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A Prayer of Mercy

By Jim Forest In 1967 and 1968, I was often Thich Nhat Hanh's traveling companion. In the 1970s I lived with him for a time in France, so I carry from those years not only memories of what he said but what it was like living with him.

To this day, when I climb up flights of stairs, Thay is present because he taught me how to breathe while climbing the five flights that stood between the street and my apartment. To breathe and walk in a mindful way means not being breathless but feeling refreshed at the end of the ascent. He is often with me when I feel anger, for he had good advice about how to breathe in such times: inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply, aware of each breath, an action that can convert rage to compassion.

What Thay teaches, I have come to appreciate, is a way of prayer that reaches even the areas of deepest bitterness and hopelessness. Thanks to him, I have found it easier to practice one of the harder disciplines Jesus imposes on his followers: prayer for enemies. In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thay asks us to contemplate the features of a person we hate, and to examine what makes this person happy and what causes them suffering. This should be continued until we feel compassion rising in our heart. Perhaps the hardest part of such a simple exercise is making the first step—wanting to want good rather than bad for a person whose name or image makes your blood boil and steam come out of your ears. The truth is you don't yet want good things to happen to this person, but you are trying to want it. This is hard work. But I can vouch for the wisdom and effectiveness of this advice. Just to contemplate a hated person's face is more than a beginning.

In my practice as a Christian of the Russian Orthodox tradition, I have learned to connect this both to my breathing and the Jesus Prayer (sometimes called the Prayer of the Heart). In its simplest, shortest form, the prayer is, "Jesus, mercy." In its longer, probably most widely used form, it is, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," but for some of us, that text might well ring the wrong bells and require a long explanation. The main thing is simply to say that Thay's exercise can be linked with a simple prayer for mercy and that can be connected with breathing.

Jim Forest is the author of several books, including Living with Wisdom, a biography of Thomas Merton, Religion in the New Russia, and Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day. He lives in Holland where he is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, In Communion

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Walking on Ice

 By Jack Lawlor Even the Buddha's Sangha experienced difficulties. His cousin, Devadatta, once attempted to divide the Sangha and lead it himself. And the Buddha himself could not mediate the dispute over etiquette between the Precept master and the Sutra master at Kosambi-at least, not initially. The Upakkilesa Sutta describes how the bhikkhus at Kosambi were "quarreling and brawling and deep in dispute, stabbing each other with verbal daggers." The Buddha's verse on this dispute reveals how keenly he observed what was happening:

When many voices shout at once None considers himself a fool; Though this Sangha is being split None thinks himself to be at fault.

They have forgotten thoughtful speech, They talk obsessed by words alone. Uncurbed their mouths, they bawl at will; None knows what will lead him to so act.

"He abused me, he struck me, He defeated me, he robbed me"- In those who harbor thoughts like these Hatred will never be allayed.

For in this world, hatred is never Allayed by further acts of hate. It is allayed by non-hatred: That is the fixed and ageless law. Those others do not recognize That here we should restrain ourselves. But those wise ones who realize this At once end all their enmity.

Many Western Sanghas have also experienced difficulty. Ordained teachers in various traditions have engaged in sexual misconduct and selfish financial practices, and disputes have arisen out of personality differences and opinions on how the Sangha should be "led." In response, we often want to reach beyond basic mindfulness practices to resources from other venues, such as conflict resolution techniques used by businesses or other spiritual traditions. If carefully modified to address the people involved, these can sometimes help lessen difficulty in a Sangha, but there are limitations on how much relief we can reasonably expect from organizational solutions, except with respect to extreme behavior and abuses. A healthy, happy Sangha ultimately depends less on structures than on consistent mindfulness practice.

Simple practice helps us penetrate the limits of conceptual thought by deepening our insight into our own and others' motivations and needs, thus enabling us to transform our behavior and nourish the Sangha. Practicing in a Sangha that concentrates wholeheartedly on basic practice, it becomes easier to let go of some of our favorite baggage our ideology and concepts, including our concepts of what Sangha should be like. The Diamond Sutra boldly asserts that "Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free from ideas."

We are invited to participate in a Sangha with an open mind and heart. We should not leave a Sangha merely because it occasionally uses practices that do not appeal to us. A practice that does not appeal to us today may be of great help in the future. Practicing as a healthy Sangha involves a collective decision to practice wholeherutedly each time the Sangha convenes. As Thay reminds us, happiness is not an individual matter.

