peace

Dharma Talk: True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery

August 22, 2001

You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

There is a lot of Dharma talk in the air, and there is a lot of air in the Dharma talk. Today is the 22nd of August 2001 in the Deer Park Monastery.

There is a sutra with the title Yasoja—that’s the name of a monk, the Sangha leader. This sutra is found in the collection called Udāna, Inspired Sayings.

Yasoja was a Sangha leader of a community of about five hundred monks. One day, he led the monks to the place where the Buddha lived, hoping they could join the three-month retreat with the Buddha. Ten days before the retreat began, they arrived very joyfully, anticipating seeing the Buddha and all the other monks. There were a lot of greetings, a lot of talking, and from his hut the Buddha heard a great noise.

He asked Ananda, “What is that noise? It sounds like fishermen landing a catch of fish.”

Ananda told him the Venerable Yasoja had arrived with five hundred monks and they were all talking with the resident monks.

The Buddha said, “Ask them to come.”

When the monks came, they touched the earth before the Buddha and sat down. The Buddha said, “You go away, you cannot stay with me. You are too noisy. I dismiss you.”

So the five hundred monks touched the earth, walked around the Buddha, and left the monastery of Jeta Park. They went to the kingdom of Vajji, on the east side of Kosala, which took them many days to reach. When they arrived on the bank of the River Vaggamuda, they built small huts, sat down, and began the Rain Retreat.

During the ceremony opening the retreat, Venerable Yasoja said, “The Buddha sent us away out of compassion. You should know that he is expecting us to practice deeply, successfully. That is why he sent us away. It was an expression of his deep love.”

All the monks were able to see that. They agreed that they should practice very seriously during the Rain Retreat to show the Buddha that they were worthy to be his disciples. So they dwelled very deeply, very ardently, very solidly. After only three months of retreat, the majority of them had realized the three enlightenments, the three kinds of achievement. The first is about remembering all their past lives. The second is to realize the truth of impermanence, to see clearly how the lives of all beings come and after a time they go. The third realization is that they have ended the basic afflictions in themselves: craving, anger, and ignorance.

One day after the Rain Retreat, the Buddha told Ananda, “When I looked into the east I noticed some energy of light, of goodness. And when I used my concentration, I saw that the five hundred monks that I sent away have achieved something quite deep.”

Ananda said, “That is true, Lord, I have heard about them. Having been dismissed by the Buddha, they sat down in the Vajji territory and began serious practice, and they all have realized the three realizations.”

Buddha said, “That’s good. Why don’t we invite them to come over for a visit?”

Teacher-Disciple Relationship

When the five hundred monks heard the invitation of the Buddha, they were very happy to visit him. After many days of traveling, they came at about seven o’clock in the evening and they saw the Buddha sitting quietly, in a state of concentration called imperturbability. In this state you are not perturbed by anything; you are very free, very solid. Nothing can shake you, including fame, craving, hatred, or even hope.

When the monks realized that the Buddha was in the state of imperturbability, they said, “The Lord is sitting in that state of being, so why don’t we sit like him?”

So they all sat down, very beautifully, very deeply, very solidly. All of them penetrated the state of imperturbability and sat like Buddha. They sat for a long time.

When the night had advanced and the first watch had finished, the Venerable Ananda came to the Lord, knelt down, and said, “Lord, it is already very late in the night. Why don’t you address the monks?”

The Lord did not say anything. They continued to sit until the second watch of the night had gone by. About two or three o’clock in the morning, Ananda came, knelt down, and said, “Lord, the night has gone very far. It is now the end of the second watch. Please address the five hundred monks.”

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

But the Buddha kept silent and continued to sit. All the monks continued to sit also. 

Finally, the third watch of the night was over, and the sun began to appear on the horizon. Ananda came for the third time, and kneeling in front of the Buddha, said, “Great teacher, now that the night is over, why don’t you address the monks?”

The Buddha opened his eyes and looked at Ananda. He said, “Ananda, you did not know what was going on and that is why you have come and asked me three times. I was sitting in a state of imperturbability, and all the monks also sat in that state of being, not disturbed by anything at all. We don’t need any greetings. We don’t need any talk. This is the most beautiful thing that can happen between teacher and student. We just sit, dwelling in a state of peace and solidity and freedom.” 

I find that sutra very, very beautiful. The communication between teacher and disciple is perfect. A student should expect nothing less than the freedom of the teacher. The teacher should be free from craving, free from fear, free from despair. When you come to the temple you should not expect from your teacher anything less than that. You should not expect small things, like having a cup of tea with the teacher or having him praise you. These kinds of things are nothing at all. 

You should expect much more than that. If your teacher has enough freedom, enough peace, enough insight, then that will satisfy you entirely. If he does not have any solidity, any freedom, then you should not accept him or her as your teacher because you’ll get nothing from him or her. 

What do you expect from a Dharma teacher or a big brother or sister in the Dharma? What do you expect from your students? You should not expect small things. You should not expect him or her to bring you a cup of tea, a good meal, a cake, some words of praise. These things are nothing at all. You should expect from your students their transformation, their healing, their freedom. 

When teacher and students are like that, they are in a state of perfect communication. They don’t have to say anything to each other. They don’t have to do much. They just sit with each other in a state of solidity and imperturbability. That is the most beautiful thing concerning a teacher-student relationship. 

I find this sutra very, very beautiful.

When a student practices well, he or she can see the teacher in himself, in herself. And when a teacher practices well, he can see himself in the student. They should not expect less than that. If you always see the teacher as someone outside of you, you have not profited much from your teacher. You have to begin to see that your teacher is in you in every moment. If you fail to see that, your practice has not gone well at all. And as the teacher, if you don’t see yourself in the students, your teaching has not gone very far. 

True Transmission

When I look into a person, a disciple, whether she is a monastic or a layperson, I would like to see in her that my teaching has only one aim: to transmit my insight, my freedom, my joy to my disciples. If I look at him and I see these elements in his eyes, I am very glad. I feel that I have done well in transmitting the best that is in me. Looking at his way of walking, of smiling, of greeting, of moving about, I can see whether my teaching has been fruitful or not. That is what is called “transmission.” 

Transmission isn’t organized by a ceremony with a lot of incense and chanting. Transmission is done every day in a very simple way. If the teacher-student relationship is good, then transmission is realized in every moment of our daily life. You don’t feel far away from your teacher. You feel that he or she is always with you because the teacher outside has become the teacher inside. You know how to look with the eyes of your teacher. You know how to walk with the feet of your teacher. Your teacher has never been away from you. This is not something abstract; we can see this ourselves. When you look at a monk or a nun or a lay disciple and you see Thay in him, you know that he is a real disciple of Thay. And if you don’t see that, you might say that this is a newly arrived person, he has not got any Thay within himself. That is seen very clearly. 

When we look into ourselves, we can see whether our way of walking or smiling or thinking has that element of freedom, of joy, of compassion. If we see it, then we know that Thay has been taken into ourselves; we are a true continuation of our teacher. You don’t need another person to tell you; you can see it for yourself. And when you look at your fellow students, you can see it as well, if the teacher-student relationship is good. If it is good, that transmission is being done in every moment of our daily life. 

Every time we take a step, we know for ourselves whether that step has peace, joy, solidity, or not. You don’t need your teacher to tell you. You know whether your step is a real step, containing solidity and freedom. If your step does not have freedom, you know it doesn’t. If your step does not have the element of solidity, you know it doesn’t. It’s not hard; it’s so obvious. 

[Thay holds up an empty glass.]

Your step is like the glass. It can be empty and then maybe some juice or some tea goes in. 

[He pours tea into the glass.]

If there is some tea in the cup, it is obvious. With the tea in the cup, you can drink and enjoy it.

[Thay sips the tea. He draws a row of circles indicating steps on the whiteboard.]

Suppose I make a step here, a step here, a step here. My practice is to fill each step with the elements of solidity and peace, because I know that each step like that is highly nourishing and healing. When I make a step, I say, “I have arrived, I am home.” There is the element of arrival here, and you know whether you have arrived or not. 

We have been running all our lives. We do not know how to enjoy every step we make. Now that we have become a student of the Buddha, we want to make real steps. Every step should be full of the element of arrival, full of the element of here and now, full of the elements of stability, solidity, and freedom. 

In the time of the Buddha, there were no airplanes, there were no buses, there were no cars. The Sangha just walked from one country to another. They spent time in many countries, and yet they only walked. With their way of walking, they were able to enjoy every step. The Buddha was a monk, and many of his disciples were monks. They were traveling monks, walking from one place to another. They only stopped traveling during the three-month retreat, so they had plenty of chances to practice walking meditation. Wherever they went, they inspired people because of their way of walking and sitting. 

Walking is a kind of sitting. You can arrive fully when you walk, just like when you sit. You are not in a hurry; you are not looking for something outside yourself. You know that everything you are looking for is in the here and the now. That is why every step you make helps you to arrive in the here and now. That is why the teaching and the practice of arrival is so wonderful, so marvelous. 

