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The Best Gift

By Chan Ngo (Vinh Nguyen)

My mother was a wonderful person, very devoted to her three children. She worked extremely hard to nourish us and provide us with whatever we needed to study and succeed in our lives. When she passed away, I was studying in a foreign country far from home, following her wishes. Knowing that her time had come, my mother told my brother and sister not to tell me immediately of her death. She feared that the bad news would disturb my study. So I did not learn the sad news until a year later, after I had finished my second engineering degree. You can see how thoughtful and wonderful my mother was. But since that day, I kept regretting that I was so far away from her for all those years. I felt remorse about not being able to fulfill my duties as a good son. My sadness, motivated by remorse and regret, became a habit energy—one that did not bring happiness to me or to others.

Then one day, I received a booklet by Thay, A Rose for Your Pocket. Reading it brought tears to my eyes. I wanted so much to meet the author of this poignant essay. When I finally met Thay, my view was opened with his teachings. As I learned to come back to myself through the practice of mindful breathing, I started to gain some sovereignty over my own house—my own body and mind. Mindfulness allows me to see my mother in me, and. in my children. I learned that the best way to thank my mother is to take care of myself. To let myself be carried away by sadness, regret, and remorse is to go against her love, her will, and her devoted hardship. With time and practice, my sadness has been washed away and I can smile each time the image of my mother appears in my memory. With prudent steps and profound gratitude for all the wonderful things I encounter, I walk forward in life.

Dharma teacher Chan Ngo (Nguyen Duy Vinh) practices with the Ottawa and Maple Village Sanghas.

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Letters

A Deep Bow to Barbara Casey A deep bow of gratitude to Barbara Casey. I’ve so admired the work you’ve done as managing editor for the past five years, giving the Mindfulness Bell a new look, the color of the cover, more photographs and artwork, blending them beautifully with text, and creating visually appealing layout in general. You’ve brought us so much wisdom from Thây and the fourfold Sangha in issue after issue. The issue on the 20th anniversary of Plum Village was a special treat for me as were the recent ones that shared Thây’s return to Vietnam.You have transmitted a jewel of a journal to Janelle to continue the work of our ancestral editors. Thank you so much for your gift to the paths of so many of us around the world.

Richard Brady Washington, D.C., USA

I loved working with Barbara. The Bell now has more color, more space, and more submissions from our monastic brothers and sisters. It is a lovely testimony to our practice as a sangha and I’m grateful for her good work and good-heartedness that have been a part of the Mindfulness Bell.

Peggy Rowe Escondido, California, USA

Just recently, I resurrected my copies of the Mindfulness Bell—from the first issue to the most recent. As with our own practices, an incredible transformation has unfolded over the years. A simple one-color journal with a few articles has blossomed into a wide diversity of articles, colorful covers, and beautiful illustrations. It is with much gratitude that I take this time to honor the editorial prowess of Barbara Casey. Her efforts were a beautiful reflection of her Dharma name “True Spiritual Communication.” During the past five years, under her care and nurture, the changes to the Mindfulness Bell have been monumental, and readership has increased.

Barbara, on behalf of the Board of Advisors and the Sangha community, thank you for making a difference in the lives of so many who savor the Dharma and the work of Thây. The seeds that you have watered have created a garden that will continue to blossom in the care of our new editor. We bow to you.

Jerry Braza Salem, Oregon, USA

Barbara, How do we adequately thank you for all the work you have done for the Mindfulness Bell over the years? You literally transformed the MB into a beautiful manifestation of the Dharma. It is a living and breathing testimony to your hard work and dedication. You had the skills and patience to work with the four-fold Sangha, the contributors, the advertisers, the printer, the mailing house, the designer, and the subscribers and make it come together wonderfully issue after issue.Your love, peace, calm, and persistence turned mere paper into a great instrument for practice, for sangha building, and for supporting the wonderful work of our teacher. It was a pleasure working with you and a joy to be able to offer my support. But, we won’t let you go... you are a valuable resource and we all look forward to working with you in an advisory capacity.

