five day retreat

Pain, Love, and Happiness

By Khanh Le Van The University of California at Santa Barbara campus was huge. "Wait till you see the gym," said my Dharma brother Arnie. Indeed, for the next five days we 1,300 retreatants would sit together in that gym for meditation and Dharma talks. A team beaded by Wendy Johnson was busy arranging the gym into sitting meditation squares. Some people set up the altar and stage, others carefully prepared Thay's suite and the rooms of the 34 monks and nuns accompanying him. The atmosphere was very warm. I was so happy for the wonderful opportunity to meet my teacher again.

The next afternoon people poured in to register-young and not so young, businessmen and women, artists, teachers, students, Buddhists, and non-Buddhists. The wide variety of people gave me more hope for the work of building peace. Retreatants stayed in dormitories around the campus and could practice walking meditation from one place to another.

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As we queued up for supper the first night, the level of mindfulness practice was high for such a large gathering. The vegetarian food was so good that it influenced many to change their diet. Most people chose to eat in the outdoor dining hall under a white tent and enjoyed the beautiful, sunny weather. The Five Contemplations were read after fifteen minutes, giving time for some of us to settle first, and read one more time for later comers. I thought of the millions of hungry children around the world and was very mindful of each morsel that I put into my mouth. I vowed to do my best to alleviate this hunger by deepening my practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

As the days passed, the quality of the noble silence deepened. Since the campus was right beside the ocean, Thay changed the morning sitting into outdoor walking meditation. Streams of people started at three different locations and met at the beach. There, we walked along the ocean as one big group headed by Thay-what a wonderful way to be! Our suffering, despair, anger, and fear, were still there-we recognized them. But, the capacity to be happy, light, and at ease was also there. We touched these positive seeds. Thay invited us to touch and taste what is available in the present moment-walking and sitting on the beach with the Sangha, the fresh morning air, the sound of the waves, and the soft sand under our feet. Throughout the retreat, this early morning walking meditation contributed much to the healing process for each of us.

Thay's Dharma talks were deep and well-presented, answering many core questions about fear of death, fear of the crowd, loss of beloved ones, improving family relationships, pain, and happiness. We also had many special interest presentations on topics including caring for the dying and their family members, and Sangha-building.

We had 57 Dharma discussion groups. The group I facilitated met quite a distance from my dormitory, so I had plenty of opportunity to enjoy my breathing while walking. I enjoyed seeing the campus come alive with retreatants practicing mindfulness with each step. I clearly remember the moment everybody stopped as the university bell chimed. I was standing still on the footpath, returning from a Dharma discussion. After three deep breaths, I noticed the stillness in front of me. I thought that I was walking in the Pure Land or in the Kingdom of God. An immense feeling of lightness arose in me.

Another beautiful scene was the presence of the monks and nuns, the flaps of their brown robes flying with the gentle breeze. They were so fresh, joyful, and peaceful. How fortunate we were to have the monastic order practicing with us. The energy produced by the Sangha was very powerful.

The retreat ended with the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, received by many retreatants. More and more people are searching for something true, beautiful, wholesome. Practicing the Five Mindfulness Trainings leads in that direction.

May we be diligent in our practice for the future to be possible.

Dharma teacher Khanh Le Van, True Transmission, practices with the Lotus Buds Sangha in Sydney, Australia.

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Mindful Living at Omega

By Howard Evans Five days at Omega-an amazing experience for 800 retreatants, including 50 children. The intense joy was sometimes palpable. At one point, as the children prepared to sing for the Sangha, Thay asked them to wait while he came down to sit in front and see their happy faces as they sang. In his Dharma talks, Thay spoke of our habit energies that bring suffering, and developing mindfulness so we might notice and transform these habits, slowing or stopping their effect. He spoke about the seeds in store consciousness that manifest in mind consciousness, and skillful ways of being with them. Which seeds are we watering in ourselves and others? Which are we giving life to in our thinking, speech, actions, consumption, and consciousness? He also suggested we contract with a stairway or a path we walk every day to walk there in mindfulness.

Dharma discussion groups served as human anchors in the sea of people we didn't know. We gathered every afternoon to talk about the Dharma, discuss questions, sing, and sip tea. Our group lacked tea pitchers one day, so, almost searnlessly, we enjoyed cookie meditation, letting circumstances change the form. The tea was exceptional that day.

One afternoon, affinity groups met to discuss topics such as the Green Mountain Dharma Center and Mindfulness Practice Centers, death and dying, practice in couples and families, and practice as lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. I was fortunate to meet with 70 health care practitioners who bring mindfulness and insight to others in a variety of ways. It emphasized for me the incredible importance of building and sustaining mindfulness, and of a Sangha. By our energy and example, we can bring deeper healing to our patients and clients, supervisors and co-workers. Everyone left feeling supported and ready to serve through their work. The only problem was that we wanted to meet more and the end of the retreat was near.

