Practicing at Deer Park Monastery By Carl, Aubyn, and Sage Stahmer
Deer Park is where you meditate and are mindful. You meet monks and nuns. They always smile. It makes me happy. At Deer Park everyone is a vegetarian like me. Everyone at Deer Park protects the earth. - Sage Stahmer, Age 7, April 2002
Sage had been coming to Deer Park for one year when I asked him to write a few words about the monastery and our practice there. I remember his first visit to Deer Park well, because it was also the first for me and my wife. We shared similar emotional reactions to our introduction to the Day of Mindfulness of fear, disorientation, and a sense of alienation.
My wife and I had been reading Thay's books at home and attempting a self-guided practice for nearly a year prior to our first Day of Mindfulness. But everything at Deer Park was so different from the world that we lived in - new languages, new rituals, new faces - that all of our seeds of fear and alienation moved quickly to mind consciousness, bringing with them all of their associated habit energies. We were afraid to speak to anyone, afraid that Sage would not be properly cared for at the children's program, afraid that we were making too much noise during the silent meal, and generally, just afraid. As we talked about the experience in the car on the way home, we all echoed the same sentiment. It was radically unfamiliar and, as a result, radically uncomfortable.
But the Dharma works in subtle ways. Happily, one important lesson that we learned from reading Thay's teaching was the need to look deeply into our suffering; and that night, as we prepared and ate our meal, we made a conscious determination to do just that. After much thought and discussion we came to realize that not a single unwelcoming word or gesture had been made by the other practitioners at Deer Park, lay or monastic. To the contrary, everyone had actually acted very skillfully to try to alleviate our suffering and make us feel welcome. Why then, if we had been openly welcomed into the Sangha, did we feel so un-welcome? It was at this moment that I saw clearly, for the first time in my life, that the source of my suffering was me. We made a family commitment to return to Deer Park for the next Day of Mindfulness, and we have been doing so ever since.
I have often reflected on the events of that evening and wondered what it was that allowed us in that particular moment to free ourselves from the cycle of habit energies that had, until then, prevented us from truly touching our suffering. Certainly, our reading ofThay's teachings and the light, informal practice that we had developed on our own were important contributing factors, providing the foundations for a process of deep looking. But I have come to believe that it was something more than this, something that we had taken home with us from the Day of Mindfulness, even while consciously rejecting it, that watered our seeds of mindfulness. It was a simple something that is reflected in Sage's words about Deer Park: "They always smile."
As we sat that night discussing our Day of Mindfulness, we returned frequently to this simple point. They did always smile; and their smiles were genuine, reflecting both joy and stability. Try as our habit energies might to reject this gift, they could not. The living Dharma is contagious!
As an extension of the spiritual community at Plum Village, of Thay's teaching, and of our many spiritual ancestors in the practice, the fourfold community at Deer Park provides support and stability for our family as we practice everyday life. Days of Mindfulness offer the opportunity to regularly touch the living Dharma, which helps us to deepen our relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the Sangha, and with the world. For my wife and myself, the organized forms of practice such as sitting, chanting, and Dharma talks have helped us learn to be more diligent in our daily practice. And the true sense of community that is present in the Sangha brings us joy and support, even when we are not physically gathered. For Sage, the Sangha provides an opportunity to develop his mindfulness naturally while he spends his days exploring and playing with the other children, the brothers, and the sisters in the loving and mindful environment provided by the stability of the practice. We have made friends , and we have learned to be friends as well. We have arrived. We are home.
By Karen Hilsberg BRUCE L. HILSBERG, Strong Commitment of the Heart and True Courageous Inspiration, passed away on March 29, 2005. He was forty-five years old. Bruce and his wife Karen met in graduate school, where they both received doctorates in clinical psychology. Bruce’s most recent employment was as Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility where he brought mindfulness training to the staff and individuals served.
Partners for eighteen years, Bruce and Karen have two children, Emily and Ben. The Hilsbergs began the thriving Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City in 2003.
Numerous beings have provided invaluable friendships and spiritual support along the path, sharing the gifts of love and non-fear. In lieu of flowers, please offer support to the Touching and Helping Program, c/o Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.
Many people use the word “lemon” to refer to something that is no good. For example, a car that frequently breaks down is called “a lemon.” But a lemon is a beautiful fruit. The blossoms of our lemon tree fill our garden this very morning with an indescribably sweet fragrance. People have said many things to us during this past year and half of our experience with illness: “This is a tragedy;” “What is happening to your family is terrible;” and “I hate cancer.” Our response has been to see this time as a wonderful opportunity to develop spiritually, to practice mindfulness, and to learn about true love and non-fear. The depth of closeness and trust that we have nurtured and developed in our marriage and our family this past year has been priceless.
It is one thing to study the teachings in the abstract, philosophically, but quite another to live them day in and day out. For Bruce, that meant facing his own inescapable death; for me, it meant facing the inescapable death of my partner of eighteen years; and for our children, it meant facing the illness and loss of their daddy.
We have been taking refuge in the three jewels, practicing weekly with our Sangha, frequently visiting our teachers and brothers and sisters at Deer Park, and practicing with each other, with our family, and with friends. In the process, we have experienced letting go—letting go of our careers and professional personas, of our attachment to Bruce’s physical health, of our possessions, of our so-called independence, even of eating and drinking, and most important, of many long-held notions and beliefs.
In the letting go, remarkable things have been happening. We have touched deeply experiences we had only dreamed of—giving freely of ourselves to our loved ones, receiving the generosity of others, openly communicating with one another. For us, the realization that our spirit truly continues on, healthy and vital, even after our body has de-manifested “like a worn out, old shoe,” has been liberating.
Together, as a family, we have been able to transcend feelings of fear and despair and to touch the ultimate dimension when we enjoy simple pleasures like the garden, the flowers, the wind, the birds, the full moon, the laughter and tears of each other and our children, hugging, touching, breathing, moving our bodies sleeping peacefully. Simple pleasures mean everything when we realize that we are all “on death row.”
Just as we enjoy picking lemons from our lemon tree, squeezing them, adding sugar, then water, and tasting the fresh and delicious lemonade, we have taken this experience of cancer that has manifested in our family and added our practice of mindfulness in order to touch the beautiful and refreshing truths taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. In doing this, we transcend our suffering and touch peace, solidity, freedom, love, and non-fear in our everyday lives.
Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives with her children in southern California, near Deer Park Monastery
Letter to Bruce and Karen Hilsberg
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hilsberg,
Whether Easterners or Westerners, young or old, we are always very fearful when we are facing death. Even when we are so ill that our breath is irregular, we still don’t believe that we are facing death. We don’t accept that this physical body is disintegrating because of beliefs that lie deep in our consciousness.
But there is an ultimate truth, which you can understand with deep awareness. Life is a cycle of manifestation, and death is a cycle of de-manifestation. We are the awareness that is no birth, no death.
In the winter, the leaves fall from the trees and the branches are bare. But during that time the trees are not dead, because the living energy still exists. We know that in springtime the young shoots and new leaves will return and develop very fast. Our human life is a thousand times more miraculous than the cycle of the trees. As the trees use the cycle of rest to grow, human beings should look at the life and death of this physical body as a cycle, in which they can mature spiritually. When you look deeply into your own mind you won’t have any worry, fear, or despair.
I am not a good practitioner, and I have much suffering when I see that my loved ones are very sick and I cannot help them; when I have to face many of my friends leaving, and I do not have the power to hold them back. But because of the practice, eventually I can transform the fear and suffering in my heart. I have a strong faith that the life and death of this physical body is only a cycle of the manifestation and de-manifestation, while the nature of our true self, is no birth, no death.
Bodhisattvas and Zen masters come to this world and leave this world very peacefully and freely. They can say goodbye to this life with joy because they know that they are not truly gone. We are no different than these bodhisattvas and Zen masters, if we have a strong belief that our true self is never gone.
I sincerely hope that you have strong faith in your Buddha nature that is no birth no death, so you can overcome despair, worry, sadness, and suffering. And I pray that the Three Jewels in the Ten Direcitons will always protect you so that you will have strong faith in yourself.
Venerable Phouc Tinh
The Venerable Phouc Tinh of Deer Park, wrote this letter shortly before Bruce Hilsberg’s death. Translated by Van Khanh Ha.
