So many thoughts and ideasattachments and desires So many expectations judgments and opinions Must give way to unattached mind immersed in eternal now Filled up with original silence.
Olgierd Dilis Warsaw, Poland
So many thoughts and ideasattachments and desires So many expectations judgments and opinions Must give way to unattached mind immersed in eternal now Filled up with original silence.
Olgierd Dilis Warsaw, Poland
By Carole Melkonian On November 21, four American veterans of the Vietnam War—Jim Janko, Ted Sexhauer, Jerry Crawford, and Dan Thompson—and Earll and Maxine Hong Kingston arrived at Plum Village. This symbolic return to a Vietnamese Buddhist village in the Dordogne region of France, was the conclusion of a three-year Mindfulness and Writing Workshop for veterans led by Maxine.
After the long train ride from Paris, on a sunny, windy autumn afternoon, the group arrived and were warmly greeted by the whole community. A small tea meditation was offered by Brother Sariputra and Sister Chan Khong. After dinner, the veterans introduced themselves to the community. Early the next morning the veterans participated in the recitation of the Five Wonderful Precepts. This ceremony gave them the opportunity to begin anew, using the precepts as guidelines for living peacefully.
Later that day, Sr. Chan Khong, Maxine, and the veterans met to explore ways of healing the wounds from their war experience. Sr. Chan Khong recounted a story of the pain experienced during the war when she held in her arms a young child covered with blood. "Many years later, in 1993,1Iwas able to release this pain. While walking in the streets of Florence, church bells would ring from time to time helping me live fully and deeply the present moment. Slowly, my mind became concentrated. I saw the street vendors selling postcards, the pigeons, the children playing in the streets, and myself as one. There was no distinction between Italians, French, or Vietnamese, between Christians and Buddhists. When I entered a Catholic cathedral, I really felt I was home. All the discriminating concepts and notions about self and nonself, Buddhism and Christianity disappeared. Suddenly, looking at the stained-glass windows with images of angels on them, I saw that the smile on the angel's face was the smile of the dead child I held in my arms so many years ago. It was the smile of liberation. There is no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We are all here in this wonderful reality."
Moved by this story, Jerry Crawford spoke of his experience with a Vietnamese woman guerilla seriously wounded and slowly dying in front of him. He took the hammock that belonged to her back to the United States and kept it for 25 years as a constant reminder of this woman's death. In 1991, Jerry attended a retreat for veterans which Thay led at Omega Institute in upstate New York. From the many group discussions and exercises for veterans, he was able to release this pain by burning the hammock in a bonfire on the last night of the retreat as part of a "letting go ceremony," where veterans wrote down and burned what they wanted to release in order to heal the wounds they suffered from the war.
On Thanksgiving Day, Thay gave a Dharma talk on not running away from our home which only exists in the present moment. That afternoon, Thay and Sr. Chan Khong met with the veterans. Sr. Chan Khong told the story of Angulimala, a murderer who became a monk. Tea, prepared by Thay' s gentle attendant, was passed to participants, including the film crew. The interview continued with a question from Jim: "Regarding your talk this morning about not running away and returning home, before I went to Vietnam, I felt a lot of pride in the democratic process in the United States. As a medic in Vietnam, I saw indescribable suffering of both people and land. Returning to the United States, I felt stripped from my culture. I feel that no connection can nourish a relationship between me and my culture. The only good thing that came from my Vietnam War experience was that it led me to a deep spiritual home. However, that took many years. Is there anything in the American culture that can truly nourish people?—anything that is not just an advertisement, another plug for materialism?"
Sr. Chan Khong: There are hidden treasures in America. Many groups of people there have learned to respect people and the earth. There are more groups forming in America to support people who practice mindfulness, and learn of other spiritual traditions than in any other country.
Maxine: We are the product of America! One thing our country has given us is the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment of freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, I take as a precept. Practicing freedom of speech—practicing assembling— is the same as bringing the Sangha together.
Sr. Chan Khong: In countries like Vietnam or China, you do not have the liberty to assemble in large groups. You would be imprisoned.
Jim: I agree. Still, the U.S. is a powerful cause of suffering in many other parts of the world.
Thay: The American culture is an open society. It is open to other influences. It is not old yet so it can renew itself easier than other societies. Suffering is important. If we look deeply into the suffering, it will lead us to wisdom and compassion. If Americans know how to look deeply at suffering, they will understand the roots to stop suffering in America and in other countries.
There is a growing consciousness among Americans about what they are consuming. They know that certain foods cause suffering to their bodies and consciousness. Tofu is a protein that is far safer than protein from meat. It is easier to digest, and the making of tofu is less damaging to the environment. Tofu is much easier to find in America than in France. The consumption of alcohol has caused many families to be broken. Young people suffer because of this. Sexual misbehavior has destroyed many families and society, too. To protect ourselves and our families, we have to practice the third precept. We know this. We have to practice as a society, as a nation. By doing so, other nations will benefit from ourpractice. Consume less meat and alcohol, and take care of your families. All the jewels are buried in your tradition. Go back and rediscover them. You'll bring happiness to yourself and to other people.
Jerry: I have trouble being calm when chaos is going on in my head. Although I try to be mindful, I have trouble doing so. Today, during walking meditation I heard gunshots from hunters in the area and it immediately brought back memories from the war. I felt angry and afraid.
Thay: Don't try so hard to be mindful. Just be in touch with what is around you and you will be healed. Look at the people around you who are able to smile and walk calmly. If you do this you will have peace and joy. Just be yourself. Don' t try too hard. Just allow yourself to be.
Sr. Chan Khong: When fear arises, smile to it and say, "Hello, fear. The gunshots are from hunters. We are not in Vietnam anymore, we are in France. We are in Plum Village."
Ted: I have a similar problem with noises. As a medic, when I heard a loud noise I had to stay in control. Now when I hear a loud noise, I still maintain control but afterward I feel angry.
Sr. Chan Khong: Still we must say hello to the anger. We have to develop the habit of saying hello to fear or anger when it arises in order to be free from it. It may be also useful to talk to the brothers and sisters who are here with you. Sometimes being deeply heard by others can help you let go of your suffering.
Thay: Sometimes we don't need to suffer but we are attached to it. There is a garden with many beautiful trees and flowers. One of the trees is dying. You cry over that one and ignore all the others. You are unable to enjoy the beauty of the other trees. It's the same situation. You are walking with us here in Plum Village. We are supposed to be one body making peaceful steps on Mother Earth. The hunters' guns can touch seeds of suffering in you and many friends around you. But it is important to say, "I am walking with many friends in Plum Village." However, you may want to imprison yourself in the memory of the past, but sticking to your suffering is not good for yourself and is not good for humanity. Suffering is not enough. We can learn a lot from suffering, but life has many wonderful things too. Don't make the dying tree the only reality.
You are a veteran, but you are more than a veteran. All of us are veterans, both Vietnamese and Americans. We have suffered. I have to be able to not only help myself, but also my sisters, brothers, children, society. You cannot imprison yourself in your own suffering. You have to transform it.
Ted: It's true what you're saying about hanging on to suffering. Yet I believe that if I pretend that my experiences of suffering do not exist, they will come around and surface in another way. We are taught by psychotherapists to look at our suffering.
Sr. Chan Khong: Observing your fear is good to do. We cannot pretend that the fear is not in us. But to only observe the fear is not enough. Practice seeing the joy that arises in each moment, too. Today you are with Thay and many friends in Plum Village. Be aware of this, and of the fact that you are still alive, in good health, with good friends, and that you are able to be here. Maxine has spent a lot of energy on this project. Years ago, she spoke to me about this dream of bringing veterans to Plum Village. She wondered how she could realize this dream. B ei ng aware that you are here as a miracle is enough to make us all very happy.
Thay: When I talk about the garden, I recognize that the tree is dying in my garden. I also see the many nonsuffering elements that are in the garden. If you can see the entire garden, the suffering and the nonsuffering elements, your suffering will be transformed.
During the course of the interview, Thay asked Maxine to sing a song. She refused at first, laughing and denying her ability to sing. Then she reconsidered and said, "With mindful breathing, anything is possible." She then sang "Amazing Grace," with the veterans singing along in support.
Maxine: Today is Thanksgiving, and I feel thankful for you, Thay, and for Plum Village, and your welcoming us here. The first day our group arrived, one nun greeted us at the train station, saying, "Let's go home." Another nun greeted us in the Lower Hamlet saying, "Welcome home."
In America, many veterans are homeless, even the ones living in a house. I am very happy to bring these veterans to a place where they can find home both in a place and a spirit.
Order member Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is spending the winter in Plum Village. Traveling with the veterans was a BBC crew thatfilmedthe veterans' "return " to Plum Village as part of a documentary on journeys to be aired on British television in April 1996. They filmed Thdy's talks and interviewed Sr. Chan Khong about the history of Plum Village, her humanitarian work during the Vietnam War, and her work today to help people heal from the wounds of war.
By Brother Ivar Like many of us, there are times when I wish I had a little more control over a situation. I always thought I had a lot of patience, but now I am finding out what a shallow base that patience had, because the condition for it was many years of living as a bachelor. The only being that I had to agree with was a fairly lovable dog. Now, living in the context of a diverse, multicultural community at Plum Village, it sometimes seems my capacity to let go is stretched to the breaking point. And that is just the point, because what is breaking is my resistance to accepting things as they are, my ego's will to have control over things.
In October, Thay spoke about cows, not the ones wandering the streets of Calcutta, but the ones wandering the pathways of our mind which we sometimes call our "sacred cows." He suggested that we look into ourselves to find out what our sacred cow is-a responsibility, an expectation, a compelling idea, a motivating force, a condition we think our happiness is contingent upon but which may be an obstacle to our happiness and take our freedom away if we let it. Most of us probably have these cows at the feeding troughs of our mind, feeding on our freedom.
The fattest cow I have is my resistance to accepting things as they are. This acceptance is much different from the resignation for which some might mistake it. Now, when I accept conditions, I am letting go of my desire to control events that I have no need or ability to control. My perception had been that controlling certain events would make me happy. As Thay has said, in 60, 100, or 300 years, the conditions I think are so important will amount to a hill of beans. I'm also realizing how requiring these conditions for my happiness creates a prison of my own making and causes my mind to be at war with itself. As I let go of these false conditions for my happiness, I simultaneously try to take refuge in "what's not wrong" as Thay has suggested. I try to see "the beautiful and wholesome things in the environment, breathe the fresh air, and enjoy the miracle of walking on this earth." This has been a true source of liberation and joy for me.
