togetherness

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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Opening the Voice with the Practice of Chanting

Brother Goodness

When I was in grade school and high school I attended chorus classes, but I never paid much attention. It was a wonderful time to goof around, and for my classmates and I it often turned towards playful endeavor that tested our teachers’ sanity. I was not aware of the opportunity I had in that moment. But as much as I tried to avoid and resist it, then and at other times, learning to open my voice in speech, song, and chant has become a great part of my life.

Many seasons flourished and faded away while I lived under the great fear of simply opening my voice and singing. I sensed that when we do this we reveal ourselves; our voice transmits to those around us a direct experience of what is going on inside. What is in us vibrates in the listener, and it can be frightening when we are revealed like that to others, and even to ourselves.

This is a fear of being in touch with the reality of ourselves. And this fear is based on the belief that we are individuals, separate from others. We cannot avoid the perils of such misperceptions. Now we are learning that these beliefs and fears are at the root of much suffering and that they can be addressed directly by our practice of meditation. I have experienced that the practice of cultivating mindfulness of the voice can help us grow through this fear to a deeper understanding from which no bitterness and suffering arises.

I cherish a comical and yet inspiring memory of my father as he listened to German and Italian operas while cooking dinner. He would mimic these vigorous and committed voices as they coursed passionately through passages of misfortune and glory. He was being funny, but he was also singing his heart out, and as a child I could sense the intensity and power in his voice. My father is not an opera singer, but when he loved what he was doing and he was happy, he could put aside his inhibitions and his voice soared out in full vibrato. He didn’t know it, but it marked me, and it challenged me.

As a teen-ager, faced with self-centered awareness amidst my peers, this challenge grew into fear. There were many liberating moments when I was alone, at home or in the car, and turning the volume of the stereo up very loud, I sang along with my favorite bands, fully committed to letting my voice shine out. I thought nobody could hear me, but I was wrong. I could hear myself. Through this listening relationship to my own voice, I secretly began to teach myself to sing.

Many of us hold onto these self-centered fears for our whole life. We are afraid to open our voice; we simply do not know how to do it. We always feel uncomfortable and stifled when we are with others who are singing and especially if we ourselves are asked to sing. I was lucky. I found a safe way that slowly, bit by bit, stabilized my faith in my voice. Until one day I was strong enough to really sing out and enjoy. In that moment I made a leap, uncertain where I would land, but hopeful nevertheless. My voice wasn’t very beautiful but I had to make that first jump. Then I had to do it again and again. I had to thrust myself onto the path. And thus a great fear that had once chosen dark corners for me to hide in now opened many doors. It offered me a chance to be honest and accepting of much in me that previously was hidden and unwanted. Since that time my voice has always been a great teacher and a great joy, as it continues to unfold the marvels of challenge and freedom.

Entering monastic life, I met the practice of chanting, and it was then that my voice really opened. It was then that I began the process of liberating my voice, setting it free from the sorrow and loneliness that colored it deep within my heart. For the voice carries in it all the shadow and glimmer of our consciousness, afflictions as well as wholesome seeds. Without careful awareness and training we transmit many things to others through our voice frustration, anger, longing, and despair among them. On my own path, the liberation and transformation of my voice settled itself on a regular practice of sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. Soon after, it leapt joyfully into the arms of chant. I found that all aspects of spiritual practice and lifestyle will affect the voice. Likewise, all spiritual endeavor with the voice, such as the practice of chanting, will strengthen the other aspects of our practice.

Chanting as Meditation

Chanting is a meditation practice. If it is not a practice then it is not really chanting. For it is not the notes on the page or the text and font that make up the chant, it is the living voice inspired from the depths of consciousness and summoned from the relaxed and stable posture of the body. Chanting is the realization of the teaching sent out to the world in every syllable. It is the resonance of many voices held together by attentive, listening ears. It is the delicate ringing of harmonic layers left hanging in empty space, and it is the silence which fills up an open heart when it seems that tone is no longer heard.