David Percival Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

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Love That Bell

Greetings to you with peace! A kind brother from the Deer Park Monastery sent me a copy of the Autumn 2004 issue, which I absolutely loved! All the articles and poetry were very good, but as an African-American, I found “Our Racism is a Crying Baby (Interview)” and “Being Born a Person of Color” especially good. But I also liked “Roots” by Emily Whittle and “An Open Letter from a Southern White Girl” by Trish Thompson. In truth, the magazine was excellent from cover to cover and Thich Nhat Hanh is a delight to read and learn from. I’ve read a couple of his books and they were very good.

The article “The Culture of Violence in Boys and Men” really hit home with me. I got into drugs and gangs at an early age. Anger really drove me, especially due to being hit by a speeding car at the age of five, which left me with a permanent facial disfigurement on the left side of my face and neck. For years, my anger and inner hurt, I projected onto many people I didn’t even know, not just rival gang members. My acts of violence and aggression have done much harm even to myself. Regret and remorse are a noose around my neck that chokes me almost daily. I’m going to turn 38 this July 8, and I get out of prison in two years. I’ll be a free man at 40. Am I scared? Yes! I’ll have spent over twenty years in correctional facilities and the outside is more like an illusion to me.

These years in prison I’ve endeavored to educate myself. I got my GED, and I read voraciously. Recently, I’ve begun to study Buddhism, and I like what I’m learning. Like Thich Nhat Hanh I write poetry... In fact, poetry has kept me from “throwing in the towel,” though I’ve been very close at times.

I really like what you all are doing at the Mindfulness Bell. I wish you peace and prosperity.

Malachi Ephraim Arizona State Prison Florence, Arizona, USA

I got the Summer issue of the Mindfulness Bell this morning and realized I had never written to congratulate you and thank you for the beautiful job you did on the Winter issue. And now I have to do the same for the Summer one too. Both issues are very fine.

Steve Black Statesboro, Georgia, USA

As a reader of the Mindfulness Bell for a few years, I’d like to thank you for all the nourishment & inspiration coming to me & my practice through each issue. The current Winter issue had me in tears of being moved deeply several times.

Susanne Olbrich Findhorn, Morayshire, UK

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Corrections

The cover photo in the Summer 2006 issue was miscaptioned; it is indeed, as many astute observers pointed out, the courtyard at Son Ha Temple, at Plum Village in France.

In the article about the Bridge of Peace Award, we incorrectly identified Claude Anshin Thomas as a lay priest. He is a Soto Zen priest.

Several articles in recent issues did not receive proper credit. The following pieces came from Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel:

Winter 2005-2006: “Mindfulness in a Virginia Supermax Prison” by Bill Menza, “Responding with Respect” by Brian N. Baird

Summer 2006: “Mindfulness in a State Psychiatric Hospital” by Bruce Hilsberg, “Inner Therapy” by Ryan Niemiec, and “Joyful Purpose of the Heart” by Annie Mahon

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On Karma

By Barbara Casey

For over six years Barbara corresponded with a prison inmate named Claude. He had been convicted of aggravated assault, which means that he did someone serious harm. In a letter to her, Claude asked Barbara for insight about karma, and she asked some dharma teachers to respond as well.

Barbara, there is something that I’ve been wanting to ask you concerning Buddhist teachings and I find this to be a good time to do so. I just hope that you’ll not think my question somewhat ignorant.

According to karma, as I understand it, if a person is unruly during his lifetime he’ll suffer as a result in some future life. It is my understanding that if someone causes a horrible death to another human being, he’ll also experience a similar death sometime in his future. My question is, if this is true, and I’m not sure that it is, if this person who committed the horrible crime is to experience something of the same, how is it to come about? In other words, and I use myself as an example, let us say that I committed the horrible deed and am supposed to experience the same. Is the person who causes me to experience the same type of death held responsible for doing so?

— Claude

Dear Claude,

It really touched me when I read your question about karma. First of all, I have to say that I don’t think there is such a thing as an ignorant question – I think that ignorance only happens when someone has a question but doesn’t ask.

