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Learning Together

By Candace Cassin Last fall, the Hopping Tree Sangha completed a year-long Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings Study Group. Our group was not limited to Order aspirants. We asked that participants be members in the western Massachusetts Sangha, have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and commit to attend all sessions. To foster continuity, safety, and depth of discussion, the group was "closed" after forming.

Several considerations led us to invite all Sangha members, not only Order aspirants. Our primary focus was on living the practice, not on the goal of ordination. The Trainings are a relevant and rich guide for life, whether one is formally ordained or not. Clarity about the desire for ordination evolved as we studied. In addition, we did not want to create an "in-group" and an "out-group" based on ordination. Finally, we recognized that ordination is not guaranteed, and the final decision is not made locally. Eight people participated in the first group. All were involved in the practice and the Sangha for at least five years. Most had been on retreats with Thay. One was an Order member and one was ordained shortly after we began. We structured the meetings as shared learning, reflecting our confidence (and experience) that the collective wisdom of the group will express itself and grow if all have equal opportunity to share. Most of all, we wanted our study to be practice, not simply be about practice.

We met two hours every three weeks. The intervening weeks allowed us to integrate new insights and understandings about the mindfulness training discussed and to prepare through reading and practice of the upcoming training. We met in homes, and began and ended on time. No one was designated facilitator. One person invited the bell and one person kept time. The format was: 1) Brief check-in; 2) Reading the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings; 3) Reading the designated mindfulness training and commentary in Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelinesfor Engaged Buddhism; 4) Discussion of the Mindfulness Training; and 5) Final checkin and closing meditation.

We agreed that sharing should be grounded in experience rather than intellectual abstractions or theoretical reflections. Each person joined their palms in a lotus and bowed before and after speaking. This practice and the use of the mindfulness bell slowed the pace of discussion and helped us practice deep listening and mindful speaking. Three members of our study group were ordained into the Order at the Omega retreat with Thay in October 1997. Three chose not to pursue ordination. Two of the three who did not feel drawn to ordination created a ceremony "to commit to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in their hearts." All members of the study group feel deeply committed to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Each chose the vehicle to express that commitment that felt most true.

The support and wisdom of the Sangha on this path of practice has been a true joy. In all aspects of practice, our shared struggles, clarity, and deep listening have strengthened us in making the practice real in daily life.

Candace Cassin, True Precious Land, wrote this article with input from members of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings Study Group.

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Pain, Love, and Happiness

By Khanh Le Van The University of California at Santa Barbara campus was huge. "Wait till you see the gym," said my Dharma brother Arnie. Indeed, for the next five days we 1,300 retreatants would sit together in that gym for meditation and Dharma talks. A team beaded by Wendy Johnson was busy arranging the gym into sitting meditation squares. Some people set up the altar and stage, others carefully prepared Thay's suite and the rooms of the 34 monks and nuns accompanying him. The atmosphere was very warm. I was so happy for the wonderful opportunity to meet my teacher again.

The next afternoon people poured in to register-young and not so young, businessmen and women, artists, teachers, students, Buddhists, and non-Buddhists. The wide variety of people gave me more hope for the work of building peace. Retreatants stayed in dormitories around the campus and could practice walking meditation from one place to another.

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As we queued up for supper the first night, the level of mindfulness practice was high for such a large gathering. The vegetarian food was so good that it influenced many to change their diet. Most people chose to eat in the outdoor dining hall under a white tent and enjoyed the beautiful, sunny weather. The Five Contemplations were read after fifteen minutes, giving time for some of us to settle first, and read one more time for later comers. I thought of the millions of hungry children around the world and was very mindful of each morsel that I put into my mouth. I vowed to do my best to alleviate this hunger by deepening my practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

As the days passed, the quality of the noble silence deepened. Since the campus was right beside the ocean, Thay changed the morning sitting into outdoor walking meditation. Streams of people started at three different locations and met at the beach. There, we walked along the ocean as one big group headed by Thay-what a wonderful way to be! Our suffering, despair, anger, and fear, were still there-we recognized them. But, the capacity to be happy, light, and at ease was also there. We touched these positive seeds. Thay invited us to touch and taste what is available in the present moment-walking and sitting on the beach with the Sangha, the fresh morning air, the sound of the waves, and the soft sand under our feet. Throughout the retreat, this early morning walking meditation contributed much to the healing process for each of us.

Thay's Dharma talks were deep and well-presented, answering many core questions about fear of death, fear of the crowd, loss of beloved ones, improving family relationships, pain, and happiness. We also had many special interest presentations on topics including caring for the dying and their family members, and Sangha-building.

We had 57 Dharma discussion groups. The group I facilitated met quite a distance from my dormitory, so I had plenty of opportunity to enjoy my breathing while walking. I enjoyed seeing the campus come alive with retreatants practicing mindfulness with each step. I clearly remember the moment everybody stopped as the university bell chimed. I was standing still on the footpath, returning from a Dharma discussion. After three deep breaths, I noticed the stillness in front of me. I thought that I was walking in the Pure Land or in the Kingdom of God. An immense feeling of lightness arose in me.

Another beautiful scene was the presence of the monks and nuns, the flaps of their brown robes flying with the gentle breeze. They were so fresh, joyful, and peaceful. How fortunate we were to have the monastic order practicing with us. The energy produced by the Sangha was very powerful.

The retreat ended with the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, received by many retreatants. More and more people are searching for something true, beautiful, wholesome. Practicing the Five Mindfulness Trainings leads in that direction.

May we be diligent in our practice for the future to be possible.

Dharma teacher Khanh Le Van, True Transmission, practices with the Lotus Buds Sangha in Sydney, Australia.

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Cultivating Family Practice in the Sangha

By Michele Tedesco Two years ago, I presented the community at Plum Village a very special vase of flowers. It took me about fifteen minutes to arrange in front of the community. The whole community was breathing and smiling while I arranged these flowers. But that pot of flowers was quite different from any other pot of flowers I have arranged, because that evening, the flowers that I arranged were children.... Each child is a flower. Adults should remember that children are flowers to be taken care of in order for joy and happiness to last. —Thich Nhat Hanh

Every time adults practice together, we have an opportunity to present the Sangha with just such a pot of flowers. We may not be as skillful at flower arranging, because the practice is new to us. We may be afraid to handle the blossoms for fear they are too delicate or the bright colors may offend some community members. We are afraid the vase may tip and fall loudly, causing some to lose their mindfulness momentarily. We are afraid of discord in the Sangha. As with any new skill, we must overcome fear of failure to make the first attempts. Be mindful, be diligent, and we will learn to be skillful flower arrangers.

My husband and I are fortunate that our Sangha supports our learning to arrange our beautiful flowers—Christopher (15), Giovanni (7), and Gabriela (5)—in front of them on a regular basis. Indeed, over the past two years, the Sangha has encouraged us. Many have seized the opportunity to practice with our children. Because of this, our family, our practice, and our Sangha have reaped many rewards. As a family we are able to practice together and feel the support and love of our community. Our Sangha benefits by having the vibrancy of youth to inspire us, and provide other ways to practice.

Even within my beautiful Sangha, however, some parents do not include their children in our community practice. There is nothing unique that makes our children more accessible to the practice. My children are valued immensely, but they are the only children who attend functions regularly. I know this must be true of other Sanghas as well. I have spent much time and energy trying to figure out why, so that I would be able to help people understand that children and Sangha practice can go together—even if it is a little messy sometimes. So this past spring, I decided that instead of bringing the children to the Sangha, I would bring the Sangha to the children! In May, we had our first Kid's Mini Day of Mindfulness.

