot be compassion and without compassion there cannot be happiness. When we know how to practice when we’re sick, then sickness can become a very precious gift. Although the experience brings us painful feelings we learn so much about ourselves and the great beings are always there to guard and to guide and to bring us home.

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Faith in the Great Beings

I have faith that there are always great beings, the bodhisattvas, and I have that faith partly because I’ve recognized that in myself and all members of my sangha there’s a bodhisattva.  The doctors in Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, are bodhisattvas. They do not confine themselves to helping people in their own country, but go to the countries where there’s the least medical supply, the least favorable circumstances for curing disease. There are also teachers without frontiers. Somewhere in the world there are always great beings who can show me how to love and understand. In myself there is also that great being, although it has not yet flowered fully.

You Are Enough

You are enough, you know it well! We think that we are not enough yet. We have to be something better. We have to go somewhere, do something in order to be enough. We don’t think we are enough just as we are. Not only do we have to know that this is enough, we have to know that I am enough, or you are enough. That is also a kind of wisdom.

In Buddhism one of the doors of liberation is called wishlessness or aimlessness. It means I know that I’m enough. We have the tendency to think, “If I could do more I would be enough, I would be better. I have to be doing more all the time!” But no, we have to say that I am enough already. You don’t need to do in order to be enough. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do, right now. We’ve been taught, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But our teacher in Plum Village says, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Our teacher has also told us how to look deeply into what is called our habit energy. My habit energy wants me to do something, to do more. He asks us to look where that habit comes from. It partly comes from what we have been taught and it is also handed down to us from our ancestors in our consciousness.

Transforming Our Habit Energy

In Buddhism we say we do not only receive our body from our ancestors, we also receive our consciousness, because our body and our consciousness interare. Our consciousness is part of our body and our body is part of our consciousness. We inherit so much more than our bodies from our ancestors. We inherit habit energy and consciousness. Maybe our habit energy to do something comes from a time when our ancestors needed to work very hard. If I imagine that I have come from Europe to New England, and I was one of the first settlers, I would probably have to work very hard in order to be able to have enough to survive. I have to plant this, I have to store this, I have to prepare this, in order to have enough for the winter. So taking care of the future in order to survive would become a very important internal formation with me. In times of suffering and stress, we create internal formations, knots in our consciousness, which we can hand on to future generations if we don’t know how to untie those knots.

Here is an example. Plum Village is our practice center in France. Every year there is a retreat that lasts for a month. Many, many families come and practice together, children and parents. We teach the children, “When you’re angry, don’t say anything, don’t do anything. Just breathe deeply, because if you say or do something you may regret it afterwards.” Some of the children, especially those who have come every year, learn how to do that. When they feel anger come up in them they can close their eyes and breathe deeply. Closing the eyes is an important point, because as long as you look at the person who is making you angry, it waters the seed of your anger. So you close your eyes, close your ears, close everything, close your thinking, just breathe.

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In one family, the young boy had many difficulties with his father. This difficulty probably arose because his father came from a different culture than the culture the boy had been brought up in. His father had the tendency to be angry whenever the boy fell down and hurt himself. The son would say, “ I can understand my father being angry if I do something wrong, but I can’t understand my father being angry when I have done nothing wrong.” He thought that a good father would take pity on him and help him when he fell down. So he had a strong internal formation about his father.

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One day at the retreat the boy was with his younger sister. She was playing in the hammock with another little girl and the hammock tipped and they fell out. When his little sister hit the ground she cut her head and it was bleeding. The brother was standing nearby and he saw all this, and he felt very angry. He wanted to shout at her, “How stupid! Aren’t you big enough to know better?” But fortunately, he had learned to shut his eyes when he was angry. He breathed, and he walked away from the scene. He thought the best thing he could do was move away from the scene while other people took care of his little sister.

He walked into the forest slowly, he looked into his situation to realize the truth of what was happening, and he saw that this anger was his father’s anger. He didn’t want to be angry, but he was angry because he had inherited that habit energy. He then realized that the reason his father was angry with him when he fell down was because his grandmother or grandfather used to be angry with his father when his father fell and hurt himself. No one in the family had yet managed to transform this habit energy. The young boy saw that if he was not careful, when he had his own children, he would be the same, and after him his children would continue to be the same. If he could transform this habit energy in himself he would not have to hand it on to his own children. He also wanted to talk to his father about the understanding he had come to that day. When he was able to talk to his father he was able to become his father’s friend.

With mindfulness practice we can undo the knots we receive from our ancestors.   When we undo those knots we do it not only for our self, but we do it for our ancestors, because our ancestors are still alive in us, and we are their continuation. It is a simple, and essential part of our practice.

There’s no need to do any more in order to be enough. We can undo the knots of always having to be doing something. We practice for our ancestors, but we also do it for our descendants, for our children and our grandchildren. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do.