This is not a docile acceptance of absolutely everything life puts on my plate. As the newly revised Ninth Mindfulness Training suggests, "We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten our safety." But how does one know when to come forward and when to step aside, when to speak out and when to bow your head and let the universe unfold, however it may? Robert Aitken Roshi and Brother David Steindl-Rast coauthored a delightful book called The Ground We Share. In it, they touch on this question quite eloquently. Aitken Roshi suggested looking at the word "willful" as "full of will. In other words, full of my own will, full of myself." Brother David writes that he likes "to make a distinction between one's own will and self-will. The only power that can overcome self-will is one's own will. Our own will is to be built up and made strong. It is our willingness, not our willfulness, that we want to cultivate through practice." When we have enough clarity to listen and look at a situation with the ears and eyes of our heart, then we can approach the situation with compassion instead of adversity, and have a clearer understanding of an appropriate course of action.
My practice here at Plum Village has helped me experience the distinction that Brother David is talking about and begin to free myself from my will's agenda so I can be available for my "appointment with life." In the meantime, when I occasionally open the gate to let the cow out of that pasture in my mind, I can smile and know that everything will be okay as long as I give life permission to live me.
Brother Ivar, Phap Tri, lives in Plum Village. He was ordained as a monk in 1996.
By Jack Lawlor If we reflect on the life story of the Buddha, we see that the Buddha sank deep and broad roots in community, both before and after his enlightenment. His success at Sangha building was phenomenal. He brought together people from every level of a highly stratified society-kings and queens, wealthy merchants, warriors, farmers, prostitutes, the poor, families attempting to live moral and religious lives, the widowed, parents distraught at the loss of a child, religious seekers, criminals, and those lusting after power and wealth. People who ordinarily would have nothing to do with one another came together to form a healthy practice community. The Buddha was always looking and listening intently, and learning from others.
As we read the story of the Buddha, we see that one cannot go far on the path of spiritual practice without the support of good friends. Although the Buddha is usually depicted at the moment of his enlightenment alone beneath the Bo tree, it might be more accurate to show him surrounded by all those who contributed to his enlightenment: his father with one-pointed sense of purpose and service, his teachers who candidly and sincerely offered what they could, and his five friends who encouraged and challenged him along the path. Viewed in this way, the Buddha's enlightenment is a collective achievement, the result of the efforts of many.
In Buddhism there is a term for this kind of spiritual friendship, kalyana mitra, or "good friend." Being present, looking and listening deeply, is at the foundation of any spiritual friendship. When we become the spiritual friend of another, we become a link in a long interdependent chain going back to the friendships that supported the Buddha himself. They remain alive and present in us. Being a kalyana mitra means being totally attentive to the needs of the person we are with. When we practice in this way, profound compassion arises.
In the Four Exertions of Buddhism, a practitioner strives to prevent the arising of unwholesome mental states, to eradicate unwholesome states that have already arisen, to develop unarisen wholesome mental states, and to maintain arisen wholesome mental states. Good spiritual friends can do the same for one another. We bring out the best in each other by practicing Right Speech consistently and lovingly, and by pursuing healthy pastimes that do not lead to craving or lust We each have Buddha nature, the ability to come into contact not only with what is wrong, but what is soothing and supportive in our environment. Some people have not had the opportunity to get in touch with this ability, but a good spiritual friend can lead them to a direct experience of it. In Buddhism, the preeminent skillful means for making this discovery are the mindfulness practices of sitting and walking meditation. Good spiritual friends introduce their friends to these simple practices. Many spiritual benefits follow from this.
If a healthy Sangha is available, our first exposure to the calm of meditation can be as memorable as a first love. Our first insights into the needs of others, borne of meditation, can be a revelation. When we seek refuge in our local Sangha and practice together, we can transform the wobbly way we sometimes feel into calm, centeredness, peace, and a quiet spiritual resolve.
Although we need the support of others, we may resist the idea of practicing together in a group for many reasons. We prefer our privacy. The intimacy of a small Sangha may frighten us. We may fear that it will become cliquish or political. Many of us .have witnessed arguments in the churches or synagogues we left behind, and we know that there is nothing worse than the kind of strife that arises in religious or charitable organizations.
Within the Buddhist community, there have been teachers culpable of sexual abuse, substance abuse, and questionable financial practices. There are frequently interpersonal disputes over personality differences, power, or which way the group should be "led." We sometimes think that a legalistic solution or bylaw provision can prevent or solve these problems. But I have found that it is often misleading to rely much on the written form of an organization. If you were to read the constitution of many nations, you would be quite impressed by their idealism and concern for society and the rights of its citizens. But the reality can be much different. So while words and procedures may be helpful, they are not enough. A healthy Sangha is not a matter of words or a particular structure or form, but practice.
When we concentrate on sitting and walking meditation, the incorporation of gathas into our daily life, and regular attendance and participation with the Sangha, our practice deepens and we make a healthy Sangha possible. Our practice transforms the Sangha in this way, not through words and form.
When Thay urges us to "look with Sangha eyes," he is asking us to look at the needs of the collective practice body. When we practice as a healthy Sangha, we find it easier to let go of the view of self and join others in practicing mindfulness and insight. We not only have to let go of our view of self, we also have to let go of some of our favorite baggage-our fixed ideas, including those about what the Sangha should be like. Nirvana is sometimes described as the absence of greed, anger, and delusion. Concepts of happiness, of "what is good for me" and "what is good for the Sangha" can limit our flexibility and isolate us from others, because we are not really in contact with them or the present moment. Instead, we are judging, weighing, and measuring what seems to be going on in comparison to our ideal of a perfect Sangha.
We should not leave a Sangha merely because it uses a few skillful means that do not appeal to us. We should be grateful to be exposed to new forms of practice from time to time, whether it is a new breathing exercise, the use of mindfulness verses in conjunction with conscious breathing, or sutra or precept recitation. A practice that does not appeal to us today may be of great help in the future, for we change over time, and our circumstances change.
In Buddhism, concepts that bind us are called "fetters." In contrast, the Diamond Sutra declares, "Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free of ideas." Some years ago, one of our Sangha members proposed an invention similar to the metal detectors at airports. A "fetter detector" could be conveniently placed at the entrance to Dharma discussion groups. People would be invited to leave their prejudices, preconceptions, and mental formations at the door. If they forget, the fetter detector will go off. If they choose to bring their fetters into the Dharma discussion, at least they will be aware that they are carrying this extra baggage.
There are certainly times when we don't feel ourselves, and may not feel like meeting with spiritual friends. But the happiness of a healthy Sangha of spiritual friends is contagious. The familiar faces, the glow of candles, the chanting-all are like bread crumbs leading us back to the miracle of mindfulness. We are invited to come to the S~ngha with an open mind and heart. When we practice in thiS way, we practice not only for ourselves, but for one another, much as the Buddha did.
Jack Lawlor, True Direction, was ordained as a Dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992. He is a founding member of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha and practices law in Chicago.
A tape set of the Dharma talks on which this article is based is available for $15 (postage included). Checks may be made payable to "The Lakeside Buddha Sangha" and sent to P.o. Box 7067. Evanston, 1L 60201.
By Dennis Bohn It took the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness about a year to develop the document on decision making (see below). Some people were suprised that it took so long. but in retrospect. it surprises me that it happened so quickly. I would like to share some of the issues and difficulties we faced. so that other groups grappling with the same issues may know they are not alone.
In the late spring of 1996. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine proposed increasing the structure of our Sangha. both to provide a way for the community to grow and to share the workload with more people. The result was a series of planning meetings to plot a course for the Sangha. After the second meeting. it became apparent that not only was there disagreement over the direction we should take. but that we needed a process for coming to decisions. Opinions differed on whether a decision-making process was necessary or even desirable. Many of us worried that a voting model of decision making would divide the community. and that a consensus model would open the possibility of a "negative tyranny" by a single individual. There was also concern about how people would feel when the group made a decision with which they strongly disagreed.
At each meeting, the bell-keeper, time-keeper. recorder, and "vibes-watcher" worked together to watch the mood and flow of the meeting. When Susan Spieler, a vibes watcher, sensed deep emotions surrounding the decision-making proposal, she suggested that we schedule a meeting to explore people's feelings and past experiences with groups and decisions. This idea was warmly received and the meeting was larger than most. We learned a lot about one another, and ultimately, I believe this experience allowed us to move ahead with the proposal. As the group leaned toward a consensus style of decision making, we received guidance from Sangha member Ruth Lamborn. She taught us the guiding principle in the consensus model: no one person has all of the truth about an issue.
Instead, we each bring our own very individual lenses, grounded in past experience. Through discussion and listening to other people's truths, we can obtain the clearest truth about an issue. This dovetails beautifully with the notion of Interbeing. While the consensus process can be slow and cumbersome, it is also pragmatic. If one person blocks a decision, others in the group can listen again to their concerns, either amending the proposal to satisfy the objections, clearing up some misunderstanding, or persuading the individual to stand aside. Very rarely will an impasse be reached. We also found two texts useful in our process an article titled "Consensus," by Caroline Estes in The New Catalyst, Spring 1986, and Michael J. Sheeran's book, Beyond Majority Rule.
Personally, I found the meetings difficult and I often had unpleasant feelings when someone disagreed with me. When I sat with them, I realized that I felt attacked by disagreement. I try to resolve these feelings by cultivating compassionate listening. When I look at the person speaking, I remember that they are speaking their truth.
This document has truly evolved with our group. The process guides us back to Buddhist principles, which have been a bell of mindfulness amidst the hurly-burly of our passionate opinions. The openness of our meetings, in which each person has a voice, is balanced by the depth of commitment that someone must demonstrate to block a decision. This proposal also allows people to disagree and then spaciously stand aside, letting the group move ahead. I am grateful that we now have this document as a loving start in the decision-making process, helpill:g us to organize and plot our course without becoming fragmented.
Peace, and good luck if your group is traveling on a similar path.
Dennis Bohn is a member of the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Amy and their dog Lucy.
Proposal for Consensus Process
In our proposals for process and structure in the Community of Mindfulness/NY Metropolitan Area, we consistently return to the spirit of the teachings [of Thich Nhat Hanh].
Part of the process of decision making involves letting go of attachment and preferences.
The process of how we respond when we feel that a decision didn’t go “our way” and our relationship to the mental formations arising from such situations is precisely one of the points of our Sangha practice together.
The spirit of Beginning Anew be built into the planning meeting process as “part of the culture,” for example, at the end of each planning meeting we give time for “flower watering.”
A short quote from Thich Nhat Hanh or “Evoking the Boddhisattvas’ Names” may be read at the beginning of each planning meeting to set the tone.
The intention of this provision is that community decisions not be blocked by a person(s) who does not have significant “investment” in the community or by a person(s) who is not informed about the issues under discussion through their personal presence at recent meetings. In both these instances, the person(s) who does not meet the prerequisites and wishes to take a principled stand against a decision may seek, through compassionate dialogue, to persuade others to his/her point of view. If an individual or individuals who feel strongly about a proposal must be absent from a scheduled Planning Meeting, it is understood that they take responsibility for ensuring presentation of their point of view at the meeting or for finding another way to have decision making tabled on the proposal on which they feel strongly until they can be present.
