Practicing the Mindfulness Trainings in Prison

By Mark J. Wilson I am ashamed to admit it but I am a prisoner of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), serving a life sentence for a murder I committed on June 29, 1987, when I was just eighteen years old. There is nothing I can say to excuse or justify what I did. It was a senseless act. At that point in my life I was a heavy and regular user of methamphetamines. I did not think or care about the rights or feelings of other people. I made countless hurtful, destructive and life-altering choices that affected others. I justified and rational zed every bad thing I chose to do. There came a point when I no longer valued human life.


Shortly after my arrest, the enormity of what I had done consumed me. I was stricken with guilt and filled with disgust, not only for what I had done, but also for who I had become. I vowed to do everything I possibly could to change my life.

Upon my arrival at prison, I began to do all I could to understand how it became possible for me to take someone's life and how I could now change to become a caring person. I felt the need to try somehow to make up for what I had done and the pain I caused. Fortunately, when I entered the prison system fifteen years ago there were many mental health treatment and education programs available.  I enrolled in them all. This was the beginning of what I later realized would be a life-long journey toward becoming a better, more compassionate person.

In 1998, I was scanning the bookshelf in my housing unit for something to read, when I came upon the book, A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield. I could not put it down. This was my first exposure to meditation and to Buddhist practice. I soon found my way to the prison's Buddhist Study Group, and I've been attending ever since.

Within our Sangha, we study books written by many great teachers. Thich Nhat Hanh's  teachings have been a steady presence, and each week throughout 1999 and 2000 we studied his book, For a Future to Be Possible. This was my introduction to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They resonated with me because they typify the kind of life I strive to live today: a life of love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and deep respect for all life. They represent a life so utterly contrary to the life that led me to take another person's life.

Upon completion or For a Future to Be Possible our Sangha was blessed with the opportunity to receive transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Dharma teacher Lyn Fine on October 15, 2000. I jumped at the chance. Each month, following the transmission, our Sangha recites the Trainings together and discusses their application to our lives. Recently, we had the opportunity to renew our commitment to the Trainings by again receiving transmission from Lyn Fine and Jerry Braza.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that prison is a place where suffering takes many forms and is always present. Because of this, it is also a place where many opportunities exist for prisoners to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an effort to ease suffering. I have been greatly blessed during my incarceration with the opportunity to serve the prison community in a variety of capacities, including: inmate legal assistant, facilitator of a Victim Awareness and Empathy Development program, facilitator of an "at risk" youth crime prevention program, and hospice volunteer for terminally ill prisoners. These labors of love allow me to witness suffering from many different perspectives and to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an attempt to ease that suffering. I cannot find words to express what a gift that is for me. Easing    someone    else's   suffering brings deep meaning and purpose to my life and in turn, helps ease my own suffering. Though I wish l had learned these lessons fifteen years ago, I see that today my life is dramatically different than it was in 1987. I am deeply grateful to all of the wonderful teachers I have met throughout my incarceration and for their willingness to show me true loving kindness. Thank you one and all!

Mark James Wilson lives in Oregon and practices with his Sangha inside the prison, with the support of the Sangha outside the prison.

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Poem: Decline to State

mb37-Decline1 Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian Declined to state What is your ethnicity? A little box in front of me fails To see the complexity of my identity

In the face of this bureaucracy The confusion of my whole life Follows me And it bothers me It really bothers me That only one category is acceptable

Anger, shame and sadness come up As the complexity of my identity stares me in the face Challenging me from behind the linear lines One box to represent the multiplicity of my history Check one and only one And it’s there’s only one right answer And you are not it “Half breed, mongrel, mixed girl” “You don’t exist You shouldn’t exist” There’s no room for you on this piece of paper

Decline to state Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian What is your race?

Well I was Conceived of colonization father India married his fate to Royal mother England Creating me Part British part Indian Wholly human Yet the ancestry of my motherland Claims I should not be born While in India I was the half hidden little secret My father kept from his family Were they ashamed of me?