When we can be with nature, we realize how precious it is, and we automatically take good care of our environment, preserving nature. Every morning before breakfast in the Green Mountain Dharma Center Sister Susan sits outside contemplating the mountainous scenery. It does not matter what the weather is like; rain, snow and wind may come but she is still there. For her that is a time of being. She is there for the mountains and the mountains are there for her. Someone who is as close to nature as that will never take thoughtless measures which will harm the environment. Our ancestors, who had more time to be, did not behave thoughtlessly towards the environment. When we are too busy to be with nature we do not recognize how precious it is, and therefore we are not in a position to preserve the ecology of our planet earth.

Where is My Home?

You don’t need to do any more. Just come back home. A Plum Village motto is, “I have arrived, I am home.” You might like to ask, “Where is my home?”

One time the Brahmins in India came to the Buddha and they said, “In our religion we aspire to live with the Brahma, the creator-god. Can you teach us how to do that?”

So the Buddha asked them a question. He said, “What are the qualities of Brahma?”

They answered, “The qualities of Brahma are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.”

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The Buddha told them, “If Brahma is practicing loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, and you want to live with Brahma, you will have to do the same. When you practice loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity you will already be living with Brahma.” These four qualities are called the Brahmaviharas the abodes of Brahma, and that is the address of Brahma.

The Buddha also has the qualities of compassion, love, joy and equanimity. The address of Brahma is also the address of the Buddha. In a place where these qualities abound we feel completely secure and our true home is where we feel secure. To help us develop love and joy we have to practice mindfulness. To practice mindfulness is to be able to live the present moment with deep awareness.

The Greatest Security

We have a deep insecurity. It makes us feel that we are not at home here and now, that here and now is not safe. We have to invest in the future. We have to safeguard to make sure that the future is okay, and then we’ll be secure. We sacrifice here and now for security in the future. If we look deeply at the world as it is, is there really any security? Can we guarantee our security for the future? Can anyone guarantee that security? If we look deeply we see they can’t. Do you know anybody who doesn’t die? We tell ourselves maybe, “Oh, I won’t ever die!” Do you know anyone who’s never, ever been sick? I think it would be difficult to find that person. Is there anybody who doesn’t day by day get a little bit older? All these things hap-

pen. They are the truth. They are the reality. We have to accept that.

With mindfulness we recognize that, “All that I cherish, everyone I love, is of the nature to change, and we cannot avoid being separated from each other.” That’s true. Nothing is secure. We know we have to be separated from our loved ones, and when we meditate deeply like that, it has a very positive effect. It is not negative at all. The positive effect is that we see that our loved ones will not be always be here, and so we love them even more.  We do our best for them today because we know that tomorrow may be too late.

When we practice the meditation on loving kindness we aspire first of all, “May I be happy, peaceful and light in my body and my spirit. Then we meditate: “May the one I love live in safety and security.” Finally we aspire: “May the one who has made me suffer be happy, peaceful and light in body and in spirit. We wish for all beings that they live in safety and security, because we know that is our deepest desire. We see clearly that if it is my deepest desire to be safe and secure, it must be the desire of other beings. Even of the tiny little ant.

The other day an ant crawled onto my toothbrush. I was not very happy with that ant. I wanted to clean my teeth, but there was an ant caught up in the bristles of my toothbrush! Probably there was something sweet in the toothbrush. So I banged my toothbrush rather hard to knock the ant out, and the ant fell out of the toothbrush and was quite dizzy. The ant went around and around in circles as if it was dizzy. I looked at that ant and I suddenly remembered that that morning when I woke up I had said a little poem to myself, and that poem had gone something like,

Morning, noon, and night, all you little insects, Please look out for yourselves. If by chance I happen to step on you by mistake May you be reborn in a pure land of great happiness.

I suddenly thought, I said that poem this morning and what did I do here? Knocked the ant till it became dizzy! I looked at the ant and I breathed on it, saying the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and the ant said to me, “Did I really deserve to get a knock on the head like that, for crawling onto your toothbrush?” When I heard the ant say that, I had to say, “Of course you didn’t deserve it at all.” It’s very clear that even the little ants want to have safety and security. So I make a deep wish, “May all beings be in safety and security.”

The chant on happiness goes, “Although there is birth, old age and sickness, now that I have a path of practice, I have nothing to be afraid of.” The greatest security is the practice of mindfulness. I am secure because I know what I am doing, so that I’m less likely to have accidents. But accidents can always happen, even if I know what I am doing. That is part of my karma, part of the fruition of my actions, that things will not always go right. But, since I have the practice, even when things go wrong I have a kind of security. That is the security that I wish for all beings to have.