The day was a great success. Not because everything happened perfectly—of course, it didn't—but because it simply happened). Ten children, from one to fifteen-years-old, attended with at least one parent. Most wonderful of all, five members of our Sangha who do not have children participated, by taking on activities through the day or by simply leading around a restless one-year-old—a beautiful contribution of support for the mother. Here is our schedule:

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During orientation I explained the symbolism of the Buddha statue on our small altar. Some parents and children knew very little about Buddhism; some practice another religion as their spiritual foundation. To alleviate any discomfort they might feel, we made it very clear that the statue was not the Buddha, but a symbol of his wisdom and enlightenment. I explained that we show respect to these qualities, and to this potential within ourselves when we bow. Also, we oriented the children to the bell and used it as a gathering sound.

The mindful games, led by one of our "less young" Sangha members, consisted of carrying beans in a small spoon from one pot to another. If they spilled, you had to start over. In another game, the children held the edges of a parachute and tried to keep balls rolling on it. In both games, the children discovered that the slower they went and the more they concentrated, the more successful they were. In the Dharma Talk, we talked about their experiences in the games, as applied to the idea of mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness was our theme for the day and the games gave the children direct experience of its benefits. We also discussed how to be mindful with parents, siblings, and friends. Even the youngest children understood these experiences of mindfulness.

During story time, another less young Sangha member read some of the Jataka tales. Then, one of the mothers taught the song, "Breathing In, Breathing Out." The children also drew pictures of some of the concepts in the song: mountains, flowers, water, space. While the children were doing this, I threw in a parent discussion group, almost as an afterthought. The parents' discussion turned out to be a wonderful, nurturing experience. We asked questions and shared experiences. We opened by reading and discussing a longer version of the quote at the beginning of this article. Most importantly, I wanted to give the parents some simple, useful, practice tools. First, I encouraged the parents and children to use the bell when emotions are high, to bring the family back to its breath. Another tool I find very effective is using the word "mindful" with children, for example, "Susie, was it mindful to yell at your brother?" Finally, I gave the parents copies of The Five Contemplations, a sort of Buddhist meal prayer. Reciting the contemplations, announced by a bell, before a meal can add meaning and closeness to this daily family activity.

During lunch, we introduced the practice of the contemplations. The bell was invited. The contemplations were recited. Then, there was another bell and we took a few breaths before we ate. To deepen the practice of mindful eating, I asked the children to take one bite of their food and chew it ten times, counting their chews. During the meal we invited the bell a few more times to remind them to count their chews.

Meditation was presented to the parents and children as simply quieting your body and mind. We practiced bell meditation. Everyone closed their eyes and listened to the beautiful sound of the bell. When they couldn't hear the sound any longer, they raised their hands. All the children enjoyed a turn at inviting the bell, especially the one-year-old who invited it several times. At first, I thought it was a mistake to put meditation after free play when energies are at their peak. It did take a few minutes to settle down, but this was good training for the children. After all, mindfulness is most useful when things get crazy.

The last activity was art. Toni Carlucci, an art teacher whom we are fortunate to have as a Sangha member, is discovering wonderful ways to cultivate mindfulness through art. First, she showed the children some seeds and seedlings. Then they went around the property where we were, and looked at all the plants and flowers. Toni spoke to the children about how, through looking deeply and mindfully, they could see that the earth, rain, and sun are in the plants. Then, they made a three-paneled drawing with the seeds in the ground, a seedling, and a plant in full flower with the earth, sun and rain in each panel.

In the closing circle, we came together one last time. We looked at the art projects, and the children sang their new song. Each child was encouraged to say something. The point was to hear everyone's voice even if the only thing they had to say was, "I don't have anything to say."

We had a full day. Yet everyone—parents, children, and other Sangha members—came away with a deepened sense of mindfulness for themselves and their families. In other words, children's and family practice works!

I encourage every Sangha with families and children to plan some special time like this, even if you only have one or two children. Don't worry. If you start this practice, they will come. It is easier than you think. You may be surprised by the talents and energy your Sangha members bring to this project. Don't expect the kids to practice like adults. This is a different kind of day. Instead of Noble Silence, encourage the practice of Noble Not-So-Loud. Be prepared to abandon a plan if it is not working with your group. Be flexible. If four hours are more than you can handle, try two hours. Have parents and children practice together as much as possible through the day, especially during the Dharma Talk, the meal, and meditation. It is important that parents and children are on the same page in the practice, so it continues at home.

Deepening family practice in your Sangha will add a new and vital energy to the Sangha as a whole. As your spiritual community broadens itself in this way, its strength will grow, making a deeper well from which all members can drink.

Michele Tedesco and her family practice with The Breathing Heart Sangha, in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. She is interested in creating materials and rough guidelines for developing family practice. If you would like to help, please write Michele at 207 St. Martins Lane, Mableton, GA 30126, USA; e-mail: wholeideas@mindspring.com

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Deer Park Monastery

A Letter from Sister Chan Khong Asking for Your Support Dear Friends,

Two years ago, even with the urgent appeal of many young friends in Southern California and with your generous support and encouragement, we could not have imagined that we would be able to set up this new monastery, especially on such  wonderful land. The new monastery is located on 400 acres of mountains, forests, and plateaus. The land borders a 3000 acre wildlife sanctuary, and is full of native plants, ranging from the fragrant wild lilac to medicinal sage. In July 2000 the first monastics arrived to begin cleaning up and transforming the land into a practice center. The atmosphere of peace now radiates out so that even wild animals seem no longer to fear for their safety. The energy of love is gently enveloping the mountains and hills of this area. It has the same name as the park where the Buddha offered his first teaching after attaining enlightenment, 2600 years ago in India. Out of respect for the land ancestors, and the native people who called this land Deer Park, we have named the practice center, Deer Park Monastery.

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Many dear friends, throughout the year, have silently brought rice, tofu,  noodles, bread, fruits and vegetables to support the community. Others have beautified the landscape by cutting grass, creating beautiful stone paths, and planting numerous trees. Over 300 new trees have been planted during the past spring. Without this deep friendship, the transformation of Deer Park could not have been so spectacular. You who have visited Deer Park in September 2000 will not recognize the Deer Park of today.

Every Sunday and Thursday is a Day of Mindfulness, when the monastic community is joined by visitors and neighboring friends for sitting meditation, walking meditation and Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh (via video or a transcontinental-telephone connection). On Sundays resident Dharma teachers share the Dharma and their own practices. On the first Sunday of every month families come for the Mindfulness Trainings recitation. There is a program for children and teenagers on this day as well.

In early July, 2001 Deer Park Monastery celebrated her 1st Continuation Day. Around 175 people came to enjoy walking meditation in the fresh morning air, a Dharma talk by the Abbott, Thay Giac Thanh, a picnic lunch and a joyous outdoor tea mediation in the Oak Grove. Already, many hundreds of adults, children and teenagers have come to practice at Deer Park, imprinting their mindful and joyful steps of peace on the land. So many friends now consider Deer Park their spiritual home, a place to take refuge, and a place to cultivate their love and understanding.

We know that many of you have already contributed so much energy to Deer Park, through your sincere practice and also your financial support. Several hundred practitioners have generously offered money since the time we first found the property until now.

We have already paid for three-quarters of the land, but we still need to pay $1.2 million for the remainder of the property. Since our last letter to you in April until now, you have offered to Deer Park Monastery $143,000 in donations and 207 interest-free loans of $1 ,000 each ($207,000). This leaves $770,000 still to be raised. If we cannot pay this amount by August 5, 2001 we will have to pay $65,000 in interest each year. It breaks our hearts to see that your contributions, including many from families with modest resources and young people who contribute $5 or $10 a month, go to interest payments. We know that you would prefer to have your contribution pay for food, utilities, construction and other operations of Deer Park, rather than for interest payments.

We would like to ask those of you who are not able to give to offer interest-free loans for three years. An interest-free loan of $1,000, $2,000, $3 ,000, $5 ,000 or $10,000 will help us to pay for the final portion of the land of Deer Park. We will be able to pay you back as soon as the next books of Thay are sold.

