exercise

Fragrance of Tea Flowers

By Sister Dang Nghiem

Before she became a nun, Sister Dang Nghiem was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple (Bat Nha) near Bao Loc since September and she wrote this letter to Thay on December 12, 2005.

Beloved Thay,

I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.

I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The dharma is truly deep and lovely!”

The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sisters’ Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.

How Many Share a Room?

After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.

When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.

A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.

Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.

Stories About Food

We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for

170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.

In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.

Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.

Last week we had a meeting with the Venerable Abbot of Prajna Temple, and he said he felt much love for us coming from Plum Village, because we all become darker and thinner here. “Even brother Pháp Kham, who was fair and round when he first arrived, now also looks so dark and thin!” (“He’s looking more like a mountain person [a montagnard, mountain tribesman] now,” a sister whispered, and all of us giggled). “Well, we have given seventy, eighty percent of ourselves, so we can give up to ninety, one hundred percent of ourselves. We just continue to stretch our arms a little longer. So many people desperately need our practice. Centers like ours must be present everywhere in Vietnam in order to rebuild our country....” The Venerable spoke with such enthusiasm, and with such a charismatic smile, we looked at each other and laughed, admiring the Venerable for his talent for giving us effective spiritual boosters.

Letting Go of Attachments

Before I came to Prajna Temple, I heard Sister Thoai Nghiem say that the biggest problem here is attachment. I reacted strongly, believing that people with that tendency should be expelled from the community. However, living together with the sisters and listening to them, I understand better the causes of their tendency for attachment.

I practice Noble Silence each Lazy Monday for at least half a day, because I conduct an anatomy class for our sisters later in the afternoon. Last Sunday evening, it was past 10 p.m. already when one of my mentees came to my room, asking me to help her with her insomnia because, she said, “I know you’ll be practicing Noble Silence tomorrow.” I told her to return to her bed, lie down, and follow her breathing. If she could not sleep that night, it would be okay; she’s had this problem several years, and we were not going to solve it that night. She walked away angry, and her steps were heavy. A few days later, I asked her if she was still mad at me, and she said her anger resolved after she had been following her breathing for a while. I asked if she knew why I sent her back to her room that night. “Because you want me to practice taking refuge in myself,” she replied.

Because all of us, monastics as well as aspirants, live in one building, the sisters have the tendency to “stop by” your room anytime they want. Some also tend to “hang out” nearby or at a distance, looking at you with curious and affectionate eyes. Sometimes I return to my room late, feeling exhausted, and I see some young aspirants knocking on my window, waving and smiling!!! I have requested a couple of my mentees to memorize the sutra “Taking Refuge in the Island of Self.” They are to recite it to me by memory, to contemplate on this sutra, and to apply this teaching in their daily lives.

Having lived with the sisters and listened to their life stories, I understand more why some of them are prone to attachment. Many of them do not receive love or positive communication in their families and in their previous temples. Therefore, when they happen to meet a person who has some freshness and who spends time to take care of them, they want to attach themselves to that person. They want to attach their hearts, fragile and full of sadness, to a person they think they can trust. I see clearly that as older brothers and sisters, we must practice to nourish stability and space within ourselves, so that we can understand others more deeply with time, and so that our love entails no “hook” that others can “attach” to.

Background of Our Monastics

These past three weeks our dharma teachers have begun to interview the aspirants and visiting nuns who request to stay and practice with us. I also participate in these interviews to help assess their health condition. Each day, we use the working period, an afternoon activity, and the evening sitting session to conduct interviews. I have learned a great deal from these sessions.

There are sisters who are so innocent and pure; they want to become monastics because they have seen how beautiful the monastics can be in their fine manners, behavior, and speech. There are also those who come from unhappy families; their parents abuse and neglect each other, and the young people do not want to repeat this cycle of suffering. There is one girl who spent most of her tender years caring for a mother with mental illness, begging for food, working as a maid, and defending her mother and herself from perverse men. There are those who came to live in a temple when they were only three or four years old. Yet their faces are somber, their hearts closed off, because they have witnessed such division and abuse in their root temples.

