decision making

Letters to the Mindfulness Bell

On my drive home from the Open Way Sangha retreat at Loon Lake, Montana, I stopped in Deer Lodge to stretch and rest from the no-speed-limit limit in Montana. I pulled up nearby the prison and found myself thinking about the people inside, what sort of misdirection, difficult childhood, etc. brought them to such a place, what their lives must be like inside, perhaps their only freedom being the freedom that mindfulness can bring. I thought of Thay's poem, "Call Me By My True Names." It was lovely to return home and find the Spring issue of The Mindfulness Bell. I was especially touched by Mark French's essay written from inside that very place, Deer Lodge Correctional Facility. (Ed. note: see p. 14, issue number 16; p. 10 this issue.) I also loved reading Lee Swenson's and Richard Gilman's essays about the Vietnam War Veterans Writing Group. Every time I read these kind of stories I am brought to tears. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend the last two veterans retreats at Omega with the help of scholarships. These men and women and their stories helped me rediscover my own. I know those moments Lee Swenson speaks of, when it seems impossible to breathe. I smiled then when I read Thay's Dharma discussion and thought how I have looked longingly at the top of another mountain, this three-year community of writers on war. Thay helps me to sit still and happy right where I am. Thank you for this issue of The Mindfulness Bell. Susan Austin Tetonia, Idaho

The new Mindfulness Bell arrived today. It is beautiful! This issue seems different in ways I can't quite pinpoint. It feels like a fragrant, ripe tangerine, each section promising a sweet taste of the universe. Many thanks for all you do to make it available to us. Leslie Rawls Charlotte, North Carolina

I was given the book Peace Is Every Step by a guest speaker who attended the Ashram class that is taught here in the facility where I am presently incarcerated. It is the first book I have read by Thich Nhat Hanh and I was deeply moved by the step-by-step teachings in this wonderful book. Over the last six months I have become aware of the need to obtain inner peace. I have read many books by many authors, but none of them has moved me as much as Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace Is Every Step has given me a much clearer view of what life really is and what true peace is all about. Mark Rice #95A4228 Elmira, New York

In response to a recent request for feedback about The Mindfulness Bell, I offer these thoughts. As an inspirational journal focusing on the positive aspects of practice in various settings and situations, the Bell serves the Sangha well. As a journal that takes a hard look at important issues, I would say the Bell leans towards the benign, and often sugarcoats the reality of practitioners' lives and their daily struggles with Buddhist practices and their applications.

I would love to see the Bell document how Buddhist practice has the power to transform lives and awaken people to new realities and not simply make their lives better in a psychological sense. I must admit, I sometimes wonder if anybody in the Sangha is having traditional spiritual experiences in meditation, "awakenings," experiences of emptiness (sunyata), which have been the experience and hard-won fruits of Buddhists for thousands of years, especially in the Zen lineages. Not to negate the importance of daily life experiences, but also to give weight to the truly transformative experience of waking up! As a practicing psychotherapist, I note that many of the benefits that members glean from mindfulness practice seem to fall within the same realm as the benefits of good psychotherapy. This is not to fault either system, but to yearn that Buddhist practice can take one "beyond" the personal and interpersonal, and yet be able to enrich both.

I would also appreciate longer and more in-depth articles, as opposed to the short and often "lite" articles that fill up much of the Bell. I can't imagine that in a young and growing community there aren't issues that need to be fully examined in the light of awareness and compassion, matters that plague all communities and organizations: money, power relationships, special interest groups, hierarchy, and decision making. How are things decided, who makes decisions, and under what authority? In the vacuum of openness and clarity, other less noble motivations can dominate. Those of us involved in Buddhist communities over the past 30 years can attest to this unfortunate reality.

When I was a young Zen student and met Thay over 20 years ago, he emphatically emphasized that for Buddhism to become truly American, it must be nourished by new energies, new models of practice, and not simply replicate foreign models (which are often in disrepute in their own cultures). Thay's message was a powerful fresh wind that blew away the restrictive concepts dominating my Buddhist practice. His message is as relevant today with a community numbering in the thousands as it was when he was living almost as a layman in a small apartment outside of Paris.

I am using this letter to formulate the unformulated within me, and in no manner intend any negativism towards the wonderful manifestation of Dharma that The Mindfulness Bell represents. For me, to live the Fourteen Precepts means to be able to speak and listen honestly and constructively, in a spirit of compassion and love, so that we can all benefit from the warmth and wisdom of the Sangha. Fred Eppsteiner Naples, Florida

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Fierce-Faced Bodhisattva: A Policewoman's Story

Interview with Cheri Maples by Barbara Casey during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat, June 2002 Cheri, how did you decide to be a peace officer?

Cheri: There were three things I wanted to be as a little girl: a lawyer, a police officer and a professional baseball player. I really wanted to be a professional baseball player, but when I was growing up girls were certainly not cops or lawyers, and even less professional baseball players. However, in addition to being a police officer, I am also a licensed attorney so two out of three is not bad.

I went to high school and college during the Vietnam War and like many other people in this country born in the 1950s, by my teenage years I had become somewhat of a "question authority" rebel. In my early twenties, I had my first exposure to the reality of community organizing work and working to get institutions to be more responsive to the people they served. I had two different jobs. In one, I was doing community organizing in the largest federal housing project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I was often the only white person in the building. The second was as an advocate for a first-offender's program for women convicted of prostitution. I was the only white woman on the staff. Through these two experiences, I learned how limited and "white" my view of the world was, including my thinking, seeing, and hearing. Both these experiences had a big impact on me.

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I was working with people who didn't have any resources, which also had an impact on me. All of this work led me to think more about violence against women. Almost every single woman who had been referred to the prostitution program bad been a victim of a sexual assault at some time in her life. This motivated me to get more active in various efforts to end violence in the lives of women and children. I realized that though there were so many peace activists with good hearts, most people were not capable of making peace in their own homes.

I started volunteering with the Women's Coalition, an umbrella organization in Milwaukee that housed several different groups working on various women's issues. They sent me to training put on by community organizers from the Alinsky Institute in Chicago which was a tremendous training in grassroots organizing. I was also working on a master's degree in social work part time and commuted to Madison from Milwaukee once a week to attend classes. By 1979, I moved to Madison for a semester to finish my degree, but once I got there, I never left because the community was so much more progressive and so much more of a supportive atmosphere to live in as a lesbian.

I did my field placement for an organization called Dane County Advocates for Battered Women. It was a grassroots organization with a wonderful young and dedicated group of women working to provide some safe alternatives for women in abusive relationships. At the time, it was a huge job because there was so little consciousness about the issue. I worked there for a couple of years and became the Community Education Coordinator. In addition to doing training for police officers, hospitals, churches, and anybody else that would invite me, I started organizing groups of formerly battered women to help get legislation passed to provide state funding for shelters for battered women and their children.

I left that job to become the first director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Woman Abuse. Wisconsin was trying to form a coalition of all the various service providers in the state and there were tremendous conflicts between service providers in different parts of the state. They received a grant that funded a paid staff position and I was hired. The organization grew and eventually became the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. I had the privilege of working with people from both urban and rural organizations who were very different from each other and were from every place on the political continuum from feminists on the left to very conservative people on the right.

I enjoyed that job very much and had the opportunity to put my community organizing skills to work building a coalition.