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Enjoying Conscious Breathing

That is my home, the practice of mindfulness, to be in the here and the now. If I can enjoy my breathing, I am in my true home, my Brahmavihara, my Buddhavihara. Why do I practice conscious breathing? Is it because the teacher says I have to? Is it because the Buddha says people have to practice conscious breathing? Is that why I practice it? Or do I practice my conscious breathing because I enjoy it? I feel that conscious breathing is to be enjoyed.

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One time when some of the monks were not practicing correctly, the disciple Ananda said to the Buddha, “They practice the wrong path that has brought them much suffering and brought the Sangha much suffering.” The Buddha said, “Ananda, did no one tell them how to enjoy their breathing?” Because the Buddha had so many disciples, he could not be with them all.  It was up to the eldest students like Ananda to show the younger students how to enjoy their breathing.

When we enjoy our breathing we do not expect a result in the future, because we already have the result right now. It is the same with our mindful steps; stepping into the present moment we have the result right now. We enjoy it right now. All that you want is already there. Breathe, and take a step, to see that you’re home.

This is enough. We see everyone we love, and everything we cherish as very precious, because we know that it will not always be there. As far as relative time and space are concerned they will not always be there. With conscious breathing we look even deeper and we recognize our loved ones in new forms. They just change their appearance, like the water. You may say, “Oh, my dear cloud, you’ve gone,” but in fact the cloud is still there in the rain. You go to the lake in the early morning when the sun begins to rise, you see the mists are evaporating from the surface of the lake, and that is yesterday’s rain going back to be today’s cloud again. No increase and no decrease is the teaching of the Prajnaparamita and that is why what we have is enough.

Sister True Virtue (Sister Annabel) is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Jan Mieszczanek practices photography in her homeland of Poland. She says, “I met Thay one lazy, warm and sunny day. I was sitting in my garden and I was reading Peace is every step. That was a five years ago. Today I take a lot from Buddhism. I try to help the people around me, including myself, my two daughters, and my grandson to find happiness.”

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The Scent of Oranges

By Nancy Hom

Note: this article comes from Spoken Like a True Buddha, a compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

Death, and the notion of aging, has always hung over me like a heavy cloud. I have sought ways of avoiding the topic, such as staying away from hospitals, funeral parlors, and nursing homes. But here I find myself visiting my mother, recently confined to a home. All around me, I hear death hissing through the clang of bedpans and squeals of wheelchairs, through the endless drone of catatonic dining companions. Amid the vacant eyes of childlike faces, the tired bodies draped before the dinner trays, my mother sits facing me. She glances at the gift of oranges I have brought her and nods her approval.

I have come 3,000 miles to be with her, but silence forms a wall between us now. Advanced Parkinson’s has already claimed her voice. Her legs, long withered, dangle uselessly. I wheel her into her small room, still stupefied by the disease that chains us both to these white walls away from life.

My mother’s eyes are luminous, glistened pearls. Once they flashed indignantly at the thought of being in a nursing home, then accusingly, then beseechingly. Now they simply look at me with resignation. Sometimes they stare into a far off place.

I watch her helplessly as the minutes tick by. My mind races to fill the space taken up by silence. I think of meetings missed, the dinner not yet eaten, the bus and train I have to take in the cold windy night. I think, If only she had been diagnosed earlier, if only I didn’t live so far away. Then hope, not guilt, would be a visitor. I remember the warmth of her back when she carried me, my small arms wrapped around her like a shawl. How, when I was red with fever, she rocked my blistered body until I fell asleep. The hot nights on the rooftops of Kowloon eating watermelon seeds and watching the neon lights twinkling in the streets below. The first days in America, when I clung to her like a shadow. The dark times, too, when I cowered in a corner before her wrath. These thoughts I hold onto like photographs in an album, stilled images of the mother I no longer have access to.

She points a gnarled finger at the orange I had left on her table. I peel it carefully, glad to have something to do. A spray of citrus fills the air and her eyes widen like a child anticipating sweets. I hand her a slice, which she grasps unsteadily. She brings it painstakingly to her mouth and sucks with soft smacks. I eat my slice too, squeezing the little beads of juice with my teeth until the flavor bursts over my tongue like a rainshower.

Oranges were always around in our house when I grew up. They cleansed the palate after every dinner; topped pomelos on New Year’s altars, were the calling cards of visitors who always brought the fruit as a gift to the host. To me they were heavy sacks of obligation during holidays and weekends, when my mother and I wended our way through tenement buildings to visit fellow immigrants from China. The tables were littered with melon seeds and orange peels as I waited impatiently while my mother and her friends chatted; conversations I found hard to relate to, preferring instead to bury my head in a Nancy Drew book while they reminisced about the old village.

