fearlessness

Surrender and a Lotus

By Ian Prattis

After Thay's "Heart of the Buddha" retreat in the fall of 1996 at Plum Village, I went to India to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga, a system of meditation for adults and children. Committed to global religious harmony, program participants work to heal and transform deeply rooted schisms in Indian society—through rural development, civic responsibility, and anticorruption programs. and through praying regularly with all the religious communities in India. It also has a marvelous outreach to introduce meditation into schools. training colleges, universities, and factories. I was privileged and honored to experience so many treasures of India.

Then, in November and December of 1996,I became seriously ill in India. As I observed my body's systems crashing one by one, I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. I was surprised by my calm and lack of panic. As December drew towards its close, I totally surrendered. I will always remember Saturday, December 21, 1996. On that day, I let go of all attachments to my body. Throughout the day and evening, I read The Blooming of a Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh, from cover to cover, practicing those meditations that spoke to me. I felt at one with all my spiritual ancestors. I felt Thay's wisdom, love, and gentleness as a tangible presence. I was in a small ashram in the city of Mumbai, reserved for saints and holy men, and I also felt their grace close at hand.

The meditations in The Blooming of A Lotus took me deeply into my roots of being, and I felt very calm about the impermanence of my bodily existence. My heart opened wide. While I did the meditations on "Looking Deeply and Healing," I thought about my many mistakes, and chose not to deny them or brush aside the bodily pain in this moment, for I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom that were flooding through me were dissolving both. I felt very simple, that I was living properly. I was without panic and present with whatever arose. I did not fear death. This lack of fear gave me freedom and strength, and opened a huge door to send love and joy to all. I felt my true self, peaceful, not pulled in any direction. Despite all that was going on, I was solidly and timelessly present. I could freely share whatever gifts, skills and energies I had. I finally understood the real significance of the Buddha's words about the Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

To be with myself at this time—happy and content in the moment—was all I had, and it was enough. As I practiced this meditation, I felt that each moment of life was absolutely precious and somehow I was communicating this to all that I connected to. Before I slept that night, one last meditation secured me in the refuge of all my spiritual ancestors. Although the focus was on the Buddha, I felt all my teachers and guides throughout lifetimes gathered together inside and around me, without boundaries, and they stayed while I slept. When I fell asleep, I was content and happy.

The next morning, to my surprise and joy, I woke up! Over the next six months, I slowly recovered my health. Friends in North America who tune in to me very closely had booked airline tickets in December to take me out of India to recover. While I was touched by their love, I said no to their proposal.

Whatever the outcome, this particular journey was to be in India. I had written countless Christmas cards to friends and loved ones all over the world and signed them with "Blessings and Love from Ian." That is what I had wanted to send before my death. Then I lived! And I was even more happy that the cards were sent.

I am glad that at the last moment before leaving for India I intuitively put The Blooming of a Lotus into my backpack. It has always been one of my favorite books, as it never fails to take me deeper into myself. I love it for additional reasons now. I can recommend it to people I meet as a "lifesaver," for it was exactly this for me—a Lotus that carried me through.

Ian Prattis, True Body of Understanding, practices in Canada

Diary Entries

Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India

December 20, 1996

Feel weaker than ever this morning. Could hardly make it from my bed to the bathroom. Hope the saints who have passed through this little ashram are casting a protective eye over me. Perhaps they can cheer up Chotolal, the Nepali cook here, who has become quite anxious, especially as I have not had the energy or inclination to eat the special dishes he prepares. He only has me to look after at the moment, and my state of health is not a good advertisement for the care he gives. He is watching me write in my diary, so I will change hands and write with my left hand so he can laugh and feel less anxious about me. It worked! Is there some major purification going on in my body, is there something I do not see? What lessons are there in this for me? Or are my days drawing to a close in the silence of this ashram? My blood tests from the hospital show that I am low and deficient in just about every category, and the antibiotics and other medications only make me feel worse. So many questions and worries, yet they do not seem totally important. I ask them, then they fade away. It is a bit strange. A few days ago I collapsed and passed out while at dinner at Madhuma's house. I know she and her family would take me in, yet this saint's refuge is where I feel most comfortable right now. The quiet and simplicity of the place speaks deeply to me. I guess it allows me to prepare.