We were very moved when an old grandfather brought to Deer Park Monastery $8,000 as a loan. He said it was difficult to persuade his adult sons and daughters to make a donation, but he succeeded, and each of them agreed to let the Monastery borrow one thousand dollars for 3 years without interest. Looking at the grandfather and his loan, we saw immediately his great-grandsons and great-granddaughters, to be born in 20 years, running joyfully in Deer Park Monastery practicing peace, looking deeply, learning great understanding, and great love, thanks to this loan.

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We, Sister Chan Khong and the brothers and sisters of the Plum Village community are not reluctant to ask for your help because we see clearly that we do not ask for the money for ourselves. We, 135 monastics trained by Thay Nhat Hanh, have committed our lives to serving others. We live and eat simply, with no personal bank accounts or property of our own. We have given our youth, our love and our practice, hoping that the world will be better now and for the future generations to come. Please share this letter with your friends and dear ones.

Please accept a beautiful fresh lotus I just picked up from the pond in Plum Village (we have five lotus ponds with countless pink and white fragrant flowers) for you and for all your descendants who will certainly continue your spiritual path.

- Sister Chan Khong and the brothers and sisters of the Plum Village community

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Photos courtesy of Plum Village

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Offering a New Year's Day of Mindfulness

By Brandy Sacks

Every year, at the end of December, Spirit Point Sangha offers a Day of Mindfulness. It is a very special day and different from all the others. We begin with a walking meditation in the garden. Our path passes by the sculptures, the rosemary and lavender, around the labyrinth, and past the Peace Pole.

We discuss what we were mindful and appreciative of on our walk. For me this meditation is an opportunity to slow down. No matter how many times I walk in the garden I am always amazed at what I see. I notice the plants that I am sure were not there a week ago l I also hear bird song. When I go about my daily life in the city I never hear birds. I am sure they are singing, but I am not listening.

The Day of Mindfulness is a time of Sabbath, or a Sabbath time. A time to smell the flowers, walk, breathe, and enjoy eating with friends. It is a sacred practice - sacred in all traditions. Thay has given us the gatha, "I have arrived, I am home, in the here and in the now." The Day of Mindfulness helps me to get in touch with the here and the now. I am also in touch with myself and the Sangha.

The Sangha feels like family to me. It is my spiritual, nurturing fancily. Simply by being in the presence of the Sangha I am strengthened. If I waver, the Sangha is there to support me. It is not something spoken, it is just there - like breathing.

Following walking we have a period of sitting meditation, by the fire. After practicing eating meditation (in silence) we gather outside on the lawn. We all circle up and join hands around a small tree. I begin by reading the story about the Elm Dance. Joanna Macy taught me this dance of intention and peace. During the first half of the dance we step around moving to the music. We pause in the center, with our linked hands raised and sway like elm trees. During the second half of the dance we call out names of people, places and situations in the world that we want to include in our healing.

We return to the fire in the living room to practice a meditation offering peace and happiness for ourselves and others. I tell the Sangha, "Before we learn to practice loving-kindness meditation on behalf of others, we will learn to do it for ourselves." The first step is to open our hears so that we have something good to give. So begin by bringing back the memory of a holy moment, a time that your heart was open to nature, to a child, to a pet, to beauty. Now imagine that your are sitting, facing yourself. Look into your eyes and see the beauty of who you are, and the pain that keeps you out of touch with that beauty. Since your can only experience love and joy by giving it away, this meditation is a form of wise selfishness. It will make you happy.

Next, bring a loved one to mind and imagine any pain, confusion, illness or unhappiness they might be experiencing. Continue to do this for a few minutes until you feel a sense of completion and also see the happiness they are capable of experiencing. After this we chant "Offering incense and praising the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara," which can be found in the Plum Village Chanting Book available from Parallax Press. We spend some time contemplating and writing about our purpose in life and our dreams and goals for the year. We each take a sheet of paper, write at the top, "my purpose in life," and then create areas to write in our dreams and goals for body, mind, spirituality, service, family, work, vacations, play, etc. We spend some time filling these out and in Sangha meetings throughout the New Year we will talk about what we have envisioned. After reciting the five Mindfulness Trainings the Sangha closes with a sitting meditation. Our Day of Mindfulness is a wonderful way to finish the year and prepare to begin anew!

Point Sangha in Escondido, California. Brandy is responsible for updating the website for the Community of Mindful Living, including the worldwide Sangha directory.

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Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.

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What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.

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Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.

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When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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An Explosion of Grace

The First Retreat for Young People at Plum Village By Susan Rooke

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Thay has often spoken of the tragic situation in France, where thirty-three young people commit suicide every day. He has asked us, “What are we doing today for those who are going to kill themselves tomorrow or the day after?”

A year ago, Anne-Marie Ascencio, a French member of the Order of Interbeing, shared with Sister Chan Khong her dream of initiating a retreat for young people run by the fourfold Sangha at Plum Village. Her idea was received with enthusiasm, so a small group of young monastics and members of the French OI organized, over the Internet, the first young persons’ retreat in Plum Village. It was held during the last week of June 2005 at the Middle Hamlet and thirty-two young people came, ages thirteen to twenty-six. Of the twenty staff members, there were five monks, three lay Plum Village residents and seven members of the French OI. A group of young nuns and aspirants visited and offered daily support.

We divided into three families, one of which was English-speaking. We had planned to include only French speakers to avoid translation problems, but retreatants took turns translating for friends, and the international flavor was a bonus.

This was a typical day: 6:00  Wake up; exercise with bamboo poles, or yoga 7:30  Sitting meditation 8:00  Breakfast; working meditation; questions & answers with monks and nuns 11:00 Free time 12:00 Lunch 14:30 Sharing in families 16:30 Creative workshops (drawing, painting, writing, calligraphy, collage, dance, music...) 18:00 Dinner 20:00 Deep relaxation; evening activity 22:00 Noble silence 23:00 Lights out

The creative workshops were new for Plum Village. A nun gave a dance workshop under the trees, the music offered spontaneously by two young people. An array of paints, brushes, pencils, and paper was provided in the painting area, along with piles of old magazines for collages. On the dining veranda a large white wall displayed the creative works as they were made; before long the veranda was decorated with paintings, poems, and calligraphy. Retreatants were encouraged to create spontaneously, in a relaxed, non-academic way, working on pieces alone or in groups.

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One evening we participated in a percussion workshop, creating rhythms on drums, saucepans, wash bowls, bells, wooden spoons, and blocks of wood. Another evening, around a bonfire we enjoyed pancakes cooked by a group of young retreatants as a gift to the community.

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The practice was offered in formal and informal ways. Youngsters were taught sitting and walking meditation, stopping and listening to the bell, and eating in silence. The informal teaching was also important: a long conversation with a monk over a cup of hot chocolate; visiting together around a group painting; talking and really listening to each other. This atmosphere of freedom and peace was created with a minimum of structure so the young people had a safe space to talk, be creative, make music, or just be together.

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During the week, Thay gave two teachings that were attended by the Plum Village community and a question and answer session for the young people. Appreciative of this special opportunity, the young people asked good questions about violence, anger, and monastic life. Thay finished the session asking the young people to continue the spirit of the retreat by forming a “committee of the heart.” This new committee will operate over the Internet. For information about future retreats, keep an eye on the Plum Village Web site.

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The ultimate expression of gratitude for this wonderful retreat came on the last evening, when fifty of us practiced Beginning Anew. Seated under the oak trees, with the evening light fading, we shared the transformations of the past six days. A younger and elder brother reconciled with deep, loving words and a hug. Many shared long-hidden, hurt feelings, brought into this compassionate space to be held gently, listened to, and respected. Finding understanding, forgiveness, and healing. Heard over and over: “This has been the best week of my life.”

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On the first day, the young people arrived anxious, fearful, and stressed from school exams and the pace of city life. They were noisy and talked a lot. It was a joy to watch their faces transform; to see their shy smiles and hear their laughter; to enjoy the noble silence becoming more silent; to hear their language become more gentle. For the sake of the young people, and for our sake, I hope others will organize young persons’ retreats all over the world.

