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The Scent of Oranges

By Nancy Hom

Note: this article comes from Spoken Like a True Buddha, a compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

Death, and the notion of aging, has always hung over me like a heavy cloud. I have sought ways of avoiding the topic, such as staying away from hospitals, funeral parlors, and nursing homes. But here I find myself visiting my mother, recently confined to a home. All around me, I hear death hissing through the clang of bedpans and squeals of wheelchairs, through the endless drone of catatonic dining companions. Amid the vacant eyes of childlike faces, the tired bodies draped before the dinner trays, my mother sits facing me. She glances at the gift of oranges I have brought her and nods her approval.

I have come 3,000 miles to be with her, but silence forms a wall between us now. Advanced Parkinson’s has already claimed her voice. Her legs, long withered, dangle uselessly. I wheel her into her small room, still stupefied by the disease that chains us both to these white walls away from life.

My mother’s eyes are luminous, glistened pearls. Once they flashed indignantly at the thought of being in a nursing home, then accusingly, then beseechingly. Now they simply look at me with resignation. Sometimes they stare into a far off place.

I watch her helplessly as the minutes tick by. My mind races to fill the space taken up by silence. I think of meetings missed, the dinner not yet eaten, the bus and train I have to take in the cold windy night. I think, If only she had been diagnosed earlier, if only I didn’t live so far away. Then hope, not guilt, would be a visitor. I remember the warmth of her back when she carried me, my small arms wrapped around her like a shawl. How, when I was red with fever, she rocked my blistered body until I fell asleep. The hot nights on the rooftops of Kowloon eating watermelon seeds and watching the neon lights twinkling in the streets below. The first days in America, when I clung to her like a shadow. The dark times, too, when I cowered in a corner before her wrath. These thoughts I hold onto like photographs in an album, stilled images of the mother I no longer have access to.

She points a gnarled finger at the orange I had left on her table. I peel it carefully, glad to have something to do. A spray of citrus fills the air and her eyes widen like a child anticipating sweets. I hand her a slice, which she grasps unsteadily. She brings it painstakingly to her mouth and sucks with soft smacks. I eat my slice too, squeezing the little beads of juice with my teeth until the flavor bursts over my tongue like a rainshower.

Oranges were always around in our house when I grew up. They cleansed the palate after every dinner; topped pomelos on New Year’s altars, were the calling cards of visitors who always brought the fruit as a gift to the host. To me they were heavy sacks of obligation during holidays and weekends, when my mother and I wended our way through tenement buildings to visit fellow immigrants from China. The tables were littered with melon seeds and orange peels as I waited impatiently while my mother and her friends chatted; conversations I found hard to relate to, preferring instead to bury my head in a Nancy Drew book while they reminisced about the old village.

Now this bright leather-skinned fruit is the only bridge between us. We eagerly suck the memories the piquant flavor evokes. The tart vapors tickle our nostrils. I can see from my mother’s twitch of a smile that she remembers, too. She chews slowly, savoring each bite, as if the thoughts will fade away as soon as the orange is eaten and more slices of her life will peel away.

We finish the whole orange. She belches in satisfaction. I wipe her chin; then we sit and gaze at each other. There are so many words that will never get spoken; dreams that will stay unfulfilled; regrets that are etched in our skins like birthmarks. But in this moment it does not matter what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. There is only the room, the faint scent of oranges, and us, breathing in unison.

If I cease my mind’s constant chatter and look deeply, I see that she is still here, still my mother. She is different and she is the same. She will be here after her body has deteriorated. She will be in the air I breathe and in the earth I touch. Her brightness will shine through her children’s eyes, and those of their children. Although I have a long way to go with my practice, this fleeting insight becomes stronger whenever I stop my thoughts long enough to see my mother as she truly is instead of what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. We sit and breathe together. In this moment is the whole of our lives.

Nancy Hom lives in San Francisco. Her experiences as an immigrant, a mother, a community leader, and spiritual seeker provide the framework for her visual and literary pursuits.

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Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.

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What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.

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Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.

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When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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For Abby-Rose, With Love

By Laura Lester Fournier The night before I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Stonehill College last August, I sat with friends and together we read the Trainings. I remember taking in every word deeply and contemplating what I was about to commit to. The topic that kept coming up for conversation was found in number five: specifically, “I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant.” For me, there was no question that if I were to commit to that, I would commit to no longer drinking alcohol. My friends, however, found peace in the idea that this is a practice and not a commandment. They did not have to be absolute; they simply needed to approach drinking with more mindfulness—although that in itself seems like a contradiction in terms. Can one ever drink mindfully, given that alcohol is an intoxicant that alters our consciousness?