Have been in an almost constant state of mediation for days now, a deep quiet silence. Making entries in this diary is almost an interruption to the silence. Yesterday, Tom and Bev phones from Tucson in the States and it was wonderful to talk to them. They know how ill I am and sent prayers from the desert. Another friend, Barbara, from Michigan also phoned. She tunes into me very closely and was sufficiently alarmed to offer to fly to Mumbai and take me back to the States to get well in her home. Their love and care is very moving, but I know that whatever is to happen is to be here in India. For sure.

Have sent Chotolal on an errand as he was moping a bit an needed something to do. I gave him some money and asked him to buy some cards and stamps for me. The cards are beautifully hand-painted ones on pipal leaves, and have pictures of the Buddha, Krishna dancing and other such scenes. Want to make sure I finish my Christmas list. Sending tons of Christmas cards to friends and loved ones. Feel such a calm about all this that would normally surprise the heck out of me. The calm is just there, sitting with me, just fine. I know there is a distinct possibility I will not live beyond Christmas and want to send out a Christmas message from India--"Blessings and Love from Ian." Guess there is some ego in that, but it is what I want to do. Just addressed a card of the Buddha to Thay Nhat Hanh in France. Writing and addressing the cards has exhausted me, but feel very satisfied and full--a sort of mission accomplished. Chotolal brought in a package of mail from Canada: letters and cards from family and friends. Made me very happy, also made me cry as I thought of friends I may not see again. Yet they were strange tears--not full of sorrow or anything, just tears as I thought of loving friends.

I keep falling asleep very quietly, then waking up very quietly. Sleep is like a light breeze that seems to visit now and then. Ate a little bit of dinner to allay Chotolal's anxiety, but it is my supply of rice malt and vitamin C that is keeping me going. Chotolal is usually very jolly but I think my poor health has caused him to become quiet. He left some fruit and water on the table by my bed, then left to spend the next day with Nepali friends in another part of the city, taking my pile of Christmas cards to post. Care and love just beam from his eyes and drip off his moustache. I am enjoying the silence and aloneness, now that he has left. Going to bed now, it is about nine o'clock in the evening and I am drifting off to sleep as though gentle wings are carrying me.

December 21, 1996

Waking up was easy, getting up was a bit of a struggle but did that in stages. The quiet and silence inside the ashram is quite palpable and almost visible--maybe the lack of noise from the kitchen. But that is not it. I remembered my shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. Had a dream about her during the night but do not totally recall all the details. I do remember that she told me to call in my guides, and construct a mental medicine wheel around me, and include all my spiritual ancestors. Did that  and feel an incredible constellation of energies, like millions of guardian angels from every conceivable dimension. This place is really hopping with energy. I just know that today is about surrender to Go'd wisdom, and I freely place myself in His hands. Feel a funny kind of delight inside me, want to dance to an imaginary orchestra, but do not think my legs would move too well.

Took some fruit and returned to my book of meditations and began to read. The book is by my Buddhist teacher and I feel so grateful to have been around long enough to receive his teachings. I read slowly, stop frequently to close my eyes and feel the words. Doing quite a number of the meditations and have no sense of time or space today, as each meditation seems to move me with its own measure and carry me along. Feel such a deepening in my heart, all the way inside my body. Aware that there is no fear or panic, just a sort of simple and happy acceptance. That is all that is there. I have never experienced anything like this. Have no thought of anything and feel deeply content for no apparent reason. is this surrender? Peace with God? No flashing lights, visitations or visions--only a quiet surrender and being with the inevitability of it all, whatever "IT" is.

