non-attachment

Practicing as a Couple

By Brendan Sillifant My search

I have had a deep affinity with the practice of mindfulness since I was a teenager. I had come across it in a variety of forms from different sources. From the Buddhist traditions of Thailand, Japan and Tibet, and from modern self-help psychology also. As a young man I wanted to learn to live my life fully, and I set out to travel for two years visiting different practice communities in North America looking for a teacher and a Sangha. That is where I first attended a retreat with Thay. I was drawn to his teaching which seemed so appropriate for modem society, deep and yet simple. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on joyful and continuous practice.

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Not being caught in dualistic thinking

I then came to practice with the Plum Village Sangha for six months in 1991. The Sangha was a small community made up of both monastic and lay practitioners. When I first came to Plum Village it was my love of mindfulness practice that brought me here, I had never had the thought to ordain. But after a time that wish grew in me, although that wish in me was still quite innocent, even naive. My teacher was a monk and I wanted to be like him. Nevertheless I made the determination to return to New Zealand, to sell all my worldly possessions, spend some precious time with my family, and then return to Plum Village to ordain.

Whilst in New Zealand I attended a Chinese Chan retreat in order to keep my practice strong. The retreat was held each weekend for almost two months. During this time I grew quite close to a young woman who was also practicing at the retreat. The blossoming of this relationship created a lot of confusion in me, it seemed like a conflict, to ordain or to marry. I wanted both, I wanted to be with the young woman I was growing to love, and I also wanted to practice wholeheartedly. I spent many months trying to make a decision between these two alternatives, trying to look into my real aspirations and yearnings.

Eventually I came to see that there was no conflict between these two things. When I looked deeply into my concept of monkhood, I found that what was actually important was to see what were the elements present in monastic life which would be supportive to my practice, and to find ways to bring these elements into my life and the life of my partner. With this understanding, there was no longer a decision or a choice that I needed to make. In my daily life I tried to blend my two loves, and I learned not to be caught in dualistic thinking between monastic life and lay life, but to seek to create a life with all the positive conditions present. I found I could have both a loving marriage and a strong committed practice, and there was no contradiction between the two. I experienced my relationship as a support to my practice, not a hindrance, even sexuality. My relationship supported my practice and my practice supported my relationship. I experienced these two things as a wonderful support for each other.

Relationship supports practice

My wife and I live closely together, and as a result we have grown to know each other quite intimately. This intimate understanding enables us to offer support and guidance to each other, helping each other not to fall into habit energies. An intimate relationship also provides comfort, soul sustenance, and nurturance, which can give one strength to overcome difficulties in one's life and practice. I experience my relationship as a kind of Sangha, it supports me in the same ways as the greater Sangha does, yet very intimately. I feel very fortunate to have a small Sangha within the big Sangha. As practicing partners we also help balance each other. When one person feels sad or anxious, the other can help him or her to feel bright or relaxed again. When overcome by wrong perceptions about someone or some situation, the other can provide alternative ways of looking. When we need to nourish the five-year-old boy or girl within us but are unable to do so, the other can provide that loving embrace. When we need the firm words of a teacher or Dharma sister or brother to put us back in the practice, the other can provide those words to set us straight. We practice in some ways as a single body, being aware of our own mental formations and also the mental formations of the other. So we have both our own mindfulness to rely upon and when that is weak we also have the practice of the other to rely upon. We practice to transform our own afflictions and also the afflictions of the other.

Practice supports relationship

The practice of mindfulness is a wonderful support in cultivating a loving relationship. It deepens our ability to speak lovingly, listen deeply, and understand each other. Mindfulness practice keeps our relationship fresh and helps us not to fall into negative habits. It gives each person more self-understanding and stability so we are more secure in ourselves, as a result we become much less prone to reading into the relationship what is not there. In addition to this the presence of the greater Sangha helps not to be isolated in our couple-ness. Sometimes two people become so much alike in character and view, that they cannot offer the other a new or different way of looking when needed. Dharma and Sangha can be a great support in offering clarity in situations that are usually dominated by habit energies. So when one person in a couple is lost in confusion, the other does not also become lost but can offer new clarity and fresh ways of looking into a situation.

Conscious watering of positive seeds is one of the tools of the practice that can be a tremendous support to a couple. Many couples we see around us are fresh and loving in the beginning, but after many years the habit of blaming, arguing, and criticizing each other begins to give the relationship a sour flavor. And at one point it seems the relationship is so infused with negativity that the path to recreating a positive healthy love is such a difficult task that many couples give up, thinking its easier to start over with another person. The practice of mindfulness, of being present to each other and for each other, already increases an awareness of the preciousness of each other. The practice of watering the flowers in each other helps us to be aware of the positive qualities of each other, and to express our appreciation and gratitude towards each other. If over time we are able to water the positive seeds more than the negative seeds in each other, then the ability to appreciate and acknowledge the wonder and beauty of the other will always be present, even in the midst of difficulty. As a result, when there is disharmony, the motivation will be not to hurt the other, but to heal the relationship and to reestablish harmony between us.

From Attachment to Freedom

I have spoken about how I see that an intimate relationship can be a wonderful support to one's practice. And now I would like to say something about the obstacles to meditation practice that can sometimes arise in a relationship.

We hear a lot about attachment in Buddhist teaching, and we may be involved in an intimate relationship and ask ourselves, "Well, what does attachment mean to me in my situation?" We need to look deeply into this area of our lives, because the practice of non-attachment can greatly enhance our relationship. Developing non-attachment does not need to go against our relationship. We need to look at our relationships clearly, not just follow an ideal we have heard about. What is our real experience of attachment, in what ways does it truly sustain us and in what ways does it make us suffer?

In our life we do take refuge in many things, we rely on many things. As children, and still as adults, we rely on our parents, we rely on our teachers, and on our friends. We rely on certain colleagues at work, we rely on our community of practice, and we rely on the three jewels. If suddenly one of these refuges is not there, we feel its lack, we suffer. This shows us the presence of attachment. Nevertheless we have been enriched by the presence of these people in our lives. Their presence has given great beauty to our lives and we would not wish to have been without them. We are attached to these people and situations because they have contributed so much to us. So the question is not to abandon these things, because we know that without them our life will be less rich, less nourishing. The question is, rather, how to bring the spirit of non-attachment into our relationships, so we can profit fully from the presence of the other whilst also maintaining our freedom and our sovereignty. The practice of non-attachment can lessen any unhealthy dependence that exists in our relationships and can allow our love to be light and joyful.