His mother died on her way from India to Britain Coming to see me And I’ve held the guilt of responsibility for her death Believing my blood hold divisions she could not bear to see. So we moved to the United States The land of hope, equality & opportunity Seeking inclusion, prosperity And respite from firebombs little British boys were dropping in living rooms Of mixed raced families

What is your race? Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian Declined to state

Well, I am Indian, and now I am an American, but Somehow, the American Indian box just isn’t quite right And Asian isn’t right Because Indians are barely Asians, And I being half Indian, well it’s just to far to stretch

And no way in a million years would I check the white box Submit under this form to the same Annihilation of my identity? You must be joking

Too many years of wishing Too many years of thinking White was what I desperately wanted to be Only

None of the other boxes apply And even if they give me an “other” option What kind of race is “other” anyway? And decline to state feels like a cop out Two minutes too late I know like you know that you have already locked me down & judged me based on what you think you see

Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian Declined to state

Pen shaking in my hand, angry; What’s your race? Declined to state Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian & the inadequacy of my identity is the reality of my privilege guilt comes rolling up like waves washing British ships upon Indian shores The story of my family tree bringing me Closest to the Asian category

Asian? How can I benefit from 400 years of oppression I barely feel the taste of? How can I claim a history my Indian father taught me to disown? What’s your race? Declined to state They’ll let you blend in if you Don’t state They’ll let you be a normal part of this state Of affairs

I am inclined now to think outside the box to redefine this narrow history and tell a different story on this piece of paper in front of me pull the box wide open ‘cos these racial categories intend to conveniently erase my identity perpetrate colonization on me again and again every time I

Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian Decline to state What’s your race? & I decline to submit to this state of affairs and proudly, as thee mixed girl I am I check off, quickly, Every single box on the page Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian I state ‘em all, even the “other” box Watch me & if there’s a space to write in my race I fill in “human” Declaring unity & equality for all to see

I leave no trace of my identity Make if harder to process me Into neat little categories Since love, life, family, my ancestry Are much deeper than the space One little box can afford me

It’s about time we set ourselves, humanity & the little boxes free about times we take the matter of the complexity of identity into our own hands

‘cos where I want to be it’s all about interconnection & unity all of us connected one blood one people one love humanity no distinctions necessary

‘cos the way I see it tho' we may mix like apples & oranges or appear to be different fruits totally, we all grown from the same family tree & that’s human, completely, you see?

—Susanna Barkataki

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A Letter to My Brothers and Sisters in Baguio City Jail

By Sister Mai Nghiem mb65-ALetter1Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It is 5 a.m. and I’m sitting on the roof of the Baguio Buddha Temple, looking out at your city and thinking of you. Are you up yet? What are you doing at this time? I wish we would’ve had more time to talk yesterday. Perhaps another time.

Thank you for our time together yesterday. It was my first time going into a jail, and before I entered, my mind was fi with questions and apprehension. I asked myself, “What do I know about their lives? How can I help? Who am I to help?”

As we spent time together, and as you shared your questions and difficulties, I realized something so simple that it may sound naive and a bit silly, something we all know in our heads, but which feels so different in our hearts. I entered the jail with the idea that “you’re you and I’m me,” the idea that you’re a young Filipino staying in the Baguio City Jail and I’m a young French nun staying in a temple in Hong Kong.

Thanks to your openness and your sharing through words, looks, and smiles, I emerged from the Baguio City Jail as quite a different person. I realized, “You’re me and I’m you.” The pain in your heart is also my pain and the smile in your eyes is also my joy. I realized that we have the same mind, that we are experiencing the same joys and suffering as well as the same need for understanding and love.

I realized that we’re who we are now because of our environment, our education, and the influences and impacts of the people in our lives. We’re who we are now because of the seeds we’ve watered in our lives, whether anger, fear, hatred, love, joy, despair, or forgiveness. If my father hadn’t helped me to change the environment I was engaging in as a teenager (an environment filled with drugs, alcohol, empty sex, and partying), I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have been able to meet all of you yesterday.


