present moment

Dharma Talk: Returning Home

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I have arrived. I am home,

In the here And the now.

I feel solid. I feel free.

In the ultimateI dwell.

It is important for us to return home — to come back to the here and the now — and make peace with ourselves, our society, and those we love.

At times we suffer so much we want to run away. We feel burned out, overwhelmed, and so we take refuge in our projects, even our projects for social change. At these times we need a source of peace and joy, but when we arrive home, we may find a lot of violence and suffering there. We begin to practice mindful breathing, and, after a while, we are able to touch real peace and joy. Going home and touching peace is a source of great nourishment. The practice is to arrive home in each moment, to touch the peace and joy that are within us, and to open our eyes to the wonders of life around us — the blue sky, the sunset, the eyes of our beloved. When we do this, we experience real happiness.

Touching our eyes with mindfulness, we know that our eyes are a condition for peace and joy. Touching the beautiful trees, we realize how wonderful they are. We feel nourished, and we vow to do whatever we can to protect them and keep them healthy. Then, when our mindfulness has become strong enough, we can touch the war that is also going on inside us. But we must be careful. If we touch the suffering too soon, before we have developed concentration, stability, and the energy of mindfulness, we may be overwhelmed.

Sometimes when we suffer, we blame another person — our partner, our son, our daughter, our parents — as the cause. But when we look deeply in mindfulness we can see that they too are suffering. We see that our enemy is not the person. It is the seed of despair, anger, frustration, or fear in us. In Buddhism, we describe consciousness in terms of "seeds" — seeds of peace, joy, and happiness, and seeds of war, anger, despair, and hatred. All of these are in us. I know that you are not my enemy. In fact, I need you to help me transform my seeds of suffering. We are both victims of our own suffering, so why don't we come together and touch some of the positive things instead? Looking deeply, we can see seeds of peace, joy, talent, and happiness in each other, and we can tell each other how much we appreciate these things.

When two warring parties arrive at a peace conference, they always begin by accusing each other, touching the negative seeds. A third party, someone who can practice "flower watering" — pointing out the positive jewels in the traditions of both sides — is needed. Both sides need more respect and appreciation for each other. These kinds of negotiations can drag on for months just disputing procedures. Why not devote the first days to flower watering? When two individuals are in conflict, when their fears and frustrations are too great for them to reconcile alone, the practice of touching peace and flower watering is also very helpful. In fact, in any relationship, this is a useful practice. Psychotherapists can practice walking meditation, looking at the beautiful sky, and touching the seeds of joy, peace, and happiness that have not been touched in a long time, with their clients. Then, when the balance is restored, it will be much easier to touch the pain, the war going on inside.

There is no need to be afraid to go home. At home, we can touch the most beautiful things. Home is in the present moment, the only moment we can touch life. If we do not go back to the present moment, how can we touch the beautiful sky, the sunset, or the eyes of our dear child? If we do not go home, how can we touch our heart, our lungs, our liver, and our eyes to give them a chance to be healthy? At home, we can touch all the wonders of life, the refreshing, beautiful, and healing elements.

Touching the present moment deeply, we also touch the past, and any damage that was done in the past can be repaired in that moment. We see that the future is also made of the present moment. There is no need to worry about the future. The way to take care of the future is to take good care of the present moment.

According to the Buddha, most of our suffering is caused by wrong perceptions. One man I know believed that the baby his wife gave birth to was really the child of his neighbor, and he held onto that wrong perception for twelve years, too proud to talk about it with anyone. The man became distant and cold to his wife, and the whole family suffered deeply. Then one day, after twelve years, a house guest observed that the twelve-year-old boy looked exactly like his father, and only then did the man abandon his wrong perception. A lot of damage was done during those twelve years. Wrong perceptions, like walking in the twilight and mistaking a length of rope for a snake, are common in our daily lives. That is why it is so important to practice mindfulness and stay in close touch with our perceptions.

Each of us has habit energies that cause us difficulties. One Frenchwoman I know left home at the age of seventeen to live in England, because she was so angry at her mother. Thirty years later, after reading a book on Buddhism, she felt the desire to return home and reconcile with her mother. Her mother also felt the desire to reconcile, but every time the two of them met, there was a kind of explosion. Their seeds of suffering had been cultivated over a long time, and there was a lot of habit energy. The willingness to make peace is not enough. We also need to practice.

So I invited her to come to Plum Village to practice sitting, walking, breathing, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness. Through that daily practice, she was able to touch the seeds of her anger and her habit energies. Then she wrote a letter of reconciliation to her mother. Without her mother present, it was easier to write such a letter. When her mother read it, she tasted the fruit of her daughter's flower watering, and peace was finally possible.

If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give is your presence. If you are not really there, how can you love? The most meaningful declaration you can offer is, "Darling, I am here for you." You breathe in and out mindfully, and when you are really present, you recognize the presence of the other. To embrace someone with the energy of mindfulness is the most nourishing thing you can offer. If the person you love does not get your attention, she may die slowly. When she is suffering, you have to make yourself available right away: "Darling, I know that you suffer. I am here for you." This is the practice of mindfulness.

If you yourself suffer, you have to go to the person you love and tell him, "Darling, I am suffering. Please help." If you cannot say that, something is wrong in your relation­ship. Pride does not have a place in true love. Pride should not prevent you from going to him and saying that you suffer and need his help. We need each other.

One day in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village, I saw a young woman walking alone who looked like a ghost. I thought she must be from a broken family, from a society that does not appreciate her, and from a tradition not capable of nourishing her. I have met many people like that, without roots. They are angry, and they want to leave their parents, their society, and their nation behind and find something else that is good, beautiful, and true. They want something they can believe in. Many people like that come to medita­tion centers, but because they have no roots, it is difficult for them to absorb the teaching. They do not trust easily, so the first thing to do is to earn their trust.

In many Asian countries, we pay a lot of respect to our ancestors. We have an ancestors' altar in each home. On the full moon day of the seventh month, we offer flowers, fruits, and drink to them. It is a happy day, because we feel that our ancestors are with us. But, at the same time, we are aware that many souls, "hungry ghosts," have no home to go back to. So we set up a table for them in the front yard and offer them food and drink. Hungry ghosts are hungry for love, understanding, and something to believe in. They have not received love, and no one understands them. They have large bellies and their throats are as small as a needle. Even if we offer them food, water, or love, it is difficult for them to receive it. They are very suspicious. Our society produces thousands of hungry ghosts like that every day. We have to look deeply if we want to understand them, and not just blame them.

To be happy and stable, we need two families — a blood family and a spiritual family. If our parents are happy with each other, they will be able to transmit to us the love, trust, and the values of our ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, we are connected with our ancestors through them. But if we are not, we can easily become a hungry ghost, rootless. In our spiritual family, we have ancestors, too, those who represent the tradition. If they are not happy, if they have not been lucky enough to receive the jewels of the tradition, they will not be able to transmit them to us. If we are not on good terms with our rabbi, our pastor, or our priest, we will want to run away. Disconnected from our spiritual ancestors, we will suffer, and our children will suffer too. We have to look deeply to see what is wrong. If those who represent our tradition do not embody the best values of the tradition, there must be causes, and when we see the causes, insight, acceptance, and compassion will arise. Then we will be able to return home, reconnect with them, and help them.