I don’t think that karma works simplistically; that is, if you do something, the same thing comes back to you in the same form. I think it is more a matter of energy and intention and resources. For instance, if your training from childhood is to use violence when conflict arises, then it is logical that what will happen in your life is violence. So what we have to do is to train our minds first of all, and from our thoughts come our speech and our actions. Thây has said that choosing to live peacefully is a radical act. We have to re-train ourselves almost completely, letting go of self-protective mechanisms that are genetically bred in us. It’s a big job! Every time we take a breath or a step in mindfulness, we are changing. Every time we choose to let go instead of react in anger or ill will or revenge, we are changing that pattern. So we don’t just do it for ourselves, we do it for all of humanity.

I remember hearing of a Vietnam veteran who was overtaken by guilt because he killed five children during the war, killed them in a horrible way, because the Viet Cong of that village had killed his buddies. Thây told him: you killed five children, yes, that is very bad. However, you can choose to live the rest of your life in guilt about that, or you can choose to help children for the rest of your life. Now that former soldier has helped thousands of children throughout the world.

I know when I do something I regret, there is a strong determination in me not to do it again, and that energy helps me to move toward the good. A very small example is one time I was at a retreat, and I was so tired of standing in line that instead of waiting to wash my dishes after a meal, I just left them on the table. I felt really bad about it, and from that shame grew determination. I spent the rest of the retreat picking up dirty dishes that other people had left around; they were everywhere!

The definition of karma is action. Karma is not just past action, it is present action, happening right now. You create your future in this moment, and you can even change your past through determined intention for the good right now. It is always possible to heal. Thây has said that you can send a good thought out like an arrow and it catches the bad thought of the past and transforms it.

There is also the story of Angulimala. Briefly, he was a terrible fellow living in the Buddha’s time, killing for sport and wearing a necklace of thumbs to display his killing abilities. One day the Buddha was walking on alms round when Angulimala came up behind him and demanded that he stop. The Buddha kept walking. He demanded again, and the Buddha replied, “Angulimala, I have already stopped, it is you who must stop.” The Buddha went on to explain the Dharma to Angulimala, who gave up his killing and became a monk. I think this story is for all of us who regret things we have done, giving us hope that it is always possible to stop our harmful behavior and to heal and transform.

So that is a little of my experience and understanding. I also asked some dharma teacher friends to respond to your question, and here are their responses.

From Mitchell Ratner

In his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Thây notes that in the Ekottara Agama the Buddha lists four things that can neither be conceived nor explained, one of which is the notions of karma and consequence. So it certainly wasn’t an ignorant question!

During the Feet of the Buddha retreat [2004], Thây said some wonderful things about karma. We are always producing it through our speech, thought, and deeds. In the present moment we can always transform the karma that comes to us.

My notes from the June 20 question and answer session include the following exchange. Thây’s full answer was wonderful; I will give you a summary in my own words.

Question: How do we deal with regrets at the end of our lives?

We all make mistakes, especially when we are young. With mindfulness we can recognize the unskillful things we have said and done. The ground of the action was our mind. Now in the present moment we can do something to neutralize the bad karma. Developing the willingness to act, to continue, in a beautiful way can be done every day.

Suppose you said something not nice to your mother, and now your mother is dead, but the wound is still there. You must recognize the wound in you. Say, “Sorry mother, I am determined not to do it again.” Your mother inside you will hear that. [Claude, this is something you can do every day, to the person you wounded.]

The past is still there, disguised as the present moment. The moment you are determined not to do it again in the future, the wound is healed. A new life is in front of you.

While past actions did create karma, present actions create karma as well. It is possible to transform the ‘bad karma’ through our present actions. What is important to understand, I believe, is:

  1. what you did,

  2. why you did it,

  3. what were the consequences for others and yourself, and

  4. how to develop an inner determination not to cause that type of harm

From Jerry Braza

In my personal experience working with inmates within the Oregon State Prison system, your question regarding karma is a common one. I have had many inmates reflect deeply on the possible impact of karma in the suffering surrounding incarceration. In my own reflection on this topic, I have gleaned some insights from several Buddhist teachers, including our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has experience with the prison population.

One of the more prominent teachers working with inmates is Bo Lozoff, the creator of both the Prison-Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation. His foundations offer numerous books and resources at no charge to inmates. The beauty of Bo’s writings is that he makes complex principles more “user-friendly” for those in the prison system.