It is interesting to look deeply and to see in what way dependence is a wholesome and necessary part of our human and spiritual life, and in what way does it limit us? Does our dependence support us in becoming whole and complete or do we rely on the other person to complete us? We take refuge because we need support on our path to wholeness. But if our object of refuge or our way of taking refuge becomes a barrier to becoming whole, whether it is refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or in our partner, we need to re-examine our way of taking refuge. A true teacher does not want us to only depend on him or her for stability, he or she wants to strengthen the teacher within us and will direct us to rely on that teacher more and more over time. The disciples of the Buddha took refuge in the Buddha, their teacher. Yet near the end of his life the Buddha instructed them to take refuge in the island within themselves, because that island is the teacher within which will always be with them, it is a stable and reliable refuge. The Buddha knew that it is this island which is the real object of refuge.

I will give an example: My wife Fei-fei is someone who is very confident, she enjoys being in front of groups of people, and can be her best on stage. But me, well its something which makes me a bit nervous, something which I would prefer to avoid if possible. So I could say to her, "Fei can you talk tomorrow for me, I don't want to speak in public." I can rely on her in any situation where I have to speak in front of the community, and thus avoid ever having to challenge myself and grow. In did this she would become more and more confident, with all the practice she would get, and I would become more and more shy. And an imbalance would result in our relationship and also in me. I would become incomplete without her. So this would be a way of taking refuge which would prevent my becoming whole. Alternatively I can learn to see Fei-fei as a teacher and can learn from her strength in this area. I can try to emulate her confident presence, thus her presence can be a source of strength for me that supports me becoming more whole and less dependent.

This is something to be aware of in a relationship, because we may have been attracted to our partner because they have certain qualities that we lack, to complement and complete us. But we can rely on our partner in a constructive way that helps us develop and transform our weaknesses, thus overcoming our initial dependence and becoming more free. In this way our relationship can take us in the direction of greater dependence or greater freedom and wholeness, depending on our way of taking refuge.

From attached love to boundless love

Our relationships can lead us into a narrow isolated love or a broad inclusive love, and this also depends on our way of taking refuge in each other. Sometimes our way of loving, our way of taking refuge in each other is a way of hiding from the world around us. And the more deeply we invest in each other the more deeply we cut ourselves off from others. So our way of taking refuge in each other becomes a prison for us. Even taking refuge in the Sangha can be like this. Perhaps we mix only amongst our close brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and we hide from the people who come to the community to practice, we may even hide from certain people in our own community. This is a form of attachment which may imprison us and keep us from opening our hearts to all those who cross our path in life.

Our love, to be deep and fulfilling, cannot be limited to only one person. If we love one person yet are alienated from others then our love will grow in on itself, it will not flower. It seems natural for a relationship to want to express itself in service of something greater. Perhaps that is why it seems so natural for couples to want to have children, so that the love that is cultivated between two people can seek a greater expression and flowering. When we can love one person we can love others also, love needn't be limited to one person. For this we need to be able to see the deep nature of the one we love. To see that that person contains her mother, father, grandparents, a whole lineage and culture. Our love then becomes embracing and we can learn to accept the things in the other person which are the most difficult for us to accept. Mindfulness and looking deeply helps us to see beyond the appearance of the one we love, so our small love becomes a door to great love. The relationship becomes a labaratory or testing ground for our love, allowing us to cultivate a mature love which then extends to the many people we come into contact with. In loving one person we do learn to love many people, because the person we love contains multitudes.

Over the years I have been together with my wife I see more and more how deeply she is.the continuation of her parents and ancestors. That in marrying and making the vow to love her, I have married and made the vow to love also her parents, siblings, grandparents, society, and indeed all beings. A couple relationship is really the coming together of two streams, not just two people, so there is a lot of potential there, potential for strife and for strength. And for certain our love will be cultured and matured over the years, like a good cheese.

Sexuality

Sexuality is another area that can easily become an obstacle to our practice if we are not skillful. But my experience tells me that sexuality can be an integral part of an intimate relationship, and also an integral part of a spiritual life and practice. We sometimes make too much out of sexuality by either being preoccupied by it or by not wanting to have anything to do with it. But sexuality can be a beautiful and nourishing part of a committed relationship. We try to bring the practice of mindfulness to every area of our lives and sexuality is an area of our life that also profits from the practice of mindfulness.

With the practice of mindfulness the sexual act can be no less than a sacred and beautiful ritual that is performed in deep concentration and joy, a deep expression of love and care for each other. With mindfulness present we are able to maintain a peaceful and relaxed presence, without becoming lost in sensual desire. Desire is an obstacle to peace, and it can also be an obstacle to deep communion, because the other becomes an object of desire, and we lose the deep love and intimacy that is present. Sexuality is a form of expression between two people that can nourish joy in being together, and helps establish closeness   and love. But this is only possible in the context of a committed relationship where attention is also given to other forms of communication. Sometimes sexuality is sought outside of a committed relationship, because we yearn for intimacy but we do not know how to establish real intimacy. Perhaps in our relationship there is so much misunderstanding and so many small unresolved hurts that there is no longer intimacy between us. So we naively seek intimacy elsewhere, in new relationships which do not have the same baggage of suffering. We need to remember that intimacy comes from the meeting of hearts not bodies, the meeting of bodies is only an expression. And for the meeting of hearts to be deep and present even after many years together we need to practice constantly.

How do we maintain our love over many years?

In the early days of a relationship there can be a lot of excitement, passion and romance. These feelings can be very compelling and attractive, they set our heart pumping and make us feel very alive. Our love is fresh and new, filled with hope and expectation. We do not know the other deeply and we imagine how wonderful they are. After sometime of being together, we begin to get used to one another more. We think we know pretty well everything there is to know about them. We quickly settle into a routine; our relationship becomes mundane, ho-hum, perhaps even boring. Th\ngs are ok, but not very alive. We think back to the early days and remember how fresh and wonderful it was to be with each other. But we don't know how to return to that freshness again. We think we need to do something spectacular to get the vitality back into the relationship, like taking a romantic holiday on a deserted island in the Bahamas.