Transmission has three components — the one who transmits, the object transmitted, and the receiver. Our body and our consciousness are objects transmitted to us; our parents are the transmitters; and we are the receiver of the transmission. Looking deeply, we can see that the three components are one — this is called the "emptiness of transmission." Our body and many of the seeds we carry in our consciousness are actually our parents. They did not transmit anything less than themselves — seeds of suffering, happiness, and talent, many of which they received from their ancestors. We cannot escape the fact that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. To be angry at our parents is to be angry at ourselves. To reconcile with our father and mother is to make peace with ourselves.

One young American man who came to Plum Village told me that he was so angry at his father that even after his father passed away, he still could not reconcile with him. The young man put a photo of his father on his desk, with a small lamp near it, and every time he got close to the desk, he would look into the eyes of his father and practice conscious breathing. Doing this, he was able to see that he is his father, a true continuation of his father. He also saw that his father was incapable of transmitting seeds of love and trust to him, because his father had not been helped by anyone to touch these seeds in himself, seeds that were covered over by many layers of suffering. When the young man became aware of that, he was able to understand and forgive. His father had been the victim of his father. He knew that if he did not practice mindfulness and deep looking, the seeds of love and trust in him would remain buried, and then when he had a child, he would behave exactly as his father did, continuing the wheel of samsara. The only thing to do is to go back and make peace with his own parents, and through his parents, reconnect with all of his ancestors.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we can also discover important jewels and values in our spiritual traditions. In Christianity, for example, Holy Communion is an act of mindfulness — eating a piece of bread deeply in order to touch the entire cosmos. In Judaism, you practice mindfulness when you set the table or pour tea, doing everything in the presence of God. Even the equivalents of the Three Jewels and the Five Wonderful Precepts can be found in Christianity, Judaism, and other great traditions. After you practice mindfulness according to the Buddhist tradition, you will be able to return home and discover the jewels in your own tradition. I urge you to do so — for your nourishment and the nourishment of your children.

Without roots, we cannot be happy. If we return home and touch the wondrous jewels that are there in our traditions — blood and spiritual — we can become whole.

I would like to offer an exercise that can help us do this. It is called Touching the Earth. In each of us, there are many kinds of ideas, notions, attachments, and discrimination. The practice is to bow down and touch the Earth, emptying ourselves, and surrendering to Earth. You touch the Earth with your forehead, your two hands, and your two feet, and you surrender to your true nature, accepting any form of life your true nature offers you. Surrender your pride, hopes, ideas, fears, and notions. Empty yourself of any resentments you feel toward anyone. Surrender everything, and empty yourself completely. To do this is the best way to get replenished. If you do not exhale and empty your lungs, how can fresh air come in? In this practice, the body and the mind are working together, in harmony, to form a perfect whole.

We prostrate ourselves six times to help us realize our deep connection to our own roots. The first bow is directed towards all generations of ancestors in our blood family. Our parents are the youngest, closest ancestors, and through them we connect with other generations of ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, the connection is easy. But if we are not, we have to empty our resentments and reconnect with them. Our parents had seeds of love and trust they wanted to transmit to us, perhaps they were not able to do so. Instead of transmitting loving kindness and trust, they transmitted suffering and anger. The practice is to look deeply and see that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. When we understand the "emptiness of transmission," reconciliation is possible. Bowing down, touching the Earth, we should be able to surrender the idea of our separate self and become one with our ancestors. Only then should true communion become possible and the energy of our ancestors able to flow into us.

The second bow is directed towards Buddhist ancestors who came before us, those who have transmitted these teachings and practices to us for more than 25 centuries. The third bow is directed towards our land and the ancestors who made it available to us. The fourth is to channel and transmit the energy of loving kindness to those we love. We touch the Earth, look deeply into our relationship, and see how we can improve it. The fifth bow is directed towards those who have made us suffer. Looking deeply, we see that these people suffer also, and do not have the insight to prevent their suffering from spilling over onto others. Motivated by compassion, we want to share our energy with them, hoping it will help them suffer less and be able to enjoy some peace and happiness.

The sixth bow is directed towards our own spiritual ancestors. If we are lucky, it may be easy for us to connect with the representatives of our spiritual tradition — our rabbi, pastor, or priest. But if we have had problems with them, our effort is to understand how they themselves were not able to receive the jewels of the tradition. Instead of feeling resentment toward them, we vow to go back and rediscover the jewels of our tradition ourselves. Getting connected with our church, synagogue, rabbi, or priest will enable us to touch all our spiritual ancestors.

Photos: First photo by Karen Hagen Liste. Second photo by Stuart Rodgers.

PDF of this issue

To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Awakened by an Accident

By Robert Reed I am not always mindful while driving the car, but on this particular morning when I cheated death, the radio was off and I was consciously following my breath, alert to the conditions of the road.

As I headed to work in rush hour traffic at 60 miles per hour, a large white car abruptly changed lanes and crashed into me. No warning and thankfully no time to panic. My car spun out of control and careened across two lanes of traffic (Relax, I said to myself). I was then perpendicular to oncoming traffic in the far left lane (the fastest one) and yards away from crashing headlong into a cement wall when I was hit again broadside directly at the driver's door. My Toyota flipped over and then there was complete silence. I wondered if there were going to be more crashes or if the amusement ride was over.

A cool, eerie pain on the top of my head made me feel as if I had just been scalped. I was afraid to touch. I remember seeing the shattered glass of the window scattered on the highway. I spit glass, wondered about the extent of my injuries, and watched my legs shake uncontrollably from cold and fright. I tilted my head back on the headrest, closed my eyes, followed my breathing, and waited for the ambulance to arrive.

That my seat belt saved my life was undisputed. What caused unanimous amazement to the State Troopers, ambulance drivers, and the Emergency Room doctor was that I escaped relatively unharmed. Six stitches for a laceration to the skull, a too-small-to-complain-about scrape on the left shoulder, and not one bruise. The car, however, was totalled.

Incredible luck, the gods' smiling graces, and maybe my relaxed body also helped prevent injuries. I've heard that drunks fare better than sober people in accidents due to the fact they do not tense up. Perhaps my meditation that morning just minutes before kissing my wife good-bye helped save me.

Impermanence is one of the articles of faith in Buddhism. That all things change and die is easy to accept philosophically, but when, at mid-life, you are thrown face-to-face with your own imminent death, it finally dawns on you—I too am impermanent! We delude ourselves by thinking that death occurs to others but for ourselves some time in the distant future. We want to forget that death can come to us unexpectedly—even today!

Life is precious and precarious. Accidents wake you to this. I overheard my wife tell friends the next day that, while she gave me a massage, she whispered a prayer of thanks as she touched each bone, muscle, and limb—she was so grateful I was all in one piece and alive.

For a week afterwards, we were especially close. Now the strain of everyday living threatens to dull our senses once again. Our inability to appreciate imminent impermanence is the cause of much suffering. If life is short, then the day-to-day details, such as how we talk to each other, matter the most. Moments of clarity and appreciation come through our practice Reserving a time for sitting meditation every day helps keep us from taking our own and each other's lives for granted and helps sustain us.

A second grade student of mine sent a get-well card, "Don't do that again!" That is sound advice. Yet, if I were able to practice the way of awareness more often and thus be more alive, I would like to think that when death does catch up with me, it will not be altogether unwelcome.

I escaped this mishap. Many are not so lucky. One of my closest friends died in a sailing accident 20 years ago. I've now lived twice as many years as he did. Miraculously, I was granted just a little more time on this earth. It is my hope that I will live less on automatic pilot, more attuned to the bare essentials, more loving and accepting, less critical and judgmental. Fortunately, major life traumas do not happen to us nor our loved ones every day. But when they do, I think we grow stronger if we listen deeply to what they have to say.

