healing

Dharma Talk: Take Refuge in Mother Earth

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Lower Hamlet, Plum Village November 29, 2012

Editors’ note: This is Part I of the Dharma talk from November 29, 2012.

Good morning, dear Sangha. We are in the Assembly of Stars Meditation Hall of the Dharma Nectar Temple, Lower Hamlet, in our winter retreat.

Our society is not very healthy. Therefore, many of us are sick, and we need healing and nourishment. We have intoxicated ourselves with poisons. Our mind has a lot of poisons, like craving, hate, anger, and despair. Our body also has a lot of poisons because we don’t know how to consume.

Mother Earth has the capacity to heal herself and has the capacity to help us heal if we know how to take refuge in her. When the Buddha was teaching his son, Rahula, he talked about the Earth as having the virtues of patience and equanimity. Patience and equanimity are the two great virtues of the planet Earth. If needed, Mother Earth can spend one million years or ten million years to heal herself. She is not in a hurry. She has the power to renew herself. We have to see that. If we study the history of the Earth, we know that she has had a lot of patience, and now she is a very beautiful star.

When we walk, we are aware that the Earth is holding our steps. But Mother Earth is not just below us, under our feet; Mother Earth is inside of us. To think that Mother Earth is only the environment outside of us, around us, is wrong. Mother Earth is inside of us. We don’t need to die to go back to Mother Earth. We are already in Mother Earth. That is why we have to learn how to take refuge in her. That is the best way to heal and to nourish ourselves.

Walking meditation is one of the ways to heal. Walking meditation is successful when we know how to allow the Earth to be in us and around us. Just to be aware that we are the Earth. We don’t have to do much, we don’t have to do anything at all, to get healing and nourishment. Just like when we were in our mother’s womb, we did not have to breathe, we did not have to eat, because our mother breathed for us and ate for us. We did not have to worry about anything. It is possible to behave like that now.

When you sit, allow Mother Earth to sit for you. When you breathe, allow Mother Earth to breathe for you. When you walk, allow Mother Earth to walk for you. Don’t make any effort. Allow her to do it. She knows how to do it.

When you are sitting, allow the air to enter your lungs. Allow the air to go out of your lungs. We don’t need to try to breathe in. We don’t need to try to breathe out. We just allow nature, allow the Earth to breathe in and out for us. We just sit there and enjoy the breathing in and the breathing out. There is no “you” who is breathing in and breathing out. The breathing in and the breathing out happen by themselves. Try it.

We allow our body to relax totally, without striving or even making an effort. Behave like the fetus in the womb of the mother. Allow your mother to do everything for you, to breathe, to eat, to drink. This is possible if you know how to take refuge in Mother Earth. She’s a great bodhisattva; she’s the mother of all the buddhas, all bodhisattvas, all saints. Shakyamuni is her son. Jesus Christ is also her son. We are also her sons and daughters, and we have to learn how to take refuge in her and to allow her to continue to do everything for us.

Healing Is Taking Place 

We don’t need to do anything at all. Just allow yourself to be seated; let the sitting take place. If you don’t strive to sit, relaxation will come. And you know something? When there is relaxation, healing begins to take place. There is no healing without relaxation. Relaxation means doing nothing, not trying.

So while there is breathing in, it’s not you who is breathing in. While there is breathing out, you just enjoy it. You say, “Healing is taking place; healing is taking place.” Allow your body to renew herself, to heal herself, to be nourished. This is the practice of non-practice.

If we observe, we see that Mother Earth has the power, the capacity to heal herself and to heal us. You believe in that power, which comes from your own observation, your own experience, not something people tell you and ask you to believe in. Mother Earth can renew herself, can transform herself, can heal herself, and can heal us. That is a fact. If we recognize that fact, faith is there, and we can take refuge. We allow ourselves to be healed by Mother Earth. While sitting, we get the healing. While walking, we get the healing. While breathing, we get the healing. We do not have to do anything at all. Just surrender ourselves to Mother Earth and she will do everything.

When breathing in is taking place—I don’t want to say when you are breathing in—you say, “Nourishment is taking place; nourishment; nourishment.” Allow yourself to be nourished. You are nourished by the air, you are nourished by the sunshine, because the air is breathing you, penetrating you. And the sunshine also penetrates you. Father Sun and Mother Earth are there twenty-four hours a day for us. Even during the night, the sun is present; otherwise, we would freeze. Like Mother Earth, Father Sun is also in us, not only up there, outside us. When I wrote The Sun My Heart, I had the insight, the vision, that the sun is my heart outside of me.

If we know the practice of non-practice, we don’t have to strive or fight in order to practice. You may believe that you need a lot of medicine, a lot of exercise, to heal. But the only exercise that can heal you is the exercise of non-exercise. Allow yourself to relax and release all the tension in your body, and all the worries and the fear in your mind, because these things are preventing you from healing. Let go, release, take full refuge in the Earth and in the sun, and allow yourself to be healed. Do this in the four positions: sitting, lying down, walking, standing. Allow Mother Earth and Father Sun to penetrate you, to act for you so you can heal.

It is our experience that no healing is possible without releasing, relaxing. So when you sit, sit in such a way that you don’t have to try, you just enjoy deeply your sitting. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. I just enjoy my sitting. With a half an hour of sitting like that, you have a half an hour of healing. You enjoy every in-breath. It’s not you who are making the in-breath and out-breath. You don’t have to make an in-breath and an out-breath. It will happen by itself.

The in-breath does not need a self in order to happen. I don’t have to breathe; the breathing just happens by itself. I just enjoy. If I know how to enjoy the breathing, the breathing will become more pleasant. The quality of breathing will increase, because I don’t try to interfere and to force it.

So the sitting should be natural, without effort. The breathing also, and walking also. Don’t try to walk; just allow yourself to walk. The walking will take place without you. Only be there and enjoy, because if there is letting go and relaxation, every step is healing, every step is nourishing. No healing is possible without relaxation and letting go.

We should practice this simple thing in order to get healed and to help heal our society and the world. If you do it for one hour, you have one hour of healing. If you do it for one day, there is one day of healing. This is possible. Make it pleasant; make it healing and nourishing. Everything you do, don’t try; don’t make any effort. Take refuge in Mother Earth. She knows how to do it. She continues to do it for you, just like during the time you were in the womb of your mother.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Dharma Talk: "Relationships" — Community as Family, Parenting as a Dharma Door, and the Five Awarenesses

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

To practice Buddhism, we have to take refuge. This means that we have to base our practice on some ground that helps us be stable. It is like building a house—you have to build it on solid ground. If we look around and inside ourselves, we can find out what is stable for us, and we can take refuge in it. We should be careful not to take refuge in what is unstable.

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This morning I was touching the ground, and I felt that there is some stability in the Earth. Why don't we take refuge in the Earth? There is also some stability in the air, the sunshine, and the trees. We can count on the sun because we know it will rise tomorrow. We have to look around to see things that we can count on. In order to practice, we need to take refuge in stable things.

Our bodies have a healing power. Every time we cut our finger, our body has the capacity to heal itself. We take care of it by washing it carefully, and then we can leave the work of healing to our body. In a few hours or a day, the cut will be healed. Our bodies have that kind of healing power. We have to take refuge in our bodies.

The same is true with our consciousness. Our consciousness has a healing power, and we have to trust it. When we have some anger, distress, or despair, we don't need to panic. We can trust our consciousness to know how to heal these kinds of wounds. When we have a feeling of instability, we only need to breathe in and out consciously and recognize the feeling of instability, knowing that our consciousness is much more than that feeling. We know from our experience that there have been times in the past when we were not very solid. We know that we can take refuge in our consciousness We can let it do its work without interfering too much. After cleaning out the wound in our finger, we just let it heal. If we have a wound in our mind or heart, we just clean our wound and then we trust our consciousness to heal it.

If we have a teacher and dharma brothers and sisters who are stable, they look very much the same today as yesterday and yesterday they looked very much the same as the day before. We have to take refuge in a sangha that is stable, that we can count on. We can contribute to the quality of our sangha by our smile, and by our own stability. A sangha can be improved by our practice. We can never find a perfect sangha. An imperfect sangha is good enough. We have to do our best in order to transform ourselves into a good element of the sangha. It is not helpful to complain too much about our sangha: "This sangha is not good; this sangha is not worth my refuge," and so on. We have to accept our sangha and build it. It is like a family. And our family is also a kind of sangha. We have to accept the members of our family as they are and begin from there. We should be a good member of our family sangha in order to help others.

Taking refuge means also taking refuge in ourselves. When we take refuge in the earth, it is because the earth is stable. When we have a friend who is stable we can take refuge in him or her. We use our insight and our experience to see his or her stability. We don't just go on blind faith. Taking refuge is not blind faith. It must be based on our own experience. There are many stable things around. We should refrain from taking refuge in things that are not stable, that have made us shaky in the past. Sometimes we don't know much about something. We hope that it can be a refuge for us simply because we want it. It is not based on any direct experience or observation. We should refrain from taking refuge in things like that.

Single Parenting 

If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.

We abandon the idea that we cannot be ourselves unless "that someone" or "that something" is with us. We our­selves are sufficient. We are enough for ourselves. When we transform ourselves into a cozy hermitage, with a lot of air, light, and order inside, we begin to feel a great peace, joy, and happiness. And we begin to be someone that others can rely on. Your child, your dharma brothers and sisters, and your teacher can all rely on you.