By Jerry Braza The power and beauty of practicing mindfulness in our day-to-day lives is obvious. It can be a wonderful challenge to incorporate mindfulness into our workplace environments, where the concept may be unfamiliar and individuals find themselves caught up in the demands, changes, relationships, and sometimes depersonalized nature of the space. I would like to offer an approach to mindfulness at work, which incorporates the simple beauty and spirit of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to make them easily applicable to most workplace settings.
Let go of any attachment to one system of working or managing in order to learn and rediscover what is best for everyone.
OPEN YOUR HEART.
Develop sensitivity to and compassion for the difficulties and pain of others. What affects one, affects all.
Eliminate the clutter impacting your body, mind, and spirit.
Holding on to anger, resentment, and negativity leads to personal and professional disharmony, and creates "unfinished business."
The best gift you can give others is your true presence.
Use "mindful breathing" to return to the present moment and regain composure, peace, and understanding.
SPEAK FROM YOUR HEART.
Use truth as the basis of your communication. Become aware of how your words impact the spirit and morale of your colleagues and your organization.
Develop and follow a plan to cultivate personal and organizational health.
BECOME A LOVE-FINDER.
Recognize, respect, and support the good work and accomplishments of others
Continuously examine your daily words and actions to be sure they are in harmony with your core values.
When one person in any working environment chooses to be more mindful, their peaceful and healing presence can empower everyone else.
Jerry Braza, Ph.D., True Great Response, is the author of Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness. He conducts mindfulness workshops for companies and organizations around the United States.
By Svein Myreng and Eevi Beck We sat down to meditate for the first time in weeks, and it felt wonderful. Then we heard small, unhappy noises from our baby boy, Kyrre, crawling on the floor next to us. Seeing Mom and Dad sitting still and withdrawn, was quite scary. Practicing mindfulness with a child is different from what we had expected, and different from all ideas we might have had of practice. It is difficult to find time for yourself, and we often have no time for sitting meditation, or are too tired from waking up repeatedly at night. Yet, we need the support of formal sitting more than ever, and are learning to create time for it.
Kyrre draws us straight into the present moment, time and again. He lives fully in the present, and when he needs us, there is no saying, "I'll just finish reading this article first." We have to let go of what we are doing and be there for him. Of course, sometimes we have to have him wait, such as when we're holding a hot pot, or putting soiled nappies in the wash. On such occasions, Kyrre is usually patient with us, if we don't overdo it. So we try hard to be there without delay if we can, so when we really need to, we can ask him to wait.
The wonderful thing is that he's there for us too, fully present. This has had impacts I (Eevi) could not have imagined. One day I couldn't work out why he didn't settle in at the breast. He was in a good position, and I wanted him to get on with it so I could turn to something else afterwards. Suddenly I saw that his little frowning face was my face. I knew I was sitting still, but when I felt my brow, it was all frowned up. And sure enough, as soon as I returned to my body, relaxed my face and other tensions, his unease evaporated and he sucked happily away. I learned then to check my own agitation whenever he seemed inexplicably restless!
Letting go is, of course, one of the main parts of the practice. Holding on—to desires, fixed ways of doing things, opinions, and our self-image—keeps us unfree. Kyrre helps us let go by demanding our presence, by needing us—and by changing so fast. By the time we both felt confident changing his nappies on a changing table, he soon started moving about so much that we were afraid he'd fall down. In the end he did, and we moved nappy changing onto the floor, and later, to our laps. When Kyrre started crawling, we moved all dangerous objects out of his reach on the floor. Then he started standing, and we had to move the same objects out of his new and higher reach. One day, he could open drawers for the first time. These changes, commonplace for all parents, demand pretty constant mindfulness just to avoid accidents.
A more demanding exercise in letting go comes from seeing the stress caused to Kyrre and to us by filling up our days and weeks with too much programme. Time and again we have to make a conscious effort to protect periods of doing nothing.
The tremendous love that appeared in us when Kyrre was born, is something I (Svein) would never have been able to imagine. The main part of our practice is, in a way, to let this love be expressed. So the challenge isn't so much staying mindful. For this, we now have our own little "Thay" to teach us each moment. The challenge is to find a balance between listening to the toddler's needs and wishes, and retaining a sense of rhythm to the day. This is not always easy.
One thing we have succeeded in, is to make a small ceremony before each meal. We light a candle, and sing a short verse of grace before we start eating. It's wonderful to see Kyrre's face light up in joy when he sees us light the candle or hears the song. Our simple ceremony gives him a sense of security and familiarity. We also use it away from home. On trips, we sing grace quietly before feeding him. Once, Kyrre got upset, when we joined another child in singing a different song: We had not been mindful that we had already lit the candle and were in the middle of his ceremony!
Stopping and looking at a tree is a healing practice during a busy day. Tonight, on a light Norwegian summer evening, we introduced Kyrre more closely to some trees near our block of flats. He was completely absorbed, touching a fir tree and then a birch, looking at an ant, ... ? He was radiant with a deep, quiet joy.
One aspect of our practice is to impart values and practices that are good for him and the world. We use cloth diapers, better for his skin as well as the environment. They take a bit more work, but folding nappies is an excellent meditation practice. The calm rhythm of repeated movements makes a break from rushing between chores. By choosing the convenient solution, disposable nappies, dishwasher, etc., many of us deprive ourselves of calming and centering work. With a baby, this kind of work is extra important. We have chosen not to have a TV set—a decision we are very happy with. We have read enough about the impact of television on the human body and mind to feel that it is a pretty dangerous device. (We think and hope our computer is less so!) Visiting friends or relatives who have a TV, we see Kyrre's attention getting sucked into the TV screen. It's virtually impossible to make him look away from it. We are aware that it may be more difficult to always keep him away from TV, but we hope the good seeds we plant now will have their influence.
We are aware that we are privileged—without money worries (because we try to live simply) and living in Norway, where people work less and get better social support than in many other countries. For instance, we had a one-year parental leave of absence from work, with 80 percent pay, dividing the free time between us.
Another privilege that means a lot to us is having Sangha meetings at our home every Thursday. Eevi and Svein take turns meditating with the others and being with Kyrre, and for the conversation after sitting, Kyrre joins the group. Though the Dharma discussion becomes less concentrated, this is a very joyful time for all, and we feel like Kyrre has an extra family
All the letting go brings lots of old knots to the surface, and challenges our habit energy. To take care of the irritation and selfishness that appear when we are tired from waking up several times a night for several nights running, or when Kyrre poops five minutes after we last changed his nappy and we need to make it for the subway—those are the great challenges of practice. The old "mindfulness virtues" are important: to recognise and acknowledge what you feel and accept it, even when it's irrational anger against your beloved child. Then, it's possible to breathe a few times so the anger can disappear, or ask your spouse for help.
Admitting our weaknesses—without self-judgment— may be most important of all. So many times I (Eevi) feel I am failing—as parent, as practitioner, and as an example for Kyrre. My practice from before he was born taught me the invaluable lesson that such feelings are never the whole picture. Just try again. And this life-transforming lesson is one I have been able to keep practicing. The practice helps us not lose faith when we fail to live up to our ideals. "A Zen master's life is one continuous mistake," said Dogen. A parent's life is, too!
And Kyrre is a perfect mirror. We project onto him reactions that can only stem from ourselves. As he can't talk yet, our communication, though rich, is limited to the concrete and to general moods. We may catch ourselves thinking he's impatient or irritated with us, only to see that it's our own mind, our fears we see. This year has opened our eyes to how habitually we project onto others. When our fear and insecurity doesn't intrude, we see him more clearly as he is.
Living with and through these challenges, we find it's crucial to keep communicating. We do the Beginning Anew ceremony when possible, and try to take time for each other. It is difficult at times, but very important. During this period of too little sitting and too little sleep, some of Thay's practices get a whole new meaning—the Four Mantras, the teachings on Right Speech, and the Five Awarenesses for married people. More than ever before, we feel part of a family lineage, grateful to the previous generations and committed to give Kyrre as much love and joy as possible. This is such a joyful time, taking care of our precious little son and of each other.
Now, Kyrre is even comfortable with us sitting a little in meditation—if we remember to smile!
Eevi Beck, True Compassionate Practice, and her husband, Dharma teacher Svein Myreng, True Door, live in Oslo, Norway. Their son, Kyrre, was born in May 1999. Svein's book, Plum Poems, was published by Parallax Press in 1999. Svein is at home with Kyree, while writing a book on meditation. Eevi works as a computer scientist.
Handle this aging encasementas in a dream: boundless. Doubt previous assessments. Speak, a stream of generous spontaneity.
Cradle this bottled brain whose captive wanders forever devious catacombs of conscious chaos, trading faulty torches, pursuing the perfect hue of illumination.
Observe me gently... and I will yield sweet transcendence: The source unleashed.
By Sister Ha Nghiem When I first became a nun I felt like a bird trying to live in the ocean. Under the water I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying. Everything I had learned of what was important, what was beautiful, was somehow different here. Sometimes I felt lonely and out of place. A few times I thought about leaving to go back to a community where I could easily engage myself in the life of the community and I could receive the nourishment I was used to. Luckily there was always something deeper which held me here.
I discovered that I was full of ideas about life and how to do things based on how I was raised. Being a rare bird who decided to try to live underwater, I found that how I learned to live was not the same as most of the Sisters. When we would sit down to have a meeting it was always such a collage as sisters from Vietnam, Germany, Ireland and America had all learned how to arrange a kitchen in a different way. It is so easy to be trapped in our ideas, thinking ours is the correct way. Our ideas about little things can create big barriers between us. When I hold on to my ideas I suffer. I needed to learn how to let go of all these little ideas and customs in life in order to touch something deeper. I discovered that the most important thing is not our ideas, but to be truly there for each other, to be open, to love our sisters and support each other in our path of practicing the Dharma.
The first new source of nourishment I found here under the sea was the present moment. Although I may not have understood what people were saying I was supported by their practice of mindfulness. I learned to come back to myself and open my eyes to the wonders of life around me. When I can stop my usual thinking and simply be present to what is around me I discover so much beauty. Slowly I learned how to enjoy my sisters even when I could not understand their words. I could understand the beauty of their suchness.
My sisters did not leave me alone for long. The other sisters who ordained around the same time as me found a way to bring us together. We called it novice gatherings. On lazy nights we would sit together and have tea and cookies (which our older sisters and Thay donated to show their support). We would bring some of our favorite things along; flowers, candles, incense, musical instruments, inspiring poetry and books to read to each other. On lazy days we would go for picnics outside. Before we began our walk one sister would take me to the garden. In the early morning light she would show me which herbs were good to pick for lunch. Meanwhile another sister would find some mats to bring to sit on, and another would boil some water to bring for tea and soup. These times were always filled with laughter and affection. That is how I learned to enjoy eating instant noodles - it was contagious, the noodles and the laughter. After lunch one of us would sing as we did total relaxation and enjoyed nature. We shared with each other how we were doing, what difficulties we were having. We took turns to tell stories about our childhood and why we had become a nun . We began to understand and feel close to each other. That is how I began to feel rooted in the Sangha.