Life is a gift—not just for newborn babies and people who "pull through"—but for everyone. Continuously, we are given life anew. Our challenge is to awaken to and celebrate the everyday wonders.

Robert Reed teaches English as a Second Language to Hmong students in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and practices at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

PDF of this article

Prison Moment, Wonderful Moment

By Sister Chan Khong Dear David, I wish to be your friend because I know that you are a good person caught in a difficult situation. When we are in a bad situation, we tend to believe that we are the only one who is unfortunate. In fact, everyone has difficulties . Only we may never hear about them. Please remember that being caught in a bad situation is normal. Everyone has to face this. The question is, how can we cope with our difficult situation in beauty and peace? When caught in a bad situation, I too was as unhappy as you are. But I have learned how to be unhappy for only several minutes or a few hours. During that time, I use the art of mindful living to be resurrected and to look deeper in order to see many positive things. Then I discover that, thanks to a bad situation, I have many good opportunities.

mb15-Prison

There is a bodhisattva, an enlightened person, named Ksitigarbha, who goes to living beings in the worst situations and tries his best to cheer them up, to give them inspiration to live, to smile, and to help them get out of their bad situations. Ksitigarbha vows that, "If there is still one living being caught in a hellish situation, I will stay there with him or her until he or she is set free." I am sure that Ksitigarbha is there with you, like a gentle guard who listens carefully to what you say and kindly helps you in your time of need. Ksitigarbha could be a prisoner himself, but not like other prisoners. While the others live without responsibility, without care, the prisoner Ksitigarbha is the one who lives mindfully, beautifullypeaceful and loving with everyone in the jail. Ksitigarbha could be a social worker—one who really loves, cares, and works overtime out of love, not for salary. Ksitigarbha could be a lawyer, devoted to his client's cause, really wishing to help, to relieve the suffering of the victims, not for money, but for being helpful and relieving suffering. Ksitigarbha could be yourself when you are peaceful, light, serene, and full of love and care for those around you.

All situations, even desperate ones, change. If we know how to handle our moments in prison with mindfulness, with a very deep look, with the loving heart and the compassionate eyes of Ksitigarbha, we will treasure every moment. People suffer because they do not know that everything changes. The weather is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes foggy, sometimes snowy. We must learn the art of enjoying the sunshine when it is sunny, the rain when it is rainy, the fog when it is foggy. We must learn the art of mindfully enjoying our time. When we play tennis, we play with 100% of our being; when we are with our beloved ones, we enjoy our beloved ones 100%; when we are in jail, we enjoy our time in jail 100%. You must know that this time in jail is an invaluable time for learning if you can be mindful, and look deeply at everything that is happening.

In the past, Thay had an American student who was a devoted peace activist. One day, Thay gave him a tangerine. He ate the tangerine, but his mind was involved with many projects. While eating, he told Thay about them. Suddenly Thay said, "Jim, eat your tangerine!" Jim realized he was not eating his tangerine, but only his projects. He bowed to Thay and then ate slowly, mindfully, enjoying the fragrance and taste of the fruit. My dear David, please live mindfully every moment of your life in jail. Eat and enjoy what you are eating. Don't let your mind carry you away to sorrow, frustration, and anger.

When you go home, you will enjoy deeply the presence of your beloved mother, father, and sisters, and enjoy every moment being with them. And you will enjoy your own liberty. Many people only regret the absence of their beloved ones when they pass away or are forced to live far away. Often, we live with our beloved ones, but we are carried away by our career, fame, money, and interests. We never have time to really be with him or her, to look into her eyes, her feelings, joys, and pains. We rarely have time to enjoy their wonderful presence.

Later, Jim was imprisoned for burning his draft card. Thay sent him a short note, exactly as he did for you recently, "Jim, your tangerine is still there. I hope you can enjoy your tangerine properly." After being released, Jim flew to France to thank Thay. He told us, "Thanks to your words, which woke me up, I lived my days in jail deeply. I was no longer frustrated, angered at everything like in the past." So, dear David, being released today is good, but being released next month is also good, and if they release you next year, it is fine too. Being in jail every day you have a chance to sit still, to look deeply into your feelings, your past experiences, and the roots of your past experiences that led you to this place, so that you can see your future clearly. You can also see and help many people around you. When you are released, you will know how to enjoy the presence of your wonderful family, and your liberty. Then you will certainly be able to go to a retreat with Thay to learn the art of mindful living. But for now, please enjoy your tangerine.

Dharma teacher Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been Thick Nhat Hanh 's colleague since 1959. She wrote this letter to a prisoner in California.

PDF of this article

Mindful Lunch

By Lorena Monda As a psychotherapist for 18 years, I have encountered many people—including myself—who need to heal their relationship with food. Though I have studied and practiced many ways to help this healing come about, I discovered that mindful eating is one of the simplest and most powerful.

At Plum Village, I found eating in mindfulness quite difficult. So when I returned home, I started a "Mindful Lunch Group." Every Thursday, we gather and eat our lunch together slowly and mindfully, for 45 minutes. It is an opportunity to slow down and just eat. Though we do not talk to each other, we are mindful that we are eating as a community, and we acknowledge each other's presence. We are aware of our food—how beautiful it is, how it was alive, how it has come from the earth to support our being. We are aware of how much we have in quantity and variety, and of people less fortunate than we, for whom a small portion of what is on our plates would seem like a feast. We are aware of all the elements involved in getting the food from the earth to our plates—sun, rain, soil, farmers, pickers, truckers, grocers, and our own efforts preparing the food.

Members of the group have become aware that Mindful Lunch does not begin at noon Thursday, but in the grocery store while selecting the food, and in the kitchen preparing the meal. Slowing down and paying attention while eating has made some of us aware of how uncomfortable we are to let others see us eat and take time to taste our food and chew slowly. We practice returning to our breathing when we feel uncomfortable and allow ourselves to be fully present.

Afterwards, group members often gather outside to share their experiences. One chronic overeater noticed that she needs less food to feel satisfied when she slows down and is present with herself during the meal. Another member is able to taste his food and feel its effects on his body. He has begun to choose foods that are more supportive of how he wants to feel. Another described the panic she feels while eating, related to stressful times with her family at the dinner table, when she avoided eating or ate very rapidly to keep herself from feeling this panic. She has learned to eat quietly with others who are practicing the same way, and that has left her feeling peaceful.

In the course of our practice, eating has become a sacred, healing act. By eating what is good for us, and eating it in a way that is conscious and supportive, we affirm life. And we are not alone. The earth, the heavens, the farmers, our loved ones with us at the table, and everyone in our Sangha who practices mindful eating are supporting us in our affirmation of being alive.

Lorena Monda, True Perfect Way, lives in Placitas, New Mexico.

PDF of this article

Letters to the Mindfulness Bell

I was first drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching during the Gulf War when a friend gave me Peace Is Every Step. I felt open to the truth of his words because of his work with veterans and because of what he suffered in Vietnam. I felt that if he could make peace in the midst of that fire, I ought to be able to make a little peace in my own life. I continue to draw benefits from the mindfulness retreats I have attended at Omega, and I look forward to more. I feel like I'm in kindergarten practicing awareness and mindful breathing, and kindergarten is not a bad place to be.Susan Fanti Spivak Cobleskill, New York

Thank you so much for The Mindfulness Bell! I love the magazine, and it means a lot to us to get it here in Bermuda. John Shane Paget, Bermuda

On the morning I was to leave for the Northern California retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh last fall, my favorite human being—friend, teacher, AA sponsor—suddenly began to die. She had been sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 13 years and, throughout that time, she had cancer and was in pain, often near death. Her courage, humility, common sense, and great compassion helped countless people, including others suffering with cancer, alcoholics trying to get sober, and even her doctors and caregivers. I am seldom as clear and centered in decision-making as I was when I gave up the opportunity to be on retreat so I could stay with my friend.

