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Choice and Dignity

By Heidi Larsen

As Buddhism enters American culture, it sometimes seems self-centered and commercial. Teachings flow into practice centers, but nothing flows out. Only those of a certain income level can afford the books, tapes, retreats, and time to become "enlightened." It's refreshing, therefore, to read Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings that speak of giving and receiving; of working out individual peace while interbeing as a community member; of accepting the prostitute and the Wall Street investor, anger as well as love.

I am one of the poorer people who comes from the streets-with all the violence and exploitation that goes with it. People like me need to start at the beginning, learning to breathe, to walk, to accept ourselves unconditionally into the dignity of being that belongs to everything. Simple things like awareness of the body and emotions in the present moment are huge tasks for us, because so many traumatic memories are locked in the body and psyche. It can seem impossible. But, it just takes a lot of gentle acceptance, trust, respect, and a very long time-often a lifetime.

Many poor people have always been tossed around by outside forces. They have not experienced a sense of control over their own lives. Gaining a sense of control may be difficult for poorer people, because it also requires an end to a victim mentality and an acceptance of self-responsibility. Accepting responsibility for self means to accept all the pain, fear, and anger that are part of self.

How can a poor person feel control over their lives in the midst of hunger, violence, and rape? A sense of control means recognizing and accepting one's power of choice the basis of a sense of dignity. It is amazing how determined people find ways to exercise choice. I remember some hungry and homeless in a soup kitchen where I worked, declaring that they "never ate peas" or insisting that they had to re-wash a spoon which was not quite clean enough.

Everyone has the power of choice over their very core their breath, how they react to events, their patterns of thought. Isn't it strange that if you choose to fast, it is fairly peaceful, but if deprived of food by outside forces, you are filled with turmoil and fear? The events are the samebeing hungry-but the perception is different. Exercising conscious choice assures a measure of dignity.

The lower working-class and people of the street need Buddhism's lessons of conscious choice, dignity of being, and self-responsibility. Sangha members who can "afford enlightenment" should ask: "How can we make the Sangha and the teachings known and more approachable for people of less means?" Asking these questions is the practice of interbeing.

Heidi Larsen is an intern working with homeless children in Olympia, Washington.

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Coming Together to Realize Our True Home

By Karl and Helga Riedl

Sangha is some times defined as "the community that lives in harmony and awareness." Community is one important aspect of a Sangha. Sangha can be a beautiful way to live with like-minded people, to share our responsibilities, happiness, and pains with friends in the Dharma. A Sangha supports our endeavor to live in awareness. We feel at home. We are nourished, and given the space and help to heal our wounds and transform our suffering.

But when we look deeper into Sangha, when we are living in it for a longer time, we realize that the real aim of a Sangha is much more. It is the process-at times, quite demanding and challenging-of transforming our whole being. What looks like a lifestyle is actually the expression of a spiritual life. True Sangha offers an environment for spiritual growth-relaxed and gentle, but deep and thorough!

To build such a Sangha-and not just a community one needs to understand which "building blocks" are needed, look deeply into the ways a Sangha works, and be very aware which motivations the members ought to have. Out of our experience of living in the Plum Village Sangha for six years, we would like to share what we have found to be the main principles of a residential Sangha.

Commitment

True commitment reflects our deep aspiration to walk on the path of transformation and liberation, and to question the life we have led-with all our ideas, concepts, and desires- and the ways we secure our ego through wealth, fame, knowledge, and position. It is the heartfelt desire to submit ourselves to a life where "being" is more important than "having," where the loneliness of egoism and its restrictive ways of seeing and experiencing are opened up to others and to life as it presents itself. Commitment is the joyful willingness to let go of our concepts, to expose ourselves in the process of dissolving our existential ignorance and coming back to our true home.

Commitment means to being involved, not holding back anything. This is often seen as "giving up oneself' and accompanied with hesitation and fear. So it is safer, more familiar to us, to be a participant only, to basically keep our concepts and ideas and just add to that whatever feels "good" to us. Living in a Sangha is then seen as an opportunity to acquire new knowledge, to receive a training, and solve some personal psychological problems. We need to be aware of this pseudo-commitment.

Surrender

To let the process of transformation happen, we need to "surrender to the Sangha," as Thay has often emphasized. This is to surrender to the practice-wholeheartedly, with all our conviction and joy-and to surrender to the activities of the Sangha. Surrender is easily misunderstood as obeying or letting other people run our life. It is amazing to watch the Hydra of the ego come up at every possible occasion! Angels turn into rebels. "I do it my way!" "I need ... " Soon the first enthusiasm fades and we are looking for every possibility to take a leave from the practice. Even minor details and changes on the schedule evoke angry discussion. Surrender is the spiritual practice of setting aside our ideas and goals, and opening to new experiences, to all aspects of life, to the unknown-without opposing them. Its religious form is the prostration: bowing down, opening our hands, not holding back anything.