If I didn't have my sister beside me I would be so unfortunate. Just her presence, so calm and peaceful, her mindfulness is teaching me and healing me. The Dharma is not only in the sutras, or in Thay's Dharma talk, it is in my sister here beside me, following her breathing as she washes the dishes.
Over time I have been able to open up to see the many beauties in Vietnamese culture. There is something very fine and spiritual naturally present in much Vietnamese culture. In a Dharma discussion with young Vietnamese who had grown up in the West I realized that by living in a Vietnamese community for all these years the Vietnamese culture had begun to enter me and I now felt like them, part Vietnamese and part Western. The stream of life entering me from Vietnam is very beautiful and deep. Every day I am discovering the treasures of both Western and Vietnamese cultures.
However, I love most of all the culture offered by the Buddha. I feel I am one of the richest people in the world . From the moment I open my eyes in the morning until I lie in bed to sleep at night I am nourished by the practices given by the Buddha. I am aware that I am surrounded by noble people, I admire and cherish each of my Dharma brothers and sisters. I used to have a dream that I would find a place where people lived in a noble way. Where people walked with peace. Where we could practice meditation every day and study the path of awakening. Where we could put our energy together to help transform our society so there would be less suffering and more beauty. I am so grateful that I have found such a place on earth and that it has become my home and family. Our life is so simple, yet in my eyes it seems we are learning a very high culture. A cu lture where we learn practices which help us to live our day in a very peaceful way, with freedom and deep happiness. Our food is our practice, our insight, our love, our brotherhood and our work to support life and happiness in the world.
This was taken from a writing assignment given to the Sangha by Thay during last winter retreat. The assignment was to write about our difficulties and transformations throughout our life in the Sangha.
Sister Ha Nghiem (Sister Fern) practices at Deer Park.
By Hannah S. Wilder As an executive and leadership coach, I am able to combine my spiritual and professional practices. Most of my coaching takes the form of asking questions to raise awareness, reflecting what I see, and checking to see if the executive sees some truth in my perceptions. Then we identify what is desired as a change, and figure out how to change behaviors and results.
Busy leaders like simple reminder lists that help them learn and remember practices new to them, so I developed the following Ten Principles for Working in Mindful Awareness:
1. Always be conscious of your breath and come back to that awareness when you find yourself being forgetful, confused, or reactive.
2. Let go of attachment to any system of working or managing, so that, through being mindful, you can observe with "beginner's mind" what is best for everyone present.
3. Open your heart so that you can be sensitive to your own pain and struggle, and that of others, because what affects one affects all. We are all connected.
4. Simplify everything, eliminate clutter, and do only one thing at a time.
5. Let go of anger, resentment, criticism, and self-judgment.
6. Look and listen deeply to see and hear what is below the surface.
7. Speak the truth, with compassion and kindness, from your heart.
8. Actively cultivate personal, organizational, and environmental health and well-being.
9. Choose to work with those who practice mindful awareness in their relationships with you.
10. Invite others to practice by your example, never by coercion (which wouldn't work, anyway!).
(10 points copyrighted by Hannah S. Wilder and reprinted with her permission.)
Hannah S. Wilder, True Good Heart, practices with the Cloud Floating Free Sangha in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is Principal of Wiseheart Global Leadership Coaching.
An Interview with Sister Giac Nghiem, A Nun in Plum Village By Sister Steadiness
You have said that you have two roots, Buddhism and Christianity. How do you integrate these in your life of practice as a Buddhist nun?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: I met the Buddha twenty-seven years ago. I was in Laos with my former husband. Early in the morning we woke up and my husband said, “My dear, do you want to see something beautiful, the sunrise over the Mekong River?” We went together and I was so happy. At the moment we arrived at the banks of the river the sun was just beginning to rise. Standing by the river we saw many Buddhist monks begging. They were walking very slowly in silence, very mindfully. They were walking on our right and on our left there were four ladies sitting on the ground with food in front of them. The monks came and opened their bowls and the ladies filled up their bowls. It is difficult to express how I felt at that moment.
I felt that I was the lady who was filling up their bowls. I was a monk bowing in front of the women. I was the sun. I was the river. I was a buffalo drinking the water. I was a young child taking care of the buffalo. It was like meeting someone after a long time and suddenly he is here. It was something very deep; I cannot describe it. I met Thay a long time afterwards. Between meeting the Buddha in Laos and meeting Thay I practiced yoga.
I met Thay in 1987. Sister Chan Khong had long beautiful hair and Thay was young. When I met Thay I met the Buddha again and I also met St. Francis of Assisi because they are the same. The first time I met Thay was at a two-day retreat in Lyon where he taught in French. He spoke about the piece of paper and seeing the whole world in it. I felt the teaching was familiar and I thought, this is my master. When I returned home my family asked me what happened during the retreat. I smiled and I said, I found St. Francis of Assisi again and I am free from the fear of abandonment now.
My Christian roots are very old. They are older than me because they flow in the blood of my family, very deeply. When I was a child knitting a small blanket for my doll and I didn’t want to go to bed before finishing it, my mother would come and say, “My dear child, you can go to bed and perhaps Mother Mary or an angel will come and finish your work.” Sometimes in the morning I would see that the row I was knitting had been finished for me. And I knew for sure that it was Mother Mary or an angel who had done that. Perhaps it seems like nonsense but this kind of faith is in me very deeply. I really have faith about the capacity of the spiritual ancestors to take care of us. Even if something happens that is very difficult they are always here.
I am a Buddhist nun and I am deeply Christian too. I found the key to Christianity in Buddhism. For example, Jesus said, “Forgive the people who make you unhappy.” I try my best all the time to do as Jesus tells us, to be generous and so on. But I did not know how to put Jesus’ teaching into my daily life. Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gave me the key. The key is mindfulness, concentration, insight and understanding. When we have understanding we are free from our hatred, our guilt, and our worries. I am not free yet but I try. This key helps me.
One time Jesus came to a synagogue and there was a crowd who intended to stone a woman who had committed adultery. Before I encountered Thay’s teachings I thought Jesus said to the crowd, “If you look at yourself, you cannot throw stones at the woman because you have also made mistakes.” Now I see this story so differently. I can really see Jesus waiting for the man to come to ask his advice. He already knew what would happen. The young man told Jesus that they wanted to kill the woman and asked him what was the right thing to do. Jesus said, “The one who has never sinned can throw the first stone.” He said this lovingly. He did not speak out of anger; he did not want to teach them a lesson as we have the habit to do. He just loved them; he understood them and he wanted to put a clear mirror in front of them, a clear mirror full of love. This way of seeing more deeply comes from my encounter with Buddhist teachings. What I have learned here in Plum Village has enabled me to be closer to my Christian spiritual ancestors.
How was the transition from your family life to the monastic life?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha offered me the opportunity to become a nun even though I had a lot of difficulties. Before ordaining as a novice I lived at Plum Village for a year and a half as a lay person. Then I became an aspirant and began to enter the monastic life of the community. During my stay before ordination the Sangha allowed me to go back to my hone in St. Etienne and Lyon to see my family, my Sangha, and our center for homeless people four or five times a year. I would stay with my family for three or four weeks before returning to the monastery. It helped me to be gradually less attached to the projects in my home Sangha. But it was very difficult. At the beginning our Sangha and our association for social work had the feeling that I was abandoning them. But I realized that though my family and friends are not physically here, they are here in my body. I really found them in me. Their feelings and their lives are in me. I take care of them through my own life and my own body. That is why it became easy for me to make the transition from family life to monastic life. But it was more difficult for them to experience me within them. For my beloved ones it is very big sacrifice but because of their love they have accepted to offer me to my way.
The monastic life is wonderful. I chose it because Jesus and Mother Mary and angels are very close to me. When I was a child I went into a church in Casablanca where the sisters of St. Francis are. They sang so beautifully and I thought, I want to become a nun and sing as they do. Often when I felt an aspiration to become a nun during my life I said to my children, “My love, if in the future I lose your dear father, my beloved one, and you grow into adults I will become a nun.” But when I felt a calling, in my mind I said to Jesus, “Oh, my love, you know I am so busy. I have a wonderful husband. I have wonderful children; I am so happy with them. Perhaps if you call me later I will be free to come to you.” And I would say, “Oh, my love, do you know I have such wonderful work. There are so many people who need me. We have an association; we have a Sangha; we take care of homeless people. I do not have time to become a nun.” I felt I really could not become a nun because I love so much my wonderful family. I thought about becoming a grandma, making jam for my grandchildren and taking care of the babies coming from our daughter or our son. But Jesus is very persistent. He would knock at the door and in my heart I would hear him say, “My child, now are you free to become a nun.” And I kept saying, “No, I have a loving family, the association, my friends and so on.” But he kept knocking at the door and finally I said, “Yes, I am so happy to come.” And then I said, “Oh, what am I saying? That is not a possibility.” I was really in touch with this kind of conversation inside of me. At that moment I felt so deeply fulfilled by love that all my resistances fell down.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty that I have to overcome is my feeling of inferiority. I feel the teacher, the place and the Sangha are so wonderful. But many times I have the feeling that I do something wrong, that is not beneficial for the Sangha. Often I feel difficulty because of my perception about what I did or what I thought. But because the Sangha has a big heart and accepts me even if I have this kind of difficulty, I have the opportunity to transform myself and to find clarity on my path. I can walk on the beautiful path taking the hand of Jesus on one side and taking the hand of the Buddha on the other side. Now I have lived in Plum Village for four and a half years. I became a nun on the 4th of December, 2000. I feel at home. I feel loved and happy. I love the Sangha a lot.
How do you stay in touch with your family?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning my suffering and that of my family was very strong, but now it is lighter and lighter. Some members of my family could accept my path and others could not. The best way for me to be in touch with my family is to telephone them once a week. When I hear their voices I can tell how they are and they know how I am. Recently, our mother, our daughter and her family and our son all came to Plum Village to visit me. Now they know that this is my home, it is our home. I hope they will take root in this home and come more often.
Did you ever think of leaving the monastic life and returning to your family?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning I felt the desire to return and help my family, my Sangha and our association, and to be in touch with them with my body and not only with my heart. But because I can really find my family in me, this kind of desire has become smaller and smaller. Sometimes I dream that I am at my family’s home and am living with my family. It is okay for me to go in my dream to my family. But I did not come here to hide myself or to protect myself from suffering or from my life before. I have the aim to really become someone who is awakened, to help more people.
We have many people coming to Plum Village who are full of anger and despair, burned by the fires of craving and suffering. One day Thay said we are like nurses or doctors who take care of the people who come from outside to help them relieve their suffering and become healthier. We give them the key to transform their suffering into something wonderful and to find more ease in their family life.
