dying

I Love You, Mama Bea

By Lee Klinger Lesser Mama Bea was my daddy's mother and my grandma. When she got sick, the doctors said they thought she was going to die. So she left her home in Florida, and came to live in our house in California. My mommy and daddy said we were going to take care of her, and either help her get well or be with her as she died. I was scared. I didn't want Mama Bea to die.

I helped my mommy clean the room and get it ready for Mama Bea. We picked some fresh flowers and put them in the room. We also brought in pictures of my grandpa. I never knew him because he died before I was born.

Mama Bea came on the airplane by herself and my daddy met her at the airport with a wheelchair. She couldn' t walk very far. I was glad to see her when she came home, but I felt a little shy. I didn't know how she would be. We gave each other a big hug. Daddy helped her walk up the stairs.

Mama Bea was tired. She rested in her room. As the days went by, I could see that Mama Bea was not getting better. It was harder and harder for her to walk. She was weak, and she limped, and held onto things as she went by. Her breathing sounded funny. I kept watching Mama Bea. And I kept watching daddy and mommy helping her. I tried to help her sometimes, too, but I wasn't strong enough for her to lean on.

One day my ankle started hurting me. It was hard for me to walk and I had to limp. When I went to school, I told my teachers that I couldn' t do music or P.E. because my ankle hurt. Mommy and daddy thought it would go away, but it didn't. It kept hurting me for lots of days. Mommy and daddy thought I was making it up. My teachers got angry with me.

One night just as it was getting dark outside, mommy said she wanted to talk with me. I sat in her lap on my bed. It was quiet and cozy. Mommy said that she thought I had feelings that were stuck in my ankle, and that they were making it hurt. She said that when someone we love is hurt, or sick, or dying, it is natural to be really, really angry, and scared, and sad. Mommy hugged me close and said, "Dying is part of living. All we can do is love Mama Bea, take care of her, and take very good care of ourselves, too. We can try to see our own feelings and not let them get stuck anywhere." Then mommy said she bet I could help my ankle be all better, and that she didn't think the feelings were stuck down there anymore. She bet I could stand up and my ankle wouldn't hurt anymore. She even bet I could do a little dance and my ankle wouldn't hurt me. I tried it, and I could!

But Mama Bea wasn't getting better. Each day she seemed to be feeling worse. Sometimes I'd read a book to her on the couch. Mama Bea liked that. So did I. Sometimes we'd snuggle and watch television. I'd bring her a drink with a straw when she was thirsty. Her breathing sounded loud and funny.

One day daddy took Mama Bea to a special doctor to look at her lungs. When daddy came back from the doctor, daddy and mommy, and Mama Bea were all very sad. Daddy told me the doctor said that there was a big sickness in Mama Bea's lungs, and that the doctor couldn't help MamaBea get well. He said Mama Bea was probably going to die very soon, maybe even in a few days.

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I felt very sad. Mama Bea was lying down in her bed. I went and lay down with her. We snuggled and didn't say anything. In a little while, daddy came in and he lay down with us, too. Later, mommy and my brother came in, and sat down on the bed. I was glad we were all together.

When Mama Bea woke up the next morning, she was much more tired. She didn't want to eat any more food. All she wanted sometimes was a popsicle. I liked to bring her popsicles. Daddy pushed Mama Bea in the wheelchair to the living room and she lay down on the couch. I stood behind the couch and looked down at Mama Bea. Mama Bea looked up at me and smiled. She reached up with her hand and said, "I love you, Carol." I reached out my hand and held hers and said, "I love you, too, Mama Bea."

Daddy asked Mama Bea if she was hungry. She said, "No!" Then she said, "All I want to do is die!" She said it over and over again, and she said she wanted to die as fast as she could. I didn't understand, and I didn't like it. I said, "But, Mama Bea, I don't want you to die at all!" Mommy was there and she said, "Carol, nobody wants Mama Bea to die, but when it is time to die, there is no other choice, it is time to die. Mama Bea knows she can't get well and she feels ready to die." I still didn't understand and I still didn't like it.

Later in the day, a hospice nurse named Jenny came to talk with us. We all liked talking with her, even Mama Bea. She said we were lucky to be with Mama Bea and to help her while she was dying. She said it's a very special time. Jenny gave me some special sticks with a sponge on the end of them, and she showed me how to wet it and rub it gently in Mama Bea's mouth when she was thirsty. It was getting hard for Mama Bea to drink. The sticks smelled like mint and Mama Bea liked them. I liked to help Mama Bea.

Then Jenny told me about one of the most special ways I could be with Mama Bea. She said that as Mama Bea got closer to dying, she wouldn't be able to talk to me anymore. She said that Mama Bea would still be able to hear me, though, and I could talk to Mama Bea, and sit and breathe with her. Jenny told me first I should sit down next to Mama Bea and imagine one-hundred golden suns moving right through the middle of me—up and down, from the top of my head all the way into my belly, and back up again. Then she said I should listen to Mama Bea's breathing, and be real quiet, and try to breathe the same way Mama Bea was breathing. Jenny said this was a way to be really close to Mama Bea, and to let her feel how I loved her.

That night, Mama Bea didn't want to go back to her bed anymore. She wanted to stay on the couch. We gave her a pillow and soft, warm blankets and kissed her good night.

When I went in to see her in the morning, Mama Bea didn't answer me when I talked to her. Her breathing was very loud. It seemed hard for her to take every breath. I called her name again, "Mama Bea! Mama Bea!" I felt hurt and scared, and I told mommy that Mama Bea wouldn' t talk to me. Mommy held my hand and said, "Mama Bea is moving out of her body and she is too far away to talk to us now. She still loves us and she can hear you, if you talk to her." I was very sad. I sat down next to Mama Bea and I picked up her hand and held it. She didn't hold mine back. I said, "I love you, Mama Bea." Then I put her hand down and went to school.

When I came back from school, I rushed over to the couch to give Mama Bea a present I made for her at school. It was a clay box with a lid and a big round handle. I called her name and I told her I made her a present. She didn't say anything. She didn't even look at me. I tried to put her hand around the present, but she wouldn't hold it.

Mommy asked me if I wanted to breathe with Mama Bea. She said this was a very special way to be close to her. I remembered what Jenny had told me and I sat down next to Mama Bea. I pictured one-hundred golden suns moving inside of me. It made me smile and feel warm inside. Then I listened to Mama Bea. It was hard to breathe like her. Each breath was different, and kind of jumpy, and loud. I wanted to be close to her, so I got real still inside and I kept sitting there.

Later, we ate dinner and mommy and daddy told me and my brother that they thought Mama Bea was going to die during the night. From my bed, I could hear Mama Bea breathing. Mommy snuggled with me in bed and held me close.

In the morning, daddy and mommy came into my room, sat on my bed, and told me that Mama Bea had died. They were both crying. Mommy held my hand and daddy said, "Mama Bea died quietly and peacefully. Her breathing all of a sudden stopped being loud and it became very, very quiet. I was sitting next to her, holding her hand, and mommy was sitting next to me, holding my hand. We were both breathing with Mama Bea. Each breath was gentle and deeply peaceful. And then there was no next breath."

Daddy was crying when he said, "I think it was a happy way for Mama Bea to die." Daddy said that he and Mommy sat quietly with Mama Bea for a while. Then they called the hospice nurse. She came over to the house and helped mommy and daddy wash Mama Bea, and change her clothes. Daddy and mommy stayed with Mama Bea all night. I listened to them, and then I wanted to go see Mama Bea and say good-bye. I never saw anyone dead before. Mama Bea was lying on the couch. It was Mama Bea, but she looked different. I held her hand. It was very cold, and I went to get a blanket to cover her.

Later some people came to take Mama Bea's body away, and get it ready to fly to New Jersey. Mama Bea wanted to be buried next to my grandpa. We flew on the same plane with Mama Bea so we could go to her funeral.

When we got to New Jersey, I kept getting upset all the time. Mommy asked me if I wanted to make a picture for Mama Bea and write her a letter. She said even though Mama Bea was dead, I could still make her pictures and write to her. I wanted to talk to Mama Bea. I made a picture of a tree and a squirrel for Mama Bea, and I told her I loved her and I missed her.

We went to the cemetery for Mama Bea's funeral, and mommy brought my picture. Daddy talked about Mama Bea, and then mommy read my letter and showed everyone my picture. There were lots of people there. I didn't know most of them. When everyone was finished talking and we said some prayers, whoever wanted to put some dirt on a shovel into Mama Bea's grave. It made a loud sound when the dirt and rocks landed on Mama Bea's coffin. After everyone had their turns, my brother and I both picked up a shovel and kept on digging. All the grownups were talking. I felt like I was still taking care of Mama Bea and helping to bury her next to my grandpa. Then it was time to go. I left a little stone on my grandpa's grave to let him know I was there. We went back to my uncle and aunt's house with lots of people. We lit a big glass candle for Mama Bea. It was going to burn for seven days. We had one to take back to California with us too. We flew back on the airplane the next day.

It was strange to come home. I kept feeling like Mama Bea was in the house somewhere, but she wasn't. We had a big picture of Mama Bea when she was in the swimming pool. She loved the water. So do I. We put the picture next to the big glass candle and we lit the candle. In the picture, Mama Bea was wearing a necklace with a little boy and a little girl holding hands. It was me and my brother, her only grandchildren. Daddy and mommy gave me that necklace. I wear it all the time now. I feel like it brings me close to Mama Bea.

When I sit on the couch where Mama Bea died, I think of her. I remember how I read to her, and snuggled with her, and gave her popsicles. I think of how I held her hand, and breathed with her, and how daddy says she died happy. I think of how I helped Mama Bea die happy.

