watering positive seeds

Sangha Vows

developed by Lyn Fine and Community of Mindfulness NY Metro

In the midst of conflict and confusion in the world and in ourselves, the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings continue to be a source of inspiration and encouragement to us. In addition, we are finding that these Sangha Vows are helpful reminders for opening and deepening our Sangha friendships.

The form of the vows is modeled after the four Bodhisattva vows in the Japanese Zen traditions. The vows may be chanted or spoken, individually or as a Sangha.


I vow to water the seeds of joy, understanding, and inclusiveness in myself and all beings.


Some modifications have been suggested. For example, after "kindness" in the first vow, add "and use them as opportunities to deepen understanding." You may replace "vow" with aspire to, undertake, commit to, determine to, or a simple statement of affirmation such as "I greet... ." You might replace "I" with "we" or "let us." The first verse might be repeated at the end or after each of the other verses.

Please adapt the language to your Sangha. They were originally developed in the fall of 1998, and are "in process." We would enjoy hearing your experience of practicing with them.

1. Sangha well-being nourishes my well-being. My well-being nourishes Sangha well-being. Anchored in conscious breathing, I vow to water the seeds of joy, understanding, and inclusiveness in myself and all beings.

2. Conflicts are inevitable. Anchored in conscious breathing, I vow to greet them with love and kindness.

3. Unwholesome mental formations - resentment, disappointment, fear, jealousy, anger, depression, despair, discouragement, doubt - are unavoidable. Anchored in conscious breathing, I vow to recognize and transform them.

4. Attachment and aversion are inescapable. Anchored in conscious breathing, I vow to see them, smile to them, and let them go.

Dharma teacher Lyn Fine has taught resolving conflict creatively in schools. Community of Mindfulness NY includes Sanghas in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, New York as well as Morristown, New Jersey.

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The Gift of Healing

One Woman's Experience

By Julia Corbett

In The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh writes: ''Those who have been sexually abused have the capacity to become bodhisattvas .... Your mind of love can transform your own grief and pain, and you can share your insight with others." In this spirit, I offer this reflection on how my Buddhist practice-in addition to a caring counselor and keeping a journal-has contributed to my healing from childhood sexual abuse.

My daily practice includes three basic elements: ritual, reading something spiritually-enriching, and meditation. For me, doing these things in the early morning quiet works best. I begin the day focused, my priorities in line.

Ritual can be beneficial in content, and comforting in its constancy. When everything else seems to be coming loose, the ritual remains a touchstone. Taking Refuge and using some of the Plum Village Chanting Book material link me to the larger community of the Order of Interbeing, and to people throughout history who have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Two recitations from my daily practice deserve special mention. One is an affirmation of intention, by Thay: "I vow to cultivate lovingkindness and compassion, and practice joy and equanimity. I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon." This verse reminds me of the qualities I seek in my own life, and encourages me to reach out to other beings, to see past my own problems to the greater good. The other is a nontheistic revision of the serenity prayer: "I vow to cultivate the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." It is important not to let the energy we need for transformation be drained by a fruitless quest to change the past. We cannot change the fact of our abuse, but we can change its effect on us. It is meaningful to remind myself of this every day.

Several books by Buddhist authors have given me great hope and encouragement. Books that can be read a chapter a day have been most helpful. Often, I fmd insight or encouragement to take me through the day. Books I've found particularly encouraging include When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Hard Times, by Pema Chodron, Open Heart, Clear Mind, by Thubten Chadron, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching and Old Path, White Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh, and A Heart as Wide as the World, by Sharon Salzberg.

Meditation has been the most helpful practice for me. No aspect of our lives remains unchanged by recognizing that we were abused as children, and healing from it. Recovering memories that lay unrecognized in our unconscious is a central aspect of healing. It can also be difficult. For me, meditation, particularly walking meditation, facilitated remembering. I practice walking meditation on a treadmill-walking vigorously, synchronizing breathing and steps. Ten minutes into my hour's walk, a deeply meditative state comes about quite naturally. During the phase of healing in which recovering memories was central, walking meditation was especially useful. It provided an open emotional and mental space into which memories could come, and a safe container for even the hardest memory. During walking meditation, the most difficult memories-recollections of the most violent abuse-arose, along with feelings that had lain dormant nearly half a century. Because I was centered and grounded, I could be fully present with what was happening, and let the memories and feelings come as they would. I felt safe and open, even at the worst of times. Walking meditation was also helpful when I was simply too agitated to sit still. Meditating with my Sangha has often lifted my spirits. Even if you aren't comfortable sharing your journey, the energy developed in group meditation can be positive and healing. Never underestimate the healing power of simple friendship.

During all phases of healing, our emotions whirl like a stream racing over rocks. The daily practice of simply following your breath and letting the emotions come and go-neither fearing nor rejecting what comes—is fundamental. We need to balance many difficult emotions-pain, grief over a lost childhood, anger and rage at the perpetrator or perpetrators, and the shame and guilt that are the inevitable legacy of abuse. We need to experience those emotions fully, but not be engulfed by them. Meditation is an excellent way to achieve this balance.

In all phases of healing, it is important to water our seeds of joy and peace. Mindfulness encourages me to be aware of those seeds, nourish and celebrate them, and look for ways to pass them along to other people. Sometimes, it's easy to be overwhelmed by negative emotions and memories. Meditation helps me touch the positive in life as well. And, when my awareness from formal meditation extends into daily life, I am better able to work with the effects of the abuse.

Our pain, fears, anger, and shame are all part of us. If we don't handle them with kindness, we do violence to ourselves, thus perpetuating the violence that was done to us as children. Thay suggests that we look on whatever comes up as guests in our living room. Granted, we are dealing with some pretty unpleasant guests here, but we invite them all in, treat them with respect, and learn from them.

After working with the guided meditations in The Blooming of a Lotus, I developed the following meditation, focused on the particular negative emotions experienced by people healing from sexual or other abuse, and on the positive seeds we seek to cultivate. I encourage others to examine the feelings particular to their experience and use them with this meditation.

Aware of the feeling of shame in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of shame in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of shame in me, I breathe in.
Releasing the feeling of shame in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of guilt in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of guilt in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of guilt in me, I breathe in.
Releasing the feeling of guilt in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of regret in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of regret in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of regret in me, I breathe in.
Releasing the feeling of regret in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of sadness in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of sadness in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of sadness in me, I breathe in.
Releasing the feeling of sadness in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of grief in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of grief in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of grief in meI breathe in.
Releasing the feeling of grief in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of anger in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of anger in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of anger in me, I breathe in.
Releasing the feeling of anger in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of joy in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of joy in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of joy in me, I breathe in.
Welcoming the feeling of joy in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of contentment in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of contentment in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of contentment in me, I breathe in.
Welcoming the feeling of contentment in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of peace in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of peace in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of peace in me, I breathe in.
Welcoming the feeling of peace in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of calm in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of calm in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of calm in me, I breathe in.
Welcoming the feeling of calm in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the feeling of compassion in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of compassion in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of compassion in me, I breathe in.
Welcoming the feeling of compassion in me, I breathe out. 

Aware of the feeling of healing in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of healing in me, I breathe out.

Aware of the sources of healing in me, I breathe in.
Welcoming the feeling of healing in me, I breathe out.

Julia Corbett welcomes contact from others exploring these issues. 10072 West County Road 300 South, Parker City, IN 47368; (765)468-6019; JuICorbet@aol.com.

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A River or Feelings

By Patrecia Lenore

Like many people's, my mind has several negative habit patterns. Perhaps because of childhood abuse and neglect, the seeds of reactivity, anger, and mistrust are particularly strong. Recently, when these three habits arose in me, I had the opportunity to observe their transformation.

Because I needed advice, I confided in a dear friend about a difficult situation, but after our conversation, I felt a lot of shame. I thought she had not listened to me in the way I needed and I felt hurt and abandoned. My shame quickly turned into anger and mistrust, as I said to myself, "See, you can't trust anyone. She probably thinks you are really bad. But what I did was shameful, so it's not surprising she thinks of me that way." I hurt, but part of me knew that my feelings were growing out of proportion to what had really happened.

After sitting with my feelings, I called my friend to share what I was experiencing. I couldn't reach her. The negative habit patterns continued to intrude upon my consciousness, with an added message: "She is angry, because what I told her was so shameful, and she doesn't care for me any more or she would call back right away." Meanwhile, my "mother" awareness was holding my feelings, and although they felt "true," mindfulness softened their effect and helped me remember they were just habit patterns. I kept coming back to my breath and practiced loving kindness meditation for my friend and for myself. Even so, later in the day, the thoughts were still painfully present.

Then I remembered a practice from my other Sangha, a twelve-step group. In this practice, if you are having difficulty with someone, you pray for them every day for two weeks. In this case, my prayer was forgiveness meditation: forgiving my friend for any way she might have hurt me, and asking her forgiveness for any way I might have hurt her. The next two days, the habit pattern of mistrust was still pretty strong, so I kept coming back to my breath, cradling my feelings and attempting to let them go, and doing forgiveness and loving kindness meditation.

On the third day, as I waited for a subway, I visualized Thich Nhat Hanh and other compassionate teachers in my life. With surprise, I realized that in that particular moment, I didn't trust them either. I saw how deeply embedded my feelings were, and I almost cried. How could I not trust even these people? I began naming to myself all the wise and good things these teachers have imparted to me and many others. As I meditated on their gifts of wisdom and compassion, I was suddenly flooded with memories of all the wonderful qualities of my friend, the things that make me love her so much. In that moment, the pain of the anger and mistrust lifted, and sweet feelings of love and trust filled my heart again.

That day at work, my friend called. She explained that she had not called sooner because she had visitors. I told her my whole story, and said she had called at the perfect moment. If she had called sooner, perhaps I wouldn't have experienced how diligent practice can free me from even the most painful feelings. I had also had time to contemplate how perceptions formed in my childhood cause much of my torment and my fear of being unlovable. We both laughed gently about my experience (what a busy mind!), and observed how quickly I went through a process that used to take me weeks or months.

I am learning to give myself time to be with my feelings and to contemplate "right action" before I take any steps. Knowing that anger and mistrust are strong in me, I can more quickly see these habit patterns when they arise and not be consumed by them. I see they are simply habit patterns, which arise and will subside. As I nurture the seeds of forgiveness  and loving kindness for myself, for my feelings, and for all beings, the painful habits have less power over me. These practices are helping me heal my wounded heart and become more open and loving.

Patrecia Lenore, Flower of True Virtue, practices with the Community of Mindfulness/New York Metro.

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Buddha Eyes

Our dear Thay has done his very best over many years, transmitting the Buddha Eyes to us. The June retreat in Plum Village was a profound experience of this continued Buddha Eyes transmission. We learned of many types of eyes—Heavenly Eyes, Wisdom Eyes, Dharma Eyes, Sangha Eyes, and Buddha Eyes. The beginning of our retreat was spent developing our Sangha Eyes. Sangha Eyes call us beyond our ego eyes, which would have us believe we are substantially separate selves, with individual sensibilities and destinies, concerned only with what matters to us.