When we chant well we are moved straight into the beauty and wonder of life without any emotional push and pull. We are moved, but not in the direction of longing, comfort, or excitement, as we are by many musical expressions these days. We are moved towards realization in the practice, towards freedom and clarity. When we chant well we remain grounded in our breathing and our practice of mindfulness. Thus the chant releases tension and knots in both body and mind, transforming us, drawing us into the current of awakening. It helps us let go and be flexible, capable of opening our heart to what is there in the marvelous moment. It reminds us of our resources and the strength of our compassion. It offers us inspiration to persevere through challenge and hardship; and it leaves a peaceful smile on our face.

In the Buddhist practice there are three realms of action in which we cultivate awareness: action of the body, action of speech, and action of thought (mind). In truth, there is no action that exists solely in one of these realms. They all have much to do with each other. The practice of chanting is a practice that consciously brings together all three realms of action into one, and does so in a very pleasant way that can be shared among many people simultaneously. Thus chanting has the potential to generate both concentration and joyful togetherness. Spiritual traditions around the world have recognized this for thousands of years, and almost all have some form of chanting as a substantial part of their practice.

The Realm of the Body

There are many ways to approach the practice of chanting in terms of techniques and methods. Yet there are certain elements of the practice that are important to any method. One of these is the breath.

It is essential in meditation practice, and especially in chanting, that the breath be relaxed and easy. If we can succeed in this then the breath, of its own accord, becomes full, deep, flexible, and strong. To relax the breath we need also to relax the abdomen and the abdominal organs. Thus the diaphragm muscle (which is an elastic membrane separating the lungs and the lower internal organs) can move (drop) easily and allow the lungs to expand to full capacity. If the belly and its contents are relaxed, then the diaphragm muscle can move downwards with very little effort more like letting go than making an effort. Then the chest can gently open, from the inside out, to accommodate more air. This allows our chanting, which relies on the firm and steady force of the out-breath, to come from the center of the body. It comes from the natural upward movement of the diaphragm, rather than the forced constriction of the chest. In this way we avoid using a lot of tension and unnecessary energy for a process that is designed to be relaxed and easy. If we breathe only with our chest, expanding it with the in-breath and contracting it with the out-breath, then we make unnecessary effort. Granted, this can help us to add to the total volume of air in our breathing, but it is not the natural mechanism for the lungs.

This is my experience of the natural process of breathing and its effect on chanting. You can help yourself to enter into this experience of the breath by learning to truly follow your breath without manipulation and keeping your abdomen flexible, warm and relaxed. Allow the diaphragm to draw the air down towards the belly and relax completely into the process of breathing.

Healthy breathing is encouraged by eating in moderation, massaging and stretching the torso of the body regularly, and by an upright and relaxed posture. It is very nice to stand while chanting, softening the knees a little to stay grounded and balanced. If you practice while sitting, be sure not to slouch.

We can also cultivate an awareness of the throat, larynx, neck, and ears. Be gentle, soft, and open in these places. Do not strain the neck forward while chanting. Do not force tones out of your throat. Chant the middle way, not too strong, not too soft. Chant in such a way that you can hear your own voice and also the voices of people chanting with you. Keep the neck and head warm and relaxed at all times. These things will help make it possible for the healing vibrations of sound to work in the body and transform the voice. It will also help to prevent tearing and scarring to the vocal chords and damage to the inner ear.

The Realm of Speech

The practice of chanting lies at the crossroads of spoken word and song. A chant is not a poem and is not just recited. A chant is not a song and is not simply sung. It is expressed with wakefulness somewhere between these two as a powerful poetic recitation and as an uplifting song, carefully blended. When we chant well we benefit from both the clarity of shape and texture and the steady, light, and yet grounded feeling imparted to us through tones.

When speaking and reciting in the English language we primarily use consonant sounds. The consonants sculpt and develop the texture of the voice. The consonants give shape to the meaning of words and can be powerful, beautiful, and sometimes emotionally unsettling.