I wonder where Mama Bea is now. Mommy says it's a mystery. I miss Mama Bea. Mommy says I can still write to Mama Bea whenever I want to. I wrote Mama Bea a letter. I wrote "I love you!Iloveyou!I love y ou! I love y ou! I love you! I love you! I love you!" I didn't know where to send it. So mommy and I burned the letter into a bucket, and then we took the ashes and scattered them into the wind. I think the wind is taking my letter to Mama Bea.

Lee Klinger Lesser is the head teacher of the College of Marin Children's Center. She has organized Family Days of Mindfulness and retreats, and lives in Mill Valley, California. This story is adapted from a children's picture book Lee hopes to have published based on her seven-year-old daughter, Carol's, real experiences with her dying grandmother.

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Five Remembrances of Jim

By Therese Fitzgerald 1.  I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. One time when Arnie and I visited Jim in the hospital, I asked Jim if there was anything he'd like us to read from the Plum Village Chanting Book. He responded, "Sure, I'll read "The Five Remembrances.'" After reading the first remembrance, he paused and, with a big grin, said, "That sure sounds good to me."

2. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health. The remembrance of ill-health is one that Jim had to be very aware of since he was diagnosed with cancer in 1991. From time to time he would say, "This is no way to live, having injections and treatments all the time." We can empathize with him. He raged against it, but he also reached that strong place of acceptance, even to some humor and detachment. We learned much from him.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. Jim's awareness of death fueled his urgency to live fully and completely in every moment. At a September retreat with Thay, Jim looked at me and said, in no uncertain terms, "Therese, please give me something to do. I don't need to be here for myself. Let me do something to help others."

4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. We appreciate so much how strong Artie is in her love for Jim to bear with this loss. There is a nugget of inconsolable grief, but there is also the joy of remembering what Jim taught us, and allowing him to continue in us.

5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand. The last time we visited Jim in the hospital, he was completely lucid, although in much pain. At that time, the almond blossoms were in full bloom. I bent down to Jim's ear and said to him, "Jim, the Almond Blossom Sangha is blooming beautifully now." He had so much energy, joy, and love to share with others that we all joined with him and asked for his help whenever we could. He created places of refuge for people to come, sit themselves down, and try to make peace with all the stuff kicking around inside. He set out on a course of meditation to center himself, to ready himself to meet death with as much ease as he could, with the help of all his wonderful family and friends—friends in the Hospice Movement, his veteran buddies, his friends in the Methodist Church, the Almond Blossom and Order of Interbeing Sanghas, the Jewish Synagogue, and many other places of prayer and contemplation that he made his home.

Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, assisted Arnie Kotler in celebrating Jim's Memorial Ceremony, held on May 26 at the Lotus Garden in Modesto, one of Jim's favorite spots.

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Devotion

By Nanda Currant mb18-Devotion

Greg Keryk took the Fourteen Precepts in May at a ceremony in Santa Cruz. That evening, he became a member of the Order of Interbeing and received the name True Good Birth. Greg was the first person to receive his precept name via fax, and it was the first time the precepts were read by Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald for Thay. The stability of the practice and the kindness we felt that night guided us in the days and weeks that followed.

Sangha, family, and friends wove a wonderful web of community around the Keryks. The Ulrichs were like guardian angels, bringing food and care daily and postponing a vacation to come and help at the edge of life and death. Irene's coworkers donated some of their sick days so that she could have nearly two months off to be with Greg. Greg gave richly to us with the remaining moments of his life. He watched over his adopted grand-nephew, Matthew Ulrich, with humor and interest. He wanted to know about Matthew's new haircut and complimented him on the fine newsletter he has been doing for us. Matthew is 16 years old going on ancient, so it was fitting that he and Greg found each other at this time in their lives.

Greg came to the Sangha a few more times to sit with us, and then we took turns going to his house to sit with him, sometimes at his bedside. At one point, Irene set up a tent (intended for a summer camping trip) in their backyard and lay by Greg as he rested. We all sat outside and kept watch as the mosquitoes hovered around us.

In Irene's face we saw the hope, resolve, and tenderness it took for her to sit lovingly by her husband's side. He was less here than there, but he touched in with a tiny joke or a little ~ap. Sometimes he wandered around the. one-story house trying to find the "upstairs," or to step In and out of the door to another life.

Irene's devotion to Greg moved me. She was beautiful as she poured through wedding pictures on the living room floor while he rested nearby . Strong feelings intermingled with memories, moments, and plans which would never be met. As she told me about their wedding ceremony, the feeling floated into the ceiling and the walls and was there when Greg woke up and drank some water. She brought the wholeness of their relationship into the moments they had left together. It was a gift to experience that kind of love in a room with two people.

After my mother died when I was in my twenties, I began to work with Turning Point, a support group for children and their families with serious illness. Even though members of our group gradually stopped meeting, the awareness of that work lives on in our lives. My visits with Greo and his wife Irene reminded me of the time with those families . The presence of love was palpable, and the highly charged atmosphere was imbued with light in the midst of suffering. By sustaining love in a tenuous and fragile place in life, a very gentle and subtle quality is generated. It is something felt, not necessarily seen, an open quality that breathes into the atmosphere. Humanity is often at its best when life hangs in the balance. The courage and quiet devotion that pulls a family together, or gives an individual a stronger sense of the heart of his or her life, awakens us to the simple fact of existence.

Greg had a favorite oak tree that he visited throughout his life in both good and hard times. Although I was unable to attend a memorial ceremony held there, I was inspired to draw an oak tree with a seed floating in the sky above it. This seed is planted in all of us through our having known Greg and through our continued friendships with Irene and his lovely daughter Diana. Greg may no longer be with our Sangha, but he will always be a part of us as we breathe and move through the day . I don't know if things turn out the way they should, but I do know that waking up is possible, and if we are lucky we get a glimpse of it now and then. We will miss Greg and his gritty, honest nature, humor, and inspiration.

Nanda Currant, True Good Nature, is an artist and does environmental restoration work with home-school students. She cofounded the Hearth Sangha in Santa Cruz.

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Remembering Greg

By Grace Sanchez I first met Greg Keryk at the 1993 retreat held with Thay at Camp Swig in Northern California. He was hearty, strong, and straightforward. After the retreat, we attended Sangha meetings in Santa Cruz. Gradually, the meetings stopped happening, and I didn't see Greg until two years later.

We met again in 1995 for another retreat with Thay. When I first saw Greg, I knew right away that he was ill. He told me very directly that he had cancer and was expected to live only two more months. I was somewhat shocked by his direct manner, but realized he felt safe in the atmosphere of the retreat setting. Greg was very happy that his wife, Irene, and daughter, Diana, were able to attend the retreat with him. At the retreat, Diana spoke with the young people's group about what was most precious to her. She said that to her, life was the most precious thing. I was deeply moved by her sharing and clarity, which seemed to be brought about by the knowledge of impermanence.

Being so close to death, Greg understood the importance of the Sangha in supporting practice. He had an incredibly intense desire to learn from Thay, as well as to share his understanding of the Dharma. He lived much longer than he anticipated, and took leadership in sharing and teaching with the Sangha. At one of our meetings, a small group of us had a tea ceremony together. I knew it would be my last tea ceremony with Greg, but it was okay.

Greg's death came just a few weeks before my own brother's death. I am the only Buddhist in my family . While my brother was dying in the hospital, I sat by his side and read from Thay's book Touching Peace. I felt very peaceful. I felt the Sangha holding me with compassion so that I could be present with my brother and my family . I feel this was a gift brought to me by Greg.

I think all of us feel Greg's presence when the Sangha meets. We have learned how important it is to take care of and nourish this precious jewel.

Grace Sanchez is the mother of two children and practices with the Hearth Sangha in Santa Cruz, California. She is an occupational therapist.

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Sangha Profile

mb20-Sangha1Upaya Sangha, Santa Fe, New Mexico1404 Cerro Gordo Road Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501 Tel: (505) 986-8528 Email: upaya@rt66.com  WWW: www.rt66.com/~upaya

By Joan Halifax

Every weekday at 5:30 p.m., the Cerro Gordo Temple provides a cool and quiet space for meditation practice: two sitting periods, walking meditation, and chanting the Heart Sutra. Once a week, when I am in town, I give a talk.

When I first moved to Santa Fe, I decided to wait for someone to ask for practice, and after six months, someone did. We started with sitting once a week. A year later, we began our work with dying people, and we decided to have another sit and offer council practice to dying people, caregivers, and others. Our community solidified around this work. We were not only sitting with dying people; by providing care and practice, we were also learning to practice in one of the most powerful situations of living-being with dying. Last year, we began to practice five days a week. This caIIed for a more real commitment on the part of Sangha members. In December of 1996, I ordained six members into the Tiep Hien Order.

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We are blessed with a beautiful setting for this Buddhist center. We find ourselves in the Valley of Holy Faith, a valley that runs east/west with the Santa Fe River flowing through it. Directly behind us is Cerro Gordo Mountain; to the east is Atalaya Peak. Our adobe buildings, wetlands, and Southwest gardens gather into the mandala of mountain, valley, and river. Through the strong change of seasons-the monsoons of summer, the cool of shade, the heat of sun-we open ourselves to a landscape within and without that is constantly unfolding and enclosing. The sky is big here: big mind, big heart. The valley is intimate: abiding in ultimate closeness.

Mr. Laurance RockefeIIer and Richard Baker-roshi gifted me with the house on Cerro Gordo Road on my fiftieth birthday. Then Mr. RockefeIIer generously provided the funding for the renovation of this extraordinary building, which took a year. Two years ago, we bought the River House next to the temple, which we are currently expanding and renovating to give us more dining and housing space.

