transformation

Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples' feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child's life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, "No talent. Needs to be better motivated." This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher's Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students' families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words "true person" were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, "Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?" The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, "Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?" Disappointed by the monk's question, Linchi said, "That true person? What the heck!" No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach's acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill's content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

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Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother's illness. We should tell people, "Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance." We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. "Resis­tance" does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society's pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society's destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, "In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you." The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father's request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him "the destitute son." No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh' s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos: First photo by Ingo Gunther. Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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Winter Retreat at Plum Village

By Fred Allendorf I spent two weeks at Plum Village during this year's Winter Retreat. My first days in Plum Village were difficult in ways I had not anticipated. Twenty-nine years ago I went to Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old soldier. I spent most of my time at the southern tip of Cam Ranh Peninsula in the Army company responsible for constructing port facilities in central South Vietnam. Living in a community consisting of approximately half Vietnamese men and women in Plum Village and looking at the smiling faces around me brought many suppressed "mental formations" to my consciousness. American soldiers in Vietnam were taught, and quickly learned, to be suspicious of all Vietnamese people.

I had no knowledge of Buddhism while I was in Vietnam. However, I remember going to the PX at the Cam Ranh Air Force Base many times and resisting the strong urge to buy a large jade Buddha. There was something about it that attracted me and held my fascination. I also have a clear memory of looking up at the large white Buddha statue above the city of Nha Trang. My wife and I now have a picture of that Buddha hanging on our bedroom wall.

I was in Vietnam for only one year and it was a long time ago. But certain experiences trigger old memories that are as fresh as yesterday. The sound of a helicopter inevitably yanks me back to 1967. Many smells have a similar effect. The sight of Plum Village residents walking around during the rain in their traditional Vietnamese round pyramidal hats turned the French countryside into rice in my mind's eye.

Thay and Sister Chan Khong led the Plum Village Sangha to the Pyrenees Mountains during my visit. The Vietnamese monks and nuns had a joyful time throwing snowballs and sledding in the mountains. Thay Nghuen, Head of Practice in the Upper Hamlet, sat next to me on our four hour bus trip to the Pyrenees. I learned that he is a monk visiting Plum Village for two years. His home monastery is in Ninh Hoa, just across the bay from where I had lived in Vietnam. He was just four years old while I was in Vietnam; I imagined him as one of the many small children I saw in Vietnam.

The mental knots that had held me captive for 29 years began to melt during my conversations with Thay Nghuen and the other Vietnamese residents of Plum Village. Their smiling faces quickly brought much joy, rather than caution, to my heart. I especially came to love and enjoy being with the monks I worked with on the working meditation crew to help construct the Lotus Pond in the Lower Hamlet.

My last breakfast in Plum Village was deeply emotional. I held back tears as I looked around at my new brothers. It is traditional for people who are leaving the Upper Hamlet during the winter retreat to do hugging meditation with one person after saying goodbye to the Sangha. I had requested that Thay Nghuen join me in hugging meditation. I felt the fear and caution that I had carried with me for almost 30 years melt away as we breathed together three times.

Order member Fred Allendorf is a biologist and an active member of the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana.

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh  Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 "Heart of the Buddha" retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer's when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can't remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don't believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, "When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence." Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can't remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don't need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It's not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don't want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, "Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn't it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do." I told her, "If I don't grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this." Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don't buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, "Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?" Then, they will begin to ask, "When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn." At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, "Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don't know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive." Use ord­inary language. Don't make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don't look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don't need incense. You don't need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don't say, "I am practicing spirituality, and you don't know anything about it!" Try to avoid saying, "Darling, I am practicing Buddhism." Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, "Darling, how do you do it?" Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, "Who is responsible for this?"

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn't say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one's own life. But I don't want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, "What happens to the consciousness before death?" If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby's diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don't have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby's diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I'm going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on "the art of mindful living."

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Poem: Teacher, Teacher

mb25-TeacherChildren, the Great Consciousness in its myriad forms. May I honor each one as we work together. I enter a room filled with small eager beings busy with things to see, learn, do. It's kindergarten class, and I'm the guest teacher

Suddenly there's a tap on my leg, a tug on my sleeve, so many touches at once,

I can't think.

I want to stop these pawing hands, these voices, voices, voices. The world that clamors for my attention.

"Teacher, teacher, see I can write my name." "Teacher, teacher, look at the building we made." "Teacher, teacher, listen to the story I wrote."

"Calm yourself," I mutter, "these are only little kids." But their never-ending touches drive my nerve endings to the edge of sanity.

"Teacher, teacher, do you like my picture?" "Teacher, teacher, I catched the ball three times." "Teacher, teacher, listen to the song I know."

I look down noses taking the breath of life, mouths excited with the formation of words, skin luminescent with newness hair carefully braided, hair straggly and brittle, eyes all shades, large and luminous, deep and dark, clear blue, hazel, gray, brown, black, open.

Hands holding a picture— "Special, for you teacher." the voice soft as milkweed about to fly off on the wind.

"Teacher, teacher, see, I sharpened the pencil all by myself." "Teacher, teacher, look at the puzzle I finished." "Teacher, teacher, I can count to 100."

I am looking into the soul of the universe the Great Consciousness fresh from its source.

I breathe in once, twice, three times. Now the tapping feels like gentle waves lapping my thigh, Fall leaves brushing against me as I walk. Buddha nature, present, visible, vibrant.

"Teacher, teacher, see how high I can jump." "Teacher, teacher, look, I put everything away." "Teacher, teacher, read me this story."

And suddenly, "teacher, teacher" is my bell of mindfulness.

I turn. On the edge of class a child sits, eyes clouded, face tight, lips pulled. So soon? I walk over, the child shrinks into himself. The Great Source in pain. "You are beautiful, special," I whisper in passing, "I'm glad you're here."

Oh, that I could be open and compassionate all day long. That I didn't slip, wasn't short, never used a sharp voice.

But the children help. "Teacher, teacher," they say, and the mindfulness bell rings again.

"Teacher, teacher, I cut good with my scissors, don't I?" "Teacher, teacher, please tie my shoe." "Teacher, teacher, I like you."

Diane L. Ste. Marie Seattle, Washington, USA

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From the Editor

Spring came early to North Carolina this year. Warmth and light transformed the winter world into carpets of violets and flurries of apple and cherry blossoms. In this issue of The Mindfulness Bell, writers share how the warmth and light of practice transformed difficulties and opened doors of compassion and understanding. We hope that you are nourished and supported in your own practice by all of the articles in this issue. Please remember The Mindfulness Bell welcomes submissions.

In the Dharma,

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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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Smiling Is a Powerful Tool

By Steve Black I work in a small community college and several years ago I decided to smile and say hello to everyone I met in the hallways at the beginning of the term. I wanted to welcome our new students and to see how long it would take for them to relax and return my smile. Typically, after a month most students began to make eye contact with me, and smile.

Recently, I discovered that smiling has greater power than I realized. Last winter a student walked into a tutoring lab on campus with a package that he said contained a bomb. Fortunately, an off-duty police officer was taking classes in the same building. He quickly subdued the student, removing a pistol (empty) from him. Someone pulled a fire alarm. Eventually the entire campus was evacuated and a bomb unit was brought in.

I was in my office across campus at the time, but when I heard the news I rushed to the scene. I had heard about this student before and some of my friends, both students and faculty members, had felt threatened by him. When I saw the student in the back of the police car, looking unrepentant, my first reaction was intense anger. How could this person cause so much trouble for people I cared about, put their lives in jeopardy, make them live in fear? A wave of anger overcame me. I wanted to grab him out of the police car and punish him right then and there. I wanted to teach him a lesson.

Classes resumed that night. By then my anger had subsided, but not my sense of frustration at the situation. I decided to walk into the building where the bomb scare had occurred to make sure that everything was all right. I came to see that the real reason I needed to go inside was to overcome my fear.

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I had prided myself on being clear-headed during the incident, but as I stepped into the building that evening, a feeling of irrational terror came over me. I had to tell myself to return to my breathing and observe what was arising. I knew, intellectually, that the building had been inspected, that the bomb turned out to be a fake, that the gun was empty, that the student was in jail. But there was no way I could talk myself out of my fears. I could only watch them arise and trust them to vanish.

When students began arriving for class, I was stunned by the expressions on their faces. They looked as scared as I was, maybe even more frightened. I noticed as I walked in the hallway that night that the sense of trust I had felt after the first month of classes was gone. No one said hello, no one would even look at me. They were filled with fear and anger,just as I had been. This anger surfaced at a meeting held a few days later, when police officers answered questions from students. The students were ripe for vengeance. They were not concerned that this student was not known to have committed any crimes on campus or in the community prior to the bomb scare - they thought he should have been under police surveillance.

Witnessing this anger and suspicion, I found myself unwittingly drawn out of my own fears and became concerned about the well-being of the students. I saw immediately that, while I could not give them any kind of professional psychological assistance, I could practice smiling. It was clear that what I and my students needed now was smiles. Smiling for the benefit of others was no longer an abstract idea for me. Instead I came to see it as a powerful tool - the only one I had available - to reassure the people I met that there was no need to dwell on their irrational suspicions of strangers on campus.

The smile worked for some of the students I met. In the days that followed, as I continued to smile, I noticed that some of them began to acknowledge my presence, to return my smile. The change in their posture was instantaneous. Over time things on campus began to change, fears and. anger gradually subsided. I hope that by smiling I was able to help in some small way with this change.

I am grateful that Thay has shown us that we have this tool, the smile, available twenty-four hours a day. Before, I understood smiling as simply a way to change my own attitude and to practice mindfulness by bringing the light of awareness to the expression on my face. It was only in the wake of this situation that I realized that smiling can deeply benefit others as well. I practice smiling on campus all year now, not just at the beginning of the semester. Smiling works to relieve the pressures generated by both extreme situations and everyday hassles. I have come to see that smiling is a means to spread the seeds of peace and happiness, not only in myself, but in others as well.

Steve Black, Compassionate Continuation of the Heart, practices with his Sangha in West Tennessee, where he teaches English.

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Being the Practice

By Sister Annabel (Sister True Virtue) From a talk given in the New Hamlet, Plum Village.

Dear Mahasangha good afternoon. Today is the 9th of December in the year 2001. It seems that the object of mind and the subject are not separate. I could think that I am the subject and Plum Village is the object of my mind. But the way I talk about Plum Village and the way I see Plum Village is not really separate from my mind. It is not separate from the collective mind, the mind of others, either. Plum Village is a collective creation.

"Oh, What it is to be happy"

I have always liked to sing. When I arrived in India in 1979 to practice with some Tibetan nuns I immediately found that I was able to sing in a way that I hadn't been able to sing before. Whenever I had an emotion I would sing about it. The Tibetan nuns liked singing very much. Whenever we had a chance to be a little bit lazy and walk in the forest, which wasn't very often, they would always sing. And they would ask me to sing for them in English. I wasn't quite sure what to sing that would be in harmony with the Dharma. So I had to make up my songs as I went along. Whenever I had even a tiny realization in the practice I would make up a song about it. One song was called, "Oh, what it is to be happy." At that time I didn't know what it was like to feel really happy inside.

One day I was coming back to the monastery carrying some wooden planks on my shoulder because we were building the monastery in the forest. I saw one of the monks sitting on the side of the mountain. The monks live on one side of the river and the nuns live on the other side. We were up in the mountain and down below us in the valley were rice fields. The rice fields looked very beautiful divided by dikes. In the distance there were more mountains with clouds. You could hear the children laughing in the valley and you could smell the scent of pine trees. You could hear the boy who looks after the cows playing his flute. Everything was perfect, a Pure Land. But somehow in my heart I was not happy. When I saw the monk sitting there, he looked as if he were completely free, completely happy. Although I didn't know in myself what happiness was, I thought I could experience it through him. So I wrote that song, "Oh, what it is to be happy." I stayed in India for eighteen months. During that time I appreciated so much the beauty of the place where I was staying. But I never felt as in really got a hold of a practice that would help me to transform.

I wanted very much to be a nun. When I was seven years old I wanted to be a Catholic nun. When I was twenty-one I asked an abbot of a monastery in Normandy if I could be accepted as a Benedictine nun. He said no. When I went to India to be with the Tibetan nuns I still had the dream to become a nun. They also said no. Because I couldn't become a nun I thought I might not be in the right place, the place where I could really devote myself to the practice and really transform myself. I felt I had so much to transform to really be able to feel the happiness that I witnessed in the monk sitting on the hillside. One day I was feeling very lonely. There had been a drought so I hadn't had a bath for three months. That sounds like a long time. My skin was very black with dirt and I knew that I didn't smell very nice and I felt very hungry because we never had enough to eat. In the morning we had a little bit oftea if we were lucky and if we were luckier we had a little bit of barley flour to put in the tea, but not always. At lunch we had one or two chapattis, a kind of Indian bread. And in the evening we had a little bit of rice soup. As we became poorer and poorer the rice soup became more and more watery. When I would wake up in the morning my stomach was always grumbling. It was also cold because we were quite high up in the mountains. I was shivering and hungry. But because of the beauty of the place and because deep down I wanted to practice so much, I stayed for a year and a half.