But it is much simplier than that. We just need to be more attentive to maintaining our full presence for our loved one, and not fall into the habit of taking each other for granted. Fei-fei said that when we first met, she thought I was very romantic. For my part, I do not really feel I am a romantic person, neither do I aspire to be. But I think what gave this impression, was that I practiced really being there for her, giving her my full attention when we were together, and perhaps she had not experienced this kind of attention very often before. This kind of mindfulness is the tofu and potatoes of our love, it is the daily food of our relationship. And with this steady loving presence our relationship stays fresh and vital, even if our life appears very routine.

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Personal Time versus time for each other

Another way in which we might consider a relationship as an obstacle to a solid practice is that we may feel we have less space in our lives. I sometimes hear people say that they need more space in their relationship. They need time away from their partners. I have had this feeling occasionally in my relationship, although I feel lucky that this feeling comes up very seldom. For me this is a signal to look deeply, of course I can honor that feeling and take the opportunity to go for a walk by myself. But I need to ask myself, why do I not experience enough space in being together at the moment? I cannot just say that I need space and that's normal , and take my space. Perhaps our way of being together has settled into a habit of being too talkative. We may have been spending excessive time gossiping about others. Or maybe there is some tension in our relationship that makes it difficult for us to be at peace in the presence of the other. All these things are signals to us to pay more attention to the quality of our time together, and the quality of our practice together. Just as the Sangha is a support for our practice so to can be our couple re lationship. And when we retum there we find a refuge of warmth, space, acceptance, ease, and peace. If these things are not present in our relationship, it is because we have not cultivated our relationship in a skillful enough way.

Oneness - from individual to couple

Life as a couple has a certain vitality and richness which takes us beyond our individual desires and aspirations. We are two but we are one, and we really need to leam to think, feel , and see as one, or there will be conflict. If we continue to follow our own wants and needs and the other continues to follow their own wants and needs, we will not find a deep harmony and unity in our relationship.

For our love to return to us a deep sustenance for our soul, for there to be a deep intimacy between the two of us, we really need to learn to see the happiness of the other as our own happiness, and our happiness as the happiness of the other. This is not an attitude of sacrifice, because in sacrifice there is still duality, there is still "I" give up my needs to satisfy "your" needs. Where there is sacrifice there is still the unconsciolls debt of the other that we hold in our hearts and expect to be paid back sometime. To see that our happiness is one is to see that giver, gift, and receiver are one. We don't want to sacrifice because we know that deep down, for the other person to be happy, we also need to be happy. How can the other be bright and cheerful when we are moping around, feeling tired all the time having given beyond our capacity. So to give to ourselves, to nurture ourselves and our own deep peace and joy, is to make an offering to the person we love.

Recently Thay has said that practicing as a Sangha is like practicing as a couple. It can be a true practice of non-self to see that we are one body, and that we can no longer seek only for our own happiness without considering the happiness ofthe other. As a couple we become so interconnected, that this way of thinking no longer functions well. We simply have to learn to think in a new way, a way that really acknowledges our true interconnectedness, our interconnectedness as a couple, as a Sangha, and as a world.

Brendan, True Virtue of Loving Kindness, lives in the Upper Hamlet with his wife, Fei-Fei.

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Ask The Dharmacharya

mb33-Ask1What does being a Dharmacharya mean to me? Joanne Friday  and  Ernestine Enomoto

So far, it has meant a time of deep reflection and practicing don’t-know mind. Sangha building has been my main focus for the last ten years. During that process, there were times when I was attached to outcomes and things were not going as I’d hoped or thought they should. I had no idea what to do.  At each of those junctures I’d realize that all I could do was deepen my practice by doing beginning anew for myself, seeking out teachers, being more mindful, etc. It was almost miraculous how the problems would work themselves out when I would take care of my own business. So first, I look at the transmission to be an invitation to deepen my practice.

With the invitation to receive the lamp transmission came many teachings. Initially, I felt unworthy – that a mistake had been made. I knew how imperfect my practice was. Then I realized that Thay and the monastics and my Sangha brothers and sisters knew that too. The fact that I was loved and accepted as I was, and that I was being trusted to do my best, was tremendously healing for me.

My habit energy would normally cause me to lack confidence and be fearful. However, almost immediately I experienced a deep sense of non-self, which led to non-fear and deep gratitude. I knew this ordination was not about “me,” it was about all of my non-self elements. When I considered that Thay, the fourfold Sangha, all my ancestors and friends were alive in every cell of my body, it was unthinkable to feel not good enough or fearful. To be a Dharma teacher seems a huge responsibility, but not a heavy burden because “I” am not doing it. The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both empty! When I think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have had all these wonderful teachers and teachings become part of me, the gratitude is almost too much to hold.

I have learned how strong our Sangha is. That has been my deepest happiness. Everyone has been the embodiment of sympathetic joy and has supported me in every way. Two members even came to France to be my attendants. While we were there, the other members worked together to organize and facilitate all the Sangha meetings. It was clear that there was no them and no me and that we were receiving the transmission.

It has been easy for me to see how much I don’t know. In order to practice compassion for myself, I have also looked at what I do know. The main thing that I know is that I have come from a place of deep suffering and that by practicing, I have been able to transform my suffering into joy. I have complete confidence in the practice, based on what I know is true from my own experience. So overall, when I look deeply, what it has meant so far is a deepened confidence in the Three Jewels, a new understanding of emptiness, and a wonderful opportunity and invitation to deepen my practice.

Part of the gatha Thay offered me is “All gifts will be given and received without attachment… You meet all beings with love and compassion.” That seems to me to be a wonderful assignment. My Dharma name is True Gift of Joy. In Vietnamese there are a number of different words for gift. The one in my name means a gift given with no expectation of anything in return. I feel that that is how the Dharma has been given to me. It has been a true gift of joy. My deepest aspiration is to be able to pass it on.