Growing closer to those we love who have already passed away By Sister Hanh Nghiem
How many of us have suffering from our past, especially when it comes to relationships and how we live our life? Many people ask how we can fix mistakes or heal deep wounds we carry with us in our daily life. The Buddha teaches us that impermanence is life. We like impermanence when it benefits us and gives us what we want, but when it takes us away from our loved ones or causes us to suffer, we don’t know how to accept it. We want to be with our loved ones forever. We want to make our life meaningful and precious.
I was raised Jewish and went to synagogue for all the High Holidays; we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover at home with the family. Every once in a while we went to minyan (prayer service) on Friday night, but still I felt a sense of emptiness and a lack of spirituality and guidance. I did enjoy the Jewish traditions and how the Jewish observances were so family oriented. When it was time for the family to gather for holidays, it wasn’t about gifts; we came together to remember our ancestors and to let go of regular daily routine, to reflect on our lives.
A Heart-Breaking Loss
Actually it was my dad, Barry Allen Brodey, who had the Jewish roots. My dad passed away ten years ago, when I was sixteen years old. Some teenagers shot him in order to get into a gang. I remember the day my mom had to break the news to us. She wanted to do it as skillfully as possible and took us to a beautiful wooded area near our house, where we sat on a log surrounded by trees in the early summer sunshine. The news was so shocking that I didn’t even cry. I didn’t know how or what to feel. I thought you only heard this news on the TV. I just turned into a frozen block of ice, filled with disbelief and despair. A part of me wanted to believe that he just went on a vacation. But he wasn’t on a vacation, and he would never come home. I never got to say good-bye or I love you one last time. He had to die alone and far away from home.
My father was like the summer sun, making everything around him vibrant and alive. There was no way any person could have a dull moment with him. He was the life of the party. He not only called me his little princess but also treated me like a princess. My dad was always more than happy to take me out with him, but like most kids I took it all for granted. He gave me all I needed to be happy—life and his love. But while he was still alive, I focused so much on wanting to understand his suffering, the part of him that was closed to the world and simply untouchable.
I was stuck on a weed rather than enjoying his garden. I didn’t feel it was my place to pry into his life and open up wounds, but it made me feel hopeless because I didn’t know how to connect with him. I couldn’t help him for fear that the family would deny what I saw, and I felt like a fool for saying anything. If my dad did share his sadness with me, I was afraid of having to truly face it and deal with it.
Looking back now, I know what I was doing at the moment was just perfect. I was there with him and in my heart I was happy to have him as my dad.
A Gift of Healing
After I was ordained, I started having dreams of my dad. They are such a refl of how I was and how I have been transformed. The first happened five years after his death. I had been ordained only a few months. In this dream, I was in my bedroom—there were no colors. My dad walked in with a melancholic look, his head bent, his shoulders slumped. He gave no hint that he might be harboring a childlike hope to receive love by coming into his daughter’s room. I just sat there on my bed unmoved by his presence, nor did it dawn on me to show my love to him.
The second dream occurred about a year later. My dad came to visit me still very sad and depressed, oblivious to the world around him. This time I acknowledged his presence happily. The atmosphere was still somewhat gloomy, but there was love present. I took him on a tour of the monastery grounds and brought him up to a room to rest. I carried with me a photo album to show my dad the special events that had taken place in the past years. Many sisters came along with us to make both of us feel supported and loved. Then we parted company as he lay down on the bed and peacefully sank into it for a much needed rest.
In the last dream, which took place a year later, I was together with my dad, my sister, and my brother at some kind of celebration. There were lots of colored round balloons, red, yellow and blue ones, and many green trees under a clear sunny blue sky. We sat around a white table with a floral centerpiece, laughing and giggling as Dad told us stories. My dad was so happy. He looked as if many of his burdens had been lifted from him and his heart was much lighter. I could see his joy and freedom as my own, which made my heart rejoice in a peaceful way. Over the course of my stay in Plum Village, I have learned how to take refuge in the Sangha and break down a few of the walls around my heart to allow the love and wisdom of the Sangha to embrace me. But it didn’t embrace only me, it embraced my dad.
The Faith and Obedience of Abraham
My dad was not a Buddhist nor would he have wanted me to be a Buddhist nun. But one thing is for sure, he always wanted me to be happy. I took to this path out of faith and in obedience to what I heard in my heart, I think much like our Father Abraham did with God. Thanks to the practice of non-fear and learning to open my eyes to the life around me, my dad and I have the chance to live together for a long time. I have no regrets about our past relationship. Nor do I feel that he is alone, because he still lives with me every day, just as our spiritual ancestors continue in us through our faith and obedience.
Each time I hug a person or share my pain with someone, I know that he too is loved and he too is cared for, and we smile together in peace.
Sister Hanh Nghiem lives at Deer Park Monastery.
In April 2006, four of us, Brother Phap Ân, myself, Sister Giac Nghiem (Soeur Elizabeth) and Sister Tung Nghiem (Sister Pine), had the honor and privilege to travel to China for the First World Buddhist Forum.
When we arrived at Hangzhou, in Jiangsu Province in the east of China, we were taken in charge from A to Z, staying in luxurious hotels (we each had our own room!); everything was very well organized. We were told that our hosts had been working on this project for two years.
Three days were dedicated to this Forum, titled “A Harmonious World Begins in the Mind.” We spent entire days listening to speeches by more than 70 participants; each person would speak for a maximum of eight minutes. The number of participants attending the Forum was estimated at 1,000, with 34 countries represented. Our small delegation represented France.
Nourished by the Joy of Togetherness
The speeches followed one after the other—about the efforts of Buddhism to bring improved well-being on the planet earth, improve the conditions of humanity, and find solutions to the complexities of the modern world and the many problems that it generates in different fields: environment, economy, health, social life, education. All the participants recognized the need for renewing Buddhism in order to respond more adequately to the difficulties of our times. Good intentions, promises, even plans of action were proposed as to how Buddhism could positively influence society.
Half-way into the Forum, doubts and a certain lack of appreciation arose in me, due to what I perceived as a lack of substance in some of the speeches. But finally I gained a more optimistic view, as shown in this excerpt from my journal:
“Nothing essential is being said here, no concrete methods or strong propositions are being brought out. It looks like half of the participants are drowsy or not listening to the talks, some sneaking out of the main hall to go and meet people, creating bonds around the tea tables especially afforded for this purpose. But I have to sympathize – keeping attentive for all these talks via translation is not so easy.
“What is the use of all this? What is the use of this Forum? “Well, on the other hand I do see something positive. I can compare it to our daily activities in Plum Village. The different occasions where we are together are also opportunities simply to ‘find one another again’, and from there to go forth through the sharing of our insights.
“In the same way, the meaning of the Forum is nothing but the joy of meeting one another and sharing brotherhood under various forms and colors, giving us a chance to go forward together in a luminous direction, combining our hopes and insights. A Harmonious World Begins in the Mind, and if the quality of my own mind in this moment is able to offer good conditions for me to experience harmony with my environment, then it is for sure that I will get in touch very closely with the essence and intention of the Forum. Then, let us be nourished by the joy of togetherness.”
When came our turn to offer a speech, Brother Phap Ân introduced each of us and we came up to join him on stage. This was a way for us to give our support to our Brother and express what we were representing during the Forum: the presence of a delegation from Plum Village.
Brother Phap Ân shared about the different retreats that Thây and the Sangha have offered in the last years in various parts of society. He described with much clarity and skillfulness the basic teachings used at Plum Village, concrete practices based on the awareness of breathing that can be easily applied in daily life, among the family, and in a busy professional life. He mentioned the practice of walking meditation; the practice of beginning anew; the practice of stopping, looking deeply, and recognizing our emotions. These are all tools that have borne the fruits of real transformation and healing of the suffering of the individual, of the family, and of society.
Venerables Among the Venerables
One of the funniest things for us in this adventure is probably the fact that we found ourselves together with high monks, venerable ones among the Venerable Ones, receiving much attention and consideration. Often, the atmosphere would be very joyful while traveling from one place to another; our arms loaded with gifts, we were juggling with the luggage, all participants embarked in an adventure that was carrying us towards the unexpected and the marvelous.
Meanwhile, the harmony was weaving inside our little group, and it is with infinite gratitude that I have learned to know and appreciate more my elder Brother and my two Sisters. We were able to work with a spirit of cooperation, always having much patience and respect for one another. We never let the unpleasant emotions, the negative perceptions, or the internal formations take over and control the situation. This allowed us to transform the difficulties and to go forward in beauty, ever offering the best of ourselves.