When we sing a song, we are expressing primarily in vowels. You cannot sing a consonant; you can only sing a vowel. Singing out the vowel sounds, we express the meaning of the song directly in the realm of feeling. Thus, the significance of a song comes to us less from the message in its lyrics and the shape of its consonants, and more from the way its melody and harmony make you feel. This is very important, because the vibration of the tone has no filter before it impacts us. It goes straight past reasoning and we must embrace it as it is. Sometimes the intended meaning of a song and the actual feeling it gives us are in conflict with one another. For example, the lyrics express something light and uplifting but the melody and harmony of tones give rise to sadness and nostalgia. And even if the melody and harmony are appropriate, the voice of the singer can be influenced by his or her state of mind and emotions. Thus the song may not bring about the intended or appropriate feeling. The feelings brought about through the expression of the vowel sounds have great potential. They can be healing and transforming or agitating and even painful. We need to be aware of these things so that the healing spirit of the practice can shine through our chanting and singing.

We can develop awareness of these things by cultivating mindfulness in the act of chanting, as well as at other times; practicing the mindfulness trainings, carefully choosing what we listen to, watering wholesome seeds in our consciousness. Slowly we tear away the veils of our conditioning, and we begin to recognize truth and beauty in music and the voice that carries it. Slowly we bring a spiritual quality and resonance into our own voice and music.

The Realm of Thought

Our thoughts play an important part in chant. Of course the message of the chant is influential. Its content gives rise to energy, inspiring a kind of movement. We might describe this movement as the opening of the heart or stilling of the mind, a beginning anew, the settling of afflictions, or the cooling of desire. These phrases describe not emotions but spiritual activity, an entering into the realms of happiness that lie beneath our busy worldly affairs. The presence and practice of our spiritual ancestors are found in these thoughts expressed in chants. The stability to be gleaned from tradition and lineage is contained in these thoughts as well.

But the very thoughts that enter our mind during the moment of chanting are equally important. We should always remember that chanting is a process of meditation. Do not allow the mind to wander aimlessly. Maintain concentration on the breath, the posture of the body, and the content of the words you are chanting. Then your authentic presence and the chant join together into a living vibration that is shared among all present; and indeed, even those not present will benefit.

It is easy to be distracted by imperfections in your own voice or in the voices around you. Try not to be carried away by such judgments. You do not need a trained and controlled voice or “perfect pitch sensitivity” to chant well. Chanting is about being right where we are, and practicing. Chanting is a process, an unfolding into the present moment. This present moment is a place where many powerful things can happen, especially with the support of our spiritual ancestors and our community of practice. Because chants carry with them the understanding and the compassion of the ancestors, if we don’t feel skilled or confident, we can lean on them. The ancestors and our community are there for that.

I have discovered that a talented singer with a beautiful voice can sing horribly, wounding the heart and ears of the listener. I have also listened to people chant, whose voices, according to technical evaluation, were horrible. But because they chanted with full presence and sincere intention, what came out of them was something spiritually inspiring and beautiful. Talents are often the learning of behavior that brings one the love and recognition one needs, and not necessarily an expression of truth or something beautiful, because what hides beneath the talent is a fear, a longing it is suffering. This untended and unwanted suffering has twisted itself into something acceptable in an attempt to gather recognition that fills the emptiness inside, the void of loneliness. I believe that an artist who meditates must understand these things and take on the path of transformation in order to purify their talent, to make it a conscious, well -tended, and fully embraced expression of their life.

Some people, especially those with some talent or training, find it difficult to chant with others whose voices are not technically skilled. There are many ways to remedy this. The best is to do away with our idea of how things should be. Then happiness reveals itself. It is only difficult to chant with those who have unskilled voices because of our expectation, desire, and on a deeper level, because of the fear of what is not harmonious in us. So leave expectations and desires behind, and do not be afraid to rejoice in the reality of what is there. Start simply, with basic chants suited for the whole community. Have the Sangha practice lots of recitation, reading the texts aloud together. As a community, take up some basic training for the voice; there are huge resources available for this. But most important, always endeavor to do these things as ways to strengthen your practice and the practice of your community. This is cultivating wholesome thoughts in the practice of chanting.