I’d like to tell you a story. Our teacher did a retreat many years ago in America for war veterans. One of the participants was very fearful. He avoided the other participants, choosing to stay alone. After a few days, a group of brothers and sisters sat with him so he could share what was happening in his heart. And he told his story.

He was a soldier in Vietnam whose unit was killed by the Viet Cong. In revenge, he placed explosives in sandwiches, left them at the gate of a village, and hid nearby. After a while, a group of children came along, found the sandwiches, and happily ate them. As they ate, they began crying, their bodies twisting in pain as they called out for their parents. The American soldier knew there was nothing to be done. He knew the children would die.

When the soldier returned to the United States, images of the dying children haunted his mind. He couldn’t sleep or find any peace of mind. He became a very anxious and angry person and was unable to be in the same room with children.

So much guilt was in him and he could not forget. His mother was the only person with whom he spoke about what he had done. She tried to comfort him by saying, “This is what happens in war.” But her words didn’t help to release his pain.

When the soldier finished telling his story, our teacher said to him, “Yes, you killed a group of children. This is a fact. But how many children can you save today? How many children are dying right in this moment because of lack of food and medicine? Do not stay in your guilt and regret. Go out and help save children now.” And that is what the ex-soldier did. He started devoting his time and energy to saving children, and at the same time, he was healing himself.

When we experience a difficult situation, we are very lucky. Why? The difficult situation gives us a chance to understand deeply and to help other people who are experiencing the same kind of suffering.

If we have watered the seeds of anger, hatred, violence, and fear every day, and can see how these seeds, growing stronger and stronger, have brought so much damage and suffering to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to others, then we can make an aspiration in our heart. Whether we are in prison or not, we can take the time we have to reflect, to look deeply at our situation and into the situations of our children and our youth to see what we can do to create a better environment, a better place for our children to grow up so that violence, hatred, fear, and anger are not our daily bread. We can nourish ourselves and one another with joy, beauty, love, and understanding. And that doesn’t require money.

We can sit together, and as intelligent people, we will find ways to become community builders, creating a safe, healthy, and peaceful environment for our families and future generations. We have to use our time wisely. If we are in prison, we have plenty of time now to sit and look at ourselves, to sit together and share our difficulties and our insights of how to get out of these difficult situations. And we can always ask for help. There are many people around us who are ready to listen and to help.

I have much trust that you will be able to help many, many people through your own experience.

My dear brothers and sisters, thank you for being here, thank you for being who you are, thank you for being so beautiful. I promise I will use my time to breathe for you and to walk for you, because I know that my peace is your peace, and my joy is your joy.

Please pray for me as well, so that I may have your determination and your strength to face obstacles along my way. May God and all your ancestors be with you always, protecting you on your path.

Your sister, Mai

Sister Mai Nghiem (Sister Plum Blossom) ordained in 2002. She is living now in the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, helping with Applied Ethics and Wake Up programmes. She went with the monastic Sangha to the Philippines in October 2013, a yearly trip. The Baguio City Jail visit was an event organized by a Sangha member there.

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Dharma Talk: Living Practice

Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh and Monastic Brothers and Sisters

European Institute of Applied Buddhism Waldbrol, Germany May 20, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh: Today we have a session of questions and answers. We know that a good question can benefit many people. So please ask a question from your heart, a question that has to do with our practice, our suffering, our happiness. We know that a good question does not have to be very long. Young adults are encouraged to come and ask questions.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve been in a youth Sangha for almost two years. There are many Sanghas of young people growing in Holland and Germany, and it’s great to feel the brother­hood and sisterhood, and also the youth retreats that we have here in the EIAB [European Institute of Applied Buddhism]. I would also like to thank the EIAB for their support and their flexibility and trust in the wake-up group. As young people, we have this dream to create wake-up, living communities, but I wonder, how do we know that we have enough practice to make this really hap­pen? Do we need to have Dharma teachers as a foundation? Do we need to have laypeople finish the five-year [monastic] program to be the foundation? How do we create successful wake-up, living communities?