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The calm and peace produced by our mindfulness practice provides insight when uncertainty, impatience, or anger arise in us. With mindfulness, we are better equipped to watch these states arise and fall within us. We are able to respond to the actual circumstances we are in, rather than react as if compelled by habit energy. From this space, this freedom, the practice of Right Speech-so critical to any healthy Sangha-becomes possible. We find little use for gossipy or sarcastic speech, which causes so much suffering in a Sangha.

During last fall's tele-Dharma talk to North American members of the Order of Interbeing, Thay reflected:

Causing division, juggling for power, juggling for influence, opposing each other are just the symptoms of lack of practice. You can apply mindfulness in every moment of your daily life. We should not put a lot of energy into how to organize or structure or how to settle things, as in politics. The main thing is the practice. The practice is the first thing. We should set up organizations on the basis of our practice, not the other way around. If we use our intelligence to organize our daily practice, we can get nourishment, healing, and transformation every day, and we can help our brothers and sisters do the same.

Following this advice can be difficult. It is more entertaining to play with ideas about how to graft Western organizational models onto Buddhist life. This type of integration will indeed happen. Buddhism and Western culture already interpenetrate and inform each other. But successful integration will happen more as the result of our collective experimentation with living mindfully and practicing in small local Sanghas, than as the result of structure imposed by hierarchy. We must not get lost in concepts as we work with our precious local Sanghas. Some folks get so caught up in ideas and concepts, that they slowly abandon their own daily mindfulness practices due to all the time-pressure and excitement. Even veteran practitioners cannot bargain with the essentials of mindfulness practice. We cannot cheat on our daily practice and hope to remain mindful--even in the name of Sanghabuilding, or spreading the Dharma in the West.

Balancing mindfulness practices and the desire to help is like walking on ice. Sometimes the ice is hidden or even invisible-in the Midwest, we call this "black ice." In some places it is safe to walk, but inches away it is extremely slippery. If you fall, you learn the true meaning of dispersion! But, despite the difficulty, I recommend walking on ice as a mindfulness practice. It teaches us something about life as a layperson, as an organizer and facilitator of a local Sangha. Sometimes conditions are ideal, sometimes they are not. Sometimes we can see the obstacles and difficulties, sometimes--even if we try to look with our Sangha eyes they are hidden. When the going is slippery, it is best to slow down and return to the basics of breathing and walking. When we do, those with us are much safer, and we become less dangerous and less frustrated with the slippery, uncontrollable conditions of daily life.

When a lake freezes before a snowfall, you can sometimes look deeply into it, through the ice, and see the lily pads and roots of last summer smiling at you from below the frozen surface. When we slow down and face our difficulties, illuminating them with mindfulness before we speak or act, we may also find that much below the surface is revealed.

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The Buddha never lost faith in Sangha practice. Not long after his enlightenment, he built his first Sangha, and he continued Sangha building for forty-five years. His life reads like a Tolstoy novel. He interacted with Sangha members from every stratum of society: kings, princes, princesses, wealthy men and women and their overprivileged children, paupers, outcasts, and criminals. But, he learned from all of them, and this learning is evident in the deepening of his teachings as his Sangha practice continued. The wisdom body we share today as "Buddhism" is a result of this collective interaction.

In the wake of the difficulties of the Sangha at Kosambi, the Buddha found three monks practicing as a small Sangha in the Eastern Bamboo Park. He was favorably impressed with how considerate they were of each other, and asked how they succeeded in "living in concord, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes." The monks' response, recorded in the Upakkilesa Sutra, inspires us even today:

Venerable sir, as to that, I think thus: "It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me that I am living with such companions in the holy life." I maintain bodily acts of lovingkindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: "Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?" Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind. Whichever of us returns first from the village with almsfood prepares the seats, sets out the water for drinking and for washing, and puts the refuse bucket in its place. Whichever of us returns last eats any food left over, if he wishes. He puts away the seats and the water for drinking and washing. He puts away the refuse bucket after washing it, and he sweeps out the refectory. Whoever notices that the pots of water for drinking, washing, or the latrines are low and empty, takes care of them. If they are too heavy for him, he calls someone else by a signal of the hand and they move it by joining hands, but because of this we do not break out in speech. But, every fIve days, we sit together all night discussing the Dharma. This is how we abide diligent, ardent, mindful, and resolute.

