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Salt in Clear Water

By Jennifer Shumaker Driving from Arkansas through Taos and the Carson National Forest, I had plenty of time to fantasize about the next six days. I was on my way to a mindfulness retreat with Therese Fitzgerald, Wendy Johnson, and a group of practitioners from activist professions at the Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico. We have been told to expect no electricity- no phones or E-mail to lure us away from the wilderness. The extraordinary blue of the Western sky with the pure white puffs of cloud promised a sense of clarity. Yes, this would be a break from everyday stresses, and a chance to clarify and strengthen my commitments among a safe and supportive group of strangers in a healing, untouched wilderness environment.

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Our retreat fantasies of balm and beauty seldom include the pain and exhaustion it takes to transform our unhealthy mental formations, nor the joy and exhilaration at insights gained as a result of this work. Therese knows some of my mental formations, and, like the caring teacher she is, refuses to let me hide behind them. The inevitable test comes on the first evening. Would I be bellmaster, as part of my Order aspirant training? What? Didn't she remember my complete bungling of the job in Arkansas two years ago, . when we had a new bell with no ringer, and I had to use a piece of wood stripped from a log by the fireplace? With each strangled ring that was an insult to the beautiful new bell, my shame felt stronger until I had asked if I could resign my job. Of course, she said that it would be better for me to stay with it-that the bells were fine if I could just accept them, along with perhaps myself?

The second test for me was the short self-introductions we gave. Of all the things I could say in five minutes, I always end up saying something that leaves me feeling slightly vulnerable. Yes, I surely misrepresented who I am, and everyone else sounded so much more interesting. How much easier it would be if we all just kept silent with our small, private vulnerabilities. But the strangers felt less like strangers by the second day, and relationships were budding. We have made friends with the 650-year-old Ponderosa Pine-the oldest in Carson National Forest, with one of its few remaining groves of the old growth forest, and the Vallecito "river" (a stream in any other state except perhaps Arizona) that bubbles and gurgles through meadows of wild flowers. Surely this is one of the few remaining pieces of untouched heaven on earth.

The third day is the true test. The place and the people are no longer strangers, and some risky reaching-out in friendship is starting. During the walking meditation, I follow Wendy's suggestion and offer my hand to someone. Wrong move! The gesture brings tears to the eyes of the new friend, and tears turn to sobbing that prevent her from finishing the walk with us. Besides, with two days of sitting and mindfulness under my belt, it is harder for me as well to ignore the feelings of unworthiness that constantly linger at the edges of my consciousness. My bells have not been uniformly perfect. Nothing like the beautiful sound that comes when Therese or Wendy rings it. I have become so nervous when ringing it that my hands are too sweaty to control the ringer, and it keeps slipping. This interrupts my counting of three breaths between rings, and Therese is having to help count. I wonder if she would accept my resignation this time?

During Dharma discussion that afternoon, all our smooth veneers are peeling away, and feelings start to break loose. Therese's morning Dharma talk had been about feelings, with anger an obvious focus. One brave person in the group told of the fear that was arising in her and keeping her awake at night. She had heard of a man in the other discussion group who realized he was holding the chronic anger that is common among activists facing injustice every day. This woman was recovering from an abusive experience with an angry man, and the raw fears that resurfaced were disrupting her retreat experience. This seemed unfair-surely at a retreat like this people shouldn't have to be afraid. Another man offered that irritation belongs in the category of anger, and that his irritation had been fierce at the lack of silence during certain periods of the day, like morning work-time and a couple of hours in the afternoon. Therese had told us we could wear a sign that indicated we would prefer to remain silent. This man didn't want to appear aloof so he didn't wear one, but when people spoke to him or near him he felt very annoyed with them.

For reasons I couldn't understand, this statement started me shaking and sweating. Therese looked at me (to urge me to ring the mindfulness bell) and 1 thought she was encouraging me to speak. I mumbled something about feeling terribly sad suddenly-that I couldn't explain it, except to say as children we had never been allowed to feel anything except happy. Something snapped in me, and I couldn't stop sobbing. At the end of the session (I can't even remember ringing the bell), Therese came and hugged me and told me not to hold back, to let the heaving sobs that threatened to take me over just come. She suggested I go to the grandmother Ponderosa Pine and I took her advice. While everyone else went to meditate, I stumbled to the tree and flung my arms around it. The sobs were so dramatic that I was hyperventilating, and I couldn't even tell whether I was sad or angry, let alone what was behind all this. After lying exhausted in the field of white daisies that seemed to be trying to rock me in the breeze, I joined the others for dinner. Somehow I managed to ring the bell for the evening meditation, although my body was so exhausted that I couldn't keep my balance during the walking meditation.

That night I had nightmares. In one particularly vivid dream, some colleagues from work were upset about my imperfect bell-ringing. I kept telling them that I am fine and feel great joy when I work with low-income community groups, but that I can't perform among peers without feeling shameful and bungling it. During the morning walking meditation, I happened to look over at the man who was irritated by the lack of complete silence, and felt the sobs coming back. But this time, while sitting again, I followed Thay's advice. I named the feeling-it wasn't anger, sadness, or hurt, it was shame. Yes, hello shame, my old companion. I imagined embracing it like a small child in my arms, and tried to look deeply at it. Where did it come from?

Suddenly, in the space of my breathing, I had a great burst of insight. The irritated man and my colleagues from my dream were acting like my father and other family members in my home as I grew up in South Africa. I have always known that as the youngest child I was too noisy and excitable-singing too loudly, moving too fast, and talking too much, especially in the evenings when my father wanted silence. The new part of my insight was the realization that I was not intrinsically an irritating person. My father had his first heart attack the day I was born, and died of his fifth heart attack when I was 15 years old. This means that during my whole childhood, he was on heart medication that gave him a constant headache. My infant cries, toddler energy, and high spirits were like a constant piece of sand in his shell. Perhaps the irritated man at the retreat was not annoyed with me because I was intrinsically an irritating person, though I was certainly one of the people who talked to him when he secretly wanted silence. This toxic, chronic shame that I have worn all my life is based on an incorrect premise.

I remembered Therese telling me two years ago that maybe I just need to accept myself and whatever sound came out of the bell. My bell-ringing had actually been fine. I allowed myself to remember that a couple of people had actually told me that they had appreciated my fine bell-ringing. I hadn't even heard them because I knew that, being noisy and imperfect, it must be irritating everyone.

That morning in outdoor walking meditation, the sky was especially clear and blue, the white daisies glistened, and the Ponderosa Pine stretched its gnarled, loving arms out to me. I wanted to run through the meadow singing about the hills being alive like the nun in The Sound of Music. Especially I wanted to throw my arms around Therese and the irritated man for bringing me to a point of understanding that would make my whole world look different from now on. I remembered Thiiy's urging us to thank the garbage in our lives. Garbage transforms into compost when the light of mindfulness is shined on it, to fertilize all the healthy seeds in ourselves and in those around us.

As if to echo this sentiment, the woman who had struggled with sobs when I had held her hand early in the retreat came to me and offered to lend me a baby quilt her mother had given her as an infant, to keep me warm during the anticipated chill of the planned outdoor meditation that evening. I knew what she was feeling. And in Dharma discussion, the woman who was afraid of anger told us how she had realized during the retreat that she also carried around constant anger without even knowing it. Now she could work on it and perhaps finally come to grips with her past abuse. And the irritated man was amazed when I told him what he had done for me. He hadn't felt irritated with me at all. And in spite of the lack of silence, he had decided he wants to be trained to join the Order of Interbeing.

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This was a true Sangha experience. The best Sanghas and retreats cast our mental formations into a mirror we must look into, in a safe and supportive environment that is a gem most of us don't find anywhere else in our frantic and busy lives. Another image from Thay's teachings became clearer. Thiiy talked about the way that meditating, being mindful, and following the Trainings help our hearts grow large and spacious so we become like huge lakes of clear water. If some hurt person throws salt into our lives, the spacious, clear water can absorb the salt without turning sour. That same amount of salt thrown into the cup of water of a constricted heart would be poisonous. So retreats and Sanghas should not try to avoid salt. That person who is angry or irritated or too affectionate might be exactly what we need to expand our hearts and transform our personal garbage into blossoms of joy. Thank you, Dharma teachers. And thank you, Vallecitos Refuge. Indeed, your hills came alive for me.

Jennifer Shumaker, Radiant Jewel of the Source, is a community development resource person and practices with the Ecumenical Buddhist Society in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan) Sister Thuc Nghiem's Insight Gatha

Just one instant of the present moment and something knocks so loudly at my heart; The love that we all belong together. A star at dawn above the darkened earth, they talk together of this. The blades of grass, the dew and the sunshine, they talk together of this. My in-breath, the apples and the soil, they know this together. The breeze, the flowers, the moon beams and my heart, we interare. My teacher, my sisters, brothers, my children, ancestors and all people did you know we talk of this all the time. My out-breath and my smile, the rain and my tears, the trees and my carbon, they just can 't stop talking together of this.

Six birds flying overhead with the rising sun, I suddenly wonder if any of them feel exhausted or have a deep pain in their wings. I see it must be so and I am shaken by compassion. Who am I, if I am not these birds? Who am I, if I am not all things? We do this together, what happiness, what joy.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

The full moon that looks like a ripe fruit, is used as a mirror by a beautiful lady. The autumn hills stand quietly and majestically around us. As soon as you smile at someone's footprints on the Ben Duc harbor, the Lord of Compassion 's boat of loving-kindness will have already brought you to the other shore.

note: The Ben Duc harbor is the harbor you must use to go to the Perfume temple in North Vietnam. The water is a little muddy at that harbor.

Thay's Words of encouragement

Avalokiteshvara is always there around us and inside of us. In a time of confusion and suffering we need the bodhisattva of deep listening and of great compassion to be with us . The bodhisattva may manifest herself in every step we make, in everything we say. Our daily life should embody the capacity of deep listening and compassionate action. The seeds of compassion should continue to be planted in our society. Whether that seed can sprout today or tomorrow depends on many conditions. But the bodhisattva does not worry about the outcome. The bodhisattva takes care of the action only. Every day we keep sowing the seeds of understanding and compassion and we have the conviction that alI these seeds planted today will sprout tomorrow or after tomorrow. That will bring enough happiness and peace. We try to do this together as a Sangha.

There are many seeds planted by Shakyamuni Buddha. Some seeds waited for 2600 years in order to sprout. The same thing is true with us. The essential thing is to plant the seeds of understanding and compassion. This is the meaning of the lamp transmission, the continuation of the practice. It is wonderful that the light of the Buddha has still come to us as bright and alive as ever. Now the light is being transmitted to you, Sister Susan.

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem's Dharma Talk

A tool that Thay has given us is the ability to find healing in nature, to go sit in the middle of a field and do nothing. In the past two years I have found an apple tree out in front of the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Is it under it, near the fence, every morning. I see the same patch of earth, the same landscape in front of me and the same trees, in the springtime, in the summer, in the fall and in the winter. I think I began doing this because one morning I saw a bird watching the sun come up. I felt that that bird was more wholehearted than I was in being with the sunrise. About a month later I was taken by surprise and I really saw the sun come up. [t pierced me straight to my core.

I wanted to watch the sun come up and after a while I noticed the earth also. When it was cloudy, rainy or snowing I didn't see the sun but the earth was very wonderful. I began to feel very close to the earth. It was so wonderful to go and sit cross-legged on the earth every morning. I began to appreciate the apples in the different seasons and the chipmunks and the squirrels who would run by me. One time a chipmunk landed on my head. One time a bird landed on my head. I think from this, on a deep level, I began to feel the interbeing of the earth and the sky and the chipmunks and the raindrops and I certainly saw them interbe with my happiness. It was this time I spent under the apple tree that really gave me a smile so easily. It gave me love in my heart so easily. I could see that everything was connected. The teachings on Buddhist psychology also helped me to see that everything is connected. In nature it is easy to see that everything is connected. I think that is why I can sit and stare at it for so long because something in me recognizes that I am looking at everything.

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I could see that my sisters and I were connected very deeply and we affect each other. Perhaps the greatest happiness is knowing that we live in a community. It doesn't matter if sometimes the community has difficulties or I can't get along with someone or a million other things that can happen in a community that lives together twenty-four hours a day. But the fact that we are living together, that we are trying to make the Sangha work and we are making it work, that we support each other by practicing the same guidelines (the mindfulness trainings) and we are really there for each other, to me that is one of the most beautiful things on earth. To me it makes all the difference when I recognize the fact that we all belong together, that you can't take the father out of the son, you can't take us out of each other, you can't take anything out of us . We all belong together.

On our trip in China last fall on the last morning Thay woke up very early to see some of us off who were leaving for America, after a late night at a public talk. He was sitting outside with us. I was sitting at a table with another sister. She turned to Thay and said, "I want to thank you for allowing me to come to China and I want to apologize for any mistakes I have made." She went on to say, you know I have many weaknesses and I am trying to overcome them and it is difficult. And Thay quietly stopped her and said, "We do it together." To me that was the most incredible thing to say.

All our pain, all our difficulties, all our joy, we do it together. And when we do this we are following the truth of things and that brings about our greatest happiness. What if all the Sanghas we know have that idea, we do it together, for each other. If in a family something comes up, they can do it together, they work it out together. As a nation, we can all help each other to do it together. So when some group suffers, we do it together. We think about it, we look deeply into it. And as a world we do it  together. We have many ways of diplomacy and we know we are doing it together for all of us. We know we alI belong together as one family and so we will find the best ways to bring about happiness for all of us.

Sister Thuc Nghiem, True Adornment with Ripeness, lives in the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael) Brother Phap Hien's insight gatha

Remembering your peaceful steps along the ancient path, the sound of the old bell carried me out into the night sky. I return now with a bright message from faraway stars, and Oh, how my weary feet adore the tender earth. We have always known each other. There are thousands of generations of tears, smiles and laughter echoing through the great hall. In this endless embrace with this unfathomable aspiration, my teacher, my brother, my friend, what have we possibly to fear?

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

The Dharma handed down by wise ones from long ago is like the sound of the rising tide, echoing tens of thousands of songs and poems. Having been brothers and sisters to each other during innumerable past lives we should hold firm to the door of the practice so that the true vehicle can go vigorously far into the future.

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien's Dharma Talk

It's hard to say anything to a community that is you. When I was six-years-old I went to the dentist and the dentist asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I had never thought about that question before, but I remember I answered him very quickly. I said, I want to be a farmer. He looked at me and he said, a farmer? What about a doctor or a scientist? I said, no I want to be a farmer. The seed of the simple life and the family life living close to the land was very big in my ancestors.

And then when I was about twelve-years-old my parents separated. That was a great wound for me, a big wound in my heart. I lost all my trust and faith in my family. I remember also at that time someone asked me a question of what I wanted to do with my life and my answer was completely different. My answer was, I want to be alone. I wanted to live in a little house all by myself way up in the north of Canada with no one else around, with long, cold winters. Still a simple life, but with no more family. Actually what I really wanted was to be in the embrace of Mother Earth. But that dream to live alone didn't last very long. When I was seventeen I fell in love. That gave me the incentive to open up a little bit, to try to learn to be honestly close to someone, to share my life with someone. It was a very good thing that that happened. The inspiration ofthe family life came back into my dream.

About a year later when I began college I did a solo retreat for three days all alone in a desert canyon. I didn't eat anything. It was very hot. I barely wore anything. I just sat on a rock and did nothing for three days. I had never done anything like that before. During that time, without any kind of words or cognitive process, I understood something very deep about myself. When I tried to put it into words it didn't work. But I knew deep inside I had found something that resonated deeply with a place, a home within.

When I was twenty-one I was living in Northern California in the redwood forest. On my twenty-first birthday I received a book, Peace is Every Step, from my next-door neighbor. I was very happy to receive the book and I asked her, what is it? She just said, it's a lot like you. A few weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again. She is a kind of bodhisattva for me because giving me that book opened a big door for me. I read Thay's teaching and I felt as if someone was speaking what was inside of me. But he was able to put it into words, to give clear examples of what it meant to have that inside of oneself and to live it. I tried my best to practice walking mediation right away, but I didn't really understand it. But I did understand that my life had to be about what was going on in the here and now from that point on or it wasn't life. That is what I wanted. I had met the Buddha and the Dharma and a little piece of the Sangha. Soon after that I found myself here in Plum Village.

When I was twenty-four I became a novice monk and I started my life all over again. I didn't realize that I was doing that, but I did. I don't think I have fully realized it yet actually.

Before I became a novice I had had a dream of going to India and Nepal. This was before I had fully met and experienced a Sangha body. I had the idea that I would go there and find a place to touch something ancient. When I arrived in Plum Village and I heard the monks and nuns chanting at a formal lunch in the summer retreat I felt that something ancient, something very powerful. It is strange, but I gave up that dream to travel to the East and then eight months after becoming a novice I went to India with Thay and the Sangha. That next fall I also traveled with Thay and the Sangha to America and I found myself doing walking meditation in the redwood forest in Northern California at Kim Son Monastery one morning. I suddenly realized it was only ten to fifteen miles from the spot where I had first received Peace is Every Step. I had also been very intent on having a family life before I became a monk. In giving up that dream I got the biggest family I could possibly imagine.

The Dharma is very powerful. To be in touch with the Dharma through the Vietnamese Buddhist culture and community has been very important for me. Through my life in the monastery I have learned a lot about place, relationships to others and to environment, which I never knew before; relationship to elder brothers and sisters, relationship to younger brothers and sisters and so on. Being born in Plum Village as a monk is to be born in a group of several brothers and sisters who ordain together on the same day, sometimes as a tree, sometimes as an animal , a fruit or a flower. I was born in the coconut tree family. There were five of us; Phap Kieu, Thuc Nghiem, Ha Nghiem, Phap Hien and Hy Nghiem. We had many elder brothers and sisters who ordained before us also in groups, like batches of children or batches of cookies. There are many ofthese batches in our community but we make up one family and we are all children of Thay, our teacher. Thay has also been in that same place. He has been a child of his teacher in a community of monks and nuns and so on and so on.

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It has been very important to experience that kind of connection as part of my life .  When I was growing up I only knew my mother, my father and my two sisters. I didn't have much connection to other people around me. Then my parents divorced and my family broke up and I felt I had nothing. Living in the community of Plum Village I have learned roots. I learned to open my heart and to see my roots, both in my blood family and in my spiritual family. To experience a lineage, a transmission, a continuation has brought stability into my heart. It has brought non-fear into my heart.

This is a great medicine for westerners, wandering souls that we are. Many of us have not grown up, as many brothers and sisters from Vietnam have, with a lot of family members around and a culture that waters the seeds of being rooted, having a lineage, and being aware of one's ancestors and descendants. We have not had that in America for a long time. Many of us wander around in a lot of pain, with a lot of loneliness because we don 't know who we are and we don 't know where we come from. It has been really important for me to enter into the awareness of being a part of a lineage and to experience it living all around me in the community of Plum Village and also in the culture of Vietnam.

I said to Thay several years ago that while practicing touching the earth I suddenly discovered who I was and because of that I was not afraid anymore. I knew who I was and where I had come from. Sometimes the seed of fear still comes up in me. But when I can remember my roots, through my brothers and sisters in my spiritual family and through the generations of my blood family, I can feel within me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

The gatha that I offered to Thay is about that. It is about entering into the stream of practice, discovering my afflictions and about getting grounded in the practice, down through my belly into my feet. I really love to walk on the earth now. It is about understanding, I am you and you are me. It has been that way for a long, long time.

Brother Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained in 1996 in Plum Village. He received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

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Buddba Body

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Larry Ward's Insight Gatha

The sound of the great bell has awakened the Golden Buddha in my heart. Grace arrives on the holy wings of a breath, in the here and now. I am at home without desire. The cloud of forgetfulness fades away. My eyes open wide to the wonders of life, each a Buddha land. Bright light shining in every direction, healing and transforming me. My happiness and freedom overflow into the river of great compassion.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

When the great Drum begins to play, we hear the thunder its sound vibrates even the golden moon light Beams from the four directions are projecting in witnessing to a mind that manifests both purity and oneness If one is attentive, one will notice that both the cam and the sat are still playing the harmonious song of great courage.

Cam and sat are ancient instruments that are always played together. They are associated with husband and wife, who compliment each other, creating a harmonious duet together.

Thay's words of encouragement

The gatha I just chanted is about the moment when the Buddha attained Great Awakening at the foot of the bodhi tree after having defeated Mara, the energy of darkness, the energy of fear, the energy of ignorance, craving, and discrimination. The Buddha and many generations of practitioners have followed his example and succeeded in defeating the power of darkness. We need the light and courage of the Buddha especially in this time of distress and fear. We need a long process of education in order to transform fear and discrimination in our society and within ourselves. Through the light of the Buddha we can see habit energy deeply rooted in our society - the tendency to lose hope, to be overwhelmed, to be taken by despair, the tendency of craving, of fear, of discrimination. We have to be patient, we have to continue with our practice and our work of education in order to uproot this negative energy.

It's wonderful not to have any desire in our heart. It means that we only have one desire, the desire to uproot evil, to uproot the negative energy within our society. This lamp transmitted to you today, Larry, is the symbol of love and trust from the Buddha and from our ancestral teachers that you will continue to do your best to improve the quality of life in our families, in our communities, in our societies and never lose hope. I have faith in you; the Buddha and the patriarchs have faith in you .

Larry's Dharma Talk

To go with my whole life for refuge is to put my life in the Buddha's life and to find my story in the Buddha's story, to find the Buddha's story in me. And to surrender having to be someone else other than the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To surrender to my Noble Teacher, the Venerables here and the Noble Sangha. To be willing to be taught by the ancestral teachers, to be willing to be taught by each breath, each step, each sigh, each star, each blade of grass, and each smile, each heartbreak and each disappointment. To surrender. To be willing to be taught. And so the transmission continues.

Finding the heart of the Buddha in my heart, finding my heart in the Buddha's heart, my heart is as big as the whole world.

Finding my feet in the Buddha's feet. Two years ago during our retreat in China we had wonderful walking meditations. One morning during one of our walking meditations I looked down and I didn't recognize my feet. I could not find Larry 's feet, and realized they were becoming Buddha feet.

And my ears becoming Buddha ears. Hearing the cries of the world, the laughter, the tears, the unspoken dreams and hopes and the whispers of love quietly held in the night.

And my eyes becoming Buddha eyes. Seeing wonder everywhere I look, beholding a miracle in every moment.

And my mind, slowly, and forever becoming the Buddha's mind, the mind of practice, the mind of coming back to the here and now, the mind of knowing when I'm not back in the here and now and the mind that gently brings myself back.

Our beloved teacher has been transmitting no less than 100% of himself to us, as his teacher did for him, and his teacher before him. And the Buddha has transmitted no less than 100% of himself to us. And so this coming summer I am preparing to receive the Buddha's hands. And I surrender having to have Larry's hands, I surrender having to be somebody so I can happily be nobody and so I can serve the world in that way. And so our bodies are becoming the bodies of the Buddha, our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears, our smile. And so the transmission continues.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives in Clear View practice center.Peggy Rowe Ward also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh Lisi's Insight Gatha

A tear from the ocean of suffering fell into my hand. Looking deeply into this tear, I found a precious jewel. Looking deeply into this jewel, I found an open heart. Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. Walking this path, I found the ocean Embracing it all.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

You have always embraced with all your heart the great cause. That is why crossing so many paths and bridges you are still able to walk with freedom and ease. Since the beginning of time clouds are always traveling, water is always flowing And it could be lovely to learn to sing the song of the ultimate every morning when the east gets rosy.

Excerpt from Lisi's Dharma Talk

My husband and I decided to step out of our very busy lives and take a sabbatical. We spent part of this sabbatical in a Swiss mountain village on retreat. Every morning we read one of the fourteen mindfulness trainings and then during the day we went for long walks in the mountains, feeling the training that we read in the morning sinking into our consciousness. In the evening we would sit by the warm fireplace and share what feelings and thoughts had come up.

When we read the fourth mindfulness training about the reality of suffering, I remember sitting in meditation and suddenly feeling tears running down my cheeks, warm, wet tears. And one tear fell into my hand. Have you ever looked at a tear? It's something really beautiful. If you have a chance to look at a child and a little tear is caught in the eyelashes, it's like a dew drop in the heart of a lotus leaf. It reflects the whole universe, it's shining bright like a jewel. Tears are truly a universal human language. A mother whose child has died - maybe in Israel, maybe in Germany, maybe in Afghanistan - has the same tears. She might express them differently, but the tears are the same, wet and warm and salty. I once had a tremendous privilege to hold a mother whose eighteen year old son had just died. I held her and cradled her for many, many hours and the tears were running down my shoulder and making my clothes wet. I had the feeling I was holding the most precious jewel in my arms.

Jewels are something that you take good care of. They are in the crowns of kings, they are on the engagement ring of your beloved. When you look at jewels, they are so pure and so transparent and so full at the same time. Human suffering is the same, it is extremely precious. You don't throw jewels on the floor or put them where you keep your shoes; you keep them in a special place. And human suffering is the same, you have to take really good care of human suffering.

In my gatha, I said, "Looking deeply into this jewel l found an open heart." I am Austrian, coming from a Catholic tradition. When my parents took me to church when I was small, you could buy pictures of Mary and Jesus. There was one picture that intrigued me immensely, the picture of Jesus with an open heart - he was standing there and his breast was torn open and you could see his heart. When I saw this picture I was always so worried, thinking how could you live like that, it's so dangerous, somebody bumps into you and you get hurt. At the same time I was incredibly amazed at the look on the face of Jesus, which was somehow fearless. To me an open heart and fearlessness go together. A vulnerable fearlessness of an open heart.

Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. So I come back to the mountains where we walked every day. Every step was pure joy and pure gratefulness for this incredible beauty of nature. There was one little path that went through a forest with pine trees that lose their needles in autumn so they turn yellow and orange. One time we walked through this forest and all the golden yellow pine needles had fallen on the ground and it was like walking on pure gold. I can fee l right now the happiness of that moment. I can still hear the sound of the silence of our steps . Beauty is always available at every moment.

Walking this path I found the ocean embracing it all. The tears of pain and the tears of joy all contained in the ocean of life. And I wish us all a safe and joyful journey on this ocean.

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Lisi Ha Vinh, True Great Bridge, was born in Vienna, Austria. She has developed educational and humanitarian projects in Vietnam together with her husband Tho, True Great Wisdom, over the past twelve years. Lisi and Tho have been married for thirty years, have two grown up children, one grand child, and they consider their couple and family life as an important part of their spiritual path. Tho also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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Stair Step Meditation

By Carole Baker The day I arrived in New Hamlet, I started to cry, and I didn't stop for two weeks. I'm a pretty stable person, no astronomical highs, no bottomless lows, and the last one in the room to panic. I had  no  idea  why  I was crying, as I didn't feel sad; and, after several days of waterworks, I  became embarrassed by my behavior. But I couldn't stop the tears, so I let them flow. Sometimes I spoke through my tears, hoping the other people would bear my words.

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I felt as if I were among family, as if l had been in New Hamlet all of my life. I felt comfortable, loved, and safe. I had never meditated before.   Sitting on a cushion was new to me. So, when Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) described in his Dharma talks to the children how to do pebble meditation, I took their lesson for my own. During walking meditation, I gathered pebbles on the path and put them in a small cloth bag and used them to support the lessons he was teaching about compassion and solidity.

One day, Thay explained how to do what he called Stair Step Meditation. It was a way to practice transforming what he called habit energy. He said each of us inherits the habits of our ancestors. Our grandfather may have been lonely; our great-grandmother may have lived in pain; an ancestor may have lived a violent, hate-filled, embattled life. All of the actions, emotions, and conditions of each of our ancestors down through history are passed to each of us.  It is our responsibility and our joy  to conduct our lives in such a way as to relieve the negative aspects of our inherited habit energy and to enjoy and pass on to our children the positive aspects of their ancestors' character and experiences.

Thay  described Stair Step Meditation as he teaches everything, clearly and simply. He said, if you want to cease the pain of your ancestors and reverse the effect  of their  negative  actions, just find a staircase. Decide which ancestor you wish to connect with. Put one foot on the first step, as you breathe in say, "Father, I am here for you." (You can substitute the name of whichever ancestor you choose.) When you breathe out, lift the other foot and place it on the next step.  Say, "Father, I am here for you." That's it.  That's all you do.   Breathe in, step; breathe out, step.

I thought about the people in my family who needed relief from pain and suffering. My folks were all working people, pioneers. My mother's side of the family came from the British Isles and settled in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Ididn't know my grandparents. My people were woodsmen, lumberjacks. My mother was the first in her family to gain a high school education. There were hard times, hard work, little food, much suffering. People had to be tough to survive. I come from good stock, a long line of stoic fatalists.  You take your lot in life, and you do the best you can with it. What's the use of crying?

I chose to walk the stairs with my mother, Martha Holland Baker. Mom had a difficult life and in retrospect, I don't think she was very happy, just dutiful. Mom and I never had any big conflicts, but we certainly were products of different eras. The first few days, because of the deep emotion of saying directly to my dead mother, "Mom, I'm here for you," every step up, and down, the eighteen steps to my second floor room, I bawled!

Each day when I walked the eighteen stairs, it was just Mom and me. I found some reassurance in the routine of it.   Before I reached the stairs I stopped and took a few slow, soft breaths to get ready for Stair Step Meditation.  Regardless of my emotions, I made a clear effort to devote those stairs to that special meditation.

Stair Step Meditation converged with Touching the Earth meditation, led by Sister Chan Khong. This day, as I walked slowly towards the meditation hall with a group of nuns, I said to Sister Eleni, "I really don't want to go to this meditation."   She asked, "Why not?" I said, "I don't know." She said, "Well, just go ahead and try it." So, I entered the meditation hall, bowed, and placed my mats for the meditation. As Sister Chan Khong led us through total relaxation and Touching the Earth, at one point all of my emotion welled up in my chest. I was encouraged to let all of the suffering of my ancestors flow into the earth. I felt an enormous release as profound sorrow and pain really did seem to flow into the earth. I think I went to sleep.

Walking slowly from the meditation hall to the farmhouse, suddenly, my mother's voice stopped me. She said, "Hello, Carole. I am here for you. Thank you for walking with me and healing my pain." I stopped still on the gravel path, causing a number of people to adjust their walking meditation, stood and declared, "Oh, these are your tears!"  My mom said, "Yes, it's me.”

After lunch, I approached the eighteen stairs with my usual preparatory stopping. My mother took my hand! And she said, "Come walk with me; this is why you are here." I walked the eighteen stairs with my mom beside me. Happiness overtook my initial nervousness. It was such a happy thing to be walking, hand in hand with my mother in complete spiritual communication, up and down those ordinary stairs. After a few days, my entire affect changed. My emotions began to settle and I began feeling the deep joy and satisfaction of helping my mother to heal her sorrows. My roommate, Kim Nguyen, said I blossomed and became a flower.

One day I felt lazy and thought I would skip Dharma discussion and have a nap. As I climbed the stairs to my room, in her own voice and phrasing, my mom said, "You'd better get to that Dharma discussion!" I laughed and mentally replied, "You can be a pain sometimes," but I obeyed as when she was alive. I turned around and went down to the discussion group. We laughed together then, and many times since.  Now, I feel my mother is always with me, and she is happy.

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Carole Baker; Healing Joy of the Heart, sits with her black kitty, M.B., curled up at her feet. His purring helps to keep her in the present moment.

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Letter From Thay

mb44-Letter1 Plum Village Le Pey 24240 Thenac France 8.8.2006

Honorable George W. Bush The White House Washington D.C., U.S.A.:

Dear Mr. President,

Last night, i saw my brother (who died two weeks ago in the U.S.A.) coming back to me in a dream. He was with all his children. He told me, “Let’s go home together.” After a millisecond of hesitation, i told him joyfully, “OK; let’s go.”

Waking up from that dream at 5 am this morning, I thought of the situation in the Middle East; and for the first time, i was able to cry. I cried for a long time, and i felt much better after about one hour. Then i went to the kitchen and made some tea. While making tea, i realized that what my brother had said is true: our home is large enough for all of us. Let us go home as brothers and sisters.

Mr. President, i think that if you could allow yourself to cry like i did this morning, you will also feel much better. It is our brothers that we kill over there. They are our brothers, God tells us so, and we also know it. They may not see us as brothers because of their anger, their misunderstanding, their discrimination. But with some awakening, we can see things in a different way, and this will allow us to respond differently to the situation. I trust God in you, i trust the Buddha nature in you. Thank you for reading.

In gratitude and with brotherhood

Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village

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Poems by Thay Giac Thanh

mb45-Poems1 Tears for My Homeland Oh my beloved homeland, So many long quiet nights I lay awake, crying tears of love for you. Oh my beloved homeland, What have you done to deserve this? To let those demons torture you so, Without remorse, compassion, or brotherly love. They sold you to the Devil King. Out of love for you I buy you back with my own flesh and blood, With my wisdom, my very heart, And with my whole being. Even if this body burns into ashes, I vow to spread them along the road to peace.

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Dying Poems will die. Ten-thousand-year-long loves will also die. Clouds swirl, obscuring the whole sky. On life’s journey, there are ups and downs But one day I will shake free from all my worldly debt.

Formless Samadhi Clear water on one side, Urine on the other, All will return to sky, clouds, oceans, and rivers. There is sunlight during daytime And moonlight at night Shining my way.

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Being Sick My skin and flesh are wasted, My body is withered, But my heart is still joyful as spring flowers. Rivers, mountains are extensive. Why hesitate to give up this tiny body? I return it to the immense earth and sky.

Proclamation As a wanderer who has no home By chance I met you While wandering from place to place. My younger brothers and sisters from Vietnam, You are green mountains, rivers, Morning sunlight, and dewy flowers. You are joyful, innocent, and light, As white clouds drifting in the deep blue sky Along with the first light of a new day. If in youthful folly, You lose your way, falling into steep gorges Deep in the mountains, All you need is a gentle breeze Of understanding and love To bring you back To the lofty sky and vast oceans. You do not need raging storms Of anger and hatred. Please do not scold or blame My younger brothers and sisters For I fear that the gray color of sadness Would darken their pure hearts.

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