meditation

Strengthening Relationships

By Therese Fitzgerald At the international gathering of the Order of Interbeing in October 1996 at Plum Village, there was much discussion about mentoring. Thfty proposed that a person not only "wait" a year after receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings to join the Order, but that there be a training program within the Sangha based on the four-year Dharma teacher training program. Over the years, it has become apparent that preparation for receiving the Trainings and becoming a community leader are essential for strengthening the individual and the Order.

In Interbeing, Thay writes, "If you want to formally receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and enter the core community of the Order of Interbeing, it is because you wish to become a community leader, to organize the practice in a Sangha. Only when you have the feeling that you have enough time, energy, and interest to take care of a community should you ask for formal ordination. Then you will be working together with other brothers and sisters."

Returning to Berkeley, I encouraged our local Sangha to engage in a program of preparation for three friends who had declared their intentions to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. We met monthly to discuss aspirations, review our understanding and practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings and the Three Refuges, explore the 01 Charter, and learn with Wendy Johnson about practicing mindfulness with children. The aspirants also engaged in a program of "meditation hall caretaking"-practicing inviting the bell, hosting evenings of practice, and leading Trainings Recitation Ceremonies. Last August we met for a weekend of practice and training. When the three aspirants received the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings from Thay at the Santa Barbara retreat, it was a wonderful occasion for celebration by the whole Sangha of their careful efforts.

In the past few months, I have engaged in mentoring by correspondence and in person with more than a dozen aspirants nationwide who do not have ordained members nearby. I developed an outline, drawn from materials presented in this issue, as a base of exploration in the mentoring relationship. We correspond each month, and arrange for individual meetings and group training days whenever possible, along with at least two retreats a year together.

Working within this framework, we are developing relationships to help inform and sustain the practice of mindfulness in our lives. My individual relationships with Dharma brothers and sisters are crucial for my own growth and deepening of understanding. It is wonderful to be part of a process that nurtures these kinds of relationships among people with shared aspirations.

Dharma teacher Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, is a Co-Director of the Order of Interbeing.

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May All Children Live as Children

By Michele Benzamin-Masuda I t was another weekly visit to Central Juvenile Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Mr. Russell was showing us the Special Lock Down Unit. He opened a door and I walked into one of the solitary confinement rooms. A solid door with a peephole closed behind me. A camera sat behind a protective screen above the door. In the back of the room was a tightly-screened, ban'ed window. I stood for a moment, barely able to breathe. A sadness came over me that the staff member picked up on. "It is prison," he said. In silence I wondered how I, let alone a child, would feel locked in this room. We moved on to the monitor room, where screens showed two similar rooms occupied by small bodies wrapped up completely in sheets. They lay motionless the whole time we were there.

This unit holds the long-term residents kids too violent or suicidal to be with others, Young, at-risk meditators in East Los Angeles older, high-risk offenders awaiting sentencing, and those under the Witness Protection Program. As the tour ended, Mr. Russell expressed hope that we could start a meditation project in the unit. Many members of our Ordinary Dharma Sangha now teach meditation at Central Juvenile Hall through our "Jizo Project." With other Buddhist organizations, such as International Buddhist Meditation Center and Zen Center of LA, we work with the older high-risk offenders incarcerated for violent Climes, the girls' unit, the younger boys' unit, and occasionally, the special unit devoted to youth with misdemeanor offenses.

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We have a special relationship with Harvier Stauring, the Catholic Lay Chaplain in the prison. Harvier supports our work and offers his church space to our Days of Mindfulness, peace programs, and lectures. The church is in an enclosed area in the middle of the prison-a peaceful setting for mindfulness practice. We share common goals of helping the kids be in this place, giving them choices for not returning, and especially, coping with their home life.

I am deeply moved every time I visit this facility. I have worked with a wide range of kids here, but my choice and circumstances have put me in the younger boys' unit. Mr. Russell refers to this unit as the test for all programs. "These kids need meditation the most!" he says.

The youngest boy I've worked with was eight years old- a very hyperactive, talkative, tiny boy with wide eyes and furrowed brow. He needed of a lot of attention and was afraid to close his eyes during the meditation. The boy seemed so stressed for his age. I stayed with him and tried various techniques to teach him to relax. He eventually calmed down. I later learned that the day before my visit, this boy was put in solitary confinement because of the overflow in his unit, and attempted to take his life. His short life has included gangs, malnutrition, drugs, and stealing.

The general rule is not to ask the kids about their crimes. I don't need to know how they got here. When I look at them, I see children wanting desperately to be children, to be guided, make mistakes, to grow and learn, and most of all, be happy. What grounds me is to see the young boy in all of them, to talk to the part of them that desires to be a kid, do kid things, and hold kid dreams. Most of them worry about court, their families, and when they'll get out.

They all need a good night's sleep, so I teach them relaxation and lying-down meditation. We also talk about anger. They get pepper-sprayed a lot in this unit because of their inability to control themselves. I teach them to stop and breathe deeply, count to ten, and see that to act out anger and get pepper-sprayed is not worth it.

A lot of the kids are in for drug use. I show them a way to get naturally high through breath, yoga, and chanting. Many miss their families, so I teach them how to visit their loved ones through a guided lovingkindness meditation they can do later on their own. Many kids are Christian, so I refer to it as a form of prayer. We discuss the Five Mindfulness Trainings, especially right speech. There are many benefits to speaking kindly or practicing silence and listening. Much of the fighting with each other and the trouble with staff comes from unskillful speech.

A visit from someone who cares can be the thread that saves a young person's life. Understanding this is what keeps me fresh and feeling undefeated by the system. Often I get only one opportunity to work with these boys, on occasion three or four times. Then, they are gone. Juvenile Halls are where kids wait for a sentence or placement. They do not serve time here, though some older ones are here a long time, sometimes years.

When I asked these young boys what are the benefits of meditation, they offered these gems. It helps you relax, focus, open your mind, pray, see your loved ones, go home, get a good night's sleep, deal with anger and sadness. And one beauty of an 11-year-old boy looked at me quite seriously and said, "It helps you get in touch with your feminine side."

I am now setting up Meditation and Peace Education programs with some local community-based organizations for probation kids and kids-at-risk during the critical afterschool hours. Our youth play an integral part in the future of this planet. It is our responsibility to give them the tools to live peaceably.

Michele Benzamin-Masuda, True Treasure, is a resident meditation teacher and co-founder of Manzanita Village Retreat Center. She holds a fourth-degree blackbelt in Aikido and a third-degree in laido sword.

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An Interview with Kobutsu

By Carole Melkonian Reverend Kobutsu, Kevin Malone, is ordained in the Rinzai Zen tradition, and has been teaching meditation in prisons since 1992. The following excerpts are from a conversation with Kobutsu during Thich Nhat Hanh's retreat at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last October.

How did you make the connection between your spiritual practice and prisons?

In 1992 the Vice Abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji, Edio Shimano Roshi's monastery in upstate New York, asked me to take over a meditation group at Sing-Sing, a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. I readily agreed.

What is practice like in the prison?

We begin by cultivating a relationship between the individual prisoner and his community. For example, when a man comes to the prison "zendo," the first thing we teach him is to bow to the other men in his community. This recognition and respect is the first gift they receive and is so valuable in prison culture. It is very much what Zen training in prison is about.

Before I started coming, the group sat for five minutes of meditation and then had unstructured time. Now, we chant the Heart Sutra and sit in meditation for four 30 minute periods. The "zen do" is open two evenings and one morning each week. We also hold retreats and a basic Buddhism class is taught monthly by a Buddhist nun. We have been recognized by the New York Department of Correctional Services as running a very well-structured program. More importantly, the men are tremendously grateful to have access to Zen practice, and to be able to practice refraining from violence. Those who sit regularly are able to begin to express compassion to their fellow inmates and to corrections officers.

You have been working with people on death row, and you accompanied Jusan Parker to his death in an Arkansas prison. Could you speak about your experiences with people on death row?

On August 8, 1996, Jusan Frankie Parker, my friend and Dharma brother, was executed despite letters from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many other renowned Dharma teachers. During the last six months of Jusan's life, we worked to gain clemency for him. With the support of thousands of people, we did our best and are without regrets.

I spent the last day of Jusan's life with him. We held hands and meditated together. I joined him for his last meal, helped him answer letters, and assisted him writing an after death statement which I read at a press conference immediately after his death. We chanted the Three Refuges together as we walked down "the last mile," a hall lined with officers in riot gear, toward the execution chamber. Our chanting continued as we approached our shrine, a cardboard box covered with a piece of felt on which a Buddha figure sat. We bowed to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Before Jusan entered the death chamber, we did three deep bows to each other. We stopped chanting and I looked directly into his eyes. A single tear glistened as it rolled down his cheek. We embraced, and he whispered in my ear, "I love you, my brother. Thank you so much." We bowed to each other one more time. This time our foreheads touched. It was the last contact we had. We began chanting the Three Refuges again. The guards ushered me out a side door as Frankie was moved into the death chamber. I saw the waiting hearse and felt totally empty inside. I was brought to the death chamber viewing room where the state witnesses were seated. I continued chanting and watched as he was injected with poison. He died within minutes. His last words were "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha."

Since Jusan's death, I have received many letters from people on death row-some are Buddhist, others are not. I will probably have to watch some of these people die at the hands of the State; that is, at the hands of all of us. I will stand by any person who asks me to, whether a Buddhist or not. All I can do is bear witness and treat those who are executed and the executioners themselves with honesty, dignity, and compassion.

Reverend Kobutsu corresponds with close to a thousand prisoners, including 16 people on death row. To support his work or to receive Gateway Journal, a publication dedicated to the emancipation of the hearts and minds of incarcerated people, please write to The Engaged Zen Foundation, P.O. Box 700, Ramsey, NJ, 07446-0700. All donations are tax deductible. 

Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is a nurse in the intensive care unit of a Northern California hospital.


The following is an excerpt of a letter from Jusan Frankie Parker to Kobutsu while on death row: "Being convicted of killing two people caused me to seek some way of trying to understand my actions. It led me to karma and the karmic winds that blow us through life, winds that we generate ourselves. I am the first person to become a Buddhist priest while incarcerated in the Arkansas prison system. Through contemplative practice I've learned patience, the greatest thing you can have in a prison environment. Now I smile more often than not. I enjoy every second, and I've learned the most important tbing a sentient being can learn-how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I may be murdered by the State. I'll die with a smile on my ugly old face . They will not understand, but you'll know."

