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The Future is Possible

By Mai Nguyen With excitement and uncertainty, the United Kingdom Sanghas participated in "The Ealing Buddhist"-a religious and cultural exhibit offered last summer by the Education Department of Ealing Borough in London. The three-week exhibit included lay and monastic participants from many Buddhist traditions and cultural backgrounds. With guidance from Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Jina, we shared the practice of mindfulness with over 1,000 children, age six to sixteen, their parents, teachers, and friends. Together, we practiced breathing, sitting, walking, and listening to the bell of mindfulness.

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The children practiced wholeheartedly with us. Some later asked their teachers to get a bell for classes so they can "breathe better." Their enthusiasm gives us hope that the future truly is possible.

Mai Nguyen, True Beauty, practices in London with Buddhist Interhelp, which recently received charity status.

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Taking a Breath

By Bill Welch Last August, the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax opened, operating in rented space at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The church, located in Oakton, Virginia, offers several advantages to the center: eleven wooded a res; a supportive congregation, staff, and ministers; proximity to Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen, the primary teachers at the MPC; and its location approximately in the center of Fairfax County, Virginia, a large suburban area directly west of Washington, D.C.

In the short time the center has been open, many participants have experienced significant, positive changes. Kay, a therapist, shared her thoughts in a letter to AnhHuong and Thu.

"I hold on to the practice much better since attending the Center. I notice the moon often, when I attend the Center often. Instead of noticing the moon only on vacation, I now find it is there on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well. ... The practice of maintaining my center while increasing my field of awareness greatly enhances my work as a therapist. After a few mindful breaths in the midst of a chaotic family, I am present to offer my best. I have also incorporated the practice of conscious breathing into my work by introducing bits of it to interested people."

Jim, interested in Buddhism since childhood, was well read on the subject of meditation, but "had a difficult time comprehending the instructions, much less putting it into practice." He longed for a place that could offer him instruction. Plagued by anger, stress, and addiction, he decided to visit the center every day for meditation. "I could feel the walls that I had built around my heart and mind start to come down, brick by brick. I started to leam to love again- most importantly, how to love myself. I learned that to love and respect others, I must first love and respect myself. A cigarette smoker for fifteen years, I finally realized how beautiful my breath is, how beautiful my lungs are. It did not take long after that to pluck that habit from my life. I pray that centers like this pop up all over the planet. The world would be so peaceful."

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Thu offers deep relaxation meditation to parents while their children are in church choir practice. The parents found they had more patience for their children, and were better able to handle stress as a result of the sessions. Based on their own refreshing experience, several parents encouraged Thu to teach deep relaxation to the children. None of them knew how long it would take the children to settle down. They were surprised and pleased that the children were able to enjoy deep relaxation the very first time. One parent, Susan, reports on the benefits:

"For our family, it was a huge success, and my son looks forward to going to the MPC every Monday, even when it's a school holiday and there is no choir practice. He just wants to go because it makes him 'feel good.' My husband and I have noticed that his disposition is much more pleasant after the Monday session. He has had difficulty controlling his anger most of his young life, and has made so much progress in controlling his temper during the last four months. I attribute much of this improvement to the relaxation sessions at MPC."

Hal , a recovering alcoholic and longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous, finds practicing mindfulness and meditation enriching to his AA program. Hal was instrumental in having Anh-Huong and Thu offer a Day of Mindfulness for People in Recovery. In expressing his gratitude after this initial offering, Hal said:

"Living in the here and now is a matter of life and death when recovering from addiction to alcohol and other drugs and is of bedrock importance to developing a happy sobriety over the long term. Your teaching had a profound effect on all the attendees with whom I spoke afterward."

Since this first offering, one other daylong workshop for people in recovery has been held. The current plan is to offer such an event all day one Saturday every other month.

Alice began attending the MPC soon after it opened and has found relief from a fear and anxiety syndrome which had bothered her for more than a year. When she recently had a rather serious leg injury treated in the Emergency Room, she practiced mindful breathing, and remained calm and relatively pain-free while the wound was cleaned and stitched. Alice finds that reminding herself to live one minute at a time helps her relax and reduces her stress.

For me, Thu and Anh-Huong have really become colleagues in ministry. As someone who has a real interest in spiritual growth- my own and others-I find the MPC a wonderful resource and support. It provides a regularity and structure that my own practice needs. Having an instructor conveniently available and having other people to practice with is very valuable. All of us associated with the MPC in Oakton hope others will make the effort to find and join us.

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Bill Welch is the Assistant Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax.

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The Five Touchings of the Earth

Developed by Sister Chan Khong and the extended Plum Village Community The following text can be used as a guided  meditation, which can be read by one member of your Sangha while others practice touching the earth. Or if you are practicing alone you may like to record the text and listen to it on a tape. As Leslie Rawls mentioned you may practice in the touching the earth position (either in the Tibetan style prostration in which your whole body is stretched out face down or the child pose like in the photograph on this page) or sitting up. Over time as you become familiar with the essence of the practice you may create your own text and words that touch your particular situation. The practice should be relaxing, nourishing and beneficial. Enjoy!

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ONE In gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family. (BELL) (TOUCH THE EARTH)

I see my mother and father, whose blood, flesh and vitality are circulating in my own veins and nourishing every cell in me. Through them, I see my four grandparents. Their expectations, experiences, and wisdom have been transmitted from so many generations of ancestors. I carry in me the life, blood, experience, wisdom, happiness and sorrow of all generations. The suffering and all the elements that need to be transformed, I am practicing to transform. I open my heart, flesh and bones to receive the energy of insight, love, and experience transmitted to me by all my ancestors. I see my roots in my father, mother, grandfathers, grandmothers and all my ancestors. I know I am only the continuation of this ancestral lineage. Please support, protect and transmit to me your energy. I know wherever children and grandchildren are, ancestors are there, also. I know that parents always love and support their children and grandchildren, although they are not always able to express it skillfully because of difficulties they themselves encountered. I see that my ancestors tried to build a way of life based on gratitude, joy, confidence, respect, and loving-kindness. As a continuation of my ancestors, I bow deeply and allow their energy to flow through me. I ask my ancestors for their support, protection, and strength. (BELL – STAND UP)

TWO In gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my spiritual family. (BELL) (TOUCH THE EARTH)

I see in myself my teachers, the ones who show me the way of love and understanding, the way to breathe, smile, forgive,and live deeply in the present moment. I see through my teachers all teachers over many generations and traditions, going back to the ones who began my spiritual family thousands of years ago. I see the Buddha or Jesus Christ or the patriarchs and matriarchs as my teachers, and also as my spiritual ancestors. I see that their energy and that of many generations of teachers has entered me and is creating peace, joy, understanding, and loving-kindness in me. I know that the energy of these teachers has deeply transformed the world. Without the Buddha and all these spiritual ancestors, I would not know the way to practice to bring peace and happiness into my life and into the lives of my family and society. I open my heart and my body to receive the energy of understanding, loving-kindness, and protection from the Awakened Ones, their teachings, and the community of practice over many generations. I am their continuation. I ask these spiritual ancestors to transmit to me their infinite source of energy, peace, stability, understanding and love. I vow to practice to transform the suffering in myself and the world, and to transmit their energy to future generations of practitioners. My spiritual ancestors may have had their own difficulties and not always been able to transmit the teachings, but I accept them as they are.

(BELL – STAND UP)

THREE In gratitude, I bow to this land and all of the ancestors who made it available. (BELL) (TOUCH THE EARTH)

(Substitute the names of ancestors appropriate for the country in which you are practicing)

I see that I am whole, protected, and nourished by this land and all the living beings who have been here and made life easy and possible for me through all their efforts. I see George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, and all the others known and unknown. I see all those who have made this country a refuge for people of so many origins and colors, by their talent, perseverance, and love – those who have worked hard to build schools, hospitals, bridges, and roads, and to protect human rights, to develop science and technology, and to fight for freedom and social justice. I see myself touching my ancestors of Native American origin who have lived on this land for such a long time and known the ways to live in peace and harmony with nature, protecting the mountains, forests, animals, vegetation and minerals of this land. I feel the energy of this land penetrating my body and soul, supporting and accepting me. I vow to cultivate and maintain this energy and transmit it to future generations. I vow to contribute my part in transforming violence, hatred and delusion that still lie deep in the collective consciousness of this society so that future generations will have more safety, joy and peace. I ask this land for its protection and support. (BELL – STAND UP)

FOUR In gratitude and compassion, I bow down and transmit my energy to those I love. (BELL) (TOUCH THE EARTH)

All the energy I have received I now want to transmit to my father, my mother, everyone I love, all who have suffered and worried because of me and for my sake. I know I have not been mindful enough in my daily life. I also know that those who love me have had their own difficulties. They have suffered because they were not lucky enough to have an environment that encouraged their full development. I transmit my energy to my mother, my father, my brothers, my sisters, my beloved ones, my husband, my wife, my daughter, and my son, so that their pain will be relieved, so they can smile and feel the joy of being alive. I want all of them to be healthy and joyful. I know that when they are happy, I will also be happy. I no longer feel resentment towards any of them. I pray that all ancestors in my blood and spiritual families will focus their energies toward each of them, to protect and support them. I know that I am not separate from them. I am one with those I love.

(BELL – STAND UP)

FIVE In understanding and compassion, I bow down to reconcile myself with all those who have made me suffer. (BELL) (TOUCH THE EARTH)

I open my heart and send forth my energy of love and understanding to everyone who has made me suffer, to those who have destroyed much of my life and the lives of those I love. I know now that these people have themselves undergone a lot of suffering and that their hearts are overloaded with pain, anger, and hatred. I know that anyone who suffers that much will make those around him or her suffer. I know they may have been unlucky, never having the chance to be cared for and loved. Life and society have dealt them so many hardships. They have been wronged and abused. They have not been guided in the path of mindful living. They have accumulated wrong perceptions about life, about me, and about us. They have wronged us and the people we love. I pray to my ancestors in my blood and spiritual families to channel to these persons who have made us suffer the energy of love and protection, so that their hearts will be able to receive the nectar of love and blossom like a flower. I pray that they can be transformed to experience the joy of living, so that they will not continue to make themselves and others suffer. I see their suffering and do not want to hold any feelings of hatred or anger in myself toward them. I do not want them to suffer. I channel my energy of love and understanding to them and ask all my ancestors to help them. (BELL – STAND UP)

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Monks & Nuns: Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part One By Lori Zimring De Mori

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On a quiet summer morning in the French countryside near the village of Thenac, several hundred people sit patiently in the boxy, light-filled room which serves as Upper Hamlet’s main meditation hall in Plum Village. Children are at the front—some squirming, some with their heads in a parent’s lap, a few sitting still and straight as little Buddhas-to-be. The rest of us are crowded onto cushions, meditation stools, and chairs which spill out of the hall into the summer sunshine.