Our society is characterized by running. Everyone is running to the future. You want to assure a good future, and since you see other people around you running, you cannot resist running too.

We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

We do not have peace; we are not capable of being in the here and the now and touching life deeply. Running like that, we hope to arrive. But running has become a habit, and we are not able to arrive any more. Our whole life is for running. 

In this teaching and in this practice, the point of arrival is not somewhere else. The point of arrival is in every minute, in every second. Life is like that. Life is a kind of walk. [Thay taps each circle on the board.] Life can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, making a step. Here, here, here. We continue like this. So life can be found in a step and in the space between steps. If we expect to see life outside of these steps and the space between steps, we don’t have life. The great majority of people are running, and that is why the practice of arrival is so important. It’s a drastic kind of medicine to heal our society and ourselves, because we carry, in each of us, the whole of society. The whole of society is running, and therefore we are running. So awakening can bring the desire to resist, to stop.

The Three Doors of Liberation

The teaching of the three doors of liberation is crucial. The door of emptiness, the door of signlessness, and the door of aimlessness. Aimlessness means that you are not running anymore because you already are what you want to become. What you are searching for is already there in the here and the now. 

Your peace, your happiness, your solidity, your freedom are available in every step. Aimlessness means you should stop, you should not run anymore. If you think of getting peace and freedom, peace and freedom are right here, right now. The belief that peace and freedom are somewhere else is an error. That is why every step you take should be able to bring you to the place where freedom and solidity exist. Freedom and solidity are the grounds of true happiness. Without solidity, no happiness is possible; without freedom, no happiness is possible. That’s why every step can generate stability, solidity. Every step can generate the energy of freedom. If you practice walking correctly, then the energy of freedom and solidity can be generated in every step. Happiness is right there, in every step. 

Another person watching you walk is able to see whether your steps have the elements of solidity and freedom. But you don’t need him to tell you; you know very well whether the step you take has the elements of solidity and freedom. You are walking but you have already arrived with every step, and walking like that is your daily practice. Arrival is achieved in every step. It would be nice to send Thay a postcard with the inscription, “Thay, I have arrived.” It will make him happy. “I have arrived, I don’t run anymore.” 

The habit of running has become very strong. It is a collective habit, a collective energy. Mentally, you find it normal to run. But it’s not normal, because if you continue to run like that, happiness will not be possible, peace will not be possible. We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

Freedom from Afflictions

The Buddha and his monks did not have a lot to consume. They did not have a bank account. They did not own big buildings and houses. Each monk was supposed to have only three robes, one begging bowl, and one water filter, which they carried with them. The monks and the nuns of our time try their best to follow this example.

If you want to become a monk or a nun, you should know that a monk or a nun should not have a personal bank account. No one in the Deer Park Monastery has a personal bank account. No one has a personal car. Even the robes we wear do not belong to us—they belong to the Sangha. 

If you need a robe, your Sangha will provide you with one, but that does not mean that it becomes your robe. It remains a robe of the Sangha. Even your body is not your personal property. When you become a monk or a nun, your body doesn’t belong to you as personal property. You have to take care of your body because it is part of the Sangha body. Other monks and nuns have to help take care of your body, and you have to allow them to take care of you. They can intervene in the way you eat and drink, because your body does not belong to you, it belongs to the whole Sangha—the Sangha body, Sanghakaya. You don’t own anything at all, including your body, and yet happiness is possible, freedom is possible. Happiness and freedom are easier if you don’t own many things. Usually if you don’t own anything, you are very afraid, you don’t feel any security. But the practice of a monastic goes in the opposite direction. What guarantees your well-being is not possessions but the giving away of all possessions. 

I remember when Sister Thuc Nghiem, Sister Susan, became a nun, along with others. They took everything from their pockets and they gave it to Thay, everything from coins worth thirty-five cents to the key to their car. They gave everything to Thay. To become a nun or a monk, you should give up everything. You have to donate everything before you can be accepted as an ordained novice. You are advised not to donate it to the temple where you are going to become a monk or a nun. You have to donate it to some other organization, not the temple you accept as your home.

One day Thay gave an exercise to all the monks and nuns: “Tell me of your daily happiness. List your daily happiness on a piece of paper.” Many of them filled up more than two pages. Among the things Sister Susan wrote down was, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore, even one cent.” That is true. Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. But after becoming penniless, she got a lot of liberty, a lot of freedom, and that is the foundation of happiness. That is why she wrote down, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore.” That is what she really felt. 

Many people believe that practicing as a monk is the hardest, but that is not the case. It is easy to practice as a monk or a nun. You have entrusted yourself entirely to the Sangha. You don’t have to worry about anything: food, shelter, medicine, transportation. Everyone around you is practicing walking mindfully, enjoying every step, so it would be strange if you didn’t do the same. You are naturally transported by the boat of the Sangha. Even if you don’t want to, you go anyway, in the direction of peace and freedom! You have left behind your family—your father, your mother, your friends, your job—to become a monk or a nun. Your purpose is to be free because you know that true happiness is not possible without freedom. You aspire deeply to freedom, and freedom here means freedom from afflictions. 

Of course, political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions, then political freedom does not mean anything. You are a refugee and do not have that piece of paper that allows you to go anywhere you want. The deepest desire of people is to have a piece of paper called an identity card or passport. There are those of us who waited ten, twenty, thirty years, and still didn’t get that piece of paper. They believe that when they get that piece of paper they can become free, and they can go anywhere they want. But there are also those of us who have that passport, that piece of paper, but don’t feel any happiness, and many have even committed suicide. 

Political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions—namely craving, despair, jealousy—suffering is still there within you and around you. That is why the purpose of the practice is to get free, so the Kingdom of God is available to you, so true life is possible for you in the here and the now.

We have the impression, very clear sometimes, that the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha and all its marvels are very close. In fact, everything in us and around us is a miracle. Your eyes are a miracle, your heart is a miracle, your body is a miracle, the orange you are eating is a miracle, the cloud floating in the sky is a miracle. If they do not belong to the Kingdom of God, then to what do they belong? In our busy lives we sometimes have the clear impression that the Kingdom is there, available, but since we are running all the time, thinking we do not have freedom, we cannot get into it; it is not available to us. 

I always say the Kingdom of God is available to you, but you are not available to the Kingdom. That is why we learn to breathe and to walk in such a way that we become a free person. That is the meaning of all the practice. 

To practice is not to become a Dharma teacher. A Dharma teacher is nothing at all. It does not mean to become a Sangha leader. Being a Sangha leader does not mean anything at all. What is the use of being the head of a big temple if you continue to suffer deeply? The purpose of practice is to become free, and with your freedom, happiness is possible. When you have freedom and happiness, you can help so many people. You have something to share, you have something to offer to them. 

You don’t share what you have accumulated from your Buddhist studies, because even professors of Buddhist studies may suffer deeply if their Buddhist studies haven’t helped them. Buddhist studies may be helpful, but what you need is not really Buddhist studies; what you need is freedom. 

So our happiness is the accumulation of peace. What we study, the authority we get in the Sangha or in society, the fame we get, are things that people are looking for in society. Many of them get plenty of these things, but they aren’t truly happy. Many of them commit suicide. Our way should be different. Our way is the way of freedom. 

Is it possible to be free? Looking into the person of a practitioner, whether that is a Dharma brother, a Dharma sister, or your teacher, you can see how much freedom and happiness she has. You would like to have true Dharma brothers and sisters. Sitting close to them and living close to them, you profit from their happiness and freedom, because their happiness is based on their freedom and not on anything else, like fame, authority, or power. What we profit from in a Sangha is the opportunity to do what the other people are doing—namely sitting, walking, smiling, breathing. In arriving, all are having freedom. 

The Brown Jacket: An Opportunity to Practice

What is the meaning of wearing a brown jacket? It is not to say that I am an ordained member of the Order. That’s nothing. It’s like the value of a student identity card. You got into a famous university, and it has given you an identity card. But if you don’t study, what is the use of having the identity card? Having the ID is so you can make use of the library, go to classes, and have professors. It means to study. So when you get the ordination, when you receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, when you get a jacket, that is the identity card, and that allows you to profit from the Sangha, from the teaching, from the practice. 

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

There are Dharma centers, there are monasteries, there are teachers, there are Dharma brothers and sisters who practice. Our being a member of the OI helps us to profit from all these things in order to advance on our path of freedom. As we have freedom, we can begin to make people around us happy. We know that practicing without a Sangha is difficult. That is why we try our best to set up a Sangha where we live. To be an OI member is wonderful. To be a Dharma teacher is wonderful—not because we have the title of OI membership or the title of Dharma teacher, but because we have a chance to practice. 

As an OI member, you have to organize the practice. Wherever you are, it’s your duty to set up a group of people practicing; otherwise it does not mean anything to be an OI member. An OI member is expected to organize the practice in her or his area—a group of five people, six people, ten people, twenty people—and to practice reliably on a local level and sometimes on a national level. So the advantage is that having a Sangha, you have to take care of the Sangha, and the Sangha is what supports you in your practice. Thanks to the Sangha, you have to practice. The Sangha is there to support you in your practice. So building the Sangha means building yourself. If the Sangha is there, you practice with the Sangha. So a Sangha builder can benefit. She has an opportunity to practice. 