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Gatha

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

Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh.

Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. Breathing out, I feel solid.

Breathing in, I see myself as still water. Breathing out, I reflect all that is.

Breathing in, I see myself as space. Breathing out, I feel free.

From Touching Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Acceptance

By Patrecia Lenore I have fibromyalgia, a close relative of chronic fatigue syndrome. I am always in pain, all over my body, sometimes low-grade, sometimes acute. When the pain is acute, it feels like my body is on fire and my bones are being scraped. I also have fatigue. Again, sometimes it is low-grade, sometimes so acute that it is difficult to breathe or eat. Although I cannot always prevent or predict acute attacks of pain or fatigue, I have learned a lot about how to manage my life so it is less likely that I will reach the acute stage. Meditation is one of my most valuable tools.

Meditation helps me notice the subtle signs of a possible flare-up. As Thay says about strong feelings in Peace Is Every Step, the first step is to be aware. If I'm aware of my body's signals, I can see, hear, or feel the signs of weakness and pain. After the initial awareness, I usually have to work on accepting what my body is telling me. This is not always easy. In fact, it usually isn't. Like most people, I want to finish what I'm doing, whether it is work or pleasure. It's difficult to stop. But if I can concentrate on the fact that stopping and resting is being loving to myself, rather than focusing on the feelings of disappointment and deprivation, then I can allow myself to rest. Sometimes this means simply observing my breath with my eyes closed. Sometimes I am able to listen to quiet music. If I catch the signals soon enough, I might have the strength to talk to a friend or read a book. Often the most difficult part is watching my mind being scared and projecting that I will always feel this way. I try to remember that everything changes, even pain. And when I can't remember that very well, I call a friend to remind me.

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I need to work on accepting my limitations within this illness and asking for help. Recently, I was caring for my grandchildren while my daughter and her husband moved into their new house. I wanted to help pack and carry things, but after a few minutes, was not able to continue because of the pain and fatigue. Immediately, thoughts about my deceased mother arose. She was almost always ill, and, I am sorry to say, my brothers and sisters and I felt very critical of her a lot of the time. Now I have a lot more compassion for her. I also had a lot of self-pitying thoughts. When that happens, I'm learning to gently turn my mind to what I can do. In this case, I reminded myself that perhaps my quiet presence was calming to those who were packing and moving, and that helping keep my grandchildren happy was enough. Without my meditation practice of looking deeply, I would not have known how sad I felt about my limitations or that I needed to gently change my focus to what I was able to do.

At the wonderful retreat in Santa Barbara this fall, I noticed it was easy to assist the staff in finding help for the differently-abled, but difficult to put myself in that category. An amusing thing happened. I helped find an alternate space for morning meditation for those unable to walk on the beach, never dreaming I would be one of those people. But on Monday morning, I found myself in that very space, because the ocean air was too cold for me. There were only a few of us, but each morning I had the pleasure of Sister Jina's gentle and "solid like a mountain" presence, leading us in meditation and mindful movements. Her presence brought me and the others joy and peace. What a treat!

Here is a meditation verse I composed to help remind me that it's okay to ask for help.

Breathing in, I scan my body; Breathing out, I smile gently to my body. Breathing in, I scan my mind; Breathing out, I smile gently to my mind. Breathing in, I feel tiredness (or pain); Breathing out, I open to my tiredness. Breathing in, I see I need assistance; Breathing out, I ask for help, knowing it helps others too. Breathing in, I accept others' assistance; Breathing out, I feel gratitude.

I offer this verse in loving gratitude to Thay and all the wonderful teachers that I have encountered in myriad forms—people, animals, plants and minerals.

Patrecia Lenore, Flower of True Virtue, practices with the Community of Mindfulness/New York Metro.

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My Mind is a Stage

Introducing Mindfulness to High School Students and Teachers Richard  Brady

I grew up on Chicago’s Northshore, the area which, I later learned, had the highest teenage suicide rate in the country at the time. My own high school years were uneventful, but my younger brother’s were very troubled. I suspect that this was a major reason why I chose to devote my life to working with teenagers. After teaching high school mathematics for thirty years, I realized that there was something more I needed to do with my life. I took a year off to discover what that might be. Only a few weeks after receiving a leave of absence I found out what it was. My friend Sue Anne called to tell me about the tensions the students and teachers were experiencing in the schools in her area. “Someone should teach them meditation,” I heard myself reply. It immediately dawned on me, I was that someone.

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The following is an account of this teaching and some of its outcomes.

Whether or not you are a teacher, if you would like to share mindfulness practice with others, you may be able to use some of my ideas. Perhaps you can share them with teachers you know.

During the last three years I have been given a number of opportunities to introduce mindfulness practice to students and teachers in my Quaker high school as well as to student and faculty groups in other private and public high schools. I usually advertise my presentations under the banner of stress reduction, since this is a fairly widespread issue for both high school students and faculty. Underlying these presentations are the following premises: high school students and their teachers are seldom aware of how their minds work. When given the opportunity to examine their minds, they enjoy doing so. The experience will in many cases reveal sources of stress which meditation can alleviate.

An Experiment in Awareness

I have presented a forty-five minute assembly to my entire high school and a workshop of similar length to high school faculty members in two other schools. In each case I have begun by suggesting that our minds play a significant role in our wellbeing. I then lead an exercise to give people an understanding of how this may be. “When I talk about mind,” I say, “I am talking about awareness.” It helps people to think of their awareness as a stage. On that stage a variety of things make an appearance: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, physical sensations. I tell the group that we will conduct a short experiment and watch what is playing on our personal stages. After the group gets comfortable, I ask them to close their eyes and tune in to whatever may be on their stage of awareness. I ask them simply to try to watch whatever thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations arise during the next few minutes, observing them, but not getting carried away by them.

After five minutes I invite a bell and ask people to slowly open their eyes. Then I ask for a show of hands to a series of questions. How many of you were aware of physical sensations: sounds, smells, tastes, your contact with your seat, your heartbeat, your breathing, your feet, your mouth, you hair? How many of you were aware of emotions or thoughts? More than one thought? More than five? More than ten? How many of you saw a thought arise, a thought end? These are very intriguing questions for many of the participants. Returning to feelings, I ask how many people experienced negative feelings, neutral feelings, positive feelings, then negative thoughts, neutral ones, positive ones. Focusing on the negative feelings and thoughts, I ask how many had to do with things that have already happened, things we are upset or guilty about. Usually quite a few relate to this. I then ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the future, things we are anxious about. This also gets a good response. Finally, I ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the present. As a teacher, I want to be open to the discomfort some may be having with this experience.

What our minds do during this particular five minute interval of our waking life is repeated about 70,000 times each year. If we multiply the number of negative thoughts and feelings we observed by 70,000, we might understand why the mind plays such a significant role in creating stress. However, if we are able to become more aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that enter our minds and develop ways to replace them with positive ones, we will be able to live happier, less stressful lives.

I explain that meditation is one way to help our minds turn more readily to healthy thoughts.

Math  Meditation

At this point in the presentation, in order to make a connection between meditation and the high school experience, I speak about how I came to do meditation. I tell the audience the following story. When I started reading The Miracle of Mindfulness fifteen years ago, I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings so compelling that I began starting each math class with a short reading from the book. The students greatly appreciated these readings, so I went on to read them The Sun My Heart. It all sounded great. However, the way of living portrayed by Thay in these books felt so different from my own that it seemed to me that I could not begin living this way just through reading.

At the end of the school year when the seniors returned from three weeks off campus working on senior projects, one of them offered a presentation on his three-week project at the Zen Center of Washington, DC. Here, I thought, is someone who is actually doing meditation. Perhaps I can learn something about how it works from him. The student, named Chris, began his presentation by telling us that a classmate and he had been reading Eastern religion and philosophy books since seventh grade. Recently Chris had discovered the local Zen center, and “decided to put my body where my mind was.” I felt Chris talking directly to me.

Chris spoke of his experience with tremendous enthusiasm. He showed pictures and recounted some dramatic experiences during a three day intensive meditation retreat he attended as part of his project. At the conclusion of his talk, another student, noting Chris’ enthusiasm, asked him whether, besides doing a lot of sitting on cushions now, his life was different in other ways. Chris first responded by saying that meditation had affected him in many ways. However, most were so subtle he couldn’t put them into words. After a pause, he went on, “I can tell you that I am less angry.” Chris’ presentation, especially this last statement, was very moving to me. As I thanked him, I made a promise to him and to myself that I would try to meditate. Thus Chris became my first meditation teacher.

During the following six years I met Thay, helped establish the Washington Mindfulness Community and attended two Plum Village retreats. On returning from the second, I was invited to give an assembly about my experiences there. This assembly featured a slide show and stories about Plum Village life. I concluded my presentation with a brief meditation focused on the breath.

I conclude the personal part of my presentation by reading from an article which Audrey, a senior, and I wrote for The Mindfulness Bell. In the article we described how a few days after the Plum Village assembly, as our high school sat in its weekly Quaker meeting for worship, Audrey spontaneously rose and spoke

out of the silence. She told the students how closing her eyes and focusing on her breath had dispelled her feelings of stress late the previous night. She concluded, “The action is so little, but the reward is tremendous.”

This last story provides a good opportunity for me to invite the participants to move, as I did, from learning about meditation to practicing it. I then lead the group in a ten minute guided meditation, meditation, using Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha:

In/Out Deep/Slow Calm/Ease Smile/Release Present Moment/Wonderful Moment

I prepare the group for the meditation by having them sit erect, shoulders relaxed, both feet on the floor. Then I ask them to focus on their breath and to coordinate their in and out breaths with the phrases of the meditation verse. I use a bell to begin and end the meditation and to signal each transition. At the conclusion of the meditation, I ask the participants to turn to a neighbor and share their experience.