Monks and nuns begin to file in from opposite sides of the room. They have the shorn heads of those who have renounced the material world in favor of a life of the spirit, and walk in the measured, unhurried way of those who have spent a lot of time with Thich Nhat Hanh—utterly without false piousness, but as if every step were the final destination. Their robes are the warm brown color of loamy soil and hang straight from their shoulders to the ground.

They assemble themselves into several rows, monks on the left, nuns on the right, facing us and holding song books. Everything about their dress and demeanor expresses the intention to de-emphasize the self-absorbed “I” whose hungry ego obsesses with the mundane vanities of fashion, hairstyles, and superficial beauty. They look composed though not solemn; cheerful but not chatty; eminently likeable and unintimidating. Some of the nuns have covered their heads with brown kerchiefs knotted at the nape of the neck. A few monks wear woolly brown caps. Mostly there are bare scalps over bony skulls. And faces. Western ones, Asian, some wizened and a great many fresh and smooth as plum skins.

I find myself studying them carefully. I’m trying to imagine what they were like before they’d taken their vows, when they were living in the world like the rest of us. Wondering what made them leave that world for one of silence, service, and vigilant mindfulness.

A bell rings clear and high, like a single note from a songbird. We scramble to our feet as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh enters the room. He seems to move in slow motion, or as if he were inhabiting some other dimension (or more likely, fully inhabiting this one)—and his gaze, should you happen to catch it, is a compelling mixture of vibrancy and stillness, so alive as to be startling.

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Thay embodies the Buddha’s instruction to “make of yourself a light.” He combines the moral authority of Gandhi and Martin Luther King with a resolute steadfastness of purpose and unwavering patience and kindness. His impeccability as a teacher and a human being is inspiring, and more than a little intimidating. There is still so much work to do—so many habits of mind to recognize and transform; so many petty thoughts, self-obsessed fears, and hollow vanities to let go of; so many ways to be more kind, more patient, more generous.

Thay sounds the bell and the monastics begin to chant the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. Some sing phonetically from song books, others from memory, but all of them know the words by heart in one language or another. In English the chant is slow and melodic, one word flowing into another in a river of sound. This version is deliberately monotone, each syllable distinct and staccato, rhythmic as a chisel hacking away at the rough husks around our hearts. “Listen Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.” What does this mean? The words are plain enough but to gnaw on them with the everyday, rational mind yields little or nothing.  I imagine they can be understood with the wisdom mind—the “heart mind” that looks courageously into the true nature of things, and is nurtured by a steady diet of mindfulness and compassion. Thay calls this “watering our seeds” of kindness, compassion, and mindfulness through how we walk, eat, listen, speak, consume (or don’t), do virtually anything and everything. It seems a good way to live well. If an understanding of emptiness eventually comes with it, all the better.

The next chant is a heartfelt wish for happiness: “May the day be well and the night be well. May the midday hour bring happiness too. In every minute and every second may the day and night be well.” The words wash over us like blessings and we lap them up like hungry puppies. In any other context the world-weary cynic in me might reject the chant’s simplicity of expression. But somehow these voices, this place, and our shared aspiration to live life as a conscious journey make it feel as if our efforts actually could generate happiness. Not the impossible happiness of a life without pain or loss or disappointment, but the happiness that comes from being open to this life, at every moment, whatever it has to offer.

Coming from the monastic community the words have an added potency. We spend our days with the nuns and monks—both inside and outside the meditation hall. We share meals, conversations, slow morning walks to neighboring hamlets, and cups of tea. There are little moments—waiting in line for a meal, beginning to eat, washing dishes—when I can tell they are reciting gathas, the short mindfulness verses that help bring awareness to even the simplest actions. But they also run (barefoot, robes flying) after soccer balls with the teenagers, strum guitars and bang out rhythms on African drums, rehearse plays with the kids, and wrestle with sophisticated sound and computer equipment.

Their generosity towards us has a quality of effortlessness to it. Their practice doesn’t feel dogged or forced. To put it simply, they seem happy and joyful—not in some sort of mystical, blissed-out way, but in a most ordinary one. On some level this surprises me. I’d always thought of monastic life as requiring a noble and unnatural giving up of things: ego, wealth, possessions, sex, marriage, children. I’d expected there to be at least a whiff of teeth-gritting renunciation; a spectral air of deprivation; something other than the bright radiance of people whose lives seem to agree with them.

It is unfair and unwise to project one’s own imaginings onto the monastic robes. Things are so rarely what they seem. Yet it seems legitimate to wonder, and ultimately to ask what brings a person—especially a young one—to choose monastic life over the “go-to-college-get-a-job-get-married-raise-a-family” paradigm that propels so many of us. I posed the question to four young monastics—two I’d met on retreats, two I hadn’t known at all. What I found were four unique human beings whose individual life paths have intersected in a place called Plum Village. These are their stories.

mb40-Monks3Phap Xa

Phap Xa came to Plum Village from Holland and took his monastic vows in 2002. He is twenty-nine years old, tall and lanky, with clear green eyes and an angular face brightened by a great, flashing smile. Like all monks ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh he carries the name Phap. Xa—“equanimity” in Vietnamese—is his given name. “Thay gives us the name he thinks most suits us. It is meant to be a door to practice, either reflecting a quality or pointing to one to be developed.”

How does one become a monastic in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order?

You can’t just show up at Plum Village and ask to ordain. First you practice with the community. If you decide you want to ordain you write a letter to the Sangha saying that you aspire to become a monk. The community meets to consider whether they feel you would succeed as a monastic. If the answer is yes, you become an aspirant and live—together with other aspirants—with the monastic community for at least three months before ordaining.

Did you always want to be a monk?

[Laughter] No! It feels like my decision is a miracle. While growing up I never imagined I’d become a monastic. I was raised on a farm in Holland. My family was Protestant—we went to church every Sunday, said prayers before and after meals and read from the Bible before dinner. My interests were pretty typical: I loved soccer, hanging out with friends at bars, girls. I wasn’t a social activist. I cared a lot about myself and my own comfort.

The shift was actually a very slow process. When I went to university I had to become more responsible. I started looking for a better way of taking care of myself, of facing difficulties. My older brother was practicing transcendental meditation. My parents weren’t happy about it, but the idea seemed interesting to me. When I was about twenty I became fascinated with Eastern thought and life—especially Taoism and martial arts. I began studying kung fu, moved on to tai chi and finally to chi gong. As I kept moving to softer forms of martial arts I was always inspired by my teachers’ way of living.

When did you begin meditation practice?

When I was twenty-five I started practicing Zen meditation with some other university students. I remember feeling strange and awkward the first time I sat. Eventually I wanted to practice formal zazen so I attended a sesshin with a Dutch teacher. My practice at this point was centered around sitting in groups and by myself. I was dedicated to it but I didn’t really have any Dharma friends.

What brought you to Plum Village?

I began reading Thay’s books—they made me want to practice with someone who had great authority. I came to Plum Village for a week. I was so happy on that first retreat. I shared a room with people who had come for three months. It inspired me that they made the time to stay. One of them had a book called Stepping into Freedom that Thay had written for monastics. I ordered it.

A year later I came back for another week. I was inspired by Thay’s writings about right livelihood and I began to feel that mine was “not that right.” I wanted my work to have meaning, to help lessen suffering or bring happiness. Working at an engineering firm wasn’t going to do that. I decided to return to Plum Village for three months in the spring.

What appealed to you about Plum Village?

The Sangha—the community of people practicing together. Thay was such a great inspiration and I looked up to him so much as a teacher but I also began to see that practice wasn’t only about a teacher. There is great value in a Sangha. I feel that what I can accomplish by living in a Sangha is so much greater than what I can accomplish by myself. Back home I felt alone in my practice and my life ideal. At Plum Village there were all these people with a similar life ideal, guided by the same teacher whom I love so much.

At what point did you decide to become a monastic?

During the first weeks of those three months my determination to practice became very strong. I’m a bit shy, but there was a Vietnamese Dutch monk I felt very comfortable around. I asked if I could speak with him, ask him a question. We found a quiet place to talk and I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. He just looked at me and said, “Do you want to become a monk?” The question went straight to my heart. I knew it was what I had wanted to talk to him about and the feeling grew stronger every day.

How did your family react to your decision?

It was a very difficult time for them. I was so happy but my parents were skeptical and concerned for me. They thought the whole thing very strange and were not happy, not supportive. I returned to Holland for six long and difficult weeks, gave most of my belongings away and came back to Plum Village with only a few things.

Were you ordained right away?

No. Thay ordains monks two to four times a year. I lived at Plum Village for six months before being ordained as a novice. As novices we take ten precepts. At full ordination (three years later)

monks take 250! The people you ordain with are like a family. There were eighteen of us all together—thirteen brothers and five sisters. As aspirants we were each assigned a Dharma teacher to mentor us—mine was the Vietnamese Dutch monk.

How has life changed now that you have ordained?

Being ordained is like a rebirth. Monastic life has been very good for me. I’m a bit shy—I need time to feel comfortable with people, to create a space for myself to feel free. I’m beginning to feel more and more at home, to build relationships, to live harmoniously with the Sangha.

My doubts are less and less, and my practice has become deeper, more stable.  My aspiration has always been strong, but at the beginning I was still ingrained with the ideals of happiness I grew up with: being successful, having a beautiful wife and children. For awhile I still had the habit of looking at women as potential partners but that has lessened. Now I feel a part of the Sangha—loved and supported by it like a family. I see more and more clearly that the life that was expected of me wouldn’t bring me the happiness that monastic life brings me.