During the retreat, we touched the suchness of Sangha, and it healed our pain and transformed the fear in us. The more we were able to surrender to Sangha energy, the more joy we found in each breath and each step. We realized that the practice of the Sangha is the practice of deep interbeing or emptiness. Touching true emptiness, we reclaimed our solidity and freedom and our Buddha Eyes grew bright.

Buddha Eyes allow us to look deeply into the wonders of life, and as we touch these wonders, our peace and happiness are restored. But Buddha Eyes also allow us to see and touch the Sangha everywhere, within us and around us. It is said that upon awakening, the Buddha could see 48,000 beings in a cup of water. Buddha Eyes give us the gift of courage to come home to the present moment and see reality as it is, in its connectedness and wholeness. Buddha Eyes made our Dharma Eyes shine with the light of mindfulness. As the Dharma rain of the retreat fell on us, our understanding of the Four Noble Truths came, like the full moon into the darkness of our times. We dared to look into ourselves and into our new millennium, and we saw alienation, violence, and fear at the root of suffering.

After the retreat, I added a new daily practice. After sitting and walking meditation, I now read our local newspaper, noticing stories of suffering, alienation, violence, and fear. I have found that my heart and mind are open to new levels of identification, loving kindness, and compassion. We learn to practice the Noble Truth of suffering not for its own sake, but to find ways out of suffering. Thay charged us to practice this way during our retreat. We met in Dharma Discussion groups on education, health, and business, non-profit, youth, and others, in order to bring the Four Noble Truth to life.

With Buddha Eyes, we also saw clearly the great temptations of our millennium. We are tempted to believe that genetic and electronic invention and manipulation are our way out of suffering. While genetic manipulation promises new health and longer life spans, it also carries the shadow of seeking perfection disconnected from the reality of Interbeing, and from the causes and conditions that are a powerful part of who we are and who we become. Through insights into the ten realms, we realized that there is no genetic escape from the totality of our store consciousness, which contains all the seeds, both positive and negative, found in the depths of our cells.

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Our only hope is to create causes and conditions that water our positive seeds until they bloom as beautiful flowers, and to wrap our negative seeds within the arms of loving kindness until they fall asleep. The conditions that support healing and transformation must be created within us, in our Sanghas, and in our societies.

To transform and heal our alienation, violence, and fear, Thay encouraged us to create lay residential practice communities. He said that there are not enough monks and nuns, or enough time to provide the refuge needed to create the conditions for the healing and transformation of our suffering. Lay residential centers are crucial to transmit the field of energy, environment of safety, and presence of Dharma and Sangha that our times so desperately need. With our monastic centers, locals Sanghas, Mindfulness Practice Centers, and lay residential centers, we have a powerful way out of our suffering.

I am grateful for the Eyes of the Buddha retreat. I am grateful for the monks and nuns of Plum Village whose efforts made it possible. I am grateful for our dear teacher and his unselfish transmission of the Buddha Eyes.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, heads Community of Mindful Living and Parallax Press in Berkeley, California. He practices with the Stillwater Sangha in Santa Barbara, California, whose members have begun to look for property to establish a residential lay practice community.

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Practicing as a Couple

By Brendan Sillifant My search

I have had a deep affinity with the practice of mindfulness since I was a teenager. I had come across it in a variety of forms from different sources. From the Buddhist traditions of Thailand, Japan and Tibet, and from modern self-help psychology also. As a young man I wanted to learn to live my life fully, and I set out to travel for two years visiting different practice communities in North America looking for a teacher and a Sangha. That is where I first attended a retreat with Thay. I was drawn to his teaching which seemed so appropriate for modem society, deep and yet simple. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on joyful and continuous practice.

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Not being caught in dualistic thinking

I then came to practice with the Plum Village Sangha for six months in 1991. The Sangha was a small community made up of both monastic and lay practitioners. When I first came to Plum Village it was my love of mindfulness practice that brought me here, I had never had the thought to ordain. But after a time that wish grew in me, although that wish in me was still quite innocent, even naive. My teacher was a monk and I wanted to be like him. Nevertheless I made the determination to return to New Zealand, to sell all my worldly possessions, spend some precious time with my family, and then return to Plum Village to ordain.

Whilst in New Zealand I attended a Chinese Chan retreat in order to keep my practice strong. The retreat was held each weekend for almost two months. During this time I grew quite close to a young woman who was also practicing at the retreat. The blossoming of this relationship created a lot of confusion in me, it seemed like a conflict, to ordain or to marry. I wanted both, I wanted to be with the young woman I was growing to love, and I also wanted to practice wholeheartedly. I spent many months trying to make a decision between these two alternatives, trying to look into my real aspirations and yearnings.

Eventually I came to see that there was no conflict between these two things. When I looked deeply into my concept of monkhood, I found that what was actually important was to see what were the elements present in monastic life which would be supportive to my practice, and to find ways to bring these elements into my life and the life of my partner. With this understanding, there was no longer a decision or a choice that I needed to make. In my daily life I tried to blend my two loves, and I learned not to be caught in dualistic thinking between monastic life and lay life, but to seek to create a life with all the positive conditions present. I found I could have both a loving marriage and a strong committed practice, and there was no contradiction between the two. I experienced my relationship as a support to my practice, not a hindrance, even sexuality. My relationship supported my practice and my practice supported my relationship. I experienced these two things as a wonderful support for each other.

Relationship supports practice

My wife and I live closely together, and as a result we have grown to know each other quite intimately. This intimate understanding enables us to offer support and guidance to each other, helping each other not to fall into habit energies. An intimate relationship also provides comfort, soul sustenance, and nurturance, which can give one strength to overcome difficulties in one's life and practice. I experience my relationship as a kind of Sangha, it supports me in the same ways as the greater Sangha does, yet very intimately. I feel very fortunate to have a small Sangha within the big Sangha. As practicing partners we also help balance each other. When one person feels sad or anxious, the other can help him or her to feel bright or relaxed again. When overcome by wrong perceptions about someone or some situation, the other can provide alternative ways of looking. When we need to nourish the five-year-old boy or girl within us but are unable to do so, the other can provide that loving embrace. When we need the firm words of a teacher or Dharma sister or brother to put us back in the practice, the other can provide those words to set us straight. We practice in some ways as a single body, being aware of our own mental formations and also the mental formations of the other. So we have both our own mindfulness to rely upon and when that is weak we also have the practice of the other to rely upon. We practice to transform our own afflictions and also the afflictions of the other.

Practice supports relationship

The practice of mindfulness is a wonderful support in cultivating a loving relationship. It deepens our ability to speak lovingly, listen deeply, and understand each other. Mindfulness practice keeps our relationship fresh and helps us not to fall into negative habits. It gives each person more self-understanding and stability so we are more secure in ourselves, as a result we become much less prone to reading into the relationship what is not there. In addition to this the presence of the greater Sangha helps not to be isolated in our couple-ness. Sometimes two people become so much alike in character and view, that they cannot offer the other a new or different way of looking when needed. Dharma and Sangha can be a great support in offering clarity in situations that are usually dominated by habit energies. So when one person in a couple is lost in confusion, the other does not also become lost but can offer new clarity and fresh ways of looking into a situation.

Conscious watering of positive seeds is one of the tools of the practice that can be a tremendous support to a couple. Many couples we see around us are fresh and loving in the beginning, but after many years the habit of blaming, arguing, and criticizing each other begins to give the relationship a sour flavor. And at one point it seems the relationship is so infused with negativity that the path to recreating a positive healthy love is such a difficult task that many couples give up, thinking its easier to start over with another person. The practice of mindfulness, of being present to each other and for each other, already increases an awareness of the preciousness of each other. The practice of watering the flowers in each other helps us to be aware of the positive qualities of each other, and to express our appreciation and gratitude towards each other. If over time we are able to water the positive seeds more than the negative seeds in each other, then the ability to appreciate and acknowledge the wonder and beauty of the other will always be present, even in the midst of difficulty. As a result, when there is disharmony, the motivation will be not to hurt the other, but to heal the relationship and to reestablish harmony between us.

From Attachment to Freedom

I have spoken about how I see that an intimate relationship can be a wonderful support to one's practice. And now I would like to say something about the obstacles to meditation practice that can sometimes arise in a relationship.

We hear a lot about attachment in Buddhist teaching, and we may be involved in an intimate relationship and ask ourselves, "Well, what does attachment mean to me in my situation?" We need to look deeply into this area of our lives, because the practice of non-attachment can greatly enhance our relationship. Developing non-attachment does not need to go against our relationship. We need to look at our relationships clearly, not just follow an ideal we have heard about. What is our real experience of attachment, in what ways does it truly sustain us and in what ways does it make us suffer?

In our life we do take refuge in many things, we rely on many things. As children, and still as adults, we rely on our parents, we rely on our teachers, and on our friends. We rely on certain colleagues at work, we rely on our community of practice, and we rely on the three jewels. If suddenly one of these refuges is not there, we feel its lack, we suffer. This shows us the presence of attachment. Nevertheless we have been enriched by the presence of these people in our lives. Their presence has given great beauty to our lives and we would not wish to have been without them. We are attached to these people and situations because they have contributed so much to us. So the question is not to abandon these things, because we know that without them our life will be less rich, less nourishing. The question is, rather, how to bring the spirit of non-attachment into our relationships, so we can profit fully from the presence of the other whilst also maintaining our freedom and our sovereignty. The practice of non-attachment can lessen any unhealthy dependence that exists in our relationships and can allow our love to be light and joyful.

It is interesting to look deeply and to see in what way dependence is a wholesome and necessary part of our human and spiritual life, and in what way does it limit us? Does our dependence support us in becoming whole and complete or do we rely on the other person to complete us? We take refuge because we need support on our path to wholeness. But if our object of refuge or our way of taking refuge becomes a barrier to becoming whole, whether it is refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or in our partner, we need to re-examine our way of taking refuge. A true teacher does not want us to only depend on him or her for stability, he or she wants to strengthen the teacher within us and will direct us to rely on that teacher more and more over time. The disciples of the Buddha took refuge in the Buddha, their teacher. Yet near the end of his life the Buddha instructed them to take refuge in the island within themselves, because that island is the teacher within which will always be with them, it is a stable and reliable refuge. The Buddha knew that it is this island which is the real object of refuge.