Far beyond the numerous material gifts that we received, I think this is here for me one of the greatest gifts of the Forum:
“Last hours of this Forum… I have the impression to participate to an historical event; while sitting in the midst of my Brothers and Sisters from all different Buddhist traditions, monastic and lay people, I feel out of time still. We are young practitioners mixing with great Tibetan, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese Masters…We can feel the bonds intensify, and we recognize one another in the light of this deep feeling, both intimate and strange, of knowing one another from a long time ago.
“Even just for the value of the encounter, and the opportunity and the privilege to be together, the Forum is worthwhile. It is not so much for the speeches, that often sound hollow and seem to be chattering, rather for the richness of the interactions, the joy of crossing looks, the beauty of the faces, the palette of colors, patterns and styles varying through the monastic dresses from the different traditions represented here. We feel part of the same big and warm family, which is Buddhism.”
Chân Phap Khi was born in France and currently lives at Plum Village.
To Be Expressed During the Great Requiem Ceremonies to Untie the Knots of Great Injustice By Thich Nhat Hanh
Dear ones who have passed from this life,
You are our fathers and mothers, our aunts and uncles, our husbands and wives, our sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters, who have died during the war. When our country was on fire with all the fighting, you left us tragically, suddenly, forced to abandon your precious body. We have lost you, dear ones. We know that you fought courageously for our nation without regret for your precious body and we are proud of you. But you lost your body under very tragic circumstances, and the injustice could never be expressed.You died deep in a distant jungle or were lost at sea or in a dark prison cell. You may have died because of bullets or bombs, or from starvation or sheer exhaustion. You may have been raped and then killed with no way to resist. How many of you have died in despair, in injustice, the remains of your body lost somewhere in the ocean or the jungle where we who love you could not get hold of them. To fight for our independence and freedom, our country has had to bear great tragedy and injustice, and it is you who have shouldered the burden of the whole nation in your death.
We your relatives, your fellow countrymen and countrywomen, we come here — some of us are before our own altars at home — and among us there are those who still continue to suffer from injustice. Fortunately the nightmare has ended, the country is now at peace, and we have the chance to rebuild the country, to heal the remaining wounds. Thanks to the merits and good deeds of our ancestors, we have a chance to come together and offer prayers together to the Three Gems.
With the support of the powerful Dharma, we request you to come back all together to reunite with each other, embracing each other, loving each other like sisters and brothers in one family. We will not distinguish between North or South, women or men, adults or children, by race, religion, party, or ideology. We are all fellow countrywomen and countrymen, but because of past bad fortune, we have been pushed to fight each other in our drive for independence, for freedom. Thanks to the merits of our ancestors we can now come back together, recognizing each other as siblings of a single family, to promise each other that we will not forget this painful lesson of the past now engraved on our hearts:
We vow that from now on we will not let the country be separated again, not even one more time. From now on, when there are internal difficulties, we will not request the help of any foreign power to intervene with weapons and troops in our country. From now on, we will not start a war for any ideology. From now on, we will not use foreign weapons to kill each other. From now on, we will use our best efforts to build a society with real democracy, to resolve all kinds of disagreements by peaceful democratic methods. We will not resort to violence against fellow countrymen and countrywomen.
Respected Blood Ancestors, Respected Spiritual Ancestors, please bear witness to our profound sincerity. We respectfully make these deep vows before you. And we know that once we have sincerely expressed ourselves in this way, all the knots of injustice can be untied, and the deep wounds in each of us will start to be healed.
Today this Great Chanting Ceremony to untie all injustices equally without any discrimination starts here; but at the same time, countless Vietnamese and friends of Vietnamese throughout the world are setting altars in front of their houses, too, to pray for you all. We touch the earth deeply to request the grace of the Three Jewels to carry to the other shore of liberation all of you dear deceased ones, so that, dear ones, you can be carried by the strength of the Dharma to understand, to transform, to transcend, and to know you are free.
We your descendants, we promise to continue your aspiration. We vow to carry you in our hearts, to build brotherhood and sisterhood, to practice mutual love of fellow countrymen and countrywomen. We will remember that pumpkin vines and squash vines can share a single frame, that chickens from a same mother will never fight each other. This insight from our Ancestors will shine out its light for us now and forever.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh read this statement several times during the Great Ceremonies held in Saigon, Hue, and Hanoi in early 2007.
The Beauty of Our Practice
In the cool of the evening, mindful steps cross the wooden deck. On the porch of the Zendo a sign invites Noble Silence. Every Monday evening members of the Heart Sangha gather at the Zen Center of Santa Cruz. Coming from a diversity of backgrounds we ﬁnd our common thread in practice inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh has referred to Sangha building as the most important activity we can participate in. The Heart Sangha has made this proposition a priority by sharing a commitment to a sustainable practice rooted in emancipation and joy. As in architecture Sangha building relies on a strong foundation. We ﬁnd this foundation in the Mindfulness Trainings and the basic principles of wisdom and compassion in our tradition.
According to Thay, “[t]he main purpose of a Sangha is to practice and support mindfulness, openness, and love. Organize in a way that is most enjoyable for everyone. You will never ﬁnd a perfect Sangha. An imperfect Sangha is good enough. Rather than complaining too much about your Sangha, do your best to transform yourself into a good element of the Sangha. Accept the Sangha and build on it.”
The beauty of our practice is the generosity of spirit that is evident each time we meet. We are a family with a common purpose. With warmth, love and humor we pursue the way of awakening.
A recent experience in my life reinforced my gratitude for the Sangha. Last year my mother was having a string of medical issues after eighty-nine years of good health. Each time I drove to Southern California to visit her, the Heart Sangha was with me. Holding my mother’s hand and feeling the progressive weakness of her energy, I could feel the strength of the Sangha supporting me. When I returned and sat with the Sangha, my sadness was alleviated when it was held in the larger vessel of the Sangha body. I did not need to hold it within myself. In sharing stories of my Mom and her life of service to others I could feel the warmth and care of the Sangha. The unspoken power of their deep listening provided a space of healing for me. When my Mom died in November my Sangha brothers and sisters offered their true presence.
Day by day, month by month, year by year we investigate and explore the breadth of our tradition. From the importance of mindfulness in our daily lives to our engagement in the wider world, we beneﬁt from our Sangha practice. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Whether practicing together as a family, a Sangha, or a nation, we have so many opportunities to grow in our capacity to understand and to love. Each moment and each day is an opportunity to begin anew, to open the door of our hearts, and to practice together for our own transformation and healing and for the transformation and healing of our families and our world.” Practicing together in this way we are discovering the path of living peacefully in the present moment and living joyfully together.
— Jim Scott-Behrends, True Recollection of Compassion
Reaching Out from the Heart Sangha
Our Sangha reminds me of an octopus.
An octopus has many arms and hands, like Avalokiteshvara, whose hands each hold a unique tool to relieve suffering. Each person in our Sangha is like an arm reaching out from the Sangha body, from the heart.
One person volunteers at the food bank; one advocates for immigrants; one raises money to help children in Gaza; one organizes a Sangha beach cleanup. There are several psychotherapists, a farmer, a doctor, a T’ai Ch’i teacher, a Hospice caregiver, a counselor for veterans.
We come together on Monday evenings to rest in the heart of our practice. The heart is the circle where we sit in silence together, the circle we walk with mindful steps, the circle of our arms in hugging meditation. Like blood that circulates back to the heart, we are nourished and energized when we return to our center circle every week.
Strengthened by our return to the Heart Sangha, we extend out into the world again, putting mindfulness and compassion into action, building Sangha in our greater community with acts of kindness and love.
— Natascha Bruckner, Benevolent Respect of the Heart
Branches and Roots
The Heart Sangha is a gentle, loving gathering of people who prefer guiding principles to set forms. We all value the Mindfulness Trainings, loving kindness, spaciousness, and the joy of practice.
Over many many months, I have learned that Sangha building has become a profound inner exploration of inclusion, a dynamic practice of my willingness to release the deep belief in my isolation into the acknowledgment of interbeing. It calls me to explore and heal that which is below the surface, close to the roots. If I ﬁnd myself fearing isolation, exclusion, comparisons, competition, it calls me to hold myself present in mindfulness to discover what in me is so frightened ... and how to receive that part and hold it in the light of deep understanding.