Serving

Another expression of surrender is serving the Sangha. Serving means doing what needs to be done- setting aside likes and dislikes, me and you. To serve is to overcome our habitual attitudes towards work and responsibilities and develop our concern, care, and love for others.

Serving happens when our initial idea "I am living in a Sangha" has changed into "I am living for the Sangha." But even then, there might be some selfish motivation; some personal hidden agendas may be the driving force for our actions. Serving then is misunderstood as taking on responsibilities.

Some people feel that they alone are able to do certain things, that they must take up the burden of a specific task or even of the whole community. In due time, they get burned-out and bitter. To rely on the Sangha, to step down from self-importance and accept one's own limits does not come easily for "the doer." When serving is misunderstood as assisting the Sangha with our skills, knowledge, and energy, then positions become fixed, and members of the community are judged by their "usefulness." True serving is to experience the reality of interbeing. Everybody actually supports everybody; there is neither dependence nor independence. It is then that we realize, "I am the Sangha."

Acceptance and Harmony

Another aspect of building a true Sangha is the willingness, even the heartfelt longing, to live in harmony with others. By cultivating our abilities to accept each other just as we are, we break through our spontaneous likes and dislikes, judgments and categorizing. We create an atmosphere of trust. Supported by the practice of deep listening and sharing, we develop a spirit of openness, where understanding grows into loving acceptance.

In our Western societies, where competition, jealousy, mistrust, and separateness prevail, their opposites-trust, acceptance, openness, and love-are deeply longed for, but it can be difficult to open to them. So it is easier to create a "pseudo-harmony"-where we are just "nice" to each other, where everybody seems to accept and love everybody-by not coming too close to each other, not touching anything that could disturb the peace and by closing off to those who do not "fit."

Humility and Respect

To greet the Buddha in each other is possible only when we have dissolved separateness and tackled the threefold complex of comparing ourselves with others-"I am better-equal-lower." Only then do we glimpse true humility-not putting ourselves down, but gracefully accepting that we need not be "somebody" or extraordinary. Ordinary is sufficient! We need not hold onto an image of ourselves or be caught in social status. If we give a Dharma talk, we sit on a platform, and if a driver is needed, we carry the luggage of a guest.

Now, from the depth of our being, we can show respect to ourselves and others. This respect is the foundation of a peaceful life. But, respect is not imposed on us as social hierarchy. We do not pay respect to a social position, but to a human being. We learn from others, follow their example, and listen to their advice, because we deeply honor and respect their having matured on the path. We accept others as "elders."

Again, in a society where competition and mistrust prevail, where everybody makes sure that nobody is  "higher," even respect and trust are suspect. The "elder principle"-found in almost all spiritual traditions and at the core, a "maturity principle"-is rejected without any consideration. And that is an obstacle for building a spiritual community-a Sangha. Either a "pseudo-community" is created and maintained, or power games and "boss-hierarchy" consume all energy. Especially in Western societies we need to look deeply into this situation, and with the help of the Sangha, find ways to restore respect and based on that respect-the "elder-maturity-principle."

Each of these principles is in itself a door for entering the Sangha. As all these principles are interrelated, if one is practiced deeply, the others are strengthened. But if a Sangha member has a problem or a misunderstanding in  even one area, the whole process of spiritual growth for the person-and to some extent for the whole Sangha-is disturbed, maybe even blocked. So it is important to be very clear about the working of a Sangha, to avoid disappointments and suffering and to build a harmonious and happy Sangha.

Dharma teachers Karl and Helga Riedl, True Communion and True Loving Kindness, recently moved to the newly established Intersein Zentrum in Germany. Please don't hesitate to contact them. Please write to receive an Intersein Zentrum schedule. Intersein Zentrum fur Leben in Achtsamkeit, Haus Maitreya, Unterkashof 2 1/3, 94545 Hohenau, Germany. They are very happy to share their experiences and insight.

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International Intervention and a Peoples' Peace Conference

Proposals Offered by Thich Nhat HanhNovember 2001

An International Peacekeeping Force

I would like to know your reaction and what the reaction of the people in the Middle East would be to the idea of the international community taking over the problem as an international problem.

The situation is comparable to that in a house where two brothers are fighting with each other and causing a lot of damage. A fire breaks out and the water pipes are broken and so there is a big risk. The family comes and some members hold one brother back to stop the fighting. Other family members try to put out the fire, fix the water pipes, and so on.

That is the idea. The international community takes over and the security council can  propose that UN peacekeeping forces be sent to the area to prevent further violence and to allow the peace process to become a reality.