December 22, 1996

I woke up this morning, heard the crows saying hello from the tree outside the window. Feel so happy to be alive. Chotolal is singing in the kitchen and rattling his pots and pans, so I will celebrate this new day with a little breakfast. That will make us both very happy. A clear insight that this "death" is a spiritual one, as is the "rebirth." I feel completely new this morning, as thought I have been rewired and plugged into sockets with a bigger voltage. Part of my preparation to continue moving along. I feel such gratitude to all the saintly energies, guardian angels and spiritual ancestors that supported me thorough the most important experience of my life. I will eat a good breakfast for all of them.

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Fierce Compassion

By Cheri Maples mb52-Fierce1

Cheri Maples received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and became a Dharma teacher on January 9, 2008 at Plum Village. Here is part of the Dharma talk she gave to the Sangha that day.

Since I was very young, I have had a passion for justice, which led to my work as a police officer and my work in other parts of the criminal justice system. However, I began working for social justice, not from a peaceful place, but from the place of an angry rebel. Looking back, I realize that fighting for social justice in various forms was one of the fuels I used to keep the unconscious habit seeds of anger burning strongly. As a result, the unskillful behaviors I engaged in created some harm in my personal and work relationships.

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I attended my first retreat with Thay in 1991. That retreat started the beginning of the mindfulness journey I have been on ever since. I have lots of habit energy and karma to transform, so this lifelong journey, while not a speedy one, has been and will continue to be a journey characterized by constancy and right aspiration.

For me, the path of mindfulness continues to be about waking up to the mystery that is right here in the present moment. Although there continue to be painful experiences and cycles in my life, I get increasingly frequent and reassuring glimpses of my vastness and my interconnection with everybody and everything in the universe.

As my practice has progressed, I have begun to understand that working for peace and justice is a journey of gentle honesty and a process of learning how to be present so that every interaction with another person is an opportunity for authenticity and understanding.

I was such an unlikely candidate for this path that I consider finding my way to it nothing short of a miracle. Today, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I have internalized about Thay’s teachings.

Suffering as Compost

First, I have learned that our personal suffering is the richest compost of our practice.

I experienced much pain in my relationship to my parents as a child, in my relationship to my children as a parent, and in my other intimate relationships. I have learned how to use this pain to understand more about what it is to be human.

I now understand that blame has often been a barrier I erected not to take responsibility for my own emotions. As I learn more about how to understand and frame my own suffering, I continue to see my own preciousness and that of others. I have learned that imperfection is not a thing to be avoided or blamed on others and that the very things that make me feel so very unlovable, all those defects I tried so hard to hide, are precisely what I have to offer others.

I have learned to remind myself that I need to stop relating to what I would like to fix in myself and replace the seeds of project mentality with loving kindness and unconditional friendship with myself and others. It’s helpful to remember that what I am doing is unlocking a softness that is in me and letting it spread in order to soften the sharp edges of self-criticism and complaint.

The Path of True Redemption

Second, I have learned that the truth is many-sided and can be approached from multiple perspectives, and that it is important to develop a deep sense of openness.

I see multiple doors to the Dharma around me every day and understand that different people enter through different doors. To me, any door that helps people lead a more ethical and compassionate life is a legitimate Dharma door. My challenge as a Dharma teacher is to find and invite people through the Dharma doors that they can relate to by translating Thay’s teachings into a language they can understand. Of course, a major focus of mine will be bringing Thay’s teachings to those who work in the criminal justice system because I understand not only their language and fears, but also the injustices committed when people abuse the trust and state authority bestowed upon them.

I hope I can help people to understand the difference between fear and faith, between doing the right thing and righteousness, between action and compulsion. I hope I can help them internalize Thay’s teaching that when we stop seeing ourselves solely as victims or oppressors, we can develop a sense of forgiveness for ourselves and others that leads to true redemption. And, in finding their way, I hope I can encourage people to think enough of themselves to claim the right to question what is offered, to investigate what they are being told, to trust their own experiences, and allow others to do the same.