I have found this short introduction to be effective in emphasizing the importance of awareness of the mind and using this awareness to tune the mind to healthy channels. I’ve encountered a variety of reactions. In one faculty workshop, a teacher told me he could not even begin to focus on his breath and the words I gave him because he was so riled up about an interaction he had just had with a student. This verse is one of many possible meditations, I replied. The breath can also assist us in being with strong emotions, helping us hold them in our awareness without getting lost in them. However, our meditation practice needs to be strong in order to do this. If we are able to embrace our emotions with our breath, we may learn some valuable things about ourselves and relate to our emotions in a less stressful way in the process.

Basketball  Meditation

The members of the Physical Education Department at my school were not able to come to my meditation assembly, so they invited me to do a special workshop for them. I started in a similar fashion, inviting them to observe their minds. Then, since the group was interested in developing concentration and it was lunch time, I invited them to do eating meditation with raisins. Later, the boys’ varsity basketball coach asked if there might be something I could do with his team members to help them improve their foul shooting. A week later I was with the team as they stood in a row facing a basket, each with a basketball in his hands. I asked the players to assume a comfortable position with eyes closed. When I blew the coach’s whistle, they began watching whatever was passing through their awareness and continued doing this until I blew the whistle a second time, five minutes later. Although they never repeated this meditation during subsequent practices, the coach told me the team’s foul shooting did improve.

Encountering  Suffering

Several years ago an invitation to share mindfulness practice with her twelfth grade class came to me from a religion teacher at another Quaker school. The class had been studying the events leading up to the Holocaust and would soon be reading disturbing, graphic accounts of the Holocaust. To help prepare the students to be open to the suffering they would be encountering, I told them that mindfulness practice could provide them a way to be with suffering without being overwhelmed by it. I described the process of holding emotions in one’s awareness like a mother cradling a crying infant, holding the emotions with great tenderness.  Class members then chose personal experiences of suffering, perhaps an argument with a friend, or receiving a low test grade,. After establishing themselves firmly in their awareness of their breath, they got in touch with their suffering and held it gently for five minutes. Afterwards, some students chose to share their experiences with the class.

I took a different approach in working with two other classes. The eleventh/twelfth grade Peace Studies class students had gotten advance word that I would be coming to teach meditation. I was a surprise guest in ninth grade English class. I began both classes by telling the students that I taught high school math and also taught meditation to students and teachers. I wondered what reasons their teacher might have had for inviting me to teach meditation to their class. In both classes a number of hands immediately shot up. I took notes on all the students had to say. When they finished, I used the students’ comments to shape my remarks and, to some extent, my choice of meditations. One student in the English class suggested that I had been invited by his teacher because the class tended to be restless. This gave me a great opportunity to invite the class to do a short meditation on restlessness.

Transformations

Following my meditation assembly I offered a twelve week introductory mindfulness course, which a ninth grader from my school and two faculty members took. Like Chris fourteen years before, this ninth grader is a young man who needs to deal with his anger. Mindfulness practice has provided him a much-needed tool for doing so. My two teacher friends reported that meditation, when they take the time to do it, gives them relief from stress they experience at work and at home. A few other students, who have not pursued meditation in a formal way, have mentioned using it to reduce their anxiety before tests. All of the students and teachers have experienced meditation as an inner resource which they might recall and draw upon at some future time when their lives signal to them a need for change.

Over the last few years my own understanding and practice of mindfulness has been affected by my teaching experiences. I began using the stage metaphor for consciousness as a way of helping my students be more able to step back and observe their minds. The more often I use this image, the more real it becomes for me. These days I find it easier to get some distance from the goings-on on my own stage.

My teaching has also developed. I first approached my students with the notion that negative thoughts and feelings not only lead to stress but are intrinsically bad. Watching their negativity was part of a sales pitch I was making for the guided meditation to follow, a means of changing the mind’s channel. Now I find sitting back and just watching whatever is on stage tremendously important in and of itself. I continue to call it an experiment in my presentations, though I see it as a valuable skill to develop and employ. To the extent that I am able to watch without engaging, I have less need to tune in to a different show. I can see both negative and positive scenes on my stage as transitory products of my mind, whose primary significance lies in what I make of them. I no longer present the guided meditation as a means of escaping negative mind states. Rather, it is a form of enrichment, a pick-me-up, which my students and I might use at any time.

My foremost goal in teaching meditation and mathematics is the same, to offer my students opportunities to be mindful – mindful of their minds, of their breath, of mathematics and math problems, of other students. If I am successful, students will find their own personal meaning and values in their experiences. The effects will mostly be subtle and evident only over time, just as they have been for me.

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Dear fellow teachers and educators you may be interested in joining the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN) listserv by sending a message to MiEN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness in Education Network. He teaches high school math in Wash, D.C.

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Opening the Voice with the Practice of Chanting

Brother  Goodness When I was in grade school and high school I attended chorus classes, but I never paid much attention. It was a wonderful time to goof around, and for my classmates and I it often turned towards playful endeavor that tested our teachers’ sanity. I was not aware of the opportunity I had in that moment. But as much as I tried to avoid and resist it, then and at other times, learning to open my voice in speech, song, and chant has become a great part of my life.

Many seasons flourished and faded away while I lived under the great fear of simply opening my voice and singing. I sensed that when we do this we reveal ourselves; our voice transmits to those around us a direct experience of what is going on inside. What is in us vibrates in the listener, and it can be frightening when we are revealed like that to others, and even to ourselves.

This is a fear of being in touch with the reality of ourselves. And this fear is based on the belief that we are individuals, separate from others. We cannot avoid the perils of such misperceptions. Now we are learning that these beliefs and fears are at the root of much suffering and that they can be addressed directly by our practice of meditation. I have experienced that the practice of cultivating mindfulness of the voice can help us grow through this fear to a deeper understanding from which no bitterness and suffering arises.

I cherish a comical and yet inspiring memory of my father as he listened to German and Italian operas while cooking dinner. He would mimic these vigorous and committed voices as they coursed passionately through passages of misfortune and glory. He was being funny, but he was also singing his heart out, and as a child I could sense the intensity and power in his voice. My father is not an opera singer, but when he loved what he was doing and he was happy, he could put aside his inhibitions and his voice soared out in full vibrato. He didn’t know it, but it marked me, and it challenged me.

As a teen-ager, faced with self-centered awareness amidst my peers, this challenge grew into fear. There were many liberating moments when I was alone, at home or in the car, and turning the volume of the stereo up very loud, I sang along with my favorite bands, fully committed to letting my voice shine out. I thought nobody could hear me, but I was wrong. I could hear myself. Through this listening relationship to my own voice, I secretly began to teach myself to sing.

Many of us hold onto these self-centered fears for our whole life. We are afraid to open our voice; we simply do not know how to do it. We always feel uncomfortable and stifled when we are with others who are singing and especially if we ourselves are asked to sing. I was lucky. I found a safe way that slowly, bit by bit, stabilized my faith in my voice. Until one day I was strong enough to really sing out and enjoy. In that moment I made a leap, uncertain where I would land, but hopeful nevertheless. My voice wasn’t very beautiful but I had to make that first jump. Then I had to do it again and again. I had to thrust myself onto the path. And thus a great fear that had once chosen dark corners for me to hide in now opened many doors. It offered me a chance to be honest and accepting of much in me that previously was hidden and unwanted. Since that time my voice has always been a great teacher and a great joy, as it continues to unfold the marvels of challenge and freedom.

Entering monastic life, I met the practice of chanting, and it was then that my voice really opened. It was then that I began the process of liberating my voice, setting it free from the sorrow and loneliness that colored it deep within my heart. For the voice carries in it all the shadow and glimmer of our consciousness, afflictions as well as wholesome seeds. Without careful awareness and training we transmit many things to others through our voice frustration, anger, longing, and despair among them. On my own path, the liberation and transformation of my voice settled itself on a regular practice of sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. Soon after, it leapt joyfully into the arms of chant. I found that all aspects of spiritual practice and lifestyle will affect the voice. Likewise, all spiritual endeavor with the voice, such as the practice of chanting, will strengthen the other aspects of our practice.

Chanting as Meditation

Chanting is a meditation practice. If it is not a practice then it is not really chanting. For it is not the notes on the page or the text and font that make up the chant, it is the living voice inspired from the depths of consciousness and summoned from the relaxed and stable posture of the body. Chanting is the realization of the teaching sent out to the world in every syllable. It is the resonance of many voices held together by attentive, listening ears. It is the delicate ringing of harmonic layers left hanging in empty space, and it is the silence which fills up an open heart when it seems that tone is no longer heard.

When we chant well we are moved straight into the beauty and wonder of life without any emotional push and pull. We are moved, but not in the direction of longing, comfort, or excitement, as we are by many musical expressions these days. We are moved towards realization in the practice, towards freedom and clarity. When we chant well we remain grounded in our breathing and our practice of mindfulness. Thus the chant releases tension and knots in both body and mind, transforming us, drawing us into the current of awakening. It helps us let go and be flexible, capable of opening our heart to what is there in the marvelous moment. It reminds us of our resources and the strength of our compassion. It offers us inspiration to persevere through challenge and hardship; and it leaves a peaceful smile on our face.

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In the Buddhist practice there are three realms of action in which we cultivate awareness: action of the body, action of speech, and action of thought (mind). In truth, there is no action that exists solely in one of these realms. They all have much to do with each other. The practice of chanting is a practice that consciously brings together all three realms of action into one, and does so in a very pleasant way that can be shared among many people simultaneously. Thus chanting has the potential to generate both concentration and joyful togetherness. Spiritual traditions around the world have recognized this for thousands of years, and almost all have some form of chanting as a substantial part of their practice.

The Realm of the Body

There are many ways to approach the practice of chanting in terms of techniques and methods. Yet there are certain elements of the practice that are important to any method. One of these is the breath.

It is essential in meditation practice, and especially in chanting, that the breath be relaxed and easy. If we can succeed in this then the breath, of its own accord, becomes full, deep, flexible, and strong. To relax the breath we need also to relax the abdomen and the abdominal organs. Thus the diaphragm muscle (which is an elastic membrane separating the lungs and the lower internal organs) can move (drop) easily and allow the lungs to expand to full capacity. If the belly and its contents are relaxed, then the diaphragm muscle can move downwards with very little effort more like letting go than making an effort. Then the chest can gently open, from the inside out, to accommodate more air. This allows our chanting, which relies on the firm and steady force of the out-breath, to come from the center of the body. It comes from the natural upward movement of the diaphragm, rather than the forced constriction of the chest. In this way we avoid using a lot of tension and unnecessary energy for a process that is designed to be relaxed and easy. If we breathe only with our chest, expanding it with the in-breath and contracting it with the out-breath, then we make unnecessary effort. Granted, this can help us to add to the total volume of air in our breathing, but it is not the natural mechanism for the lungs.