Being a Dharma teacher is also an opportunity, because as you teach, you cannot not practice! As you teach, you have to practice in order for your teaching to have content. How can you open your mouth and give a teaching if you don’t do it? Teaching is an opportunity. Even if you are not an excellent teacher yet, being a Dharma teacher helps very much, because when you open your mouth and begin to share the Dharma, you have to practice what you are sharing. Otherwise it would look strange. It’s like a monk living with other monks, all doing walking meditation; it would look strange if that monk did not practice. Being a Sangha builder, you get the opportunity to practice; being a Dharma teacher, you get the opportunity to practice. 

Every member of the Sangha can be a favorable condition to you, whether that member is good in the practice or not so good in the practice. Each inspires you to practice. So being a Sangha builder, being an OI member, being a Dharma teacher, is a very good thing, if you know what it means. 

It would be strange if we got the precepts, the transmission, and got a jacket, but we didn’t have a Sangha to practice with. It would be exactly like getting a student ID and not going to the library or to the classes. So Sangha building is what we do, and Sangha building is the practice. Sangha building means to help each element of the Sangha to practice. You are like a gardener; you take care of every member of the Sangha. There are members who are so easy to be with and to deal with, and there are members who are so difficult to be with and to deal with. And yet, as a Sangha builder, you have to help everyone. There are members of the Sangha you can enjoy deeply. They’re so pleasant to be with. There are other members of the Sangha with whom you have to be very patient. 

Please don’t believe that every monastic or layperson in Plum Village is equally easy for Thay! That’s not the case. There are monastics who are very easy to be with and to help, but there are monastics who are so difficult. As a teacher, you may have to spend more time and energy with those who are so difficult. You may want to say no to these elements, but you need to surrender. You cannot grow into a good practitioner, you cannot grow into a good Dharma teacher, if you only want the easy things. 

Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. 

In a Sangha, it is normal to have difficult people. These difficult people are a good thing for you. They will test your capacity of Sangha building and practicing. One day you’ll be able to smile and you won’t suffer at all when that person says something not very nice to you. Your compassion has been born, and you are capable of embracing him or her within your compassion and your understanding. And you know that your practice has grown. You should be delighted when you see that what they say or do does not make you angry or upset anymore, because you have developed enough compassion and understanding. That is why we should not be tempted to eliminate the elements we think to be difficult in our Sangha.

Sangha building needs a lot of love and compassion. If you know how to handle difficult moments, you will grow as a Sangha builder, as a Dharma teacher. Thay is speaking to you out of his experience. He now has a lot more patience and compassion. His happiness has grown much greater because he has more patience and compassion. You should believe Thay in these respects. We suffer because our understanding and compassion aren’t large enough to embrace difficult people. But with the practice, your heart will grow, your understanding and compassion will grow, and you will not suffer any more. You have a lot of space, and you can give people space and time to transform. Thanks to the Sangha practicing, thanks to your model of practice, they will grow, they will transform. The transformation of difficult people is a greater success than for only pleasant, easy people. 

Love is not only enjoyment. We enjoy the presence of pleasant people, lovely people, but love is not just that. Love is a practice. Love is the practice of generating more understanding and compassion. That practice generates true love. Please always remember that love is not just a matter of enjoyment. Love is a practice. And it is that aspect of love that can bring you growth and happiness, the greatest happiness. 

There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second. Happiness, joy, peace should be every moment. Peace is every step. Happiness is every step. It’s so clear, it’s so plain, it’s so simple. 

Four Levels of Sangha Practice

[Thay writes on the board.]

Suppose I draw a circle representing my root Sangha, where I have gotten my ordination in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, where I have gotten a teacher and many Dharma brothers and sisters. I’m born from that place. The root Sangha is my spiritual birthplace, and every time I think of it I should feel joy, pure joy, and hope. That is a lovely place, that is my birthplace. I have so many brothers and sisters living there. I have many teachers living there. When I think of it I feel inspired, I feel happiness. All of us should have such a place, and we carry that place with us everywhere we go. That place is situated not just in space; it is within us. Those of us who do not carry such a place in our hearts do not have enough happiness. It’s a pleasure to go back to the root Sangha and to be there. I have my function, my role in society, but I hold my root Sangha within my heart, a source of inspiration, a source of energy for me, and around me I build a local Sangha.

I’m aware that although it is my local Sangha, it will be the root Sangha of many other people. Whether it is in Chicago, in Buffalo, in Montreal, my local Sangha will become the root Sangha for friends who come. So the root Sangha is not out there; the seed of the root Sangha in me will help make this local Sangha into a root Sangha. I am a member of the OI. I have to make it into a home for several of my friends who constitute my Sangha here. And my Sangha here reflects the image of the root Sangha there. 

In my Sangha, people know how to enjoy every step, every breath. They know how to take care of each other. They know that the purpose of the practice is to get freedom and nothing else. I build my Sangha out of love, out of my deepest desire. That is the path I undertake, the path of freedom. I devote my time, my energy to building a Sangha of brotherhood. If brotherhood is not there, happiness is not possible. The mark of an authentic Sangha is brotherhood of those who come to the Sangha because they want to have brothers and sisters in the practice of freedom. If the practice is correct, then brotherhood will grow and sustain us. Even in difficult moments, brotherhood is always there to sustain us, to help us stand firm in our practice. 

Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second.

We know that nearby there is another local Sangha, with an OI member who is doing exactly what we are doing. So weekly, we practice with our local Sangha. We organize local events such as Days of Mindfulness, short retreats, Dharma discussions, tea meditation, and walking meditation. From time to time we invite other local Sanghas to join us and create a regional activity. We combine our talents and our experience with other OI members and Sangha builders to create the regional event. Everyone can contribute, and everyone can learn a lot from activities on the regional level. 

illustration by Felicia Spahr

illustration by Felicia Spahr

Then from time to time we organize activities on a national level. You might organize at a Dharma center like Deer Park or Blue Cliff to hold national activities. And finally, there will be activities on an international level, where we meet with practitioners from all over the world. Together we share our practice and learn from one another. 

So there are four levels of practice: local, regional, national, and international. Happiness should be possible on the local level, in our daily practice. 

The Living Dharma

We recognize the suffering that is going on around us and inside of us. Our practice is not to get away from our real problems, our real difficulties, our real suffering. The practice, according to the path shown by the Buddha, is to recognize suffering as it is, to call it by its true name, and to practice in such a way that we can identify the deep causes of suffering. The division in families, the violence in school and in society—all these things have to be confronted directly with our mindfulness in order for us to see deeply the nature of suffering, of how the suffering has been made. 

Ill-being, that is the First Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is the making of ill-being. This understanding of the making of ill-being should be very clear. We have to consider every cause that has led to suffering, such as alcoholism and drugs, AIDS, violence, the coming apart of families. We have to look deeply into the nature of ill-being to see their causes. We have to call these by their true names. 

Understanding the nature of suffering is the practice, the Second Noble Truth. When understanding of the Second Noble Truth is deep, then naturally the path will emerge: the Fourth Noble Truth, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It means the birth of well-being. So with the understanding of the nature of ill-being, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being becomes apparent. The Third Noble Truth is just the cessation of ill-being. 

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It has been repeated and repeated that once the Second Noble Truth is understood, then the Fourth Noble Truth will reveal itself. That is the true Dharma. The true Dharma should be embodied by the practitioner, by the Sangha leader, by the OI member. You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

It is great happiness when someone in the Sangha embodies the living Dharma. Your Sangha may be five people, ten people, twenty people, fifty people. If there is one of you who embodies the path, the living Dharma, that’s wonderful. And everyone can look to him or her as a model for practice. Very soon the Sangha will carry the Dharma within herself. The Sangha will embody the Dharma. That is when the Sangha becomes the most convincing element, because it is a true Sangha, a living Sangha. The Buddha and the Dharma are contained in it, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. 

If you are a Sangha builder, be sure that in your Sangha there are those who can embody the living Dharma. They live in such a way that makes the Dharma apparent—the Dharma not only in cassette tapes, books, and Dharma talks, but the Dharma in the way you live your daily life. 

Training OI members does not mean to acquire a lot of Buddhist studies, although Buddhist studies are very helpful. But we want something more. When Sister Annabel offers training for OI members, she doesn’t just offer Dharma talks. Everyone participates in walking, in sitting, and in other practices. This method presents more than a set of theories; it presents the living Dharma. 

After having practiced for one year, a person might like to ask for ordination and become a member of the core community. But if during that period, she or he has had no chance to train, then the ordination ceremony is not possible, because the ordination ceremony is offered based on the training and not on the desire of someone to become a member of the core community alone. The desire is good, but it’s not enough; there needs to be training. If you are a member of the core community, it is your task to train people in your local Sangha so that they know the practice, know what the true Dharma is, and know how to apply the Dharma in their family life, in the workplace, in social life. The Dharma should be their way of life, the art of mindful living. 