After two years of working there, my partner and I decided we wanted to have children. We each had one biological child and I am the proud parent of two sons, Jamie who is now nine­ teen, and Micah who is fourteen. It got very hard to support a family on a community organizer 's salary so I decided to return to school to get a Ph.D. in social work. I did the course work while working as a teaching assistant. In my last semester of course work, I realized I was not very comfortable being in academia fulltime. I grew up in a very poor, working-class family and I just was not very comfortable or happy in academia on a fulltime basis.

One of the field students that I had supervised when I worked at Dane County Advocates for Battered Women had become a police officer. She talked to me about becoming a police officer. She pointed out that although policing was really a type of social work that it was a male dominated profession and hence paid a lot better than any of the work I had been doing. The police chief at the time, David Couper, was very progressive and an anomaly as a police chief. Some referred to him as the socialist police chief of the Midwest. He was very progressive and interested in diversifying the police force. He had brought people of color on to the force and was very committed to bringing women into policing at a time when there were not any women working as police officers on the street.

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I had a difficult time imagining myself in a paramilitary organization. I had worked mainly in grassroots organizations small enough to make decisions by consensus, so the contrast just seemed too great to me. I eventually decided to just go through the application process, which was very long. The interviews intrigued me because the questions they were asking me were about who I was as a person and how I communicated with people, not about my ability to use force. It was quite a decision to follow this career path because I had always worked outside the institutional system, trying to make it more responsive to people and had not been part of the system before.

A lot of people I had worked with were very angry with me. They thought I was making a wrong choice and that I was selling out. I was pretty divided about it myself. I almost quit while I was going through the police training academy. I was in very good shape physically I have always been very athletic but some of the attitudes of people whom I was going through the academy with really bothered me. However, my class was very diverse. There were two other lesbians in my class, about one­third of my class was women, and about one-fourth of the class shared values similar to mine. This was in 1984.

How were you women treated?

Cheri: There had been two or three classes of women before us, but many men did not accept women yet, and there were still lots of questions about whether women belonged in policing. With time, men started to see that women brought some positive things to policing, for instance that you could talk a person into handcuffs instead of using force to get people to comply with your requests. I believe they were just starting to see the value of interpersonal and communication skills in being an effective police officer and that women brought this style into policing much more often than men did. I don't think it was just a coincidence that women started coming into policing about the time that "community-oriented" policing began.

However, even once women started being accepted, the attitude toward lesbians was very hostile. When I went on my first field training experience, other officers (both men and women) were wearing "happily hetero" buttons and "straight as an arrow" buttons, and there was a big hubbub because the police chief ordered them to take them off.

When women first came on the force they had received pornography in the mail. It was very hard to get uniforms and equipment made for women; we were often walking around in men 's pants and shirts and bulletproof vests. All of that has changed. Sometimes a woman would respond to a call and if there were male officers with a hostile attitude who had arrived before her, they didn't want anything to do with her. Other times they would just sit in their car to see if she could handle a situation herself. People of color experienced the same thing as they were coming on to the police force. People were not very accepting in the beginning. There was a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, a lot of homophobia.

However, there was something refreshing about being with the other police officers. Unlike academia, where some people used politically correct language to hide their real biases and feelings, people in the police department were very honest about their attitudes, even in the early days. I appreciated that and it made it possible to communicate honestly.

When I began training it was hard because I was learning a job where my own safety, as well as the safety of others, was dependent on my ability to handle myself in volatile situations. When my life is on the line and my safety is an issue, I need to have the trust and support of people around me.

I went through what I'm sure people in the military go through. For example, for the first three months that I was working on the street, I had combat dreams just about every night. This really surprised me because I never felt consciously afraid. I don't know why, but even when I was in dangerous situations involving weapons or gunshots being fired, I never felt afraid at the time. I think we just learn to do our job and think about it afterward. However, I believe there is a type of a cumulative posttraumatic stress. For me, although fear was not a conscious issue, whether or not I was doing the right thing and whether or not being a police officer was right livelihood for me was always an issue. It was strange because even though I struggled with this, the job felt like a really good fit for me.

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The first time I came to a retreat of Thay's, by the end of the retreat I really felt like I had come home. Becoming a police officer felt similar. Even with the challenging atmosphere, I felt like I had come home to something that was important and that I had never experienced anywhere else that I worked. And I had done some very challenging and very satisfying things. With time, I also began to enjoy the close relationships I formed with many of the men I worked with. As a lesbian there aren't all these romantic possibilities and sexual tensions getting in the way of real intimacy so my relationships with my male coworkers were often very, very close. Although it wasn't comfortable when a man didn't know that T was a lesbian and would ask me on a date, that did not happen too often. The intense homophobia, sexism, and racism that existed in the early '80s has definitely been transformed in my department. It has not disappeared but life is so different here now than when I first joined. What made this transformation possible was simply people really getting to know each other, working side by side, and piercing the stereotypes. There were all different levels of relationship issues that were going on that were hard and challenging to deal with. I'm really glad that I was thirty-one years old at the time and not trying to deal with these things at age twenty-two because it was hard enough at thirty-one.

How many years did you do police work before you came across Thay's teaching?

Cheri: l was a police officer for seven years before I went to my first retreat in 1991. By that time I was starting to understand that being a police officer was probably going to be a career for me rather than a transition to something else. T was working nights, on the "power" shift, 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., the overlapping shift with afternoons and evenings.

I had read a couple of Thay's books, which sparked my curiosity. In the spring of '91, l had a work injury and I sought treatment from a local chiropractor. I saw a registration form on the bulletin board in the waiting room for a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh i n Mundelein, Illinois. I decided to check it out. Although Thay gave the Dharma talks at that retreat, the monastics led the Dharma discussions and discussions about the five precepts. (They were called precepts rather than mindfulness trainings at that time.) Sister True Emptiness (Sister Chan Khong) played a very large role at that retreat.

The first thing that caught my attention was that Thay's attitudes towards women and gay and lesbian people seemed so different from any spiritual leader I had ever been exposed to. He was so open and loving. His language was also gender neutral in that he used pronouns that were both male and female, which was still somewhat unusual at the time. I'll never forget a question someone asked him about how he felt about lesbian and gay relationships.  I thought, "Here it goes, my bubble will be burst."

I didn't even want to hear the answer to the question because I was so sure I would be disappointed. Imagine my surprise when he said something like, the gender of the participants makes no difference, it's the quality of the love between the people that is important. I had very big fears of feeling like an outsider as both a lesbian and a cop at these types of gatherings. That dispelled one of my big fears, that I would be considered second-class as a lesbian.

However, as a police officer l usually felt like even more of an outsider at these types of gatherings. Most people attending Thay's retreats had progressive politics and many people with progressive politics automatically assume that police officers are the enemy. My partner, who attended the retreat with me, wanted to go to the discussion on the five precepts. I went with her but I felt that I could not even consider taking the precepts because of the requirement not to kill. As a person who carried a gun and who had a sworn duty to protect the lives of others, I knew that the possibility existed that I would have to kill some­ one to protect my own life or the life of another person. Even though I prayed I would never be in that position, I knew it was always a possibility that went with the profession.

At the discussion, I had a conversation with Sister True Emptiness that had a huge impact on me. She encouraged me to take the five precepts and challenged my assumption that I could not take them. She said something like, "Who else would we want to carry a gun except somebody willing to do it mindfully?" She was so supportive and wonderful and her logic was irrefutable. That conversation gave me some hope that it was possible to integrate my job with my spiritual aspirations.