Joanne Friday, Chan Lac Thi, True Gift of Joy, practices with the Clear Heart Sangha in Matunuck, RI.

mb33-Ask2It’s Tuesday evening and instead of being at Sangha as usual, I am home in bed with stomach flu. In nearly four and a half years of steady attendance at our Tuesday evening sits, I am missing my second Sangha meeting this year. So what does this have to do with being a Dharma teacher?

For me, the message is to let go and allow Sangha members to lead the evening as they have done so wonderfully in the past when I was unable to attend. It means stepping aside and nurturing from the sidelines, rather than from the front and center. It means acknowledging the maturing of members who have been coming regularly over these past four years and are now assuming leadership roles.

It was only last fall that we decided to meet weekly as a Sangha, rather than twice a month. To take this step, I needed to trust in the maturity of the Sangha. Becoming a Dharma teacher has meant acknowledging the collective wisdom of the greater Sangha body. We trust that together we can learn, grow, mature, and unfold like the petals of the lotus bud. Individually, we need to put stock in that trust and know that if we take care of our part, the rest will unfold.

An example of this occurred during my travels to Plum Village in January to be ordained. I live in Honolulu, Hawaii, where we enjoy a mild tropical climate year round. The temperature hovers between seventy and eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Knowing how cold it can get in Plum Village, even in May and early June, I found daunting the prospect of flying to France at the beginning of January even for an ordination ceremony to become a Dharma Teacher. I also would need warm clothing that I do not possess. Prior to my departure, one of our Sangha members, Wilma, offered advice based on her years of traveling in cold places like Tibet and Nepal. She loaned me a cap, scarf, gloves, and a couple of sweaters to keep me warm. But the need still seemed somewhat unreal when sitting in eighty-degree weather.

I departed for France on January fifth, a balmy Sunday evening in Honolulu, flying to San Francisco and then on to Paris. The connection to Bordeaux was tight and although I made it, my luggage did not. As we later learned, a snowstorm had blanketed Paris days before, delaying air and other traffic. Fortunately I met others bound for Plum Village – Terry, Patrick, and Travis from Parallax Press, all standing in line to claim lost luggage at the Bordeaux airport. We would not see our luggage for the entire ten days that we were in France!

I arrived at the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village with only a backpack, some toiletries, and an extra-large t-shirt. Not only was I tired and jet lagged but I had no warm clothing. Feelings of upset, anxiety, and worry arose; the practice of mindfulness allowed me to return to the present moment. I let go and asked for help. Terry from California gave me a pair of long underwear and an extra washcloth. Elizabeth from Boston loaned me a lovely silk undershirt and underwear. Sister Eleni collected a coat, some sweaters, pullovers, and woolen socks from the Plum Village clothing stockpile for me. Joanne and Richard from Providence gave me a green down vest to wear under the coat. Soon I was layered and warm. Had my luggage arrived as planned, I would have frozen because my Hawaiian wardrobe was inadequate for the cold weather. I might not have asked for help. Letting go and trusting the Sangha, I was able to stay warm.

My luggage was finally delivered to Upper Hamlet on the afternoon of January fifteenth, after I had departed for Bordeaux. Fortunately friends Feifei and Brandon delivered the luggage to the airport the next morning in time for my departure. This story reminds me to trust the Sangha and release my worries about how I sometimes think life should be, and instead enjoy life as it truly is -miraculous, wondrous and ever changing. I suspect that becoming a Dharma Teacher will continue to evolve in that way.

Ernestine Enomoto, True Mindfulness of Peace, practices with the Honolulu Mindfulness Community in Hawaii. Each month, she leads Days of Mindfulness with walks along a white sandy beach.

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Mindful Meeting Guidelines

By Tony Silvestre mb51-Mindful1

Meetings are a wonderful opportunity to practice skillful speaking and listening. When we gather to discuss and take care of our Sangha, there are opportunities for members to present gifts to our Sangha and for our members to practice receiving gifts. An important purpose of meetings is to practice mindfulness. It is important that the Sangha practice during meetings in ways that bring ease, peace, and joy to meeting participants. The process of making decisions is as important to the harmony of the Sangha as any action that the Sangha can take. We recognize that like all phenomena, these guidelines are impermanent, and may change as needed.

Thay invited us to be mindful at meetings and suggested that we communicate with each other using kind and respectful speech and deep listening in order to share our insight so that we can make the best decisions for the benefit of the Sangha. The following is an aspiration that Thay offers for our use:

Dear Lord Buddha and All Our Ancestral Teachers, We vow to go through this meeting in a spirit of togetherness as we review all ideas and consolidate them to reach a harmonious understanding or consensus. We vow to use the methods of loving speech and deep listening in order to bring about the success of this meeting as an offering to the Three Jewels. We vow not to hesitate to share our ideas and insights but also vow not to say anything when the feeling of irritation is present in us. We are resolutely determined not to allow tension to build up in this meeting. If any one of us senses the start of tension, we will stop immediately and practice Beginning Anew right away so as to re-establish an atmosphere of togetherness and harmony. (from Joyfully Together)

Here are the guidelines that we use for meetings of the Laughing Rivers Sangha:

  1. Each member’s ideas and comments are a gift to the Sangha. We will practice to listen without judging and should first identify the gift offered before considering its usefulness.
  2. We will practice to express ourselves clearly and as briefly as possible. Talking over people, interrupting speakers, and rushing to speak as others pause are some ways that we limit others’ ability to speak.
  3. Repeating points that we already made, speaking for long periods, and making comments that are dealing with multiple issues at once, can be intimidating and overwhelming. We will practice to make every effort to present simply and briefly.
  4. We will practice to be careful before we represent the views of others who are not present.
  5. The Mindfulness Trainings present many opportunities for practice during meetings:
  • Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views.
  • We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences.
  • Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves I the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech.
  • Aware that words can create sufferings or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence.

6. We will practice speaking with candor and gentleness to safeguard the Sangha.

Tony Silvestre, True Hall of Peace, is convener of Rainbow Buddhists of Pittsburgh, a social and educational group for LGBT people and their friends. Other members of Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh contributed to this article.