I will give an example: My wife Fei-fei is someone who is very confident, she enjoys being in front of groups of people, and can be her best on stage. But me, well its something which makes me a bit nervous, something which I would prefer to avoid if possible. So I could say to her, "Fei can you talk tomorrow for me, I don't want to speak in public." I can rely on her in any situation where I have to speak in front of the community, and thus avoid ever having to challenge myself and grow. In did this she would become more and more confident, with all the practice she would get, and I would become more and more shy. And an imbalance would result in our relationship and also in me. I would become incomplete without her. So this would be a way of taking refuge which would prevent my becoming whole. Alternatively I can learn to see Fei-fei as a teacher and can learn from her strength in this area. I can try to emulate her confident presence, thus her presence can be a source of strength for me that supports me becoming more whole and less dependent.

This is something to be aware of in a relationship, because we may have been attracted to our partner because they have certain qualities that we lack, to complement and complete us. But we can rely on our partner in a constructive way that helps us develop and transform our weaknesses, thus overcoming our initial dependence and becoming more free. In this way our relationship can take us in the direction of greater dependence or greater freedom and wholeness, depending on our way of taking refuge.

From attached love to boundless love

Our relationships can lead us into a narrow isolated love or a broad inclusive love, and this also depends on our way of taking refuge in each other. Sometimes our way of loving, our way of taking refuge in each other is a way of hiding from the world around us. And the more deeply we invest in each other the more deeply we cut ourselves off from others. So our way of taking refuge in each other becomes a prison for us. Even taking refuge in the Sangha can be like this. Perhaps we mix only amongst our close brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and we hide from the people who come to the community to practice, we may even hide from certain people in our own community. This is a form of attachment which may imprison us and keep us from opening our hearts to all those who cross our path in life.

Our love, to be deep and fulfilling, cannot be limited to only one person. If we love one person yet are alienated from others then our love will grow in on itself, it will not flower. It seems natural for a relationship to want to express itself in service of something greater. Perhaps that is why it seems so natural for couples to want to have children, so that the love that is cultivated between two people can seek a greater expression and flowering. When we can love one person we can love others also, love needn't be limited to one person. For this we need to be able to see the deep nature of the one we love. To see that that person contains her mother, father, grandparents, a whole lineage and culture. Our love then becomes embracing and we can learn to accept the things in the other person which are the most difficult for us to accept. Mindfulness and looking deeply helps us to see beyond the appearance of the one we love, so our small love becomes a door to great love. The relationship becomes a labaratory or testing ground for our love, allowing us to cultivate a mature love which then extends to the many people we come into contact with. In loving one person we do learn to love many people, because the person we love contains multitudes.

Over the years I have been together with my wife I see more and more how deeply she is.the continuation of her parents and ancestors. That in marrying and making the vow to love her, I have married and made the vow to love also her parents, siblings, grandparents, society, and indeed all beings. A couple relationship is really the coming together of two streams, not just two people, so there is a lot of potential there, potential for strife and for strength. And for certain our love will be cultured and matured over the years, like a good cheese.

Sexuality

Sexuality is another area that can easily become an obstacle to our practice if we are not skillful. But my experience tells me that sexuality can be an integral part of an intimate relationship, and also an integral part of a spiritual life and practice. We sometimes make too much out of sexuality by either being preoccupied by it or by not wanting to have anything to do with it. But sexuality can be a beautiful and nourishing part of a committed relationship. We try to bring the practice of mindfulness to every area of our lives and sexuality is an area of our life that also profits from the practice of mindfulness.

With the practice of mindfulness the sexual act can be no less than a sacred and beautiful ritual that is performed in deep concentration and joy, a deep expression of love and care for each other. With mindfulness present we are able to maintain a peaceful and relaxed presence, without becoming lost in sensual desire. Desire is an obstacle to peace, and it can also be an obstacle to deep communion, because the other becomes an object of desire, and we lose the deep love and intimacy that is present. Sexuality is a form of expression between two people that can nourish joy in being together, and helps establish closeness   and love. But this is only possible in the context of a committed relationship where attention is also given to other forms of communication. Sometimes sexuality is sought outside of a committed relationship, because we yearn for intimacy but we do not know how to establish real intimacy. Perhaps in our relationship there is so much misunderstanding and so many small unresolved hurts that there is no longer intimacy between us. So we naively seek intimacy elsewhere, in new relationships which do not have the same baggage of suffering. We need to remember that intimacy comes from the meeting of hearts not bodies, the meeting of bodies is only an expression. And for the meeting of hearts to be deep and present even after many years together we need to practice constantly.

How do we maintain our love over many years?

In the early days of a relationship there can be a lot of excitement, passion and romance. These feelings can be very compelling and attractive, they set our heart pumping and make us feel very alive. Our love is fresh and new, filled with hope and expectation. We do not know the other deeply and we imagine how wonderful they are. After sometime of being together, we begin to get used to one another more. We think we know pretty well everything there is to know about them. We quickly settle into a routine; our relationship becomes mundane, ho-hum, perhaps even boring. Th\ngs are ok, but not very alive. We think back to the early days and remember how fresh and wonderful it was to be with each other. But we don't know how to return to that freshness again. We think we need to do something spectacular to get the vitality back into the relationship, like taking a romantic holiday on a deserted island in the Bahamas.

But it is much simplier than that. We just need to be more attentive to maintaining our full presence for our loved one, and not fall into the habit of taking each other for granted. Fei-fei said that when we first met, she thought I was very romantic. For my part, I do not really feel I am a romantic person, neither do I aspire to be. But I think what gave this impression, was that I practiced really being there for her, giving her my full attention when we were together, and perhaps she had not experienced this kind of attention very often before. This kind of mindfulness is the tofu and potatoes of our love, it is the daily food of our relationship. And with this steady loving presence our relationship stays fresh and vital, even if our life appears very routine.

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Personal Time versus time for each other

Another way in which we might consider a relationship as an obstacle to a solid practice is that we may feel we have less space in our lives. I sometimes hear people say that they need more space in their relationship. They need time away from their partners. I have had this feeling occasionally in my relationship, although I feel lucky that this feeling comes up very seldom. For me this is a signal to look deeply, of course I can honor that feeling and take the opportunity to go for a walk by myself. But I need to ask myself, why do I not experience enough space in being together at the moment? I cannot just say that I need space and that's normal , and take my space. Perhaps our way of being together has settled into a habit of being too talkative. We may have been spending excessive time gossiping about others. Or maybe there is some tension in our relationship that makes it difficult for us to be at peace in the presence of the other. All these things are signals to us to pay more attention to the quality of our time together, and the quality of our practice together. Just as the Sangha is a support for our practice so to can be our couple re lationship. And when we retum there we find a refuge of warmth, space, acceptance, ease, and peace. If these things are not present in our relationship, it is because we have not cultivated our relationship in a skillful enough way.

Oneness - from individual to couple

Life as a couple has a certain vitality and richness which takes us beyond our individual desires and aspirations. We are two but we are one, and we really need to leam to think, feel , and see as one, or there will be conflict. If we continue to follow our own wants and needs and the other continues to follow their own wants and needs, we will not find a deep harmony and unity in our relationship.

For our love to return to us a deep sustenance for our soul, for there to be a deep intimacy between the two of us, we really need to learn to see the happiness of the other as our own happiness, and our happiness as the happiness of the other. This is not an attitude of sacrifice, because in sacrifice there is still duality, there is still "I" give up my needs to satisfy "your" needs. Where there is sacrifice there is still the unconsciolls debt of the other that we hold in our hearts and expect to be paid back sometime. To see that our happiness is one is to see that giver, gift, and receiver are one. We don't want to sacrifice because we know that deep down, for the other person to be happy, we also need to be happy. How can the other be bright and cheerful when we are moping around, feeling tired all the time having given beyond our capacity. So to give to ourselves, to nurture ourselves and our own deep peace and joy, is to make an offering to the person we love.

Recently Thay has said that practicing as a Sangha is like practicing as a couple. It can be a true practice of non-self to see that we are one body, and that we can no longer seek only for our own happiness without considering the happiness ofthe other. As a couple we become so interconnected, that this way of thinking no longer functions well. We simply have to learn to think in a new way, a way that really acknowledges our true interconnectedness, our interconnectedness as a couple, as a Sangha, and as a world.

Brendan, True Virtue of Loving Kindness, lives in the Upper Hamlet with his wife, Fei-Fei.

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Dharma Talk: The Horse Is Technology

By Thich Nhat Hanh November 10, 2013 Plum Village

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Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is the 10th of November, 2013, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall of the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village. The Winter Retreat will start in five days and will last ninety days. The Winter Retreat is the most beautiful retreat in Plum Village because we can go deep into the teaching, and we have plenty of time to build brotherhood and sisterhood and transform ourselves.

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During this Winter Retreat we should stay in the compound of Plum Village, in the Sangha. We do not have permission to go out, even with the Internet. So there will be no individual email addresses and no Facebook. Facebook is neither good nor evil, but how you use it can bring more negative things than positive and can waste a lot of time. With Facebook, we are looking for something outside of us, and we do not have time to go back to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. So there will be absolutely no Facebook during this retreat. If you have anything that is not the Dharma, including iPod, iTouch, iTablet, films, and music, you have to throw it out.

Teaching at Google

On the 23rd of October, we spent the day at Google. We were in three groups at different locations, with Thay in one group and sixty monastics spread through the groups. Thay’s talk was seen and heard by everyone simultaneously.

We began with breakfast, and then at 8:30 we gave instructions on walking meditation. The people in the Google complex––they call it Googleplex––did walking meditation very seriously. At one point during the walking, we sat down, and Thay invited the small bell three times and had a cup of tea. Those who came late saw the calm atmosphere; it was very rare.

Then a Google representative delivered a welcome speech, and Thay gave a talk followed by a session of questions and answers. Thay offered a guided meditation that was used the next day at a plenary session broadcast worldwide. There were gifts exchanged, and at noon after sharing instructions on how to eat mindfully, Thay ate lunch with everyone. At 1:45, Sister Chan Khong led a session of total relaxation. At 3:00, Thay and some of the monastics met with senior Google executives, including a number of engineers. We had a long and deep discussion on how to make good use of technology in order to help people suffer less.

Google offered the theme, “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” They wanted to know the interplay between intention, insight, and innovation, not only in terms of work, but also in all aspects of life. The basic question was: How can technology become a force for integration rather than destruction? Because so far, it is a force of destruction; it’s pulling us away from each other.

Before we went to Google, a number of monastics wrote to Thay, describing the situation there and suggesting some questions to address. The first question was, “How can we innovate in order to take good care of ourselves?” Second, “How can we take care of the health of our workforce and take care of Mother Earth?” There is enlightenment in this question: it shows that they see the negative aspects of technology. They have found that emotional health is decreasing and distress is increasing in the Google workforce. They want some teaching and practice to deal with that situation.

Another question was, “Given the high rate of burnout, is there a way that we as a corporation can assist employees to create a better work-life balance?” Many Googlers are addicted to their work, they have a hard time detaching from it, and it can take over their lives. Maybe each of us feels that way also. We are being taken over by our work, and we do not have the time and the capacity to live our life deeply. Life is a gift, and we are not able to enjoy it, to make the best of that gift.