She died the next night of massive pneumonia, her body too weakened to fight it off. Her living will was eloquent and specific in expressing her view of death, and refusing to be artificially maintained beyond the moment when true recovery ceased to be possible. For me, being with my friend while she was dying was a blessing and a valuable exercise in mindfulness, in staying in the present moment.

As I sat vigil with my friend, I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and the many retreatants who were enjoying sitting and walking meditation together. The practice of mindfulness enabled me to be present during this precious time, and I am grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for bringing these teachings into my life.

Susan McCarthy Taos, New Mexico

Receiving The Mindfulness Bell brings me back to my true self. It enriches the quality of life for weeks and months. Kim Cary Massies Mill, Virginia

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh  Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 "Heart of the Buddha" retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer's when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can't remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don't believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, "When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence." Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can't remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don't need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It's not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don't want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, "Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn't it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do." I told her, "If I don't grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this." Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don't buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, "Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?" Then, they will begin to ask, "When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn." At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, "Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don't know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive." Use ord­inary language. Don't make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

mb19-dharma2

When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don't look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don't need incense. You don't need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don't say, "I am practicing spirituality, and you don't know anything about it!" Try to avoid saying, "Darling, I am practicing Buddhism." Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, "Darling, how do you do it?" Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, "Who is responsible for this?"

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn't say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one's own life. But I don't want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, "What happens to the consciousness before death?" If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby's diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don't have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby's diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I'm going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on "the art of mindful living."

PDF of this article

To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Liberation

By Sister Annabel Laity The Chinese word for " liberation" is made up of two characters. According to the Dictionary, of Chinese Buddhist Terms by W. E. Soothill and L. Hodous, the characters mean " to unloose, let go, release, untie, disentangle, explain, expound." The Sanskrit words for liberation are mukti, moksha, vinmkti, and vimoksha. Mukti and moksha are translated as " loosing, release, deliverance, emancipation ." The addition of vi- means "complete," or "absolute."

The three concentrations on emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness are also called the Three Doors of Liberation. Liberation is not something which takes place when we reach the end of the road, but in every moment of our lives as we walk, work, eat, and re late to others. Liberation comes through understanding but understanding can only be when the right causes and conditions are present. When mindfulness, the Sangha, humility, openness , and the right time are available then there is a possibility for understanding. Liberation is always liberation from something. If in a moment of irritation or anger, we are able to come back to ourselves and transform that energy into something positive, that is liberation from irritat ion . As we continue to use our concentration to look deeply into the emptiness (non- self nature) of ourse lves and the other, our liberation from anger will be complete. At every moment of the day , we can li berate ourselves from fixed ideas and perceptions by using our breath to stay in the present moment and to be deeply in touch. At that moment we are practicing emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness.

Sister Annabel Laity, True Virtue, has been a resident of Plum Village since 1986. She was ordained as a nun in 1988 and as a Dharma teacher in 1990.

PDF of this article

Tribute to Jeanie Chilcote

mb20-Tribute Jeanie Chilcote. Source of Serenity. Sister True Natural Peace. Devoted Dharma student of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. Received precepts from Jack Lawlor. Ordained into the Order by Eileen Kiera on behalf of Thich Nhat Hanh. Enrolled tribal member. Daughter, wife, mother, friend. Thursday she was driving around running errands. Friday morning said she was going to drive back and forth to the camp-out retreat the next week. Friday evening she took to bed. Saturday she went into a coma. Sunday, July 14, Jeanie entered the great mystery peacefully at home surrounded by her family. It had been a one and one half years since cancer was diagnosed.

A pilgrimage to Indochina with our friend Judy had been tiring. She thought with age 55 approaching that she was just getting old and couldn't handle the rigors of third world travel. She returned a few weeks early. Rest did not restore. The doctor diagnosed inflammatory breast cancer.

Thay walks into the room for a Dharma talk. She sees him and begins to cry. Every time. Every talk. Every retreat.The bond to the teacher with whom she never shared one sentence of direct conversation was deep. On pilgrimage her main goal was to visit Thay's root temple. During the visit, a monk came out and invited her in for tea. Thay's picture was openly displayed in the room. The monk's English was sparse. Jeanie spoke no Vietnamese. Word communication was difficult. It was not needed. She always wondered why of all the tourists walking around he had singled her out and asked her in for tea. At the September retreat in Plum Village, Thay answered the question. The monks can tell practitioners by the way they walk. Jeanie was a practitioner.

Apparently our local medical community had never seen a practitioner. They were amazed at her equanimity. She meditated patiently in the waiting room with never a cross word for chronically late doctors. Always a kind word for all the nurses and "techs." Infinite patience while she meditated through hours of Taxol and related nasties being dripped into her system. She absorbed all news, bad and good (it was almost always bad) from the doctor with open attention. One day her doctor said, "I've never had a patient like you. You are always so calm and present. It must be your religion. I've never had a Buddhist patient before." And Jeanie validated that yes, it was her practice that gave her strength.

Maybe her name should have been Sister All Heart. She loved everyone and everything. Deeply. She constantly fed the birds and animals that visited her yard. Only a floodplain pasture and grove of trees separated her house from the Clark Fork River. There are zoos with fewer animals. Every bird that survived an accidental crash into a window was taken to the vet. Friends and family flowed through her house like water down the Clark Fork. "Jeanie, you are ill. You should rest more. Let the machine take calls. Put a 'do not disturb' sign on your door and nap." Fat chance. Sometimes her mother would take charge and stand guard. Otherwise it was always spring flood at Jeanie's.

Until cancer she was always fascinated by the "after death" question. She would pester her friend Rowan endlessly. At first she thought he was holding out on her. When she realized he didn't know the answer to the question either, she was still angry with him because the question didn' t interest him. But after the diagnosis she said, "You know, now it isn't important to me either. All that is important is this moment."

Jeanie didn't find the pond until 1992. Her Dharma-webbed feet had gotten pretty desiccated wandering in the desert. But somebody gave her an Eightfold Path class announcement. She got excited. Immediately called up. Enrolled self, daughter Laurie, and friend Joanne. She dived in. She never stopped swimming. In rapid sequence she joined Open Way Sangha, took precepts from Jack at an Open Way retreat, and was in the first "proxy" ordination group in the USA being ordained into the Order by Eileen on Thay's behalf. She served the Open Way Board for the last several years as Secretary, and this year as "Elder Sister."

Jeanie gave freely of her love, skills. and insights. She was recruited to work with Alaya, a "Dharma therapy" outreach effort. She was co-creator of the Alaya programs for personal and spiritual growth. She taught meditation classes and helped develop and lead various other groups and classes; including groups called "Eightstepping" in which her meditative tradition was applied in a structured approach to addiction recovery. She knew about recovery . It was one of her practices. She continued this service until her illness precluded involvement earlier this year. Her service legacy lives as others continue to teach and use approaches and materials she helped to develop. Alaya tapes of Jeanie's work may someday continue her legacy as part of a book.