I had never had the experience of the kind of silence, mindfulness, and slowing down that comes with the practice that I experienced at that retreat. Most of the retreat was in silence, and I felt so refreshed by the fourth or fifth day. I realized there was something about the practice that was really important. When I got back home and began making some initial efforts to practice, my energy slowly started to change. Although it was a gradual process and not something that happened overnight, I'm convinced it started at that retreat with my receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

A lot of people at that retreat would not take the Five Mindfulness Trainings because they didn't want to give up alcohol and marijuana. It wasn't an issue for me because I was a recovering alcoholic and I bad been sober for a year. Shortly after I came back from the retreat I had a call involving a fifteenyearold and a sixteen-year-old who had met a man at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, who took them back to his house, got them drunk and sexually assaulted one of them. I was devastated. I had used AA as a real source of support; it was my introduction to spirituality. I could not believe that somebody would use it for that kind of personal gain. However, I knew that I was meant to be on this call. I spent the entire night and half the next day with the young woman who was sexually assaulted. I got her collected with her sponsor and a good support system and checked in with her occasionally over the next few months. I gave her a medallion that I had received as a gift for my six­month sobriety anniversary. I carried that medallion around all the time and I would take it out of my pocket and rub it whenever I was having a hard time. I told her to do the same thing. We have kept in contact and recently (ten years later) she came to my office to thank me for the support l gave her at such a difficult time. She is now married and has a beautiful two-year-old daughter.

I had other experiences after the retreat that showed me that the precepts were constantly working in my life. For instance, I had a domestic violence call in which my attitude toward the man involved before the retreat would have been: "you jerk." He was very angry and acting out his anger inappropriately. I could have arrested him for domestic disorderly conduct. Instead I got his wife and daughter out of the house and we were able to avoid any actual violence. Although he had intimidated and scared them, which is another form of violence, I could tell how hurt and scared he was beneath the anger and just sat there with him and talked to him until he started crying. Then, I held him, with my gun belt on and all. I would never have done that before it certainly isn't considered a "tactically sound" response.  But, when you think about it, what could be a better antidote to an escalation of conflict? I could see and feel his pain. Three days later I was at an AA meeting, and this same man walked in. He pointed at me and said, "You! You saved me that night." And he gave me a big bear hug. Those kinds of events are so nourishing and reinforcing because you know you are really connecting with people.

I had a number of those experiences and I started enjoying being out on the street. I used to be in a hurry to finish one call and get to the next so other officers would not think I was slow. But after the retreat with Thay, I started taking the time to be with people wherever I was. I was much more compassionate in my work and as my energy changed and my demeanor softened so did the energy of people I was encountering on the street, even people I had to arrest. It was seldom necessary for me to use force after that. I am absolutely convinced that the energy you put out is what you get back, no matter who you're with. The anger and chip I carried around on my shoulder from a somewhat abusive and very neglectful childhood got much smaller and I slowly started the process of transforming the anger and rage I was walking around with.

And now you are in charge of personnel?

Cheri: I slowly went up the chain of command. I became a street supervisor, which is a sergeant, and then I became a lieutenant. As a lieutenant, I was the officer in charge of the night shift. Then I was a patrol lieutenant for a couple of years, then I was a detective lieutenant for a couple of years and now I'm the captain of personnel and training. I'm in charge of all the recruiting and hiring of police officers and the probationary training period of all the recruits while they are in the academy. We have our own academy that the police recruits are required to attend for seven months before they go out on the street, first with other officers, and then solo. I have a team of nine other people that I work with. I'm the top person in terms of rank, but we make decisions by consensus whenever possible, which is very unusual in a paramilitary organization. Every one of the officers on my team is great. We are also in charge of all the in-service training police officers are required to go through in order to maintain their law enforcement certifications. I do a lot of thinking about how to integrate the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings into the training we do.

When I was given this position, I immediately began managing my team in an alternative way. For instance, I don't control the budgets that I am responsible for; I give each supervisor on the team a budget and projects to be responsible for. We started with a two-day retreat held in my home where we built the philosophical foundation that we work and operate from. The essence of what I believe we need to do as a team is to inspire and enroll the recruits and other officers in possibilities through the training function. We have to show them and the rest of the organization that we create the community together. That it is not about what the people above them or below them are or aren't doing it is about what we are each doing as individuals and the community/family we create together. Ethics is now integrated into every single thing we teach. It's not a separate course anymore. We want recruits to understand that they are responsible for this family the Madison Police Family. We want them to understand that they have to be a reflection of the values of the organization in every interaction they have.

We take them on the ropes course (a physical training exercise involving teamwork) right away to get some cohesion formed in the group and then we lay a philosophical foundation. The new recruits need the support of their families when they are changing jobs so those family members also need to understand what is happening on the job. We began offering sessions with partners and family members, and started having the recruits do their own violence self-assessment as part of our domestic violence training. They also receive assessments and training on alcohol and other drug abuse. I am responsible for the domestic violence, community policing, diversity, and policy training they receive. I train as a team with people from different parts of the criminal-justice system, other service providers, and people in the community so they get several different perspectives.

The training team's function is to give the recruits the tools they need to effectively do their job. There are certain tools they need to have: they need to have crisis-intervention and mediation skills so they can deescalate a crisis; they need to have good communication and interpersonal skills. They have to know how to use a firearm and take care of themselves and others physically. Most important, they need to have good split-second decision-making skills.

I also try to help them understand that some of the skills we are teaching them as police officers (e.g., command presence, taking control) do not work well in interpersonal relationships. I try to help them learn to distinguish when these skills are useful and when they are not. If they can't do this, they will not make very good police officers, and they will make terrible partners, spouses, and parents. It's sometimes hard to turn it off and on and you may not even be aware of what you are doing, but they can't let this kind of attitude bleed into their home lives. Partners, friends, and family members need to understand this so they can help the officers know when this is happening. As police officers, we need the help and support of those around us to give us honest and loving feedback.

Those are some of the alternative things that we try to include in our training. We do a lot of enrolling people in possibilities in terms of getting them to think about what they want to be as human beings and how they want to interact with others on the planet. I want them to understand that the more open they are, the more likely they will be to perform this job with the open heart required to be effective. We get 900 applications for twenty-two positions, so I tell the recruits that I know they are all smart enough to do the job, but I don't know whether they have enough heart to do it.

Do you use listening skills in your training programs?

Cheri: We do training in listening skills and interpersonal skills not only in the recruit academy, but also in the leadership academy, which everyone who wants to be promoted must attend.

There's also lots of training involving listening skills in other areas. We do a big section of training on race and suspicion and the history of people of color in this country with law enforcement. We want people to understand that when someone says, "You're only arresting or stopping me because I'm black" or something like that, that there are very real reasons people feel that way. We try to get police officers to understand why people react like this and that it's not about them personally.

We teach a lot about conflict cycles and how they start. There's what is, and then there are our perceptions of what is, and most people collapse those two things continually without realizing it. We try to get them to think about how that happens for them internally and how it happens with the people they are encountering on the street, so they can stop the inevitable conflicts that lack of insight produces.

We do a lot of teaching about how to ''treat other people how they want to be treated but first find out how they want to be treated," because cultural differences can create misunderstandings if you just assume you know how someone else, especially from a different culture, wants to be treated. We do a lot of scenario training with both routine and high-intensity situations. All these activities include communication and listening skills. We try to balance the training between the community-oriented skills and the tactical skills they need to keep themselves and others safe.