The living Dharma is in the details of living mindfully and attentively, aware of the needs of others and allowing our understanding to bloom into direct manifestations of wisdom and compassion. In the classic Mahaya text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva advises:

Those desiring speedily to be A refuge for themselves and other beings, Should interchange the terms "I" and "other," And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

When we practice this way, and recognize that others share our spiritual aspirations, it is easy to truly be present with others and to regard them as our kalyanamitra, our spiritual friends. Ananda once remarked to the Buddha, "Half of this holy life, Lord, is good and noble friends, companionship with the good, association with the good." The Buddha reflected for a moment and then responded, "Do not say that, Ananda. Do not say that. It is the whole of this holy life." When faced with disputes within our Sanghas, we must return to the basic practices of mindful breathing and walking, and ask ourselves the question the Buddha posed to the bhikkhus at Kosambi:

Breakers of bones and murderers, Those who steal cattle, horses, and wealth, Those who pillage the entire realm-- When even these can act together Why can you not do so too?

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, has practiced law for twenty-three years and is the author of the book, Sangha Building. The book is available directly from Jack, c/o Lakeside Buddha Sangha, P.O. Box 7077, Evanston, IL 60201.

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Peace is Around the Corner

Kind Communication in Israel By Marion Pargamin

During eight days, in the first week of April, Palestinians and Israelis walked together from Tel Aviv-Yaffo to Jerusalem, passing by Jewish and Arab towns and settlements, in silence and awareness, declaring a commitment to deep listening and non-violence. This Walk was organized by meditation groups with the intention to give an opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to walk together, to develop dialogue and self-introspection, inspired by the ancient traditions that guided people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

What I experienced on the last day of this Walk was very much in the spirit of peace and coexistence, of calmness and serenity created by the Walk in the midst of the atmosphere of insanity and violence that surrounds us.

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I joined the Walk with a group of Palestinians and Israelis who practice meditation and mindfulness together according to the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and famous peace worker. I participated in several days of the walk. Monday April 8''', the last day of the Walk, was the eve of the holocaust commemoration day, a day of deep emotion for the Jewish community. It went from Ein Kerem through Jerusalem to the foot of the old city walls.

In the early afternoon l parked my car at the final meeting place of the Walk. I walked up to the walls of the old city, to meet the walkers on their way. When I got to Jaffa gate, I found myself in front of a very agitated elderly Arab man exchanging insults with an elderly religious Jew who was standing at a bus station a few meters away. Some policemen from a Border Police patrol were trying to calm them down, so that it wouldn't turn into a fight, as they were extremely angry. I stood beside the Arab, I spoke to him calmly and asked him to sit down without reacting to the other's provocation. I was quite impressed by the restraint shown by the policemen. They seemed to respect both sides, without defending one side over the other. The bus arrived, the Jewish man boarded the bus and the situation seemed to have settled down.

Then, a Jewish woman who was in the queue from the beginning of the argument, and who did not get on the bus, took it upon herself to start insulting the Arab who reacted immediately. The police had left and I was left alone to try to calm the situation.

I gave my attention to the Arab, who would have stayed quiet if he was not continually provoked by the woman. I tried from a distance to reason with her without success. She stopped a passing police car and said something to the policeman who then walked up to the Arab. I explained to him what was going on and he went back to the woman. I am so happy that all the policemen in this situation acted calmly and helped to restore peace. Then, a Palestinian woman on her way to the Jaffa gate burst onto the scene; she jumped to the conclusion that the old Arab was under "attack" and rushed in a frenzy to rescue him. She yelled some insults at the Jewish woman who was beginning to calm down, and the situation heated up again. All  my attention was now focused on her. I felt she was like a bomb ready to explode. I tried to explain to her what was going on, but she was furious with me, screaming out her hatred, her despair and her pain.

This is Palestine accusing Israel. At this moment I represent Israel for her. This whole situation is greater than the two of us and takes on proportions beyond our present meeting. She shouts out her sorrow about what is going on now in the territories, the military incursions into Palestinian towns. She talks in particular about Jenin where some terrible fighting is now taking place. She has family and friends there and she says that our soldiers are war criminals. She is convinced that we want to kill them all. Why do we hate them so much? They are not responsible for the Holocaust, why should they be paying the price? She tells me about the refugees and their constant suffering for which she feels we are responsible. Pointing at the Jewish woman, she assures me that this Sephardi woman was treated with honor, as a human being, in an Arab country from where she comes, and look at how she behaves with Palestinians now. It goes on and on; she shouts and spews her hatred for Israel at me.