One day a monk came along from the main monastery and he had a radio. In the place where we lived we didn't have any electricity or running water. I don't know how he managed to have a radio but he did and he could pick up the BBC world news. He understood English, which was very rare. He said to me, "You know in England now there are thousands of women who are sitting around the missile bases to stop atomic weapons from being transported out." There were many American missile bases at that time in England. He said, "This is a wonderful thing to do." When I heard that I thought maybe that is what I would do.

Finding My True Teacher

So I left India and I went back to England and joined the women. They would sit there day and night to block missiles from leaving the base. We would put ourselves in front of the gate so that the missiles couldn't come out. This is also part of my deep aspiration: I want there to be peace in the world. I don't want there to be any war. So I thought this was a way to express my deep aspiration for peace. But in fact it is not enough to sit at the gate of a missile base. You need to sit at the gate of your own mind in order to be able to be aware of mental formations in your own mind and to transform them. That is a very important part of peace work. Some people were not peaceful in themselves. I asked everyone at the missile bases, "Does anyone know about Buddhist practice, does anyone do meditation? Do you know anybody who is in the peace movement and also is a Buddhist?" Everyone said, no, they didn't know anyone. Then one day someone said, "Oh yes, I know someone. He is a Buddhist teacher from Vietnam," and they said Thay's name. Then I remembered that when I was in India, when I was so sure that I wanted to be a nun in the Tibetan tradition, one of the Tibetan teachers said to me, "No, your teacher will come from the far East, not from Tibet." Other nuns said to me, "You have to meet your real teacher in the country of your birth."

I heard about Thay and I wanted to find out more about him. I wanted to read what he had written and I wanted to be with people who knew him. I did my best to find a community. There was a Buddhist Peace Fellowship community in Kent so I joined them. We used to produce the Buddhist Peace Fellowship magazin e. We would go on peace  demonstrations and join discussions on peace. Whenever we went on demonstrations for peace we always tried to practice walking meditation because we were in touch with Thay through his writings. But it was not enough to be in touch with Thay through his writings. I wanted to be in touch with Thay's person also. One day one member in the community in Kent asked, "Why don 't we invite Thay to come to England and give some teaching?" So lmet Thay in England and Thay comes from the Far East. I had all the right conditions to meet my true teacher.

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When [ first saw Sister True Emptiness in the airport I fe lt that she belonged to my blood family. I don't know why but that is how I fe lt. When they had to go home on the last day I was a little bit sad because I didn't know when I would see Thay and Sister True Emptiness again. I was in the car with Thay and I had to get out of the car to go home and Thay was being driven on to somewhere else. As I stepped out of th e car, Thay also stepped out and asked if I would like to come to Plum Village for the summer opening that year. When I heard that, all my sadness went away. That summer, in 1986, I went to Plum Village.

Another Pure Land

It was very hot that summer. The first thing Thay said to me was, "Here is India, India is here." That made me immediately feel at home because the first time I had experienced the Pure Land was in India . Here was another Pure Land for me to experience. The Upper Hamlet was so simple and so beautiful. The Transformation Hall was not yet there. The Still Water Hall wasn't there. Everyone was busy preparing for the summer opening. I immediately felt the atmosphere of complete relaxation. I immediately felt that I was at home. Later on that day someone took me down to the Lower Hamlet. I felt even more at home. It is very strange, from the time that I left the place where I was born I had never felt at home like that. When I looked at the stones the buildings were made of and when I looked out over the hills, I felt like that. Actually I was still a very unhappy person, but I was very happy to find my home, my Pure Land. Thay says you don't need to have transformed all of your afflictions to dwell in the Pure Land. I don't know what good fortune I had to be able to be there.

We enjoyed the summer opening. I spent two weeks in the Upper Hamlet with Thay and two weeks in the Lower Hamlet with Sister True Emptiness. In those days, Sister True Emptiness was the practice leader in the Lower Hamlet and Thay looked after the Upper Hamlet. We weren 't very well organized. We did everything at the last minute. Sister True Emptiness would have an idea to do something and five minutes later we would do it. It was nothing like the summer opening now. The summer opening was very beautiful because it was a kind of haven for Vietnamese refugees. When they arrived in Europe from the refugee camps, many Vietnamese people found themse lves in a situation completely unlike what they had known in Vietnaill. They found themselves living in a place where they could not speak their own language, eating strange food , probably doing menial work whereas they may have had a high degree of education in Vietnam, and so on. Plum Village is a place where there is Vietnamese language, Vietnamese food and other Vietnamese people.

Sister True Emptiness said it is very important to speak Vietnamese. The refugees have to speak a language that isn't the ir own a ll day long and they really need to reconnect with their roots. That is one of the reasons I really wanted to speak Vietnamese. I was lucky because everybody spoke Vietnamese so it wasn't difficult to learn. In those days the summer opening was quite Vietnamese. Now it is a bit more European and North American.

My real Vietnamese teacher was Sister Chan Vi . She was ordained at the same time that Sister True Emptiness and I were ordained in India. She came to Plum Village from the Philippines' refugee camp. In the winter of I 986, Thay and Sister True Emptiness had gone to visit the different refugee camps and share the practice. They had met Sister Chan Vi at that time and asked her to come to Plum Village. When she arrived she felt it was strange to be in a foreign country and especially to stay with someone who was English and only spoke a few words of Vietnamese. At first it was a I ittle bit difficult.

Sister Chan Vi was the first member of my Sangha that I lived with twenty-four hours a day. When I lived in India I had learned about living with people of a different culture. I knew that there were things that might seem quite natural to me that for someone from another culture might seem offensive. When we live with people from other cultures we need to practice mindfulness and be aware of our actions of body and speech because we can easily offend someone without meaning to.

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I remember in India we lived in a little hut. I was a lay person at the time. The hut was on stilts and under the hut they kept the rice and other things. From time to time a nun would have to go under the hut to bring something out. When I was sitting in the hut it was my duty to leave the hut and stand outside for the nun to be able to go underneath because it would be disrespectful to sit on top of the nun going under the hut. That is not something I learned in England. At first r was very offended if in the pouring rain, in the middle of the monsoon I was told I had to leave the hut so they could go underneath and fetch something. But I learnt that this is part of politeness, a way of not offending people and keeping people happy, so after awhile I managed to do it without feeling any resistance in my heart. With Sister Chan Vi I also tried my best to learn about what is considered correct in the Vietnamese culture.

We both liked garden ing. When Sister Chan Vi had been in Vietnam she had spent time in a temple on the mountain and she had looked after the garden there. In our little garden we grew quite a few Vietnamese vegetables. Actually our garden was under plastic because they wouldn't have grown outside. Whenever you went into that garden you could smell the fragrant herbs, just like if you go into the greenhouse here, today.

Every morning we would rise early and go straight out into the garden because there were many slugs and they would eat everything up if you were not careful. We would pick up the sl ugs and take them out into the forest. We pulled up any weeds. After we had looked after the garden a little bit we would go to the mediation hall and practice sitting meditation together. If it was summer time we would go into the Red Candle Hall. In the winter it was too cold, we didn't have any heat, so we would go to the little room next to the Red Candle Hall. When it rained, the rain would come in because the roof tiles were loose; they weren't attached to each other with cement or anything else. When a supersonic plane went overhead and broke the sound barrier, all the tiles would move. When the tiles moved, they left a gap. So whenever it rained, we had to put out all the buckets to catch the rain coming in. In the winter it used to snow more than it does now. The snow would blow in through the tiles. One time we went up into the attic and there was snow quite high, maybe ten centimeters or so. We had to shovel all the snow in the attic, put it into buckets and carry it down. Fortunately someone very kind saw that we wanted to practice and offered to gi ve a donation to fix the roof so that snow and rain wouldn't come in anymore. That was the first time we had a big donation. Before that we were really quite poor.

In the winter we heated the rooms with some wood stoves. But in order to have the wood we had to go out and saw it in the morning. We had a saw with handles on two ends. Sister Chan Vi held one end and I held the other and together we sawed the wood. She said that she used to do the same in Vietnam. She used to go into the forest, saw the wood and sell it to help supprt her family.

I was very happy when Sister Chan Vi came. To be able to live together with just one other person in the Sangha twenty-four hours a day is already wonderful. When you have a sister who also wants to practice with you, you receive a lot of energy in the practice. The energy to practice was not doubled, but it increased ten or a hundred times. She supported me very much. She had often wanted to be a nun when she was in Vietnam, and she really liked the practice. She wanted to practice sitting meditation, reciting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and chanting the sutras, and she chanted very well. She taught me how to chant the sutras. Sister Chan Vi was also a very good cook and she showed me how to cook Vietnamese food.

Sister True Emptiness also supported me and Thay was always patient. I don't think I was an easy younger sister to have. I think I have transformed quite a bit since then, but I haven't transformed everything since you can still see some of the weaknesses I had then. Sister True E mptiness was very patient with me and very open. She never showed any kind of discrimination at all. No one in the Sangha seemed to have any kind of strong racial discrimination, but sometimes we find it a bit easier to be with people of our own culture. But Sister True Emptiness is just as easy with people of different cultures as she is with people of her own culture.

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Thay very kindly allowed me to organize more retreats in England to which Thay agreed to come and teach. The Sangha in England began to grow. I used to meet people whom I had known before I had come to Plum Village and they would say, "Two years ago, you were so arrogant and now you have changed a lot." That I have been able to transform gives me and others so much confidence in Thay's way of practice.

Ordination in India

As well as going to England, Thay said that we would go to India. When Thay says we wil l do something, we a lways do it. In the world often when people say something, they might never do it. Thay had been thinking about going to India for a whil e and it was arranged and we were able to go. I was very happy because India had always been my spiritual home and I couldn't think of anything better than to go there with Thay. I didn't know that Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chan Vi had asked to be ordained as nuns in India. When I found out I thought, 'Why can't I become a nun, too?' I had already tried twice. And in fact I had even asked Thay one time if I could become a nun when I first came to Plum Village and Thay said, "No, you have to do like Sister True Emptiness and become a lay member of the Order of Interbeing." I was very sad when I thought that maybe I couldn 't become a nun with Sister True Emptiness and Sister Chan Vi . I thought, my goodness if we come back to Plum Village and they are both nuns and I am not, I don't know if I could bear it. But Thay said that is not a good reason for becoming a nun. I think the main reason Thay agreed to my becoming a nun was my bodhicitta. I th ink it was there somehow. Maybe an additional cause was Sister Chan Khong who intervened on my behalf.

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We went to India. We went to Bodhgaya. We went to Uruvela and we had tea mediation and tangerines with all the children in Uruvela, the village where the Buddha had gone after enlightenment. We waded across t he Neranjera river. What I remember the most was the beauty of doing walking meditation in the places where the Buddha had walked.

One day early in the morning before it was light, we rose and went to the Vulture Peak. The police went with us because there are bandits there. It was the middle of November so it was not too hot and not too cold. We spent the whole day there. Out of great compassion, Thay ordained us as nuns, especially out of great compassion for me who popped in at the last moment. Sister Chan Khong gave me one ao trang (robe) of hers. When I was ordained I was very happy because I felt very light. I thought that I had cut off everything that had bound me, the past and all the fetters, and they were all gone. The next morning when I woke up and put my hand on my shaved head I fe lt very light and very happy. One morning I woke up, put my hand on my head and then I saw a mother rat with six baby rats run past the foot of my bed. They all had their tails in their mouths. In those times we stayed in very simple accommodations. When I lived in India before, the rats would come at night and eat my hair but now they didn't have any hair to eat.

When I came back to Plum Village I realized that I hadn't cut off all my afflictions and fetters at all. I still got angry, I still got sad, I still had a tremendous amount to transform . But I don't think I can ever be shaken in my aspiration, in my determination to realize as fully as I can in this lifetime my own transformation and helping others to transform. I was thirty-eight, nearly thirty-nine when I ordained. It was a little bit late. I already had built up many worldly habit energies. Maybe my transformation is not as fast as other people's. It is slow, but it is there. When I received the Dharma lamp from Thay in 1990, Thay gave me a gatha which said, "The work of transformation is what reveals the sign of truth." I think this means that all my life I have to keep transforming and  I have to keep transforming and I have to keep transforming and clearly.