This is my experience of the natural process of breathing and its effect on chanting. You can help yourself to enter into this experience of the breath by learning to truly follow your breath without manipulation and keeping your abdomen flexible, warm and relaxed. Allow the diaphragm to draw the air down towards the belly and relax completely into the process of breathing.

Healthy breathing is encouraged by eating in moderation, massaging and stretching the torso of the body regularly, and by an upright and relaxed posture. It is very nice to stand while chanting, softening the knees a little to stay grounded and balanced. If you practice while sitting, be sure not to slouch.

We can also cultivate an awareness of the throat, larynx, neck, and ears. Be gentle, soft, and open in these places. Do not strain the neck forward while chanting. Do not force tones out of your throat. Chant the middle way, not too strong, not too soft. Chant in such a way that you can hear your own voice and also the voices of people chanting with you. Keep the neck and head warm and relaxed at all times. These things will help make it possible for the healing vibrations of sound to work in the body and transform the voice. It will also help to prevent tearing and scarring to the vocal chords and damage to the inner ear.

The Realm of Speech

The practice of chanting lies at the crossroads of spoken word and song. A chant is not a poem and is not just recited. A chant is not a song and is not simply sung. It is expressed with wakefulness somewhere between these two as a powerful poetic recitation and as an uplifting song, carefully blended. When we chant well we benefit from both the clarity of shape and texture and the steady, light, and yet grounded feeling imparted to us through tones.

When speaking and reciting in the English language we primarily use consonant sounds. The consonants sculpt and develop the texture of the voice. The consonants give shape to the meaning of words and can be powerful, beautiful, and sometimes emotionally unsettling.

When we sing a song, we are expressing primarily in vowels. You cannot sing a consonant; you can only sing a vowel. Singing out the vowel sounds, we express the meaning of the song directly in the realm of feeling. Thus, the significance of a song comes to us less from the message in its lyrics and the shape of its consonants, and more from the way its melody and harmony make you feel. This is very important, because the vibration of the tone has no filter before it impacts us. It goes straight past reasoning and we must embrace it as it is. Sometimes the intended meaning of a song and the actual feeling it gives us are in conflict with one another. For example, the lyrics express something light and uplifting but the melody and harmony of tones give rise to sadness and nostalgia. And even if the melody and harmony are appropriate, the voice of the singer can be influenced by his or her state of mind and emotions. Thus the song may not bring about the intended or appropriate feeling. The feelings brought about through the expression of the vowel sounds have great potential. They can be healing and transforming or agitating and even painful. We need to be aware of these things so that the healing spirit of the practice can shine through our chanting and singing.

We can develop awareness of these things by cultivating mindfulness in the act of chanting, as well as at other times; practicing the mindfulness trainings, carefully choosing what we listen to, watering wholesome seeds in our consciousness. Slowly we tear away the veils of our conditioning, and we begin to recognize truth and beauty in music and the voice that carries it. Slowly we bring a spiritual quality and resonance into our own voice and music.

The Realm of Thought

Our thoughts play an important part in chant. Of course the message of the chant is influential. Its content gives rise to energy, inspiring a kind of movement. We might describe this movement as the opening of the heart or stilling of the mind, a beginning anew, the settling of afflictions, or the cooling of desire. These phrases describe not emotions but spiritual activity, an entering into the realms of happiness that lie beneath our busy worldly affairs. The presence and practice of our spiritual ancestors are found in these thoughts expressed in chants. The stability to be gleaned from tradition and lineage is contained in these thoughts as well.

But the very thoughts that enter our mind during the moment of chanting are equally important. We should always remember that chanting is a process of meditation. Do not allow the mind to wander aimlessly. Maintain concentration on the breath, the posture of the body, and the content of the words you are chanting. Then your authentic presence and the chant join together into a living vibration that is shared among all present; and indeed, even those not present will benefit.

It is easy to be distracted by imperfections in your own voice or in the voices around you. Try not to be carried away by such judgments. You do not need a trained and controlled voice or “perfect pitch sensitivity” to chant well. Chanting is about being right where we are, and practicing. Chanting is a process, an unfolding into the present moment. This present moment is a place where many powerful things can happen, especially with the support of our spiritual ancestors and our community of practice. Because chants carry with them the understanding and the compassion of the ancestors, if we don’t feel skilled or confident, we can lean on them. The ancestors and our community are there for that.

I have discovered that a talented singer with a beautiful voice can sing horribly, wounding the heart and ears of the listener. I have also listened to people chant, whose voices, according to technical evaluation, were horrible. But because they chanted with full presence and sincere intention, what came out of them was something spiritually inspiring and beautiful. Talents are often the learning of behavior that brings one the love and recognition one needs, and not necessarily an expression of truth or something beautiful, because what hides beneath the talent is a fear, a longing it is suffering. This untended and unwanted suffering has twisted itself into something acceptable in an attempt to gather recognition that fills the emptiness inside, the void of loneliness. I believe that an artist who meditates must understand these things and take on the path of transformation in order to purify their talent, to make it a conscious, well -tended, and fully embraced expression of their life.

Some people, especially those with some talent or training, find it difficult to chant with others whose voices are not technically skilled. There are many ways to remedy this. The best is to do away with our idea of how things should be. Then happiness reveals itself. It is only difficult to chant with those who have unskilled voices because of our expectation, desire, and on a deeper level, because of the fear of what is not harmonious in us. So leave expectations and desires behind, and do not be afraid to rejoice in the reality of what is there. Start simply, with basic chants suited for the whole community. Have the Sangha practice lots of recitation, reading the texts aloud together. As a community, take up some basic training for the voice; there are huge resources available for this. But most important, always endeavor to do these things as ways to strengthen your practice and the practice of your community. This is cultivating wholesome thoughts in the practice of chanting.

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Suggestions for Chanting in Community

Here are several suggestions for individuals and Sanghas to aid in the practice of chanting:

Take time to memorize the words and learn the content so that you can concentrate easily during the chant. Be aware of what you are saying so that you enter into a process of realization and are not simply repeating the text.

Take time to memorize the melody and the basics of the rhythm and dynamics of the chant so you do not have to rely on a piece of paper to remind you of what you are doing. Then you can begin the process of unfolding the tapestry of the chant.

Stay in touch with the process of breathing; learn to take deep and relaxed breaths while chanting. The point is to remain truly present and to cultivate stability and insight while chanting, not to get out of breath and make a flawless performance. If you need a breath, take one, it’s okay to miss a couple of words. Maintain awareness of body posture, holding yourself up right in a relaxed way. Every few breaths check to make sure you are not straining the neck, throat, and facial muscles. Soften them, relax them, and smile.

Listen carefully to other chanters around you as you chant.

All who are chanting must learn to chant with one voice.  This is a very deep and wonderfully fruitful practice. Chant lightly, not too loud, so that it is easier to hear those around you. This encourages togetherness.   When we chant well together we can begin to allow the expression of the chant to change subtly according to the experience of the content.  The chant then becomes something totally alive and the collective experience of being together in freedom can arise very easily. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, when practicing the chants marked “breath by breath,” be aware that each breath is usually for one phrase and there is space to draw an in-breath between phrases. We do not need to maintain the rhythm continuously through the chant each phrase stands on its own. They are not marches, and they should express the natural rhythm and dynamics of the English language. Only general guidelines are given as to how long each note is held or how much volume it receives. These chants are open to the expression of the chanters in the present moment and require a lot of listening to each other. They are inspired by the Gregorian technique, but they are not truly Gregorian.

When practicing other chants in the chanting book, we can follow the standard music notation more closely, adhering more to the timing and dynamics that are scored. There are no breath marks, but do not rush to take breaths in between notes. There is no need to worry about saying every syllable or word, skip one or two if necessary in order to take a real in-breath and maintain calm and presence.  Remember to listen carefully to those around you as you chant. Rely on the group to carry the chant. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves when we practice as a Sangha.

The musical notation of a chant cannot contain its vitality. The notes and the technique are used as a guide to learn and transmit the basic form of the chant, but we should eventually let them go in order to truly live the chant. Please remember that chanting is not about getting somewhere or attaining something. Come home to the wonderful moment, open your voice, and enjoy!

Brother Chan Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained as a monk in 1996 and became a Dharma Teacher in 2001.

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Reflections of a Quaker Woman of Color

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dharma Talk: Be a Real Human Being

by Larry Ward mb36-BeAReal1I love the smells here. They’re old, been around a long time. I can feel the ancient presence of the native peoples, in the rocks and in the mountains, in the trees and in the river. It makes me very happy to be here in this space.

Compassion is very concrete practice. Compassion can make a huge difference in how we live our daily lives, how we make our daily decisions. And our practice is to feed ourselves those things that nourish our compassion. That’s what a bodhisattva does. The bodhisattvas feed themselves the spiritual food, the emotional food, the physical food that nourishes and cultivates their mind of love. That’s the second characteristic of a bodhisattva. The wisdom of nondiscrimination is one, and cultivating the mind of love is the other.

At retreats this past summer I heard Thay say something that I’ve never heard him say before.  He said, “Be a real human being.”

So I’ve been meditating on that. When Peggy and I led a retreat in Oklahoma City recently, we were doing walking meditation at the Murrah building site where the bombing happened several years ago. It only took a minute for that devastation to happen. At the east gate, “9:01 a.m.” is carved in stone, and at the west gate, “9:03 a.m.” Between them are 161 empty chairs, for the people who were killed at 9:02. The first row is made of smaller chairs for children, because there was a daycare center there.  And as we walked around that memorial, it became really clear to me that Timothy McVeigh never had a chance to be a real human being. How do I know Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a real human being? Because a real human being does not perpetrate violence. That’s not the act of a real human being. Violence is a dark cloud floating across the blue sky of a real human being. A real human being is not trapped in or addicted to conflict and jealousy. Yes, we all have seeds of conflict and jealousy in us, but our seeds of conflict and jealousy are a dot against the blue sky of a real human being

We all have the capacity to be greedy, to want too much, to give too little—to ourselves as well as others—but that is not the motivation of a real human being. That’s a shadow passing across the ground of a real human being.