Now this bright leather-skinned fruit is the only bridge between us. We eagerly suck the memories the piquant flavor evokes. The tart vapors tickle our nostrils. I can see from my mother’s twitch of a smile that she remembers, too. She chews slowly, savoring each bite, as if the thoughts will fade away as soon as the orange is eaten and more slices of her life will peel away.

We finish the whole orange. She belches in satisfaction. I wipe her chin; then we sit and gaze at each other. There are so many words that will never get spoken; dreams that will stay unfulfilled; regrets that are etched in our skins like birthmarks. But in this moment it does not matter what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. There is only the room, the faint scent of oranges, and us, breathing in unison.

If I cease my mind’s constant chatter and look deeply, I see that she is still here, still my mother. She is different and she is the same. She will be here after her body has deteriorated. She will be in the air I breathe and in the earth I touch. Her brightness will shine through her children’s eyes, and those of their children. Although I have a long way to go with my practice, this fleeting insight becomes stronger whenever I stop my thoughts long enough to see my mother as she truly is instead of what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. We sit and breathe together. In this moment is the whole of our lives.

Nancy Hom lives in San Francisco. Her experiences as an immigrant, a mother, a community leader, and spiritual seeker provide the framework for her visual and literary pursuits.

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Book Reviews

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Journeying East: Conversations on Aging and Dying

By Victoria Jean Dimidjian

Parallax Press, 2004

Reviewed by Lois Schlegel

For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of death. Even as a child I wrestled with this unknown. At night, when the house was quiet I lay awake trying to figure it out, trying to touch the mystery of it somehow, trying to understand.

None of the conventional answers satisfied me. I searched and questioned and suffered for years, as both my parents died before I was twenty-five and I witnessed the fragility of life from a mother’s perspective when my own children were born.

So, it was with a sense of kinship I read Victoria Jean Dimidjian’s outstanding collection of interviews on this subject. She too was touched by death as a child and her experience seems to shape this far-reaching book. Devoting her entire sabbatical from teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University to this project, Ms. Dimidjian traveled the globe to bring us insight from many of today’s prominent philosophers and death and dying practitioners.

Journeying East includes conversations with Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Eigen, Norman Fisher, Joan Halifax, Sister Chan Khong, Frank Osataseski, Rodney Smith, and John Wellwood. Each interview is at once intimate and transcendent, as if we too have been sipping tea with these masters and come away not with answers, but insight; not knowledge, but peace. As Rodney Smith so aptly tells the author when she asks him about his own fear of death, “You live it consciously; you live it actively; you live the open question of death. We access the true spirit of Buddhism by living the question of life.” This book is an invitation to that awareness and practice. It offers ways to tolerate and even find joy in the mystery of death.

Fill your life with music! Sing your blues away! 2
new COMPACT DISKS

Rivers & Oasis
Available through the Deer Park Monastery Audio Visual Department

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

www.deerparkmonastery.org/

Wonderful new songs and chants are available as a gift from the fourfold Sangha. Through the direction of Sr. The Nghiem, monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen have come together to produce a CD of twenty-seven practice songs called Rivers. These songs clearly reflect the personal practice of the participants, watering seeds of peace, freedom, lightness, and joy in the listener.

For those who love singing and are looking for fresh songs to enjoy and to share with your Sangha, Rivers is the CD for you! There are fourteen songs in English, nine in Vietnamese, and four in French. Included in the English songs is the popular, In Gratitude, which many of us have learned. Most of the others were new to me, and a complete delight. My personal favorites include Alone Again, adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, Recommendation, and put to music by Christian monks; and No Wait, an acapella, two-voiced song encouraging self-reliance, which makes me cry with happiness every time I hear it. There is also a wonderful talk-story song by Sr. Chau Nghiem, called Peace is the Way. The CD’s name comes from a lovely song featured first, and also reflects the many sources that came together to form the beautiful music which now flows out to all of us.

Oasis is a compilation of some of the chants we already know in fresh arrangements, plus some new ones. By far the most notable is the Discourse on Love, which I am now listening to as part of my daily practice. I have always wanted to memorize this wonderful sutra, and by putting it to music, I am learning it without effort. I find that listening to and singing this beautiful chant is watering seeds of deep love and happiness in me. I look forward to experiencing this chant with the worldwide Sangha. I hope we will all learn and enjoy it.

Best of all, you can sample these musical offerings online, at: www.deerparkmonastery.org

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Zen Noir: Mindfulness in Moviemaking

By Marc Rosenbush

Zen Noir began about thirteen years ago, when I was sitting in a Japanese Zen temple in Chicago. It was about 4:30 in the morning, and I was facing a row of fellow meditators and watching their heads bob up and down as they tried not to fall asleep and slide off their cushions onto the floor. Just then, a strange thought suddenly occurred to me. “What would happen if one of them just keeled over, dead?”