Thay: I remember one time we had a retreat in Montreal, Canada, and after the first session of walking meditation, one lady came up and said, “Thay, walking meditation is so wonderful, I enjoy it so much! May I share this practice of walking meditation with other people?” And I said, “Yes, you can share the teaching and the practice if you feel happy with the practice.” So if a group of young people are able to live happily and in harmony, connecting with the practice, they can begin to share the practice with other young people, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time learning and practicing Buddhism.

Maybe Brother Phap Linh can say a few words on this, on how to expand our movement and help more young people.

Brother Phap Linh: I know that the wake-up movement is very strong; we already feel like brothers and sisters on the path. Two years ago, Thay told us we need to have a wake-up tour of Europe, to spend ten days in each country. At the time we thought that was impossible, but already this year we’ve been able to do it in England and in Italy. We went to six different universities in the United Kingdom in March, a group of seven brothers and sisters and five young laypeople. Next year we want to make that dream come true by planning events in Holland, Germany, and Belgium.

Thay has encouraged us to invite people to practice as mo­nastics for five years. Now we will also have a two-year master’s program, for a Master of Applied Buddhism. So there are many ways that young people can come and train to become solid practitioners and to have the experience of serving others and sharing the practice.

The dream of living together as young people, sharing the practice, is already coming true. There’s a wake-up house in Aus­tin, Texas, and the core of their practice is agreeing to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the house, and that way they maintain harmony. So I think we already know the way. We just need to continue.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, I would like to ask how to create a peaceful and friendly relationship with a person who hates you and wants you out of their life.

Thay: There are at least two things to do. The first thing is to be­come lovable, pleasant. Sooner or later the other person will notice that you have become more pleasant to be with. The second thing is that you may know people who are friends with the other person, who can help the other person notice that you are a lovely person, are pleasant to be with, so that he will adjust his first impression and recognize the reality that is now. So the first thing is, a flower should be a true flower. The second thing is that someone should remind us that the flower is there.

Retreatant: I have a habit to be offensive against other people in my thoughts. I want to change that, but I don’t know how. For example, when I walk down the street and see people doing things, I think to myself, “Oh, what an idiot!” Things like that.

Thay: When you see something, it might be only one aspect of that thing, the aspect that does not please you. Next time you see someone or something, do not allow just one aspect of it to seize you, but allow yourself to see the other aspects as well.

In the chanting book there is a sutra talk by Shariputra [Dis­course on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger]. He said that when you have anger, you have to look deeply in order to trans­form your anger. With a person whose way of doing things may not please you, but whose way of speaking can be very pleasant, you should pay attention more to his way of speaking, not to his way of doing. That way you can transform your anger. Even if you notice that his behavior is not pleasant and his speech is not pleasant, maybe his way of thinking is very pleasant. You can see the goodness in his heart, so you accept what is not so good in his way of speaking or acting.

Shariputra went on to say that even if his behavior is not pleasant, if his speech is not pleasant, and if his thinking is not pleasant, you can still feel compassion and transform your anger. You look deeply to understand that such a bad person must be someone who suffers very much, and you might be able to help him suffer less. If you think like that, you will accept him as he is, and the anger in you will be transformed. This sutra is very beautiful. I recommend that you read it.

Shariputra used the image of water to illustrate his teaching. First, he described a lake covered with straw and algae. If a person who is very thirsty and hot takes off his clothes and gets into the water using his arm to remove what is floating on the surface, he can enjoy the cool water. If he can see underneath the straw and algae, the water is deep and fresh.

Shariputra gave a second image of a person who is traveling and is so thirsty he is about to die, but he knows there is some water left in the footprint of a buffalo. He knows that it is a very small quantity of water, and if he uses his hands to gather the water, it might become muddy. So he kneels down and drinks the water directly and is able to survive. It means that even if the situation is difficult, if the person is not very pleasant in his way of speak­ing and acting, you can recognize the goodness in him and try to enjoy that. That is one way to transform your anger, your disap­pointment. The sutra is about five ways to put down your anger and is available in the Plum Village chanting book. If you read the sutra, next time you go out on the street, you will look at them and smile and accept them as they are. Thank you. Good question.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, yesterday you talked about nirvana and states of being and non-being, the here and now, and the true self. Lately I feel that my true self is like a drop that has been taken out of the collective consciousness, something like a cloud. And I feel, as I’m aging, that this drop has been separated, and I have this longing to reunite with the ocean. I would like to know whether you notice a longing to be reunited to the true self, and how I can live in the here and now in the face of this longing.