Also last year, Meg Heydt gave us land in the Pecos Mountains, and we are hoping to build a hermitage there in the near future.

We have had a powerful retreat program over the past several years, but it has taken a huge amount of energy and funds to support it, so we have decided to simplify our palette in 1998 and offer only six retreats: two eight-day professional trainings for teachers of contemplative care of dying people; two Landmark Programs (a mountain walking retreat in July and Wilderness Practice in August); and two sesshins (in June and December). We are concentrating our work on our Partners Program, a model for contemplative care for dying people. We are also doing a research project on the efficacy of spirituaIIy assisted dying that wiII bring this work to the eyes and hearts of those in mainstream medicine.

The main emphasis of our Sangha is on sitting, study, and service. Our commitment to sitting practice is strong, and the zendo rings with the strength of silence as we sit every day. We also bring our practice into the world in every way that we can. Our environmental programs and work with dying people are two ways that Upaya directly contributes to the great experiment in engaged Buddhism. We are also now a village in the Interfaith Peacemaker Assembly and accepting people who wish to "plunge" into a new vision of service.

Thay has often talked about Zen corners, and I love that vision. Isn't this practice about intimacy? Every day that I am here, I feel the welling of generosity and realize that there is no difference between giver, gift, and the one who receives. Please join us for the gift of practice and study. Enter into this experiment in engaged spirituality.

Joan Halifax, True Continuation, was ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh as a Dharma teacher in 1990. She is an anthropologist and the author of several books including The Fruitful Darkness.

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Finding Ways to Help

By Sister Chan Khong I n 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh and I moved with several fliends to a house near Fontvannes, France. The war in Vietnam had ended and we were cut off from our country with no way to help. We named our community Les Patates Douces, Sweet Potatoes. In Vietnam, when peasants have no lice, they eat dried sweet potatoes. It is the poorest food, and we knew we needed some way to be in touch with the poorest people in our country. Thanks to that house and land, we were able to heal some of our wounds and appreciate the beauties of France.

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Life at Sweet Potato Community was beautiful, but I felt forlorn. More than anything, I wanted to help the hungry children of Vietnam. Then, one day in my meditation, I realized that I could go to Thailand, Bangladesh, or another country to work for social change. There was so much suffering in the world. If I could not help the Vietnamese at this time, why not help somewhere else? In less than a month, I flew to Bangkok and started working in the slums with two Thai friends. But, within a few weeks, I realized that my friends did not do things as I did. I could not reproach them for not following my advice. I knew I was ignorant of their culture and could not impose my plans on them. After three-and-a-half weeks, I decided to return to France. On the way home, I stopped in India and Bangladesh, and I saw the great misery there. Children and adults were so thin they looked like skeletons under the burning sun, as they canied huge bags of rocks and soil. In the mines, the daily wage was less than the price of one kilo of rice. These workers could barely feed themselves, much less their families. I tried to find good local organizations that I could support.

After six weeks, I returned to France, even sadder than before. I had been unable to help anywhere. All I could do at Sweet Potato was to immerse myself in sitting meditation, walking meditation, planting-lettuce meditation, doing everything while following my breathing to stay focused and not carried away by my sadness or thoughts. After many months, I had an insight. Because I was born in Vietnam, I knew the language, culture, and moral values of Vietnam; I was an expert in that part of the world. I had to devote all my energies to finding ways to help there!

A few weeks later during sitting meditation, I remembered a sentence in a letter from my sister: "The medicine you sent Mother for hypertension was very useful, but she didn't need the other medical supplies you sent, so we sold them in the market, and with that money we were able to buy several hundred kilograms of rice." When I read the letter, I had felt sad, but in my meditation, I realized that this was the solution! If I could not send money to the orphans without its being confiscated by the new regime, I could send medical supplies for them to sell at the market.

Thay always teaches that when we are in a difficult situation, if we calm ourselves, we may find a solution. But he also says that the first solution that comes into our mind may not be the best; in a few days, another solution may arise that is even better. So I continued to practice sitting and walking meditation, sowing fresh, calm seeds of peace in my mind, and after a few days, I remembered another sentence in the letter. My sister had written that she was interrogated at the police station several times because of her relationship with me. I knew that if I wanted to send medicine to hungry children, I could not use my own name. So, I began sending parcels of medicine to social workers we had worked with in the past, and with each package I gave myself a new name and wrote in a different handwriting. If I used my name, the workers could get into trouble. I enclosed a letter saying that I was a person living abroad who had lived in the same province in Vietnam as that social worker. Sometimes I was a nun, sometimes an old lady, sometimes a little girl. I wrote that I wanted to send medicine to the social worker, but that if she did not need all of it, she might wish to exchange some for food and share it with hungry children. Then I asked her to send me the addresses of some destitute families so that I could send aid to them directly. In tltis way, I began to accumulate a list of the poorest families.

In just a few months, I had more contacts than I could stay in touch with by myself. I could only send packages to 200 or 300 families by myself, because I was concerned that my address would become suspicious to the communists. So I decided to ask a number of young Vietnamese refugees who came to Sweet Potato to help me.

This made the work even more enjoyable. I was able to get in touch with our network of sponsors, and I could establish a relationship between the sponsors who contributed the funds, the young refugees who helped me write the letters and pack the medicine, and the children who received the medical supplies. I tried to be deeply in touch with each child, to find out his or her worries and aspirations. With this new project, I was able to correspond with each child. In my letters, I taught them how to enjoy the many positive things around them, not just the food and medicine, but their healthy eyes that opened to a world of shapes and colors and many other beauties of their homeland. In some cases, I was also able to help the parents through the child. It is difficult to teach adults when you are giving them money; they might feel offended. So, I tried to teach the children in ways that could also benefit the parents. In just two years, we set up dozens of small groups of young Vietnamese in Europe and Amellca working silently for hungry children.

In October 1982 we left Sweet Potato and moved to Plum Village. Here, many friends and I continue the work to relieve the suffering of poor children and families in Vietnam by sending parcels and finding sponsors to help support our efforts.

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One day, seeing how absorbed I was wrapping parcels for hungry children in Vietnam, Thay Nhat Hanh asked me, "If you were to die tonight, are you prepared?" He said that we must live our lives so that even if we die suddenly, we will have nothing to regret. "Chan Khong, you have to learn how to live as freely as the clouds or the rain. If you die tonight, you should not feel any fear or regret. You will become something else, as wonderful as you are now. But if you regret losing your present form, you are not liberated. To be liberated means to realize that nothing can hinder you, even while crossing the ocean of birth and death."

His words pierced through me, and I remained silent for several days. No, I was not prepared to die. My work was my life. Being a nun in the West, I do not carry undernourished babies in my arms, but teenagers and adults do cry silently as they share the stories of their childhoods of sadness and abuse. By listening attentively to their pain and helping them renew themselves, I am able to help heal many of these wounded "children." I also had found ways to help the hungry children, despite the difficulties. I knew that every time people received one of my packages or some other helping act, new hope was born in them, and also in their sponsors in Europe and America. If I were to die suddenly, who would continue this work?

When Thay asked me about dying, I contemplated many practical questions while following my breath. I was not exactly trying to find a solution. I knew the ability to find one was in me and that when I was calm enough, an answer would reveal itself. So I continued to breathe and smile, and a few days later, I did see a solution. I knew that the only way I could die peacefully would be if I were reborn now in others who wished to do the same work. Then my aspiration could continue even if this body of mine were to pass away. I thought about the young people who came to practice mindfulness with Thay, and I decided to share with them my experiences and deepest desires about helping suffering people. I would teach them how to choose medicines, how to wrap parcels, how to write personal letters to the poor, and how to keep Western people in touch with the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Under my guidance, a few young people were inspired to start their own committees for hungry children. With those who wanted to do my work in the West, helping those who suffer a lot in their minds, I asked them to join the Plum Village Sangha, to be trained as a monk or a nun, like me, trying to live in peace 24 hours per day with those who are very different, so that in a few years, they will be able to listen to the pain of others and try to help. If I die tonight, by a car accident or a heart attack, these 38 small groups working for hungry children, my 38 incarnations and these young monks and nuns-my continuations--will allow me to die in peace. If tonight my heart ceases to beat, you will see me in all these sisters and brothers-those who enjoy my work for hungry children, those who enjoy my work of listening to the suffering of people in order to help them be healed. You can see my smile in their look and hear my voice in their words.

Whenever I do anything, I see the eyes of my parents and grandparents in me. When I worked with villagers, I always had the impression that I was doing the work together with them and also with the loving hands of those friends who saved a handful of rice or a few dong to support the work. My hands are their hands. My love is the wonderful love of the network of ancestors, parents, relatives, and friends born in me. The work I do is the work of everyone. Even now, I can see that I am already reborn in many of my young sisters and brothers, and in many of you too, who continue my work.

Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, is a nun living in Plum Village. She has been Thich Nhat Hanh's associate for over thirty years. This article is excerpted from Learning True Love (Parallax Press). She continues her humanitarian work in Vietnam. (Please see The Mindfulness Bell, Issue 21.) Since Spring 1998, seven new self-help villages have started: four in Phong Dien, Thua Thien Province, one in Suoi Bac, one in Ba Ria, and one in Lam Dong.

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Gratitude

By Dewain Belgard In closing his first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul wrote: "En panti eucharisteite. (In everything, give thanks.)" He was advising them no matter how negative a situation, to be mindful of the elements of joy and blessing also present.

In the practice of gratitude I have discovered the paradox that my capacity to be aware of suffering increases in direct proportion to my capacity to experience joy and to be mindful of blessings in every situation. Compassion and joy are inseparable. Ifwe harden our hearts and close our eyes to suffering, we also cut off our capacity to experience joy and happiness. And, if we are not continually mindful of the joyful and beautiful elements of life, we cut off our capacity for compassion.