Of course the literal answer to this was that we’d all rush over to see what happened and then call an ambulance. But at that moment, for whatever reason, I found myself thinking in non-literal terms, thinking about the Buddhist view of death and how it differs from the way we usually think about death in the West. Here we’re taught that death is fundamentally unnatural, something that may happen to other people but is certainly not supposed to happen to us. So we obsess about youth and undergo painful plastic surgery and hide our old people away, all to avoid having to face our own mortality.

There it was, the germ of an idea. I’d write a movie about a Westerner who has to confront the reality of death. And that was when the second idea suddenly popped into my head: why not make him a detective?

At last it all clicked: I’d write a mystery that takes place in a Zen temple, in which the detective must solve a koan that can’t be solved with logic or reason or any of the detective’s traditional Western tools. Instead of a murder, he’d have to solve the mystery of death itself.

Deep stuff. But it would also be funny. I’d adapt some traditional Chinese dialogs between Master and Student, which always felt like comedy routines to me anyway…

Student: Help me. Do something. Help me still my mind.

Master: Okay. Give me your mind.

So I started writing, and at first it went well. The characters were interesting, the jokes were working, and the message was…

Hmm. I stopped writing. For nearly four years. Something was missing. I knew I had a great, funny, intellectual idea for a film, but I kept feeling there was something more I could bring to it.

And that was when three things happened that changed my life forever:

  1. I got divorced.

  2. I lost a lot of money on a large project.

  3. I discovered the books of Thich Nhat Hanh and came to Plum Village for the first time.

The divorce and the financial loss had left me in a deep depression, but Thây’s teachings and the simple but powerful practices I learned in Plum Village changed me in some very profound ways:

  • A conversation with Sister Annabel helped me understand how to fully engage with my own suffering and see that it was something I felt, but that I was not that feeling.

  • Thây’s dharma talk about flowers and garbage helped me to better understand that the cycle of birth and death and transformation are all part of a single endless process that’s to be celebrated, not feared.

  • A story in Sister Chân Không’s book Learning True Love helped show me what living in the present moment is truly all about (this story even ended up in Zen Noir in a modified form, but you’ll have to see the movie to find out which story I’m talking about).

  • An older monk whose name I never learned helped me put my own suffering in perspective and become more aware of suffering in the world.

Back home, as I began to incorporate the practice more deeply in my daily life, I found myself happier, more grounded, easier to be around, and less likely to get upset about the challenges I encountered.

And I began to write Zen Noir again.

The suffering I’d experienced and the transformation I’d undergone brought a much more personal, emotional flavor into the writing, and helped me discover what the film would really be about: impermanence and how Buddhism helps us understand and deal with it.

I won’t bore you with the long, slow process of getting the film made and distributed (independent filmmaking is a koan in and of itself), but suffice it to say the process was a constant test of my own mindfulness practice and required a lot of stopping and breathing as chaos swirled around me. In any case, many years and film festivals and awards later, Zen Noir is finally out in the world, doing what a movie is supposed to do, making people laugh and cry and learn and grow.

I’d like to share one last story to give you an idea of how Thây’s teachings and the lessons I learned at Plum Village are affecting people through the film.

At the Rhode Island International Film Festival, a woman in her seventies came up to me after the screening. She touched my arm and told me that she knew nothing about Buddhism, but that her husband had died just a few months earlier, and somehow watching Zen Noir helped her feel better about it. She then hugged me and thanked me and went on her way.

I’d like to pass that hug and that thanks on to Thây, Sister Chân Không, Sister Annabel, the monk whose name I never learned, and to all my friends and teachers at Plum Village, Maple Forest, Deer Park, and elsewhere. You are as much the authors of Zen Noir as I am and I bow humbly in appreciation.

Zen Noir opened in select U.S. cities in September 2006, and the DVD will be available in early 2007.

Marc Rosenbush, Elucidation of the Source, is an independent filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

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Book Reviews

The Garden at Night Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life

By Mary Rose O’Reilley Heinemann

2005 Softcover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Richard Brady

In case she’s not already known to you, it’s my happy task to shine the light on one of Buddhism’s hidden Dharma teachers, Mary Rose O’Reilley. O’Reilley is a poet, a teacher of English and rhetoric, and the author of books that include The Peaceable Classroom, Radical Presence, and the autobiographical The Barn at the End of the World. Her new book, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life, is in reality a series of four very personal Dharma talks on engaged practice. In this short gem of a book O’Reilley calls on the wisdom of teaching from Thây, the Bible, and a panoply of writers and friends to inform her practice as an English department member in a Midwestern America parochial college. As the title suggests, Garden is a book written in response to suffering, suffering brought on by departmental meltdown, deaths of students, and inhospitable working conditions.