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Tue Nghiem left Vietnam by boat with her family when she was nine years old. I first met her on a retreat with Thay in Rome where she helped run the children’s program. She is now thirtyfive years old and has been a nun for twelve years. My daughter was smitten with her playfulness, quiet wisdom, and lightness of spirit. We all were. Nghiem is the name carried by all nuns in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order. Her given name—Tue—means wisdom and understanding.

Were you raised a Buddhist in Vietnam?

Yes and no. My family was Buddhist but we didn’t practice the way we do here at Plum Village. We went to the temple on the full moon and every New Year. My older siblings were in a Buddhist youth group. I was the youngest of five kids. My father died when I was young but I grew up feeling very protected by my family. The values I grew up with were very much like the five mindfulness trainings given at Plum Village, but they were taught to us as life values rather than Buddhist ones. There was more faith than formal practice.

What do you remember about leaving Vietnam?

I lived in a big village about fifteen kilometers from Hue. There was a lot of fear and uncertainty—people’s freedom was restricted, their property taken, education had become an indoctrination in Communist thought. Many people left by boat—they left because they felt there was no future. My family wanted us to have one.

We went on my uncle’s boat. I didn’t know we were leaving. I was only told I had to go somewhere with my sister. The rest of the family split into groups and left the village in different directions. We met in a remote seaside village that night. When I saw the rest of the family I was afraid. They were acting so secretive. We had to hide under bushes and not say a word.  A man helped us onto the boat. By the way my oldest brother hugged him I knew we weren’t coming back.

There were about twenty of us on a small open boat, a third of us children. We were on it for a week. I wasn’t sad—it felt like an adventure, but I could sense my mother’s fear. We arrived in Hong Kong and lived in a refugee camp for a year. I loved that time—we were all crowded together having fun, playing.

Where did you go from Hong Kong?

My uncle asked a Protestant church to sponsor us to go to America. A couple from Oregon sponsored us—when I went back to Vietnam for the first time in 1999, they came with me. We went from Oregon to Stockton where we had family. My mom worked on a farm and took English classes in the evenings. I started school in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. I was a good student so I was transferred to the regular English classes. I wasn’t happy because I didn’t understand English and my friends were still in ESL, but I felt I was in school for a good purpose and I studied hard and ended up enjoying myself.

Did you have any sort of religious practice at that time?

There was a network of Vietnamese temples in Northern California. In Stockton we went to the temple every weekend. It was not so much a place to practice as a place to connect to our roots. There were Buddhist youth groups at the temple where young Vietnamese kids would come to learn the language, history, and Buddhist teachings.

When I was fourteen I went on a one-week Buddhist youth retreat and met Thay. Watching my breath, walking slowly, the idea of being mindful was all very new to me. At the retreat I felt like I wanted to live in that way—though not necessarily as a monastic. For the next few years three friends and I would spend our summers living at the temple in Stockton. I realized that before I hadn’t really been suffering but I was a bit lost, had no path. Adolescence was difficult—my mom supported me with all her heart but she didn’t really know how to help me understand what was going on with my body, my mind, school. I was balancing two cultures and not completely accepted by either.

Why did you feel you weren’t accepted by the Vietnamese community?

The problem wasn’t with my friends—they were mostly Vietnamese from the Buddhist youth group and temple. The conflict was between the Vietnamese who arrived in the states as adults and those who arrived as kids. We were the first generation of boat people to go to college. They were traditional, had a restrictive view of women, and thought many of us were too Americanized. I was young, playful, loud, and outspoken—and I was going to the University of California at Davis to study psychology and education. I was criticized because I was going to college. They felt I thought I was better than they were because of my education.

I stopped going to the temple because I no longer felt supported there. I decided I wanted to work with problem kids from Southeast Asia. I took an internship where I counseled kids who were having difficulties. Sometimes I’d go to their houses to meet with the parents. There was a tremendous culture, language, and generation gap between the parents and their children.

What brought you back to practice?

In my second year of college my brother became a monk (instead of going back to college to get his masters as he had planned). He didn’t tell us until he had already taken his vows. My mom and sister were so upset. They’d dreamed a dream for him which he wasn’t going to live.

When I graduated from college my brother sent me money to come to Plum Village for a month-long retreat. For the first time I felt so at home. I’d never felt like that before. My brother wanted me to come back with my mom for a three-month retreat in the fall. We did. Thay was teaching Buddhist psychology. I learned so much—so much more than I’d learned during my years at college. At college it felt like what I’d studied had nothing to do with me. These teachings felt so deep. So related to me. I was finally learning how to take care of my own emotions and I felt I could be so much more helpful counseling kids if I had a better understanding of myself. I liked the practice so I decided to stay at Plum Village—as a layperson—for the year before starting graduate school.

What did you like about the practice?

The sutra that really struck me was the Establishment of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness—body, feelings, perceptions, and objects of mind—the Satipatthana Sutra. I thought, “It can’t be this easy. It can’t be the Buddha who said this. It must have been Thay.” Of course it wasn’t, but because Buddhist psychology was so much more complicated, I couldn’t imagine that these simple, straightforward teachings also came from the Buddha.

When did you decide to become a monastic?

Toward the end of the year, before the summer retreat, I knew I had to make a decision to return to my studies or become a nun. It was a huge decision. I was so nourished by the practice and the place but I was also judgmental, resistant, stubborn, and wounded by the trouble I had with my temple in California. The nuns—there were only five of them at that time—were very supportive. So was my brother. During that year at Plum Village we would bike, take hikes, and talk. He helped me overcome my resentment.

I made the decision to become a nun only after I left Plum Village. I chose this path so that I could be myself, accept myself as I was and grow from there, never being discouraged simply because I was a woman. When I returned to the States I was struck by the amount of consumption I saw, the carelessness towards the earth.

That October Thay taught a retreat at a Vietnamese monastery in California. My brother was with him.  One afternoon I was having tea with Thay and I just blurted out, “Thay, I want to become a nun.” He didn’t say anything! After awhile he said, “Look at the sunset.” When my brother and another monk came in Thay sent us off to have dinner. I didn’t know if his answer was yes or no. I almost wished it was no. It was very scary—I felt like I was swimming against the stream. I returned to Plum Village in November—not knowing if it was to become a nun or stay as a layperson.

Three friends picked me up at the train station. They gave me a hug and I knew Thay’s answer. We all ordained together. We are so much closer now as monastics than we ever were as lay friends. I feel tremendously supported by them.

Was the transition from layperson to monastic difficult?

In a way. I had extremes of emotions, a strong, outspoken personality, and a lot of resistance to the idea of conforming. I’d do little acts of defiance—wear bright socks, mix the colors of my robe and pants, knit myself a colored hat. I was afraid of losing my identity, of not being unique anymore. I liked the practice though—sitting, walking, working wholeheartedly—and everyone was supportive.

And now?

I’ve realized I can never be like anyone else. The idea of conformity was an illusion. It doesn’t matter anymore how I look on the outside. Who I am is so much more than how I wear my clothes or what people think of me. I’m happy. My happiness used to be so dependent on exterior conditions. I couldn’t find it in myself. Now I feel a kind of inner path—my own—not even created by Thay. Seeing that path brings me a happiness not so dependent on exterior things. There is a continual sense of understanding and self discovery. Even now. Always.

I don’t know where I got the courage to become a nun. I’ll never regret the decision. It’s funny. I never wanted to have my own family and kids—my dream was to have a small house with lots of trees, take care of my mom (who is a lay resident at Deer Park in California) and have lots of friends over on weekends. In a way, that’s what I have here at Plum Village.

You’ve become a Dharma teacher by the Lamp Transmission. What does that mean?

The Lamp Transmission—given five years after full ordination—is one of the deepest ceremonies. All the elders are there and Thay officiates, but he is really holding the ancestral energy and passing it down. At the ceremony we give a short Dharma talk and are encouraged to fulfill the role of teacher, to be a lamp, a light to all beings.

Do you like teaching?

I’m nervous if I speak from my intellect, but if I speak from what Thay calls the store consciousness—from deep knowing— then teaching and sharing become easy. You feel lighter when you speak. Your ego is not involved. I think that is how Thay speaks.

mb40-Monks5Lori 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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Touching the Earth for Young People

By Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem mb46-Touching1

Touching the earth is a practice developed by Thich Nhat Hanh to help us connect with the many different aspects of who we are: our blood and spiritual families; the country we live in; and all beings — animals, plants, and minerals. This is a version for young people. For the original text see Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh.

At the sound of the bell, we breathe in and joining our palms, touch them to our forehead and then our heart. This is to unify our mind and body. Breathing out, we open our palms and bend down, either kneeling and touching our forehead to the floor (the child’s pose in yoga), or laying our whole body flat on our belly. We turn our palms upward, in a gesture of openness, receptiveness, and surrender. We relax completely and allow the text to enter deeply our body and mind while lying on the ground.

Touching the Earth I See That I Am a Child of the Earth

(bell, children touch the earth)

The earth is like my mom and dad. From the earth I receive delicious foods to eat — like wheat to make bread, rice, apples, and carrots, and even chocolate from cocoa beans. The earth gives us material to make our clothes, like cotton and wool from the sheep, and wood and stone to make our homes. The earth takes such good care of me. I feel happy to live on the earth.

I feel my body lying on the earth. I feel my arms and my legs and my face touching the ground. I feel that the earth is solid and can support me. I see the earth covered with many plants and trees and beautiful flowers, making the air clean and pure. As I breathe in I can feel the fresh, cool air fill my body. I feel calm and relaxed.

I feel happy and safe on the earth.

(bell, stand up)

Touching the Earth I Feel Connected to My Mom and Dad

(bell, children touch the earth)

I am the child of my mom and dad — even though I may not live with both my mom and dad now. I see my mom and I smile to her. I see my dad and I smile to him. I want my mom and dad to be happy. I want them to be safe and free from all worries.

Sometimes, mom or dad gets angry at me, and I feel hurt. Sometimes mom or dad is so busy she or he does not seem to have time for me, and I feel sad. But other times mom and dad take care of me and we can laugh and play together, and we have fun. Mom and dad have taught me so many things, like how to read, or sing, or do math, or make cookies. I feel thankful to them. I know that my mom and dad were children too, a long time ago, and they felt sad and hurt sometimes, just like me. I know they have had many difficulties in their lives, and I don’t feel mad at them.