Some years ago, Jim, my dear friend and life companion for many years, lay sick in the New Orleans Veterans Hospital. One day he told me he could no longer get to the toilet. He asked if I would help him with the bedpan. I was overjoyed at the opportunity to help. He asked if I would spend the night with him, because he was embarrassed to ask the nurse or orderly to help him with personal hygiene. I called the physician and asked her permission. With some reluctance, she agreed. It was about one-thirty in the afternoon. I told Jim I would go home to take care of our dogs and cats and return about seven o'clock. He asked me to fix his watch on a nearby shelf so he could tell the time. I arranged his watch. Then I kissed him good-bye and left.

When I returned about six-thirty, Jim appeared to be asleep. He was lying on his side where he could see his watch, but his eyes were closed His facial expression was peaceful. Then I noticed how still he was, and as I drew closer I realized that he was dead. I think he tried to hold on to life until seven o'clock when he knew I would return. But he wasn't able to hold on long enough.

For several days I could hardly stop crying. I cried myself to sleep at night. I even cried in my dreams. I woke up in the morning crying. But with the help of friends, I began to see how fortunate we were that Jim had been spared a long, agonizing death.

I feel truly blessed to have known Jim and to have shared so many years with him. His life continues in many wonderful ways. For instance, he designed and built the room where our Sangha meets. In the years since Jim's death, I have come to see, especially with the help of Thay Nhat Hanh's teachings, that for me the practice of gratitude in all circumstances is a fundamental and indispensable practice.

Nearly everyone can recount similar experiences of pain, grief, and loss. Life is difficult for us all at times. In Pali, the word dukkha-often translated as "suffering"-in its root sense means "difficult." Life is dukkha. That is the First Noble Truth. Though it may seem paradoxical, that truth is why I find it so necessary to practice St. Paul's advice to the Thessalonians: "En panti, eucharisteite!" In all circumstances, be grateful!

Dewain Belgard, True Good Source, is a social worker and practices with the Blue Iris Sangha in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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The Seasons of Practice

By Eileen Kiera I return to mindfulness of my breath as to a prayer-not prayer as supplication, but as a willingness to be open to what is unfolding in each moment. With conscious breathing as a foundation, we welcome whatever comes. Resting in the stillness of our breathing, we welcome the things we want and the things we don't want, the things we generally choose to push away, deny, or ignore. Whatever presents itself, we are able to be here in trust. I'm reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 16th century Christian monk, who said he practiced the presence of God. In each moment, he came back to trust whatever presented itself to him. He gave himself into relationship with each event or person who came to him as if God breathed with him.

Even as I sit at my computer, writing these words, I'm given the opportunity to practice. My ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, asks me to put her hair in a bun. My first thought is to send her away, imploring her not to disturb me. But I return to my breathing as if to prayer and choose instead to be with her. As I brush her thick, black hair, I am touched by her sweetness and beauty. I feel my love for her, and the preciousness of this fleeting moment together. When we have finished, I am more present than before to my writing, and she goes off, happily singing a little song to herself.

Mindful breathing adds weight and potency to the simple things in our lives, and allows us to touch the depth of mystery, the deepest rhythms that are present in even the most ordinary things. In spring, I love the sight and scent of tender, pink apple blossoms. In summer, the fruit, hidden in green leaves, attracts deer and Steller's jays to our yard. In autumn, the crisp, frosted apples are filled with the most delicious, sweet juice. In winter, the apple trees stands bare of leaves and fruit, as if dead. Year after year, I marvel at this ordinary cycle of life. It is a rhythm, like the ebb and flow of the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the coming and going of my breath-the rhythm of life and death that surpasses our thoughts or understanding of life and death. And we live in the midst of this mystery every moment, with each breath.

I was touched by this mystery recently as I sat with a friend who lay dying. After sharing some memories of times we had spent together, ordinary events now filled with poignancy, I sat with him in silence. My breath seemed most ordinary, but it brought me in touch with the presence of the mystery, which you might call the presence of God. I was not looking for anything or making any effort to understand what was happening. Rather my breath was like a silent prayer of opening and trusting. In a few moments, I noticed that my friend and I were breathing together, our chests rising and falling at the same rate, slowly, peacefully. He reached out and took my hand, as old friends do. And I knew that we were both moving in the midst of the unknown, accepting even this. Being with each other, loving each other, as we had over many years, was enough in that moment. And I think it is enough in every moment, when we practice as prayer. We fall in love with everything that life gives us. We enjoy this day.

Dharma teacher Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, teaches mindfulness throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp Community, a group of people dedicated to creating a rural practice center in the Pacific Northwest. They have purchased 40 acres in the mountains of northern Washington State, and are currently raising money and planning for the first stages of development.

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Opening Our Hearts

By Joan Halifax The breath practice of Giving and Receiving develops our compassion and our ability to be present for our own suffering and the suffering of others. It is a practice of lovingkindness that opens up our whole being to the overwhelming presence of suffering and to our strength and willingness to transform suffering into peace and well-being. It is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do with people who are dying.

We begin the practice with a heart committed to helping others, to being with suffering and dying. When we look deeply, we see that to help others, we must relate with kindness toward our own suffering. To deny our suffering is to close off our hearts to what we and others experience. If we touch our suffering with awareness and love, Giving and Receiving becomes a practice of transformation. To see the possibility that we and others can be free from suffering is to see our own vast, good, and tender heart.

When I sit with a dying person, I must see beyond individual suffering. I must look from a place in myself that includes suffering but is bigger than suffering. I must look from a heart so big it holds everything. Can I see her suffering and her great heart as well? Can I see his true nature, who he really is, deeper than the story?

The practice of Giving and Receiving asks us to invite in all of our suffering and the suffering of others, and let them break open our untrusting and protected heart. When my heart breaks open by being deeply touched by suffering, its tender spaciousness becomes the ground for the awakening of selfless mercy. With an open heart, we cannot help but send all of our love and kindness to one who is suffering.

To begin the practice, you want to feel relaxed and open. You can sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want your mind to be clear, calm, and spacious. If you feel agitated, angry, or afraid, breathe in whatever you are feeling, accepting it. On your exhalation, breathe out peacefulness and well-being. Clear your mind by bringing your awareness to what is agitating you and accepting it with kindness. Do this breath practice until you are calm and alert.

When you are calm and clear, you can begin the second stage of the practice. For some people who have never done this before, it will seem counter-intuitive, because it involves working with the breath in an unusual way.

You begin by breathing in hot, dark, heavy, polluted smoke-suffering. On your exhalation, you breathe out a breath that is light, cool, and fresh. Breathe not only through your nose, but through your whole body. On your in-breath, dark smoke enters every pore of your body. On your outbreath, coolness flows from every pore of your body. Stay in this rhythmic pattern of inhaling dark smoke and exhaling cool, light breath.

Next, visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This sheath is your self-importance, your selfishness, your self-cherishing, your self-pity, all the fearful contradictions that are difficult for you to accept. It is the fear that hardens to protect your heart. The practice invites you to break apart the metal sheath around your heart, to open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness. Visualize the metal sheath breaking apart when the in-breath of suffering touches it. When the heart opens, the smoke dissolves immediately, vanishing into the great spaciousness of your true and vast heart, and natural mercy arises. The quality of mercy in your vast heart allows you to be with suffering and at the same time, to see beneath the suffering. This is your awakened heart.

You have now touched the initial elements of the practice: calming and opening the mind, accomplishing the rhythm and texture of the breath practice, visualizing the metal sheath around your heart and the sheath breaking open, the spontaneous appearance of the vast heart of mercy, the disappearance of the smoke into space, and the out-breath of healing. Remember that you are doing this practice because you and others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings may be free from suffering.

You want to care, genuinely care. This wish cannot be general; it needs to be very specific, personal, and authentic. When the Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche practiced Giving and Receiving, he remembered a puppy he had seen when he was eight years old. The puppy was being stoned to death, and the people killing it were laughing. He would have done anything to relieve the dog of its suffering. Whenever he thought of the puppy, his heart broke open. The memory of this helpless little creature was a key that helped him practice with commitment, resolve, and love.

Bring to mind someone to whom you feel a deep connection, whether this being is dead or alive, someone who is suffering, not a being whose life is all grace, but someone who really has suffered and whom you wish to help be free from suffering. Let your whole being tum toward this one's suffering and wish that he or she may be healed. If this is difficult for you, tum toward your own situation. You are also suffering.

I ask you to breathe through your whole body your own suffering, your own alienation, or the suffering of your beloved as heavy, polluted, hot smoke. The instant that the in-breath of suffering touches the metal sheath of selfcenteredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke of suffering instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space arises an out-breath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, healing breath to this other being or to yourself. Let the out-breath flow through every pore in your body. From the vastness of your open heart, breathe out mercy and love.

If you feel resistant, call yourself back to the practice. Remember that this practice can be done on every breath you take, every breath you give. Cultivate the details, the craft of this practice.

After you have practiced Giving and Receiving with yourself or one you love, let go of the image of that person. As you do, keep breathing in the dark smoke of universal suffering and breathing out healing. Then, let the visualization become particular again. Take your attention to the parent with whom you had the most difficulty-whether dead or alive, foster parent, or whoever raised you with whom you had the greatest difficulty. See them sitting before you.