So return to your hermitage and arrange things from within. You can benefit from the sunshine, the trees, the earth. You can open your windows wide for these good elements to enter, because you are one with your environ­ment. Many times unstable elements try to enter our hermit­age. Then we must close our windows and not let them in. When thunder, winds, or heat are about to intrude into our cozy, refreshing hermitage, we should be able to prevent them from entering. The practice of being a refuge to oneself is a basic practice. We do not rely on someone or something that we do not know much about, something that may be unstable. We go back to ourselves and take refuge in our own hermitage.

If you are a mother raising your child alone—without the help of a man—you must learn what to do and how to do it. You have to learn to be a father also, otherwise you cannot raise your child. If you don't learn how to be a father, you will continue to need someone else to play the role of a father for your child, and you will lose your sovereignty, you will lose your hermitage. But if you can say, "I don't need anyone else, I can learn how to be both a father and mother to my child, I can succeed by myself, with the support of my friends and my community," that is a good sign.

Every other year, I give a retreat for about sixty Viet­namese monks and nuns in northern California. One day, when we were conducting the closing of such a retreat, the Abbot of Kim Son Monastery said to me, "Thay, you are our mother." Why didn't he say, "You are our father," which is a more normal thing to say? It was because some­thing in me has the manner of being a mother. When I am with children, I can play the role of a mother as well as a father. The love of a father is different from that of a mother. A mother's love is somehow unconditional. You are the child of your mother, that is why you are loved by her. There is no other reason. A mother tries to use her body and her mind to protect that very soft, vulnerable part of herself. She has a tendency to consider her child as an extension of herself, as herself. This is good, but it may create problems in the future. She has to learn gradually that her son or daughter is a separate person.

A father's love is different. The father says, "If you are like this, then you will receive my love. If you don't do that, you don't get my love." It's a kind of deal. I have that in myself, too. I am capable of disciplining my students and I also have the capacity of loving my students as a mother. That is why the monks and the nuns call me mommy. I know it is not easy for a mother to be a father, especially when she hasn't learned how to do it. Single mothers should be aware that they can profit from the community, from the brothers and sisters in the dharma. If she does it well, her child will have uncles and aunts. If the child doesn't have a father, he can consider his uncle as a father. It is not difficult to provide your child with an uncle. If you have a good sangha and good relationships with the people in the sangha, other members of your sangha can have a nephew or niece in your child.

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The nuclear family is very small. There is not enough air to breathe. When there is trouble between the father and mother, the child has no escape. That is a weakness of our time. Having a community where people can gather as brothers and sisters in the dharma, and where children have a number of uncles and aunts is a very wonderful thing.

We have to learn to create that kind of family. Each of us needs to be loved in order to go on. We need the kind of love that does not shatter our stability. If we cling to our teacher as a father and we want that father to pay attention to us only, that is not the way we love in the practice com­munity. We have to share the love of the teacher with everyone. We have to see the other members of the commu­nity as our brothers and sisters. This is something we can learn to do. It is already a tradition in the East, and it can be learned slowly here in the West. We can take the best from both cultures.

I hope that communities of practice will take that kind of shape in the West. Without that kind of warmth and family flavor, it is difficult to practice. When you bring your children to some practice centers, your children may be regarded as an obstacle for other people to practice. But if we have a community where people regard each other like brothers and sisters, a child of that community becomes the child of everyone. If he is doing something disturbing, such as hitting another child with a stick, his mother is not the only person who is responsible. Everyone in the community shares that responsibility. Together we try to find ways to prevent the child from hitting the other children. We might try holding the child tightly, doing that as an uncle, not as a foreigner or a policeman. Of course, the parent of the child should prevent their child from throwing rocks or hitting other children, but if the parent cannot discipline her child, then he or she has to let an uncle or an aunt do it.

When you are a student of your teacher, your children are grandchildren of your teacher in a spiritual family. The children in Plum Village call me "Grandpa Teacher." I always approach them as a grandfather, not as someone outside the family. This is the way we conduct the practice in Vietnam. We do things as a family. A practice center should possess that kind of warmth, that kind of brother­hood and sisterhood that will continue to nourish us and not be a place where people come only to take care of their own problems.

In a community of practice like this, a single parent can be very self-sufficient. At the same time, he or she will see that when the community is not there, he or she is capable of playing the roles of both mother and father. When you have learned and have the capacity of loving your child as a mother and a father at the same time, you are transformed. When you see stable families coming to practice, you can look at their stability and learn from it. You can learn a lot: how a father loves a child, how a mother loves a child. There must be some coordination between father and mother. A good father would not say, "If he's spoiled it's your fault." It's not her fault; it's a collective lack of mindfulness.

The phenomenon of single parents is widespread in the West. If you practice and succeed in bringing up your child happily, then you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a dharma door. Single parenting is a dharma door. We need retreats, seminars, and dharma discussions on how to be parents. We cannot accept the ancient way of parenting. At the same time, we do not have a modern way of parenting. We need to elaborate on the way of being parents, drawing from our own experiences and practice. Using the greater community of practice to bring another dimension to the life of the nuclear family is important. Even though the nuclear family structure may not have much space in it, when nuclear family life is combined with the life of a practice community, a sangha, it can be very successful. You can bring your child to the practice center, very often, and both you and your child will benefit from the atmosphere there. And the practice center will benefit from your presence also.

In a good practice center, there should be a garden for the children to play in and there should be people who are skillful in helping children, people who can be good aunts and good uncles for the children. Then you will enjoy your practice, as a parent or as a single parent.

The Buddha did not specifically address the issue of single parenting. This is a new problem. But we can apply the basic teachings of the Buddha to find a way out. There are so many divorced parents: in Australia, in the West. When things become too difficult, people tend to think of divorce. Vietnamese families living in the West are also beginning to adopt this point of view. In traditional Vietnamese culture, the failure of a marriage is considered to be very bad. People don't look on divorce with much respect.

Collective consciousness helps a lot. Instead of thinking of divorce, you make an effort to preserve your marriage, to return to your spouse with more harmony, with more understanding. In the West many people have divorced three, four, five times. They keep making the same kinds of mistakes. This is an issue which Buddhist practice has to address. We should not complain about having to deal with this issue. We should take it as an opportunity to study, look, and explore, in order to provide people with a new dharma door. How can we practice and bring the practice community into the nuclear family? How can we create a balance?

The Five Awarenesses 

Ed. Note: When Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates a marriage ce­remony, he asks the couple to repeat the Five Awarenesses and then to recite them together once each month. The following is from a talk given at Plum Village in August, following Kathy Season and Damien Cameron's wedding. 

Mindfulness is the basis for happiness. Before two people marry, they should practice mindfulness together, and after becoming husband and wife, they should continue to practice the Five Awarenesses as a manifestation of their Practice of Mindfulness. Happiness is not an individual matter.

In the first awareness. we see ourselves in the context of a lineage. We see that we are one element in a continuation of our ancestors, and that we open the way for future generations. We play the role of connection. We can see the elements of the future and the past right in the present. The Buddha teaches us that the present contains the past and the future. By being in touch with the present, we shape the future and heal the past. If we take good care of our body and our consciousness, we take care of our ancestors in us, and at the same time we take good care of our children and our grandchildren.

The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations and that our children and their children have expectations also. Our happiness is their happiness; our suffering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us. We may not see them in person yet, but they are already talking to us. They want us to live in a way that they won't be miser­able when they manifest. Buddhist practitioners, especially the Vietnamese, see themselves not as individuals, separated from their ancestors, but as a continuation representing all previous generations. Actions of the couple do not aim merely at satisfying the spiritual and physical needs of their individual selves, but also at realizing the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and at preparing for future genera­tions.

The third awareness tells us how joy, peace, freedom and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. Liberating them means liberating ourselves. If we do not liberate them, we. will be in bondage all our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors in us. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony, at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely, happily touching the earth, we are doing it for all our ancestors and all future generations. The first three awarenesses are all aspects of one deep teaching. We have to continue to study and practice these first three awarenesses to deepen our understanding.

The fourth aware­ness is also a basic teaching of the Buddha. Where there is understanding, there is love. When we understand the suffering of some­one, we are motivated to help. This energy is called love or compas­sion. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. But, some­times we destroy the person we love. It is like the general who said that his fighter bombers had to destroy the city of Ben Tie in order to save it. We have to practice in a way that whatever we do for others will only make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.

The first year of marriage is a difficult time. There is excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration, but the two people do not yet understand each other well. They live together twenty-four hours a day, looking, listening, and being aware of many details that they have not seen before, discovering more of their partner's reality. Everyone of us has flowers and garbage inside us, not just of our making but of the making of our ancestors. If we know this in advance, we can be ready to accept everything that will manifest in the other person. When people fall in love, they construct a beautiful image of the other person, and they may feel shocked when they compare it with the reality. During the first year, many illusions about the other person will vanish. Until we give up our preconceived image, we miss the real beauty in the other person. We must be mindful to discover these flowers.

When we begin to see each other's weaknesses, we may feel discouraged. We may need to be reminded of the other's strengths. A married couple consists of two persons who have to lean on each other to help each other. We receive and nurture our partner like a tree, and we must find ways to water and protect him or her. We take care of the tree so that it flourishes. If there is some disease on the leaves, we must learn how to treat it. If the tree flowers and bears fruit, it is we who benefit. Both partners in the couple should regard themselves as the gardener, the caretaker, of the other. When we discover a weakness in the other person, we have to accept that. This is why the Buddha said, "Everyone has Buddha-nature," the capacity of smiling, understanding, and being awake.