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In the Eyes of the Sangha

By Soren Kisiel mb53-InTheEyes1

“Thay…will not be coming to Colorado.” My friend’s words were carefully chosen: neutral, to lessen the blow.

Volunteering at the Order of Interbeing sign-in table, I heard those words before most people. Some of the Dharma teachers had been informed, and I found myself privy to their whispered conversations.

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My first thought was for Thay’s health. But once it had been explained to me that he was in good hands and didn’t seem to be in danger, disappointment came to me in such a rush that my head swam. I thought of my wife’s efforts, single-parenting for a week so I could be here, and of the money I’d spent to get here. I would be ordaining in the Order of Interbeing at this retreat. But without Thay? What would that mean? Could one be ordained without Thay?

A line was forming at my registration table. “If you can’t practice nonattachment here,” I whispered to myself, “where can you?” I took a few breaths, found a smile, and continued signing people in.

the morning sun brightens the mountainsides whether my heart is light or not

Thay’s letter was read to us, and the monastics forged ahead with the retreat. I decided: this retreat would be all about my practice. My disappointment began to lift. I could make the best of the opportunity by practicing fervently. I was here.

Then something happened. As the monastics began to share with us, in the Dharma talk and private hellos: there was our teacher! There was Thay, right before our eyes! His teaching, his understanding, his gentleness, so carefully transmitted to our monastic brothers and sisters. We were dazzled with how diligently they’d learned, and I was filled with gratitude for their efforts. In return we all sat a little straighter, practiced a little deeper. More people practiced mindful walking after that first Dharma talk than I’d seen at any other retreat.

Within a day or so, as we became used to seeing Thay in each monk and nun, we began to look for him in every one of us. And there he was. In each person’s eyes, in each smile, in each gentle step. His presence permeated the retreat. Something very precious was taking place. We all felt it. We discussed this in our Dharma groups. Here was interbeing, right before our eyes. Thay and the Sangha were one and the same. We and the Sangha were one and the same. Here was Thay, present with each of us, in each of us.

Suddenly I felt lucky to be at this retreat. The Sangha was crystallizing into a glittering diamond. It was developing confidence in itself, in its strength and ability to support, to carry on. How fortunate to be here for that—to be a part of this magical and precious teaching.

When I shared my feelings with Brother Phap Hai, he joked, “Oh, great. When Thay calls tonight, I’ll tell him you’re glad he’s not here.”

my brother is listening I can see myself in his eyes

When I first came to the practice eighteen years ago, I was living on my own in Sri Lanka, and the practice for me became wrapped in a sort of lonely romance. It wasn’t something I wanted to share with others; it was my own pursuit, meaningful, intimate, and private. I practiced alone.

After more than a decade of this style, I found Thay’s teaching, and it turned my practice on its head. Thay stressed Sangha, community, to a degree that I found startling. My mentor for ordainment, Rowan Conrad, tells a story of first arriving at Plum Village in the late 1980s. “You think you are here to see Thay,” he reports Thay saying, “but that is a misperception. You are here to see the Sangha.”

Once that seed was planted, Sangha became key to my practice as well, its support taking me to depths I hadn’t imagined possible, teaching me that compassion was every bit as important as wisdom. My practice began to bloom, but as one blossom in a wide field of flowers.

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As my ordination into the Order of Interbeing approached, to my surprise I found myself feeling that Thay’s absence made a sort of sense. I missed Thay that morning, and wished he were there to be a part of it. On my way to the Dharma hall, I sat on a bench to quietly thank Thay for all I was learning. In my heart I sent my ordination to Thay as a get-well gift. But as I took this step into the community, I knew the only individual that had to be there was me. Me, and the Sangha.

“You think you are here to ordain with Thay,” I said to myself, “but that is a misperception. You are here to ordain with the Sangha.”

The Be-In celebration that evening was filled with light and love and joy. We had seen something in one another and in ourselves. The energy of our smiles filled the room to bursting. The bears in the hills, I’m quite certain, could hear our laughter.

dragonflies dazzled with one another —late summer in the Rockies

The first time I wore my brown jacket at the retreat, shortly after ordination, a woman stopped me and asked me to instruct her in walking meditation. I was thrilled at the opportunity to share.

After some initial guidance, we walked together. “Picture lotuses blooming in each footstep,” I told her quietly, paraphrasing Thay. “You are leaving a path of lotuses behind you.”

She breathed deeply at the image and smiled, eyes wet. I knew in that moment she saw Thay in me. And, in that moment, I could too. Gratitude flooded through me, deep and strong. And my eyes, too, filled with tears.

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mb53-InTheEyes3Soren Kisiel, True Land of Serenity, was ordained last summer, and is part of the Deer Park Dharmacast team. His home Sanghas are the Open Way and Flowing Mountain Sanghas in Montana.

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Migrating into Happiness

By Robin Lee Schiff and Joost van Rens Robin: Yesterday evening we were lying on the smooth sunwarmed road that winds its way down the mountain at Deer Park Monastery, watching the moon rise over the crest of the ridge, enjoying the coolness of the evening after a hot sunny day. As we listened to the coyotes calling to each other, we both felt a deep sense of happiness, marveling at the way our life has been unfolding. Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

Joost: We have been visiting Plum Village since 1997 and Deer Park Monastery since 2002. Over the years it has become clear that we are happiest when we are spending time at the monastery with the monks and nuns, being part of the fourfold Sangha. We began to notice after each retreat that our priorities shifted effortlessly into deeper harmony with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and that making conscious decisions and choices to create positive change became much easier. In 2004, toward the end of the nine-week winter retreat at Deer Park, Robin looked deeply in meditation and resolved to change our lifestyle in such a way that we would spend at least three months each year at Deer Park. She called it a ten-year plan, and said, “I don’t know how it will happen; I only know that within ten years we will be doing this.” I readily agreed. In the end it took us only three years to accomplish this goal.