Susan Rooke, True Joyful Stream, lives in the foothills of the French Alps.

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Fragrance of Tea Flowers

By Sister Dang Nghiem

Before she became a nun, Sister Dang Nghiem was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple (Bat Nha) near Bao Loc since September and she wrote this letter to Thay on December 12, 2005.

Beloved Thay,

I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.

I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The dharma is truly deep and lovely!”

The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sisters’ Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.

How Many Share a Room?

After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.

When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.

A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.

Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.

Stories About Food

We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for

170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.

In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.

Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.

Last week we had a meeting with the Venerable Abbot of Prajna Temple, and he said he felt much love for us coming from Plum Village, because we all become darker and thinner here. “Even brother Pháp Kham, who was fair and round when he first arrived, now also looks so dark and thin!” (“He’s looking more like a mountain person [a montagnard, mountain tribesman] now,” a sister whispered, and all of us giggled). “Well, we have given seventy, eighty percent of ourselves, so we can give up to ninety, one hundred percent of ourselves. We just continue to stretch our arms a little longer. So many people desperately need our practice. Centers like ours must be present everywhere in Vietnam in order to rebuild our country....” The Venerable spoke with such enthusiasm, and with such a charismatic smile, we looked at each other and laughed, admiring the Venerable for his talent for giving us effective spiritual boosters.

Letting Go of Attachments

Before I came to Prajna Temple, I heard Sister Thoai Nghiem say that the biggest problem here is attachment. I reacted strongly, believing that people with that tendency should be expelled from the community. However, living together with the sisters and listening to them, I understand better the causes of their tendency for attachment.

I practice Noble Silence each Lazy Monday for at least half a day, because I conduct an anatomy class for our sisters later in the afternoon. Last Sunday evening, it was past 10 p.m. already when one of my mentees came to my room, asking me to help her with her insomnia because, she said, “I know you’ll be practicing Noble Silence tomorrow.” I told her to return to her bed, lie down, and follow her breathing. If she could not sleep that night, it would be okay; she’s had this problem several years, and we were not going to solve it that night. She walked away angry, and her steps were heavy. A few days later, I asked her if she was still mad at me, and she said her anger resolved after she had been following her breathing for a while. I asked if she knew why I sent her back to her room that night. “Because you want me to practice taking refuge in myself,” she replied.

Because all of us, monastics as well as aspirants, live in one building, the sisters have the tendency to “stop by” your room anytime they want. Some also tend to “hang out” nearby or at a distance, looking at you with curious and affectionate eyes. Sometimes I return to my room late, feeling exhausted, and I see some young aspirants knocking on my window, waving and smiling!!! I have requested a couple of my mentees to memorize the sutra “Taking Refuge in the Island of Self.” They are to recite it to me by memory, to contemplate on this sutra, and to apply this teaching in their daily lives.

Having lived with the sisters and listened to their life stories, I understand more why some of them are prone to attachment. Many of them do not receive love or positive communication in their families and in their previous temples. Therefore, when they happen to meet a person who has some freshness and who spends time to take care of them, they want to attach themselves to that person. They want to attach their hearts, fragile and full of sadness, to a person they think they can trust. I see clearly that as older brothers and sisters, we must practice to nourish stability and space within ourselves, so that we can understand others more deeply with time, and so that our love entails no “hook” that others can “attach” to.

Background of Our Monastics

These past three weeks our dharma teachers have begun to interview the aspirants and visiting nuns who request to stay and practice with us. I also participate in these interviews to help assess their health condition. Each day, we use the working period, an afternoon activity, and the evening sitting session to conduct interviews. I have learned a great deal from these sessions.

There are sisters who are so innocent and pure; they want to become monastics because they have seen how beautiful the monastics can be in their fine manners, behavior, and speech. There are also those who come from unhappy families; their parents abuse and neglect each other, and the young people do not want to repeat this cycle of suffering. There is one girl who spent most of her tender years caring for a mother with mental illness, begging for food, working as a maid, and defending her mother and herself from perverse men. There are those who came to live in a temple when they were only three or four years old. Yet their faces are somber, their hearts closed off, because they have witnessed such division and abuse in their root temples.

Dear Thay, it is very painful to hear all of these stories and more. In his last minutes before the Buddha died, he was so compassionate as to ordain Subhadda as his last disciple and to advise the new monk to practice diligently towards liberation. Suddenly, I touch the immense love in your heart, and I understand why it pains you when we have to turn someone away from our practice center here—though our facilities are stretched beyond limit. Our environment of practice has the capacity to nourish and enliven the faith and aspiration in people. I sincerely hope that my brothers and sisters, monastic as well as lay, will come and help build true practicing communities in Vietnam.

Beloved Teacher, you are here in every second and every minute. You are the tea flowers emitting fragrance throughout the mountains and valleys. You are the stream that flows through all paths. Even though our center is newly established, with your wisdom of Sangha building, the support of the Buddha and the patriarchs, the wholehearted care of lay friends, and the diligent practice of our brothers and sisters, Prajna is growing quickly and tremendously  strong.

Every late afternoon during the exercise period, some of us practice martial arts, some weed the tea hillsides, and some jog along the creeks. Our sisters’ clear laughter intertwines with the luscious green of the mountains. A chanting voice is heard nearby:

Now that I have entered this holy place I must use the sacred medicine to enlighten my spirit before I go out again.

To you our deepest gratitude. Brothers and sisters at Prajna Temple,

Dang Nghiem

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Sangha Building in Southern California

By Karen Hilsberg mb51-SanghabBuilding1

Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the Buddha of the twenty-first century may manifest as Sangha. The simplest definition of Sangha is a community of friends practicing mindfulness together and offering spiritual support to one another.

I practiced on my own in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh for ten years before beginning to practice regularly with a local Sangha and with the Deer Park Sangha. And from practicing with a Sangha my mindfulness practice has deepened exponentially. I learn so much from my friends in the fourfold Sangha (monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen)! We grow and develop together through our formal and informal practice together and through our special friendships.

Here are some tips and best practices that have worked to strengthen community and build Sangha in Southern California during the past seven years.

  • If you build it, they will come. My husband and started a Sangha in our home in October 2003. We publicized the Sangha for about three weeks before the first meeting by putting up fliers in health food stores and coffee shops, and sending out e-mails. Nine people attended our first gathering, and the Sangha has been meeting every week for the past six years.
  • Meet for at least two hours at a time so that people can have time to settle in without rushing. The format of many Sanghas is to begin with a silent or guided meditation for twenty to forty-five minutes, followed by slow walking meditation, then more sitting meditation. The second part consists of a Dharma discussion on a prearranged topic, such as a talk by Thay, an article in the Mindfulness Bell, a book by Thay, a sutra, or the Mindfulness Trainings. The Sangha may also learn a song or chant together, or practice inviting the bell. Have a different person lead the Sangha each week.
  • Meet every week at the same time in the same place. This creates continuity and dependability. Recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings or Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings once a month. Sangha members learn about the Trainings, discuss them, and then find ways to incorporate them into their lives if they like.
  • Use e-mail to remind 3angha members of the time and topic of each Sangha gathering. Create a website and add a listing on the worldwide directory of Sanghas at www.mindfulnessbell.org so that practitioners can locate a Sangha in their area.
  • Be inclusive. Welcome new members and make it easy for new members to participate. Some Sanghas offer an introduction at the beginning of each meeting or once a month. Some Sanghas have people who welcome everyone at the door at the beginning of the Sangha and are available to offer basic instruction in mindfulness practice.
  • Move the Sangha to a public space. Everyone loved meeting at our home and practicing walking meditation in the garden. However, we were encouraged to move the Sangha to a public space, which we did. Meeting in a local yoga studio has relieved the responsibility of leading the Sangha every week from any one person. It is often more comfortable for people to meet in a public space.
  • Collect dana each week to support rent for the space, community service projects, or scholarships for Days of Mindfulness and retreats.
  • Encourage Sangha members to subscribe to the Mindfulness Bell and periodically discuss an article or issue as a Sangha.
  • Lead by caretaking council. Share the Sangha leadership among a group of people who meet quarterly to make decisions about Sangha schedule, organize picnics or potlucks, arrange Days of Mindfulness, and attend to other Sangha business. Practice deep listening and loving speech during caretaking council and try to come to consensus when possible.
  • At least once a year, offer a Day of Mindfulness from 10:00 to 4:00 to the community and nearby Sanghas. Either lead the activities of the day yourselves or invite a Dharma Teacher or Order of Interbeing member to support or lead the activities.
  • When possible, attend a practice center or weekend retreat together as a Sangha. This is a wonderful opportunity to
  • get to know one another in a different context, to have unstructured time together, and to deepen the practice of the Sangha together.
  • Create an Order of Interbeing and/or OI Aspirant Sangha. Deer Park Monastery has been offering an opportunity on the third weekend of the month for OI members and aspirants to attend the monastery and meet together as a Sangha to deepen their understanding of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the OI Charter, and to build community in Southern California. This has been a wonderful opportunity for many Sangha leaders to feel recharged and nourished in their practice of Sangha building in their home communities.
  • Welcome and support families with young children. Children are wonderful practitioners and teachers. Children can understand mindfulness practice and families can practice together. Offer gatherings for families that can support parents in the wonderful and challenging task of fostering mindfulness and peace within the family.