There are many things we can do. Countries from all over the world, especially those that can afford it, can send peacekeeping forces over there as members of the UN. And at the same time, both sides can try to refrain from taking further action. The UN peacekeeping forces can take over the role of peacekeeper and prevent further violence. And others can try to do things to extinguish the fire and to repair the water pipes. Reporters sent by the UN can come and report on the real situation so that it becomes a process of education for the whole world. We have allowed the situation to get worse and worse because we do not understand. We should be corrected in our understanding. If there is hunger, dying and sickness, that should be reported, and the world will have to respond.

Such a situation would give us the chance to create moments of peace and happiness in our daily lives. Individuals and families need that. We all need peace and happiness in order to nourish ourselves, in order for us to be able to go further.

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The international peacekeeping forces would have the role of a temporary peacekeeper. They would help to promote a process of mass education in the world, a process of getting out true information to educate the world and to find the real roots of the suffering. The whole international community, not just a few nations like the U.S.A. or the U.K., would have to take responsibility for the area. But, we cannot rely solely on the peacekeeping forces sent over because their role would only be for a temporary period of time. We also need to continue looking deeply to develop long lasting paths of peace and co-existence for the peoples involved.

Will the reaction be favorable to this kind of proposal?

Reactions of people from the group:

"Many Jews are afraid of and don't trust others. I am named after a relative who died in the holocaust. I grew up with neighbors and friends who lost relatives in the holocaust. I grew up with the education that we, the Jews, were persecuted for two thousand years. After two thousand years the Jews feel that they cannot trust anyone. There is a strong resistance to intervention from the outside. There is suspicion towards whoever is not Jewish. There is fear of anti-Semitism, of evil intentions. I don't know how to take care of it but it creates difficulty with agreeing to an intervention from the outside."

"I remember the experience of the intervention of the UN in Lebanon. Many times they did not prevent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Lebanon. For example, there was a case in which three soldiers were kidnapped by the chizbala. The UN had a videotape of them, proving the identity of the soldiers. The UN refused to give the videotape to the families of the soldiers. It caused great difficulty to the families who couldn't prove that their sons were dead, even though they got the information that they were dead. I feel that it is not fair. I feel that the UN does not use their force in a just way. "

"There is de-humanization and pain inflicted on both sides. Still there are people who have lost their dear ones but wish for peace and not revenge so that others would not have to go through the same suffering. I live in Neve Shalom, which is a mixed community of Palestinians and Jews. I feel that we can live in harmony with each other, in co-existence, and I feel pain about the idea of dividing the land. We can live together as equal people in the same state. I think that through dialogue we can answer the needs, fears and distrust of both sides. In Neve Shalom there is a mixed school in which both Arabic and Hebrew are taught. We try to accept and respect each other and not to change each other. When the children play they never make a division between Arabs and Jews. They play as friends. This, for me, is a light for the future. I believe that we have to accept that there is no military solution to this conflict. Using force is not the way. Our leaders should know that. Education is very important, education to learn that we can live together, education to accept the other."

A Peoples' Peace Conference

Before you go home I would like to share something that you might like to consider in the near future, a "Peoples' Peace Conference." You could come together as people and organize a peace conference where you can offer your insights, solutions and proposals. This would be a process of education within the country as well as for the outside world. The participating people would act as people and not as governments. And they would come having already cultivated some peace and compassion inside of themselves. There are two aspects to peace - making peace and being peace. In order to make peace you must also be peace.

We can organize a peace conference where we bring a number of people together to practice breathing, calming, smiling and embracing our despair and anger. After several days we can begin to sit down, to smile at each other, to share our suffering and so on. That is the process of practicing peace. We can organize a rehearsal peace conference in Plum Village.

As the peace inside us grows, we will grow, and we can organize a second similar conference. As we make more progress, we can invite people who are more official representatives than we are. We can try it several times in several places, and finally we can hold it in a place where the whole world can see. We can call it a "Peoples' Peace Conference." By that time supporters of peace all over the world will try their best to draw the attention of the world to the event. And we can invite reporters and the mass media to cover this work.

I think that in this process of practice we cannot expect a miracle. We have to go step by step towards real peace. That is the most realistic way, we should not be too dreamy. We cannot rely on our leaders because they have not been educated in peace; they are not accustomed to making peace, talking peace or listening deeply. We have to take the situation into our own hands, the hands of the people. This is very much the Plum Village way.

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Sacred Clowning

An Interview with Didier Danthois By Barbara Casey during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village in June 2002

Barbara: Didier, how did you create and develop the idea of sacred clowning?

Didier: For me the “sacred” added to clowning is a way to celebrate the eternal quality of our human nature, and ultimately, to share that eternal aspect through the art of clowning.

