slowing down

Walking on Ice

 By Jack Lawlor Even the Buddha's Sangha experienced difficulties. His cousin, Devadatta, once attempted to divide the Sangha and lead it himself. And the Buddha himself could not mediate the dispute over etiquette between the Precept master and the Sutra master at Kosambi-at least, not initially. The Upakkilesa Sutta describes how the bhikkhus at Kosambi were "quarreling and brawling and deep in dispute, stabbing each other with verbal daggers." The Buddha's verse on this dispute reveals how keenly he observed what was happening:

When many voices shout at once None considers himself a fool; Though this Sangha is being split None thinks himself to be at fault.

They have forgotten thoughtful speech, They talk obsessed by words alone. Uncurbed their mouths, they bawl at will; None knows what will lead him to so act.

"He abused me, he struck me, He defeated me, he robbed me"- In those who harbor thoughts like these Hatred will never be allayed.

For in this world, hatred is never Allayed by further acts of hate. It is allayed by non-hatred: That is the fixed and ageless law. Those others do not recognize That here we should restrain ourselves. But those wise ones who realize this At once end all their enmity.

Many Western Sanghas have also experienced difficulty. Ordained teachers in various traditions have engaged in sexual misconduct and selfish financial practices, and disputes have arisen out of personality differences and opinions on how the Sangha should be "led." In response, we often want to reach beyond basic mindfulness practices to resources from other venues, such as conflict resolution techniques used by businesses or other spiritual traditions. If carefully modified to address the people involved, these can sometimes help lessen difficulty in a Sangha, but there are limitations on how much relief we can reasonably expect from organizational solutions, except with respect to extreme behavior and abuses. A healthy, happy Sangha ultimately depends less on structures than on consistent mindfulness practice.

Simple practice helps us penetrate the limits of conceptual thought by deepening our insight into our own and others' motivations and needs, thus enabling us to transform our behavior and nourish the Sangha. Practicing in a Sangha that concentrates wholeheartedly on basic practice, it becomes easier to let go of some of our favorite baggage our ideology and concepts, including our concepts of what Sangha should be like. The Diamond Sutra boldly asserts that "Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free from ideas."

We are invited to participate in a Sangha with an open mind and heart. We should not leave a Sangha merely because it occasionally uses practices that do not appeal to us. A practice that does not appeal to us today may be of great help in the future. Practicing as a healthy Sangha involves a collective decision to practice wholeherutedly each time the Sangha convenes. As Thay reminds us, happiness is not an individual matter.

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The calm and peace produced by our mindfulness practice provides insight when uncertainty, impatience, or anger arise in us. With mindfulness, we are better equipped to watch these states arise and fall within us. We are able to respond to the actual circumstances we are in, rather than react as if compelled by habit energy. From this space, this freedom, the practice of Right Speech-so critical to any healthy Sangha-becomes possible. We find little use for gossipy or sarcastic speech, which causes so much suffering in a Sangha.

During last fall's tele-Dharma talk to North American members of the Order of Interbeing, Thay reflected:

Causing division, juggling for power, juggling for influence, opposing each other are just the symptoms of lack of practice. You can apply mindfulness in every moment of your daily life. We should not put a lot of energy into how to organize or structure or how to settle things, as in politics. The main thing is the practice. The practice is the first thing. We should set up organizations on the basis of our practice, not the other way around. If we use our intelligence to organize our daily practice, we can get nourishment, healing, and transformation every day, and we can help our brothers and sisters do the same.

Following this advice can be difficult. It is more entertaining to play with ideas about how to graft Western organizational models onto Buddhist life. This type of integration will indeed happen. Buddhism and Western culture already interpenetrate and inform each other. But successful integration will happen more as the result of our collective experimentation with living mindfully and practicing in small local Sanghas, than as the result of structure imposed by hierarchy. We must not get lost in concepts as we work with our precious local Sanghas. Some folks get so caught up in ideas and concepts, that they slowly abandon their own daily mindfulness practices due to all the time-pressure and excitement. Even veteran practitioners cannot bargain with the essentials of mindfulness practice. We cannot cheat on our daily practice and hope to remain mindful--even in the name of Sanghabuilding, or spreading the Dharma in the West.

