injustice

Truthful, Loving Speech

By Stephen Hyde One of the most helpful teachings I have learned from Thich Nhat Hanh is that sometimes the best expression of our practice is a formless one. This encouragement to be formless made all the difference in my ability to sustain a practice within my home and family at a time when more overt expression would only have served to divide us. By taking practice underground, I was able to sustain it through some lean, Sangha-less years. I was able to weave my practice in a seamless and natural way into the evolving fabric of family life and relationship. Keeping the practice largely formless allowed my family to evolve our own practice---one "native to the grain" as Robert Frost would say-a practice that is genuine and loving, not just something extra in our lives. Loving speech has been a mainstay of this formless practice. In a formless world, it is often the whole of practice.

Loving speech is not just the words we speak or refrain from speaking. It is the reflection and habit of our mind, the nurturing silence we embody. Loving speech is the spirit of great generosity and compassion with which we listen to our world, the tender eyes with which we look upon our world, and our deep commitment to non-harming.

I have learned much about loving speech from the silence of my daughter. At the age of 18, she has an expressive vocabulary of perhaps 50 words, more than half of which are unintelligible to the untrained ear. When she is really ripped at me, the nastiest, most cutting word that she can hurl at me is a garbled version of "bathroom"! It is as close to cussing me out as she comes. For her well-being, I have to be ready to hear the whole of "bathroom"-both what is said and what is unsaid, what for her is forever unsayable.

On the other hand, when she is delighted, at one with this background of stillness, at peace with her world, she is apt to hug me or stroke my face gently with soft, twisted fingers and utter: "Minge, minge!" I don't know if there is an adequate translation for it. "Minge" is just the tenderest, most heartfelt, and most comforting thing that she can say. Her term of greatest endearment, her highest expression of complete and abiding love-reserved for the most special moments-is "Minge, beejo!" Again, I can't say what it means, only that it is truly transformative to be so wholeheartedly embraced by that sound when she speaks it. It is a kind of blessing, like hearing the name of Avalokiteshvara invoked on one's behalf. It is a healing sound, and her speaking it'is a healing action. The freshness of her approach to language, her capacity to speak her whole being so completely, her trust in the sound-however mangled to the indiscriminate ear-to carry and convey the true sense of her heart invites me always to stay open to the true nature of loving speech-both as I continue to learn how to listen for it and how to offer it to my world.

My daughter has incredible radar for angry or unskillful speech. She makes no pretense of being untouched by harsh speech; she doesn't put up a facade and pretend to be unaffected. She collapses into a puddle on the ground, wherever she is-whether she is the object of the speech or an innocent bystander: In this, she reminds us that unmindful speech is not an individual matter, that unskillful words travel to the furthest reaches of our families, our communities, and the cosmos.

Within my family and my community, I have worked to refrain from uttering words that cause division and discord and have seen how helpful that can be. However, sometimes what I refrain from uttering is what I believe to be the truth. It is a delicate point of balance, that, at times, leaves truth feeling a little buried.

Loving speech is not always truthful nor is truthful speech always loving. And sometimes silence can hold truth and love far better than speech, better than speaking out about a perceived injustice (especially when I don't check to make sure my perception is accurate.) The risk I run by not speaking out is encouraging a tacit kind of censorship: that harmony in the family or community be seen as more important than speaking out about injustices. I have not yet found an easy answer. Sometimes the answer seems to be more truth, sometimes more words of support and confidence, sometimes greater silence. But I sense the potential for grave danger if truth is too often superseded by the desire for harmony and if the appearance of harmony is valued more than acknowledging and healing the many injustices-intentional and unintentional-that arise out of a shared life.

Perhaps in the practice of truthful and loving speech I must be willing to accept the necessary wounding or rending of family or community as the way that leads to deeper integration and healing, just as, in our determination not to kill or to let others kill, we understand that in order to live, we must kill. And in the course of this living, we must yield everything to our essential and dynamic relationship with life in this moment, accepting with true humility the very wound of life itself-the wonder, the terror, the beauty, the pain, the awe, and the responsibility, the inescapable responsibility we bear for nurturing all things, all beings, all unfolding.