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At Home in the Netherlands

Joost: I worked for almost twenty years as a medical doctor in a non-profit center in a poor neighborhood in The Hague, where I saw thirty to forty patients a day, most of them immigrants. I was also politically active in the health-care field because most of the health problems of my patients were poverty-related. I used all the tools I had learned in Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery to deal with the high levels of stress at my work: mindful walking in my office, conscious breathing during and between consultations, loving speech and deep listening with patients and colleagues. I hung pictures of Thay on the wall as mindfulness bells, and I tried to treat each patient as if he or she were my mother, father, sister, or brother. But I was also in the habit of drinking one to two Belgian beers after work to be able to relax because I would come home tense and exhausted. During the 2004 winter retreat I engaged in several weeks of deep self-inquiry, well supported by Sangha friends, as to why I liked to drink. At the end of the retreat, Robin and I undertook the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided afterward to give up alcohol completely. Within a year after I stopped drinking, it became very clear to me how high and unsustainable the stress levels were at work. This realization catalyzed me to change my life.

mb55-Migrating3Robin: I teach tai chi as a form of mindfulness meditation. In our studio at home in The Hague, employees of UN agencies participated in classes, as did lots of other people who read the brochures I left in public libraries, bookshops, and natural food stores. Joost and I hosted weekly Sangha mindfulness mornings as well.

I have had a daily practice of sitting meditation since I was sixteen years old, but Thay’s book Old Path White Clouds inspired me greatly and led me to change to a Plum Village style of practice, particularly after our first visit to Plum Village in 1997. The advice given to me then by Sister Gina was to spend less time sitting and to try to take meditation off the cushion and into every aspect of my daily life. This has been enormously healing and transformative for me, closing the disturbing gap that had widened over the years between my “spiritual” life on the cushion and the rest of my experiences. Each time we came back from Deer Park we noticed that we were less attached to our worldly possessions. It was becoming clear that our true happiness was not dependent upon these things. In 2005, our son Seth graduated university and landed a contract teaching English in Japan. Knowing that Seth could now earn his own living catapulted me into a phase change, which I describe as the end of the nesting instinct. I saw myself as a bird flying out of the nest and into the immense blue sky.

Joost and Robin: After a year of research, planning, number crunching, and deep looking, we were ready to commence the process of selling our house and other possessions, quitting our jobs, and leaving the Netherlands. Our plan was to live six or seven months per year in Australia or New Zealand, where Joost could work as a roving medical doctor. (This is possible because there is a great shortage of doctors in rural areas in both countries.) We would have no fixed base but would move from location to location, wherever doctors were needed.

Joost: Both of us come from families that play it safe in making life choices. We noticed fears arising, triggered by the unconventional choices we were making. We both had to recognize, embrace, and find ways to transform these fears, step by step, as we developed and implemented our plans.

In August 2006, Robin began fixing up our house to put it up for sale the following spring. We started giving away our furniture, library, music CDs, clothing, beds, kitchenware, bicycles—everything—to our families and to friends who were planning to start a Buddhist retreat in England. It took a year to mindfully divest ourselves of all the possessions we had previously cherished. We each left the Netherlands with forty kilograms of possessions. Leaving my family behind, especially my 85-year-old father, was especially poignant because my mother had died just three months before. I taught my father to use Skype, and we now speak on the phone or Skype every two days. We keep in close contact—via Skype—with our son, who is now twenty-six years old and studying law. The other emotional hurdle was fi   a new home for our twenty-two-year-old black cat, Zumbro. As of this writing, Zumbro is still alive and thriving with a couple of our friends in Amsterdam.

At Home Wherever We Are

Robin: Each work assignment in Australia and New Zealand comes with a temporary house and the use of a car. We never know what kind of house it will be until we arrive. People ask us if it is difficult to have no home of our own, but the practices of mindful walking and breathing have helped us to be at home wherever we are. We have stayed in many remote rural locations all over Western Australia and New Zealand, and usually by the time we have unpacked our bags we feel at home. The amount of time we remain in each location averages about five weeks.

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Joost: While I was working in the Netherlands, it felt as though my work never stopped. Now I know that each year I will spend at least three months at Deer Park Monastery. Even though working in rural areas can be very challenging, I have much more joyful energy for my work. We also have considerably more free time to appreciate the beauty of nature and to feel gratitude for our relationship.

Robin: Every day during our first year in Australia, I would imagine, before I started eating breakfast, that one of the trees I could see from the table was Brother Phap Ho, one was Brother Phap Dung, and one was Sister Faith or Sister Tue Nghiem, or whichever monastic arose in my thoughts. Now, two years later, the trees themselves seem to have so much presence, I no longer need to attach images of monastic friends to them to feel as though Sangha is all around me!

Joost: The frequent changes in our work and living environments help us to stay fresh and to practice “beginner’s mind;” they also encourage us to reduce our possessions even more, since we have to carry everything wherever we go. I have worked as a GP in many different types of practices, this year mostly in impoverished Maori towns. Robin works as our part-time manager to organize work assignments, contracts, tickets, housing, insurance, visas, etc. She also swims daily and teaches tai chi and meditation.

Robin: People often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult for you when Joost goes off to work and you are in a new place?” My natural attitude is that in each new place, some special opportunity will arise for me to learn something new, and/or to teach somebody who really wants to learn what I can offer. I only have to be present and aware to see the opportunity, to enjoy it, to give and receive. Of course, our new lifestyle has brought up new and different challenges. Visa immigration rules and medical board regulations change without warning, so we have to adjust our plans often. Fear comes up for us in these situations; but as we gain more experience by solving each predicament, we gain more confidence in being able to find workable solutions.

Joost: We are usually able to keep in contact with friends and family. Sometimes one of us experiences feelings of loss and loneliness when we are in a very remote place without internet or a good telephone connection. We sit with these feelings, let them come up, and hold them gently as if they were crying babies. Because we are a Sangha of two people, we are able to support each other well.

Life has become a journey. Deer Park has become our home base. Since we changed our life in 2007 and are now coming to Deer Park every year for three months, our practice has deepened and our happiness and understanding have been nourished. Each year we make new friends in the constantly changing Sangha at Deer Park, and our capacity to live happily in the present moment grows.

Robin: Friends ask us, “How long do you think you will keep doing this? When will you settle down somewhere, and where?” I tell them, “We’ll wait and see! Life is full of so many surprises; I figure we’ll just know these things when the time comes.”