When we marry, we form a primary sangha, a sangha of two, and we begin to learn to love. If we still have the feeling of being attached to each other, that is not real love yet. Love in the Buddhist context is loving kindness and compassion. It is the kind of love that does not have any conditions. We form a sangha of two in order to practice love—to take care of each other, to make our partner blossom like a flower, and to make happiness something real in that tiny sangha of two.

"Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity and of all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. Unless I succeed in loving you, I cannot love any­one else. So I am determined to love you. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth."

This is the real message of love. How can we take advanced steps before we succeed in the primary steps? In the first one, two, or three years, this should be our purpose—to realize peace, happiness, and joy in that small sangha. We know that the small sangha should be placed in the context of a larger sangha. We are practicing with the help of our teachers, parents, friends, and all living beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. That is our larger sangha. "I want to express my love to the larger sangha, and I do it through you. Therefore I must be able to love you, take care of you, and make you happy."

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of love itself. Looking deeply in order to understand is the basic practice. When a couple is happy, understanding and harmony are there. Then it is easy to extend that happiness, and joy to the people around us—our parents, sisters, brothers, and dharma friends.

If we blame each other and argue, we are divided. This is the fifth awareness. Everyone agrees, but when we become angry, we forget, and a force in us begins to argue and blame the other person for what happened. Only by practic­ing conscious breathing and smiling every day can we control that impulse. Conscious breathing and smiling every day help us develop the capacity to stop at that critical moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.

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Loving speech is an aspect of practice. We say only loving things. We say the truth in a loving way, with nonvi­olence. This can be done only when we are calm. When we are irritated, we may say things that are destructive. So when we feel irritated, we should refrain from saying any­thing. We can just breathe. If we need to, we can practice walking meditation in the fresh air, looking at soothing things like the trees, the clouds, the river. Once we have returned to our calmness, our serenity, we are capable again of using the language of loving kindness. If, during our expression, that feeling of irritation comes up again, we can stop and breathe. This is the practice of mindfulness.

All of us need to change for the better. When we marry, we make a promise to change ourselves and to help the other person change himself or herself so we can grow together. If we think only of changing and growing alone, eventually we will lose patience with the other person. Prac­ticing together, we change and we help the other person change. As a result, we grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of the other person. We are the gardener, the one who helps the tree grow. If the tree doesn't grow well, we don't blame it. We blame ourselves for not taking care of it well. Human beings are somehow like trees. If they are taken care of well, they will grow beautifully. If they are taken care of poorly, they will wither. To help a tree to grow well, we must understand its nature. How much water does it need? How much sunshine? If we understand, the tree will grow beautifully.

Every time the other person does something well, some­thing in the direction of change and growth, we should con­gratulate her or him to show our approval. This is important. We don't take things for granted. If the other person mani­fests some of her talent and capacity to love and create hap­piness, we must be aware of it and express our appreciation. This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, "I don't know whether you can do this" or "I doubt that you can do this." Instead, we say, "This is difficult, darling, but I have faith that you can do it." This kind of talk makes the other person stronger. This is true with children, also. We have to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. We have to appreciate and congratulate every good thing they say and do in order to help our children grow. When we are married, we can love each other in a way that encourages change and growth for the better, all the time.

For those who have been married for ten or twenty years, this kind of practice is also relevant. You can continue to live in mindfulness and continue to learn from the other person. You may have the impression that you know everything about your spouse, but it is not so. Nuclear scientists have studied one speck of dust for many years, and they still do not claim to understand everything about it. The more deeply they look into an electron, the more they realize how little they know about it. If a speck of dust is like that, how can a person say that he or she knows everything about the other person? Driving the car, paying attention only to your own thoughts, you just ignore your spouse. You think, "I know everything about her. There is nothing new in her anymore." That is not correct. And if you treat her or him that way, she will die slowly. She needs your attention, your gardening, your taking care of her.

We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during our childhood, we see our mother or father do things that create happiness in the family, we can learn. But if our father and mother did not know how to create happiness in our family, we may not know how to do it. So in our practice community, we try to learn the art of making people happy. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of good will, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Good will is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy. Art is the essence of life. Try to be artful in your speech and action. Art needs some substance, and that substance is mindful­ness. When you are mindful, you are more artful. This is something I have learned from the practice.

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Beginning Anew

By Penelope Thompson & Lee Lipp It has been more than six months since our Sangha "got a divorce," and it has been a time of suffering and broken-heartedness for everyone. It has also been a time of looking inward, learning to take responsibility for ways we have caused each other pain.

For seven years, we met weekly for meditation and Dharma discussion and monthly for a Day of Mindfulness. There was much joy among us and a shared love of the Dharma. As 14 individuals from different backgrounds and experiences, it is not surprising or unusual that there were also many issues and causes for conflict in the Sangha.

Our failing as a group is that we did not openly confront these shadows. We did not speak about problems that we did not wish to acknowledge. Furthermore, we did not practice Thay's recommendations for conflict resolution and peacemaking.

Looking backward, it is easy to talk about how we failed to create peaceful means and safe structures in which we could speak truthfully to one another. There were unaddressed issues of power and control, leadership, direction of the group, and strong differences of opinion about rituals, perceptions of boundaries, and privacy concerns. We may have felt afraid of what would happen if we addressed these issues directly. But by failing to shine a bright light on the shadows, they grew larger and festered in the dark, until they exploded.

In the wake of this catastrophic community breakdown, the remaining members of the Santa Monica Sangha have worked over the past months to establish processes of peacemaking, conflict resolution, and Beginning Anew, based on Thay's teachings. We are still fine-tuning and modifying the forms as we try them out.

Each month we have a new moon ceremony. We begin with "watering each other's flowers." Slowly and joyfully, we express our appreciation of one or more Sangha members for something they have done or an aspect of their way of being. In the second phase of the ceremony, each of us takes responsibility for our behavior that may have caused suffering to a member of the group or to the Sangha. This is received in silence, as other Sangha members practice deep listening. In the third phase, we each invite feedback from the others. Perhaps we have been unaware of a behavior in ourselves that has caused problems for someone. After some silence, other members of the Sangha may give feedback, which is received in silence, unless further clarification is needed.

This new moon ceremony is based on two prior steps of conflict resolution. Whenever there is some difficulty between members of the Sangha, the first step is for them to meet alone together, to speak and listen deeply to each other. If they are not able to complete the reconciliation process, the second step is for them to request a fair witness

from the Sangha to meet with them. The role of the witness is to hold loving energy for them and, where necessary, to intervene to assist them in listening to each other with open hearts. If the conflict is still not resolved, it is brought to the new moon ceremony and addressed by the whole group. At this time, both persons describe, without blaming the other, their perceptions of the problem. We meditate on the issue as a group, and then we make suggestions for reconciliation that the two conflicting members can agree upon. If the conflict begins to pervade the Sangha at large, a friend of the Sangha, a fair witness from another Sangha, might be invited to facilitate open dialogue, but we have not had to try this yet.

All of these procedures depend on the goodwill of everyone in the group. The forms alone are not enough to ensure stability and reconciliation. They are only a skeleton that must be fleshed out with loving compassion, right intention, and skillful speech. The new moon ceremony has helped us feel safer and more trusting. We have begun anew as a Sangha to heal ourselves from the wounds of separation and loss, so that we may grow and be strengthened as a community of practice.

Penelope Thompson, True Dharma Source, and Lee Lipp, True Opening of the Dharma, are psychologists practicing in Santa Monica and members of the Santa Monica Sangha.

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Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

During the lifetime of the Buddha, those of the Brahmanic faith prayed that after death they would go to Heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal God. One day a Brahmin man asked the Buddha, "What can I do to be sure that I will be with Brahma after I die?" and the Buddha replied, "As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahma-viharas—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity." A vihara is an abode or a dwelling place. Love in Sanskrit is maitri; in Pali it is metta. Compassion is karuna in both languages. Joy is mudita. Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali. The Brahmaviharas are four elements of true love. They are called Immeasurable, because if you practice them, they will grow every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier and those around you will become happier, also.

The Buddha respected people's desire to practice their own faith, so he answered the Brahmin's question in a way that encouraged him to do so. If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha's spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.

According to Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extin­guishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity extinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings.

If we learn ways to practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we will know how to heal the illnesses of anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha teaches, "If a mind of anger arises, the bhikkhu (monk) can practice the meditation on love, compassion, or equanimity for the person who has brought about the feeling of anger."

Some sutra commentators have said that the Brahma-viharas are not the highest teaching of the Buddha, that they cannot put an end to suffering and afflictions. This is not correct. One time the Buddha said to his beloved attendant Ananda, "Teach these Four Immeasurable Minds to the young monks, and they will feel secure, strong, and joyful, without afflictions of body or mind. For the whole of their lives, they will be well equipped to practice the pure way of a monk." On another occasion, a group of the Buddha's disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, "We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?" The Buddha's disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, "Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment." Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

The first aspect of true love is maitri, the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In Southeast Asia, many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practicing chanting alone in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite The Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me, "Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian," I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding. Your intention is good, but you don't have the correct understanding.

Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved.