Dear Thay, it is very painful to hear all of these stories and more. In his last minutes before the Buddha died, he was so compassionate as to ordain Subhadda as his last disciple and to advise the new monk to practice diligently towards liberation. Suddenly, I touch the immense love in your heart, and I understand why it pains you when we have to turn someone away from our practice center here—though our facilities are stretched beyond limit. Our environment of practice has the capacity to nourish and enliven the faith and aspiration in people. I sincerely hope that my brothers and sisters, monastic as well as lay, will come and help build true practicing communities in Vietnam.

Beloved Teacher, you are here in every second and every minute. You are the tea flowers emitting fragrance throughout the mountains and valleys. You are the stream that flows through all paths. Even though our center is newly established, with your wisdom of Sangha building, the support of the Buddha and the patriarchs, the wholehearted care of lay friends, and the diligent practice of our brothers and sisters, Prajna is growing quickly and tremendously  strong.

Every late afternoon during the exercise period, some of us practice martial arts, some weed the tea hillsides, and some jog along the creeks. Our sisters’ clear laughter intertwines with the luscious green of the mountains. A chanting voice is heard nearby:

Now that I have entered this holy place I must use the sacred medicine to enlighten my spirit before I go out again.

To you our deepest gratitude. Brothers and sisters at Prajna Temple,

Dang Nghiem

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Ending the War with Weight

Mindfully Transforming Body Image By Peter Kuhn

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One morning, feeling serene and well-grounded after meditating, I took a mindful shower. Awash with gratitude I stepped out with a smile and looked in the mirror. All I saw was my big belly and love handles. Contented joy vaporized into distress. I berated myself, obliterating peace and the morning’s merit. Breathing in, I realized the thoughts and feelings I was consuming were toxic. Breathing out, I released and attended to them. My suffering had something to tell me. How do I cultivate peace and compassion for all sentient beings when I find parts of myself unacceptable?

The body scan from the Satipatthana Sutra* has been a fantastic tool:

“Further, the practitioner meditates on his own body from the soles of his feet upwards and then from the hair on top of his head downwards, a body contained inside the skin and full of all the impurities which belong to the body: Here is the hair on the head, the hair on the body, the nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.”

The mindful penetration of each body part cultivates understanding and gratitude. I appreciate their miraculous design, their unique and interdependent natures. Each part serves and supports all others; each part serving and supporting my life and transformation. In time I penetrated my fat with the same equanimity as my heart or lungs. When judgment and aversion were overcome an old knot was untied.

With right concentration, I see that fat is storing energy for future use and is an evolutionary survival tool. My eye of understanding can now see fat as battery packs instead of a cloak of shame or nemesis. My heart softens and I suddenly appreciate my fat as a precious gift and see that it is here to serve and support me, too. “Oh, my poor misunderstood fat, I am here for you.” I think of loved ones and others who are unable to gain weight due to illness, of the millions who are starving, malnourished, or lacking enough to eat. For the first time, I am able to thank my fat and express real gratitude that it is here for me. I appreciate that it is working well and caring for me by storing energy for future use in times of famine, drought, or hardship. With an open heart, I let my fat know that I’m grateful it’s here for me but I do not need this amount of energy stored presently. With deep sincerity and a smile I let my fat know that I am working for its liberation as well as my own. Looking deeper, I see that liberating stored energy from my body makes it available elsewhere, in another form, where a need may exist. Nothing is wasted in nature.

Energy transforms, Neither produced nor destroyed. Weight is not the enemy, I bow deeply to my fat.

When I embrace my pain, distorted perceptions are revealed. I gain understanding and insight; in this case, a new perspective on the way I view my body and weight. Looking deeply I touch the reality of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. Accepting my fat, new peace and happiness are born.

Mindfulness practice led me to exercise. There were times when I wanted to quit a workout early. I learned to exercise for those who cannot do it themselves instead of just ‘toughing it out’ for myself. I think of my hospice patients at the VA Hospital, the wounded, ill, lame, and incarcerated. I can work for them and my ancestors, for my dead son, David, and the uncountable masses who would give anything for the good health and freedom I enjoy. Interbeing supports and sustains me on all levels.

Thinking of others helps me practice mindful consumption as well. I can transform hunger pangs from a self-centered panic button to a mindfulness bell. My hunger becomes “the hunger,” shared by millions, most of whom lack the choice of when and what to eat. Small self becomes the large self.