Joost and Robin: This year when we came back to Deer Park, it felt as if we had been away for a couple of weeks instead of nine months. We just stepped back into the river of the Sangha.

mb55-Migrating6Robin Lee Schiff, Full Awakening of the Heart, was born in 1955 in Brooklyn, NY. Joost van Rens, Compassionate Action of the Heart, was born in 1958 in the Netherlands. They practice three months of the year with the Deer Park The rest of the year, they travel and practice together as the No Coming No Going Sangha.

July Moon

We lie in silence on the warm road As the full moon slips above The great hidden mountain Its light penetrating and spreading Like the Dharma in the Western world And dear brothers and sisters Our communication is perfect --David Percival, True Wonderful Roots

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Media Reviews

mb56-MediaReviews1HealingA Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun

By Sister Dang Nghiem Parallax Press, 2010 Soft cover, 146 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

Sister Dang Nghiem’s story begins in Central Vietnam, where she was born during the Tet Offensive in 1968. She takes the reader with her to Saigon, to medical school in California, to Africa, to Plum Village, back to Vietnam with her teacher, to the late Bat Nha Monastery, and finally to Deer Park Monastery. Huong Huynh was the child of a Vietnamese mother and a U.S. soldier. At the behest of her beloved grandmother, who raised her until she was six, she made three vows: to raise her brother to be a good person as they journeyed to the U.S.; to get a good education; and to become a nun. As her life has unfolded, Huong Huynh, now Sister Dang Nghiem— “adornment with nondiscrimination”—has ultimately fulfilled all three vows and lived into her new name.

The victim of a torn family, sexual assault, racial taunts and gender discrimination, multiple foster placements, an unknown father, a wounded mother who disappeared when her daughter was but twelve, and a fi who drowned and whose body was never found, her strength in the face of immense suffering is the stuff of legend. Yet she does not tell it that way. She carves out a fearless inventory of her thoughts and actions as, growing up with great energy and determination, she moved from inner and outer war to a life of true peace. How she has honed herself, constantly beginning anew, is a profound teaching.

Reading her book is like having tea with Sister Dang Nghiem. We learn exactly who she is. Humbly, she recounts intimate stories of the horrors as well as the subtle joys, the small aggravations and the sweet triumphs of her pilgrimage through an extraordinary life. Nor does she paint her life as a done deal—more like a flowing river that inevitably hits the rapids. “I once was a river, a river falling in love with a cloud and chasing after it,” she writes. But after many years of practice as a nun, Venerable Dang Nghiem has realized she must release her attachments, because one day she will be left with only her “two empty hands.” She has realized that if she is truly present in the moment, she will see that her two empty hands hold the world.

mb56-MediaReviews2Fire Under the Snow A Tibetan Monk – a spirit unbroken by 33 years of torture

A film by Makoto Sasa Running time: 75 minutes 2008

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

Arrested in Tibet by the Chinese Army in 1959, the Venerable Palden Gyatso spent thirty-three years in prisons and labor camps for the “crime” of peaceful demonstration. Tortured, starved, and sentenced to hard labor, he watched his culture destroyed, and his teacher, friends, and family displaced, jailed, or killed. The film covers Palden’s birth in 1933 and follows him through the long nightmare that began with the Chinese invasion. It explores the escalating cycle of interrogation and physical violation that ended decades later with Palden’s escape from Tibet and a cathartic meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Just after his escape from Tibet in the 90s, I met Palden on a rainy country road in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, marching with a small group of monks and laypeople who carried the flag of Tibet. On our way home from a retreat, my husband and I happened upon the Free Tibet march launched in Washington, D.C., heading for the United Nations in New York City. I joined the march. Palden stayed at our home for five days, along with the late Thubten Norbu Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, and Larry Gerstein, president of the International Tibet Independence Movement. What a joy it was to cook and serve them!

We were distressed by the tortures Palden described. Still, he laughed often and remained cheerful but resolute. All of his teeth had been shattered by a cattle prod placed directly into his mouth. He was hung by his thumbs. He ate dirt. One time, in prison, he vainly spit into the mouth of an infant to keep it alive. Tears came as I listened, and I asked him, “How did you survive?” “I became a monk when I was ten years old,” he replied, putting his arms around me while I cried.

Palden harbors no anger toward the Chinese. He has made it his life’s mission to bring to light the extreme human rights abuses of China that continue to this day, “so that it will stop.” In our home, in our sweet little breathing room on the second floor, Palden spent many hours composing The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, on which the film is partially based. Fire Under the Snow reminds me of the roots of the Order of Interbeing—mindfulness and inspiration in the face of unbelievable duress. For more information, visit www.fireunderthesnow.com.

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Right in the Middle of It

Travel and Practice in Southeast Asia  By David Percival

Travel is a part of us. From the poorest Southeast Asian villagers who travel their countries by boat, minivan, and battered bus, to Western jetsetters, travel is in our blood. Yet, these last few years I have experienced a lot of apprehension around traveling: it brings up awareness of global warming, terrorism, poverty, the great divide between the haves and the have-nots. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We arrive in each moment. Our true home is in the present moment.” Travel is not attaching or clinging, but taking peaceful steps in mindfulness, nourishing peace and happiness, and being at home wherever we are. I realize that I already have everything I will ever need. I don’t need to travel out of want or need.

So, in April 2013, in the spirit of “I have arrived, I am home,” and holding close the realization that we always carry with us our mindfulness, I quietly slipped out the door, carry-on bag in hand, and departed. I took refuge in the words of Thai meditation teacher Ajahn Chah: “Seeing that everything is unreliable, we will take all situations of lack or plenty as uncertain and not have attachment to them. We pay attention to the present moment, wherever this body happens to be dwelling. Then staying will be okay. Traveling will be okay. Everything will be okay, because we are focused on the practice of recognizing the way things really are.”

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This time, my first destination was Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I lived in Laos in what now seems like an ancient time, during the secret war, when the U.S. left a legacy of suffering—in particular from massive amounts of unexploded ordinance which kill and maim people to this day. Americans didn’t know that Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world at that time, and we have done little to help clean up our mess. Even today, it is common to see people who have lost a limb from bombs exploding in the fields. Yet there is much beauty, and life continues to thrive in Laos.