Society for me is sinking like a big boat. I know that if I were in society I would not have the energy to transform myself enough to become someone who can help. It is because I have this ambition to help the most people that I can that I go on this path. I start with my family, but I want to help many more people. I know if I return to my family I would not be able to transform because so many people already need me outside and I would not have enough strength to do it. My life in our temple, close to our master, to Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gives me enough strength to transform myself, to transform my difficulties. The loving-kindness of the sisters and the brothers is so wonderful. Often I make a mistake and I make someone unhappy. But they always find a way to accept and to help me to accept and to transform, and in that way we live together beautifully. I know that I have often made mistakes. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize in front of everyone. If I have made a mistake and hurt you, please forgive me.
Tell us about your experience with the practice of Touching the Earth.
Sr. Giac Nghiem: In November 1996 Sister Chan Khong offered me the practice of the three Touchings of the Earth. Soon after that my husband left me. Sister Chan Khong asked me to use this practice as medicine for twenty-one days. One sentence in this practice touched me so much, “I accept you as you are with your strengths and weaknesses as I accept myself as I am with my strengths and weaknesses.” This helped me a lot when my husband left.
I first practiced the five Touchings of the Earth in June 1997 when I came to Plum Village for ten days. I came to learn how to be compassionate towards my former husband. Since then, Touching the Earth has been one of my basic practices. I used the five Touchings of the Earth almost every day for two years. We say that reciting the Diamond Sutra cuts through afflictions. For me practicing Touching the Earth cuts through my afflictions and helps me to transform. It is my second diamond. I practice Touching the Earth to nourish myself. At the beginning sometimes I practiced it for one or two hours.
Before I practice Touching the Earth I look deeply into my spiritual ancestors and into my society. I know I am made of all the input I receive from my ancestors and my society. The collective and the individual are together in me. I want to transform many things in me for the benefit of my descendants, my children, my grandchild, and my parents. I don’t want to transmit the difficulties I have had. When I found the blocks of suffering in me I took care of them even if I had to cry a lot. I always had a handkerchief close to me to absorb my tears. I would only stand up after I could see something beautiful coming from the earth.
At the beginning I did not want to lie down on the earth because the child in me was afraid of getting dirty. When I was a child I often had a pretty dress on and I heard, “No, don’t get mud on your dress; don’t get dirty.” But Sister Chan Khong told me that if I can open every cell in my body, the earth will be very happy and will eat and drink from me and will transform my suffering. The young child in me is very fond of sweet foods. So only when I could see beautiful, sweet foods like strawberries, little mushrooms, and blueberries coming from the earth could I stand up and smile.
One time I found a way to touch the earth with more ease. I was in the Buddha hall and I allowed my imagination to touch the earth with me. I imagined that I was lying on a beach. I was feeling dirty and the waves came and washed me of everything I didn’t like in myself from my family and my society and from myself. The waves washed away all the dust and it was transformed into beautiful fish and coral, into beautiful colored sand and the blue of the waves. I felt so happy because the sea is really my ground, more than the soil.
At the beginning when I practiced for twenty-one days I had so many things to put into the earth, but day by day it was transformed. At the end of the twenty-one days I was very surprised because for the fifth touching of the earth, when I send my love to the one who has destroyed my life, I no longer had an image of anyone. At first when I practiced this I had the image of different people in front of me, but then finally there was no one left. That was a big transformation. Now when I touch the earth I don’t have many negative things to put on the earth; sometimes I have nothing to put on the earth because my difficulties have been so transformed. I can see the beauty of my family and my society. It is like the practice of total relaxation. At first we need to take a long time to feel the relaxation, but after we have practiced for a long time, we just lie down and breathe a little bit and we experience the relaxation.
One time my father told me that my brother was suffering. I said, I will take care of him even if I am in the monastery. My father has faith in this practice because I have shared it with him. I went in front of the Buddha and Jesus together, because they are my two spiritual roots. I said, I want to touch the earth in the name of my brother because he is in every cell of my body. We have the same blood ancestors, the same education and civilization. I am him and he is me. It was absolutely successful. After practicing for twenty-one days in the name of my brother, my brother’s situation improved a lot. He became lighter. I put his suffering on the earth for him because he did not know how to do that for himself. I have done that for other members of my family as well. It is very important to understand that I’m not trying to transform them, just to alleviate their suffering. This practice is the key for me to make life lighter so that is why I do it and offer it in the name of others.
How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: I was born in Morocco and I spent my childhood there. I lived with my family in Djema el Fina, the Medina, close to the marketplace in Marrakech. In the Medina there were a lot of handicapped people, without their legs or blind or diseased. One day when I was around four-years-old I went out and just outside our door I saw a very poor handicapped child. I asked my mom, “Why is this child like that?” She said, “My love, you were born on the other side of this door but if you had been born out here you might be like that too.” During my whole life I have had the desire to help because I know that that child could have been me. All my life I have carried this thought. Helping people however I can is my way. Nearly ten years ago I had a dream, where I saw a beautiful young woman who was full of light. I remember with her left hand she showed me a young child, a very tiny, skinny child. I saw this child and my heart was filled with suffering. Then she showed me a candle and said, “One candle, ten days of life for a hungry child.” A few days before I had met a lady who decorated candles with the dried petals of flowers. They were very lovely and they seemed easy to make. When I woke up I was full of desire to help put an end to suffering in Vietnam and everywhere. That aspiration was already in me, but now I had a plan. I realized my dream could help me relieve suffering through my work. At that time I was a physical therapist working in the hospital and clinic with terminally ill patients.
I began making the candles as my friend showed me. One day our son came into our kitchen and he saw me making the candles. He said, “What are you doing, my love?” He was very gentle. I said, “My love, for Mother’s Day I want to sell one thousand candles.” He said, “You are doing it alone?” I said, “Yes, but it is February and I have a lot of time to do it.” But I didn’t really because I had a lot of other work to do also. He laughed because he has faith in what I do even if it seems impossible. I tried to do a little bit every day. After one month four people came to our house and when they saw what I was doing they were so happy and they wanted to help me. For Mother’s Day we had one thousand candles and I was so happy. A lot of people came to help, but I didn’t think about anything but that the children need our help. That was ten years ago. I think the presence of Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha was a catalyst for my dream.
We gave Sister Chan Khong the money we raised to help the children in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong is a big master for me. After that she gave us information about needy children so that we could find sponsors for them. I also received inspiration and support from Sister Minh Tanh, the abbess of a big temple in Vietnam who takes care of many children there. Our Sangha in St. Etienne created an association called it “Le Coeur a Vivre,” or “The Heart to Live.” Two or three years later we began to help the homeless people and others in difficulty in our country, who were close to our homes. Our bodhicitta grew because we watered the seed of loving kindness in us. Mother Theresa was also always dear to me and an inspiration for our work.
How are you nourished by the social work now as a nun?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: Because of the desire I have to help I suffer a lot here. Why? Because I feel the world is so full of suffering. Everywhere someone is suffering. Not to help our children, parents, family and friends and to let go of my work at the hospital where all of my friends are dying slowly or not doing anything for the homeless people because I am here: all of this filled me with suffering. It was very difficult for me. One time I said to Thay, “My dear teacher you can imagine my suffering because you stay in France and you cannot return to your home monastery in Vietnam to give your support.” I know my dear Sister Chan Khong can understand me too, because she also knows the suffering of not being able to help at certain times. I did not know if I could stay in the monastery because my suffering of letting go of my children, my mother, my father, and my mother-in-law was so deep. I felt I have so many people to take care of and I suffered so much. But I became a nun to help, to become someone very solid who can really help everywhere, not to escape from my own suffering or the suffering of society and of the world.
Sister Chan Khong gave me children from Vietnam to take care of. She was watering my bodhicitta to help others. She let me know that when we spend a lot of energy to take care of children in Vietnam, we can release a part of our suffering in the world. That is why I accepted with great gratitude to take care of the hungry children projects for France, Belgium and a part of Switzerland. I enjoy very much taking care of these children, seeing their little faces with different expressions. I read the letters about the children. In December of 1999 there was a big flood in Vietnam and the city of Hue was under water. Sister Chan Khong came and gave me a lot of children to take care of who were crying and asking for help. Now we have many sponsors and we wait for more because we have so many children who need help. They are so in need. We really need help. For instance, a flood during August and September devastated so many homes.
Sometimes I stay up late working. But I feel close to the children. I take one child’s photo and I say to him or her, “You know, we have a sponsor for you now. My love, do you know you can sleep and dream very well now. Do you see me in your dream?” I smile to him and I enjoy sharing good news like that. Every time I find one sponsor I am happy for many days. I think about the family who has so much difficulty and the child who needs to go to school, to have something to eat and to learn. I think that one day that little child will become a strong, beautiful man or woman and he or she will already know the key of how to help other people.
Sister Giac Nghiem, Adornment with Awakening, ordained as a nun in 1999. She is French and often goes out to lead Days of Mindfulness and retreats in France.
Skillful Means for Emotional Healing by John Bell
In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.
John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay speciﬁc attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.
Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.
Each year, more people attend. In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.
This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difﬁcult feelings.
There are some things we know about feelings. They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.
Five Practices for Handling Feelings
In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches ﬁve main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the ﬁve are:
Each of these ﬁve practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the ﬁve practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the ﬁrst and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”
Blue Sky Practice
In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:
Blue skies, smiling at me Nothing but blue skies do I see Blue birds singing a song Nothing but blue birds from now on
We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.
To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.
After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.
We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.
In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of
the moment. For some, tears ﬂowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.
Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering
Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.
Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:
There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the ﬁrst truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”
There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.
There is a way out of suffering. For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identiﬁes with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of puriﬁcation as a step towards liberation.
The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.
Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the ﬁrst set of words!
Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”
Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing. All it takes is practice.
John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation. He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth ﬁeld as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.
By Karen Hilsberg BRUCE L. HILSBERG, Strong Commitment of the Heart and True Courageous Inspiration, passed away on March 29, 2005. He was forty-five years old. Bruce and his wife Karen met in graduate school, where they both received doctorates in clinical psychology. Bruce’s most recent employment was as Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility where he brought mindfulness training to the staff and individuals served.
Partners for eighteen years, Bruce and Karen have two children, Emily and Ben. The Hilsbergs began the thriving Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City in 2003.
Numerous beings have provided invaluable friendships and spiritual support along the path, sharing the gifts of love and non-fear. In lieu of flowers, please offer support to the Touching and Helping Program, c/o Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.
Many people use the word “lemon” to refer to something that is no good. For example, a car that frequently breaks down is called “a lemon.” But a lemon is a beautiful fruit. The blossoms of our lemon tree fill our garden this very morning with an indescribably sweet fragrance. People have said many things to us during this past year and half of our experience with illness: “This is a tragedy;” “What is happening to your family is terrible;” and “I hate cancer.” Our response has been to see this time as a wonderful opportunity to develop spiritually, to practice mindfulness, and to learn about true love and non-fear. The depth of closeness and trust that we have nurtured and developed in our marriage and our family this past year has been priceless.