Thay once told Eileen, "Give everything you have and ask for nothing in return." Jeanie was master of this practice. Jeanie always gave (to a fault). She never asked (to a fault). Even in death she gave. For the last several months she prepared herself for the passage by working every Sunday morning with our gifted friend Marga. And by her years of faithful practice. "You know," she would say frequently, "I couldn't do this wi thout this practice." She learned to live her life moment-by-moment. She lived life loving and giving as naturally as breathing. And so she returned naturally to the Source of all lovingness with grace, peace, and ease.

Lilah, her mother, misses her. So do her children, Laurie and Craig, and grandchildren, Josh and Kevin. And all her friends and Dharma famil y, we miss her too. It's lucky that families are like worms with many hearts. We wi ll survive this amputation. But absence of the prototypical working model of the Giant Economy Size Open and Devoted Heart. .. well, that's not easy to accommodate. We'll all have to help. Laurie will move in and continue to tend her flowers and feed the birds. As for the people, well, if we look deeply , we will see her in each other's faces, the light of dawn, morning dew, the bird's song. Joy and sadness wil l flow together. Our Sister has died . Long li ve our Sister. This article was contributed by members of the Opell Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana, with special assistance from Rowan Conrad, Trlle Dharma Strength.

PDF of this article

Poem: Open Your Eyes

mb20-Family Open your eyes and see all the things around you-- the squirrels chasing each other, the birds flying. In spring, see the flowers blooming, in summer make sand castles and go swimming, in fall, rake and play in the leaves, and in winter have snowball fights, go sledding, and make snowangels and snowmen. Open your eyes and see all the things happening around you. See the trees blowing in the wind, see dogs barking at people on bikes.

Andrew Dahl is in the first grade in Decatur, Illinois. His parents, Lyn and Arthur, are members of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha.

PDF of this article

Trailside Reflections

By Jack Lawlor There are times we instinctively offer a hand to a friend, and times we reach for a helping hand. I've experienced these instincts hiking with friends through a beautiful, ancient bog, known as a fen. As urban refugees from Chicago, we come simply to enjoy the wetland beauty, hiking the trail to kayaks at a broken down dock.

Like life itself, the trail offers some big surprises! If you aren't careful, your legs may penetrate the bog and you'll sink to your hips in primordial ooze! When we reach parts of the trail where I've lost legs and footwear, I instinctively help others navigate the boundary. Although my friends are ultimately capable of navigating, I offer the benefit of my experience. The instinct is the same when I help a novice into a floating kayak. The craft seems unstable until you slide in. I offer a hand to bolster my friends' confidence in their own balance and poise, and they, in tum, reach out to me. Spiritual mentoring is much the same. A true spiritual friend humbly offers the helping hand of experience. A good mentor recognizes and nourishes talents already present. The talents revealed may surprise the student! The teacher demonstrates, usually by example, how to build upon these abilities, transmitting confidence in the process.

mb21-Trailside

Spiritual mentoring relies upon the mentor's taking time to look deeply into a friend. The mentor's experience enables him or her to recognize the friend's aspiration to attain enlightenment and release from greed, anger, and delusion, for the benefit of self and others-in Buddhist terms what is revealed is the student's bodhichitta.

Bodhichitta is inherent in everyone, and expresses itself daily, though sometimes in timid and clumsy ways. The mentor helps the student develop spiritual practice in mindful and joyfully purposeful ways. With each day of regular sitting and walking meditation, each little success in maintaining conscious breathing, our mentored friend's confidence grows and his or her bodhichitta blooms into lotus petals of innumerable helping hands. In time, the friend becomes a mentor to others.

Mentoring can be especially challenging for lay Dharma teachers and lay members of the Order of Interbeing. Our daily attention is devoted to the millions of details of running a business or profession thoughtfully, the thousands of concerns of family life, the hundreds of challenges in social service and volunteer work, and the scores of items which must be tended to for a lay Sangha to thrive. Helping a novice kayaker on the dock, I may start daydreaming about these details and find myself in the water! In offering spiritual mentorship to a friend, I must, above all, let go of my projects and relationships and simply be present.

The Seventh Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment, may be our collective mentor! It instills confidence that we need not lose ourselves in dispersion and that mindful breathing will bring us back to the present, to what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing inside and around us. Practicing this way, every day, in the company of a spiritual friend can lead to deep transformation for both mentor and friend.

The reciprocal nature of mentoring is easily overlooked. In nurturing, the mentor becomes vulnerable. My friend's problems may be unfamiliar territory to me. A good mentor admits when he or she is in unfamiliar territory. At this point, the mentor and student can learn from each other, using the considerable resources of mindfulness practice!

Mentoring can be a duet where both parties learn and come to understand the needs of the other. If the mentor can be honest enough to reveal his or her needs and limitations, miscommunication and false expectations can be reduced. When I take friends through the fen to go kayaking, I don 't guarantee they won't fall in the bog, capsize, or meet their fair share of ticks. But a little care and attention boosts the confidence of even the most squeamish city person entering the wonderful world of the swamp. My friend emerges more aware of the environment and our place in it. The company of novices, seeing this waterlogged world through beginner's eyes and mind, refreshes me and leads me, too, to new discoveries.

It is the same with spiritual friendship between teacher and student. Perhaps what the mentor can do best is instill confidence that calmness, clarity, and insight are possible. Sure enough, we'll tum on the non-Buddha channel now and then! But our daily return to mindfulness practices makes transformation possible. Demonstrating these practices day in, day out, in non-glamorous settings, the teacher ultimately liberates the teacher within the student. Each step of the way, the teacher refreshes his or her own experience, drinking deeply from the well of the Dharma, thanks to the genuine aspiration of the student at his or her side.

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, is co-director of the Order of Interbeing and author of Sangha Building. He is afounding member of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois.

PDF of this article

My Father's Teachings

By Fred Eppsteiner I t wasn't easy for my father to age. To see his hair turn grey, his hairline recede, and then gradually disappear till only a few strands remained. To lose the energy of his youth and feel the weariness and discomfort of his aging body. He was both saddened and angered by this "unexpected" turn of events. He mourned the loss of his body, this form he thought he'd always be.

But old age was not the only infirmity my father endured in his golden years. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease. I watched as he lost first mucb of his short-term memory, then his medium-term memory, and, finally, his long-term memory began to go as well. In addition, his reasoning and cognitive functioning slowly became impaired. His ability to think, to retain and process information, and to converse became confused and impeded. To these losses, he responded with frustration, anger, and despair.

As I watched these profound changes in my father, I realized I was also viewing the disintegration of his self-concept. His idea of himself that he had mentally constructed for seventy-five years and that he had held together by imagining a permanent self that continues over time, moment-to-moment, year to year, was no longer functioning. His self that had accomplished this and done that, a self that could remember itself, a self that came from here and went there, that was productive-he couldn't find any of those selves anymore. He became lost and frightened. He didn't know who he was anymore! And he had lost the ability to recreate a new self to solve this profound dilemma. My father fell into a state of depression, alternating between despair, fear, and rage. It is a common emotional state for people with Alzheimer's in our culture.

As I lived with him, observed, and listened, I realized something else was occurring. As his cognitive capacity diminished and he slowly got used to his new condition, he began to live more and more in the present moment. The whole apparatus of conceptualization through which he had always related to reality no longer functioned, and he just experienced things directly. I joked with him that be had attained what many meditators and seekers worked so hard for-to do nothing, accomplish nothing. I told him that to spend a day looking, sitting, walking, eating was enough; he was enough just as he was.That it just didn't matter that he couldn't remember what he ate five minutes before, or what he did that morning, or even who he was.