Balancing mindfulness practices and the desire to help is like walking on ice. Sometimes the ice is hidden or even invisible-in the Midwest, we call this "black ice." In some places it is safe to walk, but inches away it is extremely slippery. If you fall, you learn the true meaning of dispersion! But, despite the difficulty, I recommend walking on ice as a mindfulness practice. It teaches us something about life as a layperson, as an organizer and facilitator of a local Sangha. Sometimes conditions are ideal, sometimes they are not. Sometimes we can see the obstacles and difficulties, sometimes--even if we try to look with our Sangha eyes they are hidden. When the going is slippery, it is best to slow down and return to the basics of breathing and walking. When we do, those with us are much safer, and we become less dangerous and less frustrated with the slippery, uncontrollable conditions of daily life.

When a lake freezes before a snowfall, you can sometimes look deeply into it, through the ice, and see the lily pads and roots of last summer smiling at you from below the frozen surface. When we slow down and face our difficulties, illuminating them with mindfulness before we speak or act, we may also find that much below the surface is revealed.

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The Buddha never lost faith in Sangha practice. Not long after his enlightenment, he built his first Sangha, and he continued Sangha building for forty-five years. His life reads like a Tolstoy novel. He interacted with Sangha members from every stratum of society: kings, princes, princesses, wealthy men and women and their overprivileged children, paupers, outcasts, and criminals. But, he learned from all of them, and this learning is evident in the deepening of his teachings as his Sangha practice continued. The wisdom body we share today as "Buddhism" is a result of this collective interaction.

In the wake of the difficulties of the Sangha at Kosambi, the Buddha found three monks practicing as a small Sangha in the Eastern Bamboo Park. He was favorably impressed with how considerate they were of each other, and asked how they succeeded in "living in concord, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes." The monks' response, recorded in the Upakkilesa Sutra, inspires us even today:

Venerable sir, as to that, I think thus: "It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me that I am living with such companions in the holy life." I maintain bodily acts of lovingkindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: "Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?" Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind. Whichever of us returns first from the village with almsfood prepares the seats, sets out the water for drinking and for washing, and puts the refuse bucket in its place. Whichever of us returns last eats any food left over, if he wishes. He puts away the seats and the water for drinking and washing. He puts away the refuse bucket after washing it, and he sweeps out the refectory. Whoever notices that the pots of water for drinking, washing, or the latrines are low and empty, takes care of them. If they are too heavy for him, he calls someone else by a signal of the hand and they move it by joining hands, but because of this we do not break out in speech. But, every fIve days, we sit together all night discussing the Dharma. This is how we abide diligent, ardent, mindful, and resolute.

The living Dharma is in the details of living mindfully and attentively, aware of the needs of others and allowing our understanding to bloom into direct manifestations of wisdom and compassion. In the classic Mahaya text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva advises:

Those desiring speedily to be A refuge for themselves and other beings, Should interchange the terms "I" and "other," And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

When we practice this way, and recognize that others share our spiritual aspirations, it is easy to truly be present with others and to regard them as our kalyanamitra, our spiritual friends. Ananda once remarked to the Buddha, "Half of this holy life, Lord, is good and noble friends, companionship with the good, association with the good." The Buddha reflected for a moment and then responded, "Do not say that, Ananda. Do not say that. It is the whole of this holy life." When faced with disputes within our Sanghas, we must return to the basic practices of mindful breathing and walking, and ask ourselves the question the Buddha posed to the bhikkhus at Kosambi:

Breakers of bones and murderers, Those who steal cattle, horses, and wealth, Those who pillage the entire realm-- When even these can act together Why can you not do so too?