Strangely, there is an eagerness to find a technological solution to technology addiction. There is a disease called technology addiction, and yet you want to use technology to heal. Can we heal drug addiction with drugs? Can we heal anger with anger? Can we heal violence with violence? That is a contradiction.

So that is the First Noble Truth, not only for Buddhists, but for everyone. We have to contemplate the First Noble Truth of ill-being. Technology is destructive. Technology is taking our time away. We do not have the time to take care of ourselves, our families, and nature. Our civilization is going in a wrong direction.

This question is the beginning of a kind of awakening. We recognize the ill-being, and we want to transform it. We are looking for the way, the path, to heal that ill-being. That is the Fourth Noble Truth: the noble path leading to the transformation of ill-being.

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Where Are We Going?

There is a Zen story about a person sitting on a horse, galloping very quickly. At a crossroads, a friend of his shouts, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

This is our situation. The horse is technology. It carries us and we cannot control it. So we have to begin with intention, asking ourselves, what do we want? The unofficial slogan of Google is “Don’t be evil.” Can you make a lot of money without being evil? That’s what they try to do, but so far, not very successfully. You want to be wealthy. You want to be Number One, but that costs you your life, because you are carried away by work.

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. As a civilization, we are going in the wrong direction. Even if you don’t kill or rob anyone, you are losing your life. If you do not have time to take care of your family and nature, making money that way costs you your life, your happiness, and the life and happiness of your beloved ones and Mother Earth. So that way of making money is evil. But is there a way to make money without being evil?

People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming. Technology is helping us to do this, so in this way technology is evil.

The horse is supposed to carry us to a good destination, as is technology. But, so far, technology has mostly helped us to run away from ourselves at the cost of our own life and happiness, and the happiness of our beloved ones and the beauty of Mother Earth. So you cannot say that we are not evil, because while realizing your dream of being wealthy, you sacrifice your life, you sacrifice the happiness of your beloved ones, and you cause damage to Mother Earth. So it’s not so easy not to be evil.

But if technology can help you to go home to yourself and take care of your anger, take care of your despair, take care of your loneliness, if technology helps you to create joyful feelings, happy feelings for yourself and for your beloved ones, it’s going in a good way and you can make good use of technology. When you are happy, when you have time for yourself and your beloved ones, maybe you can be more successful in your business. Perhaps you will make more money if you are really happy, if you have good emotional health, if you reduce the amount of stress and despair within yourself.

The Four Nutriments

During his talk at Google, Thay spoke about the four nutriments. In Buddhist psychology there are five universal mental formations: contact, sparsa; attention, manaskara; feelings, vedana; perception, samjna; volition, cetana. They are always present, expressing themselves in our consciousness. The first one is contact, and the last one is volition. These two mental formations are considered to be the kind of food we don’t consume with our mouth.

Some of us use technology to consume in order to forget the suffering in us, in the same way that we sometimes use edible food. When we are lonely or fearful, we search in the refrigerator for something to eat, not because we need it, but we want to forget the suffering in us. Many of us are addicted to eating and become fat and suffer from many kinds of diseases, just because of this kind of consuming. Edible food is the first of the four nutriments.

The second nutriment the Buddha taught was sensory impressions. We pick up a book to read, hoping to have a sensation. We go to the Internet, looking for pictures and songs and music to have a certain feeling. When you listen to music or read a book or newspaper out of routine, you are doing it so you won’t encounter yourself. Many of us are afraid of going home to ourselves, because we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside of us. So we look for sensory impressions to consume. Technology, the Internet, is helping us to do this.

Many young people do this. A teenager confessed to us in a retreat that he spends at least eight hours each day with electronic games, and he cannot stop. At first he was playing games to forget, and now he’s addicted to it. In real life he does not feel any love or understanding in his family, school, or society. Many young people are trying to fill up the loneliness, the emptiness inside, by looking for sensory impressions. That is the second source of nutriment.

Now, as a Buddhist monk or nun, are we doing the same? If you go to the Internet and download a film and a song to enjoy, then you are doing the same. You have to do what the Buddha taught you to do: learn to go home to yourself without fear. Breathe and walk to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and insight, and go home and take care of the loneliness inside. We do not have time to look for sensory impressions to fill up the vacuum in us. If we do that, we are not really monastics, we are acting just like the people in the world. That is why in this Winter Retreat, we have to practice letting go from our own choice, not because Thay tells us to do it. We do it because there is an enlightenment, there is an awakening in this way of living, and you can help people in the world by choosing to live differently. We have to learn to go home to ourselves and take care of the suffering inside and get the peace, the joy that we need, so that we can help people.

That is why having no email address, no Internet, no Facebook, is not something that makes you suffer, but helps you to become a real practitioner. If you do it, if you wake up to that kind of truth, you will do it with joy, not with a sense of deprivation. There are many people who check their email several times a day and find nothing new. Because you are empty inside, you are looking for something new. You have to learn to generate something really new: a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness. That is possible with the practice of mindfulness.

What Is Your Intention?

Volition is the third nutriment, another source of food. Volition is intention. What do you want to do with your life? That is the question. Of course, you have the right to look for material and affective comforts, but that is not your deepest desire. Do you have an ultimate concern? Do you know the meaning of your life? That can be a tremendous source of energy.

If your volition is only to make money, to become the number one corporation, that’s not enough, because there are those who have a lot of money, a lot of power, and yet they are not happy. They feel quite lonely and they don’t have time to live their life. Nobody understands them and they don’t understand anyone. Happiness is not there because there is no understanding or love.

So your volition is not to have a lot of money, to have social recognition, to have a lot of power or fame. What you really want may be something more. Maybe you want to reverse the direction of civilization. You want to help people know how to handle the suffering in themselves, how to heal and transform, how to generate joy and happiness, how to live deeply every moment of their life, so that they can help their beloved ones to do the same and help the Earth to restore her beauty. That is a good desire, a good nutriment. As a corporate leader, if you have that kind of energy, you will become very strong. That is the first item they wanted Thay to speak about at Google: the intention, the motivation that pushes us to do what we are doing.

The Buddha had a strong desire to transform himself, to have the freedom and compassion to help people suffer less. That is a good desire; that is good food. Animated by that kind of energy, he spent forty-five years teaching and helping all kinds of people. He had very strong energy.

So those of us who have a good source of the nutriment of volition can be very happy. To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention. If a corporate leader has that kind of bodhicitta, he can reverse the trend of civilization. He can be himself, he can control the horse, and he can make good use of technology.

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With a knife, you can chop vegetables and peel potatoes. The knife is a helpful tool. But a terrorist can use a knife to kill people also. Technology is like that. If you have compassion and insight, you can come up with innovations that make good use of technology, that will help you and others go home to themselves, take care of themselves and their beloved ones.

The fourth nutriment is consciousness. Your individual consciousness is a source of food. There are many good things in your consciousness: you have the capacity to love, to forgive, to understand, to be compassionate. You need to know how to cultivate these elements in your consciousness. We all have the seed of compassion in us. If we know how to water the seed of compassion every day, it will grow. Every time we touch the seed of compassion, it becomes a mental formation, and with compassion alive in you, you don’t suffer anymore. That is good food.

But compassion is not the only good food you have. You have the seeds of joy, of happiness, of tenderness, of forgiveness, of nondiscrimination––many good things in yourself. You have to learn to cultivate more of these elements so that you have good food to nourish you and make the people you love happy. In you, there are also negative seeds, like a seed of anger, a seed of despair, a seed of loneliness. If you consume in a way that waters these negative seeds, then when you read a newspaper or play an electronic game or have a conversation, anger, despair, jealousy may arise in you, and you cultivate food that is not healthy for you.

As a gardener, you grow things that are good for you to consume. We know that there are plants that can make us sick, like poison oak, so we don’t cultivate those. That is true with anger, despair, violence, discrimination. These are not good food.

All of us have the seeds of these negative things in us. The collective consciousness is also food. There are neighborhoods now full of violence, fear, anger, and despair. If you happen to live in that neighborhood, you consume the collective energy of anger and fear. You don’t want to be angry and fearful and violent like them, but if you continue to stay there for a few years, you consume that collective energy and you become like them. That is not good food.

When you come to a retreat, you see hundreds of people who know how to breathe, how to concentrate, how to release tension, how to generate compassion. They generate a powerful collective energy of mindfulness and compassion, and you consume it. You feel the peace, you feel the joy, you feel brotherhood, and you consume it. That is good food. Collective consciousness can be good food or can be poisonous. The collective consciousness nutriment is very important.

But at Google, we spoke more about volition, because understanding volition was the most direct response to their inquiry about intention. A corporate leader should have a clear volition, a desire to help people suffer less. If you have that kind of good food, you become a happy person and you can be a good leader. A corporate leader needs to learn how to go home to himself first, to listen and understand his own suffering, to have compassion and take care of himself. Then he can help people in his family to do that and his family will be his support. And then he can try to help his associates do the same, and they will practice helping all employees in the workforce to go home and take care of themselves and their families. You can inspire them to have that kind of volition, that kind of intention, that kind of motivation. You give them the third nutriment. As leader, you might say, “Dear friends, you come here not just to have a job and to feed your family. You come here to join us in helping people to suffer less. We work in a way that helps people go back to themselves and take care of themselves. In order to do that, we have to do it for ourselves.”

Making Good Use of Technology

Some of our brothers have proposed to Facebook and Google to create a website where people can come and learn how to breathe, how to walk, how to handle a strong emotion, how to generate a feeling of joy and happiness for themselves and for other people. Facebook has promised to help make that happen. If Google has a mindfulness website, all the employees of Google can go there and learn how to take care of themselves and their families. Then they will have insight into what kind of electronic gadget or device will help us to go in that direction.

Suppose you talk to your smartphone. “Dear friend, I suffer. What shall I do?” And your smartphone says, “Oh! The first thing you have to do is to breathe in mindfully and go back to yourself.” This is the advice of a good teacher. An electronic device can tell you, “Dear friend, you are not in a good situation to do something. You have anger in you. You have to go home and take care of your anger.” When you are driving a car while falling asleep, a sensor would detect that. It might invite the bell to sound and say, “Dear friend, you are sleepy. Wake up! It’s dangerous to drive in this condition.” That is the practice of mindfulness.

The electronic devices that you invent can do that kind of work. iReminder; iReminding; iReturning. Returning to yourself. We spent two hours consulting with Google executives and engineers to find ways to make good use of technology to help people take care of themselves and suffer less.