Many of you may come together to discuss how to organize a regional event of seven to ten days, so OI members and aspirants for ordination can be trained. You might ask two or three sisters from the root Sangha to come and help you, or you might ask a lay Dharma teacher.

Of course, on the national level the root Sangha will be involved. There should be documents and materials for training. But the training should be done in concrete terms, so that transformation and healing is possible. In six-day retreats, we see a lot of people transform, like the one we had at the University of Massachusetts. Eight hundred and fifty people came for a retreat of six days. The quality of the retreat was very high, and people enjoyed it so much. Many reports of transformation came each day. Reconciliation was made among members of families, even with people who were not present, through telephone calls. If you have been in a retreat, you know that the presence of those of us who have a solid practice is very helpful to retreatants. 

In the retreat at the University of Massachusetts we had seventy monastics, many OI members, and many experienced practitioners. There were so many new people who had come to a retreat for the first time. They arrived and joined the practitioners very naturally, like a small stream of water joining a big river. The sisters and brothers who attended the retreat shared many stories of transformation. That made us very happy, because the retreat helped so many people, including many young people. 

I remember one day I invited all the children to sit on my right, around one hundred of them, from little children to teenagers. And on my left I invited all the schoolteachers to come, one hundred of them. I asked them to talk to each other about their sufferings and their expectations. It was so wonderful. 

Many people cried during the retreat because they listened to their own suffering and they learned the practical way out of suffering. They got a lot of energy because many of the good seeds inside themselves were watered. All of them wished the retreat would last longer. 

At the regional level, we get the training not only in how to help other people, but also in how to help ourselves. At the end of a retreat we should come out as a stronger practitioner, a stronger Sangha builder, a stronger and more skillful Dharma teacher. This should be organized regularly. 

Please do use your intelligence and your power of organization because Sangha building is the most noble task. The way out is Sangha. The most precious thing we can offer to our society is Sangha. Everyone has to learn to be a Sangha builder. There are many monks and nuns and laypeople who are excellent Dharma teachers. They can teach Buddhist studies very well in Vietnam and in other countries, but not many have the skill of Sangha building. 

My expectation, my desire is that every OI member will learn the art of Sangha building, because Sangha building will bring you a lot of happiness. Sangha is desperately needed in our society, a place where people can come and feel embraced and understood, and learn to see the path of emancipation. A true Sangha is what we need, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the Buddha and the living Dharma. It is the living Dharma that makes the Sangha into a true Sangha, a real refuge for us and for our society. 

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey.

Being In Touch with Vietnam

By Sister Chan Khong Flood Relief

Last winter, heavy floods brought severe devastation to Vietnam during two months. Sanghas throughout the world sent $10,000 to help Vietnamese people.

In Central Vietnam, we assisted the most impoverished villages where there were no schools, health care systems, or bridges. In the rainy season these villages flood with water. In the summer, the land is too dry for anything to grow. With the $7,600 we received from the Canada Sangha and the Nu Hong Sangha, we bought blankets and old clothes and rebuilt houses in remote areas of Qui Nhon, Quang Ngai, Thua Thien, Dong Niu, Quang Xuyen, and An Tuyen. In Phu Hoa and Sen Thuy, Quang Binh, and in Quang Tri, 120 families were given $50 each to rebuild their houses. In Thua Thien, 80 families were helped.

We were able to to rebuild 109 huts in Binh Hoa Trung, Binh Thanh, Huyen An, and Thanh Hoa, Long An in South Vietnam with $2,100, and to lend money to peasants there to buy fertilizer and seeds for planting rice.

Medical Care

Twice a month, a group of doctors, pharmacists, and social workers travel to remote areas to examine patients, distribute medicine, and treat dental problems of young children and poor adults. In these areas, there is no other form of health care. Plum Village and a benevolent association in the U.S. give $350 for every trip to buy medicine, pay for travel expenses, and buy simple meals for the workers.

We gave $2,000 to the leper camp in Van Mon, in North Vietnam to increase the amount of food given to undernourished families. Doctors specializing in leprosy have asked Plum Village to build at least five operating and recovery rooms so they can offer effective treatment. We will help with $36,000 (1/5 of the total amount needed to build a good hospital in Van Mon). A hospital in Van Mon, Thai Binh, also needs some rooms rebuilt. Plum Village and a Sangha in Germany are looking for sponsors to carry out this work. We gave $4,200 to help build two rooms at an herbal medicine clinic in the valley of the Yen Tu mountain—one is used for examinations and acupuncture treatments, the other for storing medicine.

Feeding Hungry Children

We sponsor 133 undernourished children, and provide food for 76 children at the day care center in Kinh Te Moi Xa Bang, Suoi Nghe in South Vietnam. The South Vietnam Sangha travels to the mountains of Quang Ngai where there is no school and the children are undernourished. Their lips are often purple from the cold, and most only have a pair of torn shorts to wear. We sent 400 packages to these children, each containing rice, a blanket, instant noodles, and clothes.

Social workers show young mothers the importance of including protein in their children's diet. Together, they make a porridge that contains brown rice, string beans, tofu, and eggs. Each month the mothers are given 30,000 dong which they use to prepare this meal for their families.

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Education

With the help of Partage in France and Aktion Lotus in Switzerland, the Sangha in South Vietnam gives scholarships to 180 students in Kinh Te Moi Xa Bang, Suoi Nghe. In Dieu Giac, we supply provisions for 16 kindergarten classes in areas where there were no public schools. In North Vietnam, 150 children in Tu Liem and Soc Son near Ha Noi are sponsored by funds collected through the Community of Mindful Living. Two day-care centers are maintained in Soc Son with help from the Maitreya Funds in Germany.

In Thua Thien, Quang Tri, Quang Ngai, and Nha Trang in Central Vietnam, we give monthly scholarships to over 1,500 undernourished students, $10 a month to 148 apprentices, and income supplements of $2.50 a month to 732 people who are old or have physical disabilities. We provide salaries for 267 teachers and 48 students who are carefully trained to take care of the young children. We also sponsor 127 students at the universities of Hue and Da Nang.

We have helped ten communities in remote areas of Binh Tri Thie. We give 10% of what the community itself takes responsibility for in order to realize the various projects. $600 a month supports the work the social workers are doing. It costs $150 a month to feed the children in one kindergarten boarding school. The Washington D.C. Sangha, the Community of Mindful Living, and the Maitreya Funds in Germany, have sponsored 14 daycare centers in these communities where children learn songs such as "Fresh as a Flower, Solid as a Mountain" and receive soy milk daily to supplement the protein in their diets. Trung An is a very poor and arid area with white sand and few trees. Most of the children are not educated, and have only one pair of trousers and few have shirts. Eighty percent of the teenagers do not know how to read. The aid from Plum Village makes evening classes available for them, because during the day they must work—even seven-year-old children must work or else they starve. Teenagers learn a trade in their own village or are sent to Hue for an apprenticeship. This program helps to eliminate the gambling, smoking, drinking, and fighting that are common. Every school has a health care team of nurses and physicians from Hue.

Dear International Sanghas, if you would like to sponsor a community, please talk to the social work staff at Plum Village. Each community has a long-term project which they discuss with the Sangha that sponsors them.

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In one family, the parents could not earn enough to support their four children, so the father took a job far from home and was gone five to seven days at a time. The father had not yet returned home, and the children had not eaten rice for three days. The mother could not bear to see her children crying out from hunger. Even though she knew it was extremely dangerous to leave the house, she decided to go out to look for food. The water had flooded the rice fields around their house. Shefdled the holes in their boat with rags and went out with a net to catch some fish. She was not far from the house when the wind and waves became strong. Her boat began to shake and she fell in the water and got entangled in the net. She could not free herself and finally drowned. Her children waited for her to return home. When the water receded, they found her corpse with many wounds in it from her efforts to break free from the net. (Luan)

Dear Thay,

The name of our community is Loc Hoa. It is 30 kilometers southeast of Hue, and 15 kilometers west of the Phu hoc district, hoc Hoa is a very impoverished town. The land is wooded and mountainous. Five hundred families live here. Two years ago we were fortunate enough to receive support from the Understanding and Love Project sponsored by Plum Village. Before this support, we had no health-care center, and the one elementary school here had only two classrooms. Six groups of inhabitants were separated from each other by rivers and steep mountains. Many parents wouldn't dare let their children cross these deep rivers. There were only a few Buddhist practitioners. My family was one of them. This area doesn't have a Buddhist temple yet.

Thanks to the monks, nuns, and the brothers in our community, we are not afraid of the obstacles that prevent us from reaching the hearts of people. Every project the government questions, the people vehemently support, and eventually the government accepts the project. As a result, the six groups of inhabitants in Loc Hoa that are separated from each other now each have a kindergarten center that permits the young children to be taken care of and educated while their parents work in the forests. Doi Mot is lucky enough now to have a boarding house where the children can stay and have soy milk and lunch. Two bridges have been built so people can now cross the very dangerous rivers. They are called the Bridge of Understanding and the Bridge of Love. Lonely and poor families receive a small amount of financial support every month. Social workers visit anyone in the village who has had an unfortunate accident.