When I open with tender vulnerability and let myself receive the love and wisdom from Sangha, not blindly, but with the clear eyes and open heart born of mindfulness practice, and see the essential light, beauty, Buddha mind in each one of us, I know that we are all cherished. The tree of Sangha develops stronger roots.
Each person’s strong individuality strengthens the love and also offers challenges and richness to our commitment to safeguard the unique perspectives of each person present, and hold everyone within the tenderness of deep sharing. We stretch and drop down to hold the tension of daring to listen and include each other even when our opinions differ. It is a very special environment, cultivated by all of our efforts to receive each person deeply, and allow each one’s gifts to nourish us all.
We are encouraged by those who naturally build Sangha through tending the lush branches of the tree, extending, stretching and waving to many, and by those whose natural gesture is to drop inward towards the root. Together, we nourish the whole. Together, we gather under the tree, and smile. And that smile ﬁlls the universe.
— Miriam Goldberg True Recollection of Joy
The Third Mindfulness Training is about integrity, about attacks and defense, and about sexual abuse. Sexual energy is a very strong force. It can be an extremely destructive fire if it is not embedded in the safety of love. If someone is sexually assaulted, the reaction is to protect oneself by raising a shield, like putting on an iron harness. It provides protection, but it also blocks communication. It is a prison … no openness, no space, no freedom, just loneliness and fear. If someone is abused, he or she is put into a prison from which it is very difficult to get out.
When I was nine years old, my parents were killed in a car accident. After losing them, I realized that I had to take care of a lot of things myself. One of these things was to join people who could help me. I met a family that matched very well with my own background. Gradually we grew toward each other until we considered each other as family. We shared many happy moments. Some years later, my foster father showed interest in a sexual relationship with me. He talked about it often and one time he tried to abuse me. At that time I was quite strong and quick and I prevented him from abusing me. From that time on, my feelings about the family were ambiguous. On the one hand I needed the family, and on the other hand there was danger in the family. I felt suspicious; the family had lost part of its safety and trust. I found myself playing a role rather than being spontaneous. Home seemed to be polluted. I felt less freedom, less expression, less growth. I was surrounded by an unseen prison.
I Had to Live
Much later, all of the family got to know my foster father’s abusive activities, because they were not limited to me. I saw the damage that was done within and outside the family. By that time I was a father myself. My wife and I realized that our child might be at risk. As often happens, the family tried to restore harmony by forgiving and forgetting. For me, it resulted in a moral conflict I could not live with. I chose to leave the foster family and saw them no more.
My decision had effects that were difficult to deal with. I was ill for almost a year. I experienced hell, mentally and physically, especially at night. I tried to cope in many ways, with help from my wife, from friends, from therapists and doctors. I studied, changed work, and tried my best to be a good father and husband. One day I found myself walking in nature beside a small forest stream, suddenly discovering that I had the wish to exist no more. I also realized that I had to live, because I did not want my kids to have the same pain I had myself: to be without a father. One month later I realized that an unhappy father will cause unhappy children and an unhappy wife. I decided that I had to become happy, even though I did not feel capable of change anymore.
I took a book, The Way to Happiness, by the Dalai Lama, from my wife’s bookshelf, and started doing exercises in our attic every day, meditating on emptiness and compassion. After most meditations I fell into a calm, deep sleep, without nightmares. After a few weeks my wife asked, “What are you doing in the attic? Whatever it is, it has a very positive effect on you.” The next summer we traveled to Plum Village for the first time. Since then, there is more and more space, freedom, and happiness in me and my family. Not all is easy, but a lot of things have changed for the better.
Look for the Diamond
Many women and men are damaged by abuse. They live in prisons. They may have defensive or aggressive communication. But this is not who they really are … it is only the expression of their pain. Within the hard walls of their prison is a diamond. We should always look for the diamond, because the diamond within is what we really are.
The Third Mindfulness Training provides a clear formula that can be used as a very practical tool to start discussions about the difficult subject of sexual abuse. It can be applied to start to repair damage caused by abuse and as a tool for prevention. In Plum Village, I shared my story with the audience, using the text of this training. It proved to be a very constructive and powerful vehicle to communicate my pain and for others to respond. For days, it opened discussion and gave space for many people’s pain to be liberated. This is what happened in Plum Village and this is what I hope will happen in many more places. The training should not only be contemplated; the words of the text can be used in many situations in practical life.
Hans, Mindful Commitment of the Heart, teaches at a school for physical therapists. Recently, at a retreat in Plum Village, he enhanced his skills in teaching mindfulness. He trains his students to use mindfulness to transform any learning challenges into strengths.
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
The Felicidad family, originally from Mexico City, was spread out. Some of us had known each other a long time; others, however, weren’t aware of the existence of happy and enthusiastic brothers and sisters in search of someone with the same last name. But thanks to the efforts of our Sangha in February of 2012, hundreds of emails went out and arrived like rainfall of flowers inviting people to “Coming Home: The Road to Our Happiness,” the big family reunion to be held in April. The response was immediate. Thirty-six sisters and brothers accepted the invitation, because who wouldn’t want to come back home? Who wouldn’t want to ﬁnd the road to happiness? Besides, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, two monks from Deer Park Monastery, would be coming to share ways of conscious living with us and to converse intimately with the earth.
The location of the retreat, Casa Xitla, is a big old house surrounded by gardens in the southern part of Mexico City. It is a spacious place that invites one to withdraw and reﬂect; silence is the order of the day here. Thanks to the inﬁnite goodness of Mother Earth, our encounter is dressed in violet; at this time of the year the jacaranda trees are in their most conscious here and now. Our hosts, a community of people in charge of administering and caring for this place, are an example of interbeing. As in a colony of bees, they organize themselves to live in harmony: they care for the water, use solar energy, protect the vegetation, and maintain a compost heap.
On April 4, Casa Xitla begins to buzz with our arrival. The brothers and sisters who organized the retreat and the monks Phap Lac (Happiness Monk) and Phap De (Young Monk) await us with their conscious presence. The smiles with which they greet us are an unmistakable sign that we have arrived home. Adults, some in couples, some with their families, and the majority alone, begin to ﬁll up the space and prepare for the experience of the next ﬁve days. The majority of us come from bustling cities; we are full of expectations, with our minds agitated. The sweet sound of the bell, the conscious embraces of our sisters and brothers, the dim lights in the hallway on the way to the bedrooms, the shade of the trees, and the night remind us that we have arrived home. In an instant, all these signs come together, form a stream, and invite us to ﬂow as a single river. “Happiness is here and now,” they whisper in our ears.
The Fountain of Life
In the ﬁrst Dharma talk, Brother Phap De delicately suggests that we observe in our inner selves the impulse to do things: eat, read, talk. He proposes, instead, that we walk or write. “Life comes from within ourselves; we can feel it; we can connect ourselves with the fountain of inner and outer life, all united.” Like an expert gardener, the brother knows that before planting the seed, we must loosen the dirt. He invites us to recite gathas. It’s impossible to turn down his invitation, knowing that we can cultivate ﬂowers in the garden of the heart.
At ﬁve o’clock in the morning, the bell wakes us, and a half hour later we begin guided meditation. Our bodies are tired; the majority of us aren’t used to waking up so early. However, our conscious inhaling and exhaling wake us up and ﬁll us with joy. At 6:30 a.m., our sister, Norma Inés, better known as Hapinés, guides us down the roads of Qigong. With the noble bamboo pole at hand and the sweetness of her voice, we travel to the interior of our bodies, feel how our muscles stretch, and begin a dance that connects us with the foliage of the jacarandas. The pivoting of legs, trunks, arms, and eyes lifts us to the clouds and slowly and softly allows us to take root in the earth.
The morning advances. The bell invites us to share a delicious breakfast, which we enjoy slowly from the silent line. We share the table and the reading of the Five Contemplations. We eat slowly, looking to feel in every mouthful the ﬂavor and goodness of all the beings who prepared it and made it possible.
Work meditation offers us the opportunity to do chores in the garden, which for some of us are unusual; some chores are light, like picking up leaves and branches; others are heavy, like lifting and moving the compost. Cleaning and arranging the building and preparing food for the whole group are some of the other tasks at hand. We have the opportunity to learn and to teach, to lead and to follow, to see our old habits as we work, to smile, embrace, and be present in the here and now.