The lessons O’Reilley works with are ones that will be familiar to mindfulness practitioners. Each person constructs his or her reality. Your awareness of your authentic self is easily lost in busyness and your struggle to do it right in the workplace, even just to survive. Receive whatever comes your way as an opportunity for practice. Don’t get caught in characterizing your experiences as “good” or “bad”; they’re just your experiences. Change your relationship to time: live slowly enough to encounter life with mindfulness. This makes freedom possible, your one true freedom, which is to be authentic.

In my experience, these changes are easy to articulate and challenging to accomplish. O’Reilley agrees. She receives a great deal of support from regular times of retreat and from spiritual friends. When the next suffering comes along, hers or that of someone close, to test these lessons, her supports make it possible for her to remain present to the suffering. And it is particularly in the contemplation of suffering that O’Reilley finds the impetus for personal transformation and prophetic witness.

For readers who wonder how to grow in the absence of major suffering, O’Reilley describes practice with some of her personal koans and questions. Searching for guidance on how to carry on in her profession, she ponders the tension between Jesus’ advice to “Be therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) and the imperative to be herself. Recognizing her inability to control or even truly understand what her students are learning, O’Reilley asks herself the “painful” question, “What did I just learn?”

Suffering is suffering. So whether or not you’re an educator, you’ll likely resonate with the reality O’Reilley describes. This is the book to share with friends who wonder what mindfulness practice has to do with life. More than that, it’s a wonderful reminder and teacher for us all. Approach this book with an open heart. Its humor, its humility, its poetic truths will water your seeds of compassion and hope.

Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life Collected Talks 1960-1969

By Alan Watts

New World Library, 2006 245 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Our beloved hippie icon, the late Alan Watts, is back. Thanks to his son, Mark Watts, keeper of the family archives (see www.alanwatts.com), a new compilation of his radio and TV broadcasts and recorded public lectures is out in book form: Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life, Collected Talks 1960-1969. With its vintage excess of language and Wattsian wit, this is another exciting collection from the British-American philosopher and theologian who beguiled multitudes of flower children, setting many of us on the Buddhist path with manuals such as The Spirit of Zen, Square Zen Beat Zen, and The Way of Zen.

As a small child, I remember losing sleep one night because I was imagining the “forever-ness” of death. I envisioned eternity as a scary, endless corridor of doors where one door always led to another. One of the great things for me about reading Alan Watts as a young adult was that he knew his young readers still harbored such fears. From the new collection:

The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nihil fit, which means “out of nothing comes nothing.” It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions.... It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down of nothing ... such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles.

And from another essay, “Our fascination with doom might be neutralized if we would realize that every new doom is just another fluctuation in the huge, marvelous, endless chain of our own selves and our own energy.”

He persistently sees the universe as a deep and harmonious whole. Calling on his complex knowledge of history and quick deductive reasoning, Watts reassures:

But to me nothing—the negative, the empty—is exceedingly powerful... [Y]ou can’t have something without nothing. Imagine nothing but space, going on and on, with nothing in it forever. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.

Where to begin?! I was like a kid in the candy store with his new book. His subject matter covers the gamut from “Divine Alchemy” to “Religion and Sexuality,” frolicking through “Philosophy of Nature,” “Swimming Headless,” and “Zen Bones.” Although these essays show only a handful of the talks Alan Watts gave in the sixties, they embody the whole, highlighting a distinguished career that reflected the counterculture of the sixties and paved the way for the Western flood of interest in Far Eastern traditions that has not abated since.

Buddha or Bust In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All

By Perry Garfinkel

Harmony Books, 2006 Hardcover, 320 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

In an inquiring-mind style that Perry Garfinkel calls Zen journalism — “a kind of karmic random access, driven by Google...ramped up by coincidence and luck, inspired by jazz improvisation, necessitated by an incurable case of procrastination” — he circles the globe looking for manifestations of engaged Buddhism. Expanded from a piece for National Geographic, this book describes the author’s nine-nation pilgrimage with visits to major Buddhist shrines and dharma teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh.

Through the internet, Garfinkel locates Order of Interbeing’s Shantum Seth, who becomes his tour guide in Bodh Gaya, India, where Shakyamuni Buddha found enlightenment. At Bodh Gaya, the sensory bombardment he describes is like a synthesis of Garfinkel’s whole trip: “The deep voices of a hundred Tibetan monks, their chanting amplified by tinny speakers, ...wide-eyed American neophytes, ...stern Japanese Zen priests, ...curious Indian Hindus, ...ebullient Sri Lankans.” Surrendering to his senses, Garfinkel does find peace in Bodh Gaya.