People in Loc Hoa feel that they are very close to these projects. They are very thankful to Thay and to Thay's students for their help. They have learned that in order to have human morality they have to be mindful. Two-thirds of the people in our area now follow the Buddha's teachings. They participate in every retreat in our region. By looking deeply, we and the people in Loc Hoa are taking refuge in the island of the self. Everyone is watering the seeds of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in themselves.

Everyone in Loc Hoa is very happy and peaceful. We are not lonely as we were two years ago. Even though there is no Buddhist temple yet in Loc Hoa, there are hundreds of Buddhist temples in the heart of each one of us. I myself am a Buddhist. For 45 years I have been involved in many organizations, but I have never been peaceful. When anyone asks me, "What is the use of being a Buddhist?" I always respond, "It's to have peace. " Sometimes they ask, "When will we have peace ? " I do not know how to answer that.

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For the past year I have had the opportunity to work with many monks and nuns from the Understanding and Love Project and have had the opportunity to participate in many retreats. Thanks to that, I can really feel peaceful now and I can also answer people's questions based on my own experience in practice. Sometimes during sitting meditation I see you doing walking meditation with the whole community of Loc Hoa. Sometimes I see you sitting with people who are highly esteemed in society. They have all the material possessions they could want, but what they miss is peace. I do not have the material possessions, but since practicing what you teach, I am more peaceful. I can continue to help people with a clear mind and a peaceful heart. I can love without being attached to results. During this New Year's, I bow to you and the monks and nuns (the Buddhas-to-be) in the Western world.

Mr. Tran D, Loc Hoa, January 22, 1996

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Demons into Butterflies

Chronic Illness as Dharma Teacher By Hannah S. Wilder

As a child, I was always in motion. I carried this energy into adulthood; it ran my life like a demon. As an adult with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I have brain chemistry that operates like two extremes on a dial: scattered/distractible or hyper-focused. As a child, I found respite in reading or lying beside a stream, watching tadpoles change into frogs. I found kindred souls in the streambed, and learned from them that transformation is natural.

The first fifty years of my life were a whirl of ceaseless activity. I rested only when I had pushed myself so far that I collapsed with a cold or flu, or when I found myself stuck in a subway tunnel or traffic. I always carried a book or writing implements, something to busy my mind and still my impatience. I completed several educational degrees, worked around the world, married, had a child, and divorced.

Then, I decided consciously to stop and raise my daughter in a quiet town on the Maine seacoast. I was on my own in raising my daughter and taking care of our home. I wanted very much to "slow down and live," but circumstances and habit pushed on. Thay tells the story of a man riding quickly on a horse. A bystander yells at him, "Where are you going?" and the man replies, "I don't know. Ask the horse!" I was like that man on the horse, propelled by my habit energies.

In the mid-eighties I began a recovery program from growing up in an alcoholic family. At a week - long residential program, a therapist had me portray my life, turning up the volume so that I could see how my busyness was a way of running from pain that only created more suffering. Each person in my group represented a demand in my life. I gave them each a line, and they all said their lines to me at once, so I could experience the overwhelming nature of how I lived: "Earn the money!" "Raise the child!" "Clean the house!" "Help me!" "Listen to me!" "Take care of yourself!" "Mow the lawn!" It was a vivid and clear picture, but still, I didn't stop. At home, I slid back into doing many things at the same time. My behavior was reinforced by others' admiration of my ability to accomplish so much.

Also in the mid-eighties, I first heard about Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching. The message that struck me was "do one thing at a time." I decided to try an experiment. Working in my home one weekend, I began one task. When a second task occurred to me, I wrote it down instead of starting it. I finished the first task, and then completed the rest of the list, one task at a time. I got just as many things done, but felt much more peaceful at the end of the day. I had taken the first step on the path of transformation to a more serene life. In 1993,1 received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and in 1995,1 joined the Order of Interbeing. Shortly after that, a series of challenges turned my world upside down.

Within two years the man I had loved all my life and my brother both died in protracted and agonizing battles with cancer. My parents had died just a few years before. Overworking helped distract me from my losses, but it was too much. My health collapsed. I was in terrible pain and had disturbing symptoms, such as blurred vision and extreme fatigue. I was ready to "stop, calm, rest, and heal," but my family had all died and I still had to support myself.

I accepted an invitation to spend the summer writing in a friend's house on the coast of Somerset in England. There, I rested and wrote, but my health continued to be problematic. Each time I took a long walk, I got extremely tired and felt a lot of pain for several days. After I returned to the States, it gradually became clear that what I'd thought was an acute but curable and known condition was instead a chronic and mysterious one. I continued to have frequent, intense pain, fatigue, and cloudy mental functioning. Doctors shrugged. It looked hopeless. I felt shock and despair. Fortunately, there was a patient group that exchanged information and held a national conference. At length, I got an accurate diagnosis and began taking medication for symptomatic relief. But I was severely depleted, and had to leave my job, with no financial reserve.

How does a chronically-ill person earn a living? Building on my mental health counseling and teaching/mentoring background, I began training to be a personal and business coach and opened a private practice via phone and Internet. Many times I have taken classes by phone, lying in bed, too tired to move. Two or three kind friends gave me moral support. Things seemed to be calming down at last. Then, I received a gift in the form of a daylight robbery. My computer, with three months of data, was stolen. Following this, there was a rash of gang-related activity in which a number of women were tortured. I somehow managed to pack and move into a friend's home. The gift allowed me to see that I could make a move, when I had thought it was almost impossible.

Soon after, with the help of a Dharma sister who found me a place to live, I moved to Virginia. Just before the robbery I had started my first ghostwriting job, which, fortunately, was portable. I was safe and had become a professional writer, something I had always wanted. I could support myself while working on my coaching career. I breathed a sigh of relief. But in the winter I realized that the years of stress and trauma, and my chronic condition had brought my body close to a state of collapse. Soon I had two more diagnoses: chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. I was no longer who I had been, at any level. Constant fatigue, head and body aches, memory loss and confusion, extreme sensitivity to noise, light, and an extreme awareness of other people's moods and energy were my new companions. By February 1999,1 could sit up to write only an hour a day.

The Dharma was in my face, so to speak, and the mindfulness teacher of pain was in my whole body. To get better and maintain the delicate balance necessary to function from day to day, I had to learn to practice twenty-four hours a day. Living the way of non-awareness, my body had been depleted, leaving little margin for forgetfulness. Dietary mistakes, weather changes, overworking, or stress may cause my symptoms to flare up. This means I must stay awake as much as possible, and take exquisite care not to let stress build up. I must notice each need—rest, food, fresh air, or quiet—and take immediate steps to meet it. Not responding invites a temporal flare-up, and also progression of the condition.

As a chronically-ill person, I sometimes reflect the quality of impermanence to those who are still healthy and strong. In a youth and perfection-oriented society, it can be challenging to find a comfortable place for aging and illness. I see people trying to separate themselves from my illness, to explain it in ways that exclude the possibility it could happen to them. My compassion for them comes from remembering when I was in their position, feeling frustrated at my inability to help another person in some active way.

Now more than ever, I understand that being present and listening deeply will help relieve suffering. This realization inspired me to begin asking people with chronic illness, "What attitudes and behaviors are supportive and healing for you? How can we educate our medical professionals, loved ones, friends, coworkers and neighbors so that they understand what we are experiencing and what we would like from them?" Perhaps compiling the answers in an article or short book would help others learn to relieve the suffering of those living with chronic conditions. Of course, the short answer is mindful behavior, compassion, and understanding.

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Medical people who have no treatment or explanation often feel unsure how to live with their uncertainty, and, out of their own "dis-ease," respond in ways that blame the patient. There are still poorly educated doctors who dismiss the condition or insult their patients. Some of those who take the condition seriously adopt a certainty that their specialty has the answer: if they are surgeons, it's a brain stem psychiatrists, it's depression and antidepressants will do the trick. Sometimes the variety of simplistic and radically different explanations and cures is overwhelming. Maybe there is a way to convey mindfulness to the health-care professionals as well, and let them know what it feels like on the receiving end of so much confusing and contradictory information, how it feels to be disbelieved and dismissed. So, added to living with the condition and earning a living is the challenge of education those who could be supportive.

In my other life, as I now call it, I loved to travel from snowy fields of the Northeast to high-desert mountains in the Southwest. Now I sit down in my lounge chair, lean back, put on my headphones, and open my laptop computer, traveling via the Internet or telephone to visit clients in California or Brazil, friends and Dharma brothers and sisters in Scotland or Scandinavia. I appreciate that the Internet was developed when I most needed it. Remaining in the comfort of home I can be in contact with the whole world! I speak to someone in Brazil or Australia, then go outside for a walk beside the stream to visit my friendly tadpoles.