As we shared our feelings and laughed together, I became crystal clear about my intention. I was no longer going to drink alcohol.

Transforming the Generations

I come from a long line of alcoholics, though I myself am not an alcoholic. I have a strong desire to help transform this disease for my ancestors and for the children who will follow in the generations yet to be born. It occurred to me that although I am not an alcoholic, my beautiful ten-year-old daughter Abby-Rose could be. The moment I realized that my daughter’s very life could be the price I pay if I continued, I felt completely grounded in my intention to no longer drink alcohol. I had a profound opportunity to transform something in me and in my ancestors and potentially in my daughter. It was my chance to shine a light on something that could alter my daughter’s life profoundly. Although I only have a drink once or twice a month, alcohol was still something that I continued to reach for. I could dedicate my decision to my ancestors, my precious child, and all those who suffer with alcoholism.

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The following morning as I stood with my friends listening to Thây’s beautiful voice and hearing the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I felt so proud and sure that I was taking a step that only good would come from.

When I got home, I sat down with Abby and shared with her my decision to no longer drink. I shared how much suffering there has been in our family because of alcoholism and my wish for her for a life that is free from that kind of suffering. She listened quietly and when I was done she reached for me and gave me the longest and deepest hug I have ever received from her. I knew that she understood. I knew that she heard me on a level of spirit, connection, and conviction, beyond words.

The next day, I took my bottle of vodka out of the freezer. I walked to the kitchen sink and held it up to the sunlight shining through the window. As I gazed into the bottle, all I saw in it was suffering, and it caused me to weep. I unscrewed the cap and poured the contents down the drain, breathing deeply and remaining truly present to my commitment. I then walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water. I held the water up to the light streaming through the window and saw nothing but joy and thanksgiving. I drank the water and blessed it with gratitude.

But there was still the liquor cabinet in the family room. Ultimately, all that was left was a bottle of French wine. I thought that was appropriate, given that Plum Village is in France and it felt like a synchronistic connection with the Sangha and Thây. I knew right away what I wanted to do with the bottle. I wanted to return it to the earth. I walked outside to our summer house, a wonderful sanctuary where we have had many celebrations at our home in New Hampshire. The summer house is surrounded by a grove of trees and is very magical. I thought about all the good times we have had there and also about all the times when liquor was a central ingredient in those celebrations.

I knelt on the ground; the sun was shining through the trees, dappling the ground with little moments of radiance. I dug a hole and placed the bottle in it and covered it back up with dirt. I bowed to the earth and placed my hands on the dirt. I felt all my ancestors around me at that moment. I felt their hands on my back and I felt them smiling, I felt their gratitude and their healing. I felt myself healing, too. I knew that the cycle had come full circle—all for the love of one very special little girl, one promise of the future, one Abby-Rose.

A Champagne Flute Full of Joy

Since giving up drinking, I have had the opportunity to really see when I want a drink. There seem to be two times when I crave it. First, when I want to really let my hair down and have a good time! And the other is when I am completely stressed out and want to escape. During those times I miss the feeling I would get from that first sip of alcohol. Instant relaxation. A few sips later, I would not even remember whatever it was that I was stressed or worried about. It was like a mini-vacation.

I did not realize how much I had come to rely on that bottle to give me peace or just take the edge off. I didn’t drink very often, but I knew alcohol was available if I wanted it. Just the thought that I could go to the freezer and get that bottle and escape was sometimes intoxicating enough for me.

Now that I am not drinking I have found myself wondering if I truly am an alcoholic. There have been days when I wanted a drink, because I was stressed or because I wanted to party. That’s when I have an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and go deep into my practice. I get to return to my breath. I get to go home.

I can choose to celebrate and fill my champagne flute with something nourishing and joyful, rather than something that will only cause me more suffering. I have the opportunity to remind myself of ways that I can avoid becoming so stressed. Rather than escaping into a false peace, I can embrace a true peace. A peace that I joyfully pass on to the next generation.

Laura Lester Fournier, Awakened Direction of the Heart, lives on a small farm with lots of animals in New Hampshire, where she facilitates a children’s sangha.

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Healing the Past in the Present

By Ann Moore In a New Year’s Eve Dharma sharing session at Blue Cliff Monastery, Sister Anh Nghiem invited us to write on the phrases: “It had been,” “But then,” and “I realize.”

In response to her invitation I offer the following story in three chapters:

Chapter 1: It Had Been

It was the last straw when Caroline walked into my writers’ group. My dislike for Caroline was a long-standing, pure prejudice, our acquaintance limited to her occasional inquiry about my mother. As she was closer to my mother’s age than mine, I judged her insincere; if she really cared, she would ask my mother. Also I identified her as one of the elite with whom I feel uncomfortable.