At ten in the morning, the bell calls us to walking meditation. Our sister Gaby shares her experience:
I remember that marvelous walk as an experience of conscious enjoyment that keeps love, peace, calm, serenity, and forgiveness alive in my memory. I return to live in plenitude and to understand and experience interbeing with my new Felicidad family, to feel myself as part of nature, to be present, feeling the caresses of the air and the heat of the sun on my skin. I feel how Mother Earth receives me and comforts my every step, and I see and feel the happiness of the monastic brothers.
I remember Phap Lac’s talk about forgiveness. Nine months ago I’d signed my divorce from the father of my children and I had such an emotional charge that I asked myself how I could forgive myself for the guilt that I felt. I asked: ‘Is it strange that after years of sharing a life with someone you loved, you now ask yourself how to forgive?’ The walk was about to start and the brother said that we should invite our loved ones to walk with us. He suggested that we take the hand of one of the members of the Felicidad family and even that we invite our absent loved ones to come with us.
The sensation I felt is indescribable: I imagined my little children, Emilio and Sofía, at each side, felt their still-tender hands, and felt the peace and love of being united as one. I advanced slowly and smiled genuinely and lovingly, with gratitude and respect. Later I invited my parents and sister to walk hand-in-hand and felt the same sensations. Finally, uninhibitedly, with thanks, and in peace, I invited the person who had been my partner for ten years. I embraced him while I walked, thanking him for having shared his time, space, and love, for having participated with me in giving life to these two gifts. I decided to forgive the things that we consciously or unconsciously did when we lived together that hurt or damaged us or made us uncomfortable and I smiled at him. We stayed together like that for a few moments. Then I let go of his hand and saw him go, smiling and relaxed.
Drops in a River
At the end of each morning, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, taking turns, offer us a Dharma talk. Next to them a Mexican sister or brother listens attentively and interprets simultaneously. During these talks, the words of Phap De and Phap Lac weave in interbeing. Phap De speaks of his own life experience and shares the stories of his parents and the seeds they deposited in him. He shows us how the spiritual life of our ancestors is connected with our own. And he invites us to recover the spirituality of the people who inhabited these lands before the arrival of white people. Our spiritual realization, he says, is a matter of integrating ourselves like drops of water in a river that has ﬂowed for thousands of years. This moves us, because in Mexico, indigenous blood is an underground river that only awaits our glance to revitalize us with its powerful energy.
Thay Phap Lac offers other seeds. With soft strokes he recreates his experiences in the company of our dear master Thich Nhat Hanh. The words of Phap Lac have the power to bring Thay to our encounter: we can see and feel him; the voice of the brother becomes the voice of Thay. With simple stories of day-to-day life, Phap Lac reveals the efﬁcacy of our practice. He shares a story of a single mother who learned to enjoy working meditation, and that of Thay, who, having suffered an injury in a crowd in Vietnam, sat down calmly to drink a cup of tea. Phap Lac is also a master of dispelling uncertainties. To a sister who has doubts about forgiveness, Phap Lac says sweetly: “The only help you have is your happiness. Only love can cure—love with compassion.” This teaching is an outstanding moment during the retreat.
After lunch comes total guided relaxation. We lean our bodies against the earth, which generously receives our tensions, our tiredness, and our worries. With our minds we pass through each part of our body, we smile at it with thanks, we loosen it, and we relax. We listen to our guide from afar, as if in a dream. He sings to us a sweet song that rocks us and he brings us back, little by little, to the happiness of the present moment.
The Dharma sharing at mid-afternoon is a moment of encounters. Some of us know each other from long ago, others have seen each other a few times, and there are those who are meeting for the ﬁrst time. In two groups, each guided by one of the monastic brothers, we focus on practicing compassionate listening and loving speech. Little by little, our hearts open as we share happiness and sadness, presences and absences, hope and despair. We offer our loving presence to our friends; we receive their experiences and their smiles.
After supper we have another guided meditation, and then go off to sleep smiling, crossing the garden of Casa Xitla in silence, now lighted by a moon full of the here and now.
Like Water Reﬂecting
The second night, ﬁve sisters and brothers who have taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings share their personal experiences and reﬂections. The struggles and the joys of the road of Dharma parade before us. We hear that the trainings are like the North Star, a light that orients us. As the days go by, the question continues to arise: Who will take the trainings? Many of us are confused. We don’t know if we can meet the goals, if we should or want to commit ourselves. Thus three days pass. In Dharma sharing, some people express their decision to take the trainings. Others reveal confusion or a negative decision. We all listen with care and attention. Eleven brothers and sisters take the vow to revere life, practice generosity, look for true love and ﬁdelity, practice loving speech and deep listening, and procure a nutritious and healthy life. It is beautiful to share this intention, knowing that these trainings will take us all our lives, and that we are accompanied on this road.
One memorable practice is that of starting anew. One night, Laura and Jorge water their ﬂowers in front of the community. At ﬁrst, they look each other in the eyes and each says the virtues that she or he sees in the other. Then they offer apologies for the discomfort or suffering they have caused each other. We see how their words turn into sun and water, the nutrients of the seeds of love and compassion. They give us a living example of the fourth training: our eyes witness the fact that loving speech and compassionate listening are the tools of the artist who creates reconciliation and peace. Later, Thay Phap De invites us to practice in couples. Some of us are with our life companions and we practice with them. Some are with parents or children. Those who have come alone pair up and practice watering the ﬂowers of an absent person. It’s an intimate time, deep and hopeful. We learn that it’s always possible to start over.
As the days pass, we cultivate silence, but also listening. Mónica, Hapinés, and Laura help us to sing in key, inspiring cantos. We give thanks to life with our Chilean sister Violeta Parra. With Mercedes Sosa we remember that everything changes and with Fito Páez we offer our heart. Phap De teaches us an Irish blessing: “May love hold you in the hollow of her hands.” During the last night’s gathering we all sing “Cielito Lindo,” a traditional Mexican song, which our monastic brothers love. Three children who have lent a special touch to our time together, David, Elías, and Sofía, sing the turtle song, and Fausto thrills us with a cappella numbers. His crystalline voice reminds us that we are like water that reﬂects what is beautiful and true.
The last day, we ﬁnish our meditation by walking under the shade of a jacaranda. With the children cross-legged at their sides, Phap Lac and Phap De teach us the art of waking up the bell. Only ﬁve days have passed, but the conditions of the retreat have let the people of the Mexican Felicidad family recognize each other in interbeing. Without coming or leaving, neither before nor after, we embrace ﬁrmly and then let each other go. We know that each of us is in the other and that the other is in us. We leave Casa Xitla wide awake. We have learned to recognize that the present moment is a wonderful moment.
Thank you, dear Thay; thank you, dear family.
María Jiménez, Felicidad Valiente del Corazón (Courageous Happiness of the Heart), is a professor at Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM). Maria enjoyed the retreat among jacarandas twice: the ﬁrst time while living it and the second while writing this article. Two other members of the Sangha in Mexico City, Jorge Hirsch and Gabriela Rosales, contributed. Their voices are a vehicle to convey the sound of a single river: the Felicidad Family.
By Joann Malone and Patrick Smith Ten years ago this summer, my husband and I learned a mindfulness practice at Plum Village that has since nourished our home and our marriage. The leader of our Avatamsaka family group, Shantum Seth, suggested that all the couples in our group renew their wedding vows each month on the full moon. After several beautiful talks on love by Thay, a signing of the Peace Treaty, and a Beginning Anew Ceremony in our large family group, we couples gathered in the evening around the lotus pond. As the full moon rose over the trees, children exclaimed and songs burst forth from hundreds of people from dozens of countries. Supported by the entire PV community and summer retreat participants, we pledged to love one another with loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The children released paper boats they had made onto the pond and brought us special full moon treats to feed one another.
We have continued to practice with Plum Village each month in our home, simply by gathering our candle, bell, and chant book, and standing near the kitchen window where we have the best view of the moon. We light the candle, invite the bell, and recite the Five Awarenesses:
- We are aware that all generations of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us.
- We are aware of the expectations that our ancestors, our children, and their children have of us.
- We are aware that our joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are the joy, peace, freedom, and harmony of our ancestors, our children, and their children.
- We are aware that understanding is the very foundation of love.
- We are aware that blaming and arguing never help us and only create a wider gap between us, that only understanding, trust, and love can help us change and grow.
These deep truths have seeped into our consciousness with our monthly renewal, allowing us to wake up more quickly when challenged by blaming or becoming angry at one another. Our deepening awareness helps us stop, breathe, and look at one another with more love and understanding. We remember that joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are possible in any moment. We are always loved and supported by our ancestors, our children, their children, and the worldwide Sangha. Our love for one another helps transform our ancestors, our children, their children, and the world.