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, has practiced law for twenty-three years and is the author of the book, Sangha Building. The book is available directly from Jack, c/o Lakeside Buddha Sangha, P.O. Box 7077, Evanston, IL 60201.

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The Country of Endless Space

A New Practitioner Sprouts in Plum Village By Susan Hadler

I stepped off the train and waited. A woman in a long brown dress walked slowly towards me. She was smiling and she stopped in front of me. I was about to extend my hand when she brought her hands together in front of her chest and bowed. Worries fled. I smiled, brought my hands together and bowed. The nun's unhurried walk, her smile and bow live in me even as I write this from my room in the heart of Washington, DC, a city beleaguered by death, grief and fear in the wake of September 11th.

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Plum Village was a nursery and I was a thirsty sprout, drinking in the freedom to stop and to be quiet. I learned freedom of a kind I never imagined could exist in a community. This new freedom comes from the place deep in the earth of being where the seed cracks open and roots and Iife begin. It is a place of inner space. Uncrowded. It seems to be nurtured by emptying rather than by filling, by weeding and pruning and watering with rest and attentiveness. I am trying to nurture this tender new plant that grew from the soil of living with the nuns of Plum Village and learning new ways of being with others and with myself.

I learned from the sisters that cultivating inner space is primary and important work. This was revolutionary for me. Previously, I had learned to respond indiscriminately and fill myself with others' emotional needs. I thought this was noble, even though I was often exhausted and unable to enjoy life. At Plum Village I learned to preserve inner space even in the presence of others; when I am with you, I am there for you, but I am still rooted in my own still center of space and peace. That place of space and peace is the tender new sprout I am learning to take care of. It means I can walk slowly and smile and bow even when you are upset, even when I am upset. This freedom seems to come from a place of security that is available all the time, even now when my city is threatened by biological terrorism. When I am rooted there, I feel almost childlike in my ease with living. Then I know the ultimate is everywhere. The ultimate is here.

I felt the roots of the new freedom grow during working meditation in Plum Village when a friend reminded me to enjoy the sea green leaves of the bamboo I was hacking off while pruning the forest. Growth continued when another friend taught me to hug the apples we were sorting, even the wrinkled, soft ones, instead of tossing them rapidly into boxes. Working slowly and attending to the task was new for me. I have always tried to work as quickly as possible and finish work before relaxing. But work was seldom finished. Often I did six things at once - cooking, cleaning, eating, laundry, talking on the phone, listening to the radio. In order to avoid the uncomfOItable period of restlessness and withdrawal involved in slowing down, relaxing often took the form of more stimulation - movies, novels, and events. The little plant that began to grow in the quiet soil of Plum Village enjoyed the calm and clarity that came into my mind and body as I began to slow down and wake up. I noticed the new growth springing up outside my window as well as within.

Amazingly there was no competition in Plum Village for knowing the most, singing the best or even for working the hardest! That one surprised me. I had been trained to believe hard work was a virtue. After a few days of volunteering for everything and feeling confused when I wasn't rewarded for my 'virtuous' behavior, I began to understand that things other than hard work are valued in Plum Village, things that promote peace. I learned to value things like walking slowly, stopping to enjoy the fields and forests, singing in a circle, gathering to eat ice cream after a special working meditation, talking to the flowers and the sky, listening to the rain and watching the sunset through the orchard, and sharing stories and poems during tea meditations. Even rest is valued. Rushing and exhausting oneself are definitely not valued, even when one is trying to be helpful or useful. My little sprout thrived in the simplicity of Plum Village where space existed around each thing, like the space surrounding the flowers in the Meditation Hall.

My new freedom to enjoy living was tested when terrorism struck the USA. Anger and fear rose up in this country like a mighty unending storm. I was overwhelmed and struggled to breathe. Sometimes I forgot my little plant and when I sat to meditate, I felt tight aching shoulders and tiredness, symptoms of fear. When I was with friends, the talk was full of grief and rage and panic, discussions of causes and solutions. Voices boomed, threatened and clashed. Many of us rushed to help and to prepare for more attacks.