In finding my own middle way between action and compulsion, I try to remind myself that although my spiritual practice requires me to take action, it should not be one more thing to judge myself about or be compulsive about. In every major step along my own path, first in receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, then in receiving the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and now being made a Dharma teacher, I have gone through what I call an “I’m not worthy crisis.” When I really get scared that I am not worthy, my partner will say to me, “Do you trust Thay?” I say, “Of course. I trust Thay with all my heart.” She says, ”Then, trust him not to make a mistake. Get out of the way and let the Buddha be the Dharma teacher.”

I do trust that the process of becoming a Dharma teacher will work in a similar manner as the process of receiving the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The trainings and the possibilities contained within the trainings work on me as I work on them. As my understanding and practice deepens, old habit seeds and energies are transformed as new seeds get watered by living up to the possibilities of the path.

So I have decided that the purpose of being a Dharma teacher is no different than the purpose of any student on the path. The purpose is not to do it right but to reside in the joy and possibilities provided by the opportunity to commit more deeply to the Dharma and reap the bountiful harvest that this possibility offers.

In finding my way between fear and faith, I have learned that faith is about discovering the existence of an ultimate dimension and learning to live with heart. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart and letting the world tickle your heart with the wonders of the present moment and your relationships with others. It comes from being willing to open up, touching your own vulnerability, and having the courage to share your heart with others. This is the path to the authentic relationships that are the litmus test of spirituality.

In discovering the difference between doing the right thing and righteousness, I have learned that dogma and righteousness are subtle forms of violence. In contrast, faith enables us to meet life with a sense of curiosity rather than a definition of reality.

One of Thay’s greatest gifts to me was the teaching that if we truly understand our interconnection with others, we can all find a victim and an oppressor within ourselves. I can look back and find painful examples of my own mistakes and unintentional abuses of power. Likewise, I can find painful examples of my own victimization. When we learn to acknowledge and make friends with these parts of ourselves, it enables us not to become one or the other.

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As long as we see ourselves solely as victims, our anger will fuel a dangerous sense of entitlement that can be just as destructive as the oppressor’s abuse of power. When I see all the ways that I have been a perpetrator and a victim, I can relax. I can hold more paradoxes, more dichotomies. I can also let go of my guilt about the past and understand that redemption lies in the correction of the course of my mistakes. I can continually begin anew by taking the opportunity the present moment puts in front of me to make a different choice.

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An Unwavering Commitment to Non-Violence

Third, I have deeply internalized Thay’s teaching that it is impossible to end violence with violence.

I believe this is the biggest challenge and the most important lesson for all those working in the criminal justice system. Working to provide public safety means working for peace and justice, and requires an unwavering personal commitment to non-violence in our own lives and in our environments and systems. This requires a personal aspiration not to contribute to violence or aggression in any form. If the personal is indeed political, the most radical political act of all is to learn how to live in more harmony with everyone and everything.

When we understand our interdependence deeply, we understand that when we care for ourselves, we care for others; and when we care for others, we care for ourselves. This understanding enables us to effectively work for peace in ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Unfortunately, I work in a criminal justice system based on the premise that punishment of the perpetrator will heal the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator. Of course, people insistent on punishing each other usually become allied in making each other suffer more.

I have observed that it is not the wrongdoer’s repentance that creates forgiveness, but the victim’s forgiveness that creates repentance. This is where forgiveness enters the realm of spirit and paradox. Because it becomes a mysterious gift offered to one who does not necessarily merit it, it becomes the essence of compassion itself.

In conclusion, my own path has taught me how important it is to be present to my own life, to trust myself and help others to do the same, to allow my heart to be torn open in love rather than protected in fear. I have learned to keep asking myself if what I am doing is making me kinder, more understanding, and more loving.

Cheri Maples, True Jewel, worked in the criminal justice profession for twenty-five years; she is also a licensed attorney and clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Cheri practices with SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin.

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