Our monthly vow renewal was particularly powerful for us when we were in Miami to memorialize my niece, who had passed away at age thirty-eight from a brain aneurism. This sudden death, caused by lack of medical insurance for high blood pressure medication, brought great sadness to our family. Additionally, as the family gathered, secrets were revealed that possibly could have led to violence. The night before the memorial service, the full moon appeared over the ocean and reminded me that it was time to recite the Five Awarenesses. We invited my brothers, sister-in- law, and other niece to join us. The words “understanding is the very foundation of love,” recited by family members feeling deep conﬂict with one another, brought enough peace into our midst to hold off actions that might have further divided us and increased our suffering.
The Full Moon Ceremony, along with daily meditation together, the Peace Treaty, the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, our teachers, and our Sangha (the Washington Mindfulness Community), brings stability and peace to our family. We are so grateful to Thay and Plum Village for supporting us on this path of love. Happy 30th Anniversary.
By Patrick Doyle I’m currently serving my fifth year of a ten-year sentence for armed burglary. I can get out in 2016. When I got arrested in 2007, I was an angry, young, confused gang member looking at a life sentence. I didn’t care about life anymore.
I was adopted at age five. Never really bonded with my “parents.” I got arrested for the ﬁrst time when I was thirteen. Ever since, it’s been a continual battle to stay un-incarcerated. I got married at eighteen; that too didn’t work out. Two daughters later, after a lot of violence and hatred, we separated.
“Failed love,” gang banging, hatred, violence, and revenge were my life. Trust no one because they all want to hurt you. I’ve been stabbed and beat up more times than I can count. And done likewise back, numerous times. I was a ticking time-bomb waiting for an excuse to explode.
Then July 23, 2007 came. I got caught with about eight stolen riﬂes and some handguns. My co-defendant testiﬁed that I did everything. A complete lie, but it didn’t matter because for the state of Florida, I was a habitual felony offender who fell under the Prison Release Reoffender Act and I had committed a life felony.
December 2007, my now ex-girlfriend informed me that I had a son on the way. One DNA test later conﬁrmed she was right. Now the state was not only determining my future, but my son’s as well. I got to see my son (born March 20, 2008) only twice. I wasn’t communicating with his mother or my parents except when I needed money. In January 2010, I decided to file for divorce. So my prison account was hit with a legal claim for $400. I was unable to pay anyone to serve my wife divorce papers.
Now I couldn’t get money, which only made me angrier. When I ﬁrst came to prison I was a gang member who had rank and was doing drugs, smuggling cell phones onto the compound, selling drugs, and ﬁghting. Now I increased the drug selling and smuggling. December 8, 2010, I got caught with a cell phone. I went into conﬁnement, lost all the good conduct time I had, and got transferred to Controlled Management for six months. I hit rock bottom like a freight train. No money, no stamps, no mail, and unable to use the phone for almost ninety days. I completely crumbled inside.
I ﬁnally got to use the phone one day, and when my father picked up the phone, I didn’t know what to say. I asked how things were going. He informed me that he had had a heart attack and two surgeries, and that my mother was in the hospital with a blood infection and no use of her legs. Both were seventy-seven at the time. I was completely shocked, unsure what to do.
Then one day I found two books on the book cart: The Dham mapada translated by Easwaran, and Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. I was positive that this was the right path I was supposed to walk. With nothing but time on my hands, I started meditating and reading only Dharma books. I made the decision to fulﬁll any necessary obligations within the gang so I could get out, and did so. I got transferred to my current compound where I immediately covered up my gang tattoos with a lotus, a sun, a moon, the letter Om in Sanskrit, a Buddha, and a Dharma wheel saying “Eight Fold Path” with the Japanese character for karma in the center. I also got a tattoo saying “Om Mani Padme Hum” in Sanskrit. There is only one other Buddhist here at the work camp with me on a compound of three hundred. We just started a meditation session on Wednesdays.
My mother’s been in the hospital for almost nineteen months. She’s seventy-nine years old and her health is currently stable, as is my father’s. Our relationship has changed dramatically. My father, with whom I hadn’t had a full conversation in about six years, talks with me for ﬁfteen minutes every week. We tell each other we love one another, something I never thought would happen. My mother and I write to each other lovingly.
I’m no longer confused, angry, vengeful, or hateful. I practice mindfulness in everything I do. I wake up daily feeling peaceful, happy, and calm. I sit zazen in the morning and at night. During the day I do walking, laughing, and working meditation. I chant Om Mani Padme Hum all day, as well as the Medicine Buddha’s mantra.
I have a future and a purpose in life, and nothing can take that Buddha nature away from me. I have read Thay’s book Be Free Where You Are, and one issue of the Mindfulness Bell. I love children, as does Thay, and I hope upon my release to not only meet Thay, but to visit Plum Village and become an OI member. I can truly say that I am free where I am, and that I have arrived, I am home. I have a great love for Zen and all Buddhist teachings. Thank you, Plum Village, Thay, and the whole Sangha.
Patrick Doyle lives in a correctional institution in Florida. He wrote this letter in response to the questions: When and how did you meet and fall in love with the practice? How have you transformed difﬁculty into peace amongst your family and loved ones?
By Thich Nhat Hanh Mindfulness is the blood of our psyche. It is exactly like the blood in our body—it has the power to wash away the toxins and heal our pain, the pain in our consciousness.
When we are not mindful, we ingest many poisons into our consciousness. In fact, we water the seeds of suffering every day, and the people around us water these seeds also. As a result, our suffering increases. When we spend four days together in a retreat, we water the seeds of happiness inside us and around us, and we refrain from watering negative seeds, like anger, hatred, and fear. At the end of four days of practicing like this, we feel much better. We need an intelligent policy concerning our cultural environment so that we do not allow ourselves to ingest indiscriminately TV, movies, magazines, advertising, and other so-called "cultural products." Many of these things poison us every day with their frantic energy, noisiness, sexual exploitation, and violence. We need a diet for our consciousness to avoid ingesting so many of these poisons.
When we ingest toxic substances into our body, we get sick. When we ingest toxic "cultural products" into our consciousness, we also get sick. Our society has so many kinds of spiritual and cultural foods that are toxic. Television is poisoning us and our children, as are many magazines, news images, and so on. We practice watering the seeds of anger, fear, and violence every day. We have to learn to live our daily lives in a way that can help us refrain from taking in more poisons. When these poisons enter our store consciousness, they weaken our power of mindfulness. Without some kind of diet for our consciousness, it is very difficult to practice mindfulness. There are already so many toxins in our store consciousness; we should stop ingesting more.
Many unwholesome seeds have been transmitted to us since our childhood. Practicing mindfulness, we become aware of that pain. But we are not yet strong enough to transform it, so it is important that we stay in touch with the many wonderful, refreshing things that are inside us and all around us—the blue sky, the eyes of a child, the evening sunset. When our mindfulness becomes strong, we will be able to touch our pain with it, and the pain will be transformed. I often talk about the mother as the symbol of tenderness, love, and care. When a baby is crying, the mother comes and takes the baby into her arms. Her tenderness penetrates into the baby, and the baby stops crying. When we practice mindfulness of breathing and touch our pain with that energy, our pain will be calmed and will begin to be transformed.
But our seeds of suffering are always trying to emerge, and we try to suppress them. By doing so, we create a lack of circulation in our psyche, and we get sick. As the blood of our psyche, mindfulness can loosen our pain and help dissolve it. Every time our pain is embraced by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength and returns to our store consciousness a little bit weaker. When it arises again, if our mindfulness is there, our pain will be even less. In that way, we create good circulation in our psyche. If the blood in our body circulates well, we feel much better. If our mindfulness circulates in our consciousness, we also begin to have a feeling of well-being. We needn't be afraid of our pain when we know that our mindfulness is there, ready to embrace and transform it.
If we have not been practicing for some time, our mindfulness may be of poor quality. It may only be a fifteen-watt light bulb. But if we practice for a few weeks, it will become a one-hundred-watt bulb. For mindfulness to be of good quality, conscious breathing should be practiced. Conscious breathing is the kind of fuel that can keep the light of mindfulness alive. If you practice five minutes of conscious breathing, you will keep mindfulness alive for five minutes. When contemplating a beautiful tree, if you stay in touch with your breathing for five minutes, you will also stay in touch with the tree for five minutes. If you lose awareness of your breathing, thinking may settle in, and the tree will vanish. Breathing is a wonderful way to sustain the seed of mindfulness in your consciousness.