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A real human being is like this camp—this camp is our host. The earth is here, supporting us and holding us; the trees are here, the creek  is  running.

Just holding us, whether we’re short or whether we’re tall, whether we’re young or whether we’re old, whether we’re black or whether we’re white, whether we’re straight or whether we’re gay, whether we’re this or whether we’re that. A real human being is a host, welcoming everything. In the morning when the sunlight strikes the sky for the first time, you can look in it and see dust in the sunlight. A real human being is the sunlight, not the dust.

Our practice is to water those seeds in us, to create an environment around us that gives us a chance of being a real human being. What I’m trying to do with this practice is to cultivate my best self, the best Larry possible. And when I do that I manifest the way of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is another name for a real human being. Thay told a story this summer about a wonderful woman from Holland that he met who saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers in World War II, all by herself.  Bodhisattvas are real people.  Recently I started thinking about a brief encounter I once had with Martin Luther King; he was a real human being. Mother Theresa, whom I met when I lived in Calcutta, was a real human being. She was so real that when she thought something, you just did it.  [Laughter.]  It was astounding!

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Thay is that way. Peggy and I had promised Thay last year that we would join him on a trip to Korea last spring. But as April approached, we were moving from one side of the country to the other and we were extremely busy. So we wrote Thay a beautiful letter saying why we couldn’t come to Korea. We got a note back: “Thay is very sad. Here’s the schedule in case you change your mind.” [Laughter.] That’s all a real human being has to do. Being near a real human being is so rare an opportunity that any time we can, we go because it is a chance to be trained. To be trained in what? It’s a chance to be trained in becoming a real human being.

So we went to Korea, and it was a profound experience of the bodhisattva way. One day in Korea, five thousand people joined us in walking meditation, as we walked into the subway where a man had committed suicide and had killed 200 other people. He left a note, saying he did not want to die by himself. We did walking meditation into that subway where family members were still gathered, with candles, altars, and pictures. It was powerful to go from the daylight down those steps into that dark subway. You could still smell the fire. It was profound practice in offering compassion without saying a word.

The world needs real human beings. In the Lotus Sutra there is a section called “arising up from the earth,” and in it the Buddha is having a conversation with hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas from all over the galaxy. One of the reasons they’ve gathered is that they’re concerned about planet Earth, and they asked the Buddha, “Do you need reinforcements?”  [Laughter.]  “Do you need help?”

And the Buddha said no, at this very moment bodhisattvas are rising up from the earth. Real human beings capable of living like the blue sky, like the sun and the moon that shine on everything. Shine on confusion, shine on clarity. Shine on sadness, shine on happiness. Shine on birth, shine on death.  Rising up from the earth.  It’s a powerful statement.

If you want to do something with your life, be a real human being. If you want to do something for your children, your grandchildren, be a real human being. If you want to do something for America, be a real human being. In everything you need to be a real human being. And it’s already inside of us; it’s in every cell of our body. However, we have to be trained to develop it, cultivate it, and to apply it. This is one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights—that one has to be trained to live life deeply. Most of us assume you have to be trained to be a doctor or a nurse or a pianist or a schoolteacher or a cabdriver or a cook. The idea that we have to be trained to live profoundly, seems to have never crossed anybody’s mind! You have to be trained to live. It’s one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights, and that training is lifelong.

The Buddha designed his life so that nine months of the year he was in public service, and three months of the year was spent in in-depth training. He designed his day that way also. He had very long days, lots of people coming and going, lots of teaching. But three times a day he withdrew for his own training, his own practice.

I think the dilemma for every one of us in this room, right now, is how do we design a life that allows that to happen for us? Our society is not structured for us to be real human beings; it’s structured for us to be consumers. And you don’t have to be a real human being to be a consumer. Our education system, our economics, our political process, don’t give us the time or create the environment for us to train ourselves in being a real human being. The training every bodhisattva has had for over two thousand years, is training in six things, and it’s the same training the Buddha had when he was a bodhisattva-in-training.

These six things are called the paramitas. They are practices that take us from the shore of fear to the shore of non-fear. From the shore of greed to the shore of non-greed. From the shore of hate to the shore of non-hate.

The first one of these practices is generosity. First, it means learning to give physical things we have without reluctance. Sharing. Basic kindergarten kinds of issues: “I have a cookie, and you don’t have one. What do we do now?” [Laughter.] Generosity. We have to train ourselves. Even though the impulse is deep inside of us, buried in ourselves, to share and to give, we are so quickly trained out of it by our society, by our culture. This is not just our culture, it’s every culture: “Don’t you do that, don’t give them your cookie.” Why? Because they may come back tomorrow for another one. We have tremendous rationales for cutting off and killing our true human being. Generosity: giving without apprehension, giving without fear.

There’s a great story about the Buddha’s generosity. The Buddha and his cousin Ananda were out for a stroll, and a man came up, bowed and said, “Dear sage, my mother has a medical emergency, and in order for her to be healed she needs another eye.”  So the Buddha took his eye out and gave it to the man. The man took the eye from the Buddha, threw it in the dust and stomped on it. And while he was stomping on it, Ananda said, “Hey, wait a minute!” But the Buddha said, “Ananda, the gift has already been given.”

Generosity. The practice of generosity is the practice of giving. For most of us, if people don’t do what we want with our gift we’re upset. That is the practice of non-generosity. When a gift has been given, it’s no longer yours, it’s no longer mine. And of course, there is no greater thing a person can do for their friends than to lay down their life, as Jesus reminds us. And the laying down of your life could be something as dramatic as martyrdom, but it could also be something as undramatic as going to a classroom full of children every day for forty years. It could be as mundane as going through your social work files for the thousandth time and not giving up on yourself and not giving up on humanity. It could be the fifty-fifth conversation with your daughter about the same thing, and you know you’ll do number fifty-six, you won’t withhold that from her.  Generosity.

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We train ourselves so well that eventually our generosity becomes like the Buddha’s.  It’s spontaneous – sure, here’s my eye.  But for most of us now we have to think about the cookie—the eye’s a long way off! And that’s the purpose of the training. The training takes us on a journey from the cookie to the eye. And we don’t get there without training. I know how hard that is for Americans who want things fast. It takes practice. It takes training.  It takes time.

The second paramita is diligence. It’s called Right Effort in the Eightfold Path. How can we be diligent? The first step of diligence is figuring out how to be consistent in your practice. Once a day, twice a day, once or twice a week with the Sangha, My own personal experience is that you cannot practice too much.

Once we have a daily practice rhythm, diligence means looking deeply within ourselves. It’s going into great inquiry. As Master Empty Cloud would say, “Great inquiry into our fundamental face.” That’s the practice. To have the courage to look into our real face. Not our five year-old face, not our ninety year-old face, not our American face, not our female face, our male face. Our fundamental face. Our original face, some have called it. Our Buddha nature, others have called it. The face of nirvana is our fundamental face. The face of a real human being. Great inquiry. Diligence. Looking into who we really are. And when we begin to see who we are, we begin to see who everybody else is.

For a long time I’ve been estranged from my son. I’ve written him letters over the years, but we have never been reconnected at the heart level. This year while practicing, I discovered the last threshold that stopped me from reconnecting with him. I realized that I didn’t know who he was: I didn’t know his fundamental face was the same as mine! I forgot about his Buddha nature. I forgot about his blue sky. And I forgot that because I forgot that about my face. As soon as I had that insight, within three days I got a phone call from a friend who said, “Your son’s looking for you.” And I’m looking for him. When we leave this retreat, Peggy and I return to Boston where we’ll be for a month, and we’re staying about two miles from where he lives, and he and I have plans to hang out.

Inclusiveness is the third paramita. That’s a very popular word in diversity circles. You want to be inclusive. Okay. Inclusivity is the practice of developing the capacity to receive what life gives us. To receive the pain, the suffering and the disappointments and to develop the capacity to take it in and to transform it into compassion.

Some years ago Peggy and I had our house burn down in Boise, Idaho, by an arsonist who had been sent by the Aryan Nation. I was working in California when the fire started. Because the fire occurred at two-thirty in the morning, they expected us to be there sleeping, and they meant to do us real harm. Peggy called me at three o’clock and told me that she and our dog Reggae were safe but the house was a total loss. I said, “Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The whole time I was rearranging my schedule I was so stunned at the very idea that somebody would do that. I realized I didn’t know how to think like that.  I realized I didn’t know how to feel like that about anyone. I asked myself, how could somebody do that?

So over the next year as we rebuilt the house, I began to look into what kind of person joins that group. And I found out that they come from very poor economic backgrounds.  That most are high school dropouts. See, I’m moving toward inclusivity. That, if you look a little deeper, you’ll discover that nine out of ten of those people have been abused as children, emotionally and sexually. That’s how somebody could do that. Just looking for something to do to somebody, to strike out with the rage, with the anger, with the pain that’s just sitting there, growing.

Inclusivity practice takes time -this is about patience. This is not about having a Pollyanna attitude. For two years, Peggy had post-traumatic stress symptoms from being there when the fire started. But what is most important about this experience is that we were not harmed. What I mean is that we did not find ourselves having to be cruel. We did not find ourselves wishing ill will. We did not find ourselves having the seeds of hatred watered and developed at all. Anger, yes. Disappointment, yes. Shock, yes. But we did not become possessed and cruel. We did not have our focus turned around and reoriented to try to eliminate someone who tried to eliminate us. Protected by compassion.  Protected by inclusiveness.

There’s a wonderful story of the Buddha. Around his time of enlightenment, Mara came and sent armies who fired arrows at the Buddha, and as the arrows got closer they turned into flowers and dropped to the ground. Now, I want to be like that. [Laughter.] And we can! That’s just the practice of inclusivity. I’ve seen it happen with Thay. I’ve seen an arrow coming at him, and by the time the arrow got to him it was a flower. Peggy and I were sitting with Thay and Sister Chân Không and a few others when Thay got the phone call about his sister passing away in Vietnam. And we watched him receive that news, knowing he couldn’t go to be with his family. We watched that news go in and come back out as compassion for the person on the phone who had to give the message. Inclusivity.