Every summer opening people come and I am always  there. The first summer opening missed was my thirteenth summer when I went to Vennont and didn't come back that year. Apart from that summer, I have been to fifteen summer openings. In many summer open in gs someone  comes up to me and says, "You are much better than last year."

Green Mountain Dharma Center, Vermont

In 1997 I went to Vermont. Vermont is extremely beautiful. The snow and the mountains in the winter, the gold and red of the autumn trees, the tremendous shock of green in spring - a very deep, bright green which comes after four or five months of white - the mists of the summer and the clouds in the mountains. The place we live is very beautiful with lakes and a teahouse built in a Japanese style. It was quite different than when I came to Plum Village.

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When I went to the United States, everything was already very comfortable. We didn't have any work to do. In Plum Village to renovate the buildings, we had to lift out the cow manure from the barns in order to transform them into living quarters. It made very good compost for the garden. But in Velmont evelything was ready to live in. We had a beautiful house with carpet and hot running water and evelything was in place. We were seven sisters and two brothers at the beginning. We lived in a little house and the two brothers lived in another little house. Because they were so few they used to come and join us every day for sitting and chanting. When I arrived, everything was covered in snow. It was so silent. You don't even hear the birds because it is too cold for the birds to come out. Every morning the sun rises over the snow and it turns pin k and there is a pink glow about everything. It is extremely beautiful.

I began to know the North American people. We think because we know the same language, we have everything in common and we wlderstand each other immediately. But in fact there is quite a difference between the North American people and the European people. It took me about three years to feel at home in North America. Before that, I expected North American people to be like Europeans and they aren't. The suffering in North America is tremendous. Although materially we have far more than we need, the psychological suffering is huge. I think this was one of the difficult things for me to accept when I was first there. For instance, sometimes we would hear news that the son of someone close to the Sangha had committed suicide or someone else had killed his mother, terrible stories like that, especially among the yo ung people. There were many people we had to comfort because of tragedies in their families that arose from psychological suffering. In some ways I think that psychological suffering is worse than material suffering. But luckily the Dharma doors that Thay has taught can bring relief. It is my deepest asp iration to go back to the United States to understand better the situation there and to devote my life to helping in any way I can.

Often in the United States the newspapers contact us. We are also asked to give talks on international affairs. I have been asked to give talks on the situation in the Middle East. I have been asked to a write an article on Afghanistan and things like that. So part of being in a practice center in North America is that you really have to be in touch with what is going on.

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In Vermont, usually once a week we have visits from school children. Religion is not officially taught in the schools, but many schools have teachers who are interested in Buddhism. They organize courses on Buddhism and the students do a field trip to the Green Mountain Dharma Center to learn how a Buddhist community lives . When the children come we don't teach them theory. We do our best to have them share about their difficulties. Fortunately we've had some young monks and nuns whom the young people from high schools and universities can easily feel close to. The young monks and nuns understand their situation because many of them have been brought up in the United States. Green Mountain Dharma Center is not very big. It may never flourish like Plum Village does. It may always be a little off-shoot of Plum Village. Plum Village is the root, the place for us to come back to, to be strengthened by our spirihlal roots so we can go off again to Green Mountain Dharma Center and offer something better. But we need to have that off-shoot out there because it is like an antenna that is in touch with what is happening and the antenna can let Plum Village know what the needs are over there.

Plum Village in the Future

If I think about Plum Village in the future, I see many westem monks and nuns. I know that the practice has to be developed. A tree always has to grow otherwise it is not a tree anymore. In the futu re there will be many new Dharma doors, new mindfulness practices, adapted to Europe and the United States where arts and music will be integrated into the practice.

Thank you very much.

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Living the Simple Life

A Retreat at Maple Village

By Nguyen Duy Vinh and Miriam van Husan

We left the city of Montreal behind and drove past the still bare fields. The blue-gray mountains drew us ever onwards. Once in the small village of Saint Etienne de Bolton we were completely surrounded and embraced by these ancient hills. Soon we came to the turnoff to Maple Village a short drive up the lane and we saw the sign "We have arrived, we are home in the here and in the now."  We were ready for the Victoria Day weekend retreat called, "Living the Simple Life."

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We have been to Maple Village before but again we were touched by the simple, unaffected kindness and gentleness of the Vietnamese Sangha which had organized the event. We were welcomed into a loving extended family with aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, a novel experience for those who have grown up in the nuclear family of mainstream North American society.

Maple Village consists of a main house and several small cabins nestled in a clearing in the forest. From the windows of the meditation hall one can see the imposing mountains and the multiple valleys surrounding us. The weather teased us, as often happens in Canada, and on Sunday morning we awoke to find the Village covered in a soft blanket of snow! It was a landscape that inspired and reinforced the serenity of spiritual practice. In fact, after only four days the transformation experienced by many people was obvious.

The monks from Maple Forest Monastery, Thay Vo Ngai, Thay Phap Tru, Thay Phap Ung, Thay Phap Hung, and Sramenera Phap Chuyen, brought a special joie de vivre to all the activities. Each of the teachers spoke of their own experiences of their life before meeting Thay Nhat Hanh, which demonstrated how they had grown with Thay's teachings and practice. Especially touching was Thay Vo Ngai 's experiences in Vancouver: figuring out how to cook; feeding his lunch to the schoolyard sea gulls; scattering rice outside his window for the birds and leaving none for his brother! This unconscious emulation of St. Francis was very moving. Thay Phap Ung spoke of his adventure (perhaps misadventure would be a better word) trying to escape from Vietnam with his father how they were captured by the police and how he was able to distract the police, allowing his father to escape while he himself ended up in prison for a month. Such presence of mind in so young a boy! All the Dharma talks were about the "simple life": What do we really need? What is truly necessary for a happy life?

As in a monastery the day was structured, with the wonderful sound of the bell reminding us of the various activities. The day began at 5:45 a.m. with our brother Chan Huu inviting us to wake up and greet the new day. The daily program was nicely balanced with sitting and walking meditation, Dharma talks and discussions, physical exercise and various other special practices such as Total Relaxation and the Five Touchings of the Earth.

The question and answer period ending the retreat gave everyone the opportunity to explore further the theme of the simple life. How does a layperson live a simple life? The monks' responses were apt: To examine our patterns of consumption. To look deeply into our Lifestyles and see what is a necessity and what is a luxury. What do we really need in order to live and function in our society? Our aspirations, our volitional forces have a profound impact on our life by rendering it more complicated or more simple. Our acceptance of ourselves and our acceptance of others can make our lives simpler. We aspire not to have more power, more money, more material possessions, but to have more time more time for ourselves and more time to offer to those we hold in our hearts.

Dharma Teacher Nguyen Duy Vinh, True Awakening , and Miriam van Husan, True Protection, practice with the Pagoda Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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Healing The Inner Child

Ian  Prattis We prefer not to remember the sufferings of child hood, so we bury them and hide from looking deeply into their causes.

Yet we have to find a way to reach the hurt child and make her safe. Although we may now be adults, there is also a little boy in us, a little girl in us, who is so afraid and suffers deeply, no matter what kind of pretend happy face we present to life. This suffering child within our adult frame colors everything we do, generates our fears, insecurities and self- loathing, wounding us in our relationships and life. We must have the courage and awareness to bring healing to our hurt inner child and thereby produce a transformation for ourselves. And in this process we somehow connect to all wounded children – those in our blood line, our ancestors and descendants, and also with all wounded children throughout the world. For once we cultivate the seeds of mindful healing in ourselves, the energy of these seeds continues on into all that we connect with. It is a quantum leap from our cellular memories to everyone else’s throughout time and space.

Thich Nhat Hanh addressed the issue of child abuse in a question and answer session held in the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village, France on October 17, 1998. Very gently he spoke about the ignorance and pain of the abuser as well as that of the abused, and stated clearly that understanding was the basis of recovery. Not blaming or feeling guilt and shame, but seeing deeply and understanding that the person abusing must have lived under painful and deprived conditions. The power of ignorance was stronger than the person’s happiness and stability, and thus they were driven to do wrong things. If the abused person can begin to understand this, then their anger, shame and outrage can transform into compassion. Through mindfulness practice we can begin to understand and forgive. Our suffering decreases and can be transformed into compassion. Through this healing we can become Bodhisattvas, helping all children who need protection and helping to eradicate the ignorance which generates abuse. The energy of compassion for children will transform the pain and sorrow that came from our experience of being abused.

The Diary

One technique that helps to heal the inner wounded child is to start a diary for you and the inner child to write to one another. I recommend that it be practiced under the guidance of a therapist, shaman or spiritual teacher. The adult you will write using the hand that you normally write with. You begin by saying “hello” to Little John, to Little Allison. Tell your child you are sorry for having been neglectful; that you are grown up now and that you will provide a safe and loving environment.

Then with your non-dominant hand, the one you do not normally write with, allow the inner child to express herself. Do not edit. Just write down whatever comes out. It may be angry, blaming and abusive words and it is your job not to be shocked or defensive but to provide constant re-assurance, love and guidance. These are the seeds of mindfulness you consciously bring to support the wounded child inside you. The energy of these seeds works on the energy of the traumatized inner child to reduce his pain and suffering. Talk to him through your writing with love and mindfulness.

Details of trauma may be revealed that you were not conscious of, which is why you need the guidance of a trusted teacher or therapist to support you being a wise and loving parent to your wounded child. With time you will notice shifts and changes in patterns of expression as the child becomes trusting and starts to grow, eventually merging fully with you as an adult. In your letters tell your inner child about yourself and your life, take her on picnics, treats and give to that child all the care, attention and love you feel you did not receive when you were a little boy, a little girl. The suffering will diminish and you will experience a transformation. You may discover that your relationships with co-workers, friends and family start to change, and your fears and anxieties do not have the same force in your life and your relationships. When you notice things like this, tell your inner child “Thank you for being with me. That makes me so happy.” The experience of being with the inner child in the healing journey is a stimulus for this kind of happiness.

There are times you may cry, feel deep joy or despair, which is why you need that wise friend to keep you steady and mindful. I know, for I went through it. I am happy to say that it worked for me, as I experienced the painfully slow establishment of trust, then the exhilarating joy of safety and integration, until finally my inner child was the adult me, integrated with a freshness and vitality that I continually treasure.

Adapted from “Healing Journeys,” a chapter in Ian’s forthcoming book, Living Breath: Stories, Essays and Meditations.

Ian Prattis, dharma name, recently received the Dharma Lamp in Plum Village. Ian founded the Pine Gate meditation community in Ottawa. He gives dharma talks coast to coast in Canada and conducts retreats in Europe, India, North and South America.

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A Life of Faith

An Interview with Sister Giac Nghiem, A Nun in Plum Village By  Sister  Steadiness

You have said that you have two roots, Buddhism and Christianity. How do you integrate these in your life of practice as a Buddhist nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I met the Buddha twenty-seven years ago. I was in Laos with my former husband. Early in the morning we woke up and my husband said, “My dear, do you want to see something beautiful, the sunrise over the Mekong River?” We went together and I was so happy. At the moment we arrived at the banks of the river the sun was just beginning to rise. Standing by the river we saw many Buddhist monks begging. They were walking very slowly in silence, very mindfully. They were walking on our right and on our left there were four ladies sitting on the ground with food in front of them. The monks came and opened their bowls and the ladies filled up their bowls. It is difficult to express how I felt at that moment.

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I felt that I was the lady who was filling up their bowls. I was a monk bowing in front of the women. I was the sun. I was the river.  I was a buffalo drinking the water.  I was a young child taking care of the buffalo. It was like meeting someone after a long time and suddenly he is here. It was something very deep; I cannot describe it. I met Thay a long time afterwards. Between meeting the Buddha in Laos and meeting Thay I practiced yoga.

I met Thay in 1987. Sister Chan Khong had long beautiful hair and Thay was young. When I met Thay I met the Buddha again and I also met St. Francis of Assisi because they are the same. The first time I met Thay was at a two-day retreat in Lyon where he taught in French. He spoke about the piece of paper and seeing the whole world in it. I felt the teaching was familiar and I thought, this is my master. When I returned home my family asked me what happened during the retreat. I smiled and I said, I found St. Francis of Assisi again and I am free from the fear of abandonment now.

My Christian roots are very old.  They are older than me because they flow in the blood of my family, very deeply. When I was a child knitting a small blanket for my doll and I didn’t want to go to bed before finishing it, my mother would come and say, “My dear child, you can go to bed and perhaps Mother Mary or an angel will come and finish your work.” Sometimes in the morning I would see that the row I was knitting had been finished for me. And I knew for sure that it was Mother Mary or an angel who had done that. Perhaps it seems like nonsense but this kind of faith is in me very deeply. I really have faith about the capacity of the spiritual ancestors to take care of us. Even if something happens that is very difficult they are always here.