My mother died in October of 2006. Returning from Mexico the following April, Caroline said consolingly: “You must miss your mother dreadfully,” leaving me speechless, as I did not. Caroline had returned interested in prison ministry, and had been given my name to contact. Soon we were carpooling to my two prison ministries.

One day she told me she would be away the third weekend in October. “So will I,” I said. “Where will you be?” We were both going to the same retreat. We began driving together to my two Sanghas. When she headed back to Mexico, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

And now she was in my newfound writers’ group. Tuesday was my early morning Sangha; Monday night I slept under a black cloud. I woke upset by my lack of either Buddhist or Christian compassion, hopeful that Sangha wisdom would help.

Chapter 2: But Then

I remembered reading about my dilemma, but where? Miraculously I found the passage in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: “When one person comes up to us, the sight of him makes us uncomfortable. But when someone else walks by we like her right away. Something in each of them touches a seed in us. If we love our mother deeply, but feel tense every time we think of our father, it is natural that when we see a lady who looks like our mother, we will appreciate her, and when we see a man who evokes the memory of our father, we will feel uncomfortable.”

I had known that irrational aversion was triggered by unresolved childhood conflict, but I had been the apple of my mother’s eye and felt only love for my father. I considered my mother for comparison:

  1. My earliest associations with Caroline were inquiries about
  2. I had assumed a friendship of sorts between
  3. There was the awkward allusion to my loss, which I now recognize as the sort of dead-end assumption for which Mom was notorious.
  4. Caroline was invading my space; I had adolescent boundary issues with
  5. Caroline was making demands on my time; I had been Mom’s sole caregiver.

The match was unmistakable. Within minutes the black cloud dispersed and Caroline became simply Caroline, a person of mutual interests, no longer a threat to my identity.

Chapter 3: I Realize

I realize now, yes, I was tense whenever I thought of Mom. Her love was so vast, so suffocating, that I could not return it in kind. For that I had always felt guilt, while remaining mentally loyal, denying negative feelings as best I could. I now saw clearly that I had projected those feelings onto Caroline.

My mother had idolized her mother, who had been instrumental in driving away my father, whom Mom also idolized. I now saw that Mom had been so judgmental because she had projected unacknowledged, unacceptable family flaws onto others, a trait which I was continuing. With that realization I felt only compassion for the mother I had long found difficult. And I now understood what it meant to heal the past in the present.

Ann G. Moore, Skillful Acceptance of the Heart, lives in Stonington, Connecticut and practices with Clear Heart Sangha in Matunuck, Rhode Island, as well as the New London Community of Mindfulness in New London, Connecticut.

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Ordination by Scorpion

By Harriet Kimble Wrye mb58-Ordination2

It’s 2:00 a.m. at Deer Park Monastery, and later today, Thich Nhat Hanh will ordain me as a lay member of the Order of Interbeing. I’m lying wide awake on my bunk, not yet sure if I’ll make it. More specifically, not sure if I’ll be able to be there.

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My husband, Jim, is fast asleep in the men’s bunkhouse. My daughter, Ariel, is sleeping soundly two bunks away. Part of me is so touched and grateful for her presence, but another part of me feels like throttling her. I am afraid, extremely afraid, that she has done something beyond foolish which could cause my imminent death.

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No Death, No Fear

Last night after evening meditation, we all walked back to our dorms. Maintaining noble silence, my five bunkmates and I removed our shoes before entering. We took turns using the bathroom and I was last, after Ariel. When I closed the door, I saw a note above the sink written in her handwriting. It said:

“Please be aware. I discovered a small scorpion on the floor near the toilet. Of course I wouldn’t violate the precepts to kill it, and having no way to capture it, I shooed it under the sink cabinet where I am sure it will enjoy a peaceful night’s safe sleep.”

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A scorpion?! Loose in the bathroom where we walk barefoot? In the spirit of the retreat, I practiced calming my rising pique with measured breathing, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed, where I fell promptly into a deep sleep.

About an hour ago, around 1:00 a.m., I awoke, padded sleepily into the bathroom, and sat down on the toilet. Just as I relaxed, I felt a blazing, piercing sting on the side of my right foot. I barely stopped myself from screaming aloud. It jolted me awake like an electric shock, and I turned on the light. There on the floor next to my bare foot, with its tail arched menacingly over its horny body, was the scorpion. I imploded with a rush of feelings: panic, fear, and rage. What to do?