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Aside from some persistent financial stress—selling a home to pay medical bills and living expenses often goes with chronic illness—and occasional discomfort, mine is a happy life. I have peace, beauty, and friendship, near and far. I am able to serve, by teaching tele-classes on mindfulness, by developing a program for mindful awareness at work, by coaching people in various walks of life, by leading two international groups of coaches by telephone, by mentoring a new aspirant to the Order of Interbeing, and by helping build our local Sangha. I am endlessly grateful for so many things.

It is essential to maintain the balance between accepting "what is" and continuing to hope and search for a possible cure, to strengthen myself. When I first moved to Virginia, I could not walk up my very steep driveway, so I drove down in my car, parked and walked across the rickety bridge to get the mail. Little by little, I walked farther each day, mindful of how much was just enough. By last summer, I was able to walk down and up my neighbor's driveway, swim a few laps around their pond, and then walk home up my hill. I have learned to replace grief at being an impaired person with gratitude for being able to walk and talk and look fairly "normal", and appreciation for the wonderful gifts around me. There are now times when I can dance!

I have improved faster than anyone else I know with this condition, and it's still with me. Applying my knowledge of holistic health and my research expertise on the Internet, I created a program for myself of nutritional supplements; a strict diet; a daily movement routine combining yoga, chi-gong, sa-long (in the Bon tradition), and mindful movements learned from Dharma teacher Thu Nguyen and Thay's tape. I meditate at least once a day sitting, and also do walking meditation. Practicing daily by myself, weekly with a Sangha, and sometimes traveling to Days of Mindfulness with Anh Huong  and Thu Nguyen sustain me. I am constantly reminded that being slow, being present, is all that is needed. I read the seventh of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings very often!

The tendency to wonder exactly what mistake brought me to this state, to rush around seeking an immediate cure, to worry about the future is still in my store consciousness. I do not water these seeds. I do not revisit my losses. And I remember Thay's words: "This is the shore of suffering, the shore of illbeing, despair, fear, and anger. I don't want to stay on this shore. I want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of well-being, forgiveness, peace, and compassion... When you practice to identify what is there and look deeply into the nature of what is there, you are practicing prajna paramita, and the insight you get will bring you to the other shore, the shore of liberation and well-being."

I am here, learning the gentle ways of butterflies as they light on flowers or settle at the edges of the stream looking for moisture on a hot summer day, sitting so still that the white-tailed deer, the wild turkeys, and the baby rabbits do not consider me alien. It is a peaceful, magical valley, an island of the self, a true home. And it goes where I go, through my constant practice.

Hannah S. Wilder, True Good Heart, practices with Cloud Floating Free Sangha in Charlottesville, Virginia. She can be reached by e-mail  at Hannah@Wiseheartcoach.com and would like to hear from others who are practicing with chronic conditions, teaching mindfulness at work, or those who are experts at resting.

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Dropping My Worries

By Leah Matsui The plans for my trip to America were jampacked: a seven-day mindfulness retreat with Amie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald, three days with my beloved aunt in Florida, and a meeting with my mother—the first in 24 years. I anticipated Florida as a high point—Aunt Helene and me drinking iced tea under the palm trees and reminiscing about my darling stepmother who died last January. It was a great scenario of peace, reconciliation, and comfort, especially for me. A perfect plan for happiness.

Imagine my shock when the day before my departure, I received news that Aunt Helene's only daughter had just had surgery for a malignant brain tumor! A second surgery would take place the day I planned to arrive in Palm Beach. My plans flew out the window.

Ironically, a few weeks before I had spoken about wanting to become a "big river" as the Buddha taught, with the capacity to absorb and transform suffering with ease. But in this moment, with plans dashed, I was a tiny stream inundated by a storm of emotions. As I sat in front of the Buddha in our living room, my mind whirled. "Should I go straight to Florida? Cancel the trip? Who can help us? Can my cousin survive? Can my aunt survive? Can I survive this suffering?" One decision was made for me—no part of the bargain air ticket from Japan could be changed. My aunt said, "Come anyway, Leah." But there was a chance she would be out of the state, consulting with specialists when I arrived.

Out of the confusion, I realized that the three Jewels —Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—are on-call 24 hours a day, but that it was up to me to make the call. First, I would be at a retreat. After the retreat, I could contact our teacher the Buddha, or Dharma brothers and sisters if things became turbulent. So I felt ready to go and meet whatever circumstances arose. The only meditator in my family, I planned to go as a "good Buddhist." Maybe I could be a "Compassion Distribution Center" in the midst of crisis. Maybe my practice could help others.

Many things worked favorably for my cousin, and when I landed in Palm Beach, my aunt was waiting. Luckily, as soon as we hugged at the airport, my preconceived notion that I was on a "mission of mercy" disappeared. I was able to hug my aunt in the present moment. I was able to be myself and she felt just like herself in my arms.

Aunt Helene and I have been talking about feelings since I was three and she was sixteen. Now, forty years later, we were together in Florida, talking and listening from the heart. Anchored in the present by conscious breathing, I was able to relax my grip on how things "should" be. I felt joy and gratitude for my aunt's smile, the melon pink sunset, and the fact that my cousin had survived this day. Before bed that night, Aunt Helene and I practiced hugging meditation.

Early the next morning, I sat in meditation. Then, walking into the Florida dawn, I met a wild jackrabbit. My aunt prepared "American Bagels" for breakfast—a real treat. I gave her a Japanese Shiatsu hand massage. Later, my cousin called. She was out of intensive care and very upset. She was losing big clumps of hair. We talked, and for me, it was one of the deepest interactions I've ever had with her. She asked for a hat. "Please," she said, "so I won't be embarrassed in the hospital."

That afternoon, my aunt and I went hat shopping. It was tough for me as we started out. I have always admired my cousin's beautiful hair. On this shopping trip, only the present moment could offer peace. "When you live a long time, there are a lot of ups and downs," my aunt told me. We found the perfect hat in a surf shop, and then enjoyed some delicious iced tea.

Nothing that day went according to my "plans" for happiness, but for me it was the best day and the worst day at the same time. There was no need to be the Buddhist of the family or to hand out any prepackaged compassion. My aunt and I took turns, each sometimes embodying terror or equanimity. We were both in touch with plenty of genuine peace during the storm.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the conditions for happiness are right before us. He often stresses that "happiness is being fully alive in the present moment." I have always been moved by the possibilities this teaching offers. But until recently, it has just been an idea. We each study and practice the Dharma at our own pace. On this trip, it was my turn to really practice dwelling deeply in the present and letting go of worries and plans.

Looking back now, I see that expectations gave in to reality, and with that came fear and confusion. The surf was up, the waves were rough, but the anchor of the present held me firm and stable. On the retreat, Arnie Kotler had quoted Dogen-zenji: "Every day is a good day." And so it was for me. Thanks to the Buddha's teaching, I was able to open up to the present, and enjoy the gift of three wonderful days in Florida.

As of June 2000, Cousin Alicia is back home, a joyful wife and mother of two. Officially cancerfree, to me, she is more beautiful than ever. May all beings be protected and safe.

Leah Matsui, True Light of Awakening, practices with the Sazanami Sangha in Kumamoto, Japan.

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Poem: Untitled Poem 1

The voice of your tears,
is the fragrance of your heart when it smiles,
is the color of your freedom.

Winds of peace, let me be your paint,
Paint me like the clouds over the sky,
On the face of a refugee,
On the falling rocks of holy rage,
On the abyss of fear,
On the eyes of an oppressed child,
On the mouth of a hungry ghost.

I will have no form.

Please come softly,
Or you'll find my door closed
My house empty, I'm not there.
Confused and shrunk I am nowhere to be found,
Please blow softly.

Wake me up with a warm and tender hand,
So I can be here
To be your paint.

by Hagit Harmon
written at Plum Village, Summer 2000 
Hagit,
Deep Aspiration on Love of the Heart, lives in Israel and practices with the Jerusalem Sangha.