I am a Buddhist nun and I am deeply Christian too. I found the key to Christianity in Buddhism. For example, Jesus said, “Forgive the people who make you unhappy.” I try my best all the time to do as Jesus tells us, to be generous and so on.  But I did not know how to put Jesus’ teaching into my daily life. Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gave me the key. The key is mindfulness, concentration, insight and understanding. When we have understanding we are free from our hatred, our guilt, and our worries. I am not free yet but I try. This key helps me.

One time Jesus came to a synagogue and there was a crowd who intended to stone a woman who had committed adultery. Before I encountered Thay’s teachings I thought Jesus said to the crowd, “If you look at yourself, you cannot throw stones at the woman because you have also made mistakes.” Now I see this story so differently. I can really see Jesus waiting for the man to come to ask his advice. He already knew what would happen. The young man told Jesus that they wanted to kill the woman and asked him what was the right thing to do. Jesus said, “The one who has never sinned can throw the first stone.” He said this lovingly. He did not speak out of anger; he did not want to teach them a lesson as we have the habit to do. He just loved them; he understood them and he wanted to put a clear mirror in front of them, a clear mirror full of love. This way of seeing more deeply comes from my encounter with Buddhist teachings. What I have learned here in Plum Village has enabled me to be closer to my Christian spiritual ancestors.

How was the transition from your family life to the monastic life?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha offered me the opportunity to become a nun even though I had a lot of difficulties. Before ordaining as a novice I lived at Plum Village for a year and a half as a lay person. Then I became an aspirant and began to enter the monastic life of the community. During my stay before ordination the Sangha allowed me to go back to my hone in St. Etienne and Lyon to see my family, my Sangha, and our center for homeless people four or five times a year. I would stay with my family for three or four weeks before returning to the monastery. It helped me to be gradually less attached to the projects in my home Sangha. But it was very difficult. At the beginning our Sangha and our association for social work had the feeling that I was abandoning them. But I realized that though my family and friends are not physically here, they are here in my body. I really found them in me. Their feelings and their lives are in me. I take care of them through my own life and my own body. That is why it became easy for me to make the transition from family life to monastic life. But it was more difficult for them to experience me within them. For my beloved ones it is very big sacrifice but because of their love they have accepted to offer me to my way.

The monastic life is wonderful. I chose it because Jesus and Mother Mary and angels are very close to me. When I was a child I went into a church in Casablanca where the sisters of St. Francis are. They sang so beautifully and I thought, I want to become a nun and sing as they do. Often when I felt an aspiration to become a nun during my life I said to my children, “My love, if in the future I lose your dear father, my beloved one, and you grow into adults I will become a nun.” But when I felt a calling, in my mind I said to Jesus, “Oh, my love, you know I am so busy. I have a wonderful husband. I have wonderful children; I am so happy with them. Perhaps if you call me later I will be free to come to you.” And I would say, “Oh, my love, do you know I have such wonderful work. There are so many people who need me. We have an association; we have a Sangha; we take care of homeless people. I do not have time to become a nun.” I felt I really could not become a nun because I love so much my wonderful family. I thought about becoming a grandma, making jam for my grandchildren and taking care of the babies coming from our daughter or our son. But Jesus is very persistent. He would knock at the door and in my heart I would hear him say, “My child, now are you free to become a nun.” And I kept saying, “No, I have a loving family, the association, my friends and so on.” But he kept knocking at the door and finally I said, “Yes, I am so happy to come.” And then I said, “Oh, what am I saying? That is not a possibility.” I was really in touch with this kind of conversation inside of me. At that moment I felt so deeply fulfilled by love that all my resistances fell down.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty that I have to overcome is my feeling of inferiority. I feel the teacher, the place and the Sangha are so wonderful.  But many times I have the feeling that I do something wrong, that is not beneficial for the Sangha. Often I feel difficulty because of my perception about what I did or what I thought. But because the Sangha has a big heart and accepts me even if I have this kind of difficulty, I have the opportunity to transform myself and to find clarity on my path. I can walk on the beautiful path taking the hand of Jesus on one side and taking the hand of the Buddha on the other side. Now I have lived in Plum Village for four and a half years. I became a nun on the 4th of December, 2000. I feel at home. I feel loved and happy. I love the Sangha a lot.

How do you stay in touch with your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning my suffering and that of my family was very strong, but now it is lighter and lighter. Some members of my family could accept my path and others could not. The best way for me to be in touch with my family is to telephone them once a week. When I hear their voices I can tell how they are and they know how I am. Recently, our mother, our daughter and her family and our son all came to Plum Village to visit me. Now they know that this is my home, it is our home. I hope they will take root in this home and come more often.

Did you ever think of leaving the monastic life and returning to your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning I felt the desire to return and help my family, my Sangha and our association, and to be in touch with them with my body and not only with my heart. But because I can really find my family in me, this kind of desire has become smaller and smaller. Sometimes I dream that I am at my family’s home and am living with my family. It is okay for me to go in my dream to my family. But I did not come here to hide myself or to protect myself from suffering or from my life before. I have the aim to really become someone who is awakened, to help more people.

We have many people coming to Plum Village who are full of anger and despair, burned by the fires of craving and suffering. One day Thay said we are like nurses or doctors who take care of the people who come from outside to help them relieve their suffering and become healthier. We give them the key to transform their suffering into something wonderful and to find more ease in their family life.

Society for me is sinking like a big boat. I know that if I were in society I would not have the energy to transform myself enough to become someone who can help. It is because I have this ambition to help the most people that I can that I go on this path. I start with my family, but I want to help many more people. I know if I return to my family I would not be able to transform because so many  people already need me outside and I would not have enough strength to do it. My life in our temple, close to our master, to Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gives me enough strength to  transform  myself,  to transform my difficulties. The loving-kindness of the sisters and the brothers is so wonderful. Often I make a mistake and I make someone unhappy. But they always find a way to accept and to help me to accept and to transform, and in that way we live together beautifully. I know that I have often made mistakes. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize in front of everyone. If I have made a mistake and hurt you, please forgive me.

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Tell us about your experience with the practice of Touching the Earth.

Sr. Giac Nghiem: In November 1996 Sister Chan Khong offered me the practice of the three Touchings of the Earth. Soon after that my husband left me. Sister Chan Khong asked me to use this practice as medicine for twenty-one days. One sentence in this practice touched me so much, “I accept you as you are with your strengths and weaknesses as I accept myself as I am with my strengths and weaknesses.” This helped me a lot when my husband left.

I first practiced the five Touchings of the Earth in June 1997 when I came to Plum Village for ten days. I came to learn how to be compassionate towards my former husband. Since then, Touching the Earth has been one of my basic practices. I used the five Touchings of the Earth almost every day for two years. We say that reciting the Diamond Sutra cuts through afflictions. For me practicing Touching the Earth cuts through my afflictions and helps me to transform. It is my second diamond. I practice Touching the Earth to nourish myself. At the beginning sometimes I practiced it for one or two hours.

Before I practice Touching the Earth I look deeply into my spiritual ancestors and into my society. I know I am made of all the input I receive from my ancestors and my society. The collective and the individual are together in me. I want to transform many things in me for the benefit of my descendants,  my  children,  my grandchild, and my parents. I don’t want to transmit the difficulties I have had.   When I found the blocks of suffering in me I took care of them even if I had to cry a lot.  I always had a handkerchief close to me to absorb my tears.  I would only stand up after I could see something beautiful coming from the earth.

At the beginning I did not want to lie down on the earth because the child in me was afraid of getting dirty. When I was a child I often had a pretty dress on and I heard, “No, don’t get mud on your dress; don’t get dirty.” But Sister Chan Khong told me that if I can open every cell in my body, the earth will be very happy and will eat and drink from me and will transform my suffering. The young child in me is very fond of sweet foods. So only when I could see beautiful, sweet foods like strawberries, little mushrooms, and blueberries coming from the earth could I stand up and smile.

One time I found a way to touch the earth with more ease. I was in the Buddha hall and I allowed my imagination to touch the earth with me. I imagined that I was lying on a beach. I was feeling dirty and the waves came and washed me of everything I didn’t like in myself from my family and my society and from myself. The waves washed away all the dust and it was transformed into beautiful fish and coral, into beautiful colored sand and the blue of the waves. I felt so happy because the sea is really my ground, more than the soil.

At the beginning when I practiced for twenty-one days I had so many things to put into the earth, but day by day it was transformed. At the end of the twenty-one days I was very surprised because for the fifth touching of the earth, when I send my love to the one who has destroyed my life, I no longer had an image of anyone. At first when I practiced this I had the image of different people in front of me, but then finally there was no one left. That was a big transformation. Now when I touch the earth I don’t have many negative things to put on the earth; sometimes I have nothing to put on the earth because my difficulties have been so transformed.  I can see the beauty of my family and my society. It is like the practice of total relaxation. At first we need to take a long time to feel the relaxation, but after we have practiced for a long time, we just lie down and breathe a little bit and we experience the relaxation.

One time my father told me that my brother was suffering. I said, I will take care of him even if I am in the monastery. My father has faith in this practice because I have shared it with him. I went in front of the Buddha and Jesus together, because they are my two spiritual roots. I said, I want to touch the earth in the name of my brother because he is in every cell of my body. We have the same blood ancestors, the same education and civilization. I am him and he is me. It was absolutely successful. After practicing for twenty-one days in the name of my brother, my brother’s situation improved a lot. He became lighter. I put his suffering on the earth for him because he did not know how to do that for himself. I have done that for other members of my family as well. It is very important to understand that I’m not trying to transform them, just to alleviate their suffering. This practice is the key for me to make life lighter so that is why I do it and offer it in the name of others.

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How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I was born in Morocco and I spent my childhood there. I lived with my family in Djema el Fina, the Medina, close to the marketplace in Marrakech. In the Medina there were a lot of handicapped people, without their legs or blind or diseased. One day when I was around four-years-old I went out and just outside our door I saw a very poor handicapped child. I asked my mom, “Why is this child like that?” She said, “My love, you were born on the other side of this door but if you had been born out here you might be like that too.” During my whole life I have had the desire to help because I know that that child could have been me.  All my life I have carried this thought. Helping people however I can is my way. Nearly ten years ago I had a dream, where I saw a beautiful young woman who was full of light. I remember with her left hand she showed me a young child, a very tiny, skinny child. I saw this child and my heart was filled with suffering. Then she showed me a candle and said, “One candle, ten days of life for a hungry child.” A few days before I had met a lady who decorated candles with the dried petals of flowers. They were very lovely and they seemed easy to make. When I woke up I was full of desire to help put an end to suffering in Vietnam and everywhere. That aspiration was already in me, but now I had a plan. I realized my dream could help me relieve suffering through my work. At that time I was a physical therapist working in the hospital and clinic with terminally ill patients.

I began making the candles as my  friend showed me. One day our son came into our kitchen and he saw me making the candles. He said, “What are you doing, my love?” He was very gentle. I said, “My love, for Mother’s Day I want to sell one thousand candles.” He said, “You are doing it alone?” I said, “Yes, but it is February and I have a lot of time to do it.” But I didn’t really because I had a lot of other work to do also. He laughed because he has faith in what I do even if it seems impossible. I tried to do a little bit every day. After one month four people came to our house and when they saw what I was doing they were so happy and they wanted to help me. For Mother’s Day we had one thousand candles and I was so happy. A lot of people came to help, but I didn’t think about anything but that the children need our help. That was ten years ago. I think the presence of Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha was a catalyst for my dream.

We gave Sister Chan Khong the money we raised to help the children in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong is a big master for me. After that she gave us information about needy children so that we could find sponsors for them. I also received inspiration and support from Sister Minh Tanh, the abbess of a big temple in Vietnam who takes care of many children there. Our Sangha in St. Etienne created an association called it “Le Coeur a Vivre,” or “The Heart to Live.” Two or three years later we began to help the homeless people and others in difficulty in our country, who were close to our homes. Our bodhicitta grew because we watered the seed of loving kindness in us. Mother Theresa was also always dear to me and an inspiration for our work.