Some of the koans he carries with him around the world are: Why the meteoric rise of Buddhism in the west? Why now? How is it that monks can enter politics and Buddhists be at war in Sri Lanka, “a country hemmorrhaging from within.”? What would the Buddha think of the Taco Bell TV ad touting “enchilada nirvana,” the Madison Avenue-ization of the dharma? As compelling as these questions are, the author’s honesty is equally so. He tells of the headiness of being granted a one-on-one interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He compares the austerities of Japanese “marathon monks” to the asceticism rejected by Buddha. He wonders if ritual as practiced in some Buddhist cultures may cancel out its original meaning.

At a Vietnamese-speaking retreat at Plum Village, where he felt “like a fish out of water,” Garfinkel managed to sit with his “mishigas,” fall in love, and have a sudden gestalt of compassion through listening to a Vietnamese victim of war torture. Finally at Plum Village, the author has a revelation when he asks Thây, after a dharma talk on relationships, “Aren’t there more important issues to discuss than relationships?” Thay answers rhetorically, “Such as war, violence, death, economic problems, terrorism?” Misunderstanding, explains Thây, begins in the microcosm, between two people. It creates fear, and fear creates violence in the world at large. “Peace in myself, peace in the world,” is indeed a Plum Village mantra.

Does the author find truth, meaning, happiness? Yes and no. Summing up his fantastic voyage, Garfinkel ironically quotes eighteenth-century Japanese poet Ryokan: “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.”

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Letter from the Editor

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

It is impossible for me to read this issue without thinking of our recently deceased son, Jesse Toy. Everything I see and do is through the lens of his sudden passing on February 4. We are thankful for the hundreds of cards and letters from you, our Sangha — from Germany, Norway, the U.K., and across the U.S. As Jesse’s father Philip and I walk the changing landscape of our grief and joy, there is one image we will not soon forget: Jesse’s pink baby blanket spread on the floor in the meditation hall, covered with colorful origami paper cranes, bright flowers of peace and hope.

This is the cream of our practice: the blanket — a symbol of birth and the ground of mindfulness; the color — pink for the new life of Jesse’s continuation; and the joyful cranes — emblems of our transformation body. The origami peace crane project was launched by our friend Teijo Munnich, a Soto Zen Dharma teacher. In the two months since Jesse left his physical body, we have fully celebrated his life. We were joined by former Sangha from Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania at our Quaker service. We hosted an elegant Ceremony for the Deceased in Thay’s tradition at Cloud Cottage in North Carolina. Next week our Sangha will plant a weeping willow in honor of Jesse. Yet the cranes have touched us most. The care and cherishing in every fold of each colorful bird speak of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The birds on the blanket look like they’re having a party!

This issue of the Mindfulness Bell is like that blanket — a Dharma party. These pages are the blanket: the expression of the practice of our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, of our blood and spiritual ancestors, and the skill and love of our editor, Janelle Combelic. Each story, poem, letter, and prayer is like one hopeful paper crane. Each crane is distinct, yet each is the same as the others. Tears fell on the origami paper as we folded together. And from our suffering fly the wings of peace.

Paper crane-making for those who are sick, dying, or have died springs directly from the suffering of World War II after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, and the little girl Sadako who touched hearts around the world with her suffering. So, too, in the stories of this issue the wars and tribulations of life are present. Every story, poem, and image tells us transformation is possible — that through our precepts, concentration, and insight, we can gently invite ourselves back to the present moment, this wonderful moment. In February, our son passed away. This spring the forsythia shines brighter than any spring before.

Sister Annabel Laity wrote us a letter to help prevent us from drowning in our grief after Jesse’s passing. She invited us to touch and learn to liberate the anguish of our ancestors who lost their sons in wars and other sudden, tragic ways. She wrote, “I have confidence you can transform this grief into a beautiful flower, and that your son lives on in the fruits of transformation that you realize.”

From out of our season of sorrow and wonder, Philip and I offer you crocus buds of gratitude, dear Thay, dear Sister, dear Sangha.

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace Associate Editor

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Letter from the Editor

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Today is Martin Luther King Day here in the United States. Tomorrow we inaugurate a new president, the first black man to serve in that post. Along with what seems to be the whole world, I rejoice in the dawning of a new era.

Perhaps we are truly approaching what Thay mentions in his New Year’s letter (see the Mindfulness Bell website), what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” At least I dare to hope so, though I know that much will be required of each one of us for it to become a reality.

In my own life the political excitement of the last few months has been overshadowed by the illness of my sister-in-law, dying of ovarian cancer. For much of that time she lived in our home and we were blessed with the presence of many

angels, including hospice staff and volunteers and friends. Now she has moved to a nursing home where she receives better care. By the time you read this, I suppose, her body will be ashes.

How can it be that the person I know and love will no longer be here? Of course, in the ultimate dimension, she’s not going anywhere. As Thay says in this issue’s Dharma talk, “We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean the end — we always continue!” I have been with other loved ones as they died, and a palpable energy is released that fills the room with love and enters the heart like grace. Still, the wrenching away, the physical loss of a loved one is ever so painful and the grief is as sharp as a sword.