I've also made a training team credo that is based on the Fourth Mindfulness Training. Right away I teach that gossip is a false form of intimacy. Don't let people tell you that only women gossip. I work in a predominantly male organization and it's a worse problem than I've ever encountered. It's like being in high school, except everyone wears a gun. I try to get the officers to talk directly to people rather than about them. It is very difficult, but as a staff, we keep bringing it up and asking ourselves how are we doing with it.

The other thing I try to get each of the staff and recruits to do is to live our mission statement and to think about their own personal mission statements. We have lunch together and talk about what our aspirations and motivations are, who we want to be. It's a very different way of doing business than the way it is done in most police departments. That is one of the advantages of going up the ranks to management. You get to be in charge of at least a slice of the pie.

One way of handling all the suffering that you have to deal with, day in and day out, is to close your heart. Do you have that problem?

Cheri: It's interesting that you say that because that's where I was at before this retreat. I was closed down and didn't even realize that there had been too much to take in. That's why I was in tears when I asked Thay the question about police officers.

There was so much emotion just sitting there. It's so important for us as police officers to examine this issue deeply. Closing down to people's suffering and becoming cynical because of so often seeing people at their worst can happen slowly over time without one even realizing it. I know I've changed and l have watched the people around me change. We have to do more as an organization to provide officers with the support they need not to allow this to happen. We currently operate on pretty superficial levels with the help we do provide.

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I've also worked to offer mandatory crisis debriefings for everyone involved in stressful incidents. If it's not required, people often feel like wimps when they ask to go. The problem is that it's still up to a commander to identify those incidents. What one person considers usual business may have a horrifying effect on another. For example, when recruits get to their first car accident and see their first dead body or people with terrible injuries, they might need help with that. However, that's considered routine for people who have been on the job for a while.

Right before I left for this retreat a number of members of my Sangha approached me to ask how they can help support the police. One person is very interested in getting involved in restorative justice, in getting victims and perpetrators together to communicate and transform their suffering. Another wants to work with police officers and help them deal with the accumulated stress that can lead to a type of posttraumatic stress syndrome. Whatever support people can offer us, we'll take.

There's still so much for me to deal with that has come up at this retreat. l realize that I'm still not 100% comfortable with what l do, and Thay's Dharma talks and answer to my question were very helpful to me on this level. I want to discover new ways to stay honest with myself about what is going on internally.

Well, you are doing a huge job of bridging, and that is a key responsibility in our society, but often a lonely one.

Cheri: You just get so much crap; people see you as an enemy everywhere, and that's as hard as dealing with the suffering you see daily. You are seen as the bad guy by everybody, including poor people and people of color who are already exploited.

So, you are seen as the enemy both by people who want to help others and people who need the help of others. It gets hard to be the bad guy everywhere. Although 911 has certainly helped with this, it hasn't changed the stereotypes of cops much.

How does your Sangha support you, especially in those hard times? You must have days when you feel you've worked so hard and instead of acknowledgement you get the opposite.

Cheri: Never have I felt such support in my life as the support I get from my Sangha. Never have l gotten so many expressions of openness and offerings to share and communicate about my dilemmas. We meet on Tuesday and Friday nights; I hated to meet on Friday nights at first but now I love it because it's a door from my week to my weekend. I can't tell you what my Sangha means to me as support. They asked me to make a presentation on my work, and the discussion that followed was so healing for me. But I still struggle with whether I'm on the right stage. I am an anomaly as a police officer. There aren't many of us police officers interested in mindfulness. However, that is why I am so excited about Thay's commitment to do a retreat for us sometime in the future. It could be the start of a wonderful transformation in policing in this country.

I don't want to imply that there is anything wrong with what I'm doing; l feel I'm breathing life into the values of a democracy and the spirit of the law, and I'm proud of that. But some of the people I work with have no business being cops, and that's hard. There are so many cops across the country who not only have no business being cops because they are violent and corrupt, but the injustices they inflict affect the reputations of all of us. One of the things I do is to talk about how important it is that each of us uphold the responsibility we are invested with as the only people in society who have access to legal force.

Most of the time you're on your own, there's no one looking over your shoulder. It's a bureaucracy turned upside down because people at the bottom level make 99% of the decisions. Prosecutors and judges only see who we bring before them. If we don't make an arrest, they simply aren't aware of it. Supervisors within the organization also see very little of what actually takes place on the street. What's amazing to me is the amount of discretion we are given each moment in every situation. I'm convinced that police officers don't take credit for most of the good work they do. Ninety percent of what we do is deal with people who are in crisis who don't know who else to turn to, not the stuff you see on TV. People are out of touch with the reality of our work and we help perpetuate most of the myths.

Cheri, how would you like us members of the community to support police officers?

Cheri: I think the most important thing people can do is to give us the kind of encouragement that Sister True Emptiness gave me. The first real support outside of my family that I got for being a police officer was from Sister True Emptiness and the people in my Sangha. I have also felt incredible support from the larger Sangha here in Plum Village, which I am so grateful for. I can't tell you what it is like to feel I am with people who have values that I share on a deep political and spiritual realm and who support what do. It is important that we all provide that kind of encouragement and support for each other, which is exactly what Thay's Dharma talk on the different faces of love was all about (the Dharma talk published in this issue). We need mindful people in every conceivable area of society. All of us need to practice mindfulness so we have the awareness not to create damage in our relationships and our work.

As a police officer, as a parent, as a partner, I know that I have often played the role of both victim and oppressor.  We need to offer each other the safety and support to talk openly and honestly about these things so we can learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. Likewise, those of us working within the system need to support each other in doing the critical self-examination necessary to understand and identify the ways in which we have been coopted that we are blind to. We need to help each other stay on the path of working tenderly and lovingly on our edges. For example, when people see motives in me grounded in ambition rather than love and compassion, I want them to gently point it out to me. When people see me closing down and operating from that edge of anger, I want them to gently point it out to me. If we can do these types of things from a place of Jove without judging each other, we will have much to offer each other.

Cheri Maples, True Mindfulness Trainings, is a captain in the Madison, Wisconsin police force, supervising personnel training and recruiting.

In response to Cheri's request Thich Nhat Hanh will offer a retreat for law enforcement personnel from August 24-29, 2003 in Madison, Wisconsin. Anyone knowing of people who might be interested in attending, please email her at cmaples@ci.madison.wi.us

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On the Way Home (part 2)

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue mb43-OnTheWay1

Sister Annabel was one of Thây’s first students in the West. At Thây’s request, she is writing a memoir of her practice life; this is the second installment.

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Thây and Sister True Emptiness [Sister Chan Khong] were so kind to me in my first years at Plum Village. They treated me like their own family, their niece, their child. Can I ever repay them their kindness? Though they already had many things to take care of, they also took care of me. They understood, for example, that I liked to eat Western food, and they also introduced me to Vietnamese food.

Sister True Emptiness, out of great kindness, offered me many opportunities to eat Western food when I fi came to Plum Village. Now it was some St. Paulin cheese, now a packet of muesli. We discovered a supplier of organic wheat flour some 70 kilometers from Plum Village, where we bought flour to make bread in our neighbor’s oven. Sister True Emptiness told me where I could buy milk from a neighboring farmer and taught me how to make yogurt.