Thay: If the wave remembers that she is at the same time water, there is no need for the wave to go and search for water. You have the impression that you are separated from your true self, from your true nature. That is only a feeling, a wrong perception. You feel that you are away from the ultimate dimension; you do not have a connection with God. That is also a feeling born from wrong perception. We know that the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension are not two separate dimensions, they are just one. So if we say that the flower belongs to the Kingdom of God, then if we get in touch deeply enough with the flower, we get in touch with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not something outside the flower. The feeling of separation is born from the fact that you do not live your life deeply enough in each moment. If we learn how to live in mindfulness and concentration, then the Kingdom of God, the ultimate dimension, is always available to us.

So we need to train ourselves to live more deeply. If we have enough mindfulness and concentration, we can touch the ultimate with every breath, every step. Nirvana, or the Kingdom of God, can be experienced in every moment of our daily life. In fact, you can touch nirvana with your feet. You can be in the presence of God twenty-four hours a day. How? Learn to breathe mindfully, walk mindfully, eat mindfully, drive mindfully.

A written question: Dear Thay, following the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I try not to kill. So for the past two years when I saw a few little bugs in the kitchen, I left them in peace. But this summer there were so many that I began to kill them, always trying to keep a peaceful mind and friendliness, wishing a good rebirth in the next life. I remembered you saying that when we followed the North Star, it didn’t mean that we had to reach it. But to perform the act of killing again and again, doesn’t this create karmic imprints in my stream of consciousness? Or do I have to decide not to kill at all in spite of some disadvantages? Thank you.

Sister Jina: We say the Five Mindfulness Trainings are like the North Star. They give us a direction in life, the direction of non- violence. And we do our best. One of the main things is to keep our mind open, not to think we have to do it this way or that way. Every time I am confronted with a situation, I look again and say, “What is the wisest thing to do?” If you do that, then you may learn to focus on prevention. In this case, we can see what we do that brings the little beings into our kitchen. Then we can determine what we can do to prevent them from coming in. This goes for all aspects of our daily life. If we did kill the insects, then we have to know we may not choose to do the same thing next time. In the meantime, practice being mindful in your daily life. Then you will have more concentration and more insight about how to protect life and how to go in the direction of nonviolence.

If we start to feel guilty, then we may get to a state where we cannot do anything anymore because guilt overtakes us. It is better to look and to say, “I regret that I did this. What can I do now?” Then we have learned something from the situation, and this will benefit many people and many beings.

Thay: When we went to Hong Kong, we had to use a mosquito net in order to sleep during the night because there were a lot of mosquitoes. It is impossible for you to kill all the mosquitoes! So using a mosquito net is a good prevention technique.

In Plum Village our brothers and sisters used to pick up the insects in the garden and release them outside instead of using pesticides. If we allowed the insects to share our vegetables, there would not be enough vegetables left for us. So at night we went to the vegetable garden and we picked up all these small insects and released them far away. Our neighbors were very surprised to see us and wanted to know what we were doing in the dark!

But that does not mean that we have the best way. We are still learning better ways to protect life. Thank you for asking the question so that we can continue our reflection on that.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear brothers and sisters, I would like to ask a question regarding my superiority complex. All my life when I’ve met people, I’ve automatically judged them and found something in them that made me feel superior. I used to go to a school where at the end of each year we had the custom to invite the best of each year onto a stage before the entire school and honor them with a golden plaque. There is still this voice in me that would really like to share that I, too, once received one of those golden plaques. But I have also discovered how in this way I create a distance between myself and other people.