In this issue Lauren Thompson shares her transformation as she journeyed with a Sangha sister during a terminal illness. She writes that “through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing.”

Glimpses of interbeing can not only guide us through personal loss but may be critical in solving global issues. “Unless we are aware,” said Angela Tam in a powerful talk at the Vesak Conference, “of the connection between our habits and the planetary problems we have, nothing will change.” Her solution: interbeing, mindfulness, Sangha. Brother Phap Lai similarly points to a spiritual solution for the complex problem of overpopulation: “We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community.”

As Martin Luther King wrote fifty years ago, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

May the vision that Martin Luther King lived and died for become reality here on earth. May the Buddha-to-be that Thay has foreseen be born in each of our hearts. May we practice with diligence, wisdom, and compassion so as to bring about the beloved community of all living beings.

Blessings to you all,

Letters

Dear Ones,

I was very inspired by the letters from people who are incarcerated that were in the Autumn 2008 issue of the Mindfulness Bell. Those letters jogged my memory of visiting the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, NY, as a law student over twenty years ago. It is a maximum security prison for women. I vividly remember how sad the inmates seemed to me. The crimes committed by the women were very serious. But such crimes were often provoked by the need to defend themselves in a life-or-death situation. I also learned that many of the women had young children who were now being raised by others. I remember feeling heartbroken by the circumstances of these women.

My dear teacher, Lyn Fine, was having a birthday in November. I decided to send a subscription of the Mindfulness Bell to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Lyn’s honor. I feel so grateful to be able to share the Dharma through the joy of the Mindfulness Bell with the women at the prison in Bedford Hills.

There are many opportunities for us readers of the Mindfulness Bell to share the precious gift of the practice with others. I wanted to share my experience of the ripple effect of reading the Mindfulness Bell, to wanting to celebrate the birthday of a very special person, manifesting in a subscription of the Mindfulness Bell going to the shelf of the library of a prison that I visited for a day many years ago.

Kathleen Cahill
New York NY U.S.A.

Dear Janelle,

My mother passed peacefully on October 19th. We were joined in complete oneness in a tunnel of gold, with eyes locked. I was smiling hugely and nodding at her, with my head on her chest, and my hand on her heart as it beat for the final time. I want to express to you how amazing it was to get the Mindfulness Bell a few days later with your article and the one on the still Christian mind. I was able to use the bell meditation for Molly’s witnessed cremation, as she was an engaged Christian. Many members of Plum Blossom Sangha were there, and we sent Molly’s body into the flames with New Baby and Sandy, the stuffed dog in her arms. Thank you Thay, Thank you Janelle.

Carlene South
Austin, Texas U.S.A.

Dear Mindfulness Bell,

I really enjoy reading the Mindfulness Bell. I only recently became a subscriber, but since then have also collected all the back issues I could find. And have read them cover to cover. I have especially enjoyed features on Thay’s trips to Vietnam. Something I missed, however, was a general overview or summary of these trips. A letter like the one attached [about the India trip] might offer this kind of information to readers. Claire Venghiattis Mannheim Germany

Editor’s reply: Thank you for the suggestion. Your letter is printed in the Sangha News section, and we’ve also included an overview of Thay’s retreats in Vietnam last year, in an essay by Loan To Phan on page 11.

In this issue we feature photos of the newly finished Togetherness Meditation Hall at Blue Cliff Monastery by Tasha Chuang, Peaceful Calling of the Heart, who practices with the Morning Star Sangha in Queens, NY. She writes about one day being “completely astonished with the beautiful reflections of the sunlight diffused through the meditation hall, which morphed into interesting layering images with colors, shapes, and texture, from the forest and the architecture interweaving. They captured the essence of how I feel sometimes when I meditate in that spacious meditation hall surrounded by nature.”

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Sangha as Refuge

The Dharma of Caring for Alison K.

By Lauren Thompson

I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the Sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in Sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by her family situation. She was living alone; her parents had both died years earlier; she had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in Sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the Sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of Sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during Dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a Sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for Dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, and we spent hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition worsened, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger.

What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

Blessed... Blessed... Blessed

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the Sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the Sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

Living in the Moment

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the Sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with Sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

The Most Beautiful Gift

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”

As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.” “I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

To the Other Shore

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the Sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how Sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore — it carried Alison, and it carries me still.

Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir of her experiences with Alison K.

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Book Reviews

mb51-BookReviews1Peaceful Action, Open HeartLessons from the Lotus Sutra

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

Reviewed by Judith Toy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Judith Toy

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, this book offers medicine for a wounded world.

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

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

Reviewed by Judith Toy

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

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

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

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

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

mb51-BookReviews4The Best Buddhist Writing 2007

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

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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