From an early age we accustom ourselves to a certain kind of food. Not only our body but also our mind grows used to that food. Our parents and grandparents teach us to cook the food that they have learned to cook. If you come from Vietnam you like the taste of rice and the vegetables that grow in East Asia. If you come from France you are accustomed to bread at every meal. Thây often tells us that when the master Hsiuen Tsang traveled to India to bring the Buddhist scriptures to China he could no longer expect to eat the Chinese dumpling and had to be content with curry and rice. In a multicultural community we have the right to cook and eat the food of our motherland, when it is available, but we also need to be open to new dishes and even be willing to try new ways of cooking from time to time.

A Bridge in a Divisive World

Sister True Emptiness is truly a person of two cultures. You feel that she is as at home in the French culture as she is in the Vietnamese. Thây also is as gracious in other cultural settings as he is in his own. A true practitioner of mindfulness is an ambassador for the spiritual path in any cultural setting. Thây encouraged me to practice being at home in the culture of the country of my birth and also in the Vietnamese culture. Thây never encourages anyone to abandon their own spiritual or cultural roots but rather to be in touch with these roots in mindfulness. Cultures can complement each other and a true person of two cultures can be a bridge in a divisive world.

Sometimes Thây would offer me tea made with milk and sugar. Occasionally he would also make himself a cup of this British tea but at other times he would drink the Chinese tea to which he had always been accustomed, as I sipped the British kind. When Thây introduced me to Chinese tea, he taught me to fill the glass two-thirds full and when the glass was emptied, to inhale the fragrance that remained in the glass from the tea. That fragrance is the fragrance of the tea flower.

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From Community to Sangha

At the end of 1986 Thây and Sister True Emptiness were away in Australia and the refugee camps of Hong Kong and the Philippines. That winter it snowed heavily and since in that part of France there is no equipment to clear the roads we were not able to leave the Lower Hamlet. The wild animals were very hungry and boar came nearby looking for food. We had collected just enough wood in the months before to keep ourselves warm but the pipes froze and we collected snow to melt and use for water. When we practice to follow our breathing in the present moment as our lives are going well, we have something to rely on in the winter of our lives when conditions are not what we should wish for. Life has its wonderful message of impermanence that encourages us to practice and helps us be grateful for everything that is available for us in the present moment.

We were a community of twelve living in the Lower Hamlet—myself, four young men newly arrived from the refugee camps, and in the Persimmon Building, a family from the refugee camp: father, mother, four children, and their uncle. The eldest was twelve and the youngest less than two. They made a living by growing Asian vegetables and selling them in Bordeaux. The father was an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing. At that time we could not yet call ourselves a sangha because we did not share the spiritual path as does a sangha. Thây and Sister True Emptiness loved us all and held us in their embrace of care and affection. They wanted us to practice every day as part of our ordinary daily living but somehow we were not there yet. Thây was very patient with us. Sister True Emptiness had instructed me to be as an elder sister to the four young men. I was to make sure that they studied French and recited the mindfulness trainings every week. This was not too easy for one of the young men who was not confident in his ability to learn French and enjoyed above all playing volleyball just at the time when the French class was happening.

When Thây came back from the tour of Southeast Asia and Australasia, he shared with me that Plum Village would become a practice center and the people who lived there would be united by their practice. I was very happy and reassured when I heard this and wondered how it would happen. When they were not traveling to teach the Dharma, or during the one-month summer opening for families, Thây and Sister True Emptiness lived in the hermitage. They would visit us from time to time. Sometimes the visit was unexpected and sometimes Sister True Emptiness would call us in advance to say that Thây would come and give a teaching. Everyone knew that Thây did not want us to drink wine or eat meat but there was no regulation. When they knew that Thây was coming all traces of wine and meat were hidden away. I never drank alcohol or ate meat myself but I did not need to tell tales to Thây; he seemed to know what was happening whether we told him or not.

Thây and Sister True Emptiness guided our practice; apart from Thây we were all lay practitioners. Thây asked me to think about a constitution for Plum Village to help Plum Village become a practice center. In the Fragrant Palm Leaves community in the south-central highlands of Vietnam, the practitioners under Thây’s guidance had not needed this kind of regulation because they all had a firm basis in the practice of Buddhism. Thây, like the Buddha, was not in a hurry to make regulations, but there came a point when, for the sake of the practice, it was necessary to do so. Basically our constitution held that those who lived in Plum Village followed the schedule of practice and studies, recited the mindfulness trainings, and abstained from meat, alcohol, and cigarettes. The final item of the constitution was that those who did not want to live in accord with the mindfulness trainings would be asked to leave; Plum Village would give them assistance to find a place to live and a way of earning a livelihood.

There were no hard feelings on the part of the four young men who left at this time. They felt that it was the right time to go and they were ready to take the next step in their life in France.

The Deep Practice of Organic Gardening

Under Thây’s guidance, I began to learn the practice of living in harmony. Unlike other members of my community, I had experience in organic gardening. To me it seemed the only sane way to produce vegetables and fruits. To the others it seemed a crazy idea. I was sure that Thây would support this idea but he was firm that there should be a consensus in the community. Only in retrospect do I see the wisdom of this. We all know how much Thây cares about the environment. Long before coming to Plum Village Thây had organized the Dai Dong conference in Sweden one year as an alternative to a governmental conference on the environment organized in South Africa. Many delegates to that official conference had a vested interest in not protecting the environment and that is why Thây and his friends saw the need for an alternative. So it was difficult for me to understand why he did not speak out in support of organic cultivation in Plum Village.

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Thây said that all of us must sit together, discuss, and agree on how we were going to cultivate the land. During this discussion I was a minority of one. Thây suggested that I take a small plot of land and cultivate it organically. Others would see the results and then we could increase the size of the organic garden. This is entirely in the spirit of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings—we do not force others to accept our views, even though those views are Buddhist ones, and we allow people to decide; but we use compassionate dialogue to help people make the decision that is most beneficial to the community.

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By this time I had been joined by another sister whose name was Thanh Minh. She was a refugee whom Sister True Emptiness had met on the tour of the Southeast Asian refugee camps and sponsored to come to France. Thanh Minh had spent time with a teacher in a temple in Vietnam so she knew about the temple way of life. Her arrival in Plum Village was a very happy moment for me. Together we could live and practice and work in mindfulness. And together we worked in the garden.

The plum trees planted in the Lower Hamlet had been donated by lay practitioners, many of them children. They knew that when the plums were harvested the proceeds from selling them would be sent to Vietnam to support the poorest families. We all felt responsible to our donors and wanted to produce the crop they expected of us. So we began slowly but surely. In the early morning we would examine the seedlings for slugs and gently put them in a tin and transport them to a meadow or the forest. We had plenty of uncultivated land around us where they could survive.

As soon as it was light Thanh Minh and I would go outside to do our slug meditation and weed the different vegetable plots. In a practice center one has time for this kind of activity and it becomes a meditation in itself. The garden is a wonderful place to practice. The greenhouse is like a meditation hall. The aroma of incense is the aroma of coriander leaves and mint and celery. The mind is the greenness of the plants and the discrimination of what is weed and what is vegetable; somehow the mind needs to discriminate between what is a positive and what is a negative thought. When Thây had first asked me if I wanted to stay on in Plum Village, I had asked him what I should do. Thây had said: “Be yourself and, if you like, plant a little mustard green to eat in the winter.”