It is one thing to study the teachings in the abstract, philosophically, but quite another to live them day in and day out. For Bruce, that meant facing his own inescapable death; for me, it meant facing the inescapable death of my partner of eighteen years; and for our children, it meant facing the illness and loss of their daddy.
We have been taking refuge in the three jewels, practicing weekly with our Sangha, frequently visiting our teachers and brothers and sisters at Deer Park, and practicing with each other, with our family, and with friends. In the process, we have experienced letting go—letting go of our careers and professional personas, of our attachment to Bruce’s physical health, of our possessions, of our so-called independence, even of eating and drinking, and most important, of many long-held notions and beliefs.
In the letting go, remarkable things have been happening. We have touched deeply experiences we had only dreamed of—giving freely of ourselves to our loved ones, receiving the generosity of others, openly communicating with one another. For us, the realization that our spirit truly continues on, healthy and vital, even after our body has de-manifested “like a worn out, old shoe,” has been liberating.
Together, as a family, we have been able to transcend feelings of fear and despair and to touch the ultimate dimension when we enjoy simple pleasures like the garden, the flowers, the wind, the birds, the full moon, the laughter and tears of each other and our children, hugging, touching, breathing, moving our bodies sleeping peacefully. Simple pleasures mean everything when we realize that we are all “on death row.”
Just as we enjoy picking lemons from our lemon tree, squeezing them, adding sugar, then water, and tasting the fresh and delicious lemonade, we have taken this experience of cancer that has manifested in our family and added our practice of mindfulness in order to touch the beautiful and refreshing truths taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. In doing this, we transcend our suffering and touch peace, solidity, freedom, love, and non-fear in our everyday lives.
Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives with her children in southern California, near Deer Park Monastery
Letter to Bruce and Karen Hilsberg
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hilsberg,
Whether Easterners or Westerners, young or old, we are always very fearful when we are facing death. Even when we are so ill that our breath is irregular, we still don’t believe that we are facing death. We don’t accept that this physical body is disintegrating because of beliefs that lie deep in our consciousness.
But there is an ultimate truth, which you can understand with deep awareness. Life is a cycle of manifestation, and death is a cycle of de-manifestation. We are the awareness that is no birth, no death.
In the winter, the leaves fall from the trees and the branches are bare. But during that time the trees are not dead, because the living energy still exists. We know that in springtime the young shoots and new leaves will return and develop very fast. Our human life is a thousand times more miraculous than the cycle of the trees. As the trees use the cycle of rest to grow, human beings should look at the life and death of this physical body as a cycle, in which they can mature spiritually. When you look deeply into your own mind you won’t have any worry, fear, or despair.
I am not a good practitioner, and I have much suffering when I see that my loved ones are very sick and I cannot help them; when I have to face many of my friends leaving, and I do not have the power to hold them back. But because of the practice, eventually I can transform the fear and suffering in my heart. I have a strong faith that the life and death of this physical body is only a cycle of the manifestation and de-manifestation, while the nature of our true self, is no birth, no death.
Bodhisattvas and Zen masters come to this world and leave this world very peacefully and freely. They can say goodbye to this life with joy because they know that they are not truly gone. We are no different than these bodhisattvas and Zen masters, if we have a strong belief that our true self is never gone.
I sincerely hope that you have strong faith in your Buddha nature that is no birth no death, so you can overcome despair, worry, sadness, and suffering. And I pray that the Three Jewels in the Ten Direcitons will always protect you so that you will have strong faith in yourself.
Venerable Phouc Tinh
The Venerable Phouc Tinh of Deer Park, wrote this letter shortly before Bruce Hilsberg’s death. Translated by Van Khanh Ha.
After dinner I walk to the kitchen to check on the soymilk we’ve made today. It should be cooling by now. Later, after evening meditation we’ll put it in the refrigerator, so we can have fresh soymilk for breakfast. The clean-up crew ﬁlls the kitchen with activity carrying racks of dishes, washing pots, and mopping the ﬂoor. I am surprised to see my soymilk teammate Gary standing at the stove spooning okara, the thick soybean residue, from the huge pot of soymilk into a basin. Normally the okara is ﬁltered out by a machine. What happened to the soymilk?
Phap Do taught the seven of us on the soymilk team how to make soymilk for the 350 retreatants of Solidity Hamlet. Making soymilk is a day-long process that reminds me a little of taking care of a baby. After supper we measure ﬁfteen cups of soybeans into a large plastic tub. We wash the beans three times and soak them overnight. The next morning during working meditation the little round beans are mixed with water and ground between two stones in the grinding machine. After that we pour the thick white liquid into the mouth of another machine we affectionately named “The Great Silver Dragon” whose belly is a ﬁlter bag. The machine whirls the soymilk, ﬁltering out the okara, until milk runs out of the spout into a big stainless steel pot. Several times during the ﬁltering process we empty the soft foamy okara from the ﬁlter bag into a basin. The okara is mainly used for compost. Later in the afternoon we cook the soymilk for two hours in huge pots double boiler style. When it is cool, we return to the kitchen and tuck it away for the night in the refrigerator.
Soon after learning how to make soymilk, I begin to identify with the little soybeans. We are both seeds in the womb of Mother Earth, constantly changing. I too, am soaking, soaking in the collective mindful energy of the retreat. My tough outer shell softens, my heart opens. I don’t need to protect and defend myself here. I feel safe.
Like the soybean, I am ground up together with the other retreatants and we slowly become a community. My protective edges wear away in the room I share with ﬁve other women as we bump up against each other and learn to live together in this intimate space. The aloneness I brought with me loosens and dissolves when I am helped over a rough spot by new friends. I feel supported by the people here and I give what I can. We live and work together mindfully day after day. We walk as one body during walking meditation. We eat our silent meals. We sit in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall in the morning and in the evening. We harmonize our voices to sing and to chant. We walk slowly up and down the mountain without speaking. Separateness is ground away until we become a Sangha river ﬂowing in the Great Hidden Mountain.
Next we are ﬁltered and reﬁned. We let go of suffering, noticing obstacles to happiness, changing old habits. With Thay’s help I see that I’ve carry my beloved grandmother’s despair inside of me for all these years. Her despair is part of my mind. I take Granny for a walk in the hills and she enjoys it so much, the hills, the ﬂowering trees, the birds and the sunshine. She is content now and so am I. I see something else; the way I try to save everyone and end up losing myself, a painful old habit that leads to exhaustion and feelings of imprisonment. It is thick and heavy like the okara we ﬁlter out of the soymilk. I see this when our soymilk team runs into trouble.
The seven of us meet with Thay Phap Do. For the ﬁrst time I realize that my overactive sense of responsibility affects my friends adversely. It let go of every notion and experience great joy! I ﬁnd out that he is right when I experience a deep wordless connection with this mountain, with the rabbits and squirrels, with the full moon, with the Sangha. There is enough time and space to enjoy every moment.
Gary answers my question as I walk over to the stove. “The ﬁlter bag leaked and okara ﬁlled the milk. It was too thick to drink and wouldn’t be very tasty.” My ﬁrst thought is, Why did the ﬁlter bag leak? My second thought is, What about tomorrow when we make soymilk again?
Thay Phap Do comes into the kitchen, looks around, and suggests that we use the metal colander and a big pot. He brings forth a nylon curtain to use as a strainer. I watch him line the colander with the curtain and then I speak. “Phap Do, I think I know what happened to the ﬁlter bag.” He doesn’t respond. Then I ask, “Will we have to strain the milk this way every day?” This time Phap Do answers. “Just do it now. Use this curtain to ﬁlter the milk now.” I feel a little embarrassed and rebuked, having wanted to impress him by ﬁguring out why the ﬁlter bag leaked. I walk
is my habit to arrive early on the days we make soymilk and begin to set up the equipment. I run around the kitchen collecting spoons and pots and basins, thinking how nice it will be for my friends to arrive and have everything already set up. But wait, something is changing. Thay is teaching us to become businessless. I notice that my ancestors’ “businessfulness” appears in me. During our meeting several of my teammates express feeling rushed and left out. My heart thumps in my chest and my breath races. I have never before realized that when I act in that extra-responsible-businessful way I take up my teammates’ space and obstruct us from experiencing the ease and leisure that makes deep connection possible and enjoyable. I happily leave my businessfulness in the ﬁlter bag. At the end of our meeting Thay Phap Do asks each of us, “What does a cow say?” “A cow?” “Yes. A cow. You know the cow that gives milk. What does a cow say?” Each of us replies and then Phap Do asks us to repeat the sound all together. “Mooooo!” we bellow and laugh. We’re becoming nourishment for the Sangha, light enough to ﬂow freely like a delicious stream of soymilk. We begin our working meditation now with a cup of tea and a long “Moooooo,” the joyful sound of the soymilk team.
And then we cook. We cook the soymilk in the afternoon and the Sangha cooks slowly and continuously in the pot of mindfulness. I feel myself growing more fresh and wholesome as I listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. He tells us that we can ﬁnd happiness at any moment. He teaches us to transform our suffering and he shows us that we can into the hall behind the kitchen and feel tears spring into my eyes. And then I smile. Oh! I get it. No past. No future. Only now! No blame. No right. No wrong. No theories or notions. Only now!
I walk back into the kitchen and feel so happy as Gary and I strain the soymilk heavy with okara through the curtain. We pour the fresh soymilk into giant pots and store it for breakfast. Friends from the clean-up crew offer to help carry the pots and mop the ﬂoor. Just as we’re ﬁnishing up, Phap Do reappears and places a new ﬁlter bag on the table.
One morning I sit in the dining room that overlooks the temple and the blue hills. I eat breakfast in silence, concentrating on the oatmeal and the soymilk. Gary sits across the table. I hear a rhythmic sound and look up. Gary points to a red-headed woodpecker in the tree outside the window. We sit silently and watch. Phap Do appears on the path beneath the window. His body is completely still as he stands gazing at the tree and the bird. After several minutes he looks in the window and smiles a Buddha smile. Everything is all right. I no longer need to worry about food or cold or anyone or anything. This moment is enough. I am alive. I am here.
Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Washington, D.C. where she practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.
A Commentary on Eating Meditation by David Percival
At Plum Village and Deer Park, the food is delicious, nutritious, and abundant. During the ﬁrst week of the Summer Opening at Plum Village, I was sitting outside waiting for everyone in my family group to arrive before starting to eat. In front of me was a large plate piled high with food, a large bowl full of food, and a bowl of soup.
In the wonderful silence before starting to eat, I became aware that many of the monks at our table had just one bowl in front of them. Across from me was a slender, trim, happy monk with one small bowl of food; I had enough food to ﬁll four small bowls. Some of the other retreatants at our table had equally impressive quantities of food. Over the next few days, I continued to observe that most monastics used only one bowl when serving themselves.
On the table was a small folded piece of cardboard with the important words I have been repeating for years, but somehow overlooked at this meal:
This food is the gift of the whole universe— the earth, the sky, and much hard work. May we be worthy to receive it. May we transform unskillful states of mind, especially the habit of eating without moderation. May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness. We accept this food to realize the path of understanding and love.