Maitri can be translated as "love" or "loving kindness." Some Buddhist teachers prefer "loving kindness," as they find the word "love" too darigerous. But I prefer the word love. Words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word "love" to mean appetite or desire, as in "I love hamburgers." We have to use language more carefully. We have to restore the meaning of the word love. "Love" is a beautiful word. We have to restore its meaning. The word maitri has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

We all have the seeds of love in us. We can develop this wonderful source of energy, nurturing the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return. When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her. Shakyamuni Buddha declared that the Buddha of the next eon will be named Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as "compassion," but that is not exactly correct. "Compassion" is composed of com ("together with") and passion ("to suffer"). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients' suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may he crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use "compassion" to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practices "looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world." Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain. You are in deep commu­nication, deep communion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person's suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person's life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn't he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha had enough understand­ing, calmness, and strength. That is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha's smile is possible.

The third element of true love is mudita, joy. True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love.

Commentators explain that happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind. This example is often given: Someone traveling in the desert sees a stream of cool water and experiences joy. On drinking the water, he experiences happiness. Ditthadhamma sukhavihari means "dwelling happily in the present moment." We don't rush to the future; we know that everything is here in the present moment. Many small things can bring us tremen­dous joy, such as the awareness that we have eyes in good condition. We just have to open our eyes and we can see the blue sky, the violet flowers, the children, the trees, and so many other kinds of forms and colors. Dwelling in mindful­ness, we can touch these wondrous and refreshing things, and our mind of joy arises naturally. Joy contains happiness and happiness contains joy.

Some commentators have said that mudita means "sympathetic joy" or "altruistic joy," the happi­ness we feel when others are happy. But that is too limited. It discriminates between self and others. A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves? Joy is for everyone.

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimi­nation, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upe means "over," and ksh means "to look." You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indiffer­ent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don't love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.

Upeksha has the mark called samatajnana, "the wisdom of equality," the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. As long as we see ourselves as the one who loves and the other as the one who is loved, as long as we value ourselves more than others or see others as different from us, we do not have true equanimity. We have to put ourselves "into the other person's skin" and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him. When that happens, there is no "self' and no "other."

Without upeksha, your love may become possessive. A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our beloved is the same. He is like a cloud, a breeze, a flower. If you imprison him in a tin can, he will die. Yet many people do just that. They rob their loved one of his liberty, until he can no longer be himself. They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfill that. That is not loving; it is destroying. You say you love him, but if you do not understand his aspirations, his needs, his difficulties, he is in a prison called love. True love allows you to preserve your freedom and the freedom of your beloved. That is upeksha.

For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity in it. For compassion to be true compassion, it has to have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy has to contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity has to have love, compassion, and joy in it. This is the interbeing nature of the Four Immeasurable Minds. When the Buddha told the Brahmin man to practice the Four Immeasurable Minds, he was offering all of us a very important teaching. But we must look deeply and practice them for ourselves to bring these four aspects of love into our own lives and into the lives we love.

This Dharma talk is from Teachings on Love, pub­lished by Parallax Press.

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh  Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 "Heart of the Buddha" retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer's when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can't remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don't believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, "When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence." Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can't remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don't need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It's not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don't want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, "Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn't it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do." I told her, "If I don't grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this." Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don't buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, "Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?" Then, they will begin to ask, "When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn." At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, "Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don't know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive." Use ord­inary language. Don't make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don't look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don't need incense. You don't need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don't say, "I am practicing spirituality, and you don't know anything about it!" Try to avoid saying, "Darling, I am practicing Buddhism." Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, "Darling, how do you do it?" Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, "Who is responsible for this?"

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn't say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one's own life. But I don't want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, "What happens to the consciousness before death?" If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby's diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don't have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby's diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I'm going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on "the art of mindful living."

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Raindrops of a Bodhisattva

By Quyen Do

On the third day of our summer retreat at Maple Village outside of Montreal, the mountains around us were enveloped in fog. We woke up in the silence and fresh air, and after hearing the bell, entered the meditation hall for morning sitting. Then the rain started to fall lightly. After a session of sitting, Brother Chan Co led a recitation of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I felt calm and joyful being with my Sangha as we recited the opening verse three times.

After the closing verse and the sound of the bell, Chan Co smiled and said, "It's raining now." He seemed to feel the Sangha's energy and understand our need for a healing process. As the drops fell, they created music on the meditation hall roof. Through the windows, we saw only the blurred shape of Mt. Foster in eastern Quebec. After a few minutes of listening to the rain, Chan Co asked Carol Gover to sing Sister Annabel's song, "The Rain." Carol's soft voice fell harmoniously with the rain outside, and we listened in mindfulness:

"The rain is falling oh... so softly

Washing every leaf of every tree

Washing every care,

Namo Avalokiteshvara."

As we listened, some people struggled with pains brought up in the first two days. Some problems seemed immense: one participant's spouse had just received a diagnosis of cancer. Another had been raising a disabled child for 25 years.

"The rain is falling oh... so strong

Reaching every root of every tree

Reaching every root of affliction,

Namo Avalokiteshvara..."

As the song continued, it seemed that the Bodhisattva of Compassion came to the meditation hall, waving her tiny willow branch ti'om which healing drops of compassionate water fell on everyone of us. I was so moved by the moment that all my small anxieties washed away.

"The rain is falling oh... so loudly

Playing the music of joy

For ten thousands of beings,

Namo Avalokiteshvara."

Carol ended the song softly and total silence reigned in the hall. The raindrops sang on the roof. We sat for a long time, breathing in and out and listening to the rain. Even the bellmaster didn't touch the bell.

I have never participated in such a beautiful recitation. I felt Thay and Sister Annabel as closely as if they were sitting next to us and smiling. We stood up and comforted each other with hugging meditation, then continued the day. After breakfast, we all had joyful expressions on bur faces. In the supportive atmosphere of the Sangha, our individual suffering seemed diluted, dissipating with the rain.

Quyen Do, Chan Huyen, is a co-founder of Maple Village. She lives in Montreal, Canada, where she is a pharmacist.

Beginning Anew in Mexico

By Jo-ann Rosen I n the early 1990s, the impoverished people of Chiapas State revolted against the Mexican government. Initially, the battles were widely reported. The war has now faded from the public eye, but the fighting and suffering are escalating with paramilitary takeovers of communities, massacres, looting, rape, and this spring, widespread fires. Despair penetrates the people as deeply as the smoke which blankets the state. In the last year, 13,000 people fled their Chiapas homes in terror. They live under tarps in the cold hills, unable to go home and plant the crops that keep them from starving. Orphaned children wander the camps, crying for their parents. Some bear terrible wounds from the fighting. Parents, suffering their own traumas, are unable to address the emotional needs of their children.

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I am living in San Cristobal de las Casas, center of the controversy. Here, we have been training local social workers to help children deal with the continuing trauma.Throughout our work, unexpected hurdles have popped up repeatedly, frustrating our efforts and creating divisive conflicts within the team of workers. The conflicts slowed our work and undermined the crucial sense of community. Discouraged by repeated setbacks, I was inspired by the chapter on Beginning Anew in Teachings on Love and wondered if we might use Beginning Anew to rebuild our sense of community. In Mexican culture, the process itself would be unusual. Saying something bothers you is generally not done directly, but the group agreed to try.

Each week we used one piece of the ceremony, which I modified to be more cross-cultural and accessible to the group. The first week, we gave positive feedback. This alone greatly relieved tensions and created seeds of hope. The second week we did self-criticism, but with a twist each person looked deeply at the source of their actions and did not speak without coming to self-compassion. Finding self-compassion seemed difficult, but the sharing was very moving. I could see layers of accumulated shame and judgment evaporating. The third week we offered criticisms of each other, but with an adaptation from another of Thay's teachings, the Peace Treaty. Before speaking, we looked deeply into ourselves and into the other person.

Though difficult, our Beginning Anew almost worked magic. Our team has been energized. Meetings are more open, direct, and congenial. Individual talents have been recognized, and some who held back are finding their voices. We have all realized that we cannot help the displaced recover from the wounds of division and war without addressing those same issues among ourselves. In this place where hope is difficult to maintain, we are beginning to build places of refuge and healing.

Jo-ann Rosen, True River of Understanding, is a psychotherapist on sabbatical in Chiapas.

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Prison Mindfulness

By Mair Honan A few years ago, the word "prison" arose repeatedly in my meditation. I thought it referred to an internal prison and laughed when the words "Thomaston prison" arose one day. Thomaston is a nearby state prison. I had no conscious desire to enter the prison and no experience in prison work. But, a week later I bumped into someone who works at Thomaston and asked about bringing meditation in. After an interview with the education office, our mindfulness program began.

We present mindfulness meditation as a way to focus the mind and develop peace and clarity in life, rather than as a Buddhist practice. We openly speak about our teachers, however, and the inmates know we have taken Buddhist precepts. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine came to the prison to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings to one dedicated practitioner. Each new person receives instructions from The Miracle of Mindfulness. We remind them they can get a free copy of We 're All Doing Time from Human Kindness Foundation in Durham, North Carolina and free books from Parallax Press. When someone wants to learn about Buddhism, we try to help.

During the sessions, the inmates sit on chairs. We sit in meditation at the beginning and end of each session. We also read and discuss a short piece from a variety of teachers. The guys may have questions or want to discuss their practices. During one session, I offered walking meditation, but it activated too much tension in the small room. For now, we pass out instructions from Thay's Guide to Walking Meditation and encourage them to try mindful walking alone in their cell or out in the field.