There are many new functions they can put in telephones to help us, like the bell of mindfulness every quarter of an hour so that you remember to go back to yourself and to take care of yourself. In Plum Village, every time we hear the bell, we stop our thinking, we stop our talking, we stop our action, bringing our mind back to our body, and having the insight, “Ah, we are alive! We are present, sitting, walking on this planet, how wonderful.” You enjoy breathing in and out three times in mindfulness in order to celebrate the fact that you are still alive. When you are confused, when you are angry, you can talk to your phone, and your phone can remind you what to do and what not to do.

There was a young engineer who said, “But if we do these things, it’s like we are imposing on others what they don’t need.” Thay said that there are real needs, and there are needs that are not real. When you look for something to eat when you are not hungry, but are trying to forget the suffering in yourself, that is not a real need. If technology is trying to satisfy these kinds of needs, you are not helping people, you are only giving them the kind of sense impressions that cover up their suffering. But they have real needs, like going home to themselves and taking care of themselves, taking care of their families. That is why you have to help people to identify the real needs, and needs that are not real.

I think we planted a lot of good seeds in the minds of these Googlers. Let us see what will come after a few months.

Enjoyment Is the Practice

Thinking that work is one thing and life is another thing is dualistic thinking. For example, after you park your car in the parking lot and begin to walk to your office, you can choose between mindful walking or walking just to arrive at your office. If you know how to walk mindfully, then every step from the parking lot to your office can bring you joy and happiness. You can release the tension in your body and touch the wonders of life with every step. Walking this way is a pleasure. On the one hand, you see walking as life; on the other hand, you see walking as labor, as work.

When you wash the dishes, there’s a way to do it that helps you to enjoy every moment of dishwashing, so washing the dishes is not work, it is life. If you want to know how to wash dishes, read my book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. If you know how to mop the floor and cook your breakfast in mindfulness, it becomes life, not work. When a doctor receives a patient, it is work. But with compassion, with joy, you can transform the meeting between you, the doctor, and the patient, into a beautiful relationship, and that’s life. So life and work are not two different things.

When Thay does calligraphy, he begins every session with a cup of tea. Tea was invented by monastics in the Zen tradition who found that by drinking it, they were more awake for sitting meditation. So tea and meditation have been together for thousands of years.

Then Thay mixes some of the tea with the ink, and when he draws half a circle, he follows his in-breath. When he draws the second half of the circle, he breathes out. So there is the breathing in the circle, there’s mindfulness in the circle. From time to time he invites his own teacher to do the circle with him. In his hand is the hand of the mother, of the father, of the ancestor, of the teacher, of the Buddha. To do the circle in mindfulness, there must be the hand of the Buddha in his hand. So during that practice of drawing the circle, there is mindfulness, there is concentration and insight. This insight is made not by a self, but by a collective of selves. The Buddha is there and helps to make the circle in mindfulness.

So if you say that Thay is working hard, you are not right, because he enjoys making the circle. That is also his life and his practice. Meditation, working, and practicing become one.

In the monastic life of Plum Village, we do four things in our daily life. We study the Dharma and we practice the Dharma. Third, we work: cleaning, cooking, organizing a retreat. And fourth, we play: having tea with each other, playing basketball, and things like that. These are the four aspects of monastic life.

These four aspects inter-are. You do not enjoy only the time of playing, because the time of playing is also learning, is also building brotherhood, sisterhood, and cultivating health. Enjoyment is the practice. So within the playing is the studying, the practice, and the work.

We learn and practice in a way that cultivates joy. We can do walking meditation and sitting meditation the same way we play a game. It can be very joyful, just sitting together and doing nothing, or walking together. When you listen to a Dharma talk, allow the seeds of joy in you to be watered. It’s not good practice if you suffer.

When we organize a retreat or a Day of Mindfulness, we do it with compassion. We have a chance to serve, and that gives us a lot of joy. That’s not work, that is practice. When people come and practice, we practice with them. So there is no distinction between working and living and practicing.

That is the meaning of monastic life. The four aspects of life: learning, practicing, working, and playing. Each of the four has the three others inside it. As a lay practitioner, you can do the same. That is why you have to transcend dualistic thinking about work and life. We have to train ourselves to do our work in such a way that every moment of work is a moment of life.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Dharma Talk: Be a Real Human Being

By Larry Ward

I love the smells here. They’re old, been around a long time. I can feel the ancient presence of the native peoples, in the rocks and in the mountains, in the trees and in the river. It makes me very happy to be here in this space.

Compassion is very concrete practice. Compassion can make a huge difference in how we live our daily lives, how we make our daily decisions. And our practice is to feed ourselves those things that nourish our compassion. That’s what a bodhisattva does. The bodhisattvas feed themselves the spiritual food, the emotional food, the physical food that nourishes and cultivates their mind of love. That’s the second characteristic of a bodhisattva. The wisdom of nondiscrimination is one, and cultivating the mind of love is the other.

At retreats this past summer I heard Thay say something that I’ve never heard him say before. He said, “Be a real human being.”

So I’ve been meditating on that. When Peggy and I led a retreat in Oklahoma City recently, we were doing walking meditation at the Murrah building site where the bombing happened several years ago. It only took a minute for that devastation to happen. At the east gate, “9:01 a.m.” is carved in stone, and at the west gate, “9:03 a.m.” Between them are 161 empty chairs, for the people who were killed at 9:02. The first row is made of smaller chairs for children, because there was a daycare center there.  And as we walked around that memorial, it became really clear to me that Timothy McVeigh never had a chance to be a real human being. How do I know Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a real human being? Because a real human being does not perpetrate violence. That’s not the act of a real human being. Violence is a dark cloud floating across the blue sky of a real human being. A real human being is not trapped in or addicted to conflict and jealousy. Yes, we all have seeds of conflict and jealousy in us, but our seeds of conflict and jealousy are a dot against the blue sky of a real human being

We all have the capacity to be greedy, to want too much, to give too little—to ourselves as well as others—but that is not the motivation of a real human being. That’s a shadow passing across the ground of a real human being.

A real human being is like this camp—this camp is our host. The earth is here, supporting us and holding us; the trees are here, the creek is running.

Just holding us, whether we’re short or whether we’re tall, whether we’re young or whether we’re old, whether we’re black or whether we’re white, whether we’re straight or whether we’re gay, whether we’re this or whether we’re that. A real human being is a host, welcoming everything. In the morning when the sunlight strikes the sky for the first time, you can look in it and see dust in the sunlight. A real human being is the sunlight, not the dust.

Our practice is to water those seeds in us, to create an environment around us that gives us a chance of being a real human being. What I’m trying to do with this practice is to cultivate my best self, the best Larry possible. And when I do that I manifest the way of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is another name for a real human being. Thay told a story this summer about a wonderful woman from Holland that he met who saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers in World War II, all by herself.  Bodhisattvas are real people.  Recently I started thinking about a brief encounter I once had with Martin Luther King; he was a real human being. Mother Theresa, whom I met when I lived in Calcutta, was a real human being. She was so real that when she thought something, you just did it.  [Laughter.]  It was astounding!

Thay is that way. Peggy and I had promised Thay last year that we would join him on a trip to Korea last spring. But as April approached, we were moving from one side of the country to the other and we were extremely busy. So we wrote Thay a beautiful letter saying why we couldn’t come to Korea. We got a note back: “Thay is very sad. Here’s the schedule in case you change your mind.” [Laughter.] That’s all a real human being has to do. Being near a real human being is so rare an opportunity that any time we can, we go because it is a chance to be trained. To be trained in what? It’s a chance to be trained in becoming a real human being.

So we went to Korea, and it was a profound experience of the bodhisattva way. One day in Korea, five thousand people joined us in walking meditation, as we walked into the subway where a man had committed suicide and had killed 200 other people. He left a note, saying he did not want to die by himself. We did walking meditation into that subway where family members were still gathered, with candles, altars, and pictures. It was powerful to go from the daylight down those steps into that dark subway. You could still smell the fire. It was profound practice in offering compassion without saying a word.

The world needs real human beings. In the Lotus Sutra there is a section called “arising up from the earth,” and in it the Buddha is having a conversation with hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas from all over the galaxy. One of the reasons they’ve gathered is that they’re concerned about planet Earth, and they asked the Buddha, “Do you need reinforcements?”  [Laughter.]  “Do you need help?”

And the Buddha said no, at this very moment bodhisattvas are rising up from the earth. Real human beings capable of living like the blue sky, like the sun and the moon that shine on everything. Shine on confusion, shine on clarity. Shine on sadness, shine on happiness. Shine on birth, shine on death.  Rising up from the earth.  It’s a powerful statement.

If you want to do something with your life, be a real human being. If you want to do something for your children, your grandchildren, be a real human being. If you want to do something for America, be a real human being. In everything you need to be a real human being. And it’s already inside of us; it’s in every cell of our body. However, we have to be trained to develop it, cultivate it, and to apply it. This is one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights—that one has to be trained to live life deeply. Most of us assume you have to be trained to be a doctor or a nurse or a pianist or a schoolteacher or a cabdriver or a cook. The idea that we have to be trained to live profoundly, seems to have never crossed anybody’s mind! You have to be trained to live. It’s one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights, and that training is lifelong.

The Buddha designed his life so that nine months of the year he was in public service, and three months of the year was spent in in-depth training. He designed his day that way also. He had very long days, lots of people coming and going, lots of teaching. But three times a day he withdrew for his own training, his own practice.

I think the dilemma for every one of us in this room, right now, is how do we design a life that allows that to happen for us? Our society is not structured for us to be real human beings; it’s structured for us to be consumers. And you don’t have to be a real human being to be a consumer. Our education system, our economics, our political process, don’t give us the time or create the environment for us to train ourselves in being a real human being. The training every bodhisattva has had for over two thousand years, is training in six things, and it’s the same training the Buddha had when he was a bodhisattva-in-training.

These six things are called the paramitas. They are practices that take us from the shore of fear to the shore of non-fear. From the shore of greed to the shore of non-greed. From the shore of hate to the shore of non-hate.

The first one of these practices is generosity. First, it means learning to give physical things we have without reluctance. Sharing. Basic kindergarten kinds of issues: “I have a cookie, and you don’t have one. What do we do now?” [Laughter.] Generosity. We have to train ourselves. Even though the impulse is deep inside of us, buried in ourselves, to share and to give, we are so quickly trained out of it by our society, by our culture. This is not just our culture, it’s every culture: “Don’t you do that, don’t give them your cookie.” Why? Because they may come back tomorrow for another one. We have tremendous rationales for cutting off and killing our true human being. Generosity: giving without apprehension, giving without fear.

There’s a great story about the Buddha’s generosity. The Buddha and his cousin Ananda were out for a stroll, and a man came up, bowed and said, “Dear sage, my mother has a medical emergency, and in order for her to be healed she needs another eye.”  So the Buddha took his eye out and gave it to the man. The man took the eye from the Buddha, threw it in the dust and stomped on it. And while he was stomping on it, Ananda said, “Hey, wait a minute!” But the Buddha said, “Ananda, the gift has already been given.”