In his book We’re All Doing Time Bo shares: “One of the main rules we need to appreciate is called the Law of Karma. In the Bible, the way it is put is ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. The way it’s said in prison is ‘what comes around goes around’. “Every thought, word, and deed is a seed which we plant in the world. All our lives, we harvest the fruits of those seeds. If we plant desire, greed, fear, anger, and doubt, then that’s what will fill our lives. Plant love, courage, understanding, good humor, and that’s what we get back. This isn’t negotiable; it’s a law of energy, just like gravity.”

Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart shares: “The heart is a garden, and along with each action there is an intention that is planted like a seed. We can use a sharp knife to cut someone, and if our intention is to do harm, we will be a murderer. We can perform an almost identical action, but if we are a surgeon, the intention is to heal and save a life. The action is the same, yet depending on its purpose or intention, it can be either a terrible act or a compassionate act.”

The Buddhist teachings regarding karma are encapsulated in Thây’s teachings, and in understanding karma it may be helpful to review the concept of consciousness. According to Buddhist psychology, we all have a mind consciousness and a store consciousness. Our store consciousness includes everything that we have experienced during our life, metaphorically stored in the form of seeds (it also contains the seeds from the lives of our ancestors). Positive and negative seeds are planted through the thoughts and actions of our past. Our mind consciousness contains the present activity of the mind. Our mind and store consciousness are like gardens where we have activated, planted, and watered the seeds of our feelings and experiences.

The practice of mindfulness helps us look deeply to know which seeds to water and how to transform the negative seeds that arise in the mind consciousness. Our practice reminds us that every moment offers us an opportunity to be aware of how our thoughts, feeling, perceptions, and mental formations are constantly affecting our actions and subsequent karma.

We all have accumulated negative seeds in our consciousness. For example, if a person has been emotionally abused in the past, the seeds of anger, sadness, and grief may be buried in their consciousness. When these seeds are activated intentionally (in meditation) or unintentionally in daily interactions, we have the opportunity to transform this suffering through various gathas such as “breathing in I am aware of my anger, breathing out I embrace my anger.” Mindfulness and concentration make it easier to transform the negative seeds so they are not passed on through further actions that can contribute to negative karma.

Thây’s concept of “interbeing” helps us to understand the significance that each one of us has on the lives of others. Aware that we are connected to all beings including animals, plants, and minerals, it seems clear that every action has the potential of affecting the lives of many others. If our thoughts are negative, these seeds are watered and most likely behaviors and actions will follow and karma continues.

Finally, in a public talk in Vietnam last year, I recall Thây offered a beautiful way to personalize and realize the impact of karma in our life. To paraphrase, “Every one of our actions is like putting our signature on everything we do.” This makes every day, every moment, every thought, feeling, perception, and mental formation significant. This is so easily forgotten in the busyness of life. Our practice offers us a powerful means to live our lives in ways that have the potential to break the karmic cycle.

The Path of Transformation

So Claude, these are some insights on karma.

I hope this helps. Claude, over the past six years (has it been that long?) what I have seen in you is a sincere, good, and dedicated individual – dedicated to transforming yourself and to helping others. This is excellent karma! I know that if I let my anger take over, I feel really bad afterwards and sometimes I feel like I have done damage I cannot heal, but then I take faith in the Dharma, and I know that this is a long path we’re on, this path of transformation. We are graced with some small insight, which leads us in the right direction, and that is all we need. We don’t need to judge where we are, we just take the next step in mindfulness, the next breath in freedom, and we’re already there.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the former editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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A Letter to My Brothers and Sisters in Baguio City Jail

By Sister Mai Nghiem mb65-ALetter1Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It is 5 a.m. and I’m sitting on the roof of the Baguio Buddha Temple, looking out at your city and thinking of you. Are you up yet? What are you doing at this time? I wish we would’ve had more time to talk yesterday. Perhaps another time.

Thank you for our time together yesterday. It was my first time going into a jail, and before I entered, my mind was fi with questions and apprehension. I asked myself, “What do I know about their lives? How can I help? Who am I to help?”