In Asia, since early times, we have known that there is no boundary between food and medicine. When we eat and breathe properly, we nourish our blood. Our blood has the power to rinse away the toxins in our body and heal our pain. If we have good circulation, we will have a feeling of peace and joy, because the blood can go anywhere in our body and wash away the debris eliminated by our cells. We know that if we ingest a lot of toxic food into our intestines, our blood will receive many of these toxins and its power of cleansing and healing will be diminished. So we need to practice a kind of diet to help our blood stay clean.
Following a diet does not mean to suffer. There are many delicious foods that have great nutritional value. And we don't have to eat a lot. Sometimes, when we are too sad and don't know what to do, we take refuge in eating. One woman who came to Plum Village told me, "Thay, every time I feel anxious, I just open the refrigerator door and eat. I cannot control myself." By taking refuge in eating, we stuff a lot of poisons into our stomach that we know are not good for our blood. Sometimes we also take refuge in studying, social work, protecting the environment, or watching television. We have many refuges that we use in order to run away from ourselves, from our own unhappiness.
We should select the things we eat carefully, and chew our food very well, at least fifty times. If you do so, after eating just half the usual quantity, you will feel satisfied. And chewing every mouthful carefully and slowly, your food will reveal itself to you, and it will already be partially digested by your saliva even before it enters your digestive system. Its passage will not be slowed down, and putrefaction will not take place in your intestines. Eating in this way prevents poisons from entering your blood.
Massage is also very important. When there is a spot in the body where the blood cannot circulate freely, we feel some pain. The oxygen in the blood isn't able to go there and flush out the toxins. Massage is a technique to revitalize circulation. If I practice massage on the spot that is sore, fresh blood will come there to nourish the cells and create a feeling of peace and joy in that spot. For healing to take place, we need the blood to circulate into the zone of pain. Blood is the agent of healing.
We know that to improve the quality of our blood, breathing is important. Our lungs have a three-and-a-half-quart capacity, but usually we breathe in and out only one-tenth of a quart. And if we don't breathe good air, the amount of oxygen we take in will be even less, and the quality of our blood will be poor. Therefore, we practice breathing in and out consciously, and as our breathing becomes deeper, we exhale more carbon dioxide and inhale more fresh, clean air. We have to learn to breathe more deeply, from our abdomen, and to breathe air that is of good quality. Diet, massage, and conscious breathing improve the quality of our blood. They also increase the quality of our mindfulness.
Please write down three things: First, what kind of toxins do you already have in your body, and what kind of toxins do you already have in your psyche? "Breathing in and breathing out, I recognize that these toxins are already in my body." What kind of toxins do you have in your consciousness? A guilt complex is a toxin, anger is a toxin, despair is a toxin, jealousy is a toxin. If you need to practice walking meditation or sitting meditation in order to look, please do so. Look and see for yourself what kind of toxins you have in your body, and what kind of toxins you have in your mind. What makes you suffer now? What blocks of suffering do you have right now? When you have done that, you will know what you have in your body and in your consciousness. Then, please go further, and look into the bodies and souls of your children and your spouse, since all of you are practicing together as a sangha. (Practicing as a community or a family is always easier. Not only will you refrain from watering the seeds of your own suffering, but your spouse and children will also practice not watering the seeds of your irritation, anger, and so on. That is why we take refuge in the sangha, the community that practices together.) When you recognize these toxins and list them on a sheet of paper, that is also meditation—looking deeply, recognizing, and calling things by their true names.
After that we come to Item Two: "What kind of poisons am I putting into my body and my consciousness every day?" We do this as individuals, as a family, as a city, and as a nation. We need administrators, legislators, and politicians to practice with us. If you are a psychotherapist, a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, a lawyer, a businessperson, or a social worker, you have to practice in this way for all of us. What am I ingesting every day that is toxic to my body and my consciousness? What is my family ingesting? What are my city and my nation ingesting every day concerning violence, hatred, and fear? The beating of Rodney King, the young driver in Los Angeles, by the five policemen is a good example of how much hatred, fear, and violence are in our society. What kinds of poisons do we ingest every day in our families, our city, and our nation? This is a collective meditation. We need everyone to participate.
Third, write down the prescription that arises out of that insight. For example, "I vow from today on not to ingest more of this, this, and this. I vow only to use this, this, and this to nourish my body and my consciousness." This is the ground of the practice—the practice of loving kindness to yourself. You cannot love someone else unless you love and take care of yourself. Practicing in this way is to practice love, peace, and enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight. When you look deeply, you have insight, and your insight brings about compassion. Before you begin to eat, breathe in and out and look at the table to see what is good for your body and what is not. This is to practice the precept of protecting your body. When you want to watch television or go to the movies, first look deeply in order to determine what should be viewed and what should not be viewed by you and your children. Think about the books and magazines you read, and decide what should be read and what should not be read by you and your children. Practicing together as a community, we don't need to take refuge in eating or entertaining ourselves with any more poisons. Practicing the precepts in this way helps all of us. Buddhist precepts are not imposed from the outside. From our own insight, we decide what to ingest and what not to ingest into our body and our soul.
For example, if all of us practice looking deeply into war, we will see into the true nature of our society and we will know what to do and how to live in order to prevent the next war. If we prescribe a healthy diet to ourselves, our families, our cities, and our nation and practice that kind of diet, another war will not take place. If we do not practice, a war like the Persian Gulf War will happen again in one, two, or five years. If we continue to live forgetfully, we will be overwhelmed again when we have to confront such a war. The true nature of war and the true nature of our collective consciousness are the same. For war not to come, we need to begin now to prevent it. The best way to prevent a war is to change our collective consciousness. As long as people believe that the war in the Persian Gulf was a war of liberation, a clean and just war, they will be tempted to do it again as soon as there is another conflict somewhere in the world. To change that kind of mentality, we have to practice looking deeply in order to understand the true nature of the war, which was not liberation, moral, or clean. If we don't practice mindfulness, the amount of hatred, illusion, anger, and violence in our society will lead our leaders to adopt such means again. Without an intelligent diet, we cannot reduce the amount of delusion, hatred, and violence in our society. When we practice well, we will stop bringing poisons into our blood, our soul, and our society.
Insight meditation, looking deeply, is a practice of massage. You practice in order to push the energy of mindfulness into your pain. As it penetrates more and more deeply, your pain will dissolve. I offer you an example: There are those who do not get along with their father (or their mother), because their father has made them so unhappy, has created in their store consciousness so many seeds of unhappiness that they don't want to look at him, they don't want to hear his name. They may have been abused as children. For these people I offer the meditation on the five-year-old child, which is a mindfulness massage. "Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old child. Breathing out, I smile to the five-year-old child in me." During the meditation you try to see yourself as a five-year-old child. If you can look deeply at that child, you can see that he or she is so vulnerable and fragile, can be hurt easily by anything that is not kind, can be wounded very easily. A stern look from his father can cause internal formations in his store consciousness. A shout from his father can cause another wound within his store consciousness. When his father makes his mother suffer, when his parents fight and scream at each other, the five-year-old receives a lot of seeds of suffering in him. I have heard young people say, "The most precious gift my parents can give is their own happiness." If parents live happily with each other, that is the greatest gift they can offer their children. This is true, and I hope all parents can understand it.
By living unhappily, by making his wife suffer, the father is making his son suffer a lot. He may have brutalized him so severely that the young man has not been able to smile or think of his father. But now he is sitting and visualizing himself as a five-year-old child, very vulnerable, easily hurt. When he smiles at that child, he smiles with compassion. "I was so young and tender, and I received so much pain."
The next day, I would advise him to practice this: "Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old child. Breathing out, I smile to that child with compassion." We are not used to seeing our father as a five-year-old child. We think of him as always being a big person, stern, with a lot of authority. But we have not taken the time to see our father as a tender, young boy who can be easily wounded by other people. The practice is to visualize your father as a five-year-old boy—fragile, vulnerable, easily hurt. If it helps, you can look in the family album to study the image of your father as a boy. When you are able to visualize him as vulnerable and easily hurt, you will realize that he too may have been the victim of his father. If he received many seeds of suffering from his father, of course he will not know how to treat his son well. So he makes you suffer, and the circle of samsara continues. Grandfather makes Father unhappy, Father makes Son unhappy, and so on. If you don't practice mindfulness, you will do exactly the same to your own children.