About nine months after we began, I saw a connection between the inmates and my brother, my closest sibling. One evening, an inmate laughed a particular way and it felt as if my brother was there. A few years ago, through alcohol abuse, my brother killed himself and another young man. Such pain-I loved him so dearly. When I heard the inmate laugh, I remembered that my brother was arrested in his teens and spent a short time in prison awaiting trial. I had wondered why I felt so comfortable with these guys. As Thay says, the past and the future reside in the present.

We're all learning from each other. I am particularly grateful to these men who are unwittingly helping me heal a deep grief. From the beginning, I knew this could work only with the Sangha's help. Six regional Sangha members are cunently involved in the prison practice. We are all grateful to the Thomaston Prison staff. Without their openness, Support, and thoughtfulness, we would not have a meditation program in the prison.

Mair Honan, True Seal of Enlightenment, practices with the True Heart Sangha in Maine.

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Dharma Talk: Breathing for Our Children

By Thich Nhat Hanh Before he passed away, the Buddha instructed his disciples to take refuge in the island of mindfulness within themselves by practicing mindfulness in sitting, walking, breathing, and every activity of daily life. Mindfulness means to be aware of what is going on in the present moment. If we take one peaceful, happy step and know that we are taking a peaceful, happy step, mindfulness is there. Breathing in and out mindfully, we see the many elements of happiness already available.

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Mindfulness is enlightenment, understanding, compas­sion, liberation, and healing. If we touch everything with mindfulness, the world will reveal itself in its full splendor. Mindfulness makes our eyes, our heart, our non-toothache, the moon, and the trees deep and beautiful. And when we touch our suffering with mindfulness, we begin to transform it. Mindfulness is like a mother holding her baby in her arms and caring for her baby's pain. When our pain is held by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength.

Sometimes we feel that happiness and well-being are not possible in the present moment. Our grandparents and our parents may have taught us that happiness is only possible in the future. But according to the Buddha, we can be happy right here and right now. Even if a few things are not to our liking, there are many positive conditions for our happiness. Please try this exercise:

Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.

Generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace your eyes. Smile to your eyes. Having eyes in good condition is a wonderful element for your happiness. You only need to open your eyes, and you will see a paradise of form and colors. Please enjoy this paradise. Try not to let your worries, suffering, and anger overwhelm you. Please try this practice:

Breathing in, I am aware of my heart. Breathing out, I smile to my heart.

When you use the energy of mindfulness to embrace your heart, you will see that having a heart that functions well is another condition for your happiness. But you have neglected your heart for a long time — by the way you work, eat, and manage anxiety. Embrace your heart with tenderness, love, and compassion, and smile to your heart. Practice with your whole body, while lying down or sitting up. If any part of your body does not feel well, hold it with mindfulness and tenderness. This is a wonderful practice. Mindful breathing is the door to reconcile with and take care of our self.

The first exercise the Buddha proposed in his Discourse on Mindful Breathing is: 

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. 

The object of mindfulness is your in-breath and your out-breath, and nothing else. Identify your in-breath as in-breath and your out-breath as out-breath. It's that simple. Just say, "In," and "Out," as you breathe in and out. These words are not concepts. They are instruments for maintain­ing mindfulness. Observe the reality of your in-breath throughout its duration. Stay at one with your in-breath all the way through.

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You don't need to make an effort to stop your thinking. Just by concentrating on your in-breath one hundred percent, your thinking will quiet itself. You don't need to "force" yourself to be mindful. Just enjoy your breathing. When the practice is pleasant, concentration becomes easy, and insight is born. Mindful­ness, concentration, and insight always go together.

Sit or lie down in a way that allows your body to rest. Sitting, your head and spine form a straight line. Relax all your muscles. If you are sitting on a cushion, select one that is the correct thickness for your physical condition. Find a way of sitting that allows you to sit for at least twenty minutes, without becoming too stiff or tired. As soon as you sit down, pay attention to your breath. Then notice your posture, a little bit everywhere. Relax the muscles in your face. If you are angry or worried, those muscles will be tense. Smile lightly, and you will relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Then notice your shoul­ders, and let go of the tension there. Don't try too hard. Just breathe mindfully, and scan your whole body.

When you watch TV, you can sit for a long time. But in meditation, you struggle. Why not imitate the way you sit watching television? The key is effortlessness. Don't fight or try too hard. Just allow yourself to sit in a relaxed way, and you will feel deeply calm. A period of sitting meditation is time worth living. Don't interfere with your breathing. Breathing takes place by itself. Just light the lamp of mindfulness and shine it on your breathing. Don't modify, bend, or make your breathing the way you think it is supposed to be. This is mindfulness of breathing, not intervention. Just become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. If your in-breath is short, let it be short. If your out-breath is long, let it be long. Become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. Don't try to make them shorter or longer. After a few minutes of practice, you will notice an improvement in the quality of your breathing, and a feeling of well-being will be born in you.

Mindfulness recognizes what is there, and concentration allows you to be deeply present with whatever it is. Concentration is the ground of happiness. If you live twenty-four hours a day in mindfulness and concentration, one day is a lot. Each moment of your life can become a legend. The Buddha didn't leave behind a theory or set of dogmas. He left behind his life. Every step he took was solid and peaceful. His compassion penetrated the living beings of his time, and the living beings of today, as well. Each step, each breath, and each of his words convey the energy of mindfulness, understanding, and compassion. The practice is to live mindfully and deeply each moment of your daily life, to return to your true home in the present moment.

But many of us do not want to go home to ourselves. We were wounded as children, and it is hard for us to trust others or allow their love to penetrate us. So, instead of going home, we make every effort to avoid ourselves. We say we don't have enough time to be with ourselves, and even when we do have five or ten minutes, we turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or get in the car and go out for a drive. We haven't been in close touch with our body, our feelings, and our mind for a long time. We are afraid to go home to ourselves, because we don't have the means to protect ourselves from the suffering that is within us. But mindfulness can be our protection, making it possible for us to go home safely. With mindfulness, we can touch the wounded child within and embrace him or her without being overwhelmed. With training in mindful breathing and walking, we will be able to go home and embrace our suffering. The practice is to prepare ourselves to go back and touch the wounded child within. Doing this will help many beings — past, present, and future -- and not only ourselves.

To practice is not to transform ourselves into a battle­field, the good fighting the evil. There is no battle. There are only positive and negative elements within us, and both sides are us. We can embrace all of them, and when we do, the negative elements will transform themselves into positive ones, without any fighting or discarding. We need to learn to transform our garbage into compost. If we continue to practice dwelling in mindfulness, accepting all the elements we discover within us as ourselves, one day our wounds won't force us to do and say things we don't want to do or say, anymore. With mindful breathing, we learn to recognize our unwholesome mental formations even before they arise, and we can stop being the victim of the habit energies we've received from so many generations of ancestors. At that moment, we become an instrument in the work of transformation, for our own sake and for the sake of our ancestors and future generations.

The Buddha gave many talks on breathing in and breathing out in mindfulness. My little book, Breathe! You Are Alive, presents several of these, with commentaries on how to practice. The Buddha did not offer these exercises as theories or means for analysis. He offered them as concrete practices for us to do. Please practice mindful breathing, and enjoy your breathing. Breathing is enjoyable.

Twenty years ago we could not have imagined non-smoking flights. We suffered for years every time we had to sit in an airplane among those who were smoking. Now, thanks to our collective awakening, there are many non-smoking flights all over the world. Awakening is possible. In every one of us there is a seed of awakening. We should have confidence in this seed, and not be over­whelmed by despair. The practice is to touch the positive elements that are already there, so we will benefit from these elements and realize awakening.

If you practice mindful breathing, mindful smiling, mindful walking, and mindful working, your stability and strength will inspire those around you. Please practice together as a Sangha. When you see a group of people living mindfully, capable of smiling and loving, it will give you confidence in the future. Please learn the art of Sangha building. We mustn't allow the younger generation to lose hope. Breathe, walk, act, and live each moment of life in a way that demonstrates to our children that a future is possible. 

This Dharma talk is from Thich Nhat Hanh's 21-Day Retreat in Burlington, Vermont, in June 1998, on The Path of Emancipation. The talks will be published by Parallax Press in 1999. 

Photo: Mark Sternfield.

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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.

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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


mb26-DiaryDiary 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 supprted me thorough the most important experience of my life. I will eat a good breakfast for all of them.

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Accidental Insights

By Joanne Friday The Five Remembrances I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to have ill health. I am of the nature to die. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. My actions are my only true belongings.

Eight years ago, I was seriously injured in a car accident. I lost my short-term memory, and I hurt. For two years, I tried to be the person I had been, but my brain and my body did not work the way they had. I was attached to my idea of who I was, and to the incorrect view that the way I was before the accident was the best I could be. I was attached to my view of how I was supposed to function. I experienced a lot of pain and suffering because of fear, lack of acceptance of impermanence, and attachment to wrong views. I developed a stress disorder, and my immunity dropped to almost nothing. I am of the nature to have ill health.