Maintaining the rhythm of the hot, smoky in-breath and cool, light out-breath, consider how this one and you have suffered. For a minute, internally raise your eyes to this one and look at him or her. Let yourself slowly and mindfully examine the face and hair. Then, very simply gaze internally into the eyes of this parent with whom you have a problem. If this is difficult it may help to look at a mental photograph. See the wear on his face. See how her life has been full of disappointment and frustration. Maybe she was afraid. Maybe he was numb. See if you can allow yourself to be in touch with the difficulties of this parent. Perhaps you experience anger, disappointment, or heartbreak while looking at this parent. Let yourself feel whatever comes up. Imagine your parent as a five-year-old child. See his or her face fresh and open, full of anticipation. If it is difficult for you to see your parent this way, please notice the resistance that may be there. Resistance is all right. Breathe in the resistance, breathe out acceptance, spaciousness, warmth, and relief. If your parent is still alive, remember that he or she will die one day.

Remember your sincere wish at the beginning of this practice that the friend on whom you focused would be free of suffering. Breathe in blanleless suffering as dark smoke. Remember your parent as you last saw him or her. Let the dark smoke of suffering break open the sheath of hardness around your heart. On your out-breath, send all of your strength, understanding, caring, and love to your parent. Give it away with an open heart so that this one may be healed, so that suffering will be transformed.

This practice can also be applied to your own life. Turn your heart and mind toward your own situation. Breathe in your suffering and let it break open the sheath around your heart. Let your own vast heart open to who you really are. Breathing out, send clarity and space to your whole being. Heal yourself. You have the power in you to come home to the vast and true nature of who you really are. If you are a Christian or Jew, you might say, "I want to come home to God." What separates you from God is the hardness around your heart, the fear in your heart. Breathe in the hot smoke of suffering from separation from God. Let it dissolve the hardness around your heart and disappear. What is left is love. All suffering disappears into the vastness. Breathing out, send a cool breath of radiant healing to yourself and come home to God. In your exhalation is the breath of spirit, the goodness of God bringing you home.

The practice of Giving and Receiving helps us get in touch with the obstacles that prevent us from understanding and caring. Through our own experience with suffering and the development of an atmosphere of openness toward it, we can begin to accept and be with the suffering of others in a more open, kind, and understanding way. Our difficult personal experiences are the bridge that leads us to compassion. We do not reject difficulties. Rather, we meet them exactly where they are. We cannot prevent suffering or death. We simply try to meet it, accept it, and find mercy in it.

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Dharma teacher Joan Halifax, True Continuation, leads the Sangha at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is an anthropologist, leads retreats on death and dying and other issues, and has written a number of books. This article is excerpted from herforthcoming book, Being with Dying, to be published by Shambhala Publications in late 1999.

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Poem: You Are My Garden

A tree is dying in my garden.You see it, but you also see other trees that are still vigorous and joyful.

And I am thankful.

I know a tree is dying in my garden, but I do not see it as the whole of my garden.

And I need you to remind me of that.

I am told to take care of the garden left to me by my ancestors. A garden always has beautiful trees and others that are not so healthy. That is the reason why we have to take good care of it.

You are my garden, and I know that I should practice as a gardener.

I have seen an old, untended garden, where the cherry and peach trees still bloom wonderfully and always in time.

Thich Nhat Hanh

from Thich Nhal Hanh, Call Me By My True Names (Berkeley: Parallax Press. 1999)

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In Memoriam

Don UberSeptember 3, 1939 – November 4, 2002

Don first came to the Potluck Sangha four years ago, and soon this shy, sweet man rarely missed a chance to be with us.  Hosting a study group one time, he confessed, “We tend to develop isolation as a coping mechanism early in life. Sangha models openness, acceptance, peace, joy, and inclusiveness.”

Once, on a Sangha nature walk, a flock of swallows descended, flew in a circle around Don’s head, rose, descended again, and one bird sat on his shoulder. It rose, came back, and sat again, this time chirping in Don’s ear. Don listened, and when there was a pause, he whispered back, and the wild bird listened.

When Don told our Sangha about the cancer growing inside him, many of us offered support. Joanne offered to accompany Don to his appointment with the surgeon where he would learn the details of his planned surgery. At first he said it was not necessary, but then paused for a minute and softy said yes, he would like the support. Don was discovering how to let people be there for him. Don asked his surgeon if it would be all right to travel to a meditation retreat in San Diego with Thay. The surgeon said yes, that spiritual practice is the best preparation for surgery. At the retreat, though a little hesitant, Don talked about his cancer with his Dharma discussion group, and received much support and compassion.

Near the end of October Don was in chemotherapy and radiation and having a very rough time. Though we had been doing what we could to help out, we felt that he needed more support, and planned to ask him how we could help him full time. But we never got to ask him, as he was suddenly back in the hospital, having suffered a heart attack and then a stroke. Late one Saturday night we heard the news, and many Sangha members gathered around his bedside, telling him of our love and appreciation for him, and singing songs. Though the hospital staff said he was in a coma, his hand lifted as we said our names and spoke of our good times with him. When we sang, his eyes became moist, like ours.

The evening following Don’s death, the Sangha gathered with his sisters, who had traveled from New York, to sit, recite the Heart Sutra, share stories, songs, and a meal. We talked of what Don would want in a memorial service. Several of the Sangha members created a beautiful ceremony, attended by about 60 people. We lit candles, had a short silent meditation, read some poems, sang songs, and shared stories about Don. Being able to be with Don during his illness, his dying and his memorial gave the Potluck Sangha members a deepening love and appreciation for all our moments together. Let us be joyful, let us be kind.

What to say of a man so gentle A wild bird lights on his shoulder To speak into his ear? Let his kindness go ahead of me.

Offered by members of the Potluck Sangha in Oakland, California: Caleb Cushing, Joanne Connelly, Lennis Lyon, Sarah Lumpkin, Denise Bergez.

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Breathing Into Life and Death

An Interview with Rochelle Griffin by Barbara Casey, at Plum Village, June 2002

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Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?

Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.

I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!

Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.

Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.

That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting.  But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.

In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.

In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.

In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin

I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.

In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.

Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?

Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.

Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.

People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.

In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.

The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!

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I explained: This mattress we are sitting on is the boundary, this is where you can get out all your rage and your grief, step by step. Gradually he opened into his deepest feelings and he got into some very deep rage, and what he found beyond that rage was the little child that he’d been when he was three years old. Discovering this child, he sobbed deeply. At three years old, he had been taken care of by his grandmother in Spain while his parents went to Germany to work. She was his security and his love, but she died, and he had to go to Germany to be with his mom and dad, and as the family became increasingly dysfunctional, he was hurt very much in many ways. But when he was able to get into contact with that little child in himself, he again felt the joy and peace that he’d missed for a long time. He came to understand some of the ways that he had learned to neglect and abuse that child, which empowered him to take charge of his life. He began to understand that his parents had done the best they could under the circumstances. Eventually he was able to forgive his parents and himself.

I have found that this work of dealing with our feelings in a very direct way helps us to connect with our ancestors and connect with our spiritual self. We’re not teaching people to beat on telephone books or pillows continually. Sometimes people might need to do that a couple times just to get a sense that they can be angry without getting to the point that they will kill someone. In this way they learn the difference between healthy anger which enables us to say ‘no’, to be assertive and set limits, and distorted anger when we can hurt ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve worked with quite a few war veterans and people in prisons who have killed people, to help them understand that deeper inside there’s a very wounded child who needs to be healed and cared for. When we can access that child, the healing occurs, and the forgiveness develops. I think forgiveness, including self-forgiveness is a very important issue.

Barbara: Do you use conscious breathing in this process?

Rochelle: I do help people to become aware of their breathing how deep, how free it might be in a particular moment. The breath is a key tool that can be used to access the body and to understand what is going on inside, beyond the thinking. I’m very skilled in observing body language.

In the Homecoming workshop we present this work through a form of Gestalt therapy, which is a mixture of a number of psychotherapy techniques. It’s based in healing wounds so that we can come to a place of peace and joy, so that we can live our life with a sense of aliveness instead of merely surviving. Breathing is a real tool. I often will tune in to someone’s breath to understand more deeply where he or she is emotionally at that moment. Our breathing tells us a lot. I become aware of my breathing to see where it’s stopping or where it’s flowing or if it’s smooth or not smooth, kind of like taking my emotional temperature. I explore the places in my body asking for attention (by being painful, closed, restricted, cold, or empty) during my in-breath and offer space and relaxation with the out-breath. In the workshops we begin and end the day with mindfulness meditation, and do walking and sitting meditation with the participants. In the workshop we also demonstrate how we can effectively become better caregivers. If someone has survived and transformed a certain experience of suffering, others can be nourished when that story is witnessed and understood.

Conscious breathing plays a role in the workshops as it does in the dying process. When people become more ill and closer to death, mindful breathing becomes more and more conscious, because when you have no energy, what else can you do but breathe? Through your breathing, you can connect to your emotions, as a way of releasing, letting go, and relaxing. Also as a way of connecting to what is and to that which we are holding on to and avoiding.

This last winter I was very ill with pneumonia and was having a hard time breathing, and I was so grateful that I know how to connect with my breathing through mindfulness practice. From my window in the intensive care unit in the hospital I could just see a small strip of sky between the buildings. I noticed the full moon outside and in this way I connected with my loved ones, and flowed with the pain, not denying anything, but able to connect with love, with life, and with support. I felt completely safe and at one with the universe.

Often people from one of my workshops will ask me to be with them or guide them in their dying process. One of the greatest fears that we have is the fear of dying alone. I don’t think we actually can die alone, but people often fear that they might. So I offer my service of being with them as they prepare to die.

Barbara: What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe that we can die alone?

Rochelle: I feel that we have a lot of help from both sides people with us in the present as well as from the collective consciousness. Often I hear stories from people who have been close to death, who say that a loved one who has already died is present, that their essence is present somehow during the dying process, and that this eases the fear and even can increase the sense of joy and peace in going towards death.