I vow to liberate stored energy To benefit all beings. Eating mindfully for nutrition, Transcending indulgence.

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Even as a vegetarian my relationship to food can be unwholesome. I’ve used food as a drug, but thought of it as a comfort as I eat to escape my feelings, fill a void or find pleasure. When I eat sweets I’m compelled to keep eating them. I tell myself, “This is a treat,” and “I deserve this pleasure.” When finished, I’ve consumed thousands of nutritionally void calories without satisfaction. I’ve watered seeds of indulgence and gluttony, not well-being and happiness. If I am mindful of my feelings I know that I am suffering. Buddha taught that there is a cause and end to suffering. My suffering has something very important to tell me. Piercing the cloud of denial and illusion, I see that eating for taste alone is a root cause of my suffering. The end of this suffering is eating for nutrition. I no longer mistake sweets for something wonderful. Not eating sweets is the real treat.

When appetite calls I know I’m alive. The fire of transformation ignites A calming smile. All is well.

I’ve dropped three pants sizes in the last year and am in better shape than I’ve been in a long time. Even so, one look in the mirror at my remaining pot belly and that old tape, “What’s the use?” can pop up, shadowed by doubt and futility. Breathing in, I recognize my old friends. Breathing out, I know these are just thoughts and feelings. Embracing them I smile. Breathing in, I know I want to lose more weight. Breathing out, I know the pounds are dropping. Slow and steady. Breathing in, I know I am doing well. Breathing out, I smile as my practice grows stronger and supports me.

I question my thoughts, feelings and perceptions as they arise. Dining at a friend’s house I was offered homemade chocolate mousse and politely declined, feeling quite good about myself. The hostess had worked hard on her creation and my wife explained, “Pete doesn’t eat sugar any more.” Craving arose immediately. Breathing in, I observed a small voice whispering, “See what you are missing? You can’t have that.” For that instant, mousse seemed like the key to my happiness. Suddenly, eating it seemed a greater act of independent volition than declining. An expression of freedom! Other thoughts started to dog-pile on the first: it would make the hostess very happy if I broke my diet for her creation, I don’t want to hurt her feelings, I adore chocolate, it does look great! Breathing out, I recalled the pain I’ve experienced firsthand from unmindful consumption. I reaffirmed my well-being, knowing I could eat whatever I wanted right here and right now. I was not “missing out,” but gaining solidity in freedom from suffering. I politely explained to them, as well as to myself, that I had not “stopped” eating sugar or dessert, but was choosing not to, just for today.

There is no diet to stick to, I am not stuck. There is no renunciation. I eat for nutrition.

Am I feeding my liberation or my suffering? Thay explains, “True love cannot exist without understanding.” Sometimes, what I perceive as love is a mislabeled distortion, a romantic guise for obsession. I’ve loved food all my life, but the nature of that love was self-centered gratification. As I practice mindful eating and the Five Contemplations, my love of food is no longer based solely on gluttonous self-centeredness.

Hunger pangs ring A mindfulness bell. In a moment’s pause I taste the fullness Of my great essential nature.

As I cultivate true love, it radiates, inside and out. When I’m awake in the present moment and I know what I am eating, in the mundane and greater sense, the nutritional value of my meal increases. I am enriched on all levels and dine on the miraculous, feeding my awakened nature and physical form. Abstaining from meats I’m cognizant of the great harm caused directly and indirectly by the consumption of animals, engaging compassion for all creatures and our mother Earth, and truly generating the “peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective consciousness” that the Fifth Mindfulness Training describes. The taste of love is sweeter than chocolate mousse.

My fork rests between bites Inviting full awareness Of habit energy and what I chew.

When I focus on weight loss there is no satisfaction. I can’t lose it fast enough and fear gaining it back. I want to lose weight but it isn’t my goal. The practice is my process and the process is my goal. There can be no failure, only an aspiration.

The spoon and I inter-are. She breathes. We release between bites.

I am deeply grateful to my teacher, Thay, who helps me turn walls to doors while cultivating true love.

*See Exercise 7 in Healing and Transformation: The Four Establishments of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Peter Kuhn, Deep Transformation of the Heart, lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Jackie. He is a recovering addict, clean and sober 23 years, and practices at the World Beat Center Sangha, the Still Ripening Sangha and Sweetwater Zen Center.

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