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Letter from (one of) the Editors

Dear Brothers and Sisters on the path,

in this moment my heart is clear,
not because i have attained much understanding,
not because i am able to love all without discrimination.
my heart is clear because i have a path to go.

a path that is rich and full of learning,
with many companions to support me and protect me.
i know that i am best protected by our practice,
by our capacity to calm, to embrace suffering and pain
to bridge the chasms of separation and fear,
to relax into connection.

dear friends, dear companions,
i am aware of your presence, of your sincerity and care.

i am in touch with a source of peace, a source of energy,
not dependent on the great elements of earth, air, water and fire.
yet not independent.
our energy arises from our aspirations,
our sincere wish to understand, to love, to hold as one.

i touch the earth, i touch my life source with gratitude,
with concentration,
with joy.
and i am nourished,
to continue. to grow. to love.
i acknowledge my weaknesses, my mistakes and i
make the vow to lay all my suffering on the earth,
to transform everything i have received from my ancestors,
from my society into a great source of peace and presence.

dear brothers and sisters,
please enjoy this small booklet in your hands.
it is an offering to you.
it is an opportunity to meet your friends on the path of practice,
to smile to each other,
to simply acknowledge each other’s presence, as real.

peacefully, your sister steadiness

July 8th, 2003

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Poem: Above Saigon

By Phap Tue Above Sai Gon and the honk of horns the silent sky, where Two shark kites flutter from the rooftops tethered vying high above the city among the twitter of bats and one kite with three tails tugs and rises on waves of wind like a dancing lady amidst the streaks of rose-colored sky

mb35-Above1In the darkening light a boy on a nearby rooftop still gathers string to raise his eagle kite on currents of wind

I tell you, the peace of Saigon is on the rooftops where little fragrant gardens gather and eyes touch the peace of the sky again and kites, even at dusk sway above the darkening earth

These are messengers: and all children young or old meet in a silent and secret dance from rooftop to rooftop and silent height to silent height as swallows in eaves or doves at dusk

The stars appear slowly and dim one shark kite still sways above the darkness to meet the stars advancing toward the west and this last kite and all those who meet at night are the freedom of a people greater than any flag.

Thay Chan Phap Tue currently lives at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

An altar in the alley in Da Nang, Vietnam by Gary Richardson, Chan Dieu Hanh.

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Healing Old Wounds

By Paul Davis

In Vietnam this year, as I walked mindfully on the earth that had experienced such destruction and suffering during the American war, my mind returned to the Vietnam of 1965. At that time, I was often part of a team searching for land mines. In many ways, that was also mindful walking, but the seeds being watered were fear and anxiety and the psychological ground was ignorance. Now, walking with the support of Thay and a loving and compassionate Sangha, I was able to breathe in the suffering of war and breathe out peace and compassion to all those killed or wounded and for those who killed or wounded others. The psychological ground had been transformed from ignorance to awareness and the seeds from fear to compassion.

Paul Davis, Authentic Connection of the Heart, sits with the Eastside Sangha in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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My Nephew’s Transformation

By Susan Glogovac

I left Vietnam late on the afternoon of April 12th, arriving at the airport to see off our friends from Chile and Europe who were traveling together as far as Kuala Lumpur. When they disappeared from view, I was alone for the first time in over six weeks, with no gray or brown robes in sight. Yet I felt the presence of the Sangha very deeply. It surrounded me as I began to think about home, particularly of my dear nephew, a young man living for over nine years with ALS, a disease that was gradually taking its toll. My family hadn’t mentioned much about him in our numerous e-mails. I hadn’t wanted to ask, and yet he was with me throughout the retreat. He was the one I held close each time the brothers and sisters sang, “Namo Avalokiteshvara.”

Within three days of arriving home, I was on a plane to Colorado to visit my nephew and join in the celebration of my mother’s ninetieth birthday. What was to be a joyous occasion was soon transformed into something quite different. My mother fell, breaking her arm and badly bruising her face. Then we learned that in just two days, on Sunday morning, my nephew was to begin his journey from this life as we know it. I felt my equanimity slipping away, replaced by the sorrow of what was to come. I sat alone that night. Focusing on my breath, I slowly eased into a place of stillness, readying myself for the days to come.

We spent Saturday afternoon saying our good-byes to him. It wasn’t easy. He is my hero and I knew I would miss his physical presence. Yet I felt that all my weeks of practice with the Sangha had given me the peace and solidity I needed to be with him for him. Thay’s teachings on no-birth no-death, and on accompanying the dying made it possible for me to wish him a peaceful journey without any fear. I held him close and could feel his peace as well. I shared with him some of my happiest memories of our times together. His eyes sparkled.

My nephew once was asked what he thought about heaven. He replied, “I think it’s like graduating to God.” But for me, he already had manifested his God-like nature in his patience, acceptance, and surrender without complaint to his illness, and in his joy of living in a body that increasingly was unable to support him. In graduating to God long ago, he allowed the lives he touched to awaken just a little bit more to the God within, to the Buddha within. This was a gift he gave to me.

Family and friends arrived early Sunday morning. I did walking meditation before we gathered, and periodically during the day and evening as the process unfolded, which helped me maintain a center of calm. I joined in massaging his hands and feet. I silently sang to him “Namo Avalokiteshvara,” and I could hear the monastic brothers and sisters and our lay Sangha in Hue, Hanoi, and Binh Dinh singing with me. Throughout, I felt the love and support of our Sangha, and while my practice is far from perfect, I was able to bring into the room the peace and stability I had developed on the retreat. During the night, I followed my nephew’s breath as it gradually eased and the time between breaths lengthened. And finally, with only his parents present, he passed from this life early the next morning.

Several months have passed. To some, it might look as though very little has changed. My mother’s arm has mended, her bruises faded. Our family has returned to the busyness of life, much as before. Yet I am aware that my nephew’s transformation has been my transformation as well. I am taking more time to be with family and friends. My heart is more open. There are times when the tenderness is almost too much to bear. More shared tears and joy, more awareness of life in the present moment. This too is a gift my nephew gave me.

Susan Glogovac, Wonderful Calling of the Heart, lives in Long Beach, California and practices with the Los Angeles Compassionate Heart Sangha. A retired psychology professor, she now serves her community as a mediator in victim-offender reconciliation cases.

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Joyful Purpose of the Heart

By Annie Mahon

When I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha many years ago, I was given the dharma name “Joyful Purpose of the Heart.” At the time I didn’t think much about it. Frankly, the name didn’t mean much to me. Joyful Purpose? I had no idea what my joyful purpose might be. I had been practicing mindfulness in a personal way, meditating by myself and reading books on mindfulness. As a result, my life had been changing slowly. For example, I found myself having more patience for my kids and a sense of calm inside myself. But I did not feel there was any purpose to my life. I was living life aimlessly.

After the events of September 11, everything changed. As I listened to the coverage of the crashes, I felt a sense of compassion and courage growing inside of me. Suddenly, interbeing—the idea that every one of us is intimately connected to one another—was a concrete reality rather than an abstract concept.

My own need for Sangha surfaced as I sought the support of other people who could see the interbeing in this event and find the connection between the victims and the terrorists. I began to sit regularly with the Stillwater Mindfulness Group in Maryland. I needed the support of other people for my growing mindfulness and to be in an emotionally safe place. By joining fully in the Sangha, I made the decision that mindfulness was my life path, and I began to live from this foundation.

Around the same time I began to understand that living life aimlessly was not about living with no aim, but rather about living without attachment to the outcome of our actions. In the

Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Do thy work in the peace of yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure… In the bonds of works I am free, because in them I am free from desires.” I began to think that it might be okay to express my creativity through my work and even to do it with joy.

Teaching Peace

I knew there was something I could do to transform the growing anger and mutual misunderstanding that led to the events of September 11. I had a talent for teaching children, and my study and practice of mindfulness and my relationship with Thay gave me insights into peace and conflict resolution.

On September 14, I sent an e-mail to Coleman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist turned peace activist, asking how I could get involved in teaching peace and conflict resolution in the Washington, D.C. public schools. His organization got me in touch with Marsha Blakeway who works with the public schools’ peer mediation and conflict resolution programs. Marsha happily became my peace mentor, and I immediately began to assist her with peer mediation meetings at Alice Deal Junior High.

I also contacted my son’s third grade teacher and asked if she would be interested in having me teach a weekly conflict resolution class. I had no experience in this area, but I had books and I had my new mentor and I had my mindfulness practice. With these tools I was able to fabricate a wonderful class in which I used games, literature, discussion, and dramatization to help third graders learn how to resolve disputes peacefully.

At the end of my first month of teaching, I was approached by another third grade teacher to teach in her classroom. During the first year, I often wondered whether the kids were getting anything out of the class. Then one day, my son had a friend over to visit. Both of them were in my conflict class at the time. When my son did something that irritated me, I began to scold him. His friend said, “Annie, use your ‘I’ language.” I had taught them to do this in our conflict class, and he not only remembered it, but also applied it to real life. After that, I worried much less about the impact of my teaching.

Making Little Yoginis

In the fall of 2002, I saw a notice for a program training people how to teach yoga to kids. I had long been a yogini and had experience in the connection between the mind and the body. Kids especially live in and through their bodies and their ability to stay centered depends on this connection. As we teach children how to think rationally, they begin to lose this grounding, and I think this can cause children—and adults—to become physically and mentally ill.

During the last day of the training, I was asked to teach a free yoga class for children with two of my fellow students. We gave a forty-five minute class to seven kids, ages eight to twelve. What surprised me was that the students liked the relaxation part of class best. These kids really needed the time and space to relax. They are often busy all day at school and afterwards with activities, and then they usually watch TV or use the computer.

After the training, I approached the owner of a small exercise studio where I took classes and asked if I could teach a yoga class for kids. They were happy to try it. I also decided to offer an after-school class at the local elementary school. That class was so popular I ended up offering two classes after school, each class filled with twelve students.