The practice of mindfulness takes place at Sangha and increasingly in every aspect of our daily lives. Our Sangha brothers and sisters become our spiritual family with whom we share the landscape of our lives. As Thay has said, a practitioner is like a drop of water. If the drop of water is alone, it may evaporate easily. However, when many drops of water join together to form a river, all the drops of water in the river can travel safely to the ocean. The Sangha is our river that supports our practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of joy and non-fear in our lives.

For further support on Sangha building, refer to Friends on the Path by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, practices mindfulness and builds Sangha in Southern California. She recently self-published her first book entitled Be Like a Tree: Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh.

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Form Is Emptiness

The Umpqua Area Mindfulness Sangha By Hope Lindsay

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Eleven years ago, our home-based Sangha in Roseburg, Oregon began with three friends. Each of us invited others and at our zenith, about twenty people were on our reminder list with as many as fourteen at any session. Because we came from various traditions, or none at all, we had no particular structure until one of us attended a retreat with Thay and registered our Sangha with the Order of Interbeing.

As time will do, the years drew us in different directions. Changes in jobs, relationships, and family needs took many of us away. For me, a painful transition took place. During our third year I joined the Order of Interbeing, but others wanted different Buddhist orientations. Some had attended Ruth Denison’s Dhamma Dena and felt deep loyalty to that tradition. One person was a devotee of Jack Kornfield and vipassana; one dismissed our tradition as “just mindfulness”; still others found that Tibetan traditions suited them best. Finally, two formed a pre-session study hour for pondering the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and made a decision that our Sangha should be closed to new attendees unless they had an established history of Buddhist practice.

To myself, I repeated the refrain, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” It felt like a power struggle was taking place in a Sangha that had begun in tranquility. The closer we came to a purist form, the further away from openness, inclusiveness, and time for discussion. Our numbers began to dwindle.

Luckily, the minister of Umpqua Unitarian church suggested that I hold a mindful meditation session at the church. The only time available for the space was Wednesday noon. The time of day limits us, perhaps, but we are mostly retirees. A small subgroup comes from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and our Sangha takes on a bit of that flavor. Rather than attention to form, we focus on contemplation, spiritual growth, and insight. Our numbers are growing.

Most of the attendees have a keen sense of social justice and participate in activities such as Women in Black, hospice volunteering, or community action committees; some members sponsor seasonal giving to homeless, animal shelters, third world countries, and so on. When I was drawn to Thay’s teachings many years ago, it was a similar combination of social outreach and contemplation, meditation and daily dedication to the precepts that attracted me. I like this Sangha very much.

Whether it is my shortcoming or my memory of the former Sangha’s struggle, we are not fully structured in the style of Order of Interbeing. We do read the Five Mindfulness Trainings — one Training each week. This seems popular. We open with a bell, lighting incense, a brief reading, silent meditation for twenty minutes, followed by one of the Trainings and a reading that reflects the precept. Most of us sit in chairs. Some of us are ailing, so we do not do walking meditation except at occasional Saturday retreats. And heaven forbid that we sing! No one knows the OI songs but me and I can’t hold a tune. Also, we are rural and out of the way for other OI members to visit us and refresh our practice.

I feel at home in this Sangha. But I do not wear my beloved brown jacket. It would set me apart too much. Instead, I put it on for meditation at home, my private sacred moment.

mb51-Form2Hope Lindsay, True Recollection of the Dharma, worked as a social worker and counselor in hospitals, school districts, and community mental health settings. Now that she has retired she is fulfilling her dream of being a writer.

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Intersein-Zentrum

Ten Years of Practice in Community by Karl and Helga Riedl

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The Intersein-Zentrum, a practice and meditation center in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh, is celebrating its tenth anniversary! This means ten years of concretely and continuously building and maintaining Sangha.

After living in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and this way of life. In May 1999, together with the late Karl Schmied, we founded a residential community in the southeast corner of Germany — the Intersein-Zentrum (Interbeing Center).

Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, living under the same roof in the spirit of the Six Harmonies. Over these past ten years, quite a number of people have been inspired by the practice of Thay and happy to share this lifestyle. For some of them, after months or even many years, different priorities emerged and they went on their way — enriched, happier, and with more clarity. Others have stayed with us for as long as nine years. Today we are ten residents sharing our joy and love for the Buddha-Dharma.

The Four Foundations

The first foundation for a Sangha is to be deeply inspired by the Dharma and the practice of Plum Village.

Together with two other friends we moved into a renovated building in early 1999. At the beginning we felt quite lost in that big house, which can host as many as eighty-six people apart from the family retreats, when we host over one hundred people. The four of us began right away with the same schedule that is used in Plum Village: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, etc. One of the principles of our small Sangha from the very beginning has been to never, even in difficult and pressing situations, put the practice aside or skip scheduled activities. There was and still is a lot to do for a small group of people — running a big center and many retreats, being there for guests, implementing fascinating ideas and projects. However, before beginning a new task, we always ask the question: “Is it in accordance with the practice and our schedule?”

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The second foundation for a Sangha is that through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increases and radiates out.

Living in a residential community, sharing all activities, applying the Six Harmonies, and having only a common income from retreats and guests is a special and demanding practice in itself. The most important practice — and this holds true even for a non-residential Sangha — is to regularly come together and share. To share means to allow everyone to express their joy and their difficulties, inspire others with their insight, and ask for support and understanding. This fosters communication on a very deep level. Furthermore, it is important to be clear about organization, tasks, positions, and the decision-making process, to agree on the structure, and to expose and clarify misunderstandings.

The third foundation for a Sangha is to keep communication alive and open and to make sure the structure is transparent and clear for everybody.

Sharing also means sharing the practice with others — giving and serving. In this way we realize how much we can let go of our self-concern and how well we are rooted in the practice. Once a month we offer a retreat — generally from five days to one week— where we introduce people to mindfulness and different Plum Village practices. Refreshed and with new insight, they return to their families and workplace and when they come back, they report on their experiences: “Just knowing that you are practicing all year round gives us a lot of support and trust.” Most people come back again and again, staying for longer periods to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Each summer we offer a retreat for families, which is one of our most important. We stay connected with most of the families for many years, and we can observe with great joy and confidence that they are applying what they have learned and heard.