I had to give up a job I was good at, and as a result, faced financial problems. This created more fear. To add insult to injury, my insurance company refused to pay my medical bills, and instead, hired an attorney to avoid paying. The lawyer dealt with insurance fraud and  believed everyone was trying to defraud insurance companies. To see him interpret everything through that belief was a deep teaching for me on how our beliefs color our perceptions. I could see how much pain and suffering he was causing—to himself, as well as to me. He was paid by the hour, and dragged the process out as long as possible. Eight years later, with a settlement just big enough to pay the lawyers, the legal wrangling is over. It was of no financial value to me—merely an exercise and an opportunity to practice. Everything that is dear to me is of the nature to change.

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I am still in constant pain, so I have lots of opportunities to be angry, frustrated, sad, doubting, and fearful. Initially, I was almost immobilized by fear. Fortunately, about a year into this process, I went to my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The practice of mindfulness has helped me look honestly at my feelings, and with time, transform them. It has helped me be aware of my reactions and my habit energy. I have learned to take good care of my feelings, and to look at the part of me that needs love and compassion, but reacts with fear or anger. Frequently, an old hurt makes me vulnerable, so the practice has taken me on a journey of healing the past in the present moment.

Mindfulness has helped me look at setbacks as opportunities to learn, instead of as negative events. It has helped me see how much pain and suffering is caused by attachment to my views of "the way things should be." I spend more time being aware that I don't know. I am still trying to develop loving kindness for myself when I am not able to perform at my previous level. I have learned about the small deaths that come with every loss. I am of the nature to die.

With the help of the practice throughout this difficult period, I have been able to come into the present moment and experience pure joy, even when I am in pain. This is a true gift. Last year, I received the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and joined the Order of Interbeing. I was given the Dharma name True Gift of Joy. Because of the miracle of mindfulness, I am of the nature to experience true joy.

Joanne Friday, True Gift of Joy, practices with the the Clear Heart Sangha in Rhode Island.

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San Diego Retreat

By Patricia Webb If I had to use one word to describe our September retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, it would be gratitude. All of the events opened my heart-the Dharma talks by Thay, the daily sitting meditations, the early morning walks on the University of California at San Diego campus (a powerful experience of many souls gracefully and silently moving into dawn), an evening of Deep Relaxation and Touching the Earth, the healing wonder of silent meals, and receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

I was surprised every day at how the gratitude I experienced grew. It opened like a flower, and I was filled with the fragrance of it-my marriage, my family of origin, my children, my grandson were present with me each time I became still. My love for them and appreciation for my life just as it is, was almost too much to bear. I had not allowed myself to feel this joy for many years.

My husband and I buried his only daughter a few months before the retreat, in the Winter of 2000. The retreat allowed us to more deeply accept her passing by touching our gratitude for her beautiful and completed life.

I arrived at the retreat in a great deal of physical pain from an old injury to my back-pain so intense that I wondered if I would be able to sit to meditate at all. But fortunately, miraculously, the discipline of sitting properly in order to breathe began to correct the problem. In the weeks and months since the retreat, my back has almost completely healed and I am pain free. Another thing to be grateful for!

The following poem is given as a tribute to the global Sangha whose energy is with us here every day in Oklahoma City, showing me how to live mindfully, gratefully, and more healthfully than I ever dreamed possible.

In the silence, I notice my own heartbeat. Thank you, heart, for serving me so well All these years. In the silence, I notice my own breath. Thank you, lungs, for your good service.

In the silence, I notice the small things Tiny rocks beneath my feet, Insects that land on my arm. I am aware of how much goes unnoticed In my busy day.

The sun makes my paper neon bright, Bright as my life is When I can breathe my thanks And beat my heart thanks And know that though I am a small thing In this vast universe, I am not insignificant.

And my noticing Is not insignificant. For its strange and silent power Makes me thankful.

Patricia Webb, Silent Service of the Heart, is a poet and Artist-in-Residence in Oklahoma. For the past ten years, she has worked in schools and hospitals to bring silence and journaling techniques for releasing inner wisdom. She and husband David McClesky, Auspicious Guide of the Heart, sponsor The Silence Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing mindfulness practice to schools and hospitals.

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The Luckiest Daughter of Cambodia

By Sister Khe Nghiem The Buddha said every one of us has the seed of peace within our consciousness. Unluckily, when I was a young child, the environment in which I grew up did not water my seed of peace. As a child, I ran under the bombs and bullets during the civil war in my country, Cambodia. My heart and body were wounded and traumatized by fear and hunger. This wound remained in me throughout my life until I met Thay' s teaching. The Buddha's teaching opened my heart wider.

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The practice of looking deeply at non-self and emptiness is a wonderful and healing practice for me. I see clearly that the wound that exists in me and in the world is not me. I have no right to possess or attach to it. So I practice letting go. Now I see I am lucky to experience this wound. I have the opportunity to encounter the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and I am happy to put the teachings into practice. I practice mindfulness to come back to my wounded mind and body. During the day or at night, when my heart does not beat normally, as if it were still under the bombs and the bullets, I follow my breath to calm my mind and relax my whole body. Letting go of all tensions, I become calm and happy again. Thanks to my daily mindfulness practice with a kind teacher and Sangha, I have experienced a lot of healing.

In the beginning, cultivating peace in my five territories (of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness) was very unpleasant. But as my practice goes deeper and becomes more familiar, there are times I can smile, free from my suffering. Whenever my mind is caught in negative perceptions or useless and unpleasant thoughts, I practice to recognize it. I sit stably in front of a mirror. I look at my face with care and love. I can see my little wounded parents, grandparents, and all my ancestors. I practice, "Breathing in, I am experiencing an unpleasant emotion. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I relax my whole body." I give my blood a chance to flow freely. I sing my favorite song and listen to peaceful instrumental music for a while. I touch and embrace my blood ancestors, spiritual families, all people and species. I smile to them.

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Everyday I feel reborn and full of gratitude to life. Being here in Plum Village with Thay and  the Sangha, I feel I am the luckiest daughter of Cambodia. Thay gave me the dharma name Khe Nghiem, which means "Adornment with Appropriateness." It is appropriate for me to cultivate peace in myself, family,nation, and in the world.

A moment with the dandelions Dear dandelions, you are so free You seem very humble and in harmony You open your whole being to the cosmos You accept life as it is.

Sister Khe Nghiem ordained in 1999.

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Healing the Present, Healing the Past

By Azriel Cohen Shared at the Hiroshima Commemoration Ceremony in Plum Village, August 7, 2001 .

Last night, a young man from Germany at the Hiroshima Commemoration in the Upper Hamlet shared with the community how he observed anger arising within himself, when the Israeli-Palestinian group shared that the trauma of the Holocaust was still a source of deep suffering for the Jewish people, and that it affected the situation in the Middle East. He decided to look deeply into the anger that was within himself, and he discovered that though he was born a long time after World War II he himself was still not healed from the wounds of that war. He had ancestors who were actively involved in the Nazi regime. He turned to the community and declared that he personally wanted to do something that might be healing and to somehow find a way to apologize to all the Jews who had suffered. He asked the community to breathe mindfully and  support him while he bowed his head to the ground in silence.

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I was deeply moved by what he did. When my turn came up to share my reflections on the experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian group, I offered the following story to this young German man:

My only other time in Plum Village was five years ago. The most moving experience I had was on my last day. At our last Dharma discussion of the retreat, a young woman who I did not know shared with our group a very deep pain that she had in her heart and soul. She was German and was tormented by the possibility that her ancestors had somehow played a role in perpetrating the atrocities of the Holocaust. Though she was third generation after the war, and though she had no certain evidence that anyone in her family was involved, she was haunted by the deeds of her grandparents ' generation. She was obsessed with discovering the truth and finding a way to heal from it. She read every book she could find on the Holocaust, saw films and spent time in archives combing through information to see if any of her relatives were mentioned. Through her eyes she shared her pain and suffering echoed in her voice.

After the circle was finished, I went over to her. I said, "Amelie, I'm named after my grandfather's little brother, Azriel, who was killed in one of the concentration camps during World War II. The last time my grandfather saw his brother was when he was a little boy, so he was unable to ever tell me much about him." Both of us had tears in our eyes, realizing that here we were three generations later, the two sides facing each other. Both of us realized that if there was anything whatsoever that we could do to contribute to healing what had happened, it would be by getting to know each other as humans. I had no plans to go to Germany during my travels through Europe, but I decided to visit Amelie at her parents' home near Munich. We went together to Dachau, one of the more well-known concentration camps and we spent six hours in total silence, walking and just being. The next morning I departed, and though that was the last time we saw each other, the experience will forever be with me.

Last night, during the ceremony commemorating Hiroshima, the young man from Germany and I walked arm in arm carrying candles under the open starry sky. I realized how in the present we can impact on the healing of the past and what seems to be beyond us, and that each of us, in our own little way can contribute to peace if we find  peace within ourselves.

Azriel Cohen helped to organize the group of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who have come two times to practice in Plum Village together.

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Poem: Contemplation

Since the moon is full tonight,let us call upon the stars in prayer. the power of concentration, seen through the bright, one-pointed mind, is shaking the universe.

All living beings are present tonight to witness the ocean of fear flooding the Earth.

Upon the sound of the midnight bell, everyone in the ten directions joins hands and enters the meditation on Mahakaruna.

Compassion springs from the heart, as pure, refreshing water healing the wounds of life.

From the highest peak of the Mind Mountain, the blessed water streams down, penetrating rice fields and orange groves.

The poisonous snake drinks a drop of this nectar from the tip of a blade of green grass, and the poison on its tongue vanishes.