Often I will ask someone who is dying, “What do I tell people who want to know about dying? What is your message, your truth that you would like me to share?” The answer is always similar to how one friend expressed it: “You don’t need to be dying to start living. You can begin now, today. You can heal old pain and finish what is unfinished. Work through your grief, anger, fear and please do express your love enough! Then you can find peace in your life and in your death.” – Jaap Jan, age 34, lived until 1995.

Barbara: As mindfulness practitioners, how can we best be with our loved ones who are ill or dying?

Rochelle: Mindfulness practice is so important because it makes us aware of the moment and of being present, and what sabotages us from being truly present. It can be real hard when it’s your own family member, especially when we have unfinished business, expectations, and unfulfilled longing.

We can learn to be instruments of peace. If we are firmly rooted on the earth, with our head touching the sky, connected to our source of spirituality in the universe, we can be an instrument between the universe and earth. Being peace in ourselves, making peace in our family and community, then we can facilitate the peace process with others. Understanding the breathing is a real tool because dying is not much else than a deep and total relaxation!

Barbara:At retreats we do semi-totally relaxation!

Rochelle: As long as we’re alive we don’t do that quite so totally as when we die!

Barbara: Right, right.

Rochelle: When we come into this world, we fill our lungs with breath, and this is the point of birth. At the end of life we breathe out and we die. I often offer breathing exercises and relaxation exercises to people going through the dying process. If you put a little more accent on the out-breath and it becomes a little bit longer, there is a point when there’s no breath, a still point. The in-breath is effort, and the out-breath is the relaxation or letting go.

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Often I meet people who are so concerned about life after this life, or life before this life. I feel we have our hands full with our suffering and our joy in this life! I sometimes wonder if we actually are able to experience life before we die. Many people seem just to be coping to survive, without feeling really alive. So what I do is to bring what we experience as painful and that which we deny or run away from, into our consciousness so that it can heal.

I’ll tell you a story about a really good friend of mine who died a few years ago. He had to have lung surgery, and he’d asked me to be present while he went through this. I stayed with him for the weekend afterwards. He was in and out of consciousness, and every time he became conscious he would grab my hand and not want to let go. But as he would relax and kind of slip away, I let go.  I stayed in a very light physical contact with him with my little finger just touching his, but not with the grasping. And I continued to breathe with him. I would support his breathing with my breath by making it a little audible.

As he came around and awakened, he said, “Rochelle, your being here has felt very supportive, but why did you keep letting go of my hand?”

I explained, “I wasn’t sure if it was your time to go, and I wanted you to feel free. I wanted to be present with you, whichever way you needed to go.”

“Oh,” he said, “I understand. I was grasping.” And I said, “Yes, and I wanted you to know that you had the choice, the courage, and the freedom to do what you needed to do for yourself.”

A few months later he was near death, and I went to the hospital, as he was asking for me. This was Saturday morning and the plan had been for him to go home on Monday so he would be able die at home, probably later that same week. But he was becoming very weak and his breathing was labored. I came into the room I looked at him and he looked at me, and I said, “You know, you are going home.” And he nodded. He knew. I added, “But, we cannot take you to your house, do you understand that?” And he nodded again. He had an oxygen mask on. I asked him, “Do you want me to come sit with you, and do you want me to guide you through this?”

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He motioned with his hand, inviting me to sit close by on the bed. He took the oxygen mask off himself.

I said, “Allow yourself to be fully aware of your breathing, and follow your in-breath and your out-breath. Just in between the in and out-breath there is a still point where there is only stillness, before the in-breath starts again. Can you feel that? Gradually, allow your out-breath to become a little bit longer, and just relax into that. Is that okay for you?”

He laid his hand very gently down next to mine, not grasping. He looked at me as if to say, “I got it, I don’t have to hold on any more.” In a few breaths he relaxed completely and his breathing stopped.

It is so touching to witness this letting go, fully conscious and without resistance. He was a great teacher. That was a gift.

Barbara: Where do you see the direction of your work continuing?

Rochelle: I see myself as a privileged listener and I go where I am invited. My hope, my vision, is that my story will be an inspiration for other people to develop their own ways of healing into their own life and death. I’ve trained a few people to continue working with the emotions as I learned from Elisabeth. I’ve done this work throughout Europe, and also in Israel and the USA. At present there are fewer people dying from AIDS, so our center in Holland has become more  of  a  mindfulness practice center for anyone interested in exploring their own answers around loss and change.

In addition to this work in Holland, we have opened a center in Spain where I’ve also been working for the last ten years and there is a team trained to offer similar work there. The last couple of years I’ve been invited to Israel several times, and with the situation in the Mideast right now, I think there’s an awful lot of work to do there.  And there’s the AIDS crisis in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of the newer pain medications have become available in Vietnam for people with cancer; however this medication and nearly all medical care, is denied the people dying of AIDS. I do not have the illusion that I am going to all of those places, but there is much to be done. I’m watching to see what doors open as I continue being a privileged listener and training others to be also.

What I’ve learned very deeply because I’ve been so ill, is we have to take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t care for anybody else until we take care of ourselves. At present I’m in a new phase of finding my personal balance between doing and not doing.

Barbara: Do you live in chronic pain still?

Rochelle: I have some pain always, in varying degrees, depending on how well I’ve been able to keep myself in balance. I use a combination of some medication, but mostly I use what I call my M.M.&M. therapy (meditation, massage and manual therapy) as well as taking care of my emotional needs and making time for myself to just gaze at the frogs in the pond. Every time someone dies or leaves, I feel the grief very physically. I recognize my grief when my heart feels closed off and often I feel physically cold and uncomfortable. What I’ve found is that I move through the grief process when I’m willing to go deeply into my feelings, including the resistance, by letting myself cry, feel anger, and whatever else I need to do. I am becoming more skillful at embracing these feelings without needing to express them fully; just recognizing them and their original source is often enough. Then my heart can open, be free, and feel supported by the love in the universe again. That’s what I think has helped me to repeatedly regain my balance, along with the support of my Sangha and my partner, throughout the eighteen years that I’ve worked so intensively in this field.

Barbara: As the process of birth has been brought out of the closet, you are helping to bring the process of dying into awareness also. We all need work like yours to help us to face death.

Rochelle: Yes. I’ve offered many trainings for volunteers and for healthcare professionals in the field of palliative care, and the work is always about our own issues. We often think, as professionals, we come into this work because we want to help others, but we have to help ourselves first. Because in dealing with dying people, if you aren’t completely authentic, they know! They are always a few steps ahead of us showing us the way!

Barbara: It’s like being with children.

Rochelle: Absolutely.  You can’t fool them at all.  They know when you’re being real and when you’re not!

Barbara: [laughs] That’s true! Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the worldwide Sangha.

Rochelle: Thank you for asking.

Rochelle Griffin, True Light of Peace, Chân An Quang, practices with the Sangha Riverland. She lives with her partner, Jantien, and their golden retriever, ‘Gino-the-Joyful’ at the Vuurvlinder Center and Guesthouse for conscious living and dying, in Heerewaarden, a small village in the center of The Netherlands. Rochelle enjoys learning about the wild environmental needs of reptiles by breeding them in the safety of her large garden.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the managing editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

Photos by Harry Pelgrim.

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In Mindful Memory

In Memory of Nora de Graaf True Fruition – 1917-2003A Lover of Silence and of Life

“Am I going to die?” Nora asked, ten days before her death, more curious than fearful. “Are you ready to die?” one of her many visitors asked. There was silence.

“Yes,” Nora said, with the quiet conviction that characterized her life. Days later, she requested, “Open the window, the butterfly wants to fly away.” The next afternoon, the butterfly left. Nora de Graaf, friend and teacher, “Mother” of the Dutch Sangha, was gone.

Her quest to understand and bring meaning to her life began as a young woman. She studied with many religious teachers and collected an extensive library of teachings. She met Thich Nhat Hanh in the early 1980’s, and felt a lasting and deep heart connection with him. Her own teachings attracted more and more people, and she quietly and firmly laid the foundation for the current Dutch Sangha. In 1992, she received the lamp transmission and became a Dharmacarya.

Nora was a light for many in the Netherlands. She sought to understand her own suffering — including dealing with the progressive nervous disorder, Parkinson’s disease — which helped her to understand others’ suffering.  She helped many people discover the healing power of silence. Nora had a passionate love of life, expressed through music and gardening, and especially through her encounters with everyone she met. Her daughter Nel, her friend Sietske, and many from the Dutch Sangha were present for a simple and moving ceremony during which family and friends remembered Nora, before setting her to rest in a beautiful cemetery under high old trees.

Offered by Dutch Sangha members Sietske Roegholt, Eveline Beumkes, Shelley Anderson, and Francoise Pottier.

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In Memory of Alexandra Glankoff

It is with great sadness that the Community of Mindfulness Metro New York shares that Alexandra Glankoff, a cherished member of our Tuesday night Sangha for many years, died on January 19, 2003.  Alexandra was traveling with friends and drowned while swimming off the coast of Verkala in southern India. Her presence in our community is greatly missed. Alexandra was a NewYork City public school teacher and was pursuing a Doctorate in Urban Education at the City University of New York. She also sat with the Educators’ Sangha, sharing how she integrated mindfulness practice into her work. She taught her students to use mindfulness meditation as a concentration practice prior to examinations, and invited the mindfulness bell to bring her students back to the present moment. She loved working with inner city teenagers, and among her contributions were coauthoring a multicultural curriculum, coaching a championship debating team, and directing a video with teenagers entitled, “Consider Us! The Children’s Rights Collective, Working Together For Our Tomorrow.”