As I sat there, the Fifth Mindfulness Training played in my mind. What am I doing with this much food? By the time we began the meal, I wasn’t very hungry and I couldn’t eat it all. I waited until everyone had ﬁnished so I could steal away and discreetly put the remainder in the compost bucket. A wasteful but useful experience.
That evening during walking meditation I further contemplated this experience. Later, in Stepping into Freedom I read about the monastic eating bowl. Thay states that “…the monk’s eating bowl is often called ‘the vessel of appropriate measure’. It should be big enough to hold a suitable amount of food, but not too big as to encourage greed.”
Food portions served in restaurants at home seem to be escalating. I thought about the plague of obesity, eating disorders and addictions, diabetes, heart disease, loss of self-esteem, and other illnesses caused by being overweight. Reports suggest that two-thirds of adults in the
U.S. are overweight. There are untold numbers of diet plans, hundreds of books on how to lose weight, and millions of people desperately struggling to change. Food is a major attachment and can cause great suffering.
In this sea of suffering and despair is there a diet of mindfulness we can have with us always? Can we practice the Fifth Mindfulness Training at every meal?
The key is to practice as a monastic: wherever you go, keep your bowl carefully stored away in your consciousness. When you can, get used to using one small bowl or a salad plate for your meal. At home I have a Deer Park bowl as the centerpiece on our table and I look at it each time I sit down to eat.
When you can, serve yourself just what you need or perhaps a little less. Then practice walking meditation to where you sit, even if it’s just a few steps in your kitchen. Sit with your back straight, and practicing mindful breathing, recite the Five Contemplations. Bring yourself into the present moment so you can touch your food, your family, and your community deeply. Thay tells us that “eating in mindfulness nourishes your happiness, and you feel as though you are sharing a meal with the Buddha and his disciples in the Jeta Grove.”
Discussing the First Novice Precept, On Protecting Life, Thay says, “When a novice practices this precept, he or she learns to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion and thereby transforms the seeds of violence and hatred and nourishes the seeds of love. Violence and hatred cause boundless suffering. While a novice walks, sits, stands, lies down, works, speaks, eats, or drinks, she does not forget that all species are suffering. Protecting life is the ﬁrst practice of someone cultivating her bodhichitta, her mind of love.” We can bring this teaching into our life by choosing a vegetarian diet.
My practice of eating moderate amounts of wholesome vegetarian food combined with exercise is a practice of love, compassion, and happiness. I begin to realize that craving for food is not an element of happiness. When I started this practice, I thought that I would need to give up many things. But over time I understood that when I let go of craving and attachments, I haven’t lost anything. Instead, a beautiful space opens in my mind as I become free from my food cravings and attachments. As Thay said at the Winter Retreat at Deer Park in March 2004, “Live in such a way that there is beauty in each moment—all our actions are our continuation (our karma). Do not wait!” And, never forget your bowl.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1997. Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to Be Possible – Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1993.
David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is the subscription manager for the Mindfulness Bell.
Last winter, for the ﬁrst time in my life, I had an opportunity to stop long enough to witness three full moons come over the mountain at Deer Park Monastery. Taking a sabbatical from my university teaching position, and with the support of my wife, Kathleen, I attended the Winter Retreat to experience the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh with several hundred monastics and lay practitioners.
Before I left for Deer Park, as the ﬁrst moon of 2004 was waxing, my mother celebrated her 100th birthday, and moved from her apartment to a nursing home. In a Dharma talk Thay said, “Some people live to be 100 and never really deeply touch the present moment.” My mother has lived for more than 1,200 full moons. The moon was always there for her. Was she ever there for the moon? How many of her moons reminded her of the preciousness and impermanence of each ﬂeeting moment?
Living in the rural environment of Deer Park, I became much more aware of the moon and its phases. I walked mindfully each evening to the outdoor pay phone to call Kathleen, and would check in with my friend, the moon. Where are you, dear moon? Are you waxing or waning? When will you be full again? The moon became a gentle reminder of the cyclical nature of my being and the temporary nature of all phenomena.
During the ﬁrst full moon at Deer Park, my son Mark announced his engagement to Preety, a lovely woman from India. Later, my daughter Andrea and her husband Eric shared news of the upcoming birth of another grandson. New moon, new loved ones to cherish. Oh, moon, teach me about change so that I may model your gifts for those I love.
During these three full moons, a friend of thirty years was incarcerated for spousal abuse. I wonder how and when the ﬁrst blow was struck. Was it in words? Was it a lack of awareness of the other’s suffering? Can my friend see the moon in his “grey wall monastery”? How many moons will offer him comfort during long bleak nights ﬁlled with doubt and self-recrimination? Will this time of rehabilitation offer him the light needed to illuminate the sacredness of life?
One night, as I viewed a waning moon, Kathleen shared the news that two good friends were getting a divorce. What caused the light to go out of their relationship? How many moons did they celebrate in happiness? in darkness? Could awareness of the nature of the moon have guided them in more healing directions?
As the new moon emerged in February, we celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. We prepared for Tet through a process of inner and outer spring cleaning, attempting to let go of unﬁnished business and open more deeply to the present moment. How can we celebrate the New Year, new beginnings, if we are still hanging on to the legacies of the past?
During these three moons, Rick, a longtime colleague, died of a heart attack at his desk after teaching a class. When did he see the moon for the last time? Did he, by chance, ever stop and look deeply at the moon one day with the awareness that this may be his last time seeing it? The moon can be a reminder of the cycle of birth and death and the importance of dwelling deeply in the present moment since it could very well be our last moment.
During these three moons, the Deer Park Sangha took several moonlight walks with our teacher. As the moon guided each footstep through the hills, thoughts of weddings, births, and life events were replaced by gentle reminders that happiness is found in the present moment. Enjoy the moon tonight in its brightness and realize its impermanence. Let the moon become your teacher of change, of mindfulness, of impermanence, and the preciousness of life.
Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a Dharma teacher living in Salem, Oregon. He afﬁliates with the River Sangha and the Oregon Sangha. He is a Professor of Health Education at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon.
We flew one night with the Sangha from Hue to Hanoi. Half the airplane was filled with monastics and lay Sangha. Over an hour into the flight we were told that bad weather conditions were preventing us from landing in Hanoi. Now we were heading for Haiphong, a town by the sea two hours’ drive from Hanoi, and would take a bus from there back to Hanoi. As we approached Haiphong, we could see that the weather there was not much better. It was so foggy we could barely see our own wings, much less any city lights below.
As we got close to the ground the pilot switched off all the cabin lights. We sat in the blackness, flying slower and slower, expecting to touch down any minute but with no idea how close to the ground we actually were. Time seemed to stretch forever sitting in the dark plane.
Suddenly the airplane was thundering, the engines going full blast, as the pilot pulled the plane sharply up. It was very loud in the cabin. I wondered if this would be my last minute in this life. I expected we might hit a building or the trees at any second.
My wife, Angela, and I held hands, saying that we loved each another, just in case these were to be our last words. I trembled.
My legs were shaking, my heart was beating fast and hard, my breath was choppy. Fear of death captured my mind.
It was a powerful teaching. Being a hospice nurse, I had fooled myself into believing I had accepted the impermanence of life. But when that reality got personal and real, I saw that I have a long way to go in my understanding! I was not willing to let go of this life.
So we sang some spiritual songs as I tried to focus on my breath. What brought me the most calm was chanting Avalokiteshvara’s name and visualizing the Buddha’s and Thay’s smiling faces.
This experience was a great mirror in which I saw that my practice has yielded only partial success. And it was a great inspiration to practice wholeheartedly, and to live each day as if it may be the last. As we gained altitude, we flew back to Hue. After refueling, we reboarded the plane for another try.
Christian Bergmann, Joyful Gratitude of the Heart, lives in Berlin, Germany and practices with the Source of Compassion Sangha.
My plan was to take a friend and my children, Ben, five, and Emily, eight, to the family retreat at Deer Park over the fourth of July weekend. This would be our third family retreat with the Deer Park Sangha. Though my husband, Bruce, recently passed away, my hope was to return to a place where we had shared many meaningful times and to continue our family practice with the support of the Sangha. The week before the retreat, my friend decided not to come. Three days before the retreat, Emily voiced her desire not to come as well. When she told me it was “not right to force her” to attend a mindfulness retreat, I could not deny the truth of her words. She and my son opted to stay home with a babysitter and for only the second time as a parent, I traveled without my husband and children.
I felt a mixture of excitement, freedom, anxiety, and fear as I headed out of town: thrilled at the prospect of having only myself to look after and all the programs I could attend uninterrupted by my children’s needs; excited that my children felt safe, independent, and trusting enough to speak their truth and send me on retreat; delighted that I could release my plans and concerns about what others might think, and just take care of myself. All these feelings were mixed with a strange new feeling of independence after the past year of caretaking during Bruce’s illness and dying process. After dreaming of getting away (and sometimes of running away) during the past year while sitting in doctor’s offices and hospitals, in the fullness of time, I was presented with the possibility of a dream come true. And I had taken it.
In this state of mind, I arrived at Deer Park, fully expecting the retreat to be a life-changing experience, based on my previous retreat experience there. I felt open in a way that I never had before––expectant, wondering, and alive. I surrendered to the retreat and the time was magical for me. I practiced mindfulness with my whole heart and created my intention to be fully present. with my experiences and to the Sangha. I am so grateful to the Sangha for the support my family has been offered, and I wanted to give back. I let go of my tendency to create arbitrary plans and instead just followed the schedule and my instincts about where I needed to be, what thoughts and feelings were coming up for me, what I needed to be doing and with whom, and trusted in the refuge of the three jewels.
Besides attending nearly every scheduled activity, I also had the luxury of engaging in many conversations with my lay and monastic brothers and sisters. Highlights of the retreat for me were the Rose Ceremony, the early morning hike up the mountain, participating in a Five Mindfulness Trainings panel presentation, and attending wonderful Dharma talks on parenting. Nourishing moments included laughing with friends in the garden and dining hall after meals, crying about Bruce’s death, seeing a raven for the first time, learning about oak trees, and sleeping in a hut in Clarity Hamlet with the nuns. Everything felt safe and familiar yet totally fresh, surprising, and new to me at the same time.
I have brought home a recharged spiritual battery, newfound and deepened friendships, a more intimate understanding of myself, my marriage, my children, and my priorities as a mother, daughter, sister, and practitioner. I continue to experience new insights that help me transform my life. Central to my newfound freedom has been an awareness of how my plans and ideas about how to parent interfere with my enjoyment of my life and my children here and now. I’ve noticed since I’ve been home that I’ve been listening more deeply to my children, feeling more patient with myself and with them, and taking more time for myself when I feel sad, tired, irritable, or frustrated. I’ve been aware of not pushing myself like I used to and continue to make time and space for my practice at home every day.
Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, is a psychologist and lives with her children near Deer Park Monastery.