In the midst of fear, I've learned the meaning of refuge. Sitting with the Sangha here in Washington, D.C., I have found a place of peace where people walk slowly and smile and bow and sit in silence together and listen to each other, fertile soil for plants to flower. One afternoon in early October, a rainy windy fall day, I joined the Capitol Hill Mindfulness Community and the Committee on Mindful Politics for a silent walking meditation, an effort "to help Congress cultivate peace within themselves and in doing so, help to create peace in the world." I approached the Capitol full of anxiety and sadness. It was the day anthrax was discovered in the Capitol.

After the opening circle, we held hands and walked slowly toward the Capitol. Breathing in, breathing out. I looked up at the dark clouds swirling over the Capitol. There in front of the white dome, I saw an image of Thay. He was wearing his familiar brown jacket and long scarf. He was walking with us slowly, hand in hand. He was smi ling. I lost my fear then and entered that country I found in Plum Village where the dark clouds of anger and fear and grief evaporate and space is endless. Bright yellow leaves twirled and danced with the wind as they fell around us . We stopped. We smiled. We bowed.

Susan Hadler practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.

Drawing by Wietske

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Turning Towards the Light

Israeli and Palestinian Meetings in Plum VillageMembers of the Palestinian-Israeli Sangha

One soul has been changed

Dear Thay, I am a young Palestinian woman, who was part of the Palestinian-Israeli group in Plum Village last week. I lived in Paradise for a week. I felt that Plum Village is paradise for two reasons: the location and the atmosphere and the fact that our enemies were our friends. All the people around me were my family. I could sense the warmth of love radiating from every soul and penetrating my dark heart. The darkness has been living there since my childhood, the darkness that was caused by "our cousins," the cousins that took away my childhood, and are now aiming at my youth. In your Paradise, my voice was heard even during the noble silence. My heart was touched and the darkness was replaced by light.

I am back home now. I am ready to accept my enemies as family. I will try to synchronize my breath with their breath. I will let my voice free and I will listen twice before I talk.

Thank you for hosting us in your paradise, and exposing us to the Buddha's teachings.

One soul in Palestine has been changed. I am looking towards the light now.

Sincerely, a participant from Jerusalem, Palestine November 2001

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The Seeds of a Dream

Over the past few years, Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested more than once that Palestinians and Jews sit together in meditation to practice deep listening and to share each other's suffering. Thay's suggestion planted the seeds of a dream.

In the summer of 2001 a group of fifteen Palestinians and Israelis came together in Plum Village to practice being peace and to learn about the healing power of deep listening and loving speech. Out of their experience, emerged another group that went to Plum Village in November 2001. A third group is planning to come for two weeks during the Summer Retreat in 2002.

The first two groups participated in sitting, walking, and working meditation with the entire community, and separately as a group. In meetings with Brother Doji, Sister Jina and Sister Annabel we learned how to practice deep listening. We tried to listen with   compassion to our own suffering and to the suffering of others. We also practiced going back to our bodies through "deep relaxation," as well as stopping and breathing at the sound of the bell. We shared a session of "beginning anew" in which we had the chance to "water each other's flowers," sharing our appreciation for each other and to express our regrets and difficulties. Sister Chan Khong shared with us her experiences during the war in Vietnam. We also shared social activities; such as, singing Arabic and Hebrew songs, playing music and reciting poems. Before departing, we practiced hugging meditation.

Blue Flowers of Peace

During the first walking meditation session in Upper Hamlet after the arrival of the Israeli-Palestinian group I found myself walking a few meters behind two Palestinian women. I had not previously met them, and had not had the chance to talk to them before the walk. I was very curious to know them, to find out I how they came to join the group and what brought them to Plum Village. I wanted to know what they had experienced during the EI-Aktza Intifada and during previous years, how much they and their relatives had  suffered. I thought, how will it be possible to contact them, to create communication with them? Will it be possible to do anything together, and how?