On my last morning, after a few days of wandering in Vientiane, I sat with the monks of beautiful Wat In Peng while they chanted before their morning meal. Then I did walking meditation around the Wat grounds. On one side of the temple, next to a solid wall of banana trees, I stopped for a moment surrounded by the industrial roar of motors. On a five-story building rising above me, I counted fifty-eight air conditioning units mounted on the wall. Hundreds of motorcycles roared by, people were arguing loudly, and a loud dog battle was in progress. This temple was right in the middle of life in a noisy city that doesn’t stop.

Our practice is exactly the same—right in the middle of it—in a world that hasn’t learned to stop, that runs endlessly, searching for riches, glory, and power. At that moment I was grateful for my breathing, my steps, my stopping, and in the midst of this cacophony, I saw the beauty of our practice. The miracle is that we can return instantly to our mindfulness. If we wait for the noise and arguing to stop, we may wait forever. But we can return to our inner calm, freshness, solidity, and freedom in the midst of chaos. Our island of peace and calm is within us.

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Touching Seeds of Joy

From Laos I traveled to Thailand, where the Applied Ethics Retreat was held in Ayutthaya. Thay’s visit to Thailand started beautifully when he urged practitioners to generate the energy of mindfulness and compassion and to embrace our suffering and look deeply into it. We were urged to learn to deal with our suffering NOW and not to run away from it.

Again, we were right in the middle of it, in an incredible city, Bangkok: a generator of much suffering or a place of great beauty—it was our choice. It could be place for breathing, smiling, stopping. There was little we could control, as always, and there might be crowds, pollution, terrible traffic, heat, humidity—or we could smile at all of this, let our attachments go, and enjoy the wonderful people, food, places to visit, temples, culture, the little islands of beauty, and be at home in the here and now.

The Calligraphic Meditation Exhibit at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center was held on April 3. Thay explained that when he begins his calligraphy, he first has a cup of tea and then mixes some tea with the ink in order to generate the energy of mindfulness and compassion. Drinking tea is meditation; calligraphy is meditation. Thay said the best way to look at calligraphy is to breathe in mindfully and to be fully present in the here and now. To allow the calligraphy to touch our seeds of joy, compassion, love, and happiness, so we can obtain understanding and realization.

Happy in this Moment 

The Applied Ethics Retreat was held at the Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, just outside of Ayutthaya. The theme was “Happy Teachers Will Change the World.”*

In his Dharma talk on April 5, Thay focused on teachers and teaching. He said the Buddha was a happy teacher, a good teacher. He mentioned two aspects of the practice of Buddhism: first, we learn how to suffer. If we know how, we can make good use of our suffering so we can suffer much less. Instead of running away, we learn how to handle suffering. Secondly, we learn how to create happiness. For a good practitioner, it is possible to create moments of happiness whenever we want, wherever we are traveling.

Thay illustrated that a good teacher needs to know the art of relaxation and restoring peace in our bodies. A good teacher needs to know how to handle feelings—not to suppress or cover them up and pretend they aren’t there, but to embrace the feelings as a mother embraces her baby. Finally, when a good teacher learns how to do this, he or she can help students, other teachers, and anyone else to do the same thing. The practice of compassionate listening connects the teacher to the student.

On April 6, Thay’s Dharma talk gave detailed instructions on inviting the bell, showing how this practice can be used in the classroom to transform the class into a family while building sisterhood and brotherhood. We don’t need to use Buddhist terms; mindfulness is not tied to a religion.

A beautiful Order of Interbeing transmission ceremony was held in the early morning of April 7. Sixteen aspirants (thirteen Thai, three Western) received the transmission from senior Plum Village monastics and became the “True Spring” family. Later that day I enjoyed the happy and joyful Sister Chan Khong as she taught us the fountain of youth exercises. It was wonderful to see her pirouetting, turning, laughing, and moving her body in this healing practice.

At a question-and-answer session that day, Thay suggested that you can enjoy the moment after someone makes you really angry, and you can stop, catch yourself, breathe, and not do anything.You don’t usually think it is possible to enjoy such a moment. You don’t have to get hooked into saying something you don’t want to say or doing something you don’t want to do. You can learn and grow in such a moment of suffering. You are secure in your beautiful space of mindfulness. You can be happy in this moment, no matter how angry you seem to be. You can immediately restore your happiness. You see the other person with eyes of compassion… you smile…let go and move on.

A Beautiful Continuation 

On April 8, the last day of the retreat, Thay talked on the subject of applied ethics. He encouraged us to use secular language so we can help everyone. He placed great emphasis on the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a concrete way to bring ethics, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path into our lives. He suggested that “difficult relationship” is a new name for illbeing. He said we must recognize our suffering and we must do something about it.

In conclusion, Thay said, “We can be the hand of the Buddha helping others suffer less.” He continued, “When I look around, I see myself not in my direction. Rather, I have been reborn in my disciples, my teachings, my friends. If you look at me and think I am this, you have not seen me.” We are much more than our body. We have produced many words and actions, and these continue us everywhere. We can ensure a beautiful continuation.

After the Dharma talk, I sat a while in the great meditation hall as people were leaving, returning home. I watched as the young Thai organizers moved around, cleaning up, gathering their equipment. There were so many young people—it was beautiful to see them, eager and enthusiastic, dedicated to the practice. They were well organized and should be commended for the wonderful job they did. This retreat brought me great hope for the Sangha, for our future. The Sangha in Thailand is alive and growing. Sangha members are developing and building a new monastery near Pak Chong, a few hours from Bangkok. It is endearingly called Ban Plum, “Ban” meaning “village” in Thai.**

Then it was time to leave my home in Thailand and return to my home in the United States. With our peaceful breath and steps, our smile, our deep listening and loving speech, we can be at home anywhere. We can be happy and free wherever we walk. Traveling, we move from one home to another. Let your practice be wherever you are, right in the middle of it.

* The talks from the Applied Ethics Retreat are available on www.tnhaudio.org.

** For additional information, go to: www.thaiplumvillage.org.

mb64-Right3David Percival, True Wonderful Roots,  practices with the Rainbow Sangha in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and coordinates subscriptions for the Mindfulness Bell.

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