Generosity. The practice of generosity is the practice of giving. For most of us, if people don’t do what we want with our gift we’re upset. That is the practice of non-generosity. When a gift has been given, it’s no longer yours, it’s no longer mine. And of course, there is no greater thing a person can do for their friends than to lay down their life, as Jesus reminds us. And the laying down of your life could be something as dramatic as martyrdom, but it could also be something as undramatic as going to a classroom full of children every day for forty years. It could be as mundane as going through your social work files for the thousandth time and not giving up on yourself and not giving up on humanity. It could be the fifty-fifth conversation with your daughter about the same thing, and you know you’ll do number fifty-six, you won’t withhold that from her. Generosity.

We train ourselves so well that eventually our generosity becomes like the Buddha’s. It’s spontaneous – sure, here’s my eye.  But for most of us now we have to think about the cookie—the eye’s a long way off! And that’s the purpose of the training. The training takes us on a journey from the cookie to the eye. And we don’t get there without training. I know how hard that is for Americans who want things fast. It takes practice. It takes training.  It takes time.

The second paramita is diligence. It’s called Right Effort in the Eightfold Path. How can we be diligent? The first step of diligence is figuring out how to be consistent in your practice. Once a day, twice a day, once or twice a week with the Sangha, My own personal experience is that you cannot practice too much.

Once we have a daily practice rhythm, diligence means looking deeply within ourselves. It’s going into great inquiry. As Master Empty Cloud would say, “Great inquiry into our fundamental face.” That’s the practice. To have the courage to look into our real face. Not our five year-old face, not our ninety year-old face, not our American face, not our female face, our male face. Our fundamental face. Our original face, some have called it. Our Buddha nature, others have called it. The face of nirvana is our fundamental face. The face of a real human being. Great inquiry. Diligence. Looking into who we really are. And when we begin to see who we are, we begin to see who everybody else is.

For a long time I’ve been estranged from my son. I’ve written him letters over the years, but we have never been reconnected at the heart level. This year while practicing, I discovered the last threshold that stopped me from reconnecting with him. I realized that I didn’t know who he was: I didn’t know his fundamental face was the same as mine! I forgot about his Buddha nature. I forgot about his blue sky. And I forgot that because I forgot that about my face. As soon as I had that insight, within three days I got a phone call from a friend who said, “Your son’s looking for you.” And I’m looking for him. When we leave this retreat, Peggy and I return to Boston where we’ll be for a month, and we’re staying about two miles from where he lives, and he and I have plans to hang out.

Inclusiveness is the third paramita. That’s a very popular word in diversity circles. You want to be inclusive. Okay. Inclusivity is the practice of developing the capacity to receive what life gives us. To receive the pain, the suffering and the disappointments and to develop the capacity to take it in and to transform it into compassion.

Some years ago Peggy and I had our house burn down in Boise, Idaho, by an arsonist who had been sent by the Aryan Nation. I was working in California when the fire started. Because the fire occurred at two-thirty in the morning, they expected us to be there sleeping, and they meant to do us real harm. Peggy called me at three o’clock and told me that she and our dog Reggae were safe but the house was a total loss. I said, “Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The whole time I was rearranging my schedule I was so stunned at the very idea that somebody would do that. I realized I didn’t know how to think like that.  I realized I didn’t know how to feel like that about anyone. I asked myself, how could somebody do that?

So over the next year as we rebuilt the house, I began to look into what kind of person joins that group. And I found out that they come from very poor economic backgrounds.  That most are high school dropouts. See, I’m moving toward inclusivity. That, if you look a little deeper, you’ll discover that nine out of ten of those people have been abused as children, emotionally and sexually. That’s how somebody could do that. Just looking for something to do to somebody, to strike out with the rage, with the anger, with the pain that’s just sitting there, growing.

Inclusivity practice takes time -this is about patience. This is not about having a Pollyanna attitude. For two years, Peggy had post-traumatic stress symptoms from being there when the fire started. But what is most important about this experience is that we were not harmed. What I mean is that we did not find ourselves having to be cruel. We did not find ourselves wishing ill will. We did not find ourselves having the seeds of hatred watered and developed at all. Anger, yes. Disappointment, yes. Shock, yes. But we did not become possessed and cruel. We did not have our focus turned around and reoriented to try to eliminate someone who tried to eliminate us. Protected by compassion. Protected by inclusiveness.

There’s a wonderful story of the Buddha. Around his time of enlightenment, Mara came and sent armies who fired arrows at the Buddha, and as the arrows got closer they turned into flowers and dropped to the ground. Now, I want to be like that. [Laughter.] And we can! That’s just the practice of inclusivity. I’ve seen it happen with Thay. I’ve seen an arrow coming at him, and by the time the arrow got to him it was a flower. Peggy and I were sitting with Thay and Sister Chân Không and a few others when Thay got the phone call about his sister passing away in Vietnam. And we watched him receive that news, knowing he couldn’t go to be with his family. We watched that news go in and come back out as compassion for the person on the phone who had to give the message. Inclusivity.

Mindfulness trainings, the fourth paramita, are characterized in the Eightfold Path by right speech, right action or conduct, and right livelihood. The first role of the mindfulness trainings is creating stability and safety in and around ourselves. You know, it is very difficult to reach tranquility and profound insight in sitting meditation if you’re constantly looking out the window to see if your neighbor is looking for you with a gun because you stole his chicken! [Laughter] The first function of virtue is to create stability in ourselves, so we can calm down.  So the sand in the glass can settle at the bottom.

Mindfulness trainings are the ground upon which awakening can occur. And they are also evidence of the awakening. They’re both. But it’s a journey. The first step in practicing the mindfulness trainings is to notice your own behavior. Not improving yourself. The first step is noticing yourself with gentleness, with compassion. And the second step is slowly beginning to try to shift the pattern. The third step is healing the pattern. And the fourth step is transforming the pattern. Most of us want to go from step one to step four. Be compassionate with yourself. The key is to continue to practice. Mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating.

There’s also a secret of the Eightfold Path that’s not written down. It’s called right association. During a retreat last summer one of the children asked Thay, how did he get so peaceful? And Thay said, “Well, first I wanted to be peaceful. Second, I had an image of what that might be like.” And he referred to a time when, as a young person he saw his first picture of the Buddha sitting mindfully on the grass. “Third, I surrounded myself with peaceful people. Fourth, I added to that an environment that would support my practice of peace.” Right association.

Many of us want more peace, but our associations are not peaceful. We  have to take  charge,  and create the environment that cares for us, that supports us, that will sustain us in becoming real human beings. We have to learn to set boundaries that protect our practice. We have to learn to protect ourselves from others with gentleness and kindness, with kind caring.

Meditation is the fifth paramita that takes us to the other shore. And the other shore is always right here, right now. The practice of meditation is not an escape from life, it’s an escape into life. The classical description of meditation is the practice of stopping, calming, and achieving tranquility, stillness of mind, imperturbability. And the practice of deep seeing, deep looking into life, vipassanya, insight. This must occur for that to occur, and of course they inter-are, as Thay would say. But most of us want insight without stopping, without calming. For example it’s not that we aren’t smart enough to solve the problem of education in America, it’s that we haven’t meditated on it. We haven’t stopped long enough to settle down, to calm ourselves, and to look deeply into it.

Sometimes at Plum Village Palestinians and Israelis gather together. Because the first part of the peace process is about peace with oneself, they’ll spend several days sitting and walking and eating mindfully, and only later will they start to talk about peace with each other. It’s only a political problem because it’s a spiritual problem.

Einstein said the same level of consciousness that created a problem can’t solve the problem. You can only reinforce the problem with that kind of thinking. It’s astounding what can happen through spiritual practice, when, eye-to-eye across the table, father-to-father, son-to-son, daughter-to-daughter, mother-to-mother, all of a sudden we see each other’s children lying in the street and we get it! We get it in the very cells of our body, the possibility of being a real human being, and we know real human beings are not warmongers, that real human beings are not driven by revenge and prejudice. Revenge and prejudice and war are dark clouds floating across the sky of a real human being.

Meditation: stopping and calming and looking deeply into life. Meditation: sitting and walking and eating and lying down. Meditation is more than stress reduction. The purpose of meditation is to transform the quality of our minds. We say we want peace in the world, but we don’t have minds capable of it. We wish people were more kind, but we don’t train our minds to be more kind. Master Tang Hoi from Vietnam used to say that meditation is the process, the practice, of eliminating those clouds in the blue sky that is our mind.

Right view, right understanding, is paramita number six. The realization of perfect understanding is the bodhisattva’s only career. It’s very important that all these practices are done with wisdom. Generosity without wisdom, without understanding, is pity. Generosity without right understanding means you’ve died for the wrong cause. History’s full of examples of that tragedy.

Right view is detachment from views. It doesn’t mean we don’t have views. It means when we have views we know that that’s what they are, just views. Opinions are easy to come by; most of us have opinions that are created by our culture. We have opinions created by our family, by our ancestors, about ourselves and about each other, and we think they are our own. Right view is insight. Right view, right understanding, is about moving from the shore of speculation into the shore of direct perception. To practice developing insight into life, our whole life long,

The way of the bodhisattva is the way of the real human being. It is the way, as Thay would say, of walking with our Buddha feet, so that with every step we enjoy the miracle of being in the present moment. We touch the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God with every step–that’s where we live. With our Buddha eyes, everywhere we look we see wonder.

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Writing Your Autobiography:

A 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.

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

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Transformation at the Prison

By Terry Masters mb41-Transformation1

Friday Morning

I got to the prison early but Kent was already there, pacing the floor.

“Hi Kent,” I smiled.

He nodded but didn’t stop pacing. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said, as he paced. “I think I’m goin’ crazy. I don’t think I’m gonna be a Muslim anymore... I just... This is horrible...”

“What happened?”

“Well...” Pacing back and forth, but in front of me so I can hear him.

“This white dude? Yesterday he got in my face. Real bad. “And I wanted to smash his face in. I pictured him on the floor and I was stompin’ his face.

“But you know what I did?” I shook my head.

“I walked away.”

“You walked away from him?”

“Yeah! Listen. I been shot at. I been stabbed. I been dragged behind a car and I don’t even know how many fights I been in... and then... I walked away from that dude.”

I smiled. Kent didn’t notice. He was still pacing.

“I think I’m turnin’ yella. I’m nuthin’ but a big coward.

I’m a...”

I interrupted. “Kent! This is wonderful! This is so beautiful.

You did just like we’ve been talking about.”

He stopped pacing and faced me, waited for me to continue.

“Yes! Somebody...” “A white dude!”

“...A white dude got in your face, made you angry and you stopped to notice what was happening.”

His brows furrowed; he was really listening.

“You stopped, Kent! You listened to your true self.” He looked doubtful.

“You did! You stopped, just like our teacher says to do. You didn’t just react out of habit.”