I think of my mom and my dad, and I feel their love and support, and I feel happy. I know my mom and dad need my freshness and my smiles to make them happy too.

(bell, stand up)

Touching the Earth, I Am Happy to Be Me

(bell, children touch the earth)

I am a young girl or boy living on the planet Earth. Sometimes I feel small like a tiny bug or a spider happily crawling in the grass. Sometimes I feel big, like a huge, old tree. My branches reach up to touch the clouds, and my roots go way down deep in the earth drinking from the water under the ground.

Sometimes I am happy like the sunshine, and I make everyone smile. Sometimes I am sad and lonely like a gray cloudy day, and I just want to hide in a tree and cry. But when I cry my tears are like cool rain on a hot afternoon, and afterwards I feel fresh and new. I know whenever I feel sad, or scared, or mad I can go to the earth and she will always be there for me. The rocks and creatures, the plant and flowers, the sun and the dark starry sky are all there for me. I breathe in the cool, fresh earth. I breathe out all my fears, my sadness, my anger. I accept myself. I accept myself when I am happy and joyful, and I also accept myself when I have difficulties, when I am angry or sad. I smile to myself, and I see that I am a wonderful flower living on the earth. I am a part of the earth, and the earth is a part of me.

(bell, stand up)

Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem, received the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma teacher from Thay in Vietnam this spring. She lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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Retreating to My Roots

By Loan To Phan mb50-Retreating1

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I am a Vietnamese-born Australian citizen. While attending a winter retreat at Plum Village in November 2007, I got in touch with my ancestral roots on a level that over the last twenty-three years has been unacknowledged and unexplored, almost foreign. “Boi dap goc re, khai thong suoi nguon” (nourishing our roots, clearing our streams) were the themes at Plum Village that awoke a deep gratitude and curiosity about my blood ancestors. I realized that my existence came from a life force that runs through my parents, grandparents, and continuing back and back through many generations before them.

Growing up in a generally individualistic society has distanced me from my roots. Ironically, this has created a blank space that allows me to bring a beginner’s mind to explore and understand myself through knowing my ancestors. What better way to find answers to these questions than a trip to Vietnam?! And what better conditions than Buddhist retreats — with opportunities to deeply contemplate myself and hence my ancestors in me?! It was particularly meaningful to be able to do this with my parents.

Dharma Rain at Bat Nha

The first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh or Thay (Vietnamese for Teacher) was a five-day retreat at Prajna Monastery in Bao Loc, Lam Dong province. The spacious monastery and temperate weather of the green highlands near central Vietnam were ideal conditions for practice. In total there were approximate 3500 people of all ages attending this retreat. I was surprised to see so many young people there, some as young as fifteen — students and young people working in business, film industry, social work, health, etc. They all shared a search for meaning as well as relief from the difficulties faced in their increasingly demanding and pressured  environment.

Vietnamese people really enjoy socializing; in particular they like to be lively and vocal. However, during meals together and walking meditation all one could hear were the click-clacking of plastic cutlery and crockery, or the melodies of bird songs and rustling of leaves.

Thay spoke lovingly to the young people about having ideals and purpose in life, recounted funny love stories, and explained how having values or guiding principles as outlined in the Five Mindfulness Trainings can help restore and improve the quality of our relationships. He urged the young people to be determined and diligent in their practice of returning to the present moment by focusing on their breathing as they go about daily tasks. He explained how to listen deeply to cultivate understanding and Beginning Anew, a practice of reconciliation and expressing hurt in a constructive way. Brother Phap An gave a compelling account of his personal experience in dealing with a block of suffering he had gained during his childhood as a result of the war. Brother Nguyen Hai’s explanation on the Five Mindfulness Trainings contributed to inspiring about a third of participants to take the commitment to study and practice the Mindfulness Trainings and take refuge in the Three Jewels.

The regular afternoon exercise time came to life with traditional Vietnamese games such as bamboo stick jumping and Vietnamese hacky-sack, singing songs of meditation and joyful practice, or just walking around the beautiful gardens of Prajna.

The question-and-answer session contained some queries about forming and maintaining a Sangha for young people.

As a Viet-kieu I was impressed at the openness, depth and wisdom my young Vietnamese friends had drawn from their experiences. For some, Thay’s Dharma talk was a confirmation of their hard-earned life lessons, while for others the retreat planted a seed of curiosity about what it means to live engaged Buddhism.

The pouring monsoon, symbolising Dharma rain, came down generously as we shared deeply our experiences of life’s challenges and successes during Dharma discussion groups. The tents that we slept in became soaked but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We just rolled up our sleeping mats and joined the snoring choruses of the “young at heart” participants in the main meditation hall. In fact, the hard floor, lack of sleep (because it was colder than expected so some of us could not get good sleep) actually made our memories of the joy and peace in newly found friendship even more memorable!

Retreat for the Young People of Hanoi

Continuing their tour to the north, Thay and the Plum Village delegation held another four-day retreat for the young people of Hanoi, at Bang Temple, Hoang Mai province. Bang Temple was still under construction when over a thousand people crammed into its grounds, overtaxing its already limited accommodation and sanitary facilities. I was particularly moved to see elderly women bent over from their hard laboured life as well as young people from well-to-do families determined to receive the Dharma so much that again, the wet weather, hard floors, simple meals did not deter them from fully participating in the mindful practices.

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My Dad, who only attended the last session and lunch, was moved to tears by the collective energy of the four-fold Sangha eating mindfully. The walking meditation through the narrow local streets brought curious faces to the doors, preschool children offering their joined palms in respect and bright smiles as the river of Sangha flowed past, silent and reverent.

A highlight of this retreat was the session between young people and young monastics of Western and Vietnamese background. There was lively singing that accompanied eager questions about monastic life and faith. These questions illustrated the young people’s collective responsibility through concerns about their future as a generation facing the challenge of living in a society with increasing materialism and consumerism, corroding morality, and where Buddhism is a religion rather than a way of life and practice. The question-and-answer session with Thay was also dominated by questions from young retreatants about monastic aspirations and how to deal with the tribulations of romantic love.

Busy Hotel to Tranquil Monastery

There couldn’t be more of a contrast between the last two retreats and the twelve-day retreat titled “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” held at the Kim Lien Hotel in central Hanoi. This included the UN Day of Vesak 2008 and a three-day conference on the theme “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civil Society.”

I went from a traditional incense-perfumed, spiritual environment with austere facilities to a relatively affluent, Western, secular hotel in downtown Hanoi. From sleeping on the floor and using squat toilets to serviced beds in air-conditioned rooms — I realised how attached I am to Western creature comforts! I am amazed at how in both of these environments the mindful practices can create wonderful and joyful energies, which confirms the universal nature of the Buddha’s teachings.

I am blown away at how a few simple collective practices of over four hundred participants from forty-one different countries can transform a busy worldly hotel into a tranquil monastery (not that there are any real differences in the ultimate sense!).

This retreat was special in that there was an ordination ceremony for the Order of Interbeing with over fifty people committing themselves to living the Fourteen Precepts, and close to one hundred taking refuge in the Three Jewels and Five Mindfulness Trainings.

After a week of solid practice one young person felt glad to call the hotel “home” after spending a day out in the hectic streets of Hanoi. Other under-thirty-five-year-old participants reported that their discussion groups provided an open, safe, and honest context where young monastics were accessible to lay friends, and together we listened and shared deeply our inner suffering, challenges, and experiences in living the Buddhist teachings. These were precious moments where we felt connected and supported to express ourselves; we could practice being the change we want to see in our lives and relationships with others.

The whole Sangha really flowed and practiced as one body as we did walking meditation around the beautiful Hoan Kiem (Returning Sword) Lake. Physically we must have looked quite impressive, all wearing the uniform grey robes or brown of the monastics, walking with each step contemplating the gatha: “Life is every step. Healing is every step. Miracle. Freedom.”

We ate together in silence and stayed within the hotel compound to preserve the wonderful collective energy, which was contagious as the hotel staff reciprocated our calm and respectful manners.

In his Dharma talks Thay warmly and humourously talked about the Four Noble Truths, Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Four Practices of True Diligence, and Three Doors Liberation. His presentation was always captivating, down to earth, and relevant to the current times, so that we could see daily applications.

Equipped with a week’s solid practice and new-found friendship and connectedness we attended the UN Day of Vesak 2008 with a strong and wonderful collective energy that moved and inspired other conference participants.

May all find a Sangha and flow as a river of clarity and freshness.

Loan To Phan, Tam Tu Hoa (Loving Harmony of the Heart), lives with her parents in Brisbane, Australia. She practices with the Solid and Free Sangha (Vung Chai Thanh Thoi) while working as a psychologist in a mental health service.

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Sangha News

mb52-SanghaNews1 The Realization of a Dream

Thich Nhat Hanh began his last Dharma talk at the Path of the Buddha retreat by speaking about the EIAB.

It has been Thay’s dream to set up an Institute of Applied Buddhism in the West, and now the dream has been realized. We have created the European Institute of Applied Buddhism [EIAB] in Germany, very close to Cologne. It is in the heart of Europe. There is a monastic community and a lay community taking care of the Institute and offering retreats and courses on Applied Buddhism. If you are a Dharma teacher in Europe or America, you might be inspired to go there and teach a course. You can bring your children and your students. There will be many students there from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and so on. You can get more information about it by visiting their website, www.eiab.eu.

Unlike other institutes, there is a permanent Sangha always practicing there. At the EIAB, the residential community embodies the teaching and the practice. It is the most important feature of the Institute. Whether you are in Dharma discussion, listening to a talk or practicing sitting or eating, there is always a strong Sangha present to support you.

We want the teaching of Buddhism to be applied to many areas of life, so a variety of courses are offered. There is a twentyone-day course for young people who are planning to marry,

to help them learn practices and to gain insight that will make their commitment successful. This course has roots in the history of Buddhism. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries like Thailand, a young man had to come and practice in a temple for a year before marrying. It’s like military service, but instead, this is spiritual service. Even the prince had to do it, or he would not be qualified to be king. When a man asked a woman to marry, she would ask whether he had fulfilled his time in the temple. If not, she would refuse his offer. Now people come to the temple for a shorter period, but that service still exists. We hope that in the future in every country there will be an institute that will train young people before they can marry, because they will have a much better chance to have a happy family life. Because there are so many families broken by divorce, we must offer that course everywhere.