Alexandra and I were in the same family and discussion group at Plum Village in 2002. She shared that she had been suffering from seizures caused by a head injury that occurred several years before in a car accident, which had left her in a coma for several days and taken the life of her mother. Because of the seizures, Alexandra took a leave of absence from teaching to heal, to grow, and to reflect on her life.

While at Plum Village, Alexandra came to know and greatly admire Sr. Khe Nghiem, who showed her great kindness and one time walked with her through the woods of Lower Hamlet to a small lake. Alexandra shared that walk with me, and returning, we saw a deer in the distance. Reflecting the golden light of the setting sun, the deer jumped over the thigh high sunflowers, appearing and disappearing as it jumped through the field. The golden grace of that leaping deer was a treasure we shared. Alexandra was just like that deer.

Bernadette Pye, Tuesday night Sangha, with Gloria Schwartz, Educator’s Sangha

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I Have Arrived: I Am Home

By Cindy Sheehan mb41-IHave1

I was honored and humbled to be in the presence of a holy man, Thich Nhat Hanh, today [October 8, 2005] at MacArthur Park in a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Thay (teacher), as he is known, walks with an aura of peace and acceptance radiating from him. Thay teaches: “Every day we do things that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life, our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment we are alive.” This is what we see Thay doing.

In a speech I delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on the one-year anniversary of my son Casey’s death, which was also the thirty-seventh anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., I said: “We must all do one thing for peace each day.” I now know that is not enough. We must live peace and embody peace if we want peace on earth. Our entire lives must be for peace. Not just one activity a day.

Every Step Is Peace

That was the theme for today’s walk in MacArthur Park. Thay reminded us to be in the present and take every step in peace and know that we are walking on the earth in peace. He lovingly admonished the hundreds of people who came to hear him, to do everything in peace: eat, walk, talk, breathe, sleep, work, play, etc. There was to be no yelling, no angry words, no harsh statements. This admonishment struck me to the bone, because I have been so strident in my criticism of the Bush administration in what I have seen as a greedy and destructive quest for power. The way Thay teaches can truly help our country to live in eternal peace and not eternal war.

“I have arrived. I am home. “

This was the first sign we passed as we started on our walk. Thay told us we should say with every step, “I have arrived, I am home,” and that every second we newly arrive in the present. I see so much conflict and struggle in our world because we don’t live in this second. Instead, we are worried about the next second and are mourning the past second. Camp Casey taught me to live each moment in the arrival moment. One of the reasons I have been able to remain calm in the face of an onslaught of troubles and calamity is because I realized in Camp Casey that I could not struggle against the current of my life and change my destiny any more than I could bring my son back from the land of the dead. Each second of each day is our precious arrival and we should honor each moment. Jesus Christ also said: Why worry about tomorrow? Today has enough worries of its own.

I Am Home

I met a new friend today named Jewel, whose son was a medic on the front lines in Iraq and has tried to commit suicide three times since he returned from the desert of pain. The distraught mother is beside herself with worry, said she feels her boy is dying. His superiors will not allow him to be diagnosed with PTSD so he can’t get the treatment he desperately needs. Jewel is Buddhist and I told her: “You realize your son died in Iraq.” She replied to me: “We have all died because of this war.” She is right. On April 4, 2004, Cindy Sheehan died, and Cindy Sheehan was born. The dead Cindy Sheehan lived for her home and family. She kept a neat and tidy house, often cooked meals, did everyone’s laundry, entertained friends, laughed more than she cried, worked at various jobs, and her family meant the entire world to her. She lived an insulated life filled with Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays and other celebrations.

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The Cindy who was born on 04/04/04 still adores her family above all things but now knows that the human family is worth struggling for too. The lifelong cause of peace with justice is worth leaving her home for and traveling around and being home wherever she is. I pray for Jewel and especially for her son, that he realizes that he “died” in Iraq but he can be a much better person than the one who left his loving home and mother. Tragically, the story of Jewel and her son is not an uncommon one.

“In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

This has been one of my feelings and themes for months. I know that during the terrible war [in Vietnam] Thay had no enemies, but the perceived enemy was communism. Now, in this evil war that we are struggling against, the perceived enemy is terrorism. I just saw a poll that said only thirteen percent of Americans fear a terrorist attack but the war machine has taken over and created this perceived enemy.

Last week, George Bush said things were going to be far worse in Iraq in the next few months. He likened Iraq with World War 1. Why do we allow our leaders to sacrifice our young to the war machine? War will stop when we as parents, educators, religious leaders, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives refuse to live and think in a way that allows our loved ones to be taken to a war of someone’s choice and killed. I wish I had refused to allow Casey to go to Iraq. I wish I had knocked him out and taken him to Canada or anywhere far enough away from the war monster, but I know that that would not be enough to stop the war. We all need to change our way of living and thinking so that young men no longer need to be sacrificed. I pray that the sacrifice of my son’s life will help me and others to dedicate ourselves to walking in peace.

Thay has said: “Some people think it’s a miracle to walk on water. I think it is a miracle to walk on the earth in peace.”

If we don’t learn how to do this as a people we are in for a hard time. Thay has shown hundreds of thousands of people in the world how to walk in peace. Now that we have identified the war in Iraq as insane, we need to walk on earth in peace in order to go forward. I am committing my life and Casey’s life to peace. An exit strategy from Iraq is not enough if we cannot learn to change our way of walking.

Let’s walk each step away from the killing, and walk each step in peace towards the answer. Let us join hands in working always for peace, in peace: being peace.

Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq, made international news when she traveled to Crawford, Texas and camped there to get President Bush’s attention. She is a founding member of Gold Star Families for Peace.

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Poems by Thay Giac Thanh

mb45-Poems1 Tears for My Homeland Oh my beloved homeland, So many long quiet nights I lay awake, crying tears of love for you. Oh my beloved homeland, What have you done to deserve this? To let those demons torture you so, Without remorse, compassion, or brotherly love. They sold you to the Devil King. Out of love for you I buy you back with my own flesh and blood, With my wisdom, my very heart, And with my whole being. Even if this body burns into ashes, I vow to spread them along the road to peace.

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Dying Poems will die. Ten-thousand-year-long loves will also die. Clouds swirl, obscuring the whole sky. On life’s journey, there are ups and downs But one day I will shake free from all my worldly debt.

Formless Samadhi Clear water on one side, Urine on the other, All will return to sky, clouds, oceans, and rivers. There is sunlight during daytime And moonlight at night Shining my way.

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Being Sick My skin and flesh are wasted, My body is withered, But my heart is still joyful as spring flowers. Rivers, mountains are extensive. Why hesitate to give up this tiny body? I return it to the immense earth and sky.

Proclamation As a wanderer who has no home By chance I met you While wandering from place to place. My younger brothers and sisters from Vietnam, You are green mountains, rivers, Morning sunlight, and dewy flowers. You are joyful, innocent, and light, As white clouds drifting in the deep blue sky Along with the first light of a new day. If in youthful folly, You lose your way, falling into steep gorges Deep in the mountains, All you need is a gentle breeze Of understanding and love To bring you back To the lofty sky and vast oceans. You do not need raging storms Of anger and hatred. Please do not scold or blame My younger brothers and sisters For I fear that the gray color of sadness Would darken their pure hearts.

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Book Reviews

mb45-BookReviews1Journeying EastConversations on Aging and Dying

By Victoria Jean Dimidjian Parallax Press, 2004

Reviewed by William Menza

Journeying East is an extraordinary primer on the spiritual, psychological, and physical components of getting old and dying — and living a mindful life. Author Victoria Jean Dimidjian is a professor of education at Florida Gulf Coast University and founding member of the Naples, Florida Community of Mindfulness. She has assembled a profound and practical collection of insights from Ram Dass, Frank Ostaseski, Joan Halifax, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Eigen, Rodney Smith, Sister Chan Khong, John Welwood, and Norman Fischer.

In interviews with Dimidjian these teachers transmit a remarkable blend of Eastern and Western wisdom. They tell us that to understand death or prepare for it we have to be deeply in touch with what is happening in the present moment, even as the body dissolves.

Thich Nhat Hanh says: “There is no journeying east, there is no journeying west. We live in the now.” Frank Ostaseski tells us: “You cannot go into the room where someone is dying and not pay attention. Everything is pulling you into the moment.” Norman Fischer says: “I think that death is our greatest teaching. Dying is a way of living, a meditation practice, the most fundamental and most profound of all meditation practices.”

We are cautioned by John Welwood to “be careful with what the death industry might be trying to package for us about knowing what death is all about.” If you have an idea about “a good death” you are creating expectations that will interfere with your unique experience of death. We each need to find our own individual death. “This is an important moment in your life — the final passage — and you don’t want to “live someone else’s version of that!”

The book has an appendix on Internet resources and another on suggested activities such as writing or videotaping a living will, an advance health directive, a durable power of attorney, a will, a good-bye letter. To demystify death and make it normal and natural Dimidjian suggests taking classes on aging and dying, visiting a local hospice, and talking about death with your family. This reminds me of the Meditation or Contemplation on Death, like the one detailed in Thay’s book The Blooming of a Lotus, where we envision the various stages of a decaying dead body — one day this is what we will be.

mb45-BookReviews2Understanding Our Mind

By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2006 Softcover, 251 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

The first time I encountered the Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness was in Thich Nhat Hanh’s previous book on this subject, Transformation at the Base. About midway through the text, I got into trouble trying to intellectually grasp the teachings. While I did finish the book, it was with scant understanding. Now Thich Nhat Hanh has made these teachings from the Abhidharma (literally super-Dharma) more   accessible. In Understanding Our Mind, Thay provides an in-depth look at this primary text of original Buddhism on the nature of consciousness, applying it to modern life. The verses, and thus the book, are divided into six sections: store consciousness, or the seed bed; manas, or the mind root; mind  consciousness; sense consciousness; the nature of reality, or non-self; and the path of practice.