His face softened a little. “And now...”

“Yeah?”

“And now, you’re doing walking meditation!” (Sorry, Thay.

I know pacing isn’t exactly walking meditation.) “This is wonderful, Kent. This is so wonderful.”

He didn’t exactly smile, but a little bit, he did. And sat down for our meditation as the other guys filed in.

Next Friday

When I came in only Kent and another guy were there, a guy I didn’t know. Kent introduced me to him: Charlie. Charlie and I visited a little as Kent moved the chairs out of the way so we could do some yoga before we meditated. Charlie is a Choctaw from Oklahoma. After a short visit, he walked away to help with the chairs.

Kent came up to me and whispered, “That’s the dude.”

“The dude?’

“Yeah, the white dude I told you about.”

“You brought him, the white dude, to meditation class?” My eyes were wide with astonishment. A smile spread over my face.

“Yeah.”

“Oh my gosh, Kent, you are amazing!” “Terry, don’t cry!”

“Well, I’m so happy!”

The other guys arrived. After yoga and after our first meditation, we always talk a little about our practice. Kent said to the group, pointing to Charlie, “This is the dude.”

Everyone knew right away who he meant. They bragged on Kent until he hid his face, pretending to be embarrassed, “Cut it out!”

I was grinning. Tears of joy were forming. “And Terry, don’t cry!”

“I’m not crying.”

“She can cry if she wants to, Kent—leave her alone.”

We all sat still then, enjoying the wonder of this man.

After a while I said, “Kent, would you be willing to tell us how it came about that you invited Charlie to join us today?”

“Well... well, I was doin’ yoga in our dorm and Charlie, he comes up an’ he says, whatcha doin’? and I say, yoga, and then after a while I say, and I’m gonna do meditation after that. And then after a while I say, and Friday I’m goin’ to meditation class, wanna come? And he says yeah.”

I’m speechless. We all are. We just sit in our circle, smiling. Finally I say, “So, Charlie I know this is your first time here, but would you mind telling us how you got the courage to say whatcha doin’ to Kent?”

Charlie squirmed in his seat as he said, “Well, Kent is a positive guy, uh...” Squirms, his eyes on his feet. “And I’m a... positive guy...” Squirm. “And well I just thought there’s too many negative guys around here and it doesn’t make sense for two positive guys not to uh...” Squirm. “Uh, stick together. So I asked him.”

Charlie took a breath and looked up at us.

Awed, no one said anything.

Charlie added, “And I like it here.” Pause.

“I’m comin’ back.” Pause.

“I’ll be back next week.” Pause.

“Yep.”

I didn’t cry.

There, at the prison? I didn’t cry.

(Although everyone but Kent said it’d be okay.) But I cried when I got home.

Cried and grinned.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas.

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Presently Minding My Children

By Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner

One of my core beliefs is that parenting, in and of itself, is a form of mindfulness. My experience of mindfulness in the family, however, recently underwent a metamorphosis. This happened after good seeds were watered at the 2005 Summer Family Retreat at Maple Forest Monastery. The catalyst for this change was a bacterial infection that dragged on for over three months.

Before taking ill, I felt I was mindfully parenting my four children: Maddie, 6, Patrick, 7, Nicole, 9, and Emily, 16. This included planning vacations, making plans with friends, keeping the children involved in activities, and driving children to play dates. I was busy keeping us busy. This busy-ness disappeared, not by choice but because of the infection. For three months, I was fatigued, sore, and unable to engage in our usual whirlwind of activities. Inertia ruled many of my days. Helplessness, frustration, and guilt became emotional themes. Being a single mother exacerbated the situation.

But I discovered, while often stuck in bed, a new repertoire of parenting skills: listening deeply, looking with compassion, and cuddling. Soon each child’s unique set of needs and strengths emerged, traits I had not noticed while I was busy parenting.

Children as Teachers

Now I was not busy making plans, running errands, scheduling events, talking to friends, logging on to the Internet, or tending to thousands of other things. I only had time to be with my children, who were quite happy having my undivided attention.

A deeper aspect of mindfulness had crystallized. I had learned to be present with my children without other people, events, or props. Sometimes my children were bored, but they were calmer, happier, and easier to be with.

I began to take to heart Thay’s teachings on watering good seeds so they can grow stronger and more available for use in our daily lives. I recalled how genuinely my children had enjoyed being with the monastics at the retreat. I realized it was because the monastics give their undivided attention to children: they are truly present whether baking chocolate bread, collecting flowers, picking tomatoes, playing a game, or singing a song.

I also learned from my children. Perhaps they were my best teachers. My six-year-old daughter, Maddie, found a dragonfly with an injured wing. I watched as she gently picked it up on a stick and tried to feed it grass. Many adults walked by; a few children also passed. They were too busy to stop. Then after a while a small group gathered around Maddie. The dragonfly had long lacy wings and big blue-green eyes. Its legs were long and graceful; they tickled Maddie’s little hand as it unsuccessfully struggled to take flight. Maddie carefully placed the dragonfly in a flower garden. What a gift to be truly present with my daughter and to see her joy and laughter in such a simple thing!

I played Lego with my son Patrick, which required me to pay close attention. I took time to understand my sixteen-year-old Emily’s push for autonomy, and her need to struggle against me, something that required patience and energy.

Breaking the High-Tech Habit

As a parent, it is hard to slow down and just be with my children in their world—not the world I created for them, which is all too often defined by schools, activities and events—but to be with them in their world. In this high-tech era it is hard to disconnect: to turn the cell phone off, to leave the Palm Pilot home, to not check my e-mail or voice mail several times a day, to even let the mail sit for a day. Research indicates many teenagers and adults experience distress even while on vacation if they do not have access to the technological world left at home.

Now, as I regain my health, I try to avoid a symbiotic relationship with these high-tech trappings. I have learned to say no to many opportunities that I would enjoy, even greatly benefit from professionally. I just want to focus on being a parent: being a parent in a simpler way.

Ajahn Chah said, “Everything is a hassle, everything is presenting obstacles—and everything is teaching you.” My intention is to be fully present, with undivided attention, to these moments in my daily life—and with my children.

Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner, Radiant Nourishment of the Source, lives in Troy, Michigan. In addition to being a mom, Cindi studies Tae Kwan Do, is learning to speak Thai, and is looking forward to finishing her Master’s Degree in Counseling later this year.

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Dharma Rain in the Rocky Mountains

mb45-Dharma1 The monks and nuns who answered our questions during the panel discussion at the retreat astonished us with their wisdom and enlightened us with their insight. This heavily edited version gives you a taste; we hope to publish more excerpts in future issues.

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Question 1 (from a lay man): How can we practice with the current political situation, in particular America’s role in the world, and how do we judge and understand what we’re being told by the media? How do we maintain optimism and remain agents of change, without feeling confusion and despair?

Question 2 (lay woman): A lot of my family loves the military; they draw their support and livelihood from it. When they tell their war stories, I feel aversion and don’t want to be there, but I love them and want to connect with them in other ways. Do you have suggestions for my practice around this?

Brother Phap Ho — Watering Positive Seeds

When I lived back home in Stockholm, Sweden, I really wanted to make a difference and contribute to a more beautiful world. Problems felt so overwhelming, so big; how can I ever understand? There’s so much suffering everywhere.

We’re all different. We talk about seeds, the different tendencies or qualities we have inside — despair, joy, hope, confidence, being judgmental. Some might have a very strong seed of joy and hope in them, and their seed of despair is not so strong; maybe they can consume a lot of news and still see clearly a path of light and beauty. For some of us when we consume even a little, we are heavy and discouraged.

When suffering arises in me due to causes around me or just inside, I think they’re real. I think it’s something that needs to be solved. I think it’s a matter of life-and-death urgency. And in those moments, I very easily forget that there are things going well, too. The sun is shining on my face. The wind is coming in, a gentle breeze. Sometimes my brothers, they see that I get a bit heavy and they try to make me laugh. Sometimes I feel like, Oh, what are you doing? I’m trying to do something serious, I’m practicing! Don’t distract me! [laughter] Little by little I’m getting better.

We have a wonderful practice of nourishing the positive elements in us. There is the teaching of changing the peg, changing the CD. When we see that our minds go in a way that makes us feel heavy and we keep having irritation against someone, the world, the government or whatever, we can change the CD.

It’s not that I ignore the suffering, it’s not that I ignore the difficulties inside or outside. But I see them in a little bit bigger light. I don’t forget that the sky is there and that the earth is still here. There might be some suffering but still there’s a lot of solidity in you.

We learn from our practice. We stumble a little here and pick ourselves up; it’s a bit like trial and error. We have to know ourselves. Little by little we become more aware, we see more clearly, we know how to deal with difficulties and how to nourish ourselves. But we have to practice.

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Sister Lang Nghiem — A Ghost in a Hammock

When I was about to move from Lower Hamlet to Deep Park — Lower Hamlet is in Plum Village in France, and Deer Park is in California — I wanted to write a letter to my sisters and to express my gratitude for each of them in a concrete way, recollecting a positive experience I had with each of them. This would nourish those seeds in myself and also in my sisters. Everyone got a really good paragraph, and when I got to this sister, absolutely nothing came up! [laughter] I tried. I picked up my pen and said, Okay, Dear Sister — and then I would wait, and nothing came up. But I continued to try, and several days later suddenly I remembered an experience that I’d had with her.

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One night I couldn’t sleep, there was a storm raging in me, so I went out and sat in the hammock. In Lower Hamlet there’s a hammock next to the bookshop in a cluster of trees, and you can overlook the lotus pond and see the plum orchard. That night it was a full moon, and I could see the path like sand around the lotus pond, and the plum orchard, and the shadows of the trees. I sat there for a while and inside the storm was still raging. I was just trying to calm it down.

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Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me and someone asked, “Who is it?” I didn’t want to answer, I was focused on me, and I just sat still, swinging in my hammock. So I guess I was moving in and out of light and darkness, between the shadows from the tree and the moonlight. She asked, “Who is it?” several times. And I didn’t answer. Suddenly I felt pebbles at my feet, I was continuously being pelted with things. I realized what she was thinking and I just started smiling to myself. In Vietnam and in many cultures, ghosts don’t have feet.

I knew she thought I was a ghost or something. At one point I just turned around and stared at her as she continued to throws things at me. Then she came up and she recognized that it was me. “Oh, it’s you.” She sat next to me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I was really closed so I said nothing. So that night she just sat there, and she said she was determined to sit there, too, and I was wishing she’d go away! I kept telling her I was fine but finally it was too much for me so I got up and said, “Okay, we’ll both go to bed.”

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I didn’t think much of that moment, but when I was writing the letter to her I was able to acknowledge that her presence that night helped to change the storm in me. That letter nourished me so much because as soon as I was able to acknowledge some goodness in her, my views completely changed about her. I didn’t look at her the same anymore, and I came to care for her in a way that I had never been able to care for her before.