Mindfulness trainings, the fourth paramita, are characterized in the Eightfold Path by right speech, right action or conduct, and right livelihood. The first role of the mindfulness trainings is creating stability and safety in and around ourselves. You know, it is very difficult to reach tranquility and profound insight in sitting meditation if you’re constantly looking out the window to see if your neighbor is looking for you with a gun because you stole his chicken! [Laughter] The first function of virtue is to create stability in ourselves, so we can calm down.  So the sand in the glass can settle at the bottom.

Mindfulness trainings are the ground upon which awakening can occur. And they are also evidence of the awakening. They’re both. But it’s a journey. The first step in practicing the mindfulness trainings is to notice your own behavior. Not improving yourself. The first step is noticing yourself with gentleness, with compassion. And the second step is slowly beginning to try to shift the pattern. The third step is healing the pattern. And the fourth step is transforming the pattern. Most of us want to go from step one to step four. Be compassionate with yourself. The key is to continue to practice. Mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating.

There’s also a secret of the Eightfold Path that’s not written down. It’s called right association. During a retreat last summer one of the children asked Thay, how did he get so peaceful? And Thay said, “Well, first I wanted to be peaceful. Second, I had an image of what that might be like.” And he referred to a time when, as a young person he saw his first picture of the Buddha sitting mindfully on the grass. “Third, I surrounded myself with peaceful people. Fourth, I added to that an environment that would support my practice of peace.” Right association.

Many of us want more peace, but our associations are not peaceful. We  have to take  charge,  and create the environment that cares for us, that supports us, that will sustain us in becoming real human beings. We have to learn to set boundaries that protect our practice. We have to learn to protect ourselves from others with gentleness and kindness, with kind caring.

Meditation is the fifth paramita that takes us to the other shore. And the other shore is always right here, right now. The practice of meditation is not an escape from life, it’s an escape into life. The classical description of meditation is the practice of stopping, calming, and achieving tranquility, stillness of mind, imperturbability. And the practice of deep seeing, deep looking into life, vipassanya, insight. This must occur for that to occur, and of course they inter-are, as Thay would say. But most of us want insight without stopping, without calming. For example it’s not that we aren’t smart enough to solve the problem of education in America, it’s that we haven’t meditated on it. We haven’t stopped long enough to settle down, to calm ourselves, and to look deeply into it.

Sometimes at Plum Village Palestinians and Israelis gather together. Because the first part of the peace process is about peace with oneself, they’ll spend several days sitting and walking and eating mindfully, and only later will they start to talk about peace with each other. It’s only a political problem because it’s a spiritual problem.

Einstein said the same level of consciousness that created a problem can’t solve the problem. You can only reinforce the problem with that kind of thinking. It’s astounding what can happen through spiritual practice, when, eye-to-eye across the table, father-to-father, son-to-son, daughter-to-daughter, mother-to-mother, all of a sudden we see each other’s children lying in the street and we get it! We get it in the very cells of our body, the possibility of being a real human being, and we know real human beings are not warmongers, that real human beings are not driven by revenge and prejudice. Revenge and prejudice and war are dark clouds floating across the sky of a real human being.

Meditation: stopping and calming and looking deeply into life. Meditation: sitting and walking and eating and lying down. Meditation is more than stress reduction. The purpose of meditation is to transform the quality of our minds. We say we want peace in the world, but we don’t have minds capable of it. We wish people were more kind, but we don’t train our minds to be more kind. Master Tang Hoi from Vietnam used to say that meditation is the process, the practice, of eliminating those clouds in the blue sky that is our mind.

Right view, right understanding, is paramita number six. The realization of perfect understanding is the bodhisattva’s only career. It’s very important that all these practices are done with wisdom. Generosity without wisdom, without understanding, is pity. Generosity without right understanding means you’ve died for the wrong cause. History’s full of examples of that tragedy.

Right view is detachment from views. It doesn’t mean we don’t have views. It means when we have views we know that that’s what they are, just views. Opinions are easy to come by; most of us have opinions that are created by our culture. We have opinions created by our family, by our ancestors, about ourselves and about each other, and we think they are our own. Right view is insight. Right view, right understanding, is about moving from the shore of speculation into the shore of direct perception. To practice developing insight into life, our whole life long,

The way of the bodhisattva is the way of the real human being. It is the way, as Thay would say, of walking with our Buddha feet, so that with every step we enjoy the miracle of being in the present moment. We touch the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God with every step–that’s where we live. With our Buddha eyes, everywhere we look we see wonder.

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Poem: ghosts

mb39-Ghosts1i watched a woman die tonight a forty-nine-year-old woman with a sudden, massive stroke we did everything quickly we did everything right and still, she didn’t make it

my day in the emergency room was a twelve-hour-long adrenaline rush it was only later, after, that i realized:

this woman wasn’t ready to die

a lively african-american woman just forty-nine years old with a loving husband and children she wasn’t ready to die

death is a daily event in the san francisco general hospital’s emergency room

i spent the rest of the evening in meditation

walking the mission district meditation staring out over the bay meditation tears meditation sitting meditation breathing meditation hot milk and croissants meditation angel song meditation reading Buddhist poetry meditation

writing meditation

tonight i go to sleep wondering if ghosts will be visiting me in my dreams

— By Dzung Vo

Dzung Vo,Tam Lien Ban, Healing Root of the Source, is a Vietnamese-American, pursuing his residency training in pediatrics in San Francisco

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Joleah’s Gift

I received this drawing from my eight-year-old granddaughter, Joleah McComb, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. Joleah attends days of mindfulness when we lead them in that city. She has recently been diagnosed with neural damage from toxic molds, and has been sick a lot over the past two years. Her family had to leave their home and all of their belongings because of the dangerous molds. She recently had to leave her school on the ocean as well, since toxic molds were discovered in her classroom. The family has suffered, as they have all been sick and now displaced. mb42-Joleah

For her eighth birthday, because I know she likes to practice mindfulness and meditation, we gave Joleah a jolly Ho Tai statue and an incense burner so that she could set up an altar in her bedroom, which she did. Here’s what she wrote about meditation.

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain,  North Carolina.

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Joyful Art of the Heart

By Brother Phap Ho mb49-Joyful1

A Dharma sister of mine wrote a wonderful song about joy: “Your joy is my joy, my joy is your joy!” What makes you happy and joyful? For me art is one way of filling my heart with joy. So I will tell you a little bit about how art and joy interact in my life.

Joy comes to me when I become more aware of the colors and shapes around me: in nature, people, animals, plants — miracles of life. This awareness is significantly increased after I have spent time drawing, painting, or writing calligraphy. But already by sitting down, taking out the materials, I focus and sink into the moment. Nowhere to go, nothing to do…

A time to enjoy playing with colors and shapes; enjoying the breath and the flowing movement of the arm; expressing experiences and looking deeply into life — all these aspects are drops of joy. The good news is that we do not have to be a good artist, creating something important. If we feel inspired to play with pen, brush, and paper we just do it.

Sometimes when I look at something I have written or painted, a thought comes along: this is good. But as soon as I look up to see a bird, a leaf, a cloud, I feel humbled, I remember the awesome beauty that is everywhere.

Art as Meditation

At times I establish contact with a painful feeling, a perception, a difficulty inside. As I start drawing, I begin to recognize, embrace, and look deeply at the difficulty. Aha! Art becomes a meditation, a way to heal and transform. As colors and shapes manifest on the paper, I can feel that things are moving, circulating inside me. I feel alive.

Other times I establish contact with a wholesome, healing quality. For example this morning I used markers, a calligraphy brush, and watercolors to create some posters for our children’s program (our annual Family Retreat here at Deer Park Monastery starts tomorrow). Solid as a mountain, alive as the pond (our pond is one of the children’s favorite spots here at Deer Park), cool as nature — these qualities come alive, because at the same time as brush and colors helped shapes to manifest I brought my mindfulness to those qualities. The words on the paper are not only shapes and colors but expressions of each quality and those qualities in me were also strengthened.

Using the teachings of the Buddha, writing the words or putting shapes and colors to them, is a way I look deeply in order to understand better. Establishing a relationship with the five powers, non-self, and so on.

All these ways of playing with colors and shapes bring joy, ease and freedom to my body and mind. My heart receives good nourishment, continues to open. Joyful Art of the Heart! From this space of joy, freshness, and ease, I see the world and the people around me in a different light — less judgment, more freedom.

May all hearts be filled with joy!

Brother Phap Ho, Protector of the Dharma, was ordained in the Walnut family in February 2003. He has lived at Deer Park Monastery since February 2006.

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War, Conflict and Healing

A Buddhist Perspective

By Ha Vinh Tho

According to the first of the five precepts (panca sila) given by the Buddha to his lay disciples (upasaka):

“Lay students of the Buddha refrain from killing, put an end to killing, rid themselves of all weapons, learn humility before others, learn humility in themselves, practice love and compassion, and protect all living beings, even the smallest insect. They uproot from within themselves any intention to kill. In this way, lay students of the Buddha study and practice the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.” (1)

Even though all religious and spiritual traditions agree to condemn the destruction of life, and although the precept “do not kill” is one of the most universally recognized ethical rules, war and violent conflicts remain an ever-present reality in the history of mankind. For this very reason, it is of utmost importance to reflect on ways to prevent conflicts, to alleviate suffering once conflicts have occurred, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing in post-conflict situations.

The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

The objective of this presentation is to show how the practice of Engaged Buddhism can contribute to the construction of the defenses of peace in the mind.

Developing the Great Compassion

I work in the field of humanitarian action; I train young people to help civil populations, war prisoners, the wounded and the sick in situations of war, armed conflict, and natural catastrophe.

Although neutrality and impartiality are the very guiding principles of true humanitarian action, it is often difficult to maintain this attitude when confronted with the harsh reality of violent conflict. To refuse to take a stand and to maintain an attitude of neutrality can be perceived as a lack of courage or lucidity. Indeed, how not to take sides for the weak against the strong, for the victim against the perpetrator?

I will argue that meditation on the universal law of interdependence, on non-self and on the nature of suffering, is the foundation of the Great Compassion which allows us to develop an attitude of neutrality which is not cowardice and of impartiality which is not indifference.