Mara’s arrows are transformed info fragrant flowers.

The wondrous action of the healing water— a mysterious transformation! A child now holds the snake in her innocent arms.

Leaves are still green in the ancient garden. The shimmering sunlight smiles on the snow, and the sacred spring still flows towards the East.

On Avalokita’s willow branch, or in my heart, the healing water is the same.

Tonight all weapons fall at our feet and turn to dust.

One flower, two flowers millions of little flowers appear in the green fields.

The gate of deliverance opens with a smile on the lips of my innocent child.

Thich Nhat Hanah, 1965

This is a metta (love) meditation to produce the balm of amirita (immortality) that can transform our hearts and the world. Mahakaruna is the mind of love that has the capacity to relieve the suffering of many living beings.

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The Perfect Sangha: New Zealand

By Shalom The bell calls clear and time across the courtyard. Voices from the Dharma discussion groups fall softly back into the silent container of the native bush, hills, and a translucent blue sky. Only the chirrup of thousands of midsummer cicadas remains.

We breathe softly, filled with the sharings of each other and aware of the growing compassion in our hearts and consciousness. As a group of four women we have spoken and listened deeply to each other, sharing the Dharma, our lives and aspects of the practice. In the stopping, we can also feel the tangible presence of mindfulness and of love, carried on the pure clear tones of the sounding bell. We complete our group with a bow of true reverence, deeply grateful for this format of mindful sharing. Slowly the retreatants merge to talk and share the loveliness of this still summer morning. The energy rises as preparations to serve the mid-day meal come to completion.

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For most of those present, this is a relaxed time of day easily identifiable with their everyday lives outside of the retreat time; however, for the core organizer group, this is a time to take our practice a step further and join together for the daily check-in meeting. On one level we are simply talking logistics – who will lead the meditation walk today; is the evening program clear and are the videotapes of Thay set up; do we have enough milk for breakfast tomorrow; how are the retreatants doing generally; what announcements need to be made today; and so on. On a deeper level this is the time where we really experience the practice in action.

This year we do not have a teacher present to guide us and to turn to as the wisdom holder. We only have each other, a handful of practitioners that form the core of two fairly small and relatively young Sanghas. Over the past five or so years we have had our share of challenges. Becoming familiar with our different personality types and coping (or not) with each other’s egos, differing ways of interpreting the practice, different needs, levels of commitment, stress and experience. As the days progress and the retreat deepens, it becomes more and more obvious that something wonderful is unfolding within this core group. We almost do not dare bring attention to it for fear that the magic will dissolve. As we sit together we smile, somewhat shyly, at how well the retreat is going, although we continue to focus on the organizational aspects of our meeting. I notice how differently I am seeing these people, how spaciously we accept and share ideas, problems and possible solutions. I notice how gifted and giving they are. How much I have learned and gained from this collective experience of working together with quieted egos; I feel very humble. I look around at people who in the past have judged, criticized, challenged, misunderstood and felt misunderstood by. I see myself clearly reflected. I see that the very nature of our difficulties as Sangha and the practice itself have brought us to this place of healing our arrogance and experiencing on a profound level communion and true love. There is lots to do here but there is no struggle. The retreat is going well because of the quality of our being rather than the amount of our doing. I experience myself as a cell in the body of the Sangha in transformation. What beauty, what a wonder to feel these seeds being nourished in me.

Once again the bell sounds in the courtyard. Our meeting must come to closure. The silence steps graciously into the space that the bell creates.  I breathe in.  I hear Thay’s voice:  "Don't look for the perfect Sangha." How often in the past I have been caught by my ignorance, my aversion, and desires for a different or better Sangha, my practice not ripe enough to open to the seeds of Sangha in my very own garden.

The bell sounds again. I breathe and smile in gratitude. We don't need to look for the perfect Sangha, we only need to stand still long enough and practice together, and leave the rest to nature to nourish the seeds of perfect Sangha within us.

One month later, back home and fully engrossed with the householder's life, I move through the day of deadlines at work, childcare, bills, traffic, cooking, and cleaning and I continue to be nourished by the depth of practice of my sisters and brothers in the wider Sangha. Physically we are many miles apart and on one level it continues to be a challenge for me to live in an isolated rural community with few practitioners. However, on another level, this last New Zealand Retreat has changed my relationship to others irrevocably. My interactions at work, in community projects, school support groups, and in my family all come from a freer, softer, more connected me. In my body, in my heart, in the very eel.ls of my being, Sangha continues to bloom.

Shalom, True Precious Land, lives and practices in New Zealand.

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The Golden Well of Compassion

Light River of the Heart I met the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; I lived with them for five days. It was heaven on earth; powerful transformation, golden drops from the well of compassion entered my heart.

I wrote these words in my journal on the day I returned home from the 2002 Stonehill College retreat with Thay.   It had been an unforgettable week.  I had witnessed the retreat give birth to a national peace initiative. It was like watching a collective Dharma wheel turn toward peace and reconciliation. On an individual level, I experienced my own turn of the Dharma wheel. As I left the retreat, I vowed to make peace within myself. This decision has reverberated in my life ever since, with far-reaching effects.

Many elements of the retreat nourished my soul and inspired me to change my perspective. I loved Thay’s Dharma talks, the meditation exercises, the energy of the other participants, the relaxation and silence. Most powerful of all was participation in a survivors of abuse Dharma discussion group. The Stonehill survivors group came to embody the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha for me. It was a profound healing experience.

I had no idea of any of this when I signed up for the group, rather furtively and with some shame, on the day it was to begin. Later I learned that almost no one had signed up for the group in advance. On the first day, I positioned myself near the door to be able to make a quick escape if necessary. I watched the people as they entered the room, quickly trying to find their psychological weaknesses so that I could protect myself in case of attack. I made jokes to disarm them. My heart was beating rapidly.

Our leader invited the bell to sound, and then lay down boundaries. We were to strictly preserve confidentiality and privacy. We were to practice deep listening. We were not to solve others’ problems, but to offer our own experience if it could be of help. One by one, we began to share. It was soon apparent that every member of the group shared not only the childhood experience of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse and its long-term effects, but also the sincere desire to embody spiritual values and to practice compassion and loving-kindness. There was immense good will, clarity, honesty, courage, respect, thoughtfulness, and humor in the group.

Many of us were reluctant to identify ourselves as survivors, feeling that this labeled us as victims, or that it would lure us into negative, blaming states of mind. For myself, I hated identifying as anything. I never wanted to be part of any group larger than two.  Being in a circle with twelve or fifteen other

human beings meant that I had completely lost control. I had grown up in the war-zone of a nuclear bomb family. Violence, rage, terror, grief, secrecy, blame and denial were part of my “normal” life. At an early age, my connection to other human beings had shattered. Trust was broken and never rebuilt. I took isolation, fear and distrust for granted. Terror was hardwired into my being. I never realized there was another way to be.

On one of the first days of the retreat, I did a guided meditation led by Thay. As I visualized myself “fresh as a flower, stable as a mountain,” I felt peaceful, calm and at ease. The energy of seven hundred other meditators in the room supported me. Suddenly I realized that pain, suffering and a continual state of hyper-alertness were my everyday state of mind. I knew how to protect, hide, defend, and retaliate, but rarely how to trust or relax. These behaviors had served a purpose when I was a child, but now they stifled my adult life.

Identifying myself as a survivor was a powerful healing tool. It made me able to participate in the group – an act which I think of as prayer in action. Showing up in the survivors’ group was a prayer to rejoin the human race and to heal myself fully.

Before I left for the retreat, I had a dream in which I found two polished amethyst stones that looked like stained glass windows in a cathedral. I heard Thay’s voice saying, “The city is now safe for people to walk in.” Participating in the survivors’ discussion group was like being inside a cathedral and watching light illuminate stained glass windows one by one. Each person offered his or her own slant of light. Listening to others and being listened to alternated in a natural rhythm. There was no agenda; we revealed ourselves as we were in the moment. Compassion arose naturally for each other.  Kindness and understanding blossomed everywhere. In an atmosphere of honesty and safety, bonds of friendship were forged and the illusion of separateness dissolved.

My sisters and brothers of the survivors group were all bodhisattvas for me; through them, I experienced the transformative power of compassion. The group was the Dharma in action, as we helped each other bring painful emotions into light and awareness. It was a Sangha, each individual person having integrity and wholeness, yet functioning in relationship to a greater community. The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha were not ideals or abstract concepts, they were alive and present in me and around me. As old assumptions, fears, and wrong perceptions crumbled, new and beautiful feelings of connectedness, trust and wholeness began to emerge. Being part of this group of survivors was powerful healing medicine. It seemed like nothing less than a miracle.

On the long drive home, the group continued to “meet” inside my mind. I held a conversation with my friends, sharing the most painful things about myself and my family. Suddenly a shift in my perceptions took place: instead of seeing the suffering as mine, I saw the terrible suffering of my family as a whole. Compassion flooded through me for all of us. These experiences have strengthened my resolve to practice mindfulness, to develop a deep well of compassion within myself, and to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Light River of the Heart, (dharma name of the author) shares, “Since I wrote this article, many perspectives have shifted and I have begun to open my heart to family members. Healing is slowly and steadily taking place.”