And gradually my father began to change, to soften, open, and accept. A complicated man for much of his life, he became simpler and more direct. A man of some hardness and emotional distance, he became much softer and loving. He would constantly tell us, his family, how much he loved us and would ask us to love him. He would want to kiss us and to have us kiss him. A man who would always fall asleep when my mother took him to a classical music concert was now in love with music and dance. And every concelt and performance he went to was always "the best one ever."

I want to relate a little story that happened two years ago. My father would come to our meditations, sit and listen, and the people in our Sangha got to know him. One day, one of the men told me that when he had greeted my father before the sitting, my father had asked him, "Lee, do you love me?" Lee, who is sixty-six, told me this anecdote with tears in his eyes. In his whole life, he said, never had a man asked him that question, and it had touched him deeply.

I also watched as my father became a child again (or perhaps one he never was). All his higher cortical functioning, his social training, his adult self-consciousness fell away. He could be impulsive, inappropriate, spontaneous. A man who was never known for his sense of humor, and certainly never the clown, now delighted (sometimes mischievously) in making people laugh, in being a buffoon at times. Music would play, and he would just stand up and dance by himself, impervious to the judgment of others. Like a child, he thought he was always terrific!

For me, the son as caregiver, I had to constantly reaffirm to my father that it's all right not to remember, not to think, analyze or judge; not to retain any information for more than a brief moment. Yet, on the other band, I had a very strong concept, supported by fifty-plus years of experience and memory, of who and what my father was, and should be. I had to deal with my own judgment, evaluations, selfconsciousness, and often embarrassment as I watched my familiar father disappear and become someone totally different from all my prior concepts about him. I had to learn to accept, to let go and to love my father in the most challenging and unusual way of my life.

Then, unexpectedly, came death. My father, who had never had a heart problem, had a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. My brother, sister, and I came to New York to be with him and my mother, and to aid in some decision-making about a course of medical intervention. The doctors gave him six months to a year to live. There he lay in cardiac intensive care, hooked up to endless tubes and monitors, and all he wanted to do was "go home" or as he said, "just let me get up and I'll come right back." And then he died. One minute alive and then, all the vital signs disappeared one by one on the monitors. There, before my eyes, he exited his body, he was gone. The doctors and nurses all disappeared and we were alone with him. Holding him, stroking him, kissing him. Expressing our gratitude to him for all he had given us in this life and wishing him well on his journey. We stayed with him for several hours, his face serene, his body becoming colder and colder. For thirty years I've studied and practiced the Buddha's teaching, and yet never so clearly had the truth of impermanence, of birth and death, of death and deathlessness, of change and changelessness, so directly and clearly been pointed out. In that hospital room with my father, mother, brother, and sister, a palpable sacredness emerged, a profound experience of Dharma that brought my palms together in deepest gratitude.

Several days later, my father was cremated. We took his ashes to his family plot in Queens, New York and dug a hole by the graves of his mother and father. Lighting incense and chanting the Heart Sutra, his wife, children, and grandchildren each put a spoonful of his ashes in the hole, said good-bye, and wished him a speedy and auspicious rebirth. Your body, cold to my touch. Your face, peacefully at rest. The candle's wick, all burnt up. Shakyamuni's Truths, totally revealed. With moist eyes, I receive your final gift.

Dharma Teacher Fred Eppsteiner, True Energy, was 52 and his father, Larry Eppsteiner, was 80 when he died. Fred is a psychotherapist in Naples, Florida.

PDF of this article

The Seasons of Practice

By Eileen Kiera I return to mindfulness of my breath as to a prayer-not prayer as supplication, but as a willingness to be open to what is unfolding in each moment. With conscious breathing as a foundation, we welcome whatever comes. Resting in the stillness of our breathing, we welcome the things we want and the things we don't want, the things we generally choose to push away, deny, or ignore. Whatever presents itself, we are able to be here in trust. I'm reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 16th century Christian monk, who said he practiced the presence of God. In each moment, he came back to trust whatever presented itself to him. He gave himself into relationship with each event or person who came to him as if God breathed with him.

Even as I sit at my computer, writing these words, I'm given the opportunity to practice. My ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, asks me to put her hair in a bun. My first thought is to send her away, imploring her not to disturb me. But I return to my breathing as if to prayer and choose instead to be with her. As I brush her thick, black hair, I am touched by her sweetness and beauty. I feel my love for her, and the preciousness of this fleeting moment together. When we have finished, I am more present than before to my writing, and she goes off, happily singing a little song to herself.

Mindful breathing adds weight and potency to the simple things in our lives, and allows us to touch the depth of mystery, the deepest rhythms that are present in even the most ordinary things. In spring, I love the sight and scent of tender, pink apple blossoms. In summer, the fruit, hidden in green leaves, attracts deer and Steller's jays to our yard. In autumn, the crisp, frosted apples are filled with the most delicious, sweet juice. In winter, the apple trees stands bare of leaves and fruit, as if dead. Year after year, I marvel at this ordinary cycle of life. It is a rhythm, like the ebb and flow of the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the coming and going of my breath-the rhythm of life and death that surpasses our thoughts or understanding of life and death. And we live in the midst of this mystery every moment, with each breath.

I was touched by this mystery recently as I sat with a friend who lay dying. After sharing some memories of times we had spent together, ordinary events now filled with poignancy, I sat with him in silence. My breath seemed most ordinary, but it brought me in touch with the presence of the mystery, which you might call the presence of God. I was not looking for anything or making any effort to understand what was happening. Rather my breath was like a silent prayer of opening and trusting. In a few moments, I noticed that my friend and I were breathing together, our chests rising and falling at the same rate, slowly, peacefully. He reached out and took my hand, as old friends do. And I knew that we were both moving in the midst of the unknown, accepting even this. Being with each other, loving each other, as we had over many years, was enough in that moment. And I think it is enough in every moment, when we practice as prayer. We fall in love with everything that life gives us. We enjoy this day.

Dharma teacher Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, teaches mindfulness throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp Community, a group of people dedicated to creating a rural practice center in the Pacific Northwest. They have purchased 40 acres in the mountains of northern Washington State, and are currently raising money and planning for the first stages of development.

PDF of this article

Breathfully Taking Care

 By Therese Fitzgerald After months of zazen practice at San Francisco Zen Center, I asked my teacher Richard Baker-roshi, "Do I really have to count my breath?" "Yes," he responded with unmistakable solemnity. I had friends who managed to count hundreds of breaths forwards and backwards, and others who described staying home just enjoying their breathing in zazen posture. So I kept putting myself in the "bamboo rod," as Suzuki-roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind--trying to learn what for me was a somewhat elusive practice.

Ten years ago, I acknowledged to Thich Nhat Hanh that paying attention to my breathing was mostly an experience of getting in touch with constriction in my abdomen and chest. Thlly asked me, "Is there any time you enjoy your breathing?" I thought for a moment and responded, "Yes, when I'm floating in the ocean, in a pond, or even in the bathtub." "Why do you ever get out of the bathtub?" he asked wide-eyed, opening his palm.