The fourth foundation for a Sangha is to have a common public activity and responsibility. Within this field we can express the fruit of our practice and we have the opportunity to respond to the actual problems people are facing today.

As a Sangha we are living and practicing in a non-Buddhist environment and it is very important to establish good relationships with our neighbors. Our connection with the nearby villages, which are deeply rooted in Christianity, is friendly, warm, and openhearted. Schoolteachers come here every year with their classes to experience our way of life and even the Catholic priest has visited us several times with his congregation.

The Acceleration of Wisdom

Last year we initiated a winter study and practice training that will run for three years in a row. This arose from seeing the needs and difficulties of practitioners and especially wanting to give those who are deeply motivated the opportunity to enhance and deepen their understanding. Observing the participation and enthusiasm of quite a number of people gives us the confidence that this training corresponds much to the needs of our time. This is another important aspect of a Sangha — to study and deepen the understanding of the Dharma practice and to be able to explain it to others.

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We have many Italian friends from Plum Village who come regularly to the retreats we lead in Italy. They have observed over many years the development of the Intersein-Zentrum in Germany. They felt much inspired by how this lay practice center is organized and how the practice is kept alive, so after several years of preparation they are on the way to manifesting a residential practice center in southern Italy. Those who feel committed to living in a residential community are coming here to be trained and some members of our center will go there and support them at the beginning. It is very important for a Sangha to establish a good relationship with other Sanghas, so we can learn from our cultural diversities and open up to each other.

The emphasis in our tradition is the practice of mindfulness and so it is quite natural that we take care of our bodies and our environment. In our center we serve vegetarian food that is based on the principles of Ayurveda and the Chinese five elements; we get protein from a rich variety of beans and nuts. We offer classes in yoga and chi gong. Furthermore we have solar water heating and a very modern wood pellet stove for heat, a large composting pile that we have turned into a beautiful vegetable and flower garden, and a biological sewage system. We are very concerned about driving and we have more than one car-free day. All these different activities are expressions of our practice and they are seen by our guests as examples that they can take home and apply directly in their daily lives.

When we look back over these years, we see that all the difficulties we have faced were indeed “wisdom accelerators,” as Thay calls them. We gained much understanding of the difficulties faced by people who are practicing the Buddha-Dharma in the West, a culture that is deeply materialistic. We continue to learn a lot and to experience more than ever a deep trust in the Three Jewels — while using our modern tools and language that people in the twenty-first century can understand and apply.

Helga Riedl, True Wonderful Loving Kindness, and Karl Riedl, True Communion, were ordained as Dharma teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994. Their spiritual path began in Poona, India, with Baghwan Sri Rajneesh in 1980 and in 1985 they started Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition. They also studied the Theravada tradition in monasteries in Sri Lanka and Thailand and the Tibetan Gelug tradition at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Pomaia, Italy. It was there they met Thay in 1992 and shortly after followed him to Plum Village.

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Mentoring and the Aspirant Process

By Joanne Friday mb51-Mentoring1

When someone approaches me with an interest in becoming an aspirant for the Order of Interbeing, I give them twelve Questions for Reflection [see sidebar] to help them look deeply at their motivation and to decide whether conditions are sufficient for them to make a commitment to Sangha building at this time.

Then I meet with them so that they can share what they discovered when answering the questions. If they are clear that they want to become a member of the Order, the questions help them to see areas in their lives that need their attention, or areas of their practice that could be stronger. I always ask them to look deeply at what they see as the strengths of their practice and which areas need to be strengthened. This helps me to offer them supportive practices.

A Clear Aspiration

It also helps for the potential aspirant to get clear about their motivation. Many of us have been powerfully conditioned to want to “attain” something and make “progress.” Many approach the aspirant process as they would an academic program, wanting to complete the requirements and get the degree. This habit energy can be very strong and a real obstacle to stopping and getting in touch with our inner wisdom. When people can stop running after the answer outside of themselves, develop compassion for themselves, and learn to use the practice to take very good care of themselves and transform their suffering when it arises, they are able to be fully present and be of service to others. Then we can truly inter-be and build a strong Sangha.

Once they are clear about their aspiration, I ask them to write a letter to Thay (with a copy sent to Brother Phap Tri) outlining their spiritual path so far and explaining why they want to enter the aspirant process at this time. I invite them to ask an Order member or two that they practice with regularly to assist in mentoring them. I then try to connect with those mentors so that we can share the process of supporting the aspirant.

I share aspirant materials that have been compiled by other Dharma teachers (many can be found at http://mountainsangha.org/aspirant/). They include suggested reading lists and practices.

I talk with the aspirant monthly, in person or by phone, and help them to look at how they are practicing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in their daily life. Our Sangha has an aspirant group made up of Order members, aspirants, and those contemplating joining the Order. We meet once a month and have a ceremony to recite the Fourteen Trainings. Aspirants become familiar with the form and the chants. We then have a check-in, during which the participants share which of the Fourteen particularly resonated with them or what happened during the month that gave them the opportunity to become more aware of their habits of mind, places they are caught, and opportunities to use the Fourteen. We then share a potluck lunch and hugging meditation.

Aspirants are also encouraged to attend retreats and Days of Mindfulness, take an active role in their Sangha, organize Days of Mindfulness, and share their practice. If they are not in my area, I ask that they attend retreats that I will be offering or attending so that we get a chance to practice together.

Flowering and Transformation

After the aspirant has been studying and practicing for at least a year (or two years, according to many Sanghas), and the Sangha, the Dharma teacher, and the mentors are all in agreement, the aspirant is invited to receive Ordination.

At that time, they complete an application to receive the Transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. They write a letter to describe how they have transformed their suffering, some of the insights they have had during the aspirant process, and their motivation for wanting to receive the Transmission at this time. The Sangha writes a letter of support, the Dharma teacher writes a letter, and the mentors write letters. All of these letters along with the application form are compiled into a packet that is sent to Thay. Copies of the packet are sent to Brother Phap Tri and the Dharma teacher, and a copy is kept by the aspirant.

Also in our Sangha, we conduct a Shining of the Light ceremony near the beginning of the process and again two to three months before Ordination. [See “Shining the Light” on page 53.] Not everyone feels comfortable doing this; if not, it is better not to do it. When done skillfully, with love and compassion, the person who has had the light shone on them feels deeply loved.

That’s how we are supporting our aspirants at this time. As mentors, we practice deeply in order to be able to be available to the mentee. It is a true privilege to share the path and an inspiration to witness the beautiful flowering and transformation that occurs.

Joanne Friday, True Joy of Giving, practices with the Clear Heart Sangha, the Radiant Bell Sangha, and the Mind Tamers Sangha in Rhode Island. She lives with her husband, Richard, in Wakefield, RI.

mb51-Mentoring2Questions for Reflection

These questions for reflection were developed during the Community of Mindfulness, NY Metro aspirant process and were published in The Mindfulness Bell #21, April 1998.

  1. Why do I want to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings?
  2. Why have I decided to state my aspiration to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings at this time?
  3. How has my practice of mindfulness (understanding, love, and compassion) helped me to transform my suffering (anger, fear, depression, craving/neediness, despair, distractions, specific relationships, and past and current experiences of suffering)? What are challenges in the practice for me at this time? Where is my “growing edge”?
  4. What time and energy can I offer at this time and over the next few years to take responsibility for the well-being of the Sangha with which I practice? How am I communicating with my Sangha about my deepening aspiration, to encourage support and avoid divisiveness?
  5. Where am I with my relationships with my family? with Order of Interbeing members? with other Sangha members? In what ways am I practicing in the direction of “resolving all conflicts, however small”?
  6. Where am I in relation to mindful consumption of alcohol (as interpreted in Thay’s tradition); and other consumption, including consumption of TV?
  7. How long and in what contexts have I been practicing within Thay’s tradition (local Sangha, Plum Village, retreats, reading)?
  8. What is my relationship with my “root” tradition(s)? How do I see the connections in my life between my root tradition(s) and Thay’s practice and teachings?
  9. How long and in what contexts have I been practicing with other meditation traditions? How do I integrate these experiences with Thay’s practice and teachings?
  10. How do I use the practice of mindfulness in the context of my workplace and livelihood? How would I like to do this even more?
  11. What is my “socially engaged” practice and aspiration?
  12. Are there other questions and concerns about my practice, about the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and about joining the core community of the Order of Interbeing?