We also offer a twenty-one-day course for children who have difficulties with their parents, and one for parents who don’t know how to communicate with their children. And we offer a course for both parents and children to practice together. We offer a course for people who have recently discovered they have an incurable disease like cancer or AIDS, and one for those who are grieving from the loss of a loved one. We will also offer a course on how to set up and lead a local Sangha.

The Buddhism taught at the Institute of Applied Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life, a way of transformation and healing.

I think our spiritual ancestors and our blood ancestors have prepared this place for us in Germany. There is a lot of land, with many trees and clean air. The people in the town like us and are glad we have come. They support us, bringing gifts to the monastics. The building can hold 500 retreatants. Thay

intends to organize a gathering of Dharma teachers there from Asia, Europe, and North America to stay together for one week. They will sit and walk together, drink tea together and reflect on how to make the teaching and practice relevant to our times. So, please, if you are a Dharma teacher, you might like to come to that retreat at the Institute, probably two years from now.

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The Meanings of Engaged and Applied Buddhism

First was born the term, “Engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism means that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy and brotherhood are possible in every moment.

The term Engaged Buddhism was born when the war in Viet Nam was very intense. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on, and what was happening then was bombs falling, people being wounded and dying: suffering and the destruction of life. You want to help relieve the suffering, so you sit and walk in the midst of people running from bombs. You learn how to practice mindful breathing while you help care for a wounded child. If you don’t practice while you serve, you will lose yourself and you will burn out.

When you are alone, walking or sitting or drinking your tea or making your breakfast, that is also Engaged Buddhism, because you are doing that not only for yourself, you are doing that in order to help preserve the world. This is interbeing.

Engaged Buddhism is practice that penetrates into every aspect of our world. Applied Buddhism is a continuation of engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.

When President Obama gave a talk at the University of Cairo, he used loving speech in order to release tension between America and the Islamic world. He was using the Buddhist practice of loving speech: speaking humbly, recognizing the values of Islam, recognizing the good will on the part of Islamic people, and identifying terrorists as a small number of people who exploit tension and misunderstanding between people.

The practice of relieving tension in the body is Applied Buddhism because the tension accumulated in our body will bring about sickness and disease. The sutra on mindful breathing, presented in 16 exercises, is Applied Buddhism. We should be able to apply the teaching of mindful breathing everywhere – in our family, in our school, in the hospital, and so on. Buddhism is not just for Buddhists. Buddhism is made up of non-Buddhist elements.

So please offer your help because the European Institute of Applied Buddhism is our dream. Find out how you can help make this dream come true. Next June we will have a seven-day retreat there.

—Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village, 21 June 2009

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Give from the Heart The European Institute of Applied Buddhism

Following is an excerpt from a fundraising letter by Thay Phap An on behalf of the monastics residing at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). To read the complete letter, view photos of construction at EIAB, see the course catalogue, or make a contribution, please visit www.eiab.eu.

19 June 2009

Dear Beloved Sangha,

In September 2008, more than twenty brothers and sisters were sent to Germany from Plum Village to set up the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). This has been a dream of Thay’s since he was a young novice. His wish is to bring the teaching of the Buddha into every aspect of our lives. Buddhism should not only be theoretical, but it should be practical and we should be able to apply it in transforming the suffering of individuals, families, and society. At the EIAB, we will have courses for new couples who are getting married, for parents and children who wish to reconcile, for police officers, psychotherapists, teachers, and businesspeople.

The EIAB building has the capacity of hosting 400-500 people. The military operated the building from 1967-2006 and they have their own set of fire safety regulations. As the EIAB, the building is considered to be in civilian use, and the authorities have a very different set of fire safety regulations for this purpose. In addition, many water pipes are now old and rusty, and together with our now out-of-date kitchen, they no longer meet the public health standards. We also need to repair our old heating system due to many leakages, and more importantly, to make it more energy efficient and ecologically friendly. To house the intended number of people, we would also need to build many more public toilets and showers.

In the last nine months, a team of experts that includes architects, engineers and technicians have looked carefully into this matter, and we now know that we would have to spend at least 3 million Euros for half of the building to be functional and open to the public. The EIAB is not allowed to be opened to the public under current conditions, and the brothers and sisters are only given temporary permission to stay in a small restricted area of this building until January 2010. This means that we have to raise 3 million Euros as soon as possible in order to proceed with the construction work and have it completed by the end of 2009.

Last night, I was thinking about how we can raise this big amount of money in such a short time. I evoked the name of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion to ask for her help, and for the whole night, I thought about my international beloved community – brothers and sisters and friends that I have come to know in my 18 years as a monk. I thought that if each of our friends, families, or local Sanghas everywhere in the world would give a contribution of 500 Euros, then with 6,000 such contributions, we would meet our urgent need of raising 3 million Euros by the end of this year. I am writing this letter to our friends all over the world so that you know about our situation. I have a deep trust in our beloved community. I know that if I communicate our difficulties to you, we will receive your help.

The EIAB is a vision not only for the European community but also for the international community. We sincerely ask for your practice of generosity to help to make the EIAB a reality for the cultivation of love and understanding for all of us, and our children.

— Thay Phap An On behalf of the brothers and sisters of the EIAB

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Help Prajna Monastery

Just as a flower garden may experience heavy winds and severe rainstorms as it grows, the Sangha body can encounter very difficult conditions as it blooms in awakening. In recent months, young monks and nuns at Prajna (Bat Nha) Monastery in Viet Nam have faced adverse conditions – including police interrogations, violent attacks, and threats of eviction. Yet they have continued to blossom.

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Causes and Conditions

Prajna Monastery, in Viet Nam’s central highlands, houses more than 350 monks and nuns who have chosen to practice according to the Plum Village tradition under the guidance of Thich Nhat Hanh. They are all between the ages of sixteen and thirtyfive. Since Thay’s first return to Viet Nam in 2005 his teachings have inspired dozens of young Vietnamese to ordain as monks and nuns. The Venerable Abbot Thich Duc Nghi offered the Prajna monastery as a home for the new monks and nuns. Over the next few years, the number of aspirants and lay practitioners quickly multiplied, and Prajna needed to expand. Supporters from many countries donated funds to renovate buildings, build new structures, and buy adjacent land for the growing community.

During Thay’s next visits to his homeland in 2007 and 2008, he met with government officials, including the president of Viet Nam. Thay proposed that the nation open its doors to visitors, strengthen ties with other countries, and reduce its dependency on China. He presented a ten-point proposal to the president. All of his suggestions were adopted by the government except the last one, “to dissolve the religious police and the religious affairs bureau.” In a letter explaining recent events, Sister Chan Khong writes, “It seems that difficulties at Prajna can be traced back to this point.” She explains that Thich Duc Nghi was under pressure from the immigration office to expel Plum Village monks and nuns from Prajna, even those who had a valid visa.

In 2008 Thich Duc Nghi asked the police to evict the 379 monastics living at Prajna. By the end of that year, a report from the Vietnamese Buddhist Church directed the monks and nuns to leave by April 2009.

In a letter to his students, Thay writes that “this was not about an internal struggle over a temple, but it was the result of a delusion: that the presence of Prajna may be a threat to national security, because the monastics at Prajna… want to do politics.” He likens this perception to a painting drawn in the air – purely a projection. “Now everyone around the world is able to see that the monks and the nuns and the aspirants at Prajna only do one thing. That is: to practice and to guide others to practice.”

Wrong perceptions of the monastics have led to violence. A letter from the monastics of Prajna testifies: “Groups of men were ordered to throw the belongings of young monks out in the hallway. Gates to the monastery have been locked so that lay friends could not enter. Some monks and nuns have been chased with life-threatening objects.” Police came to the monastery frequently, searching and questioning the monks and nuns, and asking them to sign a statement that they were living there illegally. Sister Chan Khong writes that the monastics “always used gentle speech toward the police and even offered them tea and songs to relieve their tension.”

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On June 26, monastic huts were torn down in an attack. Electricity, water, and phone lines were shut off, and food deliveries were blocked. An e-mail from a western visitor describes video footage of the event: “An out-of-control crowd swarmed over the grounds… taking things from the rooms, as uniformed police watched and did nothing.” As of mid-August the monastics were still without electricity and water.

A Chance to Practice

For the monastics, these events have offered a chance to practice mindfulness, solidity, and equanimity – to abide in stillness, even in the heart of turmoil.

In a letter dated July 20, Thay reassures his students at Prajna and everywhere: “Thay has confidence that you can behave true to the Dharma in challenging and difficult circumstances. The day Thay received the news that people invaded your monastic residence… throwing out your belongings, pushing whoever got in their way, and going to the third floor only to find all of you doing sitting meditation, evoking the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening Avalokiteshvara in the imperturbable posture, and not trying to react or fight back, Thay knew that you were able to do what Thay has hoped for, and there is no more reason for Thay to be worried about you.”

Thay’s letter recounts the story of a Prajna novice trained in martial arts. In response to the attack, the young brother “asked his mentor for permission to handle those men. ‘Please allow me to quit being a monk. I cannot bear it anymore. I only need fifteen minutes to defeat all those gangsters. After that, if needed, I will go to prison... when I finish my term, I will return to be a monk again.’” His mentor responded with compassion. “Dear brother, don’t call those young people gangsters…. They were misinformed. They are thinking that we are gangsters who have come here to take over the building and the land. They are victims of wrong information, and they need help more than punishment.” He encouraged his brother to sit in meditation and master the anger in him. A few days later, the novice realized that if he had answered violence with violence, he would have “destroyed the great example set by the Buddha and by Thay.”

How We Can Help

The world’s eyes are on Prajna Monastery. Articles about Prajna and “Plum Village style practice” have

appeared in newspapers from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Worldwide, Sangha members are concerned, confused, and wondering how to help.