Now as I sit up in bed writing while my husband sleeps next to me, I realize I am enjoying my breathing alongside of his breathing. At times-sitting at my office desk looking out the window, lying under a tree, standing at the dish sink-I find myself simply and happily being conscious of my breathing. The concept and practice of stopping, samatha-stopping at the sound of the telephone bell, having a friend ask, "Are you enjoying your breathing?" or stopping for formal meditation-has helped me notice my breathing throughout the day and notice whether it is long or short, relaxed or constricted. Stretching out in the prone posture is the most conducive for my relaxed breathing, and floating in a warm body of water, especially salt water, always gives me the most enjoyable breathing experience.

And then there are times when I have really needed to "take refuge in the island of self' by practicing conscious breathing. This practice was my constant companion, for example, throughout the ordeal of my beloved brother's recovery from a brain injury accident, starting with six weeks in a coma. The breath proved to be my strongest link with the present moment. By returning to my breath when any thoughts of the past or the future could have overwhelmed me, I nurtured my strength to stay with my brother through the coma- which was fairly unnerving, as he was both completely familiar to me and yet far, far away in another universe. Walking meditation in the halls of the neuro-unit sustained me in my contact with less-than sensitive medical staff and anxious visitors. I remember one visitor pleading with me, "Tell me it's gonna be all right." I breathed and spoke from a place of calm conviction, "He's alive. Let's be grateful and be with him as he is right now."

mb23-Breathfully1

I had to leave midway through the coma, knowing that it would be several weeks before I could see my brother again. My father and I had just visited a facility for severely-damaged brain injury survivors. As I entered my brother's hospital room, I was choked up with sorrow and dread. Tears threatened to disable me from sitting by his side and helping him as he struggled to tear at the feeding tube. I called on the practice of putting breath to song and sang "Breathing In, Breathing Out" with as much spirit as I could gather. My calm was restored, and my sister, who arrived to take care of my brother, was heartened.

Years later, I continued to process the lessons from this experience. While practicing walking meditation at Plum Village one year after the accident, my sadness almost overwhelmed me. I remembered Thay's advice to me just months after the accident when I found it difficult to practice walking meditation on the beautiful streets of Prague, as all I could think of was my brother's inability to walk at the time. Thay had responded, "Walk for your brother." As we started out on the path along the Plum Village sunflower fields, I poured my loving concentration for my brother into each step, while I maintained awareness of my breathing. A song/mantra emerged from that walk which expresses what I continue to learn from the radical awakenings my brother opened up for me: I didn't know how precious life is, until I saw you lying there. I must have forgotten how precious life is, and then I saw you lying there. I couldn't believe how precious life is, as I watched you lying there. And then I practiced taking care, taking care of you lying there. And now I know how precious life is,  how very precious life is.

I tum to this mantra when I need to come back to my breathing and deepen my perspective.

It seems so simple: mindful breathing helps us be present for the preciousness of life. The trick is "remembering to remember" the practice that helps us stay present. We help ourselves by carving out time to sit and walk mindfully every day to develop the "habit" of stopping and being with the breath. And yes, counting the breath, gatha practice, guided meditations, or some other means of being fully aware of our breathing, can be the vehicle which facilitates our practice so that it is there for us to call on when we need it.

Dharma teacher Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, practices swimming meditation and mindful breathing in any body of water above freezing.

PDF of this article

The Gift of the Bell

By Leslie Rawls Editing this issue of The Mindfulness Bell, I have been able to focus on my breath as a reality, not as a habit. The habit is when the bell rings, I stop and breathe, counting my breaths. If I'm not with my breathing, stopping and counting is empty recitation-like children saying the Lord's Prayer without understanding the meaning. On occasion, I have been aware that I want to count my breath and get back to work. That's just counting; it's not breathing. I become aware of the urge to get it over, and that helps me come back to real awareness.

Working with these articles has helped me remember what a gift it is for the phone to ring or the computer bell to chime. Not because it takes me away from work, but because it reminds me to breathe mindfully. When I am truly present, my conscious breathing extends beyond the sound of the bell. I am able to carry it steadily. I am grateful for my breathing because when I practice conscious breathing deeply, it brings me into this moment. And, a half-smile really does bloom on my face effortlessly.

Leslie Rawls, True Enlightenment Country, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

PDF of this article

All That Has Breath

By Adele Macy Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Thay's words seem so simple. At times, reading such simple words, I find myself searching for some extraordinary revelation. This intellectual hunger usually crops up when I feel overwhelmed by life's responsibilities  and emotional demands. Then, I enjoy retreating to my room to ponder the riddles of the masters or read a good novel. I find great value in studying the Dharma, not being content with the comfortable grooves in my mind that think the ordinary is nothing extraordinary. Times of quiet study are like an in-breath before the out-breath of busy activity. These days, I have no books or poetry to protect me from the reality of having my critically-ill brother living with me. Charlie is suffering from every kind of lung disease imaginable plus several other serious and very painful ailments. I have had to put away my books and my "best laid plans," and practice deep listening and compassion for a person whose every shallow breath is a challenge. Charlie has been pumped full of steroids for years just to stay alive. He is now at a stage where he is ready to let go, but doesn't quite know how.

Charlie enjoys simple things, like watching me cook my exotic dishes and especially eating them. He laughs, watching out the window as our very determined basset hound pulls me down the street on our daily walk. He loves laughter and has a beautiful laugh that's rich and wholesome. Many days, Charlie forces himself to laugh; he knows it's better than any medicine. He grieves the loss of his 14-year companion, Lena, who recently died of lung cancer and the quick passage of their short journey together, spent hard and fast.

Recently, I took Charlie up the Blue Ridge Parkway-a glorious stretch of road winding through the North Carolina mountains. Charlie could not enjoy it, though he tried. His vision is going, and he couldn't see the beautiful fall colors covering the mountains. Everything is a blur to him. On the way home, he broke down sobbing and told me that he felt like a mountain was sitting on top of him. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment. I can do the first part, but when I'm with Charlie, sometimes the smiling is difficult. I can breathe deeply, aware of the transforming effect, the peaceful joy of this body that lives, this blood that courses with the rhythm of all things. Why must my brother be deprived of this essential gift? How can he find this peace?

A couple of weeks ago I went on my monthly retreat in the mountains. I woke at 6:30, not wanting to waste a moment of this precious time. I had only one day before returning home to Charlie, who can't walk five feet without having to sit down and rest. I kept busy all morning, building my fire, preparing breakfast, and straightening up. I reminded myself to stop and smell and listen and watch, but only for a minute because things weren't quite right for zazen.

mb23-All

My Christian background led me once to a little book called The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a monastery cook. At times when the bell rang for prayers and chanting in the chapel, Brother Lawrence continued working in the kitchen. When asked why he didn't attend the sacred rituals, Brother Lawrence replied, "It makes no difference whether I am here cooking or in the chapel. God is present in all things at all times." That book was my first lesson in mindfulness. Thay, like Brother Lawrence, reminds me that awareness is a moment-by-moment process that nurtures deep joy and compassion. I remind myself that there is no preparation required for deep listening. Preparing my breakfast is deep listening.

If I put my ear to the ground, I can hear the earth's heart beating. The spaces between all things are breaths. The spaces between words, the coursing of the river, the whispering leaves moving to the great breath of the wind. All is air and movement and cells multiplying between breaths. Even the imaginary line I draw between myself and others is a breath.

My brother cannot breathe with ease, hike in the woods, or bend to the ground to listen to the earth's heart beating. If I breathe mindfully when I'm with him, maybe I'll hear the river moving in his labored lungs. Maybe if we both listen, old Grandfather Tree, our childhood friend, will remind us that even the slow-running sap of the old, tired tree nourishes the leaves that feed the soil that catches the rain that fills the liver that rests in a pool where a child drinks. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Such profound wisdom in those simple words.