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Meditation in the Library

By Kenley Neufeld I’m the Library Director at a large community college in Santa Barbara, California. For the past three years I’ve been leading weekly and, for one semester, daily meditation sessions on campus. All students, faculty, and staff are invited to participate in “Meditation in the Library”. The purpose is two-fold: to provide a space to introduce mindfulness practice into the community, and to provide me with time for sitting in the middle of the workday.

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We typically meet in my office once a week, for twenty minutes. Fortunately, I have a large office and can easily accommodate up to eight people sitting in chairs or on the floor—though our numbers are usually two to four people per week. Each semester I invite the community to “Meditation in the Library” by sending out a campus-wide email message describing mindfulness meditation in a non-sectarian manner. Though many cannot attend due to scheduling conflicts, I often receive return messages from staff and faculty expressing a desire to participate or thanking me for providing the opportunity. In addition to the email, I usually place flyers around campus and put an ad on the student web portal. Since I’ve been offering the meditation sessions for three years now, the community is coming to expect them.

The room is set up with chairs facing one direction, though there is space to sit on the floor as well. We keep the lights off, but plenty of light comes in through the windows, so it’s not completely dark. If new people are present, I may start with suggestions on sitting posture and then begin a guided meditation focusing on the breath. We sit for twenty minutes and end with one sound of a bell. A person or two may engage in casual conversation at the end, but we generally do not share thoughts. There are one or two regulars; the rest of the participants are rather transient due to the changing schedules of college students.

On occasion, students participate to get extra credit in their Personal Development course. This course is designed to help students be successful in college, and one element of success is stress management. The students earning extra credit have also invited me to speak in their class. I attempt to keep the conversation non-sectarian, but in a thirty-minute presentation to a classroom full of students, questions about my personal practice often arise. In these class sessions I present my experience with meditation and provide concrete examples to show how meditation supports me in my work and in my relationships with other people. I provide details on sitting and breathing, plus opportunities to practice mindfulness. We end the class presentation with a five-minute guided meditation.

Having “Meditation in the Library” has been very nourishing for my practice. Reminders to practice in the work environment, and especially making others aware that I have a regular meditation practice, help my energy level and bring awareness to my interactions with others on campus.

mb53-Meditation2Kenley Neufeld, True Recollection of Joy, leads the Being Peace Zendo in Ojai and “Meditation in the Library”at Santa Barbara City College. He can be reached at sangha@neuhouse.com.

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Homeschooling as Mindfulness Practice

By Lisa Pettitt mb54-Homeschooling1

Our family has been homeschooling for over five years. We had not envisioned this path for ourselves: my partner and I had professional careers, and our kids were in day care as infants. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is because that is, and this is not because that is not.” Our decision to homeschool arose at the intersection of a variety of conditions.

A college friend who homeschools shared her family’s experiences with us. The events of September 11, 2001 led us to reassess our priorities and values. I attended my first mindfulness retreat in Estes Park, CO, very pregnant with our third child in the fall of 2003. Not long after we welcomed this child into our family, my career path reached a plateau and my partner’s demanded more time and attention. Our children were transforming us with their pure hearts, curious minds, and mindful presence. Time with them inspired me to practice more and nourished my practice more than my professional work did. Homeschooling spoke to us because it seemed to provide a healthy blend of intellectual challenge, spiritual richness, family focus, space, and time.

As homeschoolers who have practiced as a family, with family Sanghas, and at days of mindfulness and retreats, we find that our homeschooling and mindfulness practice have enriched each other. The homeschooling schedule allows for a slower, flexible pace and for stopping—we can awaken in the morning without rushing to get everyone out the door, we can take breaks when we need them, we can adjust our schedule to make the most of special opportunities for learning, travel, and time with family and friends.

The flexible schedule promotes being in touch with the present moment. We learned in depth about Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, we studied extensively about southern Colorado before a visit there, and we took one daughter’s participation in a performance of Godspell as a chance to study parables from the Bible.

Because we spend so much time together, we have many opportunities to nourish our relationships and be aware of how we inter-are. We help one another with lessons, we work together on projects, we listen to and support one another during difficult times, and we help each other remember to smile and laugh. We come to recognize and appreciate one another’s strengths and care for one another when we are struggling with difficult emotions. We are aware of how one person’s feelings can affect the rest of us.

In turn, our mindfulness practice and the teachings enrich our homeschooling. Through the practice, we cultivate creative insights for responding to challenging situations. We breathe to calm ourselves before practicing multiplication tables. We smile to our Spanish lessons. Of course, there are times when our practice is not as strong and we are not as skillful as we would like to be, but we have faith that mindfulness is always available to us and we can return to it for nourishment.

In contemplating mindfulness and education, we shared our ideas with one another. Teresa (age eight) said that mindfulness helps her when she’s having a strong emotion; she can sit and meditate in order to calm down. She also told us a story that illustrated how mindfulness can help us understand others better. When she and a friend were being chased by a boy, she stopped to ask him why he was chasing them. He told her he didn’t feel like he had any friends so that was his way of getting attention.

Hugh (age six) shows us all the time how hugs can be bells of mindfulness. When some of us are arguing, he reminds us that “there’s a cake in the refrigerator.” And he told us that when we teach others mindfulness to help them calm their own emotions, the world will get “mindfuller.”

Sophia (age ten) offers us a haiku on mindfulness and education:

The Silent Bell

The silent bell rings. Sit down. Listen to the trees. Mindfully learn today.

Sophia (Loving Nectar of the Heart), Teresa (Crystal Light of the Heart), and Hugh (Tranquil Dragon of the Heart) teach and practice with their parents, Lisa Pettitt (Great Guide of the Heart) and Dave Kenney in Evergreen, Colorado.

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Applied Ethics

Education for Teachers By Richard Brady

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“I haven’t felt this good about being a teacher in a long, long time.” — Teacher from Belgium

“I gained the insight during the retreat that no one can make me happy except myself.” — Teacher from Germany

“My insight from this retreat: I thought about the specialness of food. When I would eat a piece of bell pepper, I would normally think, ‘Ah, a piece of pepper, I already know that taste and form.’ But now it occurred to me that in fact, each bell pepper is a new, different one and each bell pepper is only eaten once, however much it might resemble the former and future peppers that I eat. The same of course is true for rain droplets or a smile of a person you know: each one is unique.” — Teacher from Holland

This was some of the feedback from participants in the Applied Ethics Stage I course at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism last summer, when I was privileged to assist Sister Annabel and Sister Jewel in teaching. I had sent Sister Annabel a copy of my book, Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, to use as a resource for this pilot course, and then offered to help in person. Having read the description of the Stage I course, which can be found on the Plum Village website, I knew that taking care of the teacher was its focus. I was happy to receive the course schedule a few weeks beforehand from Sister Jewel, and to see that it was very similar to a weekly schedule for a Plum Village retreat: daily Dharma talks related to personal practice, a question and answer session, a lazy day, exercise and working meditation in the morning, total relaxation in the afternoon, and evening programs.

Twice, we focused on teaching children. We had the good fortune to attend one of Sister Jewel’s classes with local children, and we devoted one evening program to bringing mindfulness into the classroom. Other evening programs were Total Relaxation, the Five Touchings of the Earth, Beginning Anew, presentations on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and a tea meditation. The morning meditation with the monastic community included sutra reading, Touching the Earth meditations, and a Five Mindfulness Training transmission ceremony. We also practiced eating meditation, walking meditation, and afternoon meditation and sutra reading with the monastic community.