When the line of walkers passed the Meditation Hall we made a left turn into an open area, where many blue flowers were blooming. In Hebrew the name of these flowers is "olesh. " What was the Arabic name? Suddenly, I saw that the elder Palestinian woman had also discovered the blue flowers and was communicating silently with the young Palestinian woman about them. They both smiled happily. This was a big discovery for me, and I thought, ahh! The olesh flowers also bloom in Palestinian fields, and the Palestinian people like them too. They enjoy the same things as we do and have love in their hearts.

Then I smiled to myself knowing that there is a way to create communication between the Israeli and the Palestinian people.

- Jonathan Arazy, True Path of Peace, July 2001

Expressing Pain and Fear

A lot of pain was expressed in our meetings. Palestinians spoke about their difficulties as Israeli-Arabs, the discrimination in Israel, and their inferior status in relation to Jews, the Israeli government, and the police. They spoke about not being able to develop their land and the land that had been expropriated and given to Jews. Palestinians talked about time spent in Israeli prisons, about being beaten up, about humiliation and confusion, being jailed in their own towns, the difficulties of educating children for peace in times of war, and about learning to see that the one you think is your enemy is a human being.

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Jewish members shared about the holocaust and genocide of their people in Europe by the Nazis, a trauma that is imprinted on every Jewish soul and affects their behavior. They shared their difficulties in struggling to protect a state surrounded by enemies, about difficulties in differentiating between the Palestinian citizens in Israel and the neighboring Arabs who are considered to be enemies, and about life in the shadow of constant fear; fear of terrorist attacks in the streets or on the buses, and the fear of further wars. As a result of this fear, there is a lot of violence and aggressive communication. Jewish members shared that Israeli society is suffering from disconnection from itself and from apathy and a lack of understanding for the other side. They shared that many Israelis want peace, not war, but distrust the intentions of the Palestinians.

Humility

It often seemed during the course of our meetings that the Plum Village community felt we were doing something huge, and people would come to offer us encouragement, at times with a sense of euphoria. Some of us in the group felt overwhelmed by this attention. We were not capable of shifting the whole Middle East, we were very simple people having an encounter. So there was a sense of humility with regards to the impact of our small efforts in the face of a giant problem.

The pace was also humbling. When we first arrived, we wanted to plunge right into the intense issues and get right to the core of the conflict. But we were told to focus on the practice, to walk mindfully, to eat mindfully. People in the group were frustrated. "Do they understand? " someone asked. "There is all emergency situation in the Middle East and we only have two weeks here. I know the practice is important but we don't have much time. "

When we asked Sister Chan Khong and others how to mobilize ourselves, we were told to practice, to deepen our relationship as a Sangha. We wanted to be guided in terms of strategies or social action and all we were told was to walk mindfully and practice. Over and over we were told to slow down. I began to sense that they were giving us a very important key, born out of tremendous depth of wisdom. We were being told that if we were not centered ourselves, if we did not have peace in ourselves, then there was no way we could bring stability and peace to the world around us.

- Azriel Cohen, July 2001

The Olive Tree

The olive tree symbolizes peace. Planting the olive tree together is an expression of our confidence that Peace Begins in oneself, and that through the path of understanding and love a future is possible for the Israelis and the Palestinian people. Indeed, the olive tree that we planted died. We took from this a good lesson, that is relevant to our activities with the Palestinians - a baby tree needs extra protection. - Jonathan Arazy, Jerusalem Israel

Brother Pbap Minh, True Light of the Dharma, kept another baby olive tree, also brought from Israel, in the Upper Hamlet. It was kept in a pot indoors by a window with warm sunshine during the cold and wet winter months. This baby tree is now sending out many fresh new leaves.