I didn't try to argue with her at all. I didn't show any reaction to all her accusations. I felt great compassion and an intense need to listen to her, only to listen to her. My patience was nourished by understanding that behind this overwhelming hatred was a deep suffering and pain aggravated by the present situation of war. It must express itself in some way so that healing can take place.

I was ready to listen to what appeared to me as the worst accusations, distortions or insults, without reacting. I was aware that what reinforced my strength at that moment was that I had absolutely no doubt that the suffering and pain of the Israeli people was not less real and legitimate. I didn't let myself get tempted or trapped into guilt or anger. I was sorry for the tragedy on both sides. My compassion for her was not based only on account of the compassion and sense of loyalty I have for my own people, for myself. For me this is not an issue of who is right and who is wrong. I felt very calm and peaceful deep inside. I knew that it was the only way to calm her fury. I let her express herself for a long time without interrupting her.

As she continued to shout at me, I told her that she has no need to speak so loudly because I am listening to her with all my attention. At the same time I found myself caressing her arm. She let me do it and progressively lowered her voice, while continuing to let her despair overflow. She said to me, "Do you understand why some of us come and commit suicide among you? You kill us anyway, so why not kill you at the same time?" She even mentioned the possibility of coming and blowing herself up out of despair.

I told her softly that I didn't want her to die. Nobody should come to that decision. We all suffer on both sides. She went on and on claiming that the Zionists only want to get rid of the Palestinians. I told her, "You see I am a Zionist and I don't want to get rid of you. I wish we could live together as good neighbors." She listened to me!

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She told me about the demonstration that took place the week before near Ramallah. She complained about the Jewish organizations who took part in it. Then she asked me to donate some money to buy phone cards for Palestinians who need them. I gave her some money. At this stage the conversation was quite normal between us. She wasn't shouting any more, she was even able to listen to me.

She was almost calm when I noticed the people of the Walk approaching us slowly, at the top of the street. They were in a line, a hundred of them, one after the other walking in silence, slowly, quietly, aware of each step, creating an atmosphere of peace and safety around them. They were very present. They radiated calm and warmth.

I pointed them out to her and explained that this was the reason I came here, to join a walk of peace in which Palestinians and Israelis are together. I told her about the Walk, its message of coexistence and peace, peace at every step, here and now.

I suggested that she come into the line with me. She hesitated and rejected my offer. At that moment they reached us. Several people I knew shook my hand warmly as they went by. A young woman very active in a group working toward reconciliation between the two peoples, approached her and gave her a kiss. It appeared that they knew each other.

I noticed that she was very moved by the Walk and the atmosphere it radiated . She seemed to me calmer and calmer, nothing like the furious woman I had met only several minutes before . The end of the line passed by us and I wanted to join it. Again I invited her and again she declined. I told her that I understood and respected her decision . Before I went I told her, "I am sure that some day we will succeed in building peace between us." She smiled and replied, "Me too." Then to my total surprise, she came close to me and kissed me on my cheeks! She walked alongside the line for a while. She told me that she liked the Walk, that it made her feel good, and that her mood was much better now. I was very moved. I felt overwhelmed by this encounter, especially by its  unexpected ending.

Peace was there around the corner, I did not miss it!

I was aware that an intense moment of real reconciliation had taken place. Everything contributed to it: incredible timing that brought me to this place at this time, that brought her, in her turn, with enough time to first pour out her anger, to receive needed listening and compassion, and to calm down, so that she could be receptive to the subtle quiet energy of the Walk. The Walk, emanating healing, bringing the tangible presence of peace and goodwill of a whole organized group, appeared just in time to complete the scene, adding a wider perspective to an individual encounter. The thick walls of her hatred were shattered allowing her to express what was deep in her heart.

Kissing me was a miracle! Within a short period of time, laden with emotions, her energy of hatred and death underwent a transformation . I don 't know if, or how quickly, she returned to her initial state of anger or how long she remained calm. I know that this profound transformation was very real ; no matter what followed, it will leave a trace and a memory that cannot disappear. A seed of peace was sown in her heart. We must plant many more and water them thoroughly.

This story is not mine alone. I know I have the duty to tell it to as many people as possible, so that planting seeds of peace may go on and on.

Marion Pargamin visited Plum Village in January 2002. She practices with the Jerusalem Sangha.

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