A blog titled www.helpbatnha.org features written accounts, letters, photo galleries, and a history of events at Prajna. It also demonstrates the resilient spirits of practitioners there. One photo shows a makeshift outdoor kitchen, with the caption: “The monks find ways to make do with hearts unperturbed.” Another picture shows a barricade of tree branches, with the words: “This pile of trees may block our path, but it can never block our understanding and compassion.”

The monastics have called for help from the international community so that they can practice in safety and peace. They “cannot just find another place to relocate, since there are almost 400 monks and nuns. Moreover, it is not likely that the monks and nuns would be left in peace to practice, even if we were to relocate. Thus, we entrust our protection in our spiritual ancestors and in you.”

To help the young monks and nuns at Prajna, Sangha members can write letters to the Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate, sign a petition at www.helpbatnha.org, inform news organizations and human rights groups, and sit with local Sanghas, sending support and compassion to all those affected by the events at Prajna Monastery.

— Natascha Bruckner

Sources:

  • AP news, Ben Stocking, “Vietnam’s dispute with Zen master turns violent,” August 1, 2009
  • Email from OI member True Concentration on Peace, July 2009
  • New Zealand Herald, Margaret Neighbour, “Monks evicted from monastery in row with government,” August 5, 2009
  • helpbatnha.org

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Media Reviews

mb53-MediaReviews1HappinessEssential Mindfulness Practices

By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2009 Softcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

This book is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for longtime practitioners, beginners, anyone who is curious about the practice of mindfulness. Happiness summarizes in concise, clear chapters what Thay has been teaching for the last sixty years.

It also answers, for me, the question of what the word “practice” means in our tradition. Several years ago, twenty or so lay people gathered at Plum Village to consider the idea of a lay community. It soon became clear that people had vastly different meanings when they spoke of “practice.” Some meant formal sitting meditation, chanting, reciting sutras. And while those activities can enhance our experience of the Dharma, they are not the essence of our daily practice. “Mindfulness,” writes Thay in the introduction, “is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment.... The practice of stopping is crucial. How do we stop? We stop by means of our in-breath, our out-breath, and our step. If you master these practices, then you can practice mindful eating, mindful drinking, mindful cooking, mindful driving, and so on, and you are always in the here and the now.”

The book is divided into six sections; each short chapter is a gem. “Daily Practices” covers the basics, such as breathing, sitting and walking meditation, bowing, gathas, and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. “Eating Practices” and “Physical Practices” are guidelines for caring for body and soul. The section on “Relationship and Community Practices” describes how to start and maintain a Sangha. It also offers techniques for creating healthy relationships, such as beginning anew, hugging meditation, deep listening, and loving speech. Several pages are devoted to anger and other strong emotions.

Some “Exended Practices” include solitude and silence, as well as lazy day, touching the earth, metta/love meditation, and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The section on “Practicing with Children” contains many useful tips for parents and teachers: listening to young people, walking meditation with children, the breathing room, and so on.

These are familiar teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh, which many of us have heard in Dharma talks or read in other books. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to read them again and again, because we might need to be reminded to actually practice them. And they really do work! I can vouch for that. Even practicing as unskillfully as I have, has made a huge difference in my life. In the six years since I committed myself wholeheartedly to Thay’s tradition, I have experienced deep healing and transformation. I am far happier than ever before.

Happiness is aptly titled. “We have a rich inheritance, but we don’t know it,” writes Thay at the end of the book. “We behave as if we were poor; a destitute son or daughter. Instead we can recognize that we have a treasure of enlightenment, understanding, love, and joy inside us. It’s time to go back to receive our inheritance. These practices can help us claim it.”

mb53-MediaReviews2Savor Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung HarperOne, March 2010 Hardback, 256 pages

Reviewed by Sister Chau Nghiem (Sister Jewel)

Two out of three people in the United States are overweight and one in three is obese. Obesity is becoming a pandemic around the globe. Most methods of weight loss focus on the symptoms, not the root of the problem, which lies not only in our way of thinking and living as individuals, but very much in the increasingly unhealthy and toxic societies in which we live, which encourage us to eat more, to eat foods that undermine our health, and to move less.

Based on both the profound Buddhist wisdom of mindfulness as well as the latest science on nutrition, this book by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung offers a new and penetrating perspective on how we arrived at our current weight problem and what we can do to reverse it, individually and collectively. The authors gracefully apply the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Nutriments, and other key Buddhist teachings to help readers understand and transform the suffering of excess weight and obesity.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, of the Harvard School of Public Health, compassionately and engagingly encourage readers to have faith in their ability to change and improve their life situation, no matter what difficulties they may have had in the past around weight loss. With the latest data on the health and environmental benefits of a more plant-based diet, meditative verses that help us incorporate mindfulness in all our activities, detailed guidelines for creating and implementing a mindful living plan that incorporates weekly goals for eating, exercising, and living more mindfully, and inspiring stories and suggestions for social activism, the book is packed with a wealth of resources for how to begin to make significant and lasting changes in our weight, in our life, and in the world, starting now.

mb53-MediaReviews3Failsafe Saving the Earth from Ourselves

By Ian Prattis Manor House Publishing, 2008 Paperback, 192 pages

Reviewed by Christopher Titmuss (excerpted with permission from www.resurgence.org)

Ian Prattis, a former professor of Anthropology and Religion at Carleton University, Canada, belongs to a growing school of thought that believes humanity requires a real shift in consciousness to handle the global crises—environmental, political, and economic. A core tenet of Failsafe: Saving the Earth from Ourselves is the simple maxim that our thinking has to change if the current worldview is to change.

Under the guidance of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Prattis states that the three poisons of the mind (to quote the Buddha) have become institutionalized. Greed pervades the corporate world. Hate pervades the military. Delusion pervades advertising. The poisoning of land, water, and air, and the catastrophes for the world’s poor and marginalized have their origins in the state of mind of those who run our institutions and their intentions to make profit, act violently upon people and the earth, and manipulate the public mind. There are signs of soul-searching in our major institutions, but the pace is painfully slow.

Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru, told Prattis that only two percent of the global population needs to meditate on a daily basis to transform human consciousness. Prattis endorses such a view and encourages people to slow down their relentless “doing” in order to experience a sense of “being”: a slowing down of thought, making it possible for fresh ways of thinking to emerge.

The book serves as a valuable collection of reflections on global issues and the part each one of us can play in making the necessary changes. While drawing on the wisdom of various authorities, past and present, Failsafe reminds us of the Buddha’s recipe for global ills—namely mindfulness, letting go, reflection, inner change, watching desire, inter-connection, and the transformation of consciousness.

Prattis writes that he remains “confident and optimistic about making the world a better place environmentally.” He has usefully employed his own experiences, the wise voices of others, and practical advice to address concerns about life on Earth. Failsafe concludes with a list of useful websites that inform and inspire further exploration.

mb53-MediaReviews4Touch the Earth

By Joe Reilly CD, 40 minutes

Reviewed by Nicole Brossman

Touch the Earth showcases true genre diversity, taking listeners through an intriguing landscape of rock, hip-hop, country, eco-rock, and meditative balladry. Reilly’s honest voice and consistent message have the unique ability to pull the eclectic mix together. With his Native American heritage, roots and upbringing in contemporary Catholic folk music, ever-deepening understanding of life through Buddhist meditation practice, and academic studies in environmental justice and racism, Joe Reilly is able to unite people across diverse lines of race, class, gender, age, religion, ability, and musical genre.

While listening to Touch the Earth, listeners are able to engage in lyrical discussions of ecological cycles, meditation, global warming, war, and spirituality with an open mind. Reilly’s music strengthens community while embracing diversity, inspiring listeners to experience the interconnection with one another and their environment, and inviting them to look deeper and connect with the positive aspects in their own nature. This is exemplified when he asks, in the title song, “Where’s the Earth?,” then answers, “in your hands, underneath your feet right where you stand.... It’s what you eat. Take off your shoes and socks and sink your feet in the mud of the Earth, it’s the blood of your birth.”

Reilly is a practitioner in the Plum Village tradition, and practices with the Huron River Sangha in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He also practices at Deer Park Monastery, where he received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2004, with the Dharma name True Faith of the Heart. He has visited Plum Village twice, and wrote many of the songs on Touch the Earth while he was there. It’s clear from the first track of the album, when Reilly sings “Keep it E-A-S-Y,” that his songwriting invites listeners to smile, laugh, and sing along with him. Reilly’s creativity brings both humor and depth to things that seem very ordinary. Through his songs we learn that a tree, a tomato, a guitar, and a human being are not separate and isolated.

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Twenty-Three Years as a Nun

By Sister Annabel mb57-TwentyThree1

As 2011 begins, I begin my twenty-third year of nunhood. I often think of myself as the continuation of my mother and father and all my blood ancestors. As far as I know, none of my blood ancestors were monks or nuns, though some of them have been fervent Christians who depended very much on their belief in God as a spiritual refuge.

When I was ordained as a nun, I did not tell my mother and father. Thay told me that if I did tell them, they would not understand and would only be confused because they did not have a true perception of what a Buddhist nun was. Two years after being ordained, I accompanied Thay on a teaching tour to England. I invited my mother and father to the retreat without saying anything about being a nun. My mother agreed to register; she had already been to Plum Village and knew a little about the practice, but my father was busy and could not come. I remember catching sight of my mother at the end of a hallway on the arrival day. I recognized her before she recognized me. As we drew closer to each other, she called me the name she had called me as a child. Poor mother! She was taken aback to see me in a brown robe and with a shaved head. The first thing she said was, “Thank goodness your father is not here. He would be shocked to see you with a shaved head.”

As the retreat proceeded, my mother felt more and more at ease. She saw how I interacted with the retreatants, leading the Dharma sharing and giving a presentation on the Five Mindfulness Trainings. She saw that the retreatants had respect for the nuns. She praised me for the way I facilitated the Dharma sharing. When Thay went back to Plum Village after the tour, he allowed me to go home to visit my parents and family. I remembered the words of my mother when she first saw me as a nun, and I did not dare uncover my head for the whole length of my stay. Later, if someone happened to take a photograph of me in Plum Village that I considered to be a good photograph, I would send it to my mother.