Our next step in making an organic garden was to find out about organic fertilizers. The sales representative told us about bone meal and dried blood. We asked him where he acquired such materials. He said that the local abattoir [slaughterhouse] sold it to him. We did not feel we could participate in supporting the slaughter of animals. So we relied on planting nitrogen-fixing plants between the rows of plum trees, compost, and cow dung. Plum Village has cultivated organically for many years now.

Tofu as Teacher

One of the young men in the community had made and sold tofu and bean sprouts in the Hong Kong refugee camp and he taught me how to do this. The bean sprouts we made in a large old wine barrel—that region is part of the Bordeaux wine-producing land—nearly full of sawdust. The tofu we made by soaking the beans overnight, then they were ground in an electric grinder. We put the ground beans in a muslin sack and pressed them with water so that we had the milk. The first milk that we pressed out by kneading the sack was thick and creamy. Then we added more water and the milk was less creamy. The first milk was made into tofu and the second when cooked was kept for soy milk. When the creamy milk comes to the boil you add a tablespoon of calcium carbonate and miraculously the liquid gels. Then you press it into shape in a mold for several hours. The lid is held down by heavy stones. It was not always successful. Sometimes the gelling does not happen and there is little you can do with the resulting liquid. I never knew exactly why it was not successful but there must have been causes and conditions.

Mustard greens grew well in Plum Village. If you dropped seeds on uncultivated land they would germinate. If the plants were left to go to flower they would seed themselves. With so much mustard green we could make a pickle. Pickles also need to have the right conditions in order to be successful. Thây taught me how

to make mustard green pickle in the hermitage. To make pickles all you need is mustard green leaves, salt, and water. First you sterilize the ceramic or glass pots you will use to make the pickle in, because the presence of the wrong kind of bacteria will stop the proper pickling process and lead to a bad-smelling, mold-covered result. You do not need to cook the mustard greens, you just pour boiling water over them, having put a tablespoon of salt in the pot first. You press the mixture down with a heavy lid and leave it for three or more days, depending on how cold the weather is. You should not look at the pickle too early, because opening the lid can also cause foreign bacteria to come in.

The first time I made mustard green pickle, it did not work. I was disappointed just as when tofu failed. Somehow I learned from my mistakes. At first I think, “what a waste of material resources and time!” Then I look back and discover at what stage the process could have gone wrong. I compare myself or my actions of body, speech, and mind to the making of tofu or pickle. You could say that a disciple of the Awakened Ones is in the making.

There are actions of body, speech and mind that are not successful. They are not edible for others and they do not nourish myself. Thanks to the practice of recollection, when I think back on that action I feel an unpleasant feeling. That unpleasant feeling gives rise to mental attention. The mental attention, if it is appropriate, will give rise to the two beneficial mental formations of hri (humility) and apatrapya (shame). I feel ashamed because I know I have hurt someone by my words, deeds, or thinking. In humility I come to the other and apologize. That is how I learn and the next time the pickle will be more edible. I do not allow the bacteria of guilt to come into the ceramic pot because that bacteria will never allow the proper souring process to take place. Shame is not guilt. Shame means “I know I have made a mistake. I am sorry. I make the deep aspiration not to do or say it again.” Guilt is a regret that takes away my energy. It is the idea that I cannot stand up after I have fallen and the fault I have committed will always follow me without my being able to do anything about it.

Maybe I do or say it again. Then I know my aspiration was not followed up by enough mindfulness and concentration. So the old habit energies, like old bacteria sticking to the sides of the unsterilized pot, spoiled the pickle again. Again I express my regret and this time it is successful; a new habit energy has formed in the depths of consciousness.

Finally the pickle is pickled, the soy cream gels into delicious tofu.

mb43-OnTheWay6Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center, a four-fold sangha in Vermont.

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Intersein-Zentrum

Ten Years of Practice in Community by Karl and Helga Riedl

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The Intersein-Zentrum, a practice and meditation center in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh, is celebrating its tenth anniversary! This means ten years of concretely and continuously building and maintaining Sangha.

After living in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and this way of life. In May 1999, together with the late Karl Schmied, we founded a residential community in the southeast corner of Germany — the Intersein-Zentrum (Interbeing Center).

Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, living under the same roof in the spirit of the Six Harmonies. Over these past ten years, quite a number of people have been inspired by the practice of Thay and happy to share this lifestyle. For some of them, after months or even many years, different priorities emerged and they went on their way — enriched, happier, and with more clarity. Others have stayed with us for as long as nine years. Today we are ten residents sharing our joy and love for the Buddha-Dharma.

The Four Foundations

The first foundation for a Sangha is to be deeply inspired by the Dharma and the practice of Plum Village.

Together with two other friends we moved into a renovated building in early 1999. At the beginning we felt quite lost in that big house, which can host as many as eighty-six people apart from the family retreats, when we host over one hundred people. The four of us began right away with the same schedule that is used in Plum Village: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, etc. One of the principles of our small Sangha from the very beginning has been to never, even in difficult and pressing situations, put the practice aside or skip scheduled activities. There was and still is a lot to do for a small group of people — running a big center and many retreats, being there for guests, implementing fascinating ideas and projects. However, before beginning a new task, we always ask the question: “Is it in accordance with the practice and our schedule?”

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The second foundation for a Sangha is that through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increases and radiates out.

Living in a residential community, sharing all activities, applying the Six Harmonies, and having only a common income from retreats and guests is a special and demanding practice in itself. The most important practice — and this holds true even for a non-residential Sangha — is to regularly come together and share. To share means to allow everyone to express their joy and their difficulties, inspire others with their insight, and ask for support and understanding. This fosters communication on a very deep level. Furthermore, it is important to be clear about organization, tasks, positions, and the decision-making process, to agree on the structure, and to expose and clarify misunderstandings.

The third foundation for a Sangha is to keep communication alive and open and to make sure the structure is transparent and clear for everybody.

Sharing also means sharing the practice with others — giving and serving. In this way we realize how much we can let go of our self-concern and how well we are rooted in the practice. Once a month we offer a retreat — generally from five days to one week— where we introduce people to mindfulness and different Plum Village practices. Refreshed and with new insight, they return to their families and workplace and when they come back, they report on their experiences: “Just knowing that you are practicing all year round gives us a lot of support and trust.” Most people come back again and again, staying for longer periods to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Each summer we offer a retreat for families, which is one of our most important. We stay connected with most of the families for many years, and we can observe with great joy and confidence that they are applying what they have learned and heard.

The fourth foundation for a Sangha is to have a common public activity and responsibility. Within this field we can express the fruit of our practice and we have the opportunity to respond to the actual problems people are facing today.

As a Sangha we are living and practicing in a non-Buddhist environment and it is very important to establish good relationships with our neighbors. Our connection with the nearby villages, which are deeply rooted in Christianity, is friendly, warm, and openhearted. Schoolteachers come here every year with their classes to experience our way of life and even the Catholic priest has visited us several times with his congregation.

The Acceleration of Wisdom

Last year we initiated a winter study and practice training that will run for three years in a row. This arose from seeing the needs and difficulties of practitioners and especially wanting to give those who are deeply motivated the opportunity to enhance and deepen their understanding. Observing the participation and enthusiasm of quite a number of people gives us the confidence that this training corresponds much to the needs of our time. This is another important aspect of a Sangha — to study and deepen the understanding of the Dharma practice and to be able to explain it to others.