The moment you see your father as a victim of brutality, compassion will be born in your heart. When you smile to him with compassion, you will begin to bring blood into your pain. With mindfulness touching the pain, insight will also begin to touch your pain. If you practice like that for several hours or several days, your anger toward your father will dissolve. This is to massage the pain by way of mindfulness. It works in exactly the same way as the blood does in your body. One day, you will smile to your father in person and hug him, saying, "I understand you, Dad. You suffered very much during your childhood."
Therefore, mindfulness is the blood. Whatever it touches, it transforms. When it touches something beautiful, it makes it more beautiful. When it touches something painful, it begins the work of transformation.
Please discuss among yourselves a diet for your body, a diet for your consciousness, and also a diet for the collective consciousness of our society. This is the basic practice. It is true peace work. Peace begins with each of us taking care of our bodies and our minds every day.
Photos: First and third photo by Michele Hill. Second photo by Gaetano Maida
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Christmas time is a time for the family, when family members return to their home. Wherever we may be, we try to find a way home to be with our family. It is like the Tết holiday in the Vietnamese culture. We decorate our house and find ways to make our home warm and cozy. We all yearn to have a home that is warm and loving; where we feel that we do not need to go anywhere, or to do or to pursue anything anymore. It is what we can call our ‘true home’. We all have this yearning, this deep desire to be in our true home.
Searching for our home Jesus, as soon as he was born, had to be on the run right away and to be a refugee, a runaway without a home. When he grew up and became a young man, it was the same; he was still a wanderer with no real home to return to. In one of his discourses, he protested that even the birds have their nests to return to or the rabbits and squirrels have their burrows; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, no place to call home.
Siddhartha, as an adult, found himself in a similar situation. He was born into a royal family that was wealthy and privileged. He could have anything he desired. He had a beautiful wife and a good son. He had a bright future ahead of him; destined to be king and ruler of a great empire. But still, he did not feel comfortable even with all this. He did not feel at home. He was not at peace. Therefore, one day, he decided to leave his family in search of his true home, in search of inner peace.
Both Jesus and Siddhartha were searching for their true home. They wanted to find a warm abode where they would not have to search for anything anymore and where they would feel truly at home and at peace. Western people have a saying, “There is no place like home” that expresses the feeling that there is nothing like coming home after being away. Yet still, some of us do not feel at home, do not feel that we have a home to return to, even in our own families. It is because in our families, there is not enough warmth, not enough love, ease, peace or happiness.
Some of us have a homeland, living in the country where we were born, yet we still want to escape and go somewhere else. We feel like we do not have a homeland. Some Jewish people feel that they still do not have a homeland. They have been wandering and searching for a homeland for thousands of years – for a place, a piece of land to call home. Even to this day they have yet to find their homeland. And we – the French, the Americans, the British, and the Vietnamese – we all have a country to call our homeland, but still, we do not feel contented and some of us want to leave. This is because we have not found our true home in our heart. This season, even if we buy a Christmas tree to decorate our home, this does not necessarily mean that we have found our true home or that we are at ease living in our homeland. For our home to be true, there needs to be love, warmth, and fulfillment.
Our True Home In the end, Jesus found his true home in his heart. He found the light in his heart. He taught his disciples that they too have their own light and he taught them to bring that light out for others to see. Siddhartha taught that one’s true home can be found in the present moment. He developed practices for his disciples so that they too could find their true home. He taught that we each have an island within that is safe and secure. If we know how to return to this island, we can be in touch with our blood and spiritual ancestors, with the wonders of life, and with our own self. In the island of our true self, we can find peace and fulfillment.
Siddhartha found his true home and wanted everyone to be able to find their true home. When the Buddha was in his 80th year and knew that he would soon pass from this life, he felt a lot of compassion for his disciples and friends because he saw that many of them had not found their true home. He knew that when the time came for their teacher to pass away, they would feel abandoned and at a loss. At that time, he was practicing the Rains Retreat, residing outside of the city of Vaishali, north of the Ganges. He became very sick during that season. The Buddha’s attendant, Venerable Ananda thought his teacher would soon pass away, so he went into the forest behind some trees to weep. But the Buddha used his power of concentration to slow the progress of his illness and to find the strength to live for a few more weeks, so that he could return to his homeland, Kapilavastu, and pass away peacefully.
The Island Within At the end of that Rains Retreat season, the Buddha went into the city of Vaishali to visit his disciples, the monks and nuns and the lay friends in the Sangha. Wherever he visited, he would give a short talk for about 5-7 minutes - a mini dharma talk. These mini talks were usually centered on the topic of ‘true home’. He felt that after he had passed on, there would be many disciples who would be at a loss. The Buddha taught them that they all had a place of refuge to return to and that they should take refuge only there.
We too, should return and take refuge in that abode and not take refuge in any other person or thing. That abode of refuge is the ‘Island of Self’; it is the Dharma, and there, one can find peace and protection; one can find our ancestors and our roots. This is our true home – our inner island where there is the light of the true Dharma. Returning there, one finds light, one finds peace and safety, and one is protected from the darkness. The ‘Island of Self’ is a safe place of refuge from the turbulent waves that can otherwise sweep us away. Taking refuge in this island within is a very important practice.
We have a song in Plum Village titled, ‘Being an Island unto Oneself’. This song is about the practice of taking refuge in oneself. If we still feel that we have not found our true home, that we do not have a place to call home, that we have not truly come home, that we still want to look for a homeland, or that we still feel lonely and at a loss; then this practice is for us. This song can remind us to return and take refuge in the island within.
Our Refuge of Practice Around the 4th or 5th century, when these mini talks were translated into Chinese, the monks translated the ‘Island of Self’ as ‘tự châu’ (tự is self and châu is island). “Dear monks, practice being islands unto yourselves, knowing how to take refuge in yourselves.” Those were the words the Buddha uttered just one month before he had passed away. If we consider ourselves to be soul mates of the Buddha, to be real students of the Buddha, we should take his advice and not go looking for our homeland, our true home, in time and space. We should look for this true home right within our own self, within our own heart; where there is everything we are searching for. There, we can touch our ancestors, blood and spiritual, and touch our roots, our heritage. There, we can find peace and stability. There, we can find the light of wisdom. Let us take refuge in our own island – in the island of the Dharma. We do not take refuge in any other person or thing, even Thầy.
The Buddha’s love is immense. He knew that there would be many students who would feel lost after he had gone, so he reminded them that his body was not something permanent and eternal. He taught them that that which was most worthy for them to take refuge in, was their own island of self. We know that it is always there for us. We do not have to take the plane or the bus or the train to go there, but with our mindful breathing and mindful steps, we can be there right away. Our island within is our true refuge. It is our practice of the Dharma.
This Christmas, if you buy and bring home a Christmas tree to decorate, remember that your ‘True Home’ is not found outside yourself, but it is right in your own heart. We do not need to bring home anything for us to feel fulfilled. We have everything we need right in our heart. We do not need to practice for many years or to travel far to arrive at our true home. If we know how to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration, then with each breath, with each step, we arrive at our true home. Our true home is not a place far removed from us in space and time. It is not something that we can buy. Our true home is present right in the here and now; if only we know how to return and to be truly present to it.
Home in the Present Moment The other day, Thầy was reflecting on what message to send to his friends and students abroad so that they can practice, so that they can be like Jesus or be like the Buddha. Thầy then wrote this calligraphy: “There is no way home, Home is the way.”
The means and the ends are not two separate things. There is no way to return to our home. Our home is the way. Once we take a step on that path home, we are home right in that moment. This is true to the practice of Plum Village. There is no way to happiness, Happiness is the way. Recently, Thầy also shared in his Dharma Talk that, There is no way to nirvana, Nirvana is the way. Every breath and every step has the capacity to bring us right back to our true home, right in the here and now. This is the fundamental practice of Plum Village. This is the message that Thầy wants to send to his friends and students during this Christmas season. If you want to send a Holiday greeting to your friends and loved ones, you can also send this message. If you can practice it truly, then sending it will have a deep meaning; but if you do not practice it, then the message will have little substance.
Let us all enjoy our practice of coming home this Holiday season. Let us truly be at home within, and so become a home for our loved ones and all our friends.
With trust and love,