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Sailing at the Earth’s Tempo

By Heather Lyn Mann mb63-Sailing1

Ship’s Log: October 15, 2008, 14:10—Atlantic Ocean just outside Port Everglades, Florida 

“That’s it! When in doubt, let it out,” coaches Peter, the nautical salesman who helped us secure two crisp, new sails for our vessel. Husband Dave and I spent the past year, when air currents split the fabric of our fourteen-year-old sail at its weakest points, patching holes and taping tears. But now our ship is adorned with fresh, high-quality sails, and Peter is here on this overcast afternoon to share the secrets of proper sail trim.

mb63-Sailing2“Let the line out until the forward edge of the mainsail flutters,” Peter encourages, “and then pull the line back in until the fluttering stops. That is perfect trim.” Dave executes his instruction.

“But we’re not going all that fast,” I complain after a moment.

“Look at that sail,” urges Peter. “Look at it. It’s perfect. It’s happy. This is what a happy sail looks like. This is all you’re going to get from the boat in today’s conditions. This is what a great sail on a great boat on a great day looks like.” My eyes climb the vertical expanse, squinting into sunlight as my mouth opens. I struggle desperately to see what he sees, to memorize the shape that is ideal. The glossy sail glints brightly in the subdued daylight. Otherwise, nothing looks unique about the sail’s appearance; it’s nothing special. Suddenly, I catch on.

I have touched nirvana today—and many days in the past— and I have not known it. I didn’t feel satisfied unless the boat was moving fast. Out of the blue, I feel a long-held obsession with going fast as a tangible, menacing gremlin. For decades, the urge for speed robbed me of a quieter pleasure: the acceptance of peaceful present moments at a slower pace. Throughout my sailing career I equated moving slowly with doing something wrong. I have never accepted the beauty of this lazy state, the languor of the prolonged, the gift of the easy, because I have been hungry for excitement, desperate for perfection.

“Look,” Peter chides. “You can work this thing to death if you want—jacking the mainsail up and down by inches to add or sub-tract shape, moving it in and out with every wisp of air—but you’re cruisers, not racers. You might get another quarter- to half-knot of speed on the boat, but it is impossible to do that all day, every day. What’s your hurry? There is no contest. You’ll get there.”

It occurs to me at this moment that slowing down to a point of ease is not a luxury. Going slow is part of the natural order of things. The planet does not rush; moments when nature moves at great speed are a long time in the making. When I slow down to the Earth’s tempo, I am nourished by layers of wilderness operating simultaneously, the nesting of ecosystems. My body is host to bacterial life forms; my boat—filled with tools, water, and food from land—is host to my body; the ocean, sky, and surrounding life forms are host to my boat; planet Earth as it spins around the sun is host to the ocean; our galaxy in the expanse of space is host to the Earth.

By slowing down, which is a necessary pre-condition to mindfulness, it is possible to observe complex relationships among living organisms and the physical environment. Ecology is the branch of science studying these relationships. By being mindful of the ecology of things interacting around me and through me and moving in concert with these natural forces, I can experience deep inner knowing—divine wisdom—and join the great Earth in thinking and acting as an ecosystem. This is a vital skill if I am to make real my aspiration to cultivate healing actions for individuals, society, and Mother Earth. It is the perfection of my sails on this day that brings to life the Buddha’s lesson of slowing my thoughts and actions to the pace of Earth herself; in this way, I connect—like a fellow musician—to Earth’s symphony.

After a bit, we deliver Peter back to shore. He is in a rush to meet his son. “Thank you,” I blurt. “The time you spent with us today has made a real difference in how we will do things from now on.” Words catch hard in my throat and I grow speechless. He has ushered in for me an acceptance of ease with the natural order of the world. He has shown me, through my sails, how to witness the tempo of the planet so I can move in harmony with the reality that surrounds. I am grateful for his insight, but his mind is unconscious of the profoundness of his own message. I can find no words in this moment to properly speak to the magnitude of his gift.

mb63-Sailing3Heather Lyn Mann, True Lotus Peace, practices with Snowflower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1996, Mann founded the Center for Resilient Cities (www.ResilientCities.org) and today lives with her husband and cat on a sailboat in the Atlantic as she writes a climate change memoir.

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