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We have many Italian friends from Plum Village who come regularly to the retreats we lead in Italy. They have observed over many years the development of the Intersein-Zentrum in Germany. They felt much inspired by how this lay practice center is organized and how the practice is kept alive, so after several years of preparation they are on the way to manifesting a residential practice center in southern Italy. Those who feel committed to living in a residential community are coming here to be trained and some members of our center will go there and support them at the beginning. It is very important for a Sangha to establish a good relationship with other Sanghas, so we can learn from our cultural diversities and open up to each other.

The emphasis in our tradition is the practice of mindfulness and so it is quite natural that we take care of our bodies and our environment. In our center we serve vegetarian food that is based on the principles of Ayurveda and the Chinese five elements; we get protein from a rich variety of beans and nuts. We offer classes in yoga and chi gong. Furthermore we have solar water heating and a very modern wood pellet stove for heat, a large composting pile that we have turned into a beautiful vegetable and flower garden, and a biological sewage system. We are very concerned about driving and we have more than one car-free day. All these different activities are expressions of our practice and they are seen by our guests as examples that they can take home and apply directly in their daily lives.

When we look back over these years, we see that all the difficulties we have faced were indeed “wisdom accelerators,” as Thay calls them. We gained much understanding of the difficulties faced by people who are practicing the Buddha-Dharma in the West, a culture that is deeply materialistic. We continue to learn a lot and to experience more than ever a deep trust in the Three Jewels — while using our modern tools and language that people in the twenty-first century can understand and apply.

Helga Riedl, True Wonderful Loving Kindness, and Karl Riedl, True Communion, were ordained as Dharma teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994. Their spiritual path began in Poona, India, with Baghwan Sri Rajneesh in 1980 and in 1985 they started Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition. They also studied the Theravada tradition in monasteries in Sri Lanka and Thailand and the Tibetan Gelug tradition at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Pomaia, Italy. It was there they met Thay in 1992 and shortly after followed him to Plum Village.

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Is There Harmony in the Community?

By Jerry Braza mb51-IsThere1

Over five years ago at the Winter Retreat, Thay suggested that local Sanghas practice meeting on a regular basis to formally recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Since then, at the River Sangha, in Salem, Oregon, we continue, with nurturing results, to practice with a formal ceremony every month followed by a Dharma or book discussion. The formal ceremony always includes a Sanghakarman procedure, which “ is the way we make decisions on all matters that arise in the Sangha.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Joyfully Together) This process has helped us to stay connected to the core community, enhance the greater community, and overall has contributed to open dialogue and peace within the Sangha.

Several years ago, during the Sanghakarman procedure we were awakened by an honest response to the question “Is there harmony in the community?” At that gathering an individual shared “No, there is not harmony and here is why.” Apparently she and others were concerned about the amount of political discussion that seemed to be infused in several weekly Sangha gatherings and she felt the Sangha was not the refuge it had been in the past. Courageously, this individual responded from her heart and shared her deepest truth at the time.

Since the Sangha had already gathered to recite the Trainings, the Sangha continued. Following the formal recitation a discussion began that continued on several other occasions; the issue was resolved one month later at the next formal recitation. If a person is aware of difficulties within the Sangha, this needs to be brought out. Perhaps a facilitator can announce, in the weeks preceding the formal recitation, that if anyone feels there is a lack of harmony please say so now, so that the Sangha can resolve the issue beforehand with either a Beginning Anew or other dialogue process. In this way harmony will be reached before beginning the next formal recitation.

In Joyfully Together Thay shares, “Being in harmony does not mean that we do not disagree or make mistakes and miss opportunities to understand one another. It means that we are doing our best and there is no division or split within the Sangha.” Reflecting on Thay’s description of Sangha harmony, it was obvious to me that we naturally had disagreements and that we were all doing our best at the time.

However, the gift that came from our Sangha member’s sharing was the call to stop and have several discussions on the matter.

When all views were heard, we were then able to move forward with insights and suggestions for the leadership corps in order to more skillfully guide Dharma discussions, select Dharma discussion topics, and promote understanding.

We learned how important it was to have had those discussions and to subsequently encourage others to answer the “harmony question” mindfully. This may be one of the best skillful means to look deeply into Sangha dynamics and involve everyone in the process of resolving all conflicts, however small. It became clear that we were practicing the “Four Skillful Means of the Bodhisattva” as outlined by Thay:

  • Offer "non-fear" and provide protection for all. Sanghas should be a safe place to practice and leaders need to provide support for this deep sharing.
  • Practice loving speech. Creating an atmosphere to practice loving speech is the opportunity that formal recitations and discussions provide.
  • Do things for the benefit of others. It is very empowering for all Sangha members to see that everyone benefits through skillful speech and true understanding of “interbeing” is achieved.
  • Practice the path of understanding and love. Through processes such as the Sanghakarman procedure and heartfelt sharing, we are able to listen deeply and practice true love through our understanding of each other.

One simple courageous response helped our Sangha to look deeply at itself and has helped create wisdom and clarity. Harmony is possible through our daily practice of the Mindfulness Trainings. As with the Trainings, harmony is the direction we all aspire to and this can be our most essential practice.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a professor, a private consultant, and the author of Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness. In 2001 he was ordained as a Dharma teacher; he practices with the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon and leads retreats.

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Mindful Meeting Guidelines

By Tony Silvestre mb51-Mindful1

Meetings are a wonderful opportunity to practice skillful speaking and listening. When we gather to discuss and take care of our Sangha, there are opportunities for members to present gifts to our Sangha and for our members to practice receiving gifts. An important purpose of meetings is to practice mindfulness. It is important that the Sangha practice during meetings in ways that bring ease, peace, and joy to meeting participants. The process of making decisions is as important to the harmony of the Sangha as any action that the Sangha can take. We recognize that like all phenomena, these guidelines are impermanent, and may change as needed.

Thay invited us to be mindful at meetings and suggested that we communicate with each other using kind and respectful speech and deep listening in order to share our insight so that we can make the best decisions for the benefit of the Sangha. The following is an aspiration that Thay offers for our use:

Dear Lord Buddha and All Our Ancestral Teachers, We vow to go through this meeting in a spirit of togetherness as we review all ideas and consolidate them to reach a harmonious understanding or consensus. We vow to use the methods of loving speech and deep listening in order to bring about the success of this meeting as an offering to the Three Jewels. We vow not to hesitate to share our ideas and insights but also vow not to say anything when the feeling of irritation is present in us. We are resolutely determined not to allow tension to build up in this meeting. If any one of us senses the start of tension, we will stop immediately and practice Beginning Anew right away so as to re-establish an atmosphere of togetherness and harmony. (from Joyfully Together)

Here are the guidelines that we use for meetings of the Laughing Rivers Sangha:

  1. Each member’s ideas and comments are a gift to the Sangha. We will practice to listen without judging and should first identify the gift offered before considering its usefulness.
  2. We will practice to express ourselves clearly and as briefly as possible. Talking over people, interrupting speakers, and rushing to speak as others pause are some ways that we limit others’ ability to speak.
  3. Repeating points that we already made, speaking for long periods, and making comments that are dealing with multiple issues at once, can be intimidating and overwhelming. We will practice to make every effort to present simply and briefly.
  4. We will practice to be careful before we represent the views of others who are not present.
  5. The Mindfulness Trainings present many opportunities for practice during meetings:
  • Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views.
  • We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences.
  • Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves I the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech.
  • Aware that words can create sufferings or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence.