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Stephen Hyde, True Jewel of Goodness, lives with his family in Pownal, Maine.

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Shoes in the Dharma Hall

By Carolyn White Before I was a year old, I contracted polio. Now I am fifty-nine and wear two different-sized shoes, which are clunky, lace up, and have small heels. These shoes are my Dharma sisters. Without them I cannot walk.

Entering a Dharma hall requires skill. Amid the shoes left outside, I clear a space to balance while I change into indoor shoes, which are also clunky and must be laced up. Then I bow to the Buddha and, walking mindfully so as not to clomp on the wooden floor, I find a cushion. I slip my shoes into a Kuan Yin bag and I meditate.

The Practice of Receiving

Last summer I went to Plum Village for the Breath of the Buddha retreat. I let the monastics know of my need to wear shoes in the Dharma hall so no one would be offended. And I brought hiking poles because the slow pace of outdoor walking meditation can be tricky. I was very happy.

I’m not sure what my fellow retreatants saw, but bodhicitta was aroused in many. People offered me rides to the Dharma hall. Others wanted to help me walk. Baffled, I called my husband in the States: what do you do when people offer you too much help? He said: sometimes you have to be generous and accept it.

So I did. I put the poles away and let myself be helped. As frail older women and handsome young men took my arm, I watched my protesting: I’m perfectly fit, I’m a hiker, I know how to take care of myself; besides I am the one who helps, the one who cares for others. Unable to say what was too much or too little help, I kept silent and accepted what was given.

A young bodhisattva magically appeared at rough spots in the path, took my hand, and kept me stable. One day he walked me to the Dharma hall and seeing my shoelace untied, he kneeled.

No, stop! I wanted to protest, I can tie my own shoes! But I let him. Like Christ washing the feet of the leper, he tied my shoe. Never have I experienced such reverence. To be cared for by others — to yield to kindness — is not easy. But I am learning. I would like to thank my shoe-tying bodhisattva and all the other dear retreatants for three weeks of perfect care.

The Front of the Dharma Bus

Earlier this year I went to Deer Park for the end of the winter retreat. As usual, I told the monastics of my need to wear shoes in the Dharma hall. Because it was difficult to carry the indoor shoes upand downhill (and sometimes I forget), I left them in my Kuan Yin bag at the Dharma hall entry.

On my third day a sweet Vietnamese nun pointed at my shoes and asked me to sit in the back of the Dharma hall. She smiled and explained: This is our culture.

Not until I was sitting at a happiness meeting did her words sink in. I started to cry and left the Dharma hall.

I sat outside on a bench. This is my culture, too, I protested, thinking of Rosa Parks. I wanted to tell a monastic my suffering or to clomp loudly in the Dharma hall and sit in the front row.

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Instead I watched my mind. I watched it clamor, wanting to right injustice. I watched it a long time, until my heart cracked open for African-Americans and Native Americans and my own Jewish ancestors who were denied full access to our beautiful world.

For days I said nothing to others but made up walking gathas:

May all living beings walk freely on the earth. May all walk gracefully. May all practitioners — frail or strong, tall or short, big or small — sit in the front of the Dharma bus.

Deer Park is my home, as is Plum Village. They are where I belong — in a fourfold community of practitioners who are always learning, growing, and changing. I have not yet thanked the sister for helping me explore inclusiveness. Someday I will.

Carolyn White, Wise Speech of the Heart, practices in Michigan with the Lansing Area Mindfulness Community. She wrote this essay at the suggestion of some sisters at Deer Park in the hope that it will stimulate discussion on inclusiveness.

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Spanning a Bridge

For Love to Deepen By Sister Dang Nghiem

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During Thich Nhat Hanh’s trip to Vietnam in early 2007, several Great Requiem Ceremonies were held, to help heal the wounds of war. Here, Sister Dang Nghiem continues her recollections of those powerful events and the deep transformation she experienced. (See part one of her article in the Autumn 2007 issue).