After a while I realized that part of the experience for kids was having a kid-friendly, aesthetically pleasing space. So I decided to open a yoga studio for kids. In March, 2003 I opened Budding Yogis, Mindful Yoga Studio for Kids.

A Mindful Business

My practice is to stay open to what the world, my students, and coworkers need; to express my creativity without becoming attached to the outcome; to create a space for myself and the community; and to remember that the connections—interbeing—are what matter. The business supports the vision.

At long last my dharma name begins to make sense. Now I understand what it means to have—to be—Joyful Purpose of the Heart.

Annie Mahon, Joyful Purpose of the Heart, practices with the Stillwater Mindfulness Practice Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has four wonderful and sometimes stressed-out children of her own.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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For Abby-Rose, With Love

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

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

Transforming the Generations

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

mb43-ForAbbey1

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

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

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

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

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

A Champagne Flute Full of Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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Letter from the Editor

mb65-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha, While this issue was coming together, I spent an evening reading our teacher’s poetry on his experiences in war. Afterward, I dreamt that people in my community were drafted into military service and a war was going to break out within a few days. I was very conscious of the peaceful conditions of our lives. The sky was clear and quiet with-out bombers. No grenades were hidden in the fields. The children’s faces were innocent and happy. If war came to our community, I thought, we would look back on this day as a blissfully peaceful time, a day in heaven.

In our world, moments of peace are priceless. Too many people are living in the chaos and terror of war. Even when there’s no external violence, we can have a war going on inside us if the seeds of anger and hatred have been watered. War is never far away. My dream reminded me to cherish peace wherever I find it, and also to cultivate inner peace and use it to nurture harmony in my community.

Thay shows us the way of a bodhisattva, one who continually embodies and generates peace within the crucible of war. He showed us by his example in Vietnam. He shows us by embracing all of our suffering, by meeting one wound after another with the healing balm of compassionate presence. He shows us how places of conflict and suffering are the very places to birth peace.

This issue’s question-and-answer session is an example of Thay’s fearless welcoming of any kind of suffering in order to transform it. The volunteer who transcribed the Q&A shared: “This particular session was so moving that I had to take many breaks to soothe the emotions. I cried so often when listening to some of the deep suffering. Imagine being Thay, sitting there listening deeply to peoples’ struggles and then responding to each individual with such compassion and wisdom! May we all be a source of healing compassion and understanding to ourselves and others.”

Anh-Huong Nguyen, in this issue’s interview, encourages us to embrace our pain and to lean into the Sangha for support, because “sometimes our mindfulness is not strong enough to hold the pain that arises in us. We need to lay this pain inside the Sangha’s cradle, so that it can be held by the collective mindfulness and concentration.” Resting in the Sangha’s arms can give us the strength to practice the art of suffering—to engage with our difficulties and transmute them into gifts.

Also in this issue, young practitioners in the Wake Up movement share what it’s like for them to rely on the Sangha and to be transformed by the collective energy of awakening. Their exuberance, deep questions, playfulness, and freshness are inspirations to continue opening new doors in our practice. And practitioners of all ages share stories of their ever-deepening gratitude and compassion.

May these offerings nourish compassion and loving-kindness in us. May we nurture and share our inner peace to help transform war and amplify peace in the world.

With love and gratitude,

mb65-Editor2Natascha Bruckner True Ocean of Jewels

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War, Conflict, and Healing in Belfast

By Bridgeen Rea This talk was presented at the Vesak Conference in Hanoi in May 2008.

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I first went to Plum Village for a week of the summer retreat in July 2005. Sitting with Thay and the Sangha around the lotus pond in Upper Hamlet — following my first-ever walking meditation— had a massive impact on me. Maybe it was the strong French sunshine or the beautiful pink lotuses, which I’d never seen before in my life, but I was deeply touched by the peace and the happiness all around me in Plum Village. I had a joyful, wonderful time and I felt lots of love. I decided to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings that week.

Back in Northern Ireland I went to meditation once a week in the Belfast Zen Centre, which follows the Soto Zen tradition. I feel like the Mindfulness Trainings worked on me, rather than me working on them. I was training to be a yoga teacher and tried to be as mindful as I could — when I remembered!

In August 2006 I went to the Neuroscience Retreat at Plum Village, where I met a psychologist from Dublin who told me I should go to Vietnam. I thought it was impossible, but I went! Many friends supported me to go and even my family were happy for me.

For the whole three weeks of segment two, I shared a room with Gladys from Hong Kong, who has now been ordained as Sister Si. I felt so happy to have met such a beautiful person. In Vietnam many of the lay friends encouraged me to start a Sangha in Belfast. In Belfast it’s not really possible to be Buddhist — if I say I practice Buddhism, people say ‘but are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?’ and it’s only half a joke!

Growing Up During “the Troubles”

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1974, five years into what is known as “the Troubles.” Growing up in a divided society rife with sectarianism, hatred, and fear was the norm, but I had a happy childhood and enjoyed school.

The Troubles did penetrate my life though. I was born on July 8, which is right in the middle of the ‘marching season’ — the guaranteed time for trouble in Belfast. Belfast used to shut down and become a ghost town. I have memories of people protesting out on the streets when a hunger striker died around my eighth birthday and I didn’t get to go on a planned outing. When I was much older and wanted to have a party or an evening out in a local place, often my friends couldn’t come because of trouble in parts of the city.

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As a teenager I had to be aware of going to places wearing my school uniform because it identified me as Catholic. I had to be careful about going out with Protestant boys. Also I was very aware that my name, Bridgeen, labels me as a Catholic, unlike my sister’s neutral name Jenny, which can be either Catholic or Protestant.

My family doesn’t understand the practice. They ask, “What is it you do, worship Buddha?” My parents and friends understand that Buddhism is a peaceful thing, but they worry that I’m too into it. They say, “Why don’t you just go on a ‘normal’ holiday?”

In April 2007 I told my friend Sinead about the idea of Sangha — she is a poet and very open to new ideas. She thought it was wonderful! She had just had a baby and thought that Sangha would be the perfect thing to help her balance her life. So with her encouragement I called a couple of friends who were interested or at least open-minded towards Buddhism and meditation. The Tall Trees Sangha started in my apartment. After a year five of us are still practicing once a week. It is very wonderful and brings all of us many blessings.

How to Be at Peace?

By coincidence when the Sangha started in May 2007, Northern Ireland installed its first power-sharing executive. Ten years after the historic Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland finally has a locally elected government. This is something that my Granddad didn’t live to see and would never have believed could happen. Belfast has been transformed. In some ways the peace is still tenuous and people are now having to learn how to live in a new situation after forty years of conflict.

How to be at peace? My friend Sinead says: “I think there is a psychosis in the society here — there has to be, given our history — and it will take a long time for this to be resolved, even though we are witnessing miracles. They say for every year of conflict you need another year of reconciliation. And I think this affects people who live here on all sorts of levels.”

I work in the new government administration as a Press Officer — for a Minister who belongs to a party that my community once saw as the enemy. But in spite of the many positive events, sectarianism and fear are still rampant. The society is still very much divided in terms of where people live and the schools they go to. There are many social problems of deprivation, depression, and suicide.

My mindfulness practice and Sangha can’t do much on a large scale but on a micro scale five us are learning a lot from Thay and trying to nourish our good seeds. Every week we practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, listen to Thay speak on CD and we have a Dharma discussion. Two of us come from a Catholic background, one was brought up Protestant, one was brought up with no religion; there’s also a German guy whose religious background doesn’t really count in the Northern Ireland context!

Forgiving and Moving On

We don’t discuss politics or the state of society, rather our personal problems and challenges. I really believe in Thay’s saying “peace in oneself, peace in the world.” I aspire to follow the Five Mindfulness Trainings, though sometimes I don’t find it easy to live up to them.

Another Sangha member in his fifties with five children says gratefully that the Sangha nourishes the spiritual aspect inside him and that it makes a space in his week. He remembers being angry and depressed during the Troubles and shouting at the TV. I think every family experienced that.

He says: “Sangha is a space where people can express themselves without upsetting anyone. It is open-minded, far from my dogmatic Christian upbringing. I always feel uplifted after it. It also helps me to relax as I am often an anxious frightened person. As I lived through the Troubles the fear in the community was palpable and people were steeped in it, and they weren’t allowed to question it. The atmosphere was full of tension, hatred and anger — sectarianism and bigotry everywhere. You were constantly waiting on something bad to happen.”

When I am out socialising and people find out I practice meditation they ask me all sorts of questions. There is a lot ignorance, confusion, and misunderstanding about anything that comes from the East. There is fear that it’s some kind of cult or it’s against Christianity. Yet Belfast people are the salt of the earth; they are warm and friendly and funny! If you ever visit Belfast you will find people go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome.

Because of our history we may have a dark sense of humour, but there is also awareness of the importance of forgiveness. People understand about changing and moving on for the sake of future generations.

Bridgeen Rea, Peaceful Gift of the Heart, hosts Tall Trees Sangha in her apartment in Whiteabbey Village, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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