In the current world situation, characterized by the confrontation of cultures, religions and civilizations, it is more than ever necessary to develop non-attachment to opinions and to wrong perceptions. The Buddha teaches skillful means allowing lifelong learning, and an attitude of tolerance and authentic opening.

I recently acted as a mediator in a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and one of the participants explained:

“Our problem is that there are two competing narratives for one and the same situation.”

Not only is there a competition over land and resources, but there is a competition over the interpretation of reality. Each party is convinced, and wants to convince the world, that his story is the true story.

Each time one is confronted with violent conflicts, one can observe this phenomenon — the two sides have competing narratives, competing stories. And each side sees itself as the “the good guys” versus the other side perceived as “the bad guys.” Most armies are called “Defense Forces”; for instance the German army during the Second World War was called “Wehrmacht,” German for “Defense Force,” and on the buckle of the belts of the soldiers was written “Gott mit uns”: “God with us”, or “God on our side.”

I don’t know of any state that calls its army “Aggression Forces” — the aggressor is always the other side. The demonizing of the other side is a recurring phenomenon in any conflict; otherwise, how would it be possible to kill and maim the so-called enemy, if each one was fully aware that the other is just like oneself?

To give another example, during the Rwandan genocide, the actual physical violence had been prepared through intense radio propaganda by the “Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines” (RTLM) that was broadcasting slogans like: “Kill all the cockroaches,” referring thus to the moderate Hutus and to the Tutsis.

These few examples show clearly that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

But how can we build these defenses?

The Reality of Suffering

In his first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” Lord Buddha began by explaining the Four Noble Truths, and the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering (dukkha). Because of this, some people who do not understand the deeper meaning of the Dharma think that Buddhism is a pessimistic world view that emphasizes suffering over joy, and only sees life as a burden best gotten rid of. But this is a very superficial view; the Buddha acknowledges suffering in the same way a doctor acknowledges illness: in order to cure it.

Suffering can be a powerful way to develop compassion and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, the Fourth Training addresses this reality:

Awareness of Suffering— Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help me develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, I am determined not to avoid or close my eyes before suffering. I am committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so I can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy. (2)

I would like to share an experience that I had some years ago, and that helped me understand in a more concrete way the reality of this Mindfulness Training. During a peace conference, I heard a lady from Northern Ireland tell how her sister had lost her son in a terrorist attack, and how, soon after, the man who had killed her nephew had also been shot dead. The mother of the young man who had been killed decided to visit the mother of the one who had killed her son, not in order to seek revenge, but to console her. She said:

“Only a mother who has lost a child can understand another mother who has had the same experience.”

These two women started a powerful peace movement in Northern Ireland that was instrumental in bringing about the Good Friday Peace Agreement that stopped a violent conflict that had been raging for decades.

In the same way, in Israel and Palestine there is a movement called the Parents’ Circle; all members of this circle have lost a son or a daughter in the conflict. I have had the privilege to facilitate meetings of the Parents’ Circle. It is a deeply moving experience to see how these people have transformed suffering into compassion. They have been able to overcome the natural striving for retaliation and revenge and to come together, united by their common experience of a terrible loss, to share a message of peace and reconciliation. When they meet, they share their stories, the memories of their lost children, but out of this grief they draw strength, energy of love and compassion, and a strong will to bring an end to war and to violence. Whoever listens to them can only be deeply moved because they speak from the depth of an experience that no theory or abstract ideal can match. They have discovered through their own suffering the reality of the Buddha’s saying:

“Hate is not overcome by hate; by love (metta) alone is hate appeased. This is an eternal law.”

The Realization of Interdependence and Non-Self

From the point of view of conflict prevention and peace building, interdependence and non-self are the most important tools that Buddhism has to offer. What I have called the problem of competing narratives is always based on the false assumption of a radical, unbridgeable difference between me and you, between my community and your community.

At first sight, good and evil, right and wrong, victim and perpetrator seem to be completely separated realities; we may think that if we get rid of the negative, only the positive will remain. But interdependence or, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing, is the realization of the interconnectedness of all life. The more we become aware of the reality of interbeing, the more we realize our shared responsibility for the state of the world. On one hand, this can seem like a burden; on the other, it makes us conscious that we are not passive onlookers, but that we can do something to bring about transformation and healing. I would like to quote venerable Thich Nhat Hanh who shared a powerful example of this insight:

“One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years.” (3)

If we awaken to the reality of interbeing and non-self, we awaken to the wisdom of non-discrimination. This is the wisdom that can break the barrier of individualism; with this wisdom we see that we are the other person and the other person is ourself. The happiness of the other person is our own happiness, and our own happiness is the happiness of the other people, plants, animals, and even minerals.

This is not only true on a personal level; it is also true for communities, countries, religions, and civilizations.

“Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhism elements. If we look deeply we can see that the elements of non-Buddhism have made Buddhism… It’s exactly the same as a flower. A flower is made from non-flower elements; the sun, the clouds are not flower, soil is not flower, water is not flower. The self is made of non-self elements. It is the same with the other religions.” (4)

The more this insight can become not a mere theory, but an actual experience, the more we can realize that the so-called enemies are always part of a common interdependent reality. And if we strive for the freedom, the peace and the happiness of our own community, the only way to achieve it is by protecting the freedom, the peace and the happiness of the other community. This is true between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Tutsis and Hutus, between Tibetans and Han Chinese.

This is also the key insight that helps us to be neutral and impartial without being indifferent. I have personally struggled with this dilemma more than once, and I would like to share an experience that had a transformative effect on me.

The first time I visited a detention center, I went to meet with security detainees in a military prison. I spent most of the day having interviews with the detainees and met with dozens of men. I was listening to one story after the other, stories of violence, of fear, of injustice, of hatred, of despair. Taking all these stories in my heart, it was easy to feel a lot of compassion with them and, on the other side, to feel anger arising against the soldiers who had all the power, the weapons, the authority. At some point, I was taking a short break in the courtyard, resting from the intensity of the encounters, from the stench and the claustrophobic atmosphere in the prison cells, when a young soldier came to sit next to me. I felt he wanted to talk to me. He was very young — most soldiers are very young, war is always about elder men sending out young men to do things that they would not do themselves. I asked his age and he was several years younger than my own son. He began to tell me about his life before the military, he told me about journeys he had taken, countries he had visited, and he also said that he was active in his community, helping teenagers who had problems with their families. He told me that after the army, he wanted to study education and do something useful for the youths. I felt he wanted to show me another side of himself, he needed me to see beyond the uniform he wore and the machine gun he carried. After we had talked for a while, he suddenly asked me: “Do you think I am a bad person?”

The question touched me deeply. I realized how easy it is to perceive only the soldier, the one having the power and oppressing the prisoners. In a flash, I realized that if the causes and conditions had been different, I could have been the one with the machine gun and he could have been the humanitarian worker. And I could not be absolutely sure that if I had been the one with the weapon, I would have not been more cruel and harsher on the prisoners than he was. So I told him very sincerely: “No, I don’t think you are a bad person, I understand that you are in a situation that is not easy, just try to do the best you can. ”

Meditation and Mindfulness

True insight into the nature of suffering, interdependence, and non-self can bring about peace, reconciliation, and healing, but it cannot come from intellectual reasoning alone. It needs to be nourished by life experience, by mindfulness in everyday life, by meditation.

Meditation is not about turning away from reality and dwelling in an illusionary inner peace, ignoring the suffering that so many people and other living beings experience day after day.

Meditation is looking deeply into reality as it is, both in us and around us. It is training ourselves not to react immediately with sympathy or antipathy: I like, I dislike, I want, I don’t want, I grasp, I reject.

But rather to create an open space, free of judgment, free of notions and preconceived ideas, allowing reality to unfold and reveal itself in our heart and mind. By doing this, insight and compassion arise naturally, effortlessly, for they are the very nature of our deeper being.

  1. Upasaka Sutra, Madhyama Agama 128
  2. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press
  3. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bantam, 1992
  4. Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village, France

Ha Vinh Tho, Chan Dai Tue, is half-Vietnamese, half-French. With his wife of thirty-eight years, Lisi (both Dharma teachers ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh), he founded the Eurasia Foundation for the development of  special education in Vietnam. Tho is the head of training, learning, and development in a humanitarian organization whose mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence.

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The Gift of True Freedom

By Trish Thompson We often hear reference to what it means to be free. We speak of the “free world.” We speak of “freedom of speech.” Most of us, at least in the West, as well as in many Eastern cultures, have the freedom to choose our mates, our careers, and even how many children we want to bring into the world. We value having the freedom of mobility, political and physical. We feel free when we can go anywhere we want, when we want, “without hindrance or restraint.”

Those of us who have these freedoms and other, similar ones, consider ourselves to be a free people. Are we sure? Are we truly free?

As an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing, I am on an e-mail list devoted to aspects of our mindfulness meditation practice. One day in 2006, Bill, an American practitioner who has been involved for years in prison ministry, posted a message. In it, he told of an American woman, ‘Sarah,’ who was an inmate in the Women’s Prison in Bangkok. He asked that anyone passing through Bangkok try to reach her to give her some solace.

mb51-TheGift1

Learning of this woman, members of our Hanoi Community for Mindful Living decided to write letters to Sarah. A member took them to Bangkok and left them at the U.S. Embassy for her, along with some books by our teacher. We wanted her to know she was not forgotten.

Months later, while in Bangkok, I decided to follow up. I learned she was still in the prison. Could she have visitors? The answer was yes.

First Prison Visit

Books have been written about the notorious Bangkok Women’s Prison. Available at the Bangkok airport, they make popular in-flight reading. I was thankful I had not read them. As the taxi whizzed along the highway to the prison, forty-five minutes from the city-center, I felt anxiety. I had never been inside a prison. Scenes from the films Silence of the Lambs and The Green Mile kept coming to mind.

The Women’s Prison is very large. Many buildings sprawl over an area several blocks long. Even though the driver had instructions in Thai, we had difficulty finding our way. Twice, I followed first one guard and then another, only to learn that I was in the wrong place. This was not wasted time. Surprisingly, everyone was extremely cordial and helpful, even smiling and cheerful. My anxiety disappeared.