Adele Macy, Liberation of the Source, works with elderly people and practices with the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness in North Carolina.

PDF of this article

Poem: We Sit Still

we sitstill on cushions, pillows, or pads.

we hear stomachs grumble, crows call, heaters switch on, heaters switch off, clocks tick, trees grow.

while a soft voice reminds us who we really are our minds romp about the day, or long to curl up on our cushions and sleep.

but we smile at our minds as at children tumbling off a sled or oil dancing in a scorching pan

still we sit one year later none of us quite sure, then, of what is this Sangha.

we still sit relearning who we are when we are not our personalities.

we sit still searching this shore with blinking eyes,

knowing we need a kindred circle to touch this sparkling moment.

- Sally Ann Sims

PDF of this article

Poem: The Ambivalent Nature of Healing

Report from Sonoma, April 1995 At the bank a week after the shooting it's business as usual; you couldn't tell any but daily life has ever gone on here. That night I heard about it: felt only shutting down, a muffled distant metal chung!, and nothing, not free to be impressed by death nor life, nothing; but in the next days, found I couldn't walk near: a force of sadness larger than two men I didn't know bound me like a spell. In time, my own dead made their ways through to say at last, ''Nothing you need do for us. Keep going."

I went to the woods where I grew up one last time too many. Last fall this was. The woOds are gone, completely gone. Once tweilty miles out, not changed in thirty years, sudclenly cedars and hucklebenies, beaver ponds, bo~ and deer trails, the riches of my first world, gone to housing tracts, middle-class streets, poles, wires, lawns, people from somewhere else having no idea what was there; all gone. They were babies; now they need a place to live.

In the winter I went back to Binh Dinh province, to my old AO, to the place where the sounds come from that;charge my ears with trouble out of time. I went to say goodbye to ghosts of men I'll always love, but can no longer carry. I found no trace, no ghosts, no floating memories of the spirit we lived in then; found everything above and below that ground under vigorous use of the ones who live there now. The fugitive past I went to meet is bqried and put to rest under twenty-five years of busy life. It's been that long.

The lesson keeps coming back, the hardest one: the locus of loss is my eyes, not the bystanders, not the land. Not those lost

Can't take nor bring any of it back, can only be in present tense must live, must continue living daily. It's alright.

-Ted Sexauer

Reprinted from What Book!? (Parallax Press, 1998). Ted Sexauer is a member of the Veteran Writer's Workshop, West Coast Group, which meets quarterly at Sebastopol, California.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn't have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn't have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people's suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don't like to do, and to say things you don't like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn't want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, "My friend was right, you don't have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don't think that you are a happy person. You have killed him." The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man's stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, "Good­ness has been born in you, so you don't have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon."

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don't know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

mb26-dharma2

Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, "My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful." He said, "Okay," and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, "Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom."

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don't practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn't allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it's like sitting on thorns. We don't know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

mb26-dharma2

Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. "Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you." By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don't have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: "Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you." After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don't know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That's not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don't want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don't have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It's okay to suffer, it's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call "energy number two." The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of ... , you don't need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don't stop, if you don't become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 

mb26-dharma2

This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

PDF of this article

To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Opening My Heart to the Catholic Church

By Viktoria Rendes If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian, or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha s spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy. From Teachings On Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Practicing with Lotus Buds Sangha on Wednesday nights has become a sacred ritual in my life. My spirit is nourished by the Dharma talks. The quiet sitting and walking meditation with my sisters and brothers firmly grounds me and helps me be present to myself and others.

We all struggle at times to find meaning in "simply" being alive, in our breath, in our daily interactions with each other. Yet at some point, all of us have experienced the joy of being in the present moment, letting go of the past, and not being pulled into the future. The importance of being in the present moment is also part of the Christian tradition. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says, "Do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will take care of itself." I have found this lesson to be deceptively simple, and so difficult to learn. How many times have I been obsessed with the "destination" and failed to understand that on the journey, I am already there? Humming "/ have arrived, I am home, In the here and in the now" helps me feel grounded in the present.

mb26-Opening1

As a child, I was baptized into the Catholic Church. My formative years were spent in Austria, a Catholic country. I was sent to the local school, for all intents and purposes, a Catholic school. We prayed in the morning, were taught religious education by the parish priest and the nuns, took part in church-run activities for children, sang in the church choir, and went to mass on Sunday. Life revolved around the parish church and I was happy. But in my teenage years, I began to question the need for organised religion. All I could see was the church's many mistakes. I saw the church as a bastion of repression; I failed to see that within the tradition, there were also people working for justice and peace. By my mid-teens I only went to church to see the boys I fancied. In the vernacular of the time, "We went to church to search."

After 22 years, I have returned to church to search, but this time, it is a different kind of search—a search for my spiritual roots, stillness, meaning and fellowship. The Wednesday night meditation sessions and retreats have offered me stillness, meaning, and fellowship, but deep down, I was cut off from my roots. What motivated me most strongly to take that first tentative step was the celebration of Christmas, which in the Catholic tradition is filled with joy, wonder, and the most beautiful rituals. My three-year-old daughter was old enough to want to understand Christmas, yet this society offered her only a shopping mall experience. So, I took her to church.


The sixth Earth Touching: In gratitude and compassion, I bow down to my ancient spiritual roots. I see myself as a child, sitting in church or synagogue, ready for the sermon or ceremony—Yom Kipper, Holy Communion. I see my priest, pastor, minister, rabbi, and the people of the congregation. I remember how difficult it was to be there and to do things I did not understand or want to do. I know communication was difficult, and I did not receive much joy or nourishment from these services. I felt anxious and impatient. Because of the lack of communication and understanding between my spiritual family and me, I left my rabbi, my pastor, my synagogue, my church. I lost contact with my spiritual ancestors, and became disconnected from them. Now I know there are jewels in my spiritual tradition, and that the spiritual life of my tradition has contributed greatly to stability, joy, and peace of my ancestors for many generations. I know those who practice my spiritual tradition were unsuccessful in transmitting it to me, to us. I want to go back to them to discover the great spiritual values in my tradition, for my own nourishment and the nourishment of my children and their children. I want to connect again with my ancient spiritual ancestors and get their spiritual energy flowing freely to me again. I see Moses, Jesus, and so many others as my spiritual ancestors. I see teachers over many generations in these traditions as my spiritual ancestors, and I bow n to all of them in the present moment.

Bowing down deeply and letting these words touch my heart, I have been able to take another step along my path and open my heart to the Catholic Church. What surprised me most, however, was that the church was there ready to receive me. I was rather apprehensive that first time I returned. In the beginning, I sat self-consciously, aware that I had forgotten much of the ritual. Then I let go and listened. I saw people get up and read from the Bible. The priest read from the Gospel and then brought it alive by making it relevant to our lives. There were clear parallels between what he was doing and the Dharma talks on Wednesday nights. Coming from different traditions, both were giving the same message. I could not help but express my gratitude to Father John afterwards.

Since then, I have gone regularly to church while continuing with the Wednesday night meditation. One never fails to enrich the other. I am still not fully reconciled with the Catholic Church, but I have faith that this reconciliation will take place in the not-too-distant future.

Thanks to the Buddha's teachings, I have been able to make an important step, but still the journey remains. May each of my footsteps be grounded in the present. May I walk the path with peace in my heart.

Viktoria Rendes, Stability of the Source, lives in Australia. She practices with the Lotus Buds Sangha.

PDF of this article