Deer Park, miles from town, generally doesn’t have cell phone coverage. I had no idea where Sister (doctor) Dang Nghiem was sleeping, only that it was too far away in Lower Hamlet. Shaking with fear, I reacted impulsively. Gathering a huge wad of toilet paper, I scooped up the scorpion and flushed it down the toilet. Trembling, hoping maybe it would survive the flush, I turned out the light and climbed back onto my bunk. Had I just broken the sacred precept not to kill?

Probably the one I really wanted to flush down the toilet was my own beloved daughter! What was she thinking?! I thought about waking her, but decided that would be self-indulgent acting out. There wasn’t anything she could do for me now. I’d have been waking her up out of pique. A fleeting thought crossed my mind: “Won’t she feel horrible when she discovers my lifeless body?” I chastised myself for that petty thought.

From John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl, I knew that scorpion stings could be deadly. I also remembered that baby rattlesnakes deliver more fatal venom than grown ones. Nervously, I wondered if small scorpions were the same.

There was more than one irony to this predicament. For years, I was sure I didn’t want to be ordained. My Buddhist practice had been both beautiful and sustaining, but it was also something private and personal. Now, once I’d made this commitment, maybe I wouldn’t survive long enough to attend the ceremony. A further twist: one of the things that had helped me change my mind was Thay’s incredible talk “No Death, No Fear” at the UCLA Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Conference I helped to organize in 2006. So, I decided simply to breathe deeply, meditate, and wait. I would practice Thay’s teaching: face death without fear. If this was my fate, I would embrace it.

In the Here and Now 

So, I have been lying here in my sleeping bag for an hour, tracking every sensation in my foot, ankle, and leg. I feel them throbbing and swelling up. My leg feels hot, and I’m aware of a pulsing sensation. But I am not dead yet.

At the same time, I find myself smiling. What a beautiful ending to my blessed life. Here I am, held safe in this spiritual sanctuary, my loved ones nearby, about to be ordained by Thay, who teaches us how to face death utterly fearlessly. There doesn’t seem to be much I can do right now anyway, but simply watch and wait. If the pain really amps up, I’ll ask for help. But it continues, steadily throbbing, yet stable.

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I continue breathing deeply, smiling into fear, calmly watching my thoughts like a movie in my mind. I realize I am deeply meditating. I am fully present. I am here in the now. I am fearless. I am happy. And then I smile to myself. I have been ordained by a scorpion!

A True Precious Smile 

By 3:00 a.m., I decide that I will survive the bite. I will limp, and it will hurt, but I’ll be fine. Amazed and grateful that the teaching “This too shall pass” is yet again revealed to be wise and true, I fall into a short but deep sleep before the bell sounds for morning meditation and the day of my ordination.

The ceremony is profoundly moving. Fourteen of us are seated in the center of the great meditation hall on our zafus and zabutons. Behind the monks and nuns are all those who have come for the ceremony. I can’t turn around to find Jim and Ariel, but I feel their presence and it lifts me.

The ceremony begins with chanting, then a recitation of the Heart Sutra, and an invitation to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. All the ordinees are called to stand and come forward to “touch the earth,” to make three full prostrations in gratitude for our parents, our teachers, our friends, and all beings who have guided and supported us. That is easy, as my heart is brimming with gratitude. As each of the Fourteen Trainings is read, we make our commitment to practice it, prostrating our bodies.

Reciting each one, I realize I am finally fully owning my values and holding myself responsible to these philosophical and spiritual precepts. Performing seventeen deep prostrations is a real challenge to my old knees and shoulders, but I feel tears of gratitude that I can do it, and that, for this moment, I have completely forgotten my other ordination. I hope the scorpion swam to safety and is out in the field where she belongs. If she has died, I ask forgiveness and send her gratitude for her deep teaching, knowing that truly, we inter-are.

Finally Thay calls us forward, one by one, to give us our certificates of ordination and to bestow Dharma names chosen by our mentors and Dharma teachers with Thay. When I step forward and kneel before him, Thay hands me my certificate and grins broadly, his eyes twinkling at me as he says my Dharma name: True Precious Smile.

May I never forget today’s deep teaching—no death, no fear—and the preciousness of a smile. May I practice breathing with deep gratitude for each being who supports me intentionally or accidentally, and for each present moment throughout the rest of my wakeful life.

mb58-Ordination6Santa Cruz, California psychologist/psychoanalyst Harriet Kimble Wrye, True Precious Smile, is the author of Pulling Up Stakes: Stepping Into Freedom, due to be released in April of 2012. For information, go to www.pullingupstakesbook.com.

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