Finally, we were there. I found the right window, gave my ID and my reason for being there, and was told to take a seat. The waiting area was outside, but protected from the searing Bangkok sun. There were twenty-five or so other visitors, all Thais of various ages, including small children. Finally, after a one-and-a-half hour wait, my name was called. My handbag was put in a holding bin, and my body patted down.

Through the Chicken Wire

The visitation windows were also outside, consisting of a long fence of chicken wire three meters tall. Wooden partitions, set one meter apart, created an illusion of privacy. A grassy area, two meters wide, separated my wire fence from another like it. In a moment, a woman appeared behind it, and took her seat directly across from me.

She immediately asked, “Who are you?” “I’m Trish,” I answered. “Trish from Hanoi.”

Her puzzled expression changed to one of amazement. Excitedly, she asked, “Trish? You’re Trish Thompson?” I nodded, yes.

She smiled very broadly. “Oh,” she said. “So you got my letter.” She looked so happy, even though I could not clearly see her through the two thicknesses of wire.

I told her, no, I had not. None of us who had written to her had received an answer. She did not appear surprised. Then, she said, “I got the books, and I’ve read them and reread them. They have changed my life.” She said I was her first American visitor, other than the embassy personnel who came every four to six weeks to give her a monthly stipend, a loan of some kind from the U.S. government. Her food and bare essentials had to be bought by her at the prison store.

Just then, a bell rang, and her face dropped. “Can you come back?” she asked. “Next time we can meet in a special room, with more privacy, but you must get a letter of authorization from the embassy. We can meet for a whole hour!”

I said I would come on the next visiting day. In response to my question of what I could bring her, she asked for some fruit and some panties large enough to fit a Western woman.

The greater part of the next afternoon was spent looking in the lingerie section of department stores for underwear for a middle-aged Western woman in a women’s prison. Bikini panties did not seem appropriate. My mission, not an easy one, was made more difficult by my total dependency on English. Somehow, using hand signals and repeating, “Grandma, Grandma,” while bending over, pretending to use a cane, I made myself understood. Several large and unattractive pairs of panties were produced for my inspection.

I chose the two I thought were most feminine, in pale pink and blue.

Sarah’s Story

On visitation day, I arrived at the prison, with time to spare. I had my authorization letter, the panties, and a huge bag of fruit bought on the street near my hotel. I was led to an upstairs room where I met the supervising guard for the building. Kindly, but firmly, she informed me that I could not give Sarah my gifts. All gifts must be bought in the prison store, in order to guarantee that they are drug-free. Disappointed, I vowed, once again, to be more mindful and not make assumptions.

I was led to another small room, in view of the guard, but out of her range of hearing. I sat in front of a Plexiglas window. Almost immediately, Sarah appeared on the other side and took her seat. We were now only about one meter apart.

What a lovely woman, I thought. She looked quite calm and peaceful. She wore no makeup. Her skin was clear, and she looked very healthy.

She accepted, with little comment, my apology for my ignorance and subsequent failure to deliver the requested gifts. She clearly had things she needed to say to someone.

With little prompting, she told the following story.

She was traveling with a male friend, both of them drug addicts, when she was caught trying to sell two kilos of heroin. After a trial, she was sentenced to death. A year later, her sentence was commuted to life. In Thailand, a life sentence is a life sentence, with no possibility of parole.

She had been in the Women’s Prison, in the section for drug offenses, for four years. She described the first two as a kind of hell, and then said, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hell, but I have learned to accept my situation. I was a drug addict for 20 years. Now, I am clean. Prison has saved my life.”

She possessed the shift she was wearing, another like it, and two sets of underwear. Her diet was a daily bowl of soup with “something strange floating in it,” supplemented by fruit purchased by her in the store. She and several friends sat in a circle to share their food. I exclaimed, “So, you have a community!” She replied, “Oh, yes, I do.”

When asked to describe the worst part about being in prison, she shared her sorrow that she could not see her mother who was too old to travel. She expressed her concern for the entire families, including children and elderly grandmothers, who were inmates. “When the Thai police make a drug bust, everyone in the area is picked up and presumed guilty.” She said she knew women who had been there more than forty years.

An extreme hardship was “the noise and complete lack of privacy.” Her bed was a mat on the floor, the room so crowded with 300 women that they slept toe to toe.

She told me that since receiving the meditation books, she had begun to meditate, waking at 3:00 a.m., the only relatively quiet time in the day. Sitting on her mat, she practiced conscious breathing, learning to focus on her breath, rather than on the snoring of her roommates.

She had also begun to practice mindful walking throughout the day, especially when in the exercise yard. “I am aware of a big difference in my state of mind,” she said.

And, then she said something so powerful that I shall never forget it. “You know,” she said. “When I was ‘out there,’ free to come and go as I pleased, I was never satisfied, I always wanted more, more of everything. I never felt I had enough. In here, I have enough. I actually feel happy, truly free for the first time in my life.”


One of the books sent to Sarah was Be Free Where You Are by Thich Nhat Hanh, based on his talk given to inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institute. The book never reached her, apparently confiscated by censors.

Sarah was transferred in 2007 to a prison in the U.S. Under U.S. law, she will be eligible for parole in 2014.

mb51-TheGift2Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, remained in Hanoi, after accompanying Thay to Vietnam in 2005. She started and continues to support the Hanoi Community for Mindful Living. Currently living in the Central Highlands, she is writing a Dharma memoir, Mother, Where Did You Go?

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Peace, Understanding, and Compassion

An Urban Retreat for People of Color By Valerie Brown Copyright 2010

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“The value of a person is not his race or caste, but the value of his thinking, speaking, and acting. We are noble not because of our race, but by our way of thinking, acting, and speaking.” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Colors of Compassion Retreat, Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA (2004)

After months of planning, hundreds of emails, meetings, and discussions, the Sanghas of the New York City and Philadelphia areas held our first People of Color Days of Mindfulness, supported by the monastics of Blue Cliff Monastery, on April 17 in West Philadelphia and on May 22 in Manhattan. These were the first People of Color Days of Mindfulness held outside monastery walls. For me, these days of practice marked a real “growing edge” of the Sangha and a unique moment to bring the collective energy of mindfulness to the heart of the largest cities in the United States.

Planning these events involved extraordinary attention to details. We made efforts to ensure that people of color from a wide array of backgrounds—Indian, Vietnamese, African American, Latino, and many others—felt cared for and loved. The Philadelphia Planning Team, all people of color, worked joyfully, knowing that our mindfulness in the present moment would form the base for our practice and the entire Sangha. We were well supported by Philadelphia area Sanghas, including Peaceful City Sangha, Lilac Breeze Sangha, Open Hearth Sangha, Willow Branch Sangha, and Old Path Sangha. The Philadelphia Shambhala Meditation Center Sangha offered considerable support as well. For the NewYork City Day of Mindfulness, the organizing team was supported by the Community of Mindfulness NewYork Metro and NewYork Insight Society. We took each email as an opportunity for practice.

Safe and Supportive Practice

The Philadelphia Day of Mindfulness would not have been possible without the loving support of the monks and nuns of Blue Cliff Monastery. Their mindful practice and sharing of personal stories was inspirational. Their words of encouragement and insight about handling difficult emotions, being aware of what supports us, and what to do with erratic practice, led to the emerging of a deep theme: the importance of connecting with like-minded people.

Many people were new to the practice or had practiced meditation in isolation for years. Initially, we came together with a sense of hesitation and fear. Slowly, we released these feelings through sitting meditation practice, gentle movement, rest, and outdoor walking meditation on the city streets. In group discussions, many expressed deep gratitude for creating a safe and supportive atmosphere where people of color could practice together, knowing that our practice would benefit not only ourselves, but the entire Sangha. By the end of the day, there were tears, laughter, and a strong desire to continue what was started.

Learning to Love Ourselves

For many of us, the gifts of time and space have become increasingly hard to find, especially in New York City. This People of Color Day of Mindfulness was a huge gift to us. The gifts of time, of space, of being truly present to ourselves—all these were ways of learning to love ourselves. I recall the words of Sister True Vow: “When you give yourself space, you give yourself love.”

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We explored acknowledging and embracing our fears as they arise, and practicing listening deeply and communicating in a loving way. When asked about how to deal with difficult, harmful, deep-seeded patterns of communication, Sister Fulfillment said, “The greatest inspiration for your loved one is the fruit of your practice… Our transformation is the best we can do to help our loved one.”

Walking Meditation in the Big City

Perhaps the most moving moments for me were during walking meditation on the sidewalks, which were full of city life. I was particularly moved during the Philadelphia event. As we turned a corner, directly in front of our group of sixty people were two homeless men sitting on a park bench. They were visibly fascinated, sensing the peace in our movement. In Manhattan, the experience was even more profound. People stopped and looked in wonder, knowing that something they could not explain was happening as our group of seventy-five people walked by mindfully.

I grew up in New York City and know the streets well. Normally, I am in a rush, walking, thinking about my destination or a project. I live by the language of speed, pushing myself to do more and try harder, and I am rewarded for it at work. But on this day, despite the traffic, crowds, people on skateboards, people walking their dogs and eating from street vendors, it all seemed so very interconnected, and our group of people of color seemed to fit beautifully and seamlessly into the flow of city life. A feeling of great luxury and ease came over me as I walked slowly, feeling the soles of my shoes on the cement sidewalks. Going slowly while everything around me moved at high speed, my experience seemed almost surreal. As I looked around me, some people stopped while others seemed unphased by it all. At that moment I felt so much freedom—freedom from deadlines, projects, and pressing obligations. It was a moment of great happiness.

A Step Forward

Both of these People of Color Days of Mindfulness came together organically. I am sure that we as a Sangha benefited those who participated and those who witnessed our energy of mindful walking, as well as those who assisted us but did not attend the events. The Sangha has made an important step forward by offering both Days of Mindfulness to the wider people of color community. Many people who attended had never participated in this type of event, but were very open. I am hopeful that the Sangha will continue to offer urban practice days for people of color, knowing that mindfulness at its core is about developing a heart of love.

mb55-Peace3Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, was ordained as an OI Member in 2003. She is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA, and has attended every People of Color Retreat since their inception in 2004 at Deer Park Monastery. Her essay on mindfulness is featured in Thay’s new book on People of Color, We Are All Together.

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