Each day when a ceremony began, the monastic Sangha would do walking meditation from outside the ancestral hall to the front courtyard, then to the main hall of Temple Vinh Nghiem (Adornment with Eternity). Sixty young monks from Prajna Temple walked in front, holding up ceremonial instruments, followed by the Chanting Master of Ceremony (Venerable Le Trang), Thay, the assisting chanting monks, the musicians, the high venerables, and over two hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, Prajna, and Tu Hieu.

Thousands of people watched the procession in complete silence and respect. Most ceremonies took place in the main hall, and lay people could only observe them by looking in or by watching two big screens in the courtyard. Still, everyone participated wholeheartedly and offered up their concentrated energies to the souls of the departed. Some people had wondered why Thay, a Zen master, would have these ceremonies performed in the Vajrayana (Tantric) tradition. Suddenly, I appreciated the wonderful meaning of ‘‘skillful means.’’ With certainty, thousands of beginners like me would not be able to meditate and concentrate their minds continuously for three days, but they could more easily follow these Tantric ceremonies and benefit from them.

I Stand Still

My thorax feels like a heavy cement block. The in-breaths and out-breaths are superficial and laborious. I intentionally make my abdomen rise and fall, but oxygen seems not to have enough space to enter the lower parts of the lungs. Strange, I had assisted in surgical procedures that were eight to ten hours long when I did have back pain and abdominal pain, but I never experienced chest pain like this. I relax my shoulders and arms, and I continue to follow my breathing.

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The powerful chanting of the monks stirs my deep consciousness: I see thousands of skeleton figures standing on the water and heading towards the shore without moving. The immense ocean is without waves. Everything about those skeletons and about the space around them is gray and foggy. Suddenly, I realize that I saw these images fifteen years ago, when I was still a medical student at UCSF. There were afternoons when I wandered aimlessly along the beach. I stood watching those gray skeleton figures, not knowing how they were related to me and to the pervasive sadness always haunting me. I had written about them in a poem, titled “Dreams”:

…These days my limbs guide me near the waters. The sky is gray. Still, the waves are grayer. I see stick figures through the mist. Forever claimed by the sea, They walk without moving. Something whispers: ‘‘Walk straight. Walk straight.’’ My heart pulsates, but I am drawn to silence.

I also see people falling down in an open field; I see little children screaming wide-mouthed and lying exhausted on their mothers’ corpses; I see a naked woman curling up in a bush; I see layers of people stacked on each other. I see.

I continue to follow my breathing. I did not know that these images and the innumerable possible deaths were stored in my consciousness. Everything I had ever seen, heard, and perceived; everything my parents, ancestors and society had ever seen, heard, and perceived — they all have been imprinted in my mind. Tears stream down. Sweat oozes in big droplets, even from places I had not known could perspire. My whole body seems to be excreting, and purifying.

For My Mother in Me

I stand still. So that the young girl in my mother can be absolved from injustice. That young girl had left her arid homeland Quang Ngai to go to Saigon for work. She became a maid, and she saved every penny to send home to her mother. Each night, the owner came to her little corner at the back of the house. She curled up under her bamboo bed, but he would not let her be. He used a broom to poke her and get her out. The young girl wandered on the street; her education was minimal, she had no skills, and circumstances pushed her as they had pushed countless young girls in war time. She worked for American soldiers, and she gave birth to my brother and me — Amerasian children who did not know their fathers’ faces. Then she became mistress to a rich old man, in order to take care of her children and relatives.

There were times when my mother would yell at me and beat me up as if I were her enemy. Afterwards, while I was sleeping, she would rub green oil on my bruises and cry. Her dream was to go to America, and all she thought about was leaving. One day in May 1980, my mother went to the market for work as usual, but she never came back. She disappeared at the age of thirty-six. I was only twelve. I remember squatting on the toilet seat, thinking: “Good, from now on she will not abuse me anymore!”