Now I can leave my head uncovered when I visit my parents’ house. There has been a shift in the direction of our ancestral stream. The Buddhist nunhood, which seemed so strange at first, has become a much more natural part of the life of my blood family. I would even say that my parents have become more monkand nun-like, and that my spiritual practice has helped them manifest differently than before. This is a ripening of seeds that lie in store consciousness.

Adventure in Vietnam

In 1992, four years after I was ordained, Thay suggested that I go to Vietnam. I went with a number of lay students, and we organized retreats and Days of Mindfulness at the historically sacred Buddhist sites in Vietnam. The most adventurous thing we did was to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Plum Village has a version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings that differs from the mainstream tradition in Vietnam, and many of Thay’s disciples in Saigon and Hue wanted to receive the Plum Village version. First we tried in Hue. Ni Su Dong Thuyen was kind enough to lend her temple. The transmission went unimpeded, but someone made a tape recording that the security police discovered, and we were summoned for a session with them. They told us that we had broken the law and that we had to leave Hue within twenty-four hours and leave Vietnam as soon as possible after that.

We went to Saigon and stayed in a Catholic hotel. We organized a Day of Mindfulness in the oldest temple in Saigon during the weekend, and the security police did not find out about it. Many people came to this famous temple to hear the abbot speak. They had an unexpected Day of Mindfulness with walking meditation. I enjoyed this adventure. We also transmitted the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the rooms behind a bakery on two occasions and no one ever knew.

I am very grateful for the connection with Vietnam that I have experienced as a nun. I have learnt its language, culture, and history, and this has enriched my life greatly. I began my life as a Buddhist practitioner in India and then went to Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhism is not Chinese Buddhism, as some Western scholars seem to think. Buddhism came to Vietnam across the sea from India, and only after Buddhism had become established in Vietnam was it refreshed by new waves coming from China.

Thay tells us that there will come a time when the Vietnamese monks and nuns will go back to Vietnam to look after the practice centres there. The centres in Europe and North America will be looked after by Western monks and nuns. So as Western monks and nuns, we have a responsibility to stick to the Sangha. It is like when Buddhism came to Vietnam from India: the Vietnamese monks had a responsibility to keep Buddhism alive when the Indian monks went home. If they had not done so, we should not have our Su Ong (teacher) today.

mb57-TwentyThree2Sister Annabel, True Virtue, was ordained in 1988. She is the translator of some of Thay’s books and is presently the Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

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On the Fifth Mindfulness Training

Nourishment and Healing  By Nguyen Khoa Duc (Tam Thuong Son) 

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Her words punctured the still air and rippled through what had been a very calm Dharma discussion. She said repeatedly to the Dharma group, “There is no way I can do that, no way, I am not ready…not now.” I turned to her, somewhat taken aback by the raw emotion in her voice. The middle-aged lady from Brooklyn who had been mostly silent throughout several Dharma discussions was now full of life and expressing herself in ways only New Yorkers can.

The focus of the Dharma sharing had been on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as several of us were preparing to participate in the ceremony to be presided over by Thay the next morning. The sharing had been somewhat subdued and uneventful until the last training became the topic of discussion. The lady disclosed to the group that she enjoyed red wine, sometimes lots of it. It had been as much a staple of her diet as food itself. She felt that receiving the Fifth Mindfulness Training would present a conflict with her continuing this habit—one that she was not prepared to give up.

It was October 2009, my first-ever visit to Blue Cliff Monastery. My family had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in the retreat led by Thay. People had come from everywhere to this quiet town surrounded by picturesque rolling hills. I still vividly remember our short time together, the tranquility and the bonding. Moreover, I was looking forward to the Five Mindfulness Trainings ceremony. Now this lady’s candor made me pause and reflect upon my own situation. I began to mull over what the Fifth Mindfulness Training meant to me; I found myself no longer present in the circle of my Sangha brothers and sisters. My mind started to drift away…to another time and to another place.

Foundation of Suffering 

Those of us who grew up in Vietnam during and immediately after the Vietnam War remember that millions of families had to struggle to cope with the physical and emotional hardships of the aftermath. Families were broken apart. Freedom was taken away. Fathers, husbands, brothers, and other loved ones were separated; those left behind did their best to carry on under a dark cloud of doubts, uncertainty, fear, and suppression.

Our family was no different. My father, just like hundreds of thousands of other men and women who were part of the South Vietnamese government, was sent to a concentration camp. I was nine at the time and had no idea why I suddenly had become fatherless. My mother found herself in the unfamiliar role of providing and caring for her four children while trying to keep track of my father’s well-being from afar. I missed him very much. I saw him once, one year after his imprisonment, and not again until our family was reunited here in Virginia in the early 1990s, fifteen years later. I remember many moments when I was alone, crying from missing him. I couldn’t understand why we were apart. Worse, I didn’t know if I’d see him again.

As the years passed, my friends who were in similar situations began to see their family members; one by one they trickled home. Our family was hopeful but was repeatedly devastated as the sparse news of my father seemed to indicate that he was actually being transferred farther and farther from home. My mother did her best to be the father figure to the four of us. She encouraged us to stay active with school and community events so we wouldn’t feel like outsiders, and continued to instill Buddhism in whatever form practicable amidst her own challenges. I sensed that she was overwhelmed with the many responsibilities that fell on her shoulders. Her health suffered from the great burden placed upon her.

In the late 1970s my mother began planning for me to leave Vietnam in search of a better future. I was in my early teens and keenly aware of her intent, but felt the sadness deepen inside me as I was about to be separated from another parent. I prayed that my attempts to flee Vietnam would fail, just so I could see her again. Then I’d regret the prayers when I saw the pain and disappointment on her face after each attempt failed. I finally made it out of Vietnam in 1980.

These experiences became the foundation of my teenage years and adulthood. The trauma and sorrows that peppered my childhood hardened me. I developed a fear of intimacy and trust, feeling that their fragile nature inevitably would create disappointment and sorrow. I began to feel detached from relationships. I yearned for love and envisioned my happiness in the presence of a companion, but I turned away when relationships became real. I feared that the emotional investment would let me down and hurt me, as it did when I lost my family during my earlier years. I struggled to sustain relationships; my insecurity, and as a result, erratic behavior, fractured relationships and ultimately drove those close to me away. I sought loneliness, reasoning that it was a safe haven free from suffering.

To substitute for substantive, meaningful feelings, I developed an insatiable appetite to consume information from the Internet, newspapers, books, magazines, and other sources. I became an avid sports fan; burying myself in somebody else’s world, real or fictional, provided me with with an outlet of comfort. My self-worth was no longer based on my internal being, but rather was dependent on artificial perceptions of the outside world.

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Without solidity, I felt a lack of purpose in my life and it was easy for me to develop negative habits as I grew older. I drank several cups of coffee a day to keep me alert; I also consumed large amounts of soda after exercising, which provided momentary relief from stress. I also became a workaholic, a habit I continue to try to transform today. These practices became the food I needed to survive emotionally, and I needed to continue consuming them in order to survive. I simply didn’t realize that I was sustaining myself on the wrong nutrients. I found my source of happiness everywhere but within.

Wake Up Bell 

In spite of the constant struggles with relationships, in my early twenties I met a wonderful lady whose enormous tolerance and boundless compassion has led me in a healing process. Twenty-one years later, she continues to walk beside me along the path. I remember that right after we had our first child, I became so submerged in work that one day my wife sent a calendar invite to my Outlook email; she merely wanted to request an appointment with me so we could catch up with each other. That was the wake up bell that, unfortunately only much later, I realized I needed.

I came to mindfulness practice about five years ago, through Days of Mindfulness with the Thuyen Tu Sangha. I began to slow down and learned the importance of healing. I learned how it’s okay to face and take care of pain, as that is the only way to transform suffering. While I embraced the concept of mindfulness, I initially found many activities within the practice—such as mindful eating, walking meditation, and deep relaxation—awkward and counterintuitive. I realized a key component of the practice was the support of the Sangha that provides me the strength and energy to help me recognize, embrace, and take care of my negative energies.

Even today, I find it difficult to invite in the sadness, despair, and regrets of my inner child so that I can touch them. I still don’t feel completely safe with intimacy but have begun to recognize the seeds of suffering within me. I realize that I have not reached the end of my journey on the path to healing; in fact, I feel as if it has barely begun. I also realize that the journey may take more than this lifetime. But now I don’t worry about the future or expectations, for I am resting comfortably in the present and in the presence of my Sangha friends. I continue to move forward in their arms.

Recently I reduced my coffee consumption to one cup a day, and that hasn’t affected my alertness or how I function at work and at home. I no longer depend on a pain reliever to get me through my daily runs; in fact, I’ve discovered that my dependence on the pain reliever was all mental. I still find myself eating lunch with one hand on the computer mouse, feverishly clicking, or with both eyes fixed on my iPhone, but that has lessened as I’ve become more aware of this unwholesome habit energy. Most importantly, the practice of bringing my mind and my breath back into the present has helped me restore my consciousness and the clarity with which I now look at life. The transformation is slow and some days I feel like it does not progress at all; however, I have begun to find—however temporarily—peace and joy sprouting from these seeds. I become more present with my wife and children, and our collective energy has begun to permeate the relationships among us and deepen our appreciation of each other.

The sound of the bell from the monastic leading the discussion brought me back to the present and to the circle of Dharma brothers and sisters. The sharing was about to end, and as everyone was slowly walking away, I caught up to the lady from Brooklyn. I smiled, “Dear sister, I, too, have had the same struggle, for different reasons, and although I am not completely sure, I think that as long as you are mindful in your alcohol consumption, and continue to practice mindfulness with your local Sangha, you will be fine. Taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings doesn’t mean our lives are 100% reflective of them. Being aware of them is a start. I hope to see you tomorrow morning.” She smiled at me, as if she appreciated my advice. Little did she know that my reassurance was directed as much to myself as to her.

This article was also published in the Spring 2013 Newsletter of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (www.mpcf.org). 

mb64-OnTheFifth3Nguyen Khoa Duc is a member of the Boat of Compassion Sangha in the Washington, D.C., area. He began the practice in 2008. This article was his presentation of the Fifth Mindfulness Training on a Day of Mindfulness, which was led by the Blue Cliff Monastery monastics in Virginia in March of 2013. Duc has been married to Lanh Nguyen for twentyone years. They have two children, Joey (14) and Sydney (12), and live in Vienna, Virginia. 