Barbara: How does the sacred part express itself in the clowning?

Didier: It connects with the clowning because of the way we prepare, the way we tune into ourselves, where we come from with our clown. This work is not about acting. It is about coming home to the present moment. We are interested in touching the quality of this moment. For example, how you feel, how you are, just now, as you are sitting, touching the floor, a cushion next to you. What is around you, and between us as we speak? All those nuances of experience are moving through us in this moment; maybe the shyness

I feel as I speak with you, or my joy. To honor all those qualities as a shared reality, as a ground to inspire us into creativity. An authentic improvisation is born, just from being present, open, receptive; not from an act. You are here, I’m here, and I feel that, and from there, a dance can start to happen. Sacredness to me is connected to honoring that essence of coming home to ourselves and each other.

Doing nothing is the main point for me when I work with people. Sometimes I have people who have had years of drama training and I ask them to do nothing and it is very hard for them. To be on the stage and just be, with your heart open. Do nothing, just feel. Unless we can do that, we cannot touch the truth about our relationships, our true connection to space, to the universe. All performances or work we do with patients in health care settings is based on that attitude. Trusting, being in the now, listening, letting ourselves be touched, rather than coming with an idea to fill up the gap when nothing appears to be happening. True creativity can only come from silence, from not knowing.

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Barbara: So when you offer this, what is your hope? That people come into this space with you?

Didier: I would say I wish to meet people. I don’t hope that they meet me, because hope is an attitude which provokes certain reactions. We create an open space where we just intend to meet the other. And that means we might be rejected. If we meet our fears as they are, and don’t try to change the outside situation, or want something different, then there is the potential for transformation. In that attitude, we come to essence, by simply not expecting things to be a certain way, and engaging from a true emotional response to what is there.

And then, of course, we use our skills in movement to magnify what we feel. So we develop dance, we develop mime. We enter imagination and play mindfully. In mime, the essential point is to come to the essence, to the heart of a movement. We can come to essence through feeling, through being here now. So it’s another way to look, and that has been a great key in the way we work as sacred clowns.

This way of working came to me ten years ago, after working extensively with people with special needs. For eight years I worked with blind performers on stage, with people who had Downs syndrome and learning difficulties, people who are often considered to be unable to do anything. I worked with one completely blind lady, and in the show we had to cross the stage running. She saw nothing, and her hand was resting on my hand, and the weight of her hand was like a leaf. She had total trust. At one point we had to jump together, leaping across the stage. We could have run into the wall! I’ve really learned about trust from those students. They taught me so much. Working with them, putting performances together, rediscovering the true meaning of being present, not expecting something. They taught me how in putting the performance together, they were not bothered about the end product. I was, they were not! I went through a lot and over the years they showed me that actually each step is a gem, nothing is separate. Everything is part of the beauty unfolding.

I remember there was a beautiful man, about twenty years old, in a group of people with Downs syndrome. One day he shared a dream. And I took the whole group into creating the reality for his dream. The power of his dream was a teaching and a mystery, so we entered it. All the participants in the workshop created a magic story out of this dream. It was so moving. I was nearly crying by the end of it, it was pure, there was no ego. I did my best to have enough openness not to try to modify but to follow and serve that dream, to open and let go. These people took me back to what celebrates life and the eternal aspect of love and nature.

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So how can we bring that quality to the population of supposedly “normal” people, like you and me? And that is where I look for the answers. What was the essence of that experience? Innocence, potency of feeling, presence, authenticity, very little thinking, and joy and fun. A lot of this attitude was coming from play. How can we resurrect play? How can we be in the present, how can we be in touch with our feelings? Then one day I discovered a man called Lex Van Someren who was teaching something called ‘The Dancing Clown.’ So I started training, and soon I was very involved in the humor of the clown and the ability to play with everything that creates it, which is your sadness, your joy, your depression, your wanting to hide behind the corner. All those qualities are not to be separated. The clown is about restoring the full picture. It is expressing opposite energies. One of the names for the clown in the North American Indian tradition is “contrary.” He has the ability to touch on what is not expressed, on the repressed, to bring back to life, to mirror to the society what has been forgotten.

Barbara: It’s like the court jester.

Didier: Yes. It is the same. The clown is to bring back what is left behind.

Barbara: Big job!

Didier: That’s a big job. So the courses we do, we reawaken that ability to get in touch with the present moment. Working with inner listening, rather than outer, and watching the breath, feeling the breath through the whole body.  And I apply that literally to movement. If you want to expand your mind right to your fingertips or your toes, you can do that. And then we get in touch with beauty. Your movement becomes magic because you are opening your consciousness to touch the air, to tickle the air, with your fingertips, or your toes. Then wonder is there and also innocence. We are touching innocence, which means spontaneous, unprepared actions. Those movements are the result of inner listening, of bringing back the sense to their inner source.