How are you nourished by the social work now as a nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Because of the desire I have to help I suffer a lot here. Why? Because I feel the world is so full of suffering. Everywhere someone is suffering. Not to help our children, parents, family and friends and to let go of my work at the hospital where all of my friends are dying slowly or not doing anything for the homeless people because I am here: all of this filled me with suffering. It was very difficult for me. One time I said to Thay, “My dear teacher you can imagine my suffering because you stay in France and you cannot return to your home monastery in Vietnam to give your support.” I know my dear Sister Chan Khong can understand me too, because she also knows the suffering of not being able to help at certain times. I did not know if I could stay in the monastery because my suffering of letting go of my children, my mother, my father, and my mother-in-law was so deep. I felt I have so many people to take care of and I suffered so much. But I became a nun to help, to become someone very solid who can really help everywhere, not to escape from my own suffering or the suffering of society and of the world.

Sister Chan Khong gave me children from Vietnam to take care of. She was watering my bodhicitta to help others. She let me know that when we spend a lot of energy to take care of children in Vietnam, we can release a part of our suffering in the world. That is why I accepted with great gratitude to take care of the hungry children projects for France, Belgium and a part of Switzerland. I enjoy very much taking care of these children, seeing their little faces with different expressions. I read the letters about the children. In December of 1999 there was a big flood in Vietnam and the city of Hue was under water. Sister Chan Khong came and gave me a lot of children to take care of who were crying and asking for help. Now we have many sponsors and we wait for more because we have so many children who need help. They are so in need. We really need help. For instance, a flood during August and September devastated so many homes.

Sometimes I stay up late working. But I feel close to the children. I take one child’s photo and I say to him or her, “You know, we have a sponsor for you now. My love, do you know you can sleep and dream very well now. Do you see me in your dream?” I smile to him and I enjoy sharing good news like that. Every time I find one sponsor I am happy for many days. I think about the family who has so much difficulty and the child who needs to go to school, to have something to eat and to learn. I think that one day that little child will become a strong, beautiful man or woman and he or she will already know the key of how to help other people.

Sister Giac Nghiem, Adornment with Awakening, ordained as a nun in 1999.  She is French and often goes out to lead Days of Mindfulness and retreats in France.

 

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Letter from (one of) the Editors

Dear Brothers and Sisters on the path, in this moment my heart is clear, not because i have attained much understanding, not because i am able to love all without discrimination. my heart is clear because i have a path to go.

a path that is rich and full of learning, with many companions to support me and protect me. i know that i am best protected by our practice, by our capacity to calm, to embrace suffering and pain to bridge the chasms of separation and fear, to relax into connection.

dear friends, dear companions, i am aware of your presence, of your sincerity and care.

i am in touch with a source of peace, a source of energy, not dependent on the great elements of earth, air, water and fire. yet not independent. our energy arises from our aspirations, our sincere wish to understand, to love, to hold as one.

i touch the earth, i touch my life source with gratitude, with concentration, with joy. and i am nourished, to continue. to grow. to love. i acknowledge my weaknesses, my mistakes and i make the vow to lay all my suffering on the earth, to transform everything i have received from my ancestors, from my society into a great source of peace and presence.

dear brothers and sisters, please enjoy this small booklet in your hands. it is an offering to you. it is an opportunity to meet your friends on the path of practice, to smile to each other, to simply acknowledge each other’s presence, as real.

peacefully, your sister steadiness

July 8th, 2003

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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.

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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.

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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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Vietnam Journal

When Thich Nhat Hanh left Vietnam in 1966 to teach in the United States, he told his friends that he would be back in three months. Thirty-nine years later, he has finally returned. As Thay said in the letter he wrote to the Sangha before the trip, he left as a single cell and returned as a Sangha body. Along with the one hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, approximately three hundred lay people from dozens of countries had the privilege of accompanying Thay. Many of them generously shared their writings and photos with the Mindfulness Bell—we wish we had room to print everything! Look for more impressions in prose, poetry, and pictures in the fall issue.

In a Dharma talk upon his return to Plum Village, Thay said that anyone who was on the journey, especially for the whole three months, was transformed. Each day was packed full of activities, even though Thay reported that he had to turn down ninety-five percent of the invitations he received. Like a delicious, heavy meal, it takes time to digest. “We need to give ourselves at least six months,” he says.

Time will tell what miraculous transformations take place—within each participant in the journey, in the people of Vietnam, in Buddhism worldwide, in our Sangha. Brother Phap Luu has called the journey “Thay’s Magical Mindfulness Tour.” The miracle of mindfulness continues to unfold.

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A Letter from Thay to the Sang­ha Members Going to Vietnam

January, 2005

As the date of our departure to Vietnam approaches, I would like to express my joy and gratitude to all of you for joining me on this historic trip. Our three-month visit will be an offering to the land and people in Vietnam; therefore as a Sangha we would like to offer our best.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

Vietnam is a beautiful land and a beautiful people, and we shall have the opportunity to contemplate many beautiful things. These will include walking meditation by the Ho Guom lake (Lake of the Returning Sword), climbing Yen Tu Mountain where King Nhan Tong practiced as a monk, and visiting Halong Bay which is considered to be the most fantastic landscape in Asia. Wherever we go, we will practice dwelling happily in the present moment, radiating peace and loving kindness around us. Those of us who stay in hotels will consider our hotel as a practice center, walking, talking, sitting, and eating in mindfulness. All of us will be closely observed, especially by secret agents, who will be able to appreciate our wholesome energy and certainly will profit from it.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the most concrete expression of our practice. There will be no consumption of tobacco, meat, or alcohol; no talking while walking; etc. As we practice to be the Sangha body of the Buddha, we are also the body of Thay at the same time. Those of us who are Dharma teachers or Dharma teachers in training will make sure that the practice of the Sangha body is solid, fresh, and joyful. We shall certainly make many people happy with our presence and practice.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

We’ll be together in a few days

Thay


Hanoi January 12 to January 22

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Thay’s Arrival in Hanoi

We all got up at four a.m. to meet Thay and the Plum Village Sangha at Hanoi airport. We arrived to crowds, and more and more people kept coming: monks in bright yellow robes, lots of people with cameras, old men and women wearing amazing regional costumes.

When Thay entered the arrivals hall total mayhem ensued: everyone surged forward, trying to get a glimpse of Thay, who was tightly surrounded by a pair of monks to keep him from being trampled. People threw flowers, climbed on chairs, pushed and pulled, while three film crews tried to get their footage, and countless cameras flashed.

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Arriving at Bo De Temple, where Thay and the monastics stayed, rows of people lined the road leading to the temple. As Thay passed they threw flowers, and chanted, and bowed deeply —not just for Thay, but also for us, which was a strange experience. So much devotion!

For me, the most moving moment happened a couple of hours later, when Thay was walking in the temple grounds with Sister Chan Khong and the abbot of Thay’s root temple in Hue. Thay squatted between the cabbages planted around the stupas, picked up some earth and let it flow through his hands, remarking that it was the first time in nearly forty years that he was able to touch the earth of his homeland. The abbot started to cry and I couldn’t stop myself from joining him.

—Evelyn Van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, Amsterdam

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mb39-Vietnam6Northern Vietnam

Vietnamese country scenes Rice paddies and lakes Big French style homes And muddy shacks

In rain and cold Unexpected weather In farms and cities People work so hard

Road construction Buildings go up In fortune of peace Vietnam smiles

—Joy Magezis, True Wonderful Commitment, Cambridge, England

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What It Means

Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam is about importing the Buddhism he built in the West. When Thay came to the U.S. to try to stop the war, he already had a record of developing practices and approaches that would revitalize Buddhism and meet the real needs of people, both spiritual and material. It was labeled engaged Buddhism, a term that has become synonymous with Thay and his teaching.

Thay started the Order of Interbeing and the School of Youth for Social Service, a kind of Buddhist domestic Peace Corps, where volunteers studied medicine and nursing, economics, agriculture, and architecture and construction. They then went to live in rural villages to help with grassroots development. Thay was not popular with the Buddhist establishment of the time, nor the government. Not taking sides, speaking out against injustice, calling for change got him thirty-nine years in exile, which ended when he landed in Hanoi on January 12.

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Our job, one hundred monastics and ninety lay persons, was to display Thay’s Buddhism: gender equality; Sangha-centered decision making; lay persons who practice as well as support practice; close and happy relationships among lay and monastic Sangha members; engaged practice; enthusiastically embracing what can be learned from other traditions. These are all new and radical things in Vietnam. A Vietnamese member of the delegation told me, “You are the message. Educated westerners practicing and walking mindfully, that’s the news, that’s what gets the attention, that’s what gives Thay added credibility.”

—Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, Missoula, Montana

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First Days in Hanoi

The trip is starting to find its own rhythm: getting up around 4:30 a.m., having breakfast (sometimes on the bus), and visiting an average of four temples and shrines each day. We are met with exceptional warmth and kindness: people lining the streets, schoolchildren singing, women throwing flowers, followed by a sumptuous meal.

—Evelyn Van de Veen

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Letting Love

The Vietnamese are giving us a profound teaching with the abundance of love that they offer so effortlessly. Accepting it is easier when we look deeply and see that each one of us represents the love and wisdom that Thay generated over his forty years in exile. To the people who have been without their master, we are a walking, breathing, smiling testament to his life’s work. When I think of myself as capable of being a vessel for peace and wisdom, I feel for the first time that I can receive what comes from other people’s hearts and be deserving of it.

I find myself moving with marked slowness after seeing Thay pass by, because his formless beauty awakens the same in me. At times I find myself moving like him, curling my lips with ease like him, speaking with gentleness like him, and it is in these moments that I have come home. I am not so distinctly me or him; I am a vessel of stillness that is as quiet as a boat on a waveless ocean. Perhaps this is what the Vietnamese see—so many offerings of peace flowing in a river to their temples, warm with burning incense, into their hearts and palms pressed together in prayer.

—Kate Cummings, Asheville, North Carolina

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Saigon January 22 to February 18

A Sea of Monks and Nuns

There was a Day of Mindfulness at Vinh Nghiem Temple, an enormous, modern place with a grand stair­case leading up to a huge Buddha statue. The turnout in the south is even bigger than in the north, with a sea of grey robes and bare scalps, packed in knee to knee.

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Thay’s tone today was light-hearted and informal. Addressing the Vietnamese monastics, he told about many of the practices at Plum Village, such as shining the light, using Sangha eyes, not going out alone, doing everything together, and working through a democratic system. “Our abbots are not so busy; mostly what they do is drink tea,” he said.

—Alissa Fleet, Boundless Transformation of the Heart, Berkeley, California

Sacred Ground

Thây told us that Dharma Cloud Temple (Chua Phâp Van) is on sacred ground. More than forty years ago Thây designed and built the original thatch-hut temple, and the first classes of the School of Youth for Social Service were held here in 1964. Two years later, the first members of the Order of Interbeing were or­dained here. “Phâp Van is the cradle of engaged Buddhism,” says Thây. He describes the beautiful memorial garden where victims of war-time violence are honored: Nhat Chi Mai, one of the original members of the Order of Interbeing, who immolated herself for peace; the two people killed in a grenade attack on the temple; the eight social workers who disappeared, presumed dead; and the four social workers who were shot. “I could no longer cry. I had engaged them and now they were killed.” Thây then reads the letter that Nhat Chi Mai wrote to him before her death; he tells us that Nhat Chi Mai’s sister is in the audience, and even he does not keep the tears from his voice. Then he reads some of his poems.

—Janelle Combelic, Sweet Wisdom of the Heart, Loubès-Bernac, France

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My Teacher Is In Me

In the Dharma talk today, Thay spoke at length about how our parents and grandparents are in us, in every cell of our body, that all our ancestral teachers are in us, as well as our teacher in this lifetime. Afterwards, wandering among the people in the temple courtyard, I was approached by a woman who bowed and offered me a book of Thay’s to sign. (A few of his books are being published, legally, in Vietnamese for the first time). It was open at the title page, and with pen in hand, she insisted that I sign the book! I laughingly resisted, until I remembered–– Thay is in me. This woman understood that, and was happy for me to sign the title page, since he could not. So, I happily signed my Vietnamese Dharma name, Chan An Dinh, True Concentration on Peace.

—Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace

Heaven on Earth

We took a bus out of Saigon and visited Bat Nha (Prajna Temple). This was among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. To get there, we drove for two hours through wild, green mountains that rose up dramatically on either side of the winding, two-lane road. Arriving at the temple, we stepped into a utopia deep in tea and coffee plantations. Sloping fields full of tea bushes drop on all sides of this gorgeous refuge, making an almost flat, lush, waist-high green carpet of landscape. The air smelled like jasmine, and red earth paths circled in and around the grounds. From a speaker somewhere, voices were chanting with bells, the effect being nothing short of celestial.

We spent one day and night here, sleeping on the floor in buildings ringing the main temple. I awoke before sunrise to the steady, deep sound of a single drum heartbeat, then heard male voices chanting. I walked outside into the warm air following the sound and entered the temple. Twenty saffron-robed Theravadan monks visiting from Thailand were greeting the day. I sat in back on the smooth marble floor for almost an hour, listening, breath­ing, absorbing the sense of unity that voice, drum, and quiet early morning created among us. This place, Prajna Temple, deep in Vietnam’s tea fields, is a bit of heaven on earth.

—Lisa Haufschild

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Love Food

I have never had such delicious, sim­ple, lovingly prepared food.

At Phap Van, our main temple in Sai­gon, food was prepared by the nuns. On temple visits, the women prepare beautiful things. We have had banana leaves folded origami style into octagon shaped boxes holding a coconut tapioca square. Sesame squares are in handmade packets wrapped in colorful gift-wrapped cellophane. Tan­gerines, the sweetest I’ve ever had, are stacked and wrapped. This is not restaurant food. It is love food.

—Lisa Haufschild

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Transformation

By the last evening, people know that Phap Van is no longer an ordinary neighborhood temple where you smoke cigarettes and offer a cursory handful of in­cense. You can now hear children singing “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “Here Is the Pure Land.” When something wonderful happens on stage, people know to wave their hands in the air rather than applaud. And when the bell is invited, there is a long moment of settling and quieting. A transformation has clearly happened here: people are listening to the talks with a deeper stillness now.

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The local practitioners sit beautifully, some with their eyes closed, their hands folded before them. They listen peacefully as Thay delivers his farewell: teach­ings on interbeing; no coming, no going; no birth, no death. He holds up a sheet of paper, he strikes a match, he watches as the flame goes out. Where did it go? With deep intimacy, Thay speaks directly to each person: some day you might hear that I am deceased. And you might think I am gone. But all you need to do is look deeply to see that I am still here.

—Alissa Fleet


Hue February 18 to March 15

Thay’s Return to Tu Hieu Pagoda

Walking in long lines in silence we made our way towards the temple entrance. We heard drums in the distance, and tradi­tional Vietnamese music. We were surrounded by trees, the leaves glistening in the damp late morning air. The route was lined with people holding Buddhist flags, flowers, and paper lotuses contain­ing candles. Some cried silently; no one said a word. After fifteen minutes we arrived at an archway, above which a sign said, ‘The Tu Hieu Temple Welcomes the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and the International Delegation from Plum Village’.

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Ahead of me I could see the Half Moon Pond. As Thay stood opposite me, he turned, looked at the pond and said to one of the monastics, “Am I dreaming or is this real?” “It is real, dear Thay,” came the reply.

—Sita Ramamurthy, Compassionate Understanding of the Heart, London

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Heaven

Tu Hieu Temple, set in the forest a few miles from town, is where Thay became a monk at the age of sixteen. Our ancestral teacher, Master Nhat Dinh built the hermitage which served as the starting point of this temple in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was a highly respected abbot at a larger temple, but when his mother became ill he decided to find a place to build a small hermitage and take care of her. He found this place, crawling with tigers and thick with forest. Undaunted, he made a little hut for himself and another for his mother. Despite his intentional isolation, disciples found him and eventually it expanded into a monastery.

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Returning to his childhood home and learning more about his teacher, we are all beginning to understand Thay in a wonderful new way. A remarkable thing is happening — he is looking younger each time I see him. We were told his teacher also began to look markedly younger during the last years of his life. The happiness on Thay’s face makes us all glow.

—Kate Cummings

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Releasing the Fish

One day the delegation piled into seven boats painted red and yellow with dragon-headed prows. For two hours we floated up the wide and languorous Perfume River, through a landscape of brilliant green forest dotted with the occasional pagoda, vil­lage, or cornfield. On the way back, we stopped in the middle of the river across from Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the most famous landmarks in Vietnam. The dragon boat captains maneuvered to face upstream all in a row, anchored, and roped their boats together side by side. From the prow of the central boat, a senior monk led the Ceremony Releasing the Fish. After the monastics chanted the ritual, a monk took a fish out of a tub bubbling with big catfish and ceremoniously released it into the river. Then dozens of squirm­ing fish were given their freedom, more and more, finally whole buckets of them dumped into the water. Such joy!

—Janelle Combelic

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Walking Meditation

Thay and the fourfold Sangha practiced walking meditation through central Hue, Hanoi, and Saigon. In Hue, the traffic was confined to the left side of the busy streets as we walked on the right half. The pavements were lined with people with palms joined. Hundreds more joined the walking meditation along the way until we were a body of many hundreds. This, for me, was a powerful expression of Thay’s teaching that society cannot thrive on economic advancement alone, but needs to have a spiritual dimension.

—Barbara Hickling, True Wonderful Land, Plymouth, Devon, England

mb39-Vietnam23Engaged Buddhism

While the monastics held a one-week retreat at Tu Hieu Tem­ple thirteen lay Dharma teachers led us in a lay retreat. Every day ninety of us came to the Dieu Nghiem nunnery next to Tu Hieu, for sitting and walking meditation, Dharma talks and discussions. The week was a sweet respite from the sometimes befuddling intensity of the pilgrimage. One afternoon we were joined by a dozen Vietnamese members of the Order of Interbeing, including some who had been part of the School of Youth for Social Service, founded by Thay in 1965, as a helping arm of Van Hanh University. Through the war, through the brutal years of communist rule since 1975, often working underground, they have continued feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, educating the poor.

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Describing their work over the past forty years and continuing today, they told us: There are many people not cared for by anyone so we build schools and hospitals to care for them. After 1972, lots of people in the South were evacuated so those who remained grew crops to help feed the rest. A lot of blood and sweat was shed on those lands to grow crops. After 1975 all operations were terminated by the government so we stopped officially for several years but continued working underground. In 1985 we received from Plum Village, packages of medicine to sell so we could buy rice to give to people in poor areas.

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Thay has taught us not to be attached to the political system, so when the government officials ask us to stop, I tell them that we only work in the spirit of loving our people and our country. We can continue because of the nurturing support of the Buddha, of all of you and of the energy of streams of all our ancestors.

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“Thây left us when I was twenty,” said a dignified gentleman with tears in his eyes, “and now we’re all in our sixties. We have missed Thây very much, always hoping and praying that he could return. When he came to Phâp Van temple (in Saigon,where the school was located) and touched our hands we were very emo­tional, very moved. Having Thay here for the past two months has nurtured us tremendously and we do not wish for him to leave.”

—Contributed by Sozan Schellin, Wild Rivers of the Source, Austin, Texas; Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, Washington, D.C.; and Janelle Combelic


Hanoi March 15 to March 30

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Halong and Yen Tu

Gliding past islands Stretching up from green water With tree topped hair At Halong Bay

What peace Steaming along No sign of mines Long past

mb39-Vietnam27Atop small mountain Red pagoda Against grey sky fog hovering at base

Yesterday Yen Tu Mount Crowds gathered for fest Climbing muddy rock steps To Zen King’s home

I climb with Nyu 74 year old pilgrim Holding hands I support her Others come past and help

With my grey robe, brown jacket I’m less an outsider Myu translated comments I smile, laugh with Viets

At heart of island There wondrous cave Stalactites drip beauty Into silent pond

Sangha walk through cave Stand chanting to Avalokita Feeling old water energy Releasing mind to touch joy

—Joy Magezis

Flow

And just how do I step into this beginningless flow? This I am taught by the flow of traffic in Hanoi. I stop and watch, and when I begin to feel myself slow down inside, when trust arises that the flow is there for me to tap into, the fear dissipates and I can see the openings in the traffic. Only after I am aware of this slowness in and outside of myself, have stopped and concentrated on what is flowing right before my eyes, am I ready to step into the traffic. And once I step in, it must be without hesitation; any hesitation separates me from the flow and actually causes danger to others. If I am tired, or shaky, as I often have been in Hanoi, I take the arm of a Sangha sister or brother, and let them lead me into and through. If I am alone, it’s harder. I will wait until someone else is crossing; it could be an old woman or someone carrying large bundles on either end of a bamboo pole, or even a bicycle or motor scooter crossing in my direction. The guide across the river will always come if I am patient, just as the opening in the throngs climbing Yen Tu mountain always came, if I waited and watched.

—Roberta Wall, True Insight of Peace, New York

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Binh Dinh Province March 30 to April 10

Monks and Nuns on the Beach

Now we near the sea Beyond salt drying fields Sister tells of old home Then white waves, clear sand

 Off the bus we go Onto peace time beach Old bunker behind Young monks jump into sea

Others follow joyfully Soon half the Sangha’s wet Brown robes bob in blue sea Laughter fills the air

—Joy Magezis

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How Was It?

It was exhausting. It was pivotal, I think, for Buddhism in Vietnam. It was a floating celebration. It was a reunion and a triumphal return. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life. Every night I dream about the trip and the Sangha; a different person every night. The night before I wrote this it was about Chuck, the twelve-year-old. The night before that about Terry Barber. Tonight, who knows. Maybe I’ll sleep through the night and won’t remember dreams. But the dreams will be there as Thay lives his dream—returning home and retooling Vietnamese Buddhism for the twenty-first century.

—Rowan Conrad

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Discovering Levels of Deep Listening

By Ian Prattis The adventure with my teenage son in Glasgow’s drug world brought home to me that when all else fails there is still mindfulness. And it can work miracles. As I spent time with my son in his rambling apartment, inhabited by a shifting population of punks, drug users, and dealers, I knew that I needed support from all the tools of mindfulness I had—particularly deep listening—in order to remain steady and clear and not be drawn into judgment and discrimination.

Late one night, after teaching my son and some of his friends how to do walking meditation in a park, we all sat on a bench, fresh with morning dew, and they began to talk to me. I entered stillness and said very little. As I listened to my young friends pour out their hearts and stories, I encountered a level of deep listening within myself never before experienced. I felt an all-encompassing energy embrace me, my young friends, the park, the lights, and the night sounds of Glasgow. This experience totally changed my understanding of deep listening, a mindfulness practice I was very familiar with, but never before at this level. On later reflection I could see that I had journeyed through several distinct levels of deep listening in my practice of mindfulness. The first level of coming to know the practice of deep listening was intellectual, whereby I scrutinized Buddhist literature on deep listening, gaining a conceptual grasp of what it meant within the corpus of Buddhist teaching. Although this was the least significant level of understanding, it was a starting place, which enabled a window to open for me.

As time went on, I began to realize that deep listening is not just an intellectual exercise, but is a fruit or consequence of mindfulness practice—my second level of deep listening. The simple insight that deep listening could not be there alone was a key. I experienced a distinct improvement in my capacity for deep listening, as my practices of walking meditation, mindful breathing, and mindful eating grew stronger. I realized that they were the necessary ground out of which deep listening could arise—as a flower growing from fertile soil. When such a ground was not there, my focus was largely on my own agendas and assumptions, and I would not be listening carefully to what was being said to me. This understanding deepened as I investigated how it directly affected my life—the times I suffered from not being heard, as well as the suffering I had caused when I was not able to deeply listen to the concerns of those speaking to me, especially my children.

On this evening I encountered for the first time, a third level of deep listening. As I was deeply present with my young friends, my carefully constructed sense of self dissolved and the “I” of me disappeared. “I” became particles of energy, touching and engaging with the particles of energy in everything there—my friends, the grass, trees, park bench, city lights and sounds, and beyond to a vastness that I cannot find the words to express. In that stillness, the vastness of energy touched deep seeds of consciousness in my young friends as they trusted me with their confidences and secrets. We stayed there for hours, frequently silent, and walked home just before dawn. From the smiles and embraces that were exchanged I knew that something had changed in all of us. I had discovered within myself a level of deep listening I had never thought possible. My young friends and son had nurtured long forgotten seeds of hope within themselves.

mb38-Discovering1We talked about our experiences the next evening. My new friends had shown great consideration for me, turning down their heavy metal music and not dealing drugs in my presence. The kitchen even got a cursory clean. I thanked them for their consideration and said that I was aware of every acid hit, every cocaine use, every moment of their despair, anger and selfdestruction, as I felt the energy of it all in my body and that it hurt like hell. A long, thundering silence ensued, filled with healing and open-heartedness. Before leaving, I did many walking meditation exercises with each one of them in the nearby park. I spent time listening deeply to them and learned a great deal about the angst of alienation amongst young people, about how they intuitively understood the interconnection of all life, but that they were simply lost.

Thanks to my young friends, my journey and practice of deep listening had deepened, from an intellectual and personal appreciation to an instrument of transformation. Interbeing was no longer a concept or just a good idea—it was a direct experience of reality. If the Divinity we quest for cannot be found everywhere, including with these alienated young people, then it is doubtful if it will be found at all. When we come home to our true nature, we discover that we are all interconnected—even with situations we do not readily understand. But if we can stop discriminating against others, we can know wholeness.

Ian Prattis is a Dharmacharya living in Ottowa, Canada. This essay is excerpted from a chapter in his forthcoming book “The Buddha at the Gate.”

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In the Footsteps of My Teacher

By Tran Kinh Tam An

Sitting at the feet of my Teacher

Seeing the rose held in two hands

Visualizing the cosmos in the rose I

walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

My Teacher speaks about transformation

All is in me; realization is the goal Transform garbage and suffering into beauty and Nirvana I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Moon shining light on pitfalls on the path Moon casting shadows to the left and then to the right Moon, the Sangha guiding my steps on the path I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Standing in awe on the hilltop Gazing at the twinkling city lights below With a calm, peaceful heart and mind I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Sitting, calm and smiling Peacefully concentrating on nature around me My teacher turns and quietly watches me I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Gently picking up an insect crawling on my leg Gently putting him down in the grass Smiling, listening deeply, speaking lovingly I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

My teacher is beautifully present by my side Waiting quietly, patiently to hear my pain Knowing my need for empathy I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

I bow my head, while joining my palms Acknowledge my weaknesses and strengths I am in my Teacher; my Teacher is in me I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Simultaneously dwelling in the historical and ultimate dimensions, Intellectual thinking moves from head to heart. Faithful to my true self—interconnected with the universe, I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Tran Kinh Tam An, Peaceful Respect of the Heart, lives in Portland, Oregon where she practices with the Thursday Night Sangha and aspires to join the Order of Interbeing.

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Writing Your Autobiography:

mb40-Writing1A Path to Healing By Janice Rubin

I am in my twelfth year of teaching adults to write their autobiographies—a new career begun after I had retired from a career in journalism—and in my fifth year of practice with my Sangha. Without knowing anything about Buddhism or the existence of a blueprint for decency known as the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I had created an atmosphere in my classes and a code of behavior that I later found mirrored in the practice community I visited in 2001. No wonder I felt I had truly come home!

Retiring after twenty-one years, I decided to review my life, beginning with my earliest memories. I found the process to be painful at times, but was determined to finally face my demons. Writing my memoirs was therapeutic, and I wondered whether others might find it helpful. When I shared my writing with my therapist, she suggested that I teach so that others might benefit from the process.

I teach three semesters a year, each one eight weeks long. Classes are two hours long and limited to ten persons. I tell new students that writing their autobiography is like taking a magical mystery tour—they don’t know where they’ll end up when they start out, they don’t know what means they will use to get there, and when they arrive, they won’t be the same person who started the journey. In the process they will develop compassion for those they feel have wronged them, discover they have accomplished much more than they have given themselves credit for, and find they like themselves a lot more than they did when they began.

I suggest that beginners start out by following the syllabus, which has questions related to each period of life and can be used to jog the writer’s memory. They write at home and come to class prepared to share their writing. Each person is allotted time to read and to receive feedback from the others. Those who say they don’t have any childhood memories are inspired by the material I provide and by hearing others’ stories. As we write, the pathways between memories are lubricated so that memories return, sometimes faster than we can write about them.

Most of my students are between fifty and eighty-five years of age. Most come with the intention of writing their life stories to pass on to their children and grandchildren; many return to continue examining their lives in an effort to rid themselves of feelings of anger, guilt, and anxiety that are preventing them from enjoying their days. Some come because they have reached a significant stage in their lives; they want to understand where they’ve been so they may chart a path for their future.

Among the writers, some have been childhood victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In the supportive atmosphere that prevails in our workshops, many feel safe exploring events that need to be examined in order to rid them of suffering. Some are recovering from alcoholism or other addictions; some are grieving the loss of dear ones. Some are closeted homosexuals or abused spouses who are not yet able to share their plight.

Cultivating Compassion

The first mindfulness training talks about cultivating compassion and protecting life. It has been said that one may kill with words; it is also true that a kind word, appropriately offered, can be life enhancing. New students are asked to listen to each other with an open mind, without judgment. In commenting on another’s writing, they are asked to be mindful of the reader’s feelings. I watch with increasing love for my students as I see heads nod and tissues wipe away a tear while someone writes about the disappearance of her father when she was four years old. If empathy and compassion were blossoming plants, our classroom would be ringed with flowers.

One time, during introductions on the first day of class, a new student mentioned that she was twenty-five years old. A man in his seventies said, “You’re so young. You haven’t lived yet. What do you have to write about?” I told the group about the twenty-one-year-old in a previous class who had taught us what life had been like in East Germany and had participated in pulling down the Berlin Wall. I told them about children in elementary school who had written about their memories of accidents, birthday parties, the death of a parent. Unfortunately, my illustrations were not sufficient to counteract the damage done by a thoughtless remark; the young woman dropped out of the class and did not respond to messages I left her.

Generosity

The second mindfulness training reminds us of the importance of not taking what belongs to others and encourages generosity. In my classes this training is symbolized by a timer and a set of wind-up clacking teeth. The two-hour session is barely long enough for ten people to read and receive feedback so when participants don’t respect their time limits it can become a problem. In order to prevent hurt feelings, I set a timer when each person begins to read. When the bell goes off, that person’s time is up. The conversations that sometimes develop in response to a particular reading can wreak havoc with a schedule. So I wind up my two-legged chattering teeth and, as they dance across the table, we laugh and remind ourselves why we’ve come to class.

Protection

The third mindfulness training makes us aware of the nature of our ties with family and the importance of protecting children from harm. In our writing we deal with destructive as well as healing ties. We come to understand not only how our parents raised us, but how their upbringing influenced the way they behaved as adults. When we write about our parents as little children we begin to understand their suffering and we realize they did the best they could. At the same time, we develop compassion for ourselves as children who suffered at their hands. We also develop understanding and compassion for other family members, and it is not unusual for my students to reach out to family members from whom they have been estranged, and to reconnect with childhood friends.

A recovering alcoholic, writing about the abusive, alcoholic father of his childhood, gradually began to soften toward him when he wrote about his father’s boyhood in Ireland, where his mother died when he was very young and his father indentured him to a farmer because he could not care for all the children in the family. One woman came feeling angry and bitter toward her mother who had died thirty years before. The mother had had seven children, some by the seven men to whom she had been married, and some by others. My student was the middle child who had assumed responsibility for raising the three youngest ones. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her mother and an older sibling and had been sexually abused by one of her stepfathers. In four years of writing, she developed a tolerant respect for the mother who had lost her own mother as a child, was raised by an unloving aunt who threw her out when she became pregnant at fifteen, and managed to keep her seven children together and enjoy life by using her wits. She also developed a healthy respect for her own strong character that had enabled her to create a stable, loving marriage and a good life with her husband and children as she continued to help her siblings.

Deep Listening, Loving Speech

Without offering the gift of deep listening and mindful speech to one another, our writing Sangha could not thrive. I tell my students to follow their writing wherever it goes and to censor nothing, but to share only what is comfortable for them. We offer a safe haven in which there is virtual freedom of expression.

A woman who had been the victim of incest by her older brother during her childhood, blamed him for her failed marriages. When she tried to talk to him about it, he either denied anything had occurred or blamed her for seducing him. She read us a letter she had written to him, describing how she had felt as a little girl who had lost the right to her own body. As she stifled a sob, the person next to her put an arm around her shoulder. Asked whether she would mail the letter, she said she would not; it was enough for her to have been able to talk about it to friends who could understand.

Mindful Consumption

My students are well aware of the need for mindful consumption and good health practices for themselves and the planet. The ailments of an aging population are not far from their consciousness and many are involved in regular exercise programs. The recovering substance abusers write about the effect of their addictions on their self-image, careers, and families, and take pride in their years of sobriety. Since most are parents and grandparents, they usually share a commitment to protect the environment, promote peace, and encourage intelligent radio and television programs for all ages.

I love the folks who take my classes; they are my writing family. It gives me great joy to watch shy individuals blossom, and to see a group of strangers become friends. What better basis is there for friendship and love than sharing one’s life story with others in a loving, nonjudgmental atmosphere?

When I wrote my former therapist to tell her that I had finally found my spiritual family, she informed me that she too sits with a Sangha affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh’s community. I was delighted, but not surprised.

mb40-Writing2Janice Rubin, of Oakland, New Jersey, sits with the Practice Community at Franklin Lakes. She is a teacher, writer, and author.

Writing Your Autobiography

Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh Good morning, dear friends. Today is August 5, 2005. We’re in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village on the last day of our summer session.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I would like to speak about reincarnation, rebirth, and continuation. If we look at an orange tree we can see that it makes an effort every day to have a long continuation. Every day the orange tree makes leaves, and in the spring it makes orange flowers, which become tiny oranges. In those oranges are seeds, and that is how the orange tree assures its continuation. The orange tree has to continue.

And we do, too. We are humans and it is a natural tendency to prepare ourselves to continue. So continuation, rebirth, reincarnation is normal. How do we continue ourselves? This question begins our meditation together. Every time you produce a thought, that thought is a continuation. That thought will have effects on us, on our body, our mind, and on the world. The effect of that thought is our continuation. Producing a thought is the cause; the effect is how that thought impacts us and the world.

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To think is an action. Because the thought may be very strong, it may be painful, it can modify our body, it can change our mind, it can change the world. So thought is a form of action.

In Buddhism we use the word karma. Karma is action, action as cause and action as fruit. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. The Chinese word for karmahetu contains the character for karma and a character that means “seed.” When we produce a thought, the production of the thought is a karmahetu, karma-cause. That thought will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that health, good or bad, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought. Karmaphala is the karma-fruit. So karma is action, action in the cause and action in the fruit.

Right Thinking

When we produce a thought, we have to ensure that the thought is a good thought, a right thought, because if it is, it will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world to heal itself. Our practice is to try to live in such a way that every day we produce only good thoughts, thoughts in the direction of right thinking. We have to train ourselves to do that. A bad thought can destroy the physical and moral health of ourselves and of the world. So we have to be careful to produce only good thoughts.

Right thinking is recommended to all of us by the Buddha. It’s action in the form of thought. Each time we produce a thought, that thought carries our signature. You cannot say, “No, I didn’t produce that thought.” That is karma. Karma-cause, karma-fruit. If it is a cause, it will lead to a fruit—the fruit will be bitter or the fruit will be sweet, depending on the nature of the karma.

Right Speech

First, we have to understand that thinking is action. When we say some thing, that speech will have an effect on our body, on our mind, and on the world. Good speech will give us joy and health — physical and moral health — and it will change the world in the direction of goodness. We should produce right speech, which inspires understanding, joy, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Your speech is the seed, it is the cause. And what it produces in you and in the world is the karmaphala, the karma-fruit. Action as cause and action as fruit.

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Sometimes action-fruit manifests immediately after the action-cause. Sometimes it takes months or years before it leads to a result, but sooner or later the cause must become the effect.

Right Action

The third kind of action is the physical act, the act carried out by the body. With the body you can do things. You can kill a person, you can kill an animal, you can kill a tree. You can save a person, you can save an animal, you can save a tree. The Buddha recommends right action because the action will have an effect on your physical and moral health as well as the world’s. We have to ensure that our actions are in the direction of right action.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher in the existential tradition. He said that man is the sum of his actions. When a child is born, he hasn’t acted yet, so he cannot be defined. But as the man begins to act, we can look at his actions and see the man. Man is defined by his acts. What Jean-Paul Sartre said is very close to Buddhism.

But Sartre’s declaration was not detailed enough, because we need to include thoughts. Our speech comes from what we are thinking; thinking is at the base of all speech and of all action. We may say that man is the sum of his thoughts, his words, and his acts. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre would agree, because in using the word “acts” he meant to include thinking and speech. Thinking as action, speech as action.

Thoughts, speech, and action create karma, and we produce this energy every moment of our daily life. You continue to say things, you continue to do things, and every thought, every word, every act of yours carries your signature. And that is your continuation. It is never lost.

The scientist Lavoisier, said, “Nothing is lost.” He’s a Buddhist, essentially. Nothing is created, nothing is lost. What you have produced as thoughts, as speech, as acts, continues to influence the world, and that is your continuation. Your continuation is your rebirth and your reincarnation. Nothing is lost. So you have to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

We want to continue in beauty. And we know that in order to continue in beauty we have to ensure that our thoughts are right thoughts, our speech is right speech, and our acts are right action. These are three branches of the Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.

Right View

What is right view? Right view is our way of understanding the world; it brings insight into the ultimate reality. We are so often the victims of wrong views, and based on wrong views we create suffering for ourselves and others. So we have to avoid wrong views, wrong perceptions. If we continue to suffer because of violence and terrorism, it is because we need right view. The terrorists have a wrong view of themselves and of others, and the anti-terrorists also have wrong views about themselves and about the terrorists. Based on wrong views, we keep killing each other, so we have to look more deeply to obtain right view. With right view we will be able to stop the violence and terrorism. Right view is the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action, and that is why the Buddha began with right view.

The Buddha describes right view in a precise, deep, and clear way. A right view reflects wisdom, the nature of existence.

Impermanence

For example, the Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, of phenomena, and other wise men have also spoken of this. For example, Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly changing. It is a fact that everything changes. Right view goes in tandem with the insight of impermanence. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have right view we don’t suffer, and we can create happiness.

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This is not just philosophy, it is life. For example, when you have difficulties with your partner, and you are about to argue with each other, the Buddha would say to you, “Dear friends, close your eyes. Imagine your beloved in three hundred years. What will she become?” When you can see what happens three hundred years from now, you see that it’s not wise to argue, because life is impermanent. If you can touch impermanence, when you open your eyes you will no longer be angry. You’re saved, because of the insight of impermanence.

Intellectually, maybe you agree that things are impermanent, but in your practical life, you act as if things are permanent. The Buddha does not speak of impermanence as a philosophy, but as a practice. We should practice concentration on impermanence. For example, all day, when you look, when you listen to something, you should get in touch with the insight on impermanence.

Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. So the insight on impermanence stays with us all the time, and that is why it is not a theory, but a concentration. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence.

With mindfulness we can keep the insight on impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech. So right view is the view that contains the nature of impermanence.

Non-self

We imagine that every person has a separate soul that remains the same forever, even as the body ages and decomposes. This is a wrong view, because it goes against the truth of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. So if we accept the reality of impermanence, we have to also accept the truth of non-self.

Impermanence is seen from the perspective of time. The same thing viewed from the perspective of space is non-self. Non-self and impermanence are the same thing.

When the son sees the father as a different person, as someone who has caused a lot of suffering and difficulty for him, he wants to punish his father with his words and actions. He doesn’t know that to make his dad suffer is to make himself suffer at the same time. You need to understand that you and your dad share the same reality. You are the continuation of your dad. If your dad suffers, you will also suffer, and if you can help your dad not to suffer, then your happiness will be possible. With the insight of non-self we can avoid many mistakes, because non-self translates into right view.

Terrorists and anti-terrorists think of themselves as two different entities. The anti-terrorist says, “We must punish the terrorist, we have to eliminate him.” And the terrorist also thinks that the other person is the cause of the suffering in the world, and in order to survive, he has to be eliminated. They don’t know that they are the same.

All the parties in a conflict have to understand the insight of non-self. If the other side continues to suffer, if there’s no safety, peace, or understanding on the other side, there won’t be safety, peace, or understanding on our side. When both sides realize that they inter-are, when they touch the nature of non-self, then there will be right view. With right view we will think, speak, and act in the right way, and then safety can become a reality. Right view is a view of reality that translates into impermanence, non-self, and interbeing.

Interbeing

When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we see the clouds and the rain in the flower. And we can touch the sun, without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so we cannot take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.

The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and non-self are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily life we can touch the truth of interbeing, of non-self in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, the nature of interbeing, of non-self, of interdependence. If you can touch reality like that, you will have right view. And when you have right view, all your thoughts will be right, all your words will be right, and all your actions will be right.

This is why cultivating right view is the basis of the practice of Buddhism. And we can practice as an individual, as a community, as a city, as a nation. If we are shut in the prison of permanence, of self, we cannot obtain right view. In order to cultivate right view, we have to have concentration. We have plenty of intelligence to understand the notions of impermanence and non-self but the notions do not help us. That’s why we have to train ourselves to see things in their true nature. We have to keep this insight alive in every moment. That is why concentration is very important.

Right Concentration

The Sanskrit word for right concentration is samadhi. The notions of impermanence and non-self are useful, but they are not powerful enough to liberate you, to give you a right view. So you have to have concentration. Samadhi prajna is right view, insight, which is at the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action. But to cultivate prajna we have to practice concentration. We have to live in concentration, to touch deeply into things in every moment. We live deeply when we can see the nature of impermanence, of non-self, and of interbeing in the flower, and we can do this thanks to the practice of concentration. Without samadhi there is no prajna, there is no insight. So concentration is a door that opens onto the ultimate reality. It gives us right view.

Right Mindfulness

But before we can have concentration, we have to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is smrti.

Mindfulness is the energy that can help us bring the mind back to the body so that we can establish ourselves in the present moment. In that way we can look at the blue sky. We can look at the clouds. We can look at the child who is sitting in front of us. And we touch deeply the wonders of life. That’s mindfulness.

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Mindfulness is the capacity of recognizing what is happening in the present moment. When pain manifests, we will be able to embrace that pain, in order to transform it. With strong mindfulness, we can realize the Kingdom of God is available, and the joy of living is possible.

Andre Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. And he said, “God is available twenty-four hours a day.” I also agree with him on that. If God is available twenty-four hours a day, then His kingdom is also available. The only question is whether we are available for the Kingdom of God, available for happiness. Mindfulness makes us available to the Kingdom of God, to the wonders of life that are here, in the present moment. I know there are many Buddhists in France, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Gide, and the scientist Lavoisier.

Mindfulness is what we practice in Plum Village. We walk in such a way that every step produces mindfulness. When we breathe, when we wash our hands, when we cook, we do all that in mindfulness. Generating the energy of mindfulness is the basic practice because mindfulness is the carrier, the bringer of concentration.

When you are mindful of something, you are concentrated. The energy of concentration is in the mindfulness. As you continue, that concentration will become stronger and stronger. With vigorous concentration you can make a breakthrough into reality, and then you can touch impermanence as a reality. You can touch interbeing, non-self.

The Buddha began with right view, but I would like to begin with mindfulness.

Right Livelihood

Then we have right livelihood, our work, our job. The Five Mindfulness Trainings instruct us to choose a livelihood that will help us produce right thoughts, right words, and right actions. Unfortunately, there are kinds of work that harm us, that harm the environment, that bring violence. We have to look with mindfulness, to see what kind of work to have, so that we will be able to practice right thinking, right speech, and right action in our work.

Schoolteachers can practice in such a way that their thoughts, their words, and their actions nourish their students every moment of the day. The children in their class may have a lot of suffering. Perhaps their parents have not offered them enough of the appropriate kinds of food. They have not had the chance to receive right thinking, right speech, and right actions, and they’ve been wounded.

As a teacher, you look at the child and you see the suffering. And you know with right thinking, right speech, and right action you will be able to heal the child’s wounds. You have the ability to give that child a second chance by playing the role of the dad, the mom, for the child. The class can become a family. If you’re a doctor or a therapist, you can do the same thing. If you have understanding and compassion, you have a lot of power because when people come to you, your right thoughts will help heal people. You can help them because you have healed yourself by developing the energy of understanding and compassion.

The Buddha spoke of right livelihood, not only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Right livelihood helps you produce right thinking and right speech. We need to take the time to look at our work, to see whether it supports us in producing right thinking and right speech every day.

Good thoughts always go with understanding and love. An occupation that causes you to produce thoughts of anger and of discrimination is not good for your health or for the health of the world. You may have to accept another form of work with a lower salary that will give you the chance to generate good thoughts and good speech. It’s possible to live in a healthier, happier way. If you have right view, you will have enough courage to stop the course of violence and of attachment. So right livelihood is very important, and we can define this in terms of right thinking, right speech, and right action.

Right Effort

The eighth is right diligence, right effort. The Buddha taught how to cultivate and take care of our energy, and he also taught how to practice conserving energy. In Buddhist psychology, we see our consciousness as having two layers. The lower layer is called the store. It’s always operating, even in our sleep. The store receives information and classifies it, and it makes a lot of decisions without the intervention of the mind consciousness, which is the upper layer.

When you drive a car you think it’s the mind consciousness that is driving, but actually a large part of the work is done by the store, without our conscious thinking. When you do your everyday work, the store plays an important role.

When the store operates, it takes less metabolic energy than the mind does. The mind consciousness takes a lot more sugar, glycogen, and protein to work. At the level of the store things are done very quickly and inexpensively, so most things are handled by the store and the mind consciousness does just the final part. In the store many seeds are buried, good seeds and bad seeds. The seed of anger is there. The seed of despair is there. The seed of meanness, the seed of compassion, are there. The seed of joy is there. So to cultivate right effort the Buddha proposed four practices.

Four Practices for Cultivating Right Effort

The first practice is, don’t water the bad seeds. You know that there are negative seeds in you, and if they manifest, you will suffer. So let them sleep peacefully. When you watch a film, when you read a newspaper, when you listen to music, there is a chance that a seed will be watered and will manifest. We have to consume in mindfulness so that the bad seeds are not watered. When we love each other we have to sign a peace treaty. “Darling, I promise never to water the bad seeds in you or in me, and you have to do the same. You have those seeds. You must not water them in you, and don’t water them in me.”

The second practice is that every time a bad mental formation manifests, we have to make it go back to sleep, because if we keep it here too long, then it strengthens down in the base. If we leave it up in the mind for an hour, then that seed has an hour of strengthening. It’s dangerous.

The third practice is to allow the good seeds to be watered so they have a chance to manifest in the mind. For example, a Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the good seeds in you. When they manifest in the mind consciousness, the landscape will be much more beautiful.

The fourth practice is when the good seed has already manifested, we help it to stay in the mind consciousness as long as possible. Like when you have a friend who comes to visit bringing good news, you try to keep that friend with you as long as possible.

That is the teaching of the Buddha on right effort, diligence, and conserving energy. It’s very concrete and practical and is done in a natural, relaxed way. We don’t need to fight or struggle; we don’t have to make exhausting efforts. Naturally and with a lot of pleasure, we can enjoy the practice.

These are the eight right practices representing the Noble Eightfold Path proposed by the Buddha to all of us. If a teaching can reveal the Noble Path, it is an authentic teaching of the Buddha.

The Right View of Reincarnation

Continuation is happening now, because every day you continue to produce thoughts, words, and actions that carry your signature. We don’t have to wait until this body decomposes to continue.

Most people think of reincarnation in terms of a permanent soul. This is popular Buddhism. But we have to rise to the level of right view. Continuation is a necessity, it is a truth. But this continuation must be seen in the light of non-self, of impermanence.

If, for example, you want to recognize my continuation, do not look in this direction. [Thay points to himself.] There is a part of my continuation in this direction, but when you look all around you, you will see other forms of the continuation. So don’t wait for the body to decompose. We’ve already begun our continuation. You know that you have the power to change. You can ensure a beautiful continuation. Let’s suppose that yesterday you produced a thought that was not worthy of you, and today you’re sorry. You think, “I don’t want to be continued in that way.” You can correct it, you can transform that continuation.

If you have touched right view, you will be able to produce a different thought, a thought that is worthy of you today, a thought that carries within it understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. The moment you produce this wonderful thought, it will go out and catch the other thought that you produced yesterday. And in the space of half a second it will be able to transform that thought.

So you have the chance to correct the past; this is wonderful. We say that the past is already gone, but the past is always returning with its new manifestations, and with those manifestations we can correct it.

If you have said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. Do something different today based on right view and transform the whole situation. That is possible.

If you have a Sangha that supports you, if you are supported by the collective right view, then it’s very easy to produce such thoughts, such words, such actions, to transform everything right now, today, to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

The teaching of the Buddha is very deep, and at the same time very practical. This teaching has the capacity to heal us, to transform our pain, our fear. It’s good to have enough time to learn more about these teachings and put them into practice in our daily life.

Translated from the French by Sr. Pine Tree. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey and Janelle Combelic.

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.

In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.

In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.

But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.

If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.

I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.

A Logical Proposition

I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.

I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.

Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.

I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.

If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.

It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.

The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.

Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.

The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.

The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

The Power of Right Thinking

We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.

In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.

“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.

If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.

The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.

The Territories of the Mind

A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.

But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.

When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.

But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.

To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.

In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.

Being on Automatic Pilot

We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.

Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.

Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.

You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”

You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.

There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.

Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.

The Way Out of Depression

We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.

When you come to a house and you want to meet someone in the house, you ask, “Is anyone home?” And if someone said, “Yes,” then you’d be happy. You don’t want to go to a house where there is no one.

Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.

If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.

The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.

A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.

The Key to the Door of Happiness

In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.

When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.

There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

A New Year’s Resolution

Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”

The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.

If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.

At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”

And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.

What Is Right View?

Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.

So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.

What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.

The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.

Tasting the Wonders of Life

There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.

While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.

While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.

The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.

Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.

Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.

As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.

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Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.

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Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly Doing nothing Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.

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