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The True Musician

An Interview with Sister Trai Nghiem

By Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai

 

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Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai interviewed Sister Trai Nghiem at Plum Village in the spring of 2011.

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Question: Were you always a Buddhist, you and your family?

Sister Trai Nghiem: By birth, yes. But not practicing. In Japan, we call it “funeral Buddhism.” Most people go to the temple for the first time when someone in their family dies, for a funeral.

I was twenty-eight when my mom died from cancer. I had contemplated death and impermanence before, but it’s completely different when somebody close to you is actually dying. The comfortable world that I was used to was falling apart. It was really her death that brought me to Buddhism.

Q: As a professional violinist, how has your music motivated you?

TN: I wanted to create something beautiful and to see how far I could reach as a violinist in the world of classical music. I wanted to be part of a world-class orchestra and I enjoyed the years I traveled and performed as a member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It was truly a beautiful experience.

Q: Did you have doubts about how far music could take you?

TN: When I was in college, I came across the following quote by Plato: “It is not he who produces a beautiful harmony in playing the lyre or other instruments whom one should consider as the true musician, but he who knows how to make of his own life a perfect harmony in establishing an accord between his feelings, his words, and his acts.” These words shook me violently, as I knew in my heart that I was not the true musician that I wanted to be. Even though I was enjoying a successful career and a lifestyle I had dreamed of, I was feeling stuck. The only way out was to completely let that go. When I decided to ordain as a nun, and was cleaning up my apartment, I found Plato’s quote again. This time his words brought me a smile. I still keep that piece of paper with me.

Q: What brought you to Plum Village?

TN: When I was younger, I saw beauty in fighting and going against the flow. But when my mom died, I ran out of energy to fight, and I decided to just let myself be carried in the flow of life and see what would happen. At that time, Thay’s books came into my life and they brought me a lot of comfort. I came to Plum Village for the first time in the winter of 2007 and I immediately felt at home.

Q: Did it feel like a paradise?

TN: To be honest, I couldn’t stand the practice songs, like “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” at first. And when I heard the monks and nuns chanting, it was so out of tune! But there was something else. There was this sweetness and warmth.

Before Plum Village I went to some zazen meditation sessions and yoga retreats. But it seemed that we were all caught up in ourselves, in our own pursuit of whatever we were trying to attain. And at Plum Village it was just a bunch of people living simply, being kind to each other, just like the way human beings are supposed to be. I fell in love with it.

mb58-TheTrue3Q: With the songs, too?

TN: Not immediately... but then I realized that this was my practice and saw that I needed to practice letting go of my judgmental, analytical, and cynical mind in order to just enjoy the present moment. Today I realize that the practice songs are one of the most clever methods of practice in our tradition. The moment I find myself in a foul mood, a song like “Happiness” comes to my rescue. Because we sing the songs every day, they are embedded in our store consciousness and become available whenever we are carried away in forgetfulness. Knowing their powerful “medicinal” effect, now I sing songs wholeheartedly with the gestures and everything.

Q: What attracted you to becoming a nun?

TN: I was always interested in some kind of spiritual life. But I could not imagine letting go of this wonderful life as a professional musician. I also didn’t want to disappoint people around me. I had a consultation with a sister on my first visit to Plum Village and she said, “You don’t need to think about it now, because when the moment comes, you will know.”

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Three months later, there was a retreat in Rome, and luckily I happened to be working in Italy so I went. On the last day of the retreat I was taking a train back to my work, and got a phone call from Japan, saying my father was very ill and was hospitalized. So I cancelled my work and went back to Japan to be with my father.

That summer, my father passed away. I had a lot to take care of around his death as well as with my work. I felt like I was running and running and could not stop. I knew that I could not go on like this for too long without damaging myself completely. I decided to be compassionate with myself and signed up for the Winter Retreat. I told myself, I don’t need to do anything, just let myself rest. Every night I’d sit in the Buddha Hall for a long time, alone. I wanted quietness. No music, no talking. After about a month of living with the sisters in New Hamlet, I knew this was it. The question, “Do I want to quit my job and become a nun?” was no longer there because I was already on the path even though my head was not yet shaved.

Q: What happened to your relationship to your music when you became an aspirant?

TN: One night I was sitting and I understood for the first time what it means to have “nowhere to go, nothing to do.” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m actually letting go of all the things that used to mean so much to me.” I had had no desire to listen to music since I arrived at Plum Village, but suddenly I had a desire to listen to a Brahms symphony. In my bed, I turned on the iPod and tears kept flowing. I realized, this is the world I was living in, and I have never appreciated it the way I could have. This incredible world of music had been with me since I was five. And now I was listening to the music and it touched me in a completely different way. I knew that the music was in me, but at the same time I was already standing outside of that world I was so used to. I knew there was no going back. I realized how lucky I had been my whole life to have music to take refuge in and to guide me.

Q: Do you see a similarity between being a musician and a monastic?

TN: Very much so. The Sangha is like an orchestra. Each member has a unique role and is irreplaceable. There is a percussionist who may play only one note in the entire symphony, while the violinists are playing the whole time without any rest. We’d never think of complaining that it’s not fair because that’s what makes the music so beautiful. To live happily in the Sangha, we also have to accept that each person has his or her own role. Some work more hours than others, but that’s just how it is. We suffer when we get caught in the complex of equality. When the orchestra is in harmony, we hear the sound of the orchestra as a whole, as one big instrument. If you heard the individual sound of each violinist in the orchestra, it wouldn’t be pleasant. We melt our individual sounds into the collective sound, so that there is no longer the distinction between “my sound” and “others’ sounds.”

One time, Sir Colin Davis, a wonderful English conductor, said during a rehearsal, when things weren’t quite jelling together: “Whoever tries to prove himself right is a terrorist!” Miraculously, we played in perfect harmony after this proclamation. Each member of an orchestra is an artist in his or her own right, yet when we try to convince others how it should be done, it never works. This teaching can very well be applied to Sangha life. In order not to create suffering for myself or others, I need to monitor my thoughts constantly, to see if I am caught in my own ideas.

If Sangha is an orchestra, Thay is a conductor. A skillful conductor never tries to control the musicians. He just lets the orchestra play. That’s exactly what Thay says to us all the time: “Di choi!” The literal translation is “go play!” It can also be translated as “go hang out and have fun.” Thay, just like a skillful conductor, trusts the Sangha, and based on that trust, he can bring out the best in each member of the Sangha. A layperson asked me once why Thay travels with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour. I said, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra. We inter-are.”

When the whole Sangha is sitting together in the morning, it’s like an orchestra tuning up before a concert. I never tried to play the violin without tuning. Why should it be different with my body and mind? If I start out a day by tuning myself with the Sangha, the whole day is so much more harmonious and pleasant.

Q: You’ve lived and worked in many countries, and it seems like you led a very independent lifestyle, choosing your own schedule. The Sangha has a more mannered and restrained lifestyle. How does that feel?

TN: I used to have an idea about what it meant to be a monastic. I told my colleagues that I was quitting this traveling lifestyle and going into a quiet monastery in France, and for the first two years I wouldn’t go anywhere. And suddenly Thay says, okay, you’re going on tour. And I thought, this is not very different from what I was doing before. That’s what makes Thay a Zen master, because as soon as you get caught in your idea of how things should be, he will give you the Zen ax with a smile. I was caught in my idea of what monastic life as a novice was, a quiet life, out in the countryside, tending the vegetable garden.

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Actually, the practice doesn’t depend on outer form at all. It’s not what you do but how you do it. If I choose to be fully mindful when traveling and going out on retreats, I can make progress on the path. If there is no mindfulness, it’s a waste of time to be sitting, walking slowly, and studying sutras, even in a monastery. No matter what I do, whether cooking, cleaning, studying, or traveling, I remind myself to be mindful and enjoy doing it.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a novice?

TN: It’s like being a protected baby in a family. There are so many older brothers and sisters who can teach and guide me in different ways. I enjoy having the space to make mistakes. I have the habit energy of wanting to achieve something, so I’m practicing to let go of my idea of what it means to be a “good nun.” There’s a kind of collective idea of what a good monastic is, just as there is a collective agreement of what a good musician is. If I try to become “a good nun,” I will get stuck in the same place where I got stuck as a musician.

Since I was small, everything I did, I did quite well. So I still have the feeling that whatever I do, I should be able to do well. Even though I am aware of this habit energy and am carefully monitoring it by recognizing the motivation for my actions, it’s still there on a deeper level and is the cause of some basic underlying stress.

Q: Is pride an issue for you? Does it manifest sometimes as feeling superior towards others in the community?

TN: It manifests with self-disgust. It’s probably one of the most shameful things to admit. But a superiority complex is nothing more than another face of an inferiority complex. They are like two sides of one coin. Whenever I notice the complex of inferiority manifesting, I tell myself, “You ARE enough.”

I am happy to acknowledge that in the fifteen months since I became a nun, I’ve reduced my level of judgment and criticism towards myself and other people greatly. Having negative thoughts like judgments is a great waste of precious energy. Just as I take care not to waste natural resources like water and food, I also try to conserve my own energy so it can be used for something more beneficial. As a result, I feel much more relaxed than before and many people have shared with me that they notice the difference. Thanks to the Sangha, one thing I have learned so far in my novice life is this: being kind is so much more important than being good at something.

Q: Do you have any aspirations?

TN: To be happy. I didn’t always have a good relationship with my parents, but after they passed away I realized how much unconditional love they gave me. Whatever they did, I feel the only thing they wanted was for me to be happy. But because I was not able to recognize it until they were gone in their physical form, I had this regret; I wanted to make them happier, to do something for them. Now I know the way to pay respect to my parents is to just be happy. I’m practicing with and for my parents.

After their death, I’m so much more in contact with them. This sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like they’re guiding me in every moment. I really feel their presence a lot more than I used to. If I don’t know what to do, I take refuge in my parents and let them do things. If I listen deeply, they always guide me to the right direction. I really feel that my parents brought me to this point in my life right now. And not only my parents, but all my ancestors—blood, land, and spiritual ancestors. And that includes all the wonderful musicians I have encountered in my life, like Bach and Mozart.

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