6. We will practice speaking with candor and gentleness to safeguard the Sangha.

Tony Silvestre, True Hall of Peace, is convener of Rainbow Buddhists of Pittsburgh, a social and educational group for LGBT people and their friends. Other members of Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh contributed to this article.

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Integrating Head and Heart

Organizing a Wake Up Tour By Brandon Rennels

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A year ago I was sitting at a cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan, enjoying breakfast with a beloved professor from university. When I was in school he taught a course entitled Psychology of Consciousness, which was my first introduction to mindfulness practice. Peace is Every Step happened to be required reading, and after I finished the course I wondered why this material wasn’t taught in every classroom.

That day, I had gone to the professor seeking guidance. For a few years I had been working internationally in the business world as a management consultant. During this time I developed a skill set for turning high-level strategy into tactical recommendations, and for the cultural sensitivity necessary to bring messages to diverse audiences. While I enjoyed the problem-solving nature of my work, I felt I should be serving a different clientele; it was people, not corporations, I wanted to help grow. I had been keeping up my spiritual practice and also knew there was a growing interest in mindfulness in major U.S. institutions, especially in the field of education.

I knew I wanted to make a change but I didn’t know where to start.

My professor mentioned that there was a growing number of interested educators with Ph.D.s, and a wealth of mindfulness practices. Perhaps what was missing, he said, was support in managing the various threads and actually implementing these new models of learning. He asked: Instead of abandoning my business training, could I somehow integrate head and heart by leveraging my consulting skills to support the realms of mindfulness and education?

I had no idea. But it seemed like the right question to ask. As with all great teachers, he merely pointed the way... and I took it upon myself to forge ahead into the unknown.

Leap of Faith

A few months later I decided to take a leap of faith by embarking on a six-month leave of absence from my corporate post. I had two stated intentions: 1) immerse myself in mindfulness practice, and 2) learn how I might support its growth in education. My first stop was a weeklong retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. I figured it would be an opportunity for immersion. Little did I suspect that both of my intentions would be watered.

On encouragement from a friend, towards the end of the retreat I worked up the courage to ask a monastic if I might be of service. I explained my background and that I could offer my support as a volunteer for the next few months. Much to my surprise, his eyes opened wide: “Ah ha! The universe is aligning.” He told me there were a couple of education initiatives that were searching for support from someone with a business/organizational skill set. Now it was my eyes that opened wide.

Supporting the Sangha

The next month, a week before the east coast Wake Up tour, I arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York. The monastics and I were unsure how I was going to help, but in that not-knowing was a freedom to respond appropriately to whatever situation arose.

Much of the work had already been completed by the time I arrived, and we were in the final stages of preparation for the tour. Entering any project mid-stream can feel overwhelming; ideally, you are there from the beginning. In most cases, however, you don’t have that luxury. More importantly, it just isn’t necessary. Asking questions, listening deeply, and being patient are all it takes to be able to contribute.

My intention was to be as helpful as I could in supporting the Sangha. I began by asking one of the main organizers, “Is there anything you need help with?” When he was feeling more comfortable, I went to the other organizers and asked them. Then I began asking a different question: “This looks like it could use help; do you want me to work on it?” Over time, this evolved into: “I went ahead and took care of this. Let me know what you think.”

This approach created conditions for me to take on operational items such as supporting the website and managing the email list, as well as strategic areas such as overseeing social media presence and helping to allocate the advertising budget. My responsibilities grew organically, and were nurtured in a supportive and collegiate environment with the backdrop of a serene monastery. Not a bad way to work!

A week later the team at Blue Cliff set out on the road to begin the tour.

Space to Breathe

Our first events were in Boston, where we convened as an entire group. The day before the Harvard University event we had a number of decisions to make, and the full community of fifteen-plus monastic and lay friends gathered around a large wooden table. I had become more familiar with the working styles of the group and was looking forward to an unfiltered view of how a Fourfold Sangha makes decisions.

Coming from the corporate world, I was accustomed to a top-down, fast-paced, heavily structured decision-making process. The monastic community operates bottom-up, in a very organic and non-hierarchical way. The meeting opened with three sounds of the bell, and we began by speaking one a time. One of the primary issues was whether or not we were going to visit Occupy Boston. Many questions were raised: How political is the event? Could we go just as spectators? What kind of message would we be sending by going? Should we just go to invite people to our sitting meditation? There were divergent viewpoints, but we eventually reached a full consensus. Afterwards it was explicitly stated that the meeting was over and it was time to let go of any residue and move on. While it was a lengthy process, shortening it would inevitably result in some people not being heard. By giving everyone space to express themselves, regardless of outcome there was no resentment and everyone felt respected.

The following day, over one hundred people showed up for a Day of Mindfulness at Harvard. I volunteered to staff the registration desk, where each attendee would be asked a series of questions that were entered into an Excel file. It was a chance for me to practice my efficiency skills in a potentially stressful environment, as most people would be arriving in a hurry just a few minutes before the start time. I felt it was important for this process to go smoothly, knowing this was the first impression most people would have.

Sitting at the desk, I found myself simultaneously wondering how fast I could process each person’s info and how many people I could get to smile. While I had my verbal script and keyboard strokes down to a science, I protected the space to provide a warm welcome to every person and to allow them space to breathe.

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One hundred people came, one hundred people went. I was gifted with many smiles.

Harmony Was the Way

As the tour progressed I gained more responsibility, and eventually some of the monastics started lovingly (I think) introducing me as “the manager.” While they were mostly joking (I think), in this structure I was perhaps as close to a lay manager as one could get.

A fundamental skill of being a good manager is knowing when to delegate tasks to others. Having faced this situation in the past, I was familiar with the trade-offs. Do the task yourself and it will likely get done faster and with more accuracy. Give the task to others and while it may take longer (and they may not want to do it), you will be teaching someone. What was unique about this situation, however, was the underlying objective. In the corporate world, the priority is productivity; here, the priority was harmony. Ideally you have both, but oftentimes you need to choose which is more important: getting it done or making everyone happy. For the first time in my life, it was clear that harmony was the way.

Near the end of the tour we aspired to send out a “feedback survey” for participants to share their thoughts following the workshops. There were multiple purposes here: for the participants, to provide an outlet to reflect on their experiences and encourage them to keep up their practice; for us, a chance to learn what went well and how we could improve for the next tour. Timing was important; if the survey was sent out too late, response rate would likely be low and the experience would no longer be fresh in their minds.

We decided to administer the survey using two online tools with which the monastics didn’t have much experience. I spent time training one of the tech-savvy nuns how to create the survey, send it out, track responses, etc. Two weeks later the surveys hadn’t yet been sent and I was becoming slightly anxious. I sat with this anxiety and it passed with the understanding of how busy our lives can be. I emailed the sister asking if she needed help, which I would be genuinely happy to provide. The next day I awoke to find all the surveys had been sent out, along with a friendly reply back thanking me for my encouragement. I smiled.

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Looking back at that afternoon with my professor in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t have imagined a more direct manifestation of my desire to integrate head and heart. Perhaps my greatest lesson on this tour was that of trust. Trusting in myself and my abilities, trusting in others and their capacity to support, and trusting in the universe to light the way.

mb60-Integrating4Since the east coast Wake Up tour, Brandon Rennels decided to resign from his post in the corporate world and continue to support mindful education initiatives while deepening his own practice. He spent three months in Plum Village this past winter, practicing and assisting with the Applied Ethics initiative, and is now heading back to California for the next chapter of his journey... just in time for another Wake Up tour.

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