Breathing in, I approached this new book by first reading the Fifty Verses. Breathing out, I made some notes. For example, verse Ten refers to the five universal mental formations. For handy reference, I penciled them into the margin: 1) contact; 2) attention; 3) feeling; 4) perception or conceptualization; and 5) volition. I thought of how these work in succession: When we smell a tasty food, the odor commands our attention: contact and attention. Often, then, we feel hungry: feeling. Next we approach the stove and take the lid off the pan. We see the food: perception or conceptualization; and finally, we decide to taste it: volition.

Mind root, manas, the verses explain, has its interbeing with these five universals. In fact, manas inter-exists with all thinking and affliction. Further, all that stems from the mind root is indeterminate and obscured. In his commentary, the author uses the metaphor of the ocean to explain indeterminate and obscured: “The ocean is salty, so all drops of water in the ocean are salty at the same time.”

Verse Twenty-Two refers to the stages of the bodhisattva path. Many of us have experienced the first stage of the bodhisattva path, transforming afflictions. And perhaps when we are well focused, we enjoy a preview of the tenth stage, transforming our belief in a separate self, nirvana.

Understanding Our Mind contains the central illumination of Mahayana Buddhism — that we are all buddhas-to-be. Much more than an intellectual exercise, Thich Nhat Hanh’s discourse is a deep inspiration, underlining for those of us raised in the Christian tradition our early, child-like belief in resurrection. Afflictions, we learn, are none other than enlightenment! We can see how this great mirror wisdom works in our own lives.

When our beloved says something that hurts us, Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to practice by closing our eyes, breathing mindfully in and out, and imagining the two of us one hundred years from now. After three breaths, when we open our eyes, we’ll no longer feel hurt; instead, we’ll want to hug our beloved. What I find continually amazing is Thich Nhat Hanh’s ability to bring liberation into daily life. When we go from being hurt to being mindful and loving, he tells us we are touching nirvana!

“Samsara [the endless cycle of birth and death and its inherent suffering] and suchness [the nature of nirvana] are not two; they are one and the same.” Once we realize this, we can smile “the smile of non-fear.” Even in pain, when we are centered, we can give ourselves fully to peace.

mb45-BookReviews3First Buddhist Women Poems and Stories of Awakening

By Susan Murcott Parallax Press, 2006

Reviewed by Phillip Toy

“Why has Gautama come here? To take away our sons and make our daughters widows!” — The Mahavagga

This masterful re-issue of a 1991 original — ten years in the making, five of which it took to write — showcases Susan Murcott’s scholarship, coupled with considerable poetic sensitivities. This marriage of talents seamlessly brings to life a pivotal period for buddhadharma in general, but more specifi y, the religious, social, and political context for Buddhism’s first enlightened women. The common threads of loss, estrangement, marginalization, madness and, finally, liberation are eloquently and simply woven and illustrated in the enlightenment poetry (the Therigatha) of eight of the most important groups of women of that day.

Pajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and foster mother who raised him, and consequently lost him to “the homeless life,” became the first ordained woman and the first woman teacher. She founded the first order of nuns. She writes: “I have reached the state where everything stops.” Early in her nunhood she challenged her famed foster son, via his chief disciple, Ananda, on the first of The Eight Special Rules: even the most senior nun must bow down before the most novice monk.

The privileged Patacara (meaning “cloak walker”) having lost her son and entire prominent family in a fire, went mad and wandered in circles dragging her clothes to ribbons till they fell off her body. Townsfolk drove her off with sticks and rubbish. Gautama tracked her down: “Sister, recover your presence of mind!” She says, “I concentrated my mind the way you train a good horse.” Eventually Patacara’s following was second only to Pajapati’s.

The pabbajita, or wandering heretics and disciples, some of whom were forest-dwellers, write a curious mix of diligence and desperation. Frequently, as with the other groups portrayed, traumatic personal events were springboards for deep religious experiences and new beginnings — even, indeed, enlightenment: “I have ended the hunger of gods and humans, and I will not wander from birth to birth. I have no thought of becoming.”

Whether wise woman and teacher, mother, wife, old woman, prostitute, courtesan or beautiful woman — each role’s poetry describes its unique path to yet a common destination. Murcott’s ardent, scholarly grasp of her material is polished by an unspoken, intensely personal treatment that hints at her own journey — obviously similar in many ways to her book’s subjects’.

Supported as it is throughout by copious notes and footnotes, by an exhaustive bibliography including unpublished theses, an index of poems and poets, a pithy glossary, and a striking appendix of “The Rules of the Nun’s Sangha,” this volume belongs on every serious Buddhist student’s bookshelf. A compact and artful explication of the Therigatha, sixth century B.C.E. enlightenment poetry of the Buddhist nuns and the earliest known collection of women’s religious poetry, it delineates the way so many of us come to the Dharma — out of brokenness, irretrievable loss, confusion and sorrow.

These eloquent lines, which appear in some form in almost every poem, express it poignantly: “I remove my shoes/ wash my feet/ sit down beside the Buddha/ I am quenched, I am cool.”

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Releasing Regret

By Patricia Webb Last summer my husband, David McCleskey, was diagnosed with liver cancer. Forty days from his diagnosis, he made his passage. He died in the arms of our Sangha. In fact, the Sangha was sitting in our house sending David a loving kindness meditation at the moment he passed. Our Sangha and the practice gave comfort to David and to me, and the Sangha received a beautiful gift by being present. The following story is one of many in a book I’m writing about David’s dying.

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Nights were always difficult. Like a newborn baby, David awoke frequently, and his days and nights were all mixed up. He never complained, but he needed things: water, help to the commode, light on, light off, more blankets, fewer blankets. On this night, however, David was more agitated than usual. He began to kick the bedcovers off and sigh heavily.

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“What is it?” I asked.

“I’m miserable, so miserable,” he said. “Do you need something, some water?”

“Nothing, no, nothing. I’ve wasted my life, wasted too much time. My work isn’t finished. And there isn’t any way to fix that now.”

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I turned on the light. David’s face was full of grief and despair. Everything in me wanted to blurt out, “No, darling, that isn’t true. You’ve done so much with your life. You’ve had a great and wonderful life.” But a voice inside me said, “Keep still.” What to do then? I rubbed David’s shoulder. “It’s okay, okay,” I said.

He reached for my hand and squeezed it tightly, letting out a great sigh. That giant out-breath was like a message. An inner voice said, “He’s releasing. Allow it.”

Over the next several hours, David poured out mountains of regret in great sighs. His words were very few and I was not sure what exactly was being released. But I knew that each sigh, each word, held great substance and meaning for David. Our bedroom was a container for the dark and dense energy that came from my beloved’s being that night. The air was so thick that it was hard to breathe. I was not afraid of the energy itself, heavy though it was. I was afraid of the harm that might come to David if he couldn’t stop generating these terrible, agonizing regrets. I did not want my sweetheart to die with these thoughts on his mind.

Near dawn, a soft pink glow permeated the room. A presence whispered in my ear: “Patricia, everyone walks this valley of regret. You will many times; you have already done so many times. All of our work on earth is unfinished and we are unfinished and it is okay.”

I knew that David felt this presence also because he opened his eyes, smiled a very tiny smile, and said, “This is exhausting.”

“Yes it is,” I said. “But you’re letting go of a lot of bad feelings. I think everyone has regrets like this, don’t you?”

“Hmm. Maybe.” He was thoughtful for a moment. His breathing shifted, becoming more rhythmic and relaxed. We slept then until the phone rang around 8:00 a.m. Our Dharma teachers, Peggy Rowe (True Original Source) and Larry Ward (True Great Sound) were calling to check on us. I told them what had been going on. Larry asked to speak with David.

“David, how are you today? Are you getting enough rest?” He asked.

“I’m miserable,” said David. “I’ve messed it all up.” “Understood,” Larry replied. “Okay now, David. Now is an excellent time to remember your Dharma name—True Mountain of Goodness, right? David, your practice is to bring to mind, to focus on the thoughts, the words, the actions of yours that have brought goodness. There is so much to recall, David, great fields of goodness. And you know that, man. Dwell on that. And dwell, too, on the goodness that has come to you. This is the time for that, okay?”

“Got it. Right,” David said. Then Peggy came on the line. “Remember, David, how much we love you. Your Sangha, your friends, we are with you. You’re doing a great job with this journey.” David smiled.

Watching David in the moments just after that phone call was like watching a sunrise. He gently allowed his consciousness to shift, letting light come in. I saw him surrender to the force of bright, positive consciousness. As he focused on his breathing, I quietly busied myself, making ready for the day. His mood brightened slowly as he continued the beautiful work.

After a while we knew it was time to close this ritual time. With David’s blessing, I opened the bedroom door to the garden, turned on the fan, burned sage, invited our small bell, sprinkled lemon and lavender—all to help the night’s sad energy depart.

David lived several weeks after this event, yet he never again voiced a single regret. Later that day, in a moment of sweet attention so characteristic of him, he caught my eye and simply said, “You’re a good wife.”

Our spiritual names come from a well of knowing deeper than any person or group, and they bless us in times of need. On that morning, True Mountain of Goodness surrendered to the human experience of regret, released it, and embraced the boundless goodness of his being. I continue to live in gratitude that David had a Sangha and a practice that enabled his transition to be so beautiful.

mb53-Releasing4Patricia Webb, True Mountain of Action, sits with Prairie Wind Sangha of Oklahoma City. She is a writer and artist, and has been a member of the Order of Interbeing since 2005.

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