By Laureen Lazarovici
One of the most satisfying aspects of my retreat at Deer Park in September was taking part in the Jewish Roots discussion group. I knew they were my dharma brothers and sisters and at the same time my tribesmen and women, connected to me by 6000 years of Jewish history and heritage. I heard tales of ambivalence, inner conflict, pain, and also joy, liberation, and compassion. We were all struggling with integrating two moral systems and two sets of spiritual practices into our lives in authentic and meaningful ways.
I’m now realizing how much I saw and experienced the entire retreat through Jewish eyes. For instance, I had great resistance to having meals in silence. In Jewish cultures, and many others as well, meals are times for family and friends to gather, discuss, argue, debate—in short, to be noisy. Jewish holidays are often organized around festive meals and special dishes: the Passover seder features symbolic foods to commemorate the Exodus from slavery to liberation, or we break the fast together after Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. So to be silent while eating when there were other people around was a challenge.
As if to rebel, I made inane small talk in my head and ate my meals as mindlessly as if I were making inane small talk with my friends. I know this was a lost opportunity to practice with gratitude, but it was an eye-opener in its own way.
A Buddhist Bar Mitzvah
During the retreat, I had the privilege of witnessing the transmission ceremonies for the Fourteen and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My reaction was, “We should do this instead of bar mitzvahs.” A bar mitzvah is the coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish thirteen-year-old boys; for girls, the ceremony is called a bat mitzvah. The translation is “son or daughter of the commandments.” For the first time a young person reads from the Torah publicly in synagogue and—ostensibly—takes on the moral responsibility of adulthood.
But in our society, thirteen-year-olds aren’t really on the cusp of adulthood, and many bar and bat mitzvahs simply involve big parties and awkward teenagers trying to pretend they are having a good time. Watching the transmission ceremonies, I thought about how much more powerful it would be if our coming-of-age rituals allowed people—at whatever time in their lives they felt ready—to proclaim publicly and in front of their communities a commitment to live by a set of guiding precepts that bring harmony and happiness to our hearts, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.
Segregating the Sexes
The night before one of the transmission ceremonies, the monks and nuns told the Sangha that for the following morning’s ritual men would sit on one side of the room and women on the other. I’m emphatically not a morning person, so the next morning I dashed to the meditation hall barely awake. In my foggy-headedness, I sat on the men’s side of the hall by mistake. A man sitting in front of me leaned back and tapped me on the knee in what felt like an unnecessarily harsh way. “The women sit on that side,” he hissed.
I skulked to the back of the hall and examined my emotions. I felt humiliated and angry, but out of proportion to the incident. It took me a few days to realize why this experience touched a soft spot. Much more than a rough tap on the knee, what bothered me was the ongoing struggle for equality within Judaism.
For their prayer services, very religious Jews segregate the men from the women. The two genders sit on separate sides of the prayer space, usually divided by a mechitzah, a screen or curtain. Sometimes the women’s section is even in the back or upstairs. More liberal branches of Judaism do not follow this practice.
The issue of separate seating divides the Jewish community because it is an indicator of separate and often unequal gender roles in the religion and culture. So for me to be shooed off to the women’s section in a Buddhist context was jarring. [See Sister Annabel’s commentary on “Sitting Separately” in the sidebar.]
What To Keep and What To Let Go Of
Another powerful experience for me during the retreat was the practice of touching the earth. As we lay prostrate on the ground, our teacher instructed us to hold on to what we valued about our ancestors and let go of what caused us pain.
My rigid mind resisted this instruction at first. “No, it’s all or nothing. You have to take the bad parts if you want the good parts.” But then a voice of compassion arose: “Who made up that rule? Just try and see how it feels.” I took a deep breath and let some of the negative legacies from my ancestors flow downward and seep out of my body and into the earth. I felt cleansed and liberated.
Those of us exploring and embracing Buddhism who also want the richness of our root tradition in our spiritual lives can do the same thing. We can experiment with what we keep and what we let go of. These might shift over time, re-assembling themselves in new and perhaps surprising ways. As we work to integrate our practice of Judaism with our practice of Buddhism, we are honoring our roots while letting our branches reach upwards to bring forth new leaves.
Laureen Lazarovici, an “alumna” of the Weeping Cherry Sangha in Arlington, Virginia, now sits with the Malibu Sangha in Los Angeles, California.
By Laurie Lawlor University of Wisconsin Press, 2005 Hardcover, 166 pages, $26.95
Reviewed by Janice Rubin
In a volume of fewer than 200 pages, Laurie Lawlor, author of thirty-three books for children and adults, writes the story of a love affair with a swamp that is ultimately a clarion call to preserve our wetlands if we wish to ensure adequate supplies of potable water. Lawlor and her husband, Jack, bought the eleven-acre property in southeast Wisconsin as a way to “reconstruct” themselves following the deaths of their fathers within months of each other. In spring they planted a pin oak, beneath which were placed her father’s ashes.
This Tender Place is permeated with Lawlor’s deep practice of mindfulness in nature. As a Dharma teacher who has received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh, her stories reflect her ten-year intimacy with the vegetation, animal life, and minerals in this 14,000-year-old fen. In an enchanting tableau of the four seasons of the year, beginning with winter and going back to the start of the Ice Age, she chronicles the gradual formation of the current wetlands landscape and its seasonal changes.
We are with her as she travels by kayak or canoe along the streams and passageways of the fen to the lake, or walks the paths and slogs through mud, observing the changes in water quality, vegetation, and animal life at each season of the year. We note the coming of spring in the water bubbling up through cracks in the ice on the marshes as winter ends, the incipience of summer in the return of mated pairs of cranes in early spring, the crackling of the drying water-lily pads and the presence of scum, white swan feathers, and dead insects on the pond foretelling the coming autumn and “the long slide into the beginning of silence.” On her last kayaking trip of the year, she finds herself cutting through a thin film of ice; the turtles and frogs are gone, vegetation is floating loose, and snow begins to fall.
Unrestricted hunting led to the extinction in the area of elk, white-tail deer, black bear, wild turkey, sandhill cranes, and massasauga rattlesnakes by 1850. Past practices of draining wet areas to create land that can be farmed or developed for housing, shopping centers, or industrial uses have resulted in the diminished availability of fresh water as the population grows. Grassroots conservancy groups are now involved in promoting the reclamation and preservation of watersheds, prairies, woodlands, shorelines, and other sensitive areas from human indifference.
We feel, with Lawlor, a growing sense of oneness with the environment as she makes her way. Twenty-two photographs, most of them taken by her, reflect the peaceful aspect of this tender place even when animal and plant life are most abundant. For this, if for no other reason, wetlands areas must be preserved as places where people can find refuge from the hurly-burly of everyday life.
By Ko Un Parallax Press, 2005 Softcover, 381 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by Judith Toy
A novel twenty-two years in the writing by celebrated Korean poet and former Buddhist monk Ko Un (pronounced ‘Go Oon’), this book is a Dharma treasure brought to us by translators Brother Anthony of Taizé and Young-Moo Kim. The protagonist is a tenyear-old boy, Sudhana, who during his life’s fantastical journey, morphs more than once into an adult and even once into a leper.
He encounters fifty-three teachers in all, sometimes in dreams, from gods to singing snails to a boy who becomes a girl, to bums and bodhisattvas (sometimes the bums are bodhisattvas), a giant, an underworld, heavenly realms, vanishing beings, and a kite that points the way on his travels.
Ko Un’s fiction without a plot is based on the thirty-ninth, the last and longest section of the Avatamsaka Sutra, known as the Garland Sutra––a teaching that’s had an extraordinary impact on East Asian Buddhism since its introduction into China in the sixth century.
Supposedly derived from a series of sermons by the historical Gautama Buddha––or possibly by his disciple, the bodhisattva of Great Action, Samantabhadra, Ko Un’s poetic rendering of the pilgrim’s journey is like a string of wisdom pearls.
Like St. Exupery’s Little Prince, who always felt he was at home, the little pilgrim Sudhana teaches us two crucial lessons: how to see the signposts that show us where to go next on our life’s pilgrimage; and how to let go. At each stop, someone or something directs the boy to his next destination. He only hears them because this child without parents or roots is able to move through the universe with an open heart. He simply allows each teaching to enter him, and then the young pilgrim moves on.
The setting is India in the Gautama Buddha era, and some place names are familiar to us from the life of the Buddha. While the Buddha is not a character in the novel, there are increasingly frequent references to his teachings as the boy’s journey unfolds. To fully receive the sweep of Ko Un’s novel as a metaphor for our lives, it’s probably best to read it through at once, rather than piecemeal. Readers will want to linger at the striking papercut illustrations by Jason DeAntonis that pepper the text.
As a sangha body we can apply these two lessons––trusting the way enough to be available to the teachings that abound in every moment and becoming still enough to know where as a sangha our path is leading us next; and allowing ourselves to let go of the many people who come and go in a sangha, loving them in a nonattached way. Allowing the comings and goings to happen without any resistance, without clinging. With the Buddha, Ko Un shows how to let go and join the dance!
By James Eggert Published by Humanics, Lake Worth, Florida Hardcover; 90 pages; $14.95
Reviewed by Hope Lindsay and Barbara Casey
James Eggert is an emeritus faculty member of the University of Wisconsin. As both economist and ecologist, Eggert offers a singular perspective on the workings of our world and our relationships in it. For example, he suggests that we consider the concept of market capitalism as a flawed gemstone. Inspecting it for defects from the viewpoint of an economist and then an ecologist, Eggert offers a vision to bring balance and harmony back into our economic system.
Eggert’s simple stories offer a wise view of life and practical methods for deepening our understanding of interbeing. To help develop balance and an increased awareness of other species, he describes simple t’ai chi exercises that embody qualities of bear, crane, monkey, deer, and tiger. Opening our eyes to a larger view of the world, Eggert describes the unfolding of the universe, through stellar contractions and expansions, the origin of water, the moon’s influence, and the development of life forms.
Each chapter begins with a verse from the Tao Te Ching, a slim volume written by Lao Tzu 2,400 years ago, and woven into the heart of Buddhist teachings. The wisdom of simplicity, balance, and letting go show us a way through the complexities of modern life and the confusion of searching for happiness outside ourselves. The last chapter, “The Wonder of the Tao,” begins with the verse:
“If you don’t realize the source, You stumble in confusion and sorrow… Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, You can deal with whatever life brings you, And when death comes, you are ready.”
Eggert gently leads us back to the source of true happiness, through his stories of connecting with nature and seeing the world in all its remarkable beauty. In the book’s foreword, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Please enjoy this offering of our friend, James Eggert, as an invitation to enter into a deep relationship with our home the earth and all her creatures, to cultivate our awakened wisdom to find harmony and balance.”
The Wonder of the Tao is generously illustrated with calligraphy and brush paintings by Li-chin Crystal Huang. A lovely snapshot of one man’s walk in mindfulness through our world, this book reflects the simplicity and fullness of which it speaks.