Suggestions for Chanting in Community

Here are several suggestions for individuals and Sanghas to aid in the practice of chanting:

Take time to memorize the words and learn the content so that you can concentrate easily during the chant. Be aware of what you are saying so that you enter into a process of realization and are not simply repeating the text.

Take time to memorize the melody and the basics of the rhythm and dynamics of the chant so you do not have to rely on a piece of paper to remind you of what you are doing. Then you can begin the process of unfolding the tapestry of the chant.

Stay in touch with the process of breathing; learn to take deep and relaxed breaths while chanting. The point is to remain truly present and to cultivate stability and insight while chanting, not to get out of breath and make a flawless performance. If you need a breath, take one, it’s okay to miss a couple of words. Maintain awareness of body posture, holding yourself up right in a relaxed way. Every few breaths check to make sure you are not straining the neck, throat, and facial muscles. Soften them, relax them, and smile.

Listen carefully to other chanters around you as you chant.

All who are chanting must learn to chant with one voice.  This is a very deep and wonderfully fruitful practice. Chant lightly, not too loud, so that it is easier to hear those around you. This encourages togetherness.   When we chant well together we can begin to allow the expression of the chant to change subtly according to the experience of the content.  The chant then becomes something totally alive and the collective experience of being together in freedom can arise very easily. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, when practicing the chants marked “breath by breath,” be aware that each breath is usually for one phrase and there is space to draw an in-breath between phrases. We do not need to maintain the rhythm continuously through the chant each phrase stands on its own. They are not marches, and they should express the natural rhythm and dynamics of the English language. Only general guidelines are given as to how long each note is held or how much volume it receives. These chants are open to the expression of the chanters in the present moment and require a lot of listening to each other. They are inspired by the Gregorian technique, but they are not truly Gregorian.

When practicing other chants in the chanting book, we can follow the standard music notation more closely, adhering more to the timing and dynamics that are scored. There are no breath marks, but do not rush to take breaths in between notes. There is no need to worry about saying every syllable or word, skip one or two if necessary in order to take a real in-breath and maintain calm and presence.  Remember to listen carefully to those around you as you chant. Rely on the group to carry the chant. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves when we practice as a Sangha.

The musical notation of a chant cannot contain its vitality. The notes and the technique are used as a guide to learn and transmit the basic form of the chant, but we should eventually let them go in order to truly live the chant. Please remember that chanting is not about getting somewhere or attaining something. Come home to the wonderful moment, open your voice, and enjoy!

Brother Chan Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained as a monk in 1996 and became a Dharma Teacher in 2001.

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A Harmonious World Begins in the Mind

Plum Village Delegation Travels to Buddhist Forum in China mb43-AHarmonious1

In April 2006, four of us, Brother Phap Ân, myself, Sister Giac Nghiem (Soeur Elizabeth) and Sister Tung Nghiem (Sister Pine), had the honor and privilege to travel to China for the First World Buddhist Forum.

When we arrived at Hangzhou, in Jiangsu Province in the east of China, we were taken in charge from A to Z, staying in luxurious hotels (we each had our own room!); everything was very well organized. We were told that our hosts had been working on this project for two years.

Three days were dedicated to this Forum, titled “A Harmonious World Begins in the Mind.” We spent entire days listening to speeches by more than 70 participants; each person would speak for a maximum of eight minutes. The number of participants attending the Forum was estimated at 1,000, with 34 countries represented. Our small delegation represented France.