For My Father in My Brother

I stand still. So that the father inside my brother can be absolved from injustice. My brother was born with blond hair and fair skin. He was so beautiful that I used to wrap the embroidered tablecloth around his face and body. He looked like a princess and I carried him on my hip everywhere. Yet children in the neighborhood yelled at him, ‘‘Amerasian with twelve butt holes!’’ They spit on him; they made him the American prisoner in their war games. Sending him to the United States was like severing her own intestines, but my grandmother was well aware that if my brother had remained in Vietnam, he would be teased and shamed and exploited his whole life.

When he got to the United States, children in school yelled at him, ‘‘V.C. go home!’’ because he did not speak any English. Like a wounded animal, my brother lashed out in fury and beat up those kids with all his might. The psychologist diagnosed him as having ‘‘uncontrolled extreme anger.’’ The United States government paid money to put my brother in a rehabilitation center for rich kids who had problems with drug addiction, gang, and other violence. My brother is thirty-five years old now, and he is built like a football player. In his house, there are over sixty guns of different sizes; stacks of bullets lie all over the room. He is a licensed gun dealer. In his house, there are over a hundred videos about the Vietnam War and other violent crimes. My brother cannot sleep without the television on all night. His eyes are gentle and bright, and he smiles often. Yet, my brother’s mind has a dark side, which continues to damage and torment him.

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For My Uncles

I stand still. So that my uncles can be absolved from injustice. My eldest uncle (Uncle Number Two) ran away from home to the North to become a Communist. Every so often, soldiers of the [South] Vietnam Republic would call my grandmother to their post, beating her and harassing her about my uncle. After the fall of Vietnam Republic in 1975, my uncle returned to look for his mother and siblings. He brought with him a white pillowcase with red words ‘‘Returning to Motherland”; he had embroidered it while he was serving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. My uncle enthusiastically took my grandmother to the North to meet his wife and three children. However, he died within six months. Years of suffering from malnutrition, bouts of malaria, tons of bombs and chemical warfare had damaged his heart, lungs, liver, and intestines. My grandmother had to return to the South alone, too stunned to cry.

My youngest uncle (Uncle Number Six) ran away from home to go to Saigon when he was thirteen years old. Not being able to find my mother, he lived on the streets, polishing shoes, stealing things, involved in reckless sexual activities, and later he joined the Vietnam Republic Army. After the fall of [South] Vietnam, my mother sent him to a distant farmland, so that he could avoid the communist rehabilitation camp. He got involved in drinking and womanizing again. The neighbors were angry, and they turned him in to the police. My uncle escaped from prison, swimming over twenty-five kilometers along the river to reach my grandmother’s house. My uncle died before he turned fifty-five. Cigarettes, liquor, and women had drained all of his life energy.

For All the Dead

And I stand still. So that the Vows to the Dead and the compassionate energy of the Three Jewels can absolve injustice for all my people – the people with names but bodies unfound, and the people with bodies but names untraceable. Dying in injustice, and living in repression. Whether or not living people like me are aware, the injustice endured by the dead continues to be choked and repressed in our consciousness. Sometimes we can only breathe at the neck or chest level; our bodies are tense and restless. Sometimes we feel stressed and agitated. We do not understand at times why we think, speak, and behave so negatively and cynically. The undercurrents from countless generations, although invisible, still ravage our lives. Recognizing these forces and calling them by their true names is to span a bridge into the deep consciousness, so that the dead in the living can live with lightness, and so that the living in the dead can truly live.

Tears stream down, but I do not suffer. I give thanks to Thay. He was able to untie the knots in himself, so that today he can establish Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All People and to Untie the Knots of Injustice in them – creating the favorable conditions for his disciples and his people to uproot and remove these deep internal formations.

mb48-Spanning6Sister Dang Nghiem currently lives at Deer Park Monastery; before she became a nun she was a medical doctor.

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