Barbara: When you go to a hospital, when you enter that space, how do you help to create safety for those people? How do you connect? Do you begin to express what you feel in the room? I always had a fear of clowns because there is a spontaneity there and a call for interaction, but I didn’t feel safe because I didn’t know what their motive, their agenda was. How do you create safety?

Didier: Another aspect which we train to develop as part of mindfulness is compassion, to really feel the other as much as yourself, and to move into action in response to the other with care. We learn to sensitize that muscle by practicing compassion. Breathing in, dissolving your own resistance, your own blocks, your own fears. And breathing out, offering care to the other. We practice that for each other as a team of clowns, and then for the patients or audience. We practice this weeks in advance as part of daily warm-up, which means the clowns, the artists, already feel relieved of a lot of fear and feel more creativity, more ease, more love. Something has been prepared on the invisible level. We include the staff, the patients, the whole surrounding in our preparations.

I feel this is a very important part of the way we work. And many people feel quite inspired by this way of working because it brings more understanding, more openness from the people we share with, whether it’s a hospital, or a street improvisation.

It touches people. And we are able to share some of the values we’ve forgotten in our society, like silence, stillness, expressing true feelings. Being in places where normally nobody stops. We use simple things of nature to share our experience. We smell a flower, then offer it to someone. This art is about stopping in order to experience the here and now. Sometimes we go into slow motion. A group of five, six clowns in slow motion, walking next to each other. Traveling, but not going anywhere. Enjoying being the Fool, being aimless. This is what I call “Fool at Heart”, the Fool who expresses a response from his heart, or her heart.

Barbara: Tell me about how you work in teams.

Didier: We work in groups with street improvisation and in parks. A landscape of clowns comes together, relating to the space, celebrating nature. This summer we are having a gathering of about thirty clowns. We are working with a group of children in Germany, and are going to create a magical journey of clowns through a garden. So we will lead the children into different mime-clown scenes, really connecting to nature. That’s one example of what we do together.

Another aspect of the work is stage performance. Every year we have a retreat in Scotland, and we offer a performance in a Tibetan monastery there. We offer a whole week of training at the end of the retreat and we also have a performance with the monastics. It’s so beautiful!

We also have a more committed aspect of clown training for the work we do in hospitals. It requires being very grounded in meditation, and true motivation to want to share something from your heart. The nurses are often over-worked and very stressed. You come as a clown, with your joy, playing music, and maybe invite a patient to sing, or play, opening the joy muscle. I have worked with groups of nurses, and through that I have realized how much compassion they have, but so often, they didn’t have enough support to help them integrate challenging experiences. After nursing a dying patient, they might have to rush immediately to the next one. No space, no sharing time, never.  So slowly, something tightens in their heart. But of course, their compassion is still there, underneath all the stress. As a result, the nurses might sometimes feel annoyed with the clowns, or at other times relieved to see them.

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Barbara: How do you deal with that?

Didier: I’m a true Westerner, very independent, and I have a lot to learn about being part of an organism. That’s why I’m here in this retreat, and I have a lot of pain to clear. My family and my background never gave me a positive experience of being part of a group. And now I realize the next step for this work has to be in a Sangha, so we can be supported in our values. The teaching of this three-week retreat is just like pouring honey into my brain and my heart, and I’m clearing up so much pain of never having lived in a true family. Here we have a true family. Thay inspires me so much about Sangha building, and how we can celebrate the sacred, the true values of human life. But as soon as we touch those wonderful golden aspects of life, we release a whole cloud of suffering that’s been there for years and years, so we are still very much beginners on the path. How can we hold the sacred view in a society that is not seeing it? That is the challenge. That is why I am here.

Barbara: How many clowns do you work with?

Didier: There are eighteen trained clowns. Clown Care & Co. is composed of two groups in England, (in London and Bristol), and there are other Sacred Clown groups emerging in Holland, and Germany, (in Munich and Frankfurt).

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Barbara: Didier, can you give me a specific example of seeing someone transformed or touched when you were clowning?

Didier: We’ve been working with the elderly in a Jewish center, with people between 65 and 100 years of age. It’s a big place, 300 residents, and we’ve been working with teams of clowns and it has been quite beautiful. The residents often say they are bored, watching TV all the time. Some are depressed, waiting for death not having much hope for anything else. Discretely we find a way, maybe over two weeks, to turn off the television. Then three, or four, of us may just mime how we see the residents we are visiting. I might sit there and wait a bit, copying their posture, just being there, breathing, making some eye contact, Not expecting anything in particular – the whole work of clown care is not to expect, but to trust, and doing nothing is doing everything, just being there. And then we can just make a little movement, and very soon there’s a kind of mirroring happening. They start to move, I will start to move slowly, and I start to play some music, singing an old Jewish song they have known in their childhood. We hum the melody, and they start to sing the words.  And as they sing the words, some joy comes into their body, and we encourage a little movement, just connecting to their neighbor, letting go of their feelings of isolation. So it builds up slowly from things that are meaningful to them.

We’ve had many who started to sing with us so loudly and full of energy. We might have two clowns who start to dance in the middle, softly, to the music. If someone is totally withdrawn, which can happen particularly with dementia, we might just start copying them, or for example touch their hand, to bring back the mind into the body. We have to feel how far we can go without disturbing their sense of security. So that’s how we work, we invite slowly, and we engage, in a very careful way, with music, mime, mirroring their feelings, in a true way until we open the door for a possible exchange.

Our mind/heart is a mirror. As you become a mirror, you are remembering yourself, especially when you are old and a bit lost in your mind. Here you are, and you’re fine as you are. And this true meeting is a stepping stone for playing creatively. Then we can start to relate to the invisible, as we touch empty space, letting an expansion arise from the meeting. It’s to expand our mind to a possibility that there is something more than you and me here. This is also the role of the clown. We are entering the invisible. As we enter this realm, something happens in the feeling, in the mind, and it has surprising qualities, it can transform. We start to relate to the invisible.

Barbara: That really helps me understand how you work and how the human process happens, the gift of being together, and the gift of presence. Didier, is there anything that you could offer to the rest of us, of how we could bring this sense of play into our lives, in our interactions with others?

Didier: What touches me so much is looking at beauty. What is beauty? And where does beauty come from? If you move and there’s beauty in your movement, anybody can be touched. Beauty is simply bringing the breath into the movement, and letting ourselves be touched. We often say we have to do something to express ourselves, but actually, to have an attitude of listening and letting ourselves be touched by what is, that is real beauty. The air as you move, the floor under your feet, all those things are the ground for beauty, a kind of beauty that gives joy, and costs nothing. What is art? Art is being simple. Like William Blake says;

To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour.

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It is there. And if we can just really enjoy a flower, or a little shadow on the floor, or some dust in the air, you can enter it. We are very free already when we bring our minds to the smallest things. Developing mindfulness into an art form is the most wonderful gift. The clown is a master at coming back to being

truly human, embracing the sadness and the joy, so they unite and become one. This is the full spectrum, the full rainbow, sadness and joy, there is a quality of reverence in that experience, and it also becomes a potential for play. It is very simple. It is the practice of coming home, being touched and touching. In my performances I don’t work with things completely set, there are just little landmarks, and between them I connect with the audience. The audience is creating the performance with me. We are engaging and sharing a creative moment together, and it’s a mystery. And if we can hold that mystery, then we have true magic. The interaction of opening the space and holding it together, the not-knowing, is really a beautiful interconnection.

Barbara: I’ve been touched, by you allowing yourself to be touched.

Didier: Yes! Right. To not know, and hold it there. You know, hold it right now, just here — I don’t know what I am going to tell you, I’ve lost the track of it.

Barbara: [laughs]

Didier: Just enjoy it!

Barbara: Right!

Didier: You know, if I can just enjoy it, it’s okay.

Barbara: Right, right. It’s interesting how much discomfort there is, in that moment, for most of us.

Didier: Exactly. In that moment, I’ve lost the track. I can panic. Or I can enjoy it. Then we stay together and just trust each other. If you are on stage, with an audience before you, and you fill up the gap, then at that moment you are truly lost. If you are lost, you have also lost your audience. You have lost the inter-dependence. So it’s very important to not panic, but rather to rest there, and not judge the experience.

Instead of performing, we learn to be in the moment, and when nothing is there, just breathe! As soon as you have this attitude as the ground, you are never lost. You are always free, and you are always in total connection with your surrounding and the people present.

[plane flies overhead, making a lot of noise.]

I just lost what I was saying then, and I felt, okay, just felt it, [exhaling long], and I didn’t lose you. But in that moment, it would be easy to fill up the gap with doing.

Barbara: Right.

Didier: This is where we lose track.

Barbara:And especially, if you had kept going with what you were saying, ignoring that sound, you would have lost me, because it’s all happening right there, and we were in it together.

Didier: Yes.

Barbara: – and we need to be authentic with it.

Didier: Exactly.

Barbara: I’m going to try that. When I lose my train of thought, instead of trying to get it back, I’m going to enjoy that moment, that place.

Didier: Creativity is never lost then, because with this attitude, we will be touched, if we remember to trust.

Barbara: Sometimes losing your train of thought is a very good thing, because it takes you back into your store consciousness. And when you feel that the ground underneath you drops away, what you feel is where you really are—you’re coming from a much more authentic place then, a place in the moment.

Didier: Yes, exactly. It is a very important key. And often with art, we are frightened to become, to do, art. We are frightened to dance, especially in the West, everybody is more or less terrified to express themselves. At school, you’re asked to do a drawing, you have half an hour, and you try to do it right, yeah? You have never been told how to touch the magic. I never learned those things at school. I learned the opposite. I was beaten up at school.

Barbara:You just learned how to be judged.

Didier: Exactly. And also to judge myself. So one of the basic things to re-learn is to trust, and in doing nothing, we can let ourselves be touched. To touch the magic is entering that space of letting ourselves be an instrument. This is where art is born, I think true art. And if we can share some of our feelings in this way, in a park, in the middle of nowhere, this is very important. In the middle of a British railway station, there are three clowns, expressing just that. And very quickly, you have many people who stop, because they have been waiting for something to stop them for a long time. The clowns do slow motion mime, and it’s very beautiful to watch, because it’s not a movement from an idea. It’s a movement coming from being very present. It can touch deeply.

I’ve been very involved with teachings from the East. And now I am feeling and exploring where our roots are for mindfulness in the West. Where is it hidden, that understanding of being in the present moment? The archetype of the Fool is a very important Western archetype. Jesus was a Fool. There is so much of that Fool quality in his teachings. Many times here in Plum Village, when we are eating together in mindfulness, I feel that I’m eating with Jesus. It comes not as a thought, it comes like a feeling or a memory. To touch some essence of the Fool is very important. The clown is born from that. The role of the Fool in spirit as an archetype is extremely important, in resurrecting simplicity and joy, the pleasure of being in the moment, touching life, all of nature, in a very simple way.

Barbara: I was a fairly happy child and fairly happy adult, and then at a certain point I started feeling like I lost my playfulness, that a lot of my life was spent doing things I didn’t want to do, and I wasn’t very happy. I wasn’t seriously unhappy, it was just that a lot of what I was doing was not really play, not really fun. And I started looking at that. Where did that happen? Whydidthathappen? AndIfeelthattodayyouhaveledmeback into exploring play and being in a group, a Sangha, that plays together. And I think that the Fool is the one who has the ability to stop everything and play. That’s so needed because we have this idea that when we grow up, things have to be hard, and we have to work all the time, and we have to let go of childish things, and so we lose ourselves.

Didier: Yeah! We lose the sense of play.

Barbara:Yeah! And we lose our heart, we lose ourjoy. And it’s very sad when there are children who have lost that.

Didier: It’s very sad. It’s a big concern I have about play and children, and what is happening to them. I mean, what we are doing? We are taking away all drama in school, all physical education, and in England, they are selling playgrounds because they want the space to build buildings. This is absolutely mad. And the computer world has taken over the children’s world. They play not with people, they play with machines and in the computer games they learn to kill each other. This is very serious, if we realize that play is the beginning of spiritual understanding, the root is starting there when a child plays with another, in trust and not knowing.

Play, to my mind, is bigger than the individual. It is taking us on a journey of creativity. It is the first step in a perception of something beyond my individual self. And we learn to respond to emotions, to each other as we play. If we don’t let the children play in this way, what are we going to have in fifteen years? This is very serious. I have put together a questionnaire for school teachers to express what they feel is happening with our children, because the curriculum has become entirely academic.

We must become aware of the importance of play for the sake of the children. This is really the focus I have now for the work, to really bring awareness to the importance of play, as the birthplace for spiritual understanding.

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Didier Danthois first trained in clowning and circus skills twenty years ago at the Fratellini Circus School in Paris. He studied Expressive Dance, and performed with Amici Dance Theatre Dance Company for five years. He is also a certified Biodynamic Psychotherapist and group facilitator. He trained in clowning with Lex Van Someren. Didier has been inspired by the teachings of the Buddha for the last ten years, first through his root teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, and then by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He works towards creating an art which celebrates the beauty of authenticity, compassion and the interdependence of all things, and all people. Didier is the founder of Fool at Heart, School of Sacred Clowning, and teaches, performs and directs in England and abroad. He is presently involved in establishing ‘ClownCare & Co.’, an organization bringing Sacred Clowning into healthcare settings.

For future events, contact Didier at 32 Rosemary Avenue, London N3 2QN England  Tel: 020 8343 0255 E-mail: ScSacredClowning@aol.com

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is a managing editor for the Mindfulness Bell.

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The Golden Well of Compassion

Light River of the Heart I met the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; I lived with them for five days. It was heaven on earth; powerful transformation, golden drops from the well of compassion entered my heart.

I wrote these words in my journal on the day I returned home from the 2002 Stonehill College retreat with Thay.   It had been an unforgettable week.  I had witnessed the retreat give birth to a national peace initiative. It was like watching a collective Dharma wheel turn toward peace and reconciliation. On an individual level, I experienced my own turn of the Dharma wheel. As I left the retreat, I vowed to make peace within myself. This decision has reverberated in my life ever since, with far-reaching effects.

Many elements of the retreat nourished my soul and inspired me to change my perspective. I loved Thay’s Dharma talks, the meditation exercises, the energy of the other participants, the relaxation and silence. Most powerful of all was participation in a survivors of abuse Dharma discussion group. The Stonehill survivors group came to embody the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha for me. It was a profound healing experience.

I had no idea of any of this when I signed up for the group, rather furtively and with some shame, on the day it was to begin. Later I learned that almost no one had signed up for the group in advance. On the first day, I positioned myself near the door to be able to make a quick escape if necessary. I watched the people as they entered the room, quickly trying to find their psychological weaknesses so that I could protect myself in case of attack. I made jokes to disarm them. My heart was beating rapidly.

Our leader invited the bell to sound, and then lay down boundaries. We were to strictly preserve confidentiality and privacy. We were to practice deep listening. We were not to solve others’ problems, but to offer our own experience if it could be of help. One by one, we began to share. It was soon apparent that every member of the group shared not only the childhood experience of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse and its long-term effects, but also the sincere desire to embody spiritual values and to practice compassion and loving-kindness. There was immense good will, clarity, honesty, courage, respect, thoughtfulness, and humor in the group.

Many of us were reluctant to identify ourselves as survivors, feeling that this labeled us as victims, or that it would lure us into negative, blaming states of mind. For myself, I hated identifying as anything. I never wanted to be part of any group larger than two.  Being in a circle with twelve or fifteen other

human beings meant that I had completely lost control. I had grown up in the war-zone of a nuclear bomb family. Violence, rage, terror, grief, secrecy, blame and denial were part of my “normal” life. At an early age, my connection to other human beings had shattered. Trust was broken and never rebuilt. I took isolation, fear and distrust for granted. Terror was hardwired into my being. I never realized there was another way to be.

On one of the first days of the retreat, I did a guided meditation led by Thay. As I visualized myself “fresh as a flower, stable as a mountain,” I felt peaceful, calm and at ease. The energy of seven hundred other meditators in the room supported me. Suddenly I realized that pain, suffering and a continual state of hyper-alertness were my everyday state of mind. I knew how to protect, hide, defend, and retaliate, but rarely how to trust or relax. These behaviors had served a purpose when I was a child, but now they stifled my adult life.

Identifying myself as a survivor was a powerful healing tool. It made me able to participate in the group – an act which I think of as prayer in action. Showing up in the survivors’ group was a prayer to rejoin the human race and to heal myself fully.

Before I left for the retreat, I had a dream in which I found two polished amethyst stones that looked like stained glass windows in a cathedral. I heard Thay’s voice saying, “The city is now safe for people to walk in.” Participating in the survivors’ discussion group was like being inside a cathedral and watching light illuminate stained glass windows one by one. Each person offered his or her own slant of light. Listening to others and being listened to alternated in a natural rhythm. There was no agenda; we revealed ourselves as we were in the moment. Compassion arose naturally for each other.  Kindness and understanding blossomed everywhere. In an atmosphere of honesty and safety, bonds of friendship were forged and the illusion of separateness dissolved.

My sisters and brothers of the survivors group were all bodhisattvas for me; through them, I experienced the transformative power of compassion. The group was the Dharma in action, as we helped each other bring painful emotions into light and awareness. It was a Sangha, each individual person having integrity and wholeness, yet functioning in relationship to a greater community. The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha were not ideals or abstract concepts, they were alive and present in me and around me. As old assumptions, fears, and wrong perceptions crumbled, new and beautiful feelings of connectedness, trust and wholeness began to emerge. Being part of this group of survivors was powerful healing medicine. It seemed like nothing less than a miracle.

On the long drive home, the group continued to “meet” inside my mind. I held a conversation with my friends, sharing the most painful things about myself and my family. Suddenly a shift in my perceptions took place: instead of seeing the suffering as mine, I saw the terrible suffering of my family as a whole. Compassion flooded through me for all of us. These experiences have strengthened my resolve to practice mindfulness, to develop a deep well of compassion within myself, and to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Light River of the Heart, (dharma name of the author) shares, “Since I wrote this article, many perspectives have shifted and I have begun to open my heart to family members. Healing is slowly and steadily taking place.”

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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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