As we spent time together, and as you shared your questions and difficulties, I realized something so simple that it may sound naive and a bit silly, something we all know in our heads, but which feels so different in our hearts. I entered the jail with the idea that “you’re you and I’m me,” the idea that you’re a young Filipino staying in the Baguio City Jail and I’m a young French nun staying in a temple in Hong Kong.

Thanks to your openness and your sharing through words, looks, and smiles, I emerged from the Baguio City Jail as quite a different person. I realized, “You’re me and I’m you.” The pain in your heart is also my pain and the smile in your eyes is also my joy. I realized that we have the same mind, that we are experiencing the same joys and suffering as well as the same need for understanding and love.

I realized that we’re who we are now because of our environment, our education, and the influences and impacts of the people in our lives. We’re who we are now because of the seeds we’ve watered in our lives, whether anger, fear, hatred, love, joy, despair, or forgiveness. If my father hadn’t helped me to change the environment I was engaging in as a teenager (an environment filled with drugs, alcohol, empty sex, and partying), I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have been able to meet all of you yesterday.

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I’d like to tell you a story. Our teacher did a retreat many years ago in America for war veterans. One of the participants was very fearful. He avoided the other participants, choosing to stay alone. After a few days, a group of brothers and sisters sat with him so he could share what was happening in his heart. And he told his story.

He was a soldier in Vietnam whose unit was killed by the Viet Cong. In revenge, he placed explosives in sandwiches, left them at the gate of a village, and hid nearby. After a while, a group of children came along, found the sandwiches, and happily ate them. As they ate, they began crying, their bodies twisting in pain as they called out for their parents. The American soldier knew there was nothing to be done. He knew the children would die.

When the soldier returned to the United States, images of the dying children haunted his mind. He couldn’t sleep or find any peace of mind. He became a very anxious and angry person and was unable to be in the same room with children.

So much guilt was in him and he could not forget. His mother was the only person with whom he spoke about what he had done. She tried to comfort him by saying, “This is what happens in war.” But her words didn’t help to release his pain.

When the soldier finished telling his story, our teacher said to him, “Yes, you killed a group of children. This is a fact. But how many children can you save today? How many children are dying right in this moment because of lack of food and medicine? Do not stay in your guilt and regret. Go out and help save children now.” And that is what the ex-soldier did. He started devoting his time and energy to saving children, and at the same time, he was healing himself.

When we experience a difficult situation, we are very lucky. Why? The difficult situation gives us a chance to understand deeply and to help other people who are experiencing the same kind of suffering.

If we have watered the seeds of anger, hatred, violence, and fear every day, and can see how these seeds, growing stronger and stronger, have brought so much damage and suffering to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to others, then we can make an aspiration in our heart. Whether we are in prison or not, we can take the time we have to reflect, to look deeply at our situation and into the situations of our children and our youth to see what we can do to create a better environment, a better place for our children to grow up so that violence, hatred, fear, and anger are not our daily bread. We can nourish ourselves and one another with joy, beauty, love, and understanding. And that doesn’t require money.

We can sit together, and as intelligent people, we will find ways to become community builders, creating a safe, healthy, and peaceful environment for our families and future generations. We have to use our time wisely. If we are in prison, we have plenty of time now to sit and look at ourselves, to sit together and share our difficulties and our insights of how to get out of these difficult situations. And we can always ask for help. There are many people around us who are ready to listen and to help.

I have much trust that you will be able to help many, many people through your own experience.

My dear brothers and sisters, thank you for being here, thank you for being who you are, thank you for being so beautiful. I promise I will use my time to breathe for you and to walk for you, because I know that my peace is your peace, and my joy is your joy.

Please pray for me as well, so that I may have your determination and your strength to face obstacles along my way. May God and all your ancestors be with you always, protecting you on your path.

Your sister, Mai

Sister Mai Nghiem (Sister Plum Blossom) ordained in 2002. She is living now in the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, helping with Applied Ethics and Wake Up programmes. She went with the monastic Sangha to the Philippines in October 2013, a yearly trip. The Baguio City Jail visit was an event organized by a Sangha member there.

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