Omega's supportive staff and excellent food aid any retreat. In a way one could gauge the depth of the retreat by watching the staff. As our practice deepened, so did they, stopping easily in the dining room for the bells and mindfully caring for this large group. Staff and retreatants grew to count on the other's practice for their own well-being and joy.

Friday morning, 350 heads bowed to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings. It never fails to touch me, seeing another group of aspirants, ready to commit to a life imbued with mindfulness and careful, deep looking.

Howard Evans, True Insight, practices with the Morgan Bay Zendo in Surry, Maine.

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Grand Visit to a Small Country

Thây in the Netherlands In the spring of this year Thây came with a delegation of 30 monastics from Plum Village for a ten-day visit to the Netherlands. Both the public talk, ‘Peace Is Every Step’, in The Hague and the five-day retreat in Oosterbeek near Arnhem were sold out. Many people made Thây’s visit and the retreat a wonderful and joyful practice. New sanghas are starting, local sanghas, but also a peaceworkers’ sangha. Sleeping sanghas wake up again, and small sanghas grow. It is clear that Thây’s visit to the Netherlands brought new inspiration to the Dutch sangha. Here are fragments of personal reports by participants. For reflections by young retreatants, see “Children’s Voices” on page 29.

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Preparations for the Public Talk in The Hague

Along the edge of the stage: 22 meters of transparent glass vessels topped by yellow daffodils. Behind it, the warm red velvet of the curtain. A white banner with a painted tulip hangs from ceiling to floor: roots, bulb, stalk, and 10 meters above the floor, the flower. In between, the brown of the monastics with their bright faces, the sun. This is the image that 2000 people see from the auditorium.

The basic idea popped up in the intimacy of Didi’s small car: ‘The window sill’, a typical Dutch feature, ‘with flowering tulip bulbs on it’. The tulips turn out to be too expensive. The idea changes, we replace the tulip bulbs with daffodils.

We start collecting glass jars and bottles. At recycling containers we stand and ask people to give us their jars and bottles: a good exercise in humility. For many weeks bags and boxes full of dirty glassware wait to be cleaned. We start loving these glass forms, the beauty of their brightness and simplicity.

On April 28, we drive to our friend Pim. Due to a late spring this year in Holland, the yellow trumpets are still there at the end of April. With shoes wet from the dew, we pass through the bulb fields. In The Hague it takes us all afternoon to get water, glass jars, and flowers in the right place. The banner with the beautiful tulip in the middle of the stage hangs brilliantly. At 6 p.m. we’re finished, ready to enjoy the lecture, the singing, and the sight of this stage. And we think about what we have experienced in turn: humility and dirt, cleaning and brightness, transformation and joy.

—Gré Hellingman and Didi Overman

The Lecture, “Peace Is Every Step”

On the evening of the talk it was very busy in The Hague. The town is the residence of the government and that day it celebrated the eve of ‘Queen Day’ (the birthday of the Queen). Our group of students from the agronomy university reflects a broad segment of the audience that feels touched by Thây’s message that “the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present.”

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While 2000 people slowly fill the room, a number of nuns and monks are sitting in meditation on the podium. Hundreds of daffodils provide color and joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh calmly walks onto the podium and takes his place on a meditation cushion. We are requested to mindfully watch our breathing, while on the podium there is singing accompanied by the vibrating tones of a bell. I feel the hall gradually becoming calmer. Some people welcome this peacefulness very much indeed: in front of me two men start to fall asleep.

Thây starts to tell about the merits of walking meditation. ‘Walking meditation helps us to get into the now.

Often we are a little ahead or behind. Our thoughts are in the future or the past, while our life is only in the present moment.’ Thây speaks about the importance of deep listening and loving speech in dealing with lonely desperate youth, and even with violent extremists. He also talks about his peace work with Israelis and Palestinians.

After the talk the audience is invited to take a souvenir. On the train back, I see daffodils here and there. Tonight Thich Nhat Hanh has clearly touched and inspired a lot of people.

—Barbara Tieleman

The Retreat in Papendal, Oosterbeek, May 1-5

To me as a newcomer, the five-day retreat was like an intensive course in slow and mindful living. Incredible what Thây, the monastics, and the Dutch organization managed to fit into the program! Every day eating in silence (amidst pictures of Olympic sportsmen), a guided sitting meditation, a dharma talk, walking meditation, and discussion in the families. In addition, ‘beginning anew’, ‘touching the earth,’ and the taking of the Five Mindfulness Trainings (by almost 200 people!).

In his dharma talks, Thây elaborated on issues touched upon in the public talk, such as living in the here and now, and overcoming hostility by deep listening and loving speech. During the week Thây tuned his talks more and more to the current harsh Dutch political atmosphere. He did so in a positive, encouraging and inspiring way.

On May 4, Memorial Day, some younger and older participants told their personal stories of war, peace, conflict, and reconciliation. (The retreat was located in a spot where 61 years ago, bombs had fallen.) That evening we celebrated peace with a candlelight procession and we sang peace songs in the open air. There was a festive atmosphere in Oosterbeek.