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Peace Song Circle

Tricia  Diduch The entire Sangha had been praying for sunshine for months leading up to this day. Yet, when I woke up and peered out the window, I was greeted by gray skies and a light drizzle. Had it been a few months ago, I surely would have panicked. Instead, I donned my raincoat, decided to adopt a sunny attitude and headed out the door to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill to begin setting the stage for the first annual Peace Song Circle organized by Pine Gate Sangha and Friends for Peace. It would be the culmination of three months of effort by the organizing committee. A total of seven local choirs, one dance group and three soloists would soon assemble to share a message of peace through song with their community and the world. With a sense of excitement and just a little nervous anxiety, I could hardly believe the day had arrived.

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Early in December, when Ian Prattis, the founder of the Pine Gate Sangha, first proposed the creation of a Peace Song Circle, I was skeptical about the plan. He envisioned several local choirs singing in unison in the name of peace, along with members of the community, other peace organizations, and spiritual groups. The assembly would create a sense of solidarity and strength during a time when we were all feeling increasingly powerless to change the course of world events. It would be a reminder that through our daily practice of mindful living we are doing our part to help create a better world. I fully supported the purpose and need for such an event; I just didn’t see how it would be possible. I suggested it was highly unlikely that we could assemble enough choirs to attend with only three months’ notice. It would require too much rehearsal time and coordination.

A week later, Ian asked for volunteers to help organize the event in Ottawa, on Saturday, March 22. Jean, a woman new to our Sangha, was the first to volunteer. Her contagious enthusiasm set off a chain reaction and a committee of seven organizers was established. I too found myself volunteering to take an active role in this project. I don’t know what possessed me. With a full-time job, how on earth would I find time to contribute?

The organizing committee adopted as our motto, “Stand for Peace, Sing for Peace, Be Peace.” Since Ian was preparing to attend a two-month retreat in India, he was leaving the initial planning entirely in our hands. Now, not only would I be assisting with communications, but I also volunteered to recruit choirs to participate. Having never been involved in such an activity before, I felt overwhelmed.

I was also experiencing a personal crisis in my life after having been laid off from a position I had held for five years. As we were discussing plans for the Peace Song Circle at a committee meeting in late January, I shared my recent news over tea and cookies. Fighting back tears, I offered to devote more time to the project. Soon, I was overcome with emotion. While I hadn’t been happy with my employment situation for some time, I regretted leaving behind talented co-workers with whom I had developed close relationships. I also considered my departure a personal failure, feeling I hadn’t been able to live up to my employer’s expectations of me. As I let the tears fall, the entire group offered their support. As the meeting wrapped up, Jean said to me, “Divine intervention is at work here – just trust in it. You are simply needed elsewhere.”

Through these words, I realized that losing my job was a blessing. During the preceding months, I had often been overcome with work-related anxiety. Being asked to leave brought with it an enormous sense of relief. It eradicated a lot of fears, offering me an inner peace I hadn’t experienced in a long time. And now, I had been given an opportunity to better employ my talents, helping the Sangha to organize the Peace Song Circle. From that point on, I made a conscious choice not to focus on the past, but on the task at hand.  When I actually shifted my energy to organizing the Peace Song Circle, I felt a sense of purpose, which my life had been lacking for a long time.

Organizing tasks began to fall into place. Our first major obstacle was finding a sound crew and system on a non-existent budget. Somehow, one miraculously materialized. Next, we had to recruit the performers. Although I received many, many rejections, we eventually did end up with just the right number of choirs and soloists. When two choirs backed out three weeks before the event, I stayed relaxed, and within two days, two more choirs offered to participate.

And then, there I was, on Parliament Hill, as the final preparations for the Peace Song Circle were underway. The sound system was assembled, and all of the choirs and individual performers had arrived.

As the clock on the Peace Tower struck 10:00 am on March 22, Chris, the master of ceremonies, launched the proceedings. Ian came forth and thanked the two or three hundred gathered for having braved the weather to join us in our stand for peace. He invited everyone to remain strong in the face of the overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, and hatred that tend to arise during such difficult times. Given that war had actually begun just days before, uniting to convey this message of peace seemed more crucial than ever. As I stood at my post near the sound booth, I was grateful to Ian for having had the leadership and vision to initiate the event. The Peace Song Circle had already created an enormous impact on my life; I just hoped it would have an equally powerful effect on everyone gathered to share in it.

As the first choir broke into song with, “All Within Me Peaceful,” the atmosphere began to transform. With each graceful sway of their arms, the accompanying dancers cast a calming spell over everyone. In turn, each performing group shared its unique talents and message with the audience. Whether it was through the middle-eastern flavor of the music of Jeanette de Nazareth, the spirited rhythms of the Ottawa Community Gospel Choir, the aggressive guitar riffs of the local rock group, Nir Blue, or the gentle folk melodies of the Oddities, the call for peace was strong and consistent. Throughout the two hours, children in the crowd danced happily as their parents joined in the singing, lending further strength to our call for peace and attesting to the healing energy that had been generated.

During the final performance, it dawned on me that the light rain was appropriate for the occasion. The sky seemed to be weeping tears of joy on the colorful array of umbrellas assembled, thankful for the peace offering we had just made. I too shed a joyful tear, grateful that, despite my fears and anxieties, everything had run so smoothly and that I had been able to contribute to this special event. I surrendered to the beauty of the moment. And in that moment, I found peace.

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A one-hour documentary of the Peace Song Circle is available, please contact: kburton@cyberus.ca.

Trisha Diduch practices with the Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. After four months of unemployment, Tricia is now happily working in Ottawa’s tourism industry.

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Reflections of a Quaker Woman of Color

By Valerie Brown Growing up on the streets of New York City, I learned the rules of engagement at an early age, I learned to live tough and play even tougher. Violence, distrust, and anger hung around my neighborhood like the Mister Softee truck on a warm summer day.

Mindfulness and awareness were as foreign to me as an uncharted journey to a distant pole.  I was schooled in street rhythms, and learned that the world was unsafe, hostile, and filled with people who could not be trusted. Reflecting back, I realize that these feelings were rooted in a lack of safety and need for protection which stayed with me into adulthood, becoming habits of the heart, hardening my personality. I avoided intimacy, pushing people away like bits of uneaten food on the side of my plate.

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The journey of dismantling this constructed self, discovering and reconstructing my authentic self that is not limited by fear has been my spiritual awakening.

The desire to develop a spiritual life was submerged in the will to succeed, to rise above my single-parent upbringing and ghetto surroundings. I yearned for success, believing that a good education, a good job, and money could immunize me from the effects of my childhood. I surrendered to this pursuit.  In my training to become an attorney, stress, anxiety, competition, and hard-driving ambition were the constructs of my daily life. I reinforced childhood patterns of distrust by relying heavily on the words of legal contracts. My distrust of others gave me permission to compete fiercely at all costs. I was immersed in doing, achieving, and analyzing instead of being. Deeper still, I had lost connection with my body, emotions, spirit and soul, and with my feminine energy—nurturance, awareness, intuition, creativity, sensitivity, receptivity, and emotionalism. I was further wounded by a failed, brief marriage and a string of broken relationships that cut into me the way a river cuts into a mountainside.

The healing began after my divorce and hospitalization with a serious illness. Only then did I stop and begin to ask questions and listen for the answers deep within me.

Can I surrender to God’s will? Are the loses, the hurts all part of my prayer? Can trust in myself and others grow in me? What are the true longings of my heart?

The way to an open heart began when I stumbled upon a meditation center near my home. I decided to try meditation, and immediately realized how difficult it was for me to quiet my mind. At first, I saw the practice of meditation as a challenge, as something to conquer. Slowly, with silence as my open door, I passed through it to find my authentic self that cannot be defined by name, color of skin, hair texture, height, or weight. This journey has been punctuated by deep longings and uncertainty, as well as clarity and peace of mind. At first when I attended mindfulness retreats and sitting practice, I was aware that I was often the only person of color. I felt isolated. With time, I realized that to focus on the differences between myself and others would reinforce separation. During retreats, in listening and sharing stories of life journeys, I released the grip of judgment and entered the field of acceptance. I made a conscious effort to surrender the outcome of my practice, be with the uncertainty, and make friends with my distrust, which is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes. I read Thay’s teachings, attended his retreats and days of mindfulness and developed a daily home practice and weekly sitting practice with my Sangha and a meditation teacher.  Gradually, my heart made tough as day-old bread by not enough loving and not enough laughter, softened. Breathing deeply, I know that emotions like anger and distrust come, stay awhile and go away.

Several years ago, through a chance encounter with a Quaker woman, I found the Society of Friends, which too has strengthened my mindfulness practice. While meeting for worship is not sitting practice, the conscious act of noticing my breath, resting in awareness of myself and others during meeting, the fellowship of gathering to worship, and sharing in vocal ministry when feeling the call of God, have deepened my meditation practice. At meeting, we sit in silence—moment to moment, gathered together to worship the Inner Light, listening to the “still, small voice within,” each in our own way.

On this sunny winter’s day, inside the meetinghouse, lit only by the light of the winter sun and the glow from the fireplace, ten or more people sit silently in simple, unpainted wooden pews. I take my seat as others come in until each pew is filled. Sitting in silent ministry, I know the seeds of mindfulness are being watered. As silence deepens, a warm glow envelops my body, heart, and mind, and I rest in deep awareness.

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Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, practices with Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA. She is an attorney and certified Kundalini yoga teacher, leading retreats in the northeast. She was recently ordained into the Order of Interbeing at the Stonehill College retreat.

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From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had flak jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis