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Refuge in the Sangha

By Richard Brady The Washington Mindfulness Community will be ten years old this summer. Our weekly meditations, which drew two to eight people during the early years, now draw thirty to forty. As it has grown, the Sangha's needs have become more complex and the need for more formal organization greater. Two years ago we decided to incorporate as a nonprofit, and subsequently as a church. The process thus set in motion brought out our diverse views about the nature of our Sangha, whether and how Sangha membership should be defined, how financial, legal, and practice decisions should be made, and what the Sangha's relationship is to the Order of Interbeing.

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A year ago, after months of difficult business meetings, impatience, hurt feelings, and Sangha disharmony, I went to Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont for a weeklong personal retreat. The snow-covered hills, the still surroundings, and the strong practice of the resident nuns and monks made a profound impression on me. In a couple of days, I succeeded in slowing down my agitated mind and achieved a very welcome sense of peace. Soon enough, however, I would return home.

Before I left Green Mountain, it was my good fortune to have an interview with Sister Annabel. I told her how beneficial my time there had been. Past visits to Plum Village had had similar effect, and I had returned home feeling I had much to share with my family and my Sangha. Each time, however, it was as though I was a tire with a slow leak. Within days, my Plum Village practice leaked away, and I was caught up in my old patterns. As I prepared to leave Green Mountain, I was afraid that the same fate awaited me.

Sister Annabel smiled. "Richard, you know that this is the practice of the present moment. When you are at Green Mountain, you are doing Green Mountain practice, conditioned by all the things you find here and many others including what you bring with you. When you go home, you will be doing the practice that is there for you. Don't expect to continue doing Green Mountain practice at home. The conditions at home are perfect for the practice there."

At home a few days later, I sat on my zafu for the first time. Almost immediately self-doubt, self-criticism, and other negative feelings and thoughts arose. "This is practice at home," I thought. I smiled and watched without getting hooked by it.

Sister Annabel's words apply to practice in the Sangha as well. Sangha practice is made of many elements. Whatever comes up for us in Sangha practice is important. If we are open, our Sanghas will teach us. The lessons for "oldtimers" tend to be different from those for the newcomers. The former often tend to be about living in community, and responding compassionately to hurt, impatience, and disharmony.

In reply to my concerns about Sangha difficulties, Svein Myreng recently said, "It seems to happen everywhere, or almost everywhere, when people get to know each other better. Perhaps it is a sign of maturation rather than a problem, although it can be quite painful. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to be patient and humbly accept the lesson. Though we can try to change situations, mainly through communication, we can't really try to change people. Our main duty is to deepen our own practice as much as possible, and see what comes out of that."

One thing that came from deepening my own practice over the years was the revelation that I didn't know most of my Sangha brothers and sisters very well. Two years ago, I started inviting different people to lunch. Typically, we began talking about our practices and our relationships to the Sangha. Eventually, we brought up personal histories that shaped who we are. We were also able to share and listen to our differing perceptions of the Sangha in a more sensitive way than seemed possible in Sangha business meetings. These opportunities have deepened my understanding and appreciation of many Sangha members, which, in turn, has helped me weather Sangha tensions with more equanimity.

In our Sangha, questions related to practice have been a particular source of tension. The WMC meets from 7:00 to 9:15 Sunday evenings. For years, with a few exceptions, we have done the same thing in these hours. Some sisters and brothers returned from Plum Village and Thay's United States retreats feeling that practice like Touching the Emth and guided meditation would enhance our Sangha experience. Their suggestions met resistance from others who felt things were fine as they were. Using our consensus decision-making process, the Sangha could not agree on any specific changes in Sangha practice or on the creation of a proposed Practice Committee of senior Mindfulness practitioners. However, the practice question was brought to two Sunday meditation evenings, where those present reflected on what they appreciated and desired in Sangha practice.

Recently, we began bimonthly practice forums-meetings open to anyone concerned about Sangha practice issues. They provide an oppOltunity to look deeply together at the needs of the Sangha. The first meeting was small, but productive. It had become clear that many experienced Sangha members wanted more opportunity to deepen their practice with the Sangha. So the forum agreed to recommend to the next business meeting that the Sangha sponsor an eight-session mindfulness practice course, using Andrew Weiss' recently printed text. The recommendation was approved. The class, composed of five Order of Interbeing members and several other experienced practitioners, has just started, but already seems likely to make an important contribution to Sangha practice. The WMC has faced a number of other difficult issues over the last couple of years. As we tried to absorb the painful leave-taking of a mainstay of our community, and wrote and rewrote om by-laws and articles of incorporation, our personal histories and relationships with other Sangha members sometimes fueled feelings of mistrust and defensiveness, and fears of authority and exclusion. Some Sangha members confided in me about their difficulties with others, but my role as a supportive listener was not lessening tensions. People needed to speak directly with each other from their hearts, if harmony was ever to be achieved.

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At our December business meeting, the Sangha invited Ted Cmarada, a mindfulness practitioner and therapist from a neighboring Sangha, to facilitate. Ted quickly saw that bottled-up feelings blocked our really hearing each other, and asked us to share whatever we were holding. Many people spoke straightforwrdly about their problems with the Sangha and with individuals. The meeting was simultaneously painful and inspiring. At its conclusion, the primary criticism of the process was that it had lacked balance. Affirmations had been too few and far between.

Will the Sangha move on to flower watering? Will we develop new by-laws and articles of incorporation which all our members can embrace? Will practice forums become an integral part of Sangha decision making? I don't know. However, I feel some hope. On the door of my refrigerator, I keep a quotation by Vaclav Havel, sent to me by a Sangha member.

Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

The way our Sanghas are turning out does make sense when we look deeply at the conditions that give rise to them, the people who participate in them, the nutrients our Sanghas ingest, and the seeds they water. The love born of this understanding and nourished by our practice is the greatest contribution we can make to our Sanghas' futures.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, teaches mathematics at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

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Awareness of the Body in the Body

A Massage Therapist Practices the First Establishment of Mindfulness By Pamela Overeynder

I have been a massage therapist for many years. I have practiced mindfulness for many years yet somehow it took a long time for me to realize that these are not two separate practices. In the past I did massage very unmindfully. I would mentally drift, led along by endless thoughts or I would go into a vague trancelike state. I was in a passive state and not practicing at all, even though I thought I was at peace. Sometimes I worked very hard to remove adhesions and pain in my client as though it were my responsibility single-handedly to fix the person. After such sessions my body was tired and tense. I often had the feeling I had given away my energy. One day I had the insight again that living in the present moment means breathing with awareness in every activity. It means being with things just as they are without trying to change or fix them but allowing the energy of awareness to be the transforming force.

Slowly I have begun to transform my own practice of massage by observing and working with the first of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, awareness of the body in the body. I began to notice how often I hold my breath while I work, how often my tummy is contracted and tense, how often I allow my mind to roam away from the body. I saw how much unnecessary force I used to "help" my client. I could see that working unmindfully caused my own body to suffer. I wasn't treating my body with compassion. Lack of awareness of my body, lack of kindness for my body was affecting my health and the quality of the massage I offered. These realizations (still unfolding) naturally led to the desire to share elements of the practice with my clients.

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Early on in my massage practice I recognized that in those rare moments when I am completely present and aware of my body and breath, my clients benefit in some intangible as well as tangible ways. For a long time I avoided unnecessary talk while giving massage. I wanted to offer silence. One of the fruits of my own work with the First Establishment of Mindfulness is a willingness to share the practice of awareness of the breath and body as a kind of guided meditation. I don't use Buddhist language. I simply tell the client that I will guide him into a deeper state of relaxation using our collaborative awareness. This practice has been received enthusiastically by almost everyone, and the visible result is a much deeper relaxation and joyful smiles of appreciation at the end of the massage.

I am aware that when someone comes to me for massage, the pain and tension in the body are externalized manifestations of internal states. We live in difficult times. Stress is widespread and has devastating effects on the body. As a massage therapist I see the effects of stress on the physical body and, of course, I have the experience of my own body. Very few of us know how to adapt to challenging external conditions without producing unhealthy stress.

Many people share their emotional suffering with me - i.e., "I just left my husband, our baby is sick, I lost my job, my work is so stressful." My job is to listen deeply without judgment or solutions, simply reflecting the pain I hear in their voices and feel in their bodies, and to assist them with words and touch in letting go in the way that is most appropriate for them. As Thay says, our job is to listen deeply so that the other person can empty her heart. Sometimes the client doesn't say anything at all but I can see suffering in her face and feel the lack of ease and presence with the body. I know the right medicine is awareness and I try to relax and allow the transformation to occur. Each session begins with gentle contact and silent metta: "May he be safe and well. May he be peaceful. May he be filled with light." Often I continue the metta throughout the massage. Every session is different because every human being is unique. I use my intuition to decide what to say and how to say it. Sometimes I do an extended meditation on the parts of the body, the organs, etc. as we do in the practice of Total Relaxation. Sometimes, I say very little, simply encouraging the person to be aware of her body and breath.

I let the client know I will be following my breath and maintaining awareness of my body even as I am encouraging her to do the same. Together we will enjoy our breath and stay present in order to move towards greater ease, relaxation and transformation of the body's suffering. I use my voice as a soothing tool to help establish basic awareness of the breath and body and to maintain that awareness. Of course, this supports my practice as well.

Often I use gathas. "As you breathe in, know that you are breathing in. As you breathe out, know that you are breathing out." I encourage the client to follow the physical sensations of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Sometimes I continue with deep, slow, calm, ease, smile, release, present moment, wonderful moment - but very slowly throughout the massage. Sometimes I follow my instinct and simply remind the client to return to awareness of the breath - "Observe your breath rising and falling like waves on the ocean," or "Notice how your body is feeling now. Do you feel tension or holding in any part of your body?" or "Imagine as you breathe in that your whole body is breathing in - breathing through every pore of your skin." Or "Return to the present moment. This is a wonderful moment."

I often invite the person to send his breath to a tight spot and allow the breath to melt the tension. Frequently people acknowledge that they were holding their breath. I remind the person there is nothing for her to do, nothing to fix, nothing to do but relax into the present moment and feel the wonderful joy of simply breathing in and out. Usually, when I call attention to the breath, I can feel the client physically let go of more of the tension. This is palpable and real. In the last few minutes of the massage, I invite the client, whom I now feel bonded to in friendship, to offer gratitude to her body and to offer the medicine of a smile to her body. People often chuckle out loud at the thought of smiling to their body.

Many of us do not fully inhabit our bodies. People often tell me they are not aware that they are holding tension in the body. To be intimate with one's own body is to be aware of tension when it exists, to hold the tension lovingly, to seek its causes, to realize that the conditions for relaxation also exist and the seeds of relaxation can be nourished with our awareness. "Breathing in, I'm aware that my body is tense. Breathing out, I smile to the tension. Breathing in, I realize my shoulders are hugging my ears. Breathing out, I enjoy my out breath." Mindful massage encourages us to come home to the body as it is in the here and now. We befriend the body, befriend the tension and the pain and then, as if by miracle, the tension and pain lessen.

This summer at the Amherst retreat I had a profound experience with the healing power of mindfulness of the body. On the morning of the ordination ceremony for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, I woke up with an upset stomach. Because of my deep desire to be present in support of sisters and brothers receiving the Trainings, I decided to go. As I slowly walked to the meditation hall, I held my upset stomach in my hands and recited the gatha "Calm/Ease" while breathing very consciously. When I arrived my stomach was much calmer and I was able to be fully present for the ceremony. A delicious fruit of the practice often comes when my mindfulness is strong and the client is open enough. In those moments a deep intimacy arises between us. Zen teacher, Issan Dorsey used the phrase "abiding in ultimate closeness." To me ultimate closeness means no self and no other. It means no separation. It means deep intimacy. One of the many benefits of mindful massage is that these apparent physical boundaries melt away and, at least briefly, there is only one body, part of the vast Buddha body. In this state of oneness compassion flows naturally.

At times I don't feel connected to my client. I may not feel at home in my body. I may be too tired or distracted, demanding too much of myself. Her body may feel impenetrable and I realize she may have less awareness of and compassion for her own body. She may treat her body badly with poor diet, alcohol, lack of exercise, etc. When I come back to treating my body with compassion, I have the chance to transmit some of what I feel to her and she will begin to have more awareness and appreciation for herself. I am aware that I'm planting and watering seeds of awareness in my client and myself at the same time. I realize this person is not separate from me, that he is part of my Sangha, that his happiness and well-being is my happiness and well-being.

In the beginning I spoke of the tangible and intangible benefits of mindful massage. The tangible benefits are deeper relaxation with increased physiological benefits, a greater feeling of connectedness between self and other, and more peace and joy. Friendship is a tangible benefit. Even if I never see this person again, we are friends. The first client I shared mindful massage with told me later that it had made her realize how important it is to treat her body with loving-kindness. The intangible benefits are harder to talk about. Sometimes I have the feeling my client has touched her true nature even though she may not have words to describe it. One beautiful young woman left the clinic and came back a few minutes later to deeply thank me and to express that she had not realized how profound massage could be. I believe she touched her true nature. I don't know what the long-term effects of mindful massage are because I work in a spa and don't usually see clients more than once. This may be a disadvantage but it is also how life is. We touch the lives of others. We all plant or water seeds and we may never see the effects. I do know from my own experience that every time the seed of awareness of my body is watered, it grows stronger. Many different people have watered those seeds and I'm grateful to them all.

I began this article a few days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Today I saw something written in large white letters on the rear windshield of the car in front of me. lt said, "Choose compassion and forgiveness. Reject violence and vengeance." This is how Thay teaches us to respond to violence. As I write these words I see that they apply equally to the physical body. If we offer the physical body compassion and forgiveness, we will have no need for violence and vengeance on the individual or the collective level. As Thay says, "Peace is every step." The First Establishment of Mindfulness supports us in cultivating peaceful steps by teaching us to live with awareness and appreciation of the physical body. I have never felt more committed to helping others make peace with their bodies because I know when we come home to our bodies, replacing judgment with acceptance, violence with compassion, the world will be a safer and more peaceful place.

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Pamela Overeynder, True Sun of Understanding, practices with Plum Blossom Sangha of Austin and the Texas Hill Country Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

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Dharma Talk: Silence

A Dharma talk given by Sister Jina on September 1, 2002 in the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village mb35-Silence1

 

I have been aware of silence this week. I would like to share with you a little bit how I practice with noble silence in my daily life. I first came to Plum Village in 1990 for the first twenty-one day retreat in June. We were advised to observe silence on lazy days. So the first lazy day I went out to have breakfast on the veranda in the Lower Hamlet and someone came to sit next to me and said, “Oh, this may be a good opportunity to talk to you.” And at the table next to us there were three other friends and they were talking. And all of these friends had been to Plum Village before and I did not know what to make of this. For the rest of the retreat I do not remember silence being mentioned at all. We did not have a silent period on the schedule. I stayed for the Summer Opening in the Lower Hamlet. All the Vietnamese speaking friends were in the Lower Hamlet and just a handfull of non-Vietnamese speaking friends. The Summer Opening was a very joyful event and we were not very silent. I have kept the schedules of our retreats over the years and it was in 1992 that the word silence appeared on the schedule, “lights out, silence.” And in 1993 we started to call it “noble silence.”

Nowadays we have a period of silence on our schedule that starts at nine p.m. until after breakfast and sometimes we like to extend it until after lunch. Noble silence does not mean that we are not allowed to talk. It means that we don’t have to talk, we have no obligation to talk during that period of the day. It makes a difference in how we practice. I would like to thank Thay Doji for sharing how he observes the noble silence. It is a good reminder for me to know when I am approached by someone that I can ask, “Do you have to say this now? Can it wait until later?” Also when I am about to approach someone I can ask myself, Do I have to say this now, or can it wait until later? What makes silence noble is that it becomes an inner silence. The mind is calm and at ease. Whenever I hear the sound of a bell, whether it is the outside bell or the telephone or the chiming of the clock, I take it as an opportunity to practice noble silence. First I go back to my breathing. I feel the air moving in and out of my body. I become aware of the sensation moving into the body, the temperature of the air and the substance of the air when it moves in and when it moves out. Having come back to myself like that I become aware of the feeling that is present whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and the mental formation that is present. I am nourished by a pleasant feeling. When we have a neutral feeling we have means of turning it into a pleasant feeling. When the feeling is neutral as it is now, I can feel it is wonderful just to be here not being overwhelmed by an unpleasant feeling and already the neutral feeling becomes a pleasant feeling. When an unpleasant feeling is present I can bring to mind that it is impermanent and in a little while it will no longer be there. That calms down the negative mental formation.

We often speak about embracing mental formations. When I feel the impermanence of a mental formation I can stay with it because I know that just by staying with it without doing anything else it will take its course and eventually it will disappear. But often I also take care of the mental formation by finding its manifestation in my body. The mind and the body are one so if there is a strong mental formation present in the mind it is also present in the body. So I become aware of my body and I ask the question: where does this mental formation, this emotion manifest itself in my body? Sometimes it is in my throat, like tightness, sometimes it is in my abdomen, like having a knot, or in the solar plexus, or in my neck or it is butterflies in my stomach. I find out where this mental formation of emotion manifests in my body. Breathing in, I become aware of where it is located and what it feels like, and breathing out, I relax. I find in that way I calm the mental formation that is manifested in my body and at the same time I calm it in my mind. With the practice of stopping and listening to the sound of the bell I go a little bit in the direction of inner silence. Now let’s listen to the sound of the bell and practice this.

Bell…

I found some tension in my shoulders and I realized that I am carrying the responsibility of what I am going to tell you. So I relax. The practice of total relaxation is very refreshing for our body and our mind. It is something that I practice every evening before going to sleep. When I am in bed I take my cassette recorder and I take a tape—very often it is a chanting tape. It can be one of our own chanting tapes, or Christian chanting or any other chanting that I find pleasant. I make myself comfortable and I listen to the chant. Rather, I open myself and let the chant come in. I receive the chant. I receive the chant and I become aware of my body and whenever and wherever I find tension in the body on the out breath I let go of the tension. While doing this I am aware of my body weight increasing. I am getting heavier and heavier. Every time I let go of some tension I notice that that part of my body gets heavier. It is a sinking feeling as if I am sinking into the mattress or onto the bedboard until I come to a place of rest and then the body is very calm and quiet and so is my mind. The cassette turns itself off and I kind of sleepily take the headphones off. In the morning my mind feels very refreshed and light and so does my mind. The body moves around very lightly and gently.

I have noticed that when the mind is busy my body is also busy and I tend to be noisy. I put things down and it makes a noise and I move things around and it makes a noise and sometimes I bump into things. I like to regard my body as a door to come to this inner silence. I become aware of the sounds that I make when I move around. If it is very noisy I just focus on doing everything quietly. This has a wonderful effect: I become quiet and my mind quiets down too. It is logical because I am bringing the mind and the body together and that is when we have peace and calm. We are practicing mindfulness.

The other day I was sharing with some friends about my time as a novice in a mountain temple in Japan. When I went to a practicing temple in Japan for the first time I was given an outfit, a kind of temple dress. And I was given stiff slippers. The temple was large with wooden floors and we had to walk a long way from the Buddha Hall to our bedrooms and to the dining hall. We were told not to make any noise while walking. You couldn’t make the sounds, “patter, patter, flip-flop.” And that was quite difficult with those stiff slippers on those very shiny wooden floors. You have to be very mindful to walk without making a noise. And further we had to be pretty quick. And we were asked not to make a breeze. So we had these long robes that would flap as we walked but we had to find a way that they wouldn’t flap, wouldn’t make a noise and they wouldn’t cause a wind. We had young monks pointing out to us every time we made a noise and would make our robes flap. They reminded us in a kind of teasing, joyful way. But it brought us to being more mindful while moving about.

Also when practicing sitting meditation I find body awareness very centering and stabilizing. When we sit on a cushion sometimes we don’t really sit. If you bring your awareness to the lower part of your body you may feel that you are not really sitting. We are almost off the cushion. So when I sit on the cushion I become aware of the contact that I have with the cushion and I become aware of the feeling that is in my body. Every time I breathe in I become aware of my body and when I breathe out I let go of any tension I may find in my body. In that process I find that I am slowly, slowly landing on my cushion until in the end I sit on the cushion. This is what I do at the beginning of the sitting meditation to really arrive on my cushion. It is very pleasant.

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The tension that I find is often somewhere in my head, on my face or in my shoulders. When the shoulders are tensed I am not really on my cushion. So I relax my shoulders and I already arrive a bit more. Another place I may find tension is in my lower abdomen. I relax my lower abdomen and I have that sinking feeling of arriving on my cushion. There are times when I keep this body awareness for the whole period of sitting. I am aware of the whole body as a single unit. What I mean is that I become aware of my whole body. I start at my head and I let my mindfulness flow throughout my whole body until every nook and crook is filled with my awareness. That is when the body and mind are one. I practice keeping this awareness of the whole body throughout the whole period of sitting. This brings about a joy in the body. It feels as if every cell of the body is happy. There is a slight tingling sensation throughout my whole body. It is very nourishing to practice sitting like that.

Being aware of my whole body quite naturally helps me to be aware of my breathing because breathing is something that happens in the body. This gentle flow of breathing in and out is something that I naturally become aware of when I become aware of the whole body. Maybe we can try that. Start from your head and let your awareness spread out throughout your whole body.

When we do slow walking in the meditation hall I like to walk with my palms joined and I like to be aware of the quality of touch between my palms. It is a gentle touch, but it is firm. Also I am aware of where I hold my palms. There is a place where I hold my palms that doesn’t cost me any muscular effort. You can try. Sometimes when they are a little bit lower it feels like they are being pulled down and then if I pull them up they feel weightless with no effort whatsoever. Then I walk and I become aware of my body moving through space. Every time I put my foot down I become aware of the contact between my foot and the floor. I like to become aware of the weight of my foot on the floor and come to rest in the steps. When I put my foot down there is a little pause when I rest, I sink into the step. There is also a physical feeling I have of sinking into the step. I sink into every step. It is very pleasant. I also like to practice that outside, but not so slowly. At times to rest in each step can be very challenging. For instance when the activity bell has already been invited there is a sense that I have to hurry. When we walk in a hurried way we don’t rest in every step. Instead, we seem to quickly touch the earth in order to get somewhere. So I practice taking the hurry out of my steps so that I can come to rest in every step. It is a bit tricky because there is something in me that tells me if you don’t hurry you will be late. But I also experience that if I don’t hurry I will get there much faster because the hurry comes from the worry and the worry is very heavy and slows me down. If I drop the hurry and the worry I can move a bit quicker and be in every step and be on time. You can try, it is very interesting to experiment with that. You can meet this habit energy that says you have to hurry or you will be late. You can move faster but you don’t need to hurry. It is very handy when you are at the airport and a bit late.

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I use body awareness a lot to come to inner silence. I find it important, every day, to do some learning or studying, some reflecting and then practice. The time for reflecting is very precious for me. The time for learning is when we hear teachings, or hear the sutras or read a book. And then we have some time to reflect, to see where we are in our practice and what steps we are going to take in our practice and then we put it into practice. In the sutra, Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone it says not to be carried away by how our bodies, feelings, mental formations etcetera will be in the future. When we have read that sutra in the morning I take some time during the day to note when I let myself be carried away by thoughts about the future and I do catch myself, for instance, writing scenarios.  I am thinking about having to tell somebody something, which is going to happen in the future, and in my head I write a whole scenario. I write my role of what I am going to say and then my sister’s role of what she will answer and then what I will say. I have it all written down. But my experience is that this scenario is never going to be realized, it is just something that I do in my mind. If I get caught in it then when I meet the sister I experience our whole meeting through the veil of this scenario and I react on my scenario and I don’t really act in an appropriate way to what is happening. When I find myself writing scenarios I practice dismissing it. I say this is a scenario and it may not happen at all. My experience says that it is not going to happen like this, so why do I believe in this scenario? So I can drop it and go and see my sister and see more clearly what is actually happening between the two of us. Hearing what my sister says and hearing what I am saying makes our encounter more fruitful. When I find myself trying to rewrite history, wanting it to be different—something has happened and I am going over it again and again, wishing that I have not not said or done this or he or she had not said or done that—I find that it does not help. When I notice I am doing that I practice dismissing and letting go of that habit energy and I try to look at what happened in order to get some understanding, in order to learn something from it. I take a teaching by Thay or a sutra to help me look. At times I take the Discourse on Love that speaks of loving and protecting all beings as a mother loves and protects her only child and I see in some situations I have not had that kind of mind at all. Or I take the Sutra on Reflecting and Measuring. Someone has told me something and I have answered back, not listened and just accepted it, so I can see what my contribution is to the situation and I determine to do better. Of course this doesn’t happen straightaway, it takes some time.

When I was in Japan there was a clear example of that. At the temple where I practiced in Japan we were only six or seven people. The practice leader was also the work coordinator because work is practice. My brother who was the practice leader had the habit of telling me what to do, which I experienced as being bossed around. He would come at any time of the day and he would say, “Jina-san, the toilets are dirty—go and clean them,” or “The meditation hall is dirty—go and clean it,” and I would always react in the same way. I would say, “Why do I have to do that? You always ask me to go and do these things.” And his answer would always be, “Because it is dirty and it needs to be cleaned.”

One day after chanting, something in the chant made me reflect on my habit energy. I was sitting in my room and remembering the previous day when this type of incident had happened and I looked at why I would do that. I saw that my brother had a good heart and was very committed to the practice and to our living together and he wanted to keep things neat and tidy. In fact, for me it was the same—I like to keep things neat and tidy.  So we both want the same thing, but why did I always react like that? Inside of me was a little ego, or a big ego. What if my master came and said, “Jina-san the bathroom is dirty would you mind cleaning it?” I would bow and say, “Yes, master,” and I would fly so happily because the master had asked me to do something. But the fact was that the bathroom was dirty and it needed to be cleaned all the same. So I realized that something in me would like to be asked by a special person in a special way and then I would very happily do it. So I decided next time and any other time when my brother asked me to do something I would just bow and say, “Yes, brother,” and I would smile and go do it.

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A few days later I was in the Buddha hall and my brother came up to me and said, “Jina-san, the bathroom has not yet been cleaned, so go and do it.” And I said, “Why do I have to go do it? You always ask me to do things.” And then he answered, “Okay, you don’t need to do it.” And that brought me back to my resolution and I said, “No, brother, you know I always react like that. It is just a habit. But you also know that usually I go and do it. So never mind my reaction I will go and do it.” And he said, “Okay.” From that day on it became a joke between the two of us and my brother would come and say, “Jina-san, go and clean.” And I would bow and say, “Yes, brother.” And sometimes he would ask me in a friendly way and at other times he was grumpy. I would think sometimes I am grumpy too, and I would just smile and go and clean.

We make a resolution about our habit energies or how we contribute to a situation and then we decide what we would like to change, what steps we will take and how we will practice. For me it is important to do that everyday. I take time to do that.

Thay once advised us to write our own sutras, so I did. I wrote a sutra about practices that would help me to listen and would help me to live in harmony with my community. Listening requires a silence, an outer silence and an inner silence to be able to hear what is being said and also what is not being said. Deep listening is an expression of inner silence. I use the practice of listening in order to cultivate inner silence. I read my sutra everyday. I usually do it in my hut. I go and light incense and I sit down. I face my little altar and I read my sutra aloud, slowly. I allow every sentence to sink in to water the seeds of awareness of the practice in me. It really helps me in my daily practice when occasions arise where I need to practice what I have decided to practice. A sentence out of my sutra spontaneously comes up and it helps me to practice. There are also times where it doesn’t come up and I notice afterwards and I take some time during the day to read my sutra again or if I know it by heart I will go and sit somewhere quietly and mentally go over it again. It really helps me. I find great joy in practicing and progress in the practice motivates me to continue. I would like to read my sutra to you. It is my sutra right now. When I feel I have realized enough of my sutra then I add other things. I take another aspect of the practice that I would like to strengthen. On top I have written ”Listen” because I would like to practice listening better.

The training in the art of listening begins in silence, develops in attentiveness and is perfected in communication.

This is something I read somewhere and it makes sense to me. It gives me a good guideline for practicing listening in daily life.

I will practice refraining from saying something that lies on the tip of my tongue.

Just by reading this every day I become aware of what lies on the tip of my tongue and I realize that often I am not aware of what was there on the tip of my tongue and I say it out before I realize what I am going to say. Keeping something on the tip of my tongue, I really have the opportunity to taste what it is like. It is not always sweet. It gives me some insight into my mind, my mental formations and the strength of the seeds in my store consciousness.

I shall listen to others’ points of view before stating my own.

This ties into what lies on the tip of my tongue. This practice is very important when we want to come to consensus in a community or in a meeting. I have written this here because sometimes when I am tired in a meeting I just state my point of view and then I think that is enough, let’s just finish the meeting and I don’t really create much space for other people to state their point of view. That is not very beneficial. I have found that when I wait for others to give their input I don’t need to give my input or I do it in a different way that is more beneficial for a meeting. That is one point I am practicing with right now.

I will practice not speaking about a third person.

In a community it is easy to speak about a third person and it can cause a lot of disharmony and suffering. We can speak about a third person on occasion in the light of how we can help that person in the practice. I am certainly not perfect at any of these points, that is why they are still here in my sutra, but I am becoming more and more aware of when I speak about a third person and how. When we are discussing the practice of a third person I become aware of any internal formations I may have regarding that person or the practice of that person. I can take care of my internal formation and try not to let it interfere with the input I give on the practice of that person.

If met with anger I shall respond with loving-kindness.

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The Buddha said that the antidote to anger is loving-kindness. I try to keep love alive in my heart. We all know that meeting anger with anger is not beneficial but we know that we get pulled into it anyway. Reading this every day helps me to remember to look with loving-kindness at myself and at the other.

If met with non-cooperation I shall respond with compassion.

For those of us who live in the community or at home in a family we know that there are times when things need to be taken care of and at times we are met with non-cooperation of other members of the community. I am practicing responding to this with compassion. I try to put myself in the skin of the other to try to understand where the non-cooperation comes from. I try to discern when and how to encourage and when and how to release or let go.

The sound of the bell allows me to enjoy the whole length of my in-breath and the whole length of my out-breath.

I know this is our practice but I find it necessary to be reminded of that every day. Being aware of the whole length of my in-breath and out-breath allows me to be aware of what is happening inside of me. There are times when I just find myself waiting. The bell is invited and I stop but I am just waiting for the bell to stop so I can continue with whatever I was doing. Reading this reminds me that it is nice to take the opportunity to enjoy the whole length of my in-breath and the whole length of my out-breath. When I find myself waiting it is usually when everyone starts moving around that I realize I have just been waiting. I think I missed the opportunity but I can do it here. I can take a few moments to enjoy my in-breath and out-breath.

Every step brings me peace and joy.

We know this and we practice this in theory. At least, I practice it in theory. But I want to practice it in reality, so reading it every day helps me to do so.

Then I close with some words by Saint Benedict which help me to put things in the right perspective.

In the end it is not about what we have achieved but what we have become.

I would like to realize my full potential and reading my sutra every day helps me to go in that direction. This practice of learning, reflecting, and putting into practice and my sutra all help me to go in the direction of inner silence. It is an inner silence that I can practice throughout the day. Periods of outer silence can help us to cultivate this inner silence.

In the winter of 1998–1999 in the Lower Hamlet we had one day of the week where we could observe noble silence. We were allowed to put on a little badge that said, “noble silence.” It was mostly retreatants who used the opportunity to do so. I like to do this very much but I need the reassurance of the community that it is okay. I feel an obligation to always be approachable and ready to respond to the needs of the community. A period of noble silence might help me to do so better. An inner silence means nothing else than dwelling in the present moment.

I guess the Buddha wouldn’t have anything against that.

Thank you very much for listening.

Sister Jina is the abbess of the Lower Hamlet at Plum Village in France.  Photography by Big Jim.

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Mindful Meeting Guidelines

By Tony Silvestre mb51-Mindful1

Meetings are a wonderful opportunity to practice skillful speaking and listening. When we gather to discuss and take care of our Sangha, there are opportunities for members to present gifts to our Sangha and for our members to practice receiving gifts. An important purpose of meetings is to practice mindfulness. It is important that the Sangha practice during meetings in ways that bring ease, peace, and joy to meeting participants. The process of making decisions is as important to the harmony of the Sangha as any action that the Sangha can take. We recognize that like all phenomena, these guidelines are impermanent, and may change as needed.

Thay invited us to be mindful at meetings and suggested that we communicate with each other using kind and respectful speech and deep listening in order to share our insight so that we can make the best decisions for the benefit of the Sangha. The following is an aspiration that Thay offers for our use:

Dear Lord Buddha and All Our Ancestral Teachers, We vow to go through this meeting in a spirit of togetherness as we review all ideas and consolidate them to reach a harmonious understanding or consensus. We vow to use the methods of loving speech and deep listening in order to bring about the success of this meeting as an offering to the Three Jewels. We vow not to hesitate to share our ideas and insights but also vow not to say anything when the feeling of irritation is present in us. We are resolutely determined not to allow tension to build up in this meeting. If any one of us senses the start of tension, we will stop immediately and practice Beginning Anew right away so as to re-establish an atmosphere of togetherness and harmony. (from Joyfully Together)

Here are the guidelines that we use for meetings of the Laughing Rivers Sangha:

  1. Each member’s ideas and comments are a gift to the Sangha. We will practice to listen without judging and should first identify the gift offered before considering its usefulness.
  2. We will practice to express ourselves clearly and as briefly as possible. Talking over people, interrupting speakers, and rushing to speak as others pause are some ways that we limit others’ ability to speak.
  3. Repeating points that we already made, speaking for long periods, and making comments that are dealing with multiple issues at once, can be intimidating and overwhelming. We will practice to make every effort to present simply and briefly.
  4. We will practice to be careful before we represent the views of others who are not present.
  5. The Mindfulness Trainings present many opportunities for practice during meetings:
  • Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views.
  • We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences.
  • Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves I the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech.
  • Aware that words can create sufferings or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence.

6. We will practice speaking with candor and gentleness to safeguard the Sangha.

Tony Silvestre, True Hall of Peace, is convener of Rainbow Buddhists of Pittsburgh, a social and educational group for LGBT people and their friends. Other members of Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh contributed to this article.

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Sangha News

mb52-SanghaNews1 The Realization of a Dream

Thich Nhat Hanh began his last Dharma talk at the Path of the Buddha retreat by speaking about the EIAB.

It has been Thay’s dream to set up an Institute of Applied Buddhism in the West, and now the dream has been realized. We have created the European Institute of Applied Buddhism [EIAB] in Germany, very close to Cologne. It is in the heart of Europe. There is a monastic community and a lay community taking care of the Institute and offering retreats and courses on Applied Buddhism. If you are a Dharma teacher in Europe or America, you might be inspired to go there and teach a course. You can bring your children and your students. There will be many students there from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and so on. You can get more information about it by visiting their website, www.eiab.eu.

Unlike other institutes, there is a permanent Sangha always practicing there. At the EIAB, the residential community embodies the teaching and the practice. It is the most important feature of the Institute. Whether you are in Dharma discussion, listening to a talk or practicing sitting or eating, there is always a strong Sangha present to support you.

We want the teaching of Buddhism to be applied to many areas of life, so a variety of courses are offered. There is a twentyone-day course for young people who are planning to marry,

to help them learn practices and to gain insight that will make their commitment successful. This course has roots in the history of Buddhism. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries like Thailand, a young man had to come and practice in a temple for a year before marrying. It’s like military service, but instead, this is spiritual service. Even the prince had to do it, or he would not be qualified to be king. When a man asked a woman to marry, she would ask whether he had fulfilled his time in the temple. If not, she would refuse his offer. Now people come to the temple for a shorter period, but that service still exists. We hope that in the future in every country there will be an institute that will train young people before they can marry, because they will have a much better chance to have a happy family life. Because there are so many families broken by divorce, we must offer that course everywhere.

We also offer a twenty-one-day course for children who have difficulties with their parents, and one for parents who don’t know how to communicate with their children. And we offer a course for both parents and children to practice together. We offer a course for people who have recently discovered they have an incurable disease like cancer or AIDS, and one for those who are grieving from the loss of a loved one. We will also offer a course on how to set up and lead a local Sangha.

The Buddhism taught at the Institute of Applied Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life, a way of transformation and healing.

I think our spiritual ancestors and our blood ancestors have prepared this place for us in Germany. There is a lot of land, with many trees and clean air. The people in the town like us and are glad we have come. They support us, bringing gifts to the monastics. The building can hold 500 retreatants. Thay

intends to organize a gathering of Dharma teachers there from Asia, Europe, and North America to stay together for one week. They will sit and walk together, drink tea together and reflect on how to make the teaching and practice relevant to our times. So, please, if you are a Dharma teacher, you might like to come to that retreat at the Institute, probably two years from now.

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The Meanings of Engaged and Applied Buddhism

First was born the term, “Engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism means that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy and brotherhood are possible in every moment.

The term Engaged Buddhism was born when the war in Viet Nam was very intense. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on, and what was happening then was bombs falling, people being wounded and dying: suffering and the destruction of life. You want to help relieve the suffering, so you sit and walk in the midst of people running from bombs. You learn how to practice mindful breathing while you help care for a wounded child. If you don’t practice while you serve, you will lose yourself and you will burn out.

When you are alone, walking or sitting or drinking your tea or making your breakfast, that is also Engaged Buddhism, because you are doing that not only for yourself, you are doing that in order to help preserve the world. This is interbeing.

Engaged Buddhism is practice that penetrates into every aspect of our world. Applied Buddhism is a continuation of engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.

When President Obama gave a talk at the University of Cairo, he used loving speech in order to release tension between America and the Islamic world. He was using the Buddhist practice of loving speech: speaking humbly, recognizing the values of Islam, recognizing the good will on the part of Islamic people, and identifying terrorists as a small number of people who exploit tension and misunderstanding between people.

The practice of relieving tension in the body is Applied Buddhism because the tension accumulated in our body will bring about sickness and disease. The sutra on mindful breathing, presented in 16 exercises, is Applied Buddhism. We should be able to apply the teaching of mindful breathing everywhere – in our family, in our school, in the hospital, and so on. Buddhism is not just for Buddhists. Buddhism is made up of non-Buddhist elements.

So please offer your help because the European Institute of Applied Buddhism is our dream. Find out how you can help make this dream come true. Next June we will have a seven-day retreat there.

—Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village, 21 June 2009

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Give from the Heart The European Institute of Applied Buddhism

Following is an excerpt from a fundraising letter by Thay Phap An on behalf of the monastics residing at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). To read the complete letter, view photos of construction at EIAB, see the course catalogue, or make a contribution, please visit www.eiab.eu.

19 June 2009

Dear Beloved Sangha,

In September 2008, more than twenty brothers and sisters were sent to Germany from Plum Village to set up the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). This has been a dream of Thay’s since he was a young novice. His wish is to bring the teaching of the Buddha into every aspect of our lives. Buddhism should not only be theoretical, but it should be practical and we should be able to apply it in transforming the suffering of individuals, families, and society. At the EIAB, we will have courses for new couples who are getting married, for parents and children who wish to reconcile, for police officers, psychotherapists, teachers, and businesspeople.

The EIAB building has the capacity of hosting 400-500 people. The military operated the building from 1967-2006 and they have their own set of fire safety regulations. As the EIAB, the building is considered to be in civilian use, and the authorities have a very different set of fire safety regulations for this purpose. In addition, many water pipes are now old and rusty, and together with our now out-of-date kitchen, they no longer meet the public health standards. We also need to repair our old heating system due to many leakages, and more importantly, to make it more energy efficient and ecologically friendly. To house the intended number of people, we would also need to build many more public toilets and showers.

In the last nine months, a team of experts that includes architects, engineers and technicians have looked carefully into this matter, and we now know that we would have to spend at least 3 million Euros for half of the building to be functional and open to the public. The EIAB is not allowed to be opened to the public under current conditions, and the brothers and sisters are only given temporary permission to stay in a small restricted area of this building until January 2010. This means that we have to raise 3 million Euros as soon as possible in order to proceed with the construction work and have it completed by the end of 2009.

Last night, I was thinking about how we can raise this big amount of money in such a short time. I evoked the name of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion to ask for her help, and for the whole night, I thought about my international beloved community – brothers and sisters and friends that I have come to know in my 18 years as a monk. I thought that if each of our friends, families, or local Sanghas everywhere in the world would give a contribution of 500 Euros, then with 6,000 such contributions, we would meet our urgent need of raising 3 million Euros by the end of this year. I am writing this letter to our friends all over the world so that you know about our situation. I have a deep trust in our beloved community. I know that if I communicate our difficulties to you, we will receive your help.

The EIAB is a vision not only for the European community but also for the international community. We sincerely ask for your practice of generosity to help to make the EIAB a reality for the cultivation of love and understanding for all of us, and our children.

— Thay Phap An On behalf of the brothers and sisters of the EIAB

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Help Prajna Monastery

Just as a flower garden may experience heavy winds and severe rainstorms as it grows, the Sangha body can encounter very difficult conditions as it blooms in awakening. In recent months, young monks and nuns at Prajna (Bat Nha) Monastery in Viet Nam have faced adverse conditions – including police interrogations, violent attacks, and threats of eviction. Yet they have continued to blossom.

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Causes and Conditions

Prajna Monastery, in Viet Nam’s central highlands, houses more than 350 monks and nuns who have chosen to practice according to the Plum Village tradition under the guidance of Thich Nhat Hanh. They are all between the ages of sixteen and thirtyfive. Since Thay’s first return to Viet Nam in 2005 his teachings have inspired dozens of young Vietnamese to ordain as monks and nuns. The Venerable Abbot Thich Duc Nghi offered the Prajna monastery as a home for the new monks and nuns. Over the next few years, the number of aspirants and lay practitioners quickly multiplied, and Prajna needed to expand. Supporters from many countries donated funds to renovate buildings, build new structures, and buy adjacent land for the growing community.

During Thay’s next visits to his homeland in 2007 and 2008, he met with government officials, including the president of Viet Nam. Thay proposed that the nation open its doors to visitors, strengthen ties with other countries, and reduce its dependency on China. He presented a ten-point proposal to the president. All of his suggestions were adopted by the government except the last one, “to dissolve the religious police and the religious affairs bureau.” In a letter explaining recent events, Sister Chan Khong writes, “It seems that difficulties at Prajna can be traced back to this point.” She explains that Thich Duc Nghi was under pressure from the immigration office to expel Plum Village monks and nuns from Prajna, even those who had a valid visa.

In 2008 Thich Duc Nghi asked the police to evict the 379 monastics living at Prajna. By the end of that year, a report from the Vietnamese Buddhist Church directed the monks and nuns to leave by April 2009.

In a letter to his students, Thay writes that “this was not about an internal struggle over a temple, but it was the result of a delusion: that the presence of Prajna may be a threat to national security, because the monastics at Prajna… want to do politics.” He likens this perception to a painting drawn in the air – purely a projection. “Now everyone around the world is able to see that the monks and the nuns and the aspirants at Prajna only do one thing. That is: to practice and to guide others to practice.”

Wrong perceptions of the monastics have led to violence. A letter from the monastics of Prajna testifies: “Groups of men were ordered to throw the belongings of young monks out in the hallway. Gates to the monastery have been locked so that lay friends could not enter. Some monks and nuns have been chased with life-threatening objects.” Police came to the monastery frequently, searching and questioning the monks and nuns, and asking them to sign a statement that they were living there illegally. Sister Chan Khong writes that the monastics “always used gentle speech toward the police and even offered them tea and songs to relieve their tension.”

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On June 26, monastic huts were torn down in an attack. Electricity, water, and phone lines were shut off, and food deliveries were blocked. An e-mail from a western visitor describes video footage of the event: “An out-of-control crowd swarmed over the grounds… taking things from the rooms, as uniformed police watched and did nothing.” As of mid-August the monastics were still without electricity and water.

A Chance to Practice

For the monastics, these events have offered a chance to practice mindfulness, solidity, and equanimity – to abide in stillness, even in the heart of turmoil.

In a letter dated July 20, Thay reassures his students at Prajna and everywhere: “Thay has confidence that you can behave true to the Dharma in challenging and difficult circumstances. The day Thay received the news that people invaded your monastic residence… throwing out your belongings, pushing whoever got in their way, and going to the third floor only to find all of you doing sitting meditation, evoking the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening Avalokiteshvara in the imperturbable posture, and not trying to react or fight back, Thay knew that you were able to do what Thay has hoped for, and there is no more reason for Thay to be worried about you.”

Thay’s letter recounts the story of a Prajna novice trained in martial arts. In response to the attack, the young brother “asked his mentor for permission to handle those men. ‘Please allow me to quit being a monk. I cannot bear it anymore. I only need fifteen minutes to defeat all those gangsters. After that, if needed, I will go to prison... when I finish my term, I will return to be a monk again.’” His mentor responded with compassion. “Dear brother, don’t call those young people gangsters…. They were misinformed. They are thinking that we are gangsters who have come here to take over the building and the land. They are victims of wrong information, and they need help more than punishment.” He encouraged his brother to sit in meditation and master the anger in him. A few days later, the novice realized that if he had answered violence with violence, he would have “destroyed the great example set by the Buddha and by Thay.”

How We Can Help

The world’s eyes are on Prajna Monastery. Articles about Prajna and “Plum Village style practice” have

appeared in newspapers from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Worldwide, Sangha members are concerned, confused, and wondering how to help.

A blog titled www.helpbatnha.org features written accounts, letters, photo galleries, and a history of events at Prajna. It also demonstrates the resilient spirits of practitioners there. One photo shows a makeshift outdoor kitchen, with the caption: “The monks find ways to make do with hearts unperturbed.” Another picture shows a barricade of tree branches, with the words: “This pile of trees may block our path, but it can never block our understanding and compassion.”

The monastics have called for help from the international community so that they can practice in safety and peace. They “cannot just find another place to relocate, since there are almost 400 monks and nuns. Moreover, it is not likely that the monks and nuns would be left in peace to practice, even if we were to relocate. Thus, we entrust our protection in our spiritual ancestors and in you.”

To help the young monks and nuns at Prajna, Sangha members can write letters to the Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate, sign a petition at www.helpbatnha.org, inform news organizations and human rights groups, and sit with local Sanghas, sending support and compassion to all those affected by the events at Prajna Monastery.

— Natascha Bruckner

Sources:

  • AP news, Ben Stocking, “Vietnam’s dispute with Zen master turns violent,” August 1, 2009
  • Email from OI member True Concentration on Peace, July 2009
  • New Zealand Herald, Margaret Neighbour, “Monks evicted from monastery in row with government,” August 5, 2009
  • helpbatnha.org

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