—Wilma Aarts

Snapshots of the Retreat

Snatches flutter through my head and heart, songs I hear myself sing when I ride my bike, images on my retina. Some fragments...

In his talk on making peace Thây stands rocking the baby of pain in his arms, saying to it: “I’ll take good care of you. I don’t know yet what is wrong with you, whether you are lonely or angry, but I know that you are in pain. With my full attention, I will be with you, I do not leave you alone.”

Thây sketches the image of a friend, an American peace activist, who is in a coma in a hospital. In his last hours Thây and Sister Chan Khong visit him, massage his feet and remind him of all the good peace work he did. And Sister Chan Khong sings for him the song she sings for us now: ‘No Coming, No Going’.

The island in ourselves, a place of comfort and renewal we can return to, before we step into the outside world. In his talk Thây describes the island in ourselves. And then we sing the new, Dutch version of this song. The young Dutch monk who sings so beautifully leads the singing and we follow.

Children around Thây, helping each other to entwine their little fingers into mudras. It is almost still, a pigeon coos, a giggle. Thây loans his bell to a child. Very mindfully he mimes inviting the bell, the unhearable sound of the invisible bell.

—Else Meerman

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Awakening to Life

Two Stories by Dzung Vo mb65-Awakening1

mb65-Awakening2Dzung Vo, True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen), lives in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, and practices with the Mindfulness Practice Community of Vancouver. As a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, he practices engaged Buddhism by offering mindfulness to young people suffering from stress and pain.

Just One Thing

In 2013, I attended a five-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the international Sangha at Deer Park Monastery. Mindfulness retreats are such a wonderful gift. Retreats are so important for me, to have time to free myself from my day-to-day habit energies, and to nourish my soul and spirit to bring the practice back home and to the world. Coming to Deer Park, or any of the other practice centers in the Plum Village Sangha, feels like coming home. I am deeply grateful to my teachers and the Sangha for this compassionate offering.

During a question-and-answer session at the retreat, Thay reflected on how to stay involved in social activism and positive social change, while at the same time not burning out or giving in to despair. He answered, “My name, Nhat Hanh, means ‘Just One Thing.’ Find just one thing to do, and do that with all of your heart. That is enough.”

When I heard this, I noticed my initial thought-response: “Wait a minute, Thay, how can you say that? You write books, you do calligraphy, give Dharma talks, lead retreats, organize an international Sangha, speak out for social change, meet with world leaders … you do so many things, not just one thing!”

As I looked more deeply into the teaching, I began to receive a different message. I saw that when Thay is giving a Dharma talk to the Sangha, he is fully there with us, 100%, unburdened in that moment by any of his other projects. When he is walking, he is just walking. When he is writing, he is just writing. I believe that this is one way he keeps his joy and compassion alive and protects himself from burnout and despair.

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Since returning to Vancouver, I’ve been trying to practice Just One Thing. That first Monday morning, as I was brewing my coffee, I felt a familiar pang of “back to work” anxiety as I began automatically running through my mental to-do list. I noticed it, breathed and smiled, and returned my full attention to the simple act of brewing coffee. The same thing happened again as I was cutting an apple for breakfast. And again as I shaved and brushed my teeth.

One challenge for me about mindfulness practice is that it demands constant attention, endless repetition, to be awake to life in every moment. One wonderful thing about mindfulness practice is that every moment is an opportunity to be awake, to be free. Every moment. This moment. This is it.

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I decided to become an aspirant for the Order of Interbeing about three years ago, when I began teaching mindfulness to youth in an explicit and intentional way. I knew that I needed to strengthen my own mindfulness practice, and I asked for the guidance and container of the Order of Interbeing to support me. I wanted my practice to be as solid and compassionate as possible, in order for me to be able to offer something beautiful and healing to the youth.

I received the ordination on October 15, 2013, at the Deer Park retreat. Thay gave me the ordination name True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen). Our ordination family name is True Garden, which I love because it is a reminder that practice is always organic and alive, and it needs continuous love and tending in order to produce beautiful vegetables and flowers. I feel that the name “Diligence” is a challenge––as if Thay were reminding me, “Don’t get complacent; don’t take anything for granted. Keep practicing, always!” During the ordination, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. What a compassionate gift from Thay, from the fourfold Sangha that held us in a loving embrace, from my order aspirant teachers Jeanie Seward-Magee and Brother Phap Hai, and from all ancestral teachers. I felt that their greatest hope for us is to wake up to our true nature of interbeing, compassion, and mindfulness. The most I can do to repay that gift is to practice diligently and joyfully, and offer that to the world.

The day before the ordination, I practiced heart-opening in order to be fully present to receive the nourishment and support of the Sangha. My gatha with each step and each breath was,“Opening.” I wrote this haiku on the morning of ordination as I walked slowly to the Ocean of Peace meditation hall, feeling enveloped by and deeply connected to the vast universe of stars in the pre-dawn sky.

ordination day opening, opening, now universe is here

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