I have discovered that one reason for my feeling of superior­ity is that I’ve tried to protect myself from a feeling of inferiority. Because of this discovery, things are changing a little bit. However, this feeling of having to create a distance between me and other people is still an obstacle in my way. I would like to ask you for more advice on how to manage this better. Thank you.

Thay: This morning when I touched the earth with the Sangha, I saw all the non-me elements coming together and touching the earth. I did not see me at all, only the non-me elements. That created a lot of space inside. Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it come the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free.

When I was ordained, I was told how to bow to the Buddha. Bowing to the Buddha because you have the impression that the Buddha is perfect and you are not perfect is not the best way. As a young novice I was told that before you bow, you have to look deeply into yourself and into the Buddha to whom you bow. There is a verse you can recite while breathing in and out, before you bow. The verse is: “Dear Buddha, I know I have no self and you have no self. That is why I can see me in you and you in me.”

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not two separate entities. So when you remove the barrier, the distinction between the one who bows and the one who is bowed to, then the experience of the bow can be very deep. Although you conceive of the Buddha as the perfect one, your teacher, the fully enlightened one, you have no complex whatsoever.

Then there is the insight that our ancestors have transmitted to us many wonderful qualities. If we have some talent, there’s no “our own” talent. That is something that has been transmitted to you by your father or your grandfather or grandmother. You should be proud of it. If another person does not seem to have that talent, that doesn’t mean that talent is not in him or her. That person has been in an environment that has not helped that talent to manifest. You are luckier, because you have been in an environment where that talent had a chance to manifest. If you can see that, you won’t have any superiority complex over him.

Also, our ancestors have transmitted to us negative things, habit energies, sufferings. If we happen to be in a good environment where there are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we will be able to transform them more quickly than another person can. I know that the negative things in me may have been transmitted to me by my ancestors, and I know that with the Dharma, with the Sangha, I may be able to help transform them. Not only for myself but for my ancestors at the same time.

So the environment is very important. We should pay attention to how to create a good environment for us and for our children so that the good things can come out easily and the negative things can be transformed more easily.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, twelve years ago I had a crisis, and when I was in most need of the help of my friends, I was let down and even attacked by them. I became very ill and lost all my trust in other people. I have tried to look into the causes of all that happened, and I have tried to forgive myself and others. Now I am on a new path, trying to open myself up and to trust other people again. Much has changed for the better. But my old wound is being opened again by some recent interactions with people, and now I feel that people cannot be counted upon and I need to protect myself. So, dear Thay, how can I live in an open and trusting way, even with people who are not very mindful, and how can I at the same time protect myself?

Thay: We speak of protection with mindfulness. When you do things mindfully, you are in a safer situation. When you walk mindfully, you don’t risk falling down. When you speak mind­fully, you know what you are saying, and you know that what you say is going to create danger or safety. Most of the time the dangers come from ourselves, and not from others. We should learn to think mindfully, because our thoughts can draw danger to ourselves. When we do things, when we say things, when we think from a basis of anger and fear, we bring danger to ourselves and to the people around us. That is why when we notice that fear or anger is coming up, we should not say anything, we should not do anything. We should only go back to our mindful breathing and mindful walking in order to calm down these emotions. Learning to act mindfully, to speak mindfully, and to think mindfully is the best way to protect ourselves, and we can help protect the people around us at the same time.

If someone asks you to do something, to say something, you say, “Dear friend, I’m not in a position to do or say anything, because there is anger or fear in me. I risk making myself suffer more, and I risk making you suffer more.” If we can practice that, we are in a safer situation, and we can help another person to feel safer at the same time. And we can suggest that the other person, suffering from anger, do the same.

The second thing is that you are in a situation to help people in that negative environment, who have become the victims of such behavior. Mindfulness gives you that insight. These people did not have the intention to make you suffer, but they don’t know how to handle the suffering in them. That is why they do things and say things that make themselves suffer, and the people around them become victims. With that insight you are free and you are in the situation to help, because you have compassion in your heart.

Dear friends, it’s time for us to do walking meditation. Enjoy the Kingdom of God. Thank you.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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