Nourished by the Joy of Togetherness

The speeches followed one after the other—about the efforts of Buddhism to bring improved well-being on the planet earth, improve the conditions of humanity, and find solutions to the complexities of the modern world and the many problems that it generates in different fields: environment, economy, health, social life, education. All the participants recognized the need for renewing Buddhism in order to respond more adequately to the difficulties of our times. Good intentions, promises, even plans of action were proposed as to how Buddhism could positively influence society.

Half-way into the Forum, doubts and a certain lack of appreciation arose in me, due to what I perceived as a lack of substance in some of the speeches. But finally I gained a more optimistic view, as shown in this excerpt from my journal:

“Nothing essential is being said here, no concrete methods or strong propositions are being brought out. It looks like half of the participants are drowsy or not listening to the talks, some sneaking out of the main hall to go and meet people, creating bonds around the tea tables especially afforded for this purpose. But I have to sympathize – keeping attentive for all these talks via translation is not so easy.

“What is the use of all this? What is the use of this Forum? “Well, on the other hand I do see something positive. I can compare it to our daily activities in Plum Village. The different occasions where we are together are also opportunities simply to ‘find one another again’, and from there to go forth through the sharing of our insights.

“In the same way, the meaning of the Forum is nothing but the joy of meeting one another and sharing brotherhood under various forms and colors, giving us a chance to go forward together in a luminous direction, combining our hopes and insights. A Harmonious World Begins in the Mind, and if the quality of my own mind in this moment is able to offer good conditions for me to experience harmony with my environment, then it is for sure that I will get in touch very closely with the essence and intention of the Forum. Then, let us be nourished by the joy of togetherness.”

When came our turn to offer a speech, Brother Phap Ân introduced each of us and we came up to join him on stage. This was a way for us to give our support to our Brother and express what we were representing during the Forum: the presence of a delegation from Plum Village.

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Brother Phap Ân shared about the different retreats that Thây and the Sangha have offered in the last years in various parts of society. He described with much clarity and skillfulness the basic teachings used at Plum Village, concrete practices based on the awareness of breathing that can be easily applied in daily life, among the family, and in a busy professional life. He mentioned the practice of walking meditation; the practice of beginning anew; the practice of stopping, looking deeply, and recognizing our emotions. These are all tools that have borne the fruits of real transformation and healing of the suffering of the individual, of the family, and of society.

Venerables Among the Venerables

One of the funniest things for us in this adventure is probably the fact that we found ourselves together with high monks, venerable ones among the Venerable Ones, receiving much attention and consideration. Often, the atmosphere would be very joyful while traveling from one place to another; our arms loaded with gifts, we were juggling with the luggage, all participants embarked in an adventure that was carrying us towards the unexpected and the marvelous.

Meanwhile, the harmony was weaving inside our little group, and it is with infinite gratitude that I have learned to know and appreciate more my elder Brother and my two Sisters. We were able to work with a spirit of cooperation, always having much patience and respect for one another. We never let the unpleasant emotions, the negative perceptions, or the internal formations take over and control the situation. This allowed us to transform the difficulties and to go forward in beauty, ever offering the best of ourselves.

Far beyond the numerous material gifts that we received, I think this is here for me one of the greatest gifts of the Forum:

“Last hours of this Forum… I have the impression to participate to an historical event; while sitting in the midst of my Brothers and Sisters from all different Buddhist traditions, monastic and lay people, I feel out of time still. We are young practitioners mixing with great Tibetan, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese Masters…We can feel the bonds intensify, and we recognize one another in the light of this deep feeling, both intimate and strange, of knowing one another from a long time ago.

“Even just for the value of the encounter, and the opportunity and the privilege to be together, the Forum is worthwhile. It is not so much for the speeches, that often sound hollow and seem to be chattering, rather for the richness of the interactions, the joy of crossing looks, the beauty of the faces, the palette of colors, patterns and styles varying through the monastic dresses from the different traditions represented here. We feel part of the same big and warm family, which is Buddhism.”

Chân Phap Khi was born in France and currently lives at Plum Village.

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