The experience of the twenty-five participants was deep and transformative. Held by the practice of the monastic Sangha, our group formed its own Sangha; we shared suffering and joy, wisdom and play. Participants took the teachings home inside of them to share with their students.

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Like the EIAB, Plum Village, Blue Cliff, and Deer Park will also offer courses or retreats for educators in the future. However the number of educators who will participate in these courses can only be a tiny percentage of all teachers. Besides size limitations, the monastic settings of these courses will be problematic for many teachers. Nevertheless, it was the monastic setting of the EIAB course that helped create the conditions for deep learning to take place. I wondered how Thay’s teachings would be able to reach a large number of students.

A Resource for All

In early November, Order of Interbeing member Rob Wall and I attended a symposium, Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative Teaching and Learning, at the Garrison Institute in New York State. Thanks to Meena Srinivasan, who submitted the proposal but was unable to attend, we had the honor of presenting a poster on Applied Ethics at a ninety-minute Marketplace of Ideas session. In this session, posters were presented by representatives of many groups offering mindfulness to youth. Creating our poster for this special opportunity, we sought a direction that would embody Thay’s teaching. We didn’t want Applied Ethics to be seen as one more approach competing with those already in existence.

We saw that just as Thay’s teachings have nourished many Buddhist teachers, Applied Ethics can nourish the many existing approaches that bring mindfulness to education. Courses like the one at the EIAB can be a resource for all leaders in the mindful- ness in education movement and their colleagues. They can deepen their practice of the teachings in a monastic setting, and translate them into language that will work for their students. The heading of our poster read:

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Applied Ethics We are here for you

The poster displayed the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the EIAB course schedule, quotes from participants, a photo of the smiling members of the group, and a schedule of future events for educators in Plum Village and London with Thay.

Wearing our brown OI jackets, Rob and I conversed with the many interested folks constantly gathered around our poster. People told us that they’d read Thay’s books for years. Some had been with Thay at public lectures or retreats. Thirty people signed up to get more information on Applied Ethics. Most of these indicated an interest in attending courses or retreats at one of Thay’s monasteries and were enthusiastic about the possibility of events in the U.S. Nine purchased copies of Thay’s new book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children.

How wonderful it would be for leaders from all areas of the mindfulness in education movement to practice together at Blue Cliff, Deer Park, Plum Village, and the EIAB.

mb59-AppliedEthics3Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, received the Lamp Transmission in 2001 to work with young people. He lives in Putney, Vermont, where he practices with the Mountains and Rivers Mindfulness  Community.

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Love in Our Generation

By Jenny Hamp mb60-Love1In April 2011, I asked a Brooklyn Sangha friend how to get in touch with New York Wake Up. The next week I found out I was organizing it. My friend had volunteered me to help a young adult from the Manhattan Sangha who wanted to start a group. Our incentive was an email from Thay’s monastics, a mission like the start of a treasure map: you will have four days with eight monastics for part of a Wake Up tour in New York City, and “it is up to you folks to decide what to do.” Eventually four of us (two men and two women; two people of color and two Caucasians) got together to create a Wake Up group… and somehow plan for our part of the tour.

We decided to focus on the upcoming monastics’ visit and to use weekly Wake Up meetings, open to anyone, for practice and planning. We would have a short sit, drink tea, eat a meal, or walk together in the park. Then we would look at many exciting questions: Should we have a retreat in one place, or different places? Should we have people bring lunch? How were we going to advertise? Understanding often came in conversation when we weren’t looking for answers. I soon caught on to a new energy I hadn’t experienced before. After each meeting I felt lighter, inspired, and optimistic, whether or not we had made any headway. It took me a while to notice this wasn’t a chance occurrence.

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We cast wide nets for schools and contemplative groups who might want to help share the practice with young adults. Every time we had a good insight, or successfully connected with a student group, it felt like sharing a good meal that was never finished. Every time we miscommunicated with someone or an opportunity fell through, we supported each other and held the disappointment without blame or judgment.

Many people quickly swung out to help. The monastics planning the tour brought their experience and clear vision to pull all the threads together. Our lay Dharma teachers offered their full support and also their contacts at universities for us to meet. The Gershwin Hotel provided housing, event planning, food, and a free event space. A young business consultant joined us in planning the tour and launched a Facebook campaign. When we pulled the nets in, we found we would have a full Day of Mindfulness in the city, a concert, a flash mob, two visits to private schools, a visit to a public school, and two sessions at a juvenile detention center. Additionally, over 300 people were planning to attend.

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The Fruit of Our Efforts

On the first day of the Wake Up Tour in New York, I got to see the fruit of these efforts. After a mindful meal, the monastics asked the group of about 100 young adults what they had experienced. One person was aware of each ingredient in her sandwich, much more now than when she made it. Someone else discovered he actually did not enjoy peanut butter and jelly very much. I was hearing calm accounts of people becoming aware of their food—not as an exotic experiment that was outside of themselves, but as a simple witnessing and perceiving through their own senses. I felt so happy to see that with half a day of practice in the city it was possible to stop. I felt like I had gained many sisters and brothers in an instant. Here were so many other young adults with the same open interest and hopefulness.

Another highlight for me was the ice cream machine at Lehman College. After a session with students, we had dinner there with the monastics and some young adults traveling on the tour. The vending machine was a contraption, and we were so excited to put money in it and see gears and claws and hinges whirring around just to deliver an ice cream sandwich! We laughed with total abandon, and got a second sandwich so we could watch it again, crying with laughter. The sisters cut the sandwiches up carefully so everyone could have a bite, and it seemed totally satisfying. To me this was joy we completely shared, this silliness and amazement generated as a group, just to take in this moment and make each other happy.

The Power to Embrace

Today our Wake Up organizing team of four has grown into eight and has become the caretaking council for Wake Up New York. A yoga center owner who follows Thay offered his space so we could meet. Instead of going to bars on Friday nights, people can come for an hour of practice and then hang out with us. Two of us are pre-aspirants and two are aspirants to the Order of Interbeing, and we feel our teachers right there with us. We have about fifteen people each week. The group has been very joyful and supportive. It is a place where I feel comfortable sharing and can let the group carry me when I feel less able.

At first I thought Wake Up was a space for young adults to relax with our peers and practice a little. However, after practicing with this group and seeing such a strong response in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, I think it’s more than that. Many of us are noticing how affected we are after each gathering; we feel stronger, more confident, and more optimistic. I think it has something to do with meeting people who have similar suffering, and who will be with us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we realize that many other young adults also feel capable of living in a more humane and compassionate society. We look across the room and see motivation and love in our generation.

We try to deal with the economy, the climate, the suffering of our parents in us, discrimination and greed in our culture, all alone, and maybe we feel sad about the future. I think Wake Up has changed our perspective. From feeling helpless, we’ve moved to feeling we have the power to embrace what lies ahead. It feels very simple: we can accomplish this just by being there for ourselves and each other. In this space we can actively create the acceptance and freedom we want everyone to have, and we feel empowered.

The mission statement developed by Wake Up New York:

Wake Up New York is a group of young meditation practitioners who get together to create a joyful space of refuge for young adults. We are inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. We do the fun things that New York City dwellers do, but actively maintain the best elements of our culture: inclusiveness, healthy consumption, hope, joy, great energy, activism, and community. By being wonderfully together we create support for each other. We find we are not alone with the suffering of our generation. We seek out our true selves amid the dynamics of our new relationships, new jobs, struggling minds, dynamic bodies, busy cities, and big life changes. We share our success in practicing mindfulness and finding happiness. We practice with our local Sanghas, at practice centers, and with the teachings, so as to nurture our hearts and minds and create real hope for our generation and our future.

mb60-Love4Jenny Hamp, Peaceful Refuge of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner Tim. She works as a mechanical engineer, tries to help reduce energy consumption in buildings, and practices not starting interesting new projects.

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