If you’re having difficulties with someone, sit down and think of something really good that came of that person. It may change your perspective of the situation, the person, or the organization, and the government, too. If we look closely we’ll be able to identify people with wisdom, insight, and compassion, and we can find ways to support them. Even those whom we feel we really disagree with, we can look a little bit more and see that they’re not just that, they’re much more. We can look again to pick out these things, and then we can act from there.

Brother Phap Luu — No Fear, No View

So much of the suffering that we experience in the world, in America today, is because of fear. It comes from a sense of being a victim, a sense that we are not in control, a sense that there are outside forces that somehow have power over us. So the question is, how do we bring the Dharma into this moment, into our lives, so that we generate non-fear in ourselves and in those around us?

If we ask ourselves that question, moment to moment, we’re really asking ourselves, how am I generating non-fear for myself, for my family, for my community? That way we’re no longer prisoners to any government, to our society, to the fear of someone coming and shooting our young son, whatever fear we might have.

Our fears are irrational. We get in cars and drive around every day, and it’s much more likely that we’re going to die in a car accident than we’re ever going to be hijacked in an airplane. Global warming is something to be afraid of — we’re talking about all of our successive generations.

In my practice, when I look at what I’m to do in every moment, I’m careful not to base what I’m doing in a view. I feel this is a lot of why we are ineffective in transforming the way society functions. I was in activist groups before I became a monk, so I have experienced what it means to base your actions on a view. This is clear, these people are killing, they’re destroying the environment, right? Thus, I need to do this.

In his teachings on the Eightfold Path the Buddha said everything is based on right view. If we don’t have right view, how can we talk about right thinking? How can we talk about right concentration? We need to have a clear view.

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Ultimately right view is the absence of any view. It’s only a matter of whether we’re clear or not clear. It’s not a matter of good or bad, of judging, punishing, or even statistics. Those are all just views, ways of looking at the world. Avidya is ignorance; one way you can translate it is the absence of light.

How can we keep this mind clear moment to moment? There’s not fear, because in clarity there’s no birth, there’s no death. It’s just manifestation, and the absence of manifestation.

What we’re doing now, ten thousand years ago it was the same thing. At the time of the Buddha, there was a prince who killed his father and terrorized the countryside. The Buddha didn’t go out and protest. This is what they did at that time. Now we have elections. [laughter]

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When we do walking meditations with Thay, we call it a peace walk, but what’s going on there? I’ve walked with banners, it’s very boring. But when you see Thay walking, it’s really interesting! You’re not quite sure what it is he’s doing. And we’re not quite sure either! We’re walking. No, we’re following our breathing, we’re following our steps. But is this about Iraq?

It’s for a reason that Thay is not saying this or that. What’s happening now, the seeds were planted hundreds of years ago. But if we want to change, we have to have a clear view right now, to affect what’s happening to our children, to successive generations.

Brother Wayne — Connection Beyond Words

I am also from a military family. On my paternal side, all the males have been in the military for at least four generations. All my five uncles were in the Navy or in the Air Force or in the Army. At a very young age I was against war, against the military.

A couple of years ago my grandmother passed away. She was the only remaining parent of my father, and it struck my father very strongly. Although I wasn’t there at the time — I was in China accompanying my teacher — I got some phone calls and my relatives were really concerned over my father. When I got back to America, I called my father, and we had the strangest conversation ever. His mother had just passed away, and he spoke to me about his Navy career. And that’s all he could say. For the first half an hour listening to military stories over the phone, I was kind of scratching my head. I thought, my grandmother, his mother, just passed away, and he’s talking about the Navy.

When we practice deep listening, when we listen from that place of stillness, with our body and not with our brain, we can listen to what is not being said. Underneath I could hear his sense of loss, his confusion, becoming an orphan, and also wanting to make amends in our own relationship, because when I was about a year old my mother and my father separated, and he wasn’t there for me. So I knew, when I listened, he was trying to make it up, and he didn’t know how.

In the case of your family, when you have to listen to all of these military stories, that may not be what they really wanted to talk about. They may not know how to talk about anything else.

Yesterday in our dharma discussions we were talking about the mindfulness trainings and a sister shared how she used alcohol as an ice-breaker, a tool to let go and to be able to talk from the heart and connect with people. This touched me very deeply, because the reason I’m a monk and the reason I practice is because I see so much of the suffering that comes from our disconnection.

I was struck in my first year coming to Plum Village as a novice monk how I was able to connect with people at the heart level. Ordinarily we connect with people because we have things in common. We talk about work, the kids, or movies, music, art, whatever. With the practice we don’t have to have the same background, the same taste in music or sports or philosophy. Because I am practicing to open my heart, and you are practicing to open your heart, I can connect with you. If I didn’t have the practice there’d be no chance I would connect with all these different types of people. In the case of our family, with the practice, we find our own creative way to do that.

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With my father, I was finally able to say, “Father, how are you? How do you feel?” I was able to make a connection. It’s different for each one of us. We have our own style, our own way, and we find that with our rootedness, with our stability.

Sister Susan — Mountain Love

You just can’t say enough about how important it is to get nourishment. You can’t say enough about what looking at a few good mountains can do for you.

I look at these mountains around here and what they say to me is, I’ve been around here for a billion years, and I can tell you a thing or two — not just about stability and rocks, but about beauty. There’s a lot of beauty in a billion years, and it touches my heart over and over again. It fills my heart to the brim, and that does a lot to pour a balm over what I hear about Lebanon and Israel, and to know that suffering there. I helps me to know that there is beauty in the world, that things are all right somewhere.

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It’s so crucial to look daily and to let yourself be free. For me it helps me let go of the complexities. People get in knots with government leaders, they can’t solve their problems, there are conflicting ideas and conflicting pains. People don’t know how to figure them out.

I can’t criticize without looking deeply. I need all the calm I can muster, all the mindfulness, looking carefully at both sides, staying calm, and knowing how it feels to be in those shoes — what would it be like to suffer.

Everyone has an amount of media that they can take. I take as much as I can, and then I know I can’t take any more. I look at a lot of mountains! Then I need to see the suffering, and there is so much suffering I don’t see, obviously. When I find myself feeling despair, I know I need to be outside.

We don’t look at our earth nearly enough. We have so little clue of our connection to the outside world, to our physical world. We get stuck in four walls and in personalities. The more we can connect with the world we live in, the more we can see the bigger picture and grow our calm. Our government leaders need all of our wisdom and calm, and the more that our views change, as our brother said, it will become so obvious. But we need to have all that calm and clarity and happiness. Our happiness comes from our nourishment level and our compassion level; they go together.

We need to make our families our intimacy. Bonding needs to be really strong. We need to let go of things like military, which political side our families are on. Families need to be intimate. I remember this wonderful story of Thay giving questions and answers; this lady was going on and on about how her daughter was into computers too much and it just drove her crazy. She was saying over and over how destructive it was and finally Thay interrupted her, saying, “You really need to learn how to play the computer with your daughter.” [laughter]

I get into this with my son. Sometimes we get on opposite sides, but that bond with our loved ones is so important. You need love so much. Ninety percent of the time it is about love anyway. We need it so much.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic.

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The Sangha Carries Everything

An Interview with Anh-Huong Nguyen mb65-TheSangha1

Anh-Huong Nguyen has been practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh for more than thirty years. She has led mindfulness retreats in the United States since 1988, and in 1992 was among the first students to be ordained as meditation teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh. She and her husband, Thu Nguyen, founded the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia, in 1998. The center offers sessions of mindfulness training and practice in a nonsectarian way. MPCF (www.mpcf. org) is located in the beautiful, secluded setting of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, Virginia.

In a phone interview with Natascha Bruckner for the Mindfulness Bell in September 2013, Anh-Huong shared these stirring Dharma teachings in a gentle but passionate voice.

The Mindfulness Bell: You’ve been practicing for many years in the Plum Village tradition. I’m curious to know how you started, especially how you first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh and what effect his teachings had on your life then.

Anh-Huong: I met Thay long ago, when I was still in my mom’s belly. My mom and dad came to Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon to say goodbye to Thay when he left Vietnam the first time, on a fellowship to study comparative religion at Princeton University. It was in the summer of 1961, when I had been in my mommy’s tummy for seven months.

When I was ten, while sitting in our living room, I picked up the book Hoa Sen Trong Bien Lua (Lotus in a Sea of Fire). On the back was a photograph of Thay pouring tea from a teapot. I felt very drawn to the photograph, so I looked at it for ten or fifteen minutes.

MB: What did you receive from the photograph? It sounds as if a transmission was happening.

AH: It’s hard to describe. I felt a sense of warmth and peace inside. I felt happy just looking at the photograph. It reminds me of Thay’s story about looking at the drawing of a Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine when he was a boy.

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MB: When did you meet Thay in person?

AH: Our family escaped Vietnam in a small boat on February 14, 1979. We almost lost our lives several times on the sea because of high waves. We were moved around to several locations and finally settled in a big refugee camp on Pulau Bidong Island in Malaysia. Our family––my parents, my two younger sisters, and my younger brother––flew to Philadelphia on December 13, 1979. We were sponsored by a Catholic church and settled in Audubon, New Jersey.

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About six months after that, I met Thay. I still vividly remember him giving me my first lesson on mindful breathing. He said, “Lie down, my child. Put your hands on your belly, and breathe.” That’s all! Not even, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

I put my hands on my belly and began to feel my breath. My family was Buddhist. We prayed and chanted at home. Occasionally we went to the temple. But this was the first time I received direct teaching from a Buddhist monk. I found my breath. I was aware that something very important had just happened to me. The first lesson on mindful breathing stayed with me and sustained me from that point on.

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We all studied hard in school. After high school, I went to Rutgers University. I had learned English when I was in Vietnam but it was still hard to understand and to speak. So when I began at Rutgers, I took a tape recorder with me and recorded some of the lectures. I listened to them again at home and if there were things I did not understand, I would be the first student waiting to ask the professor for clarification. I was very enthusiastic. I wanted to learn and to do well because in my heart, I wanted to go back to Vietnam and other places in the world to help in any way I could.

But, after the first exam during my first year, I lost interest in studying. I looked at the textbook but nothing would sink in. Only in recent years, I realized that I had been in depression. I missed home so much; I missed my friends. And I knew that the suffering was still going on in my homeland.

In my heart there was an urgency to do something to help. I could not go back to Vietnam or to the refugee camp. I felt helpless and paralyzed. Despair built up inside me. But I still had to study. My parents were working hard to support us so we could focus on our studies. As the eldest, I had to set a good example for my younger sisters and brother. But my heart and my mind were still in Vietnam, which pulled me away from my desire to study. As I say these words, I have so much compassion for this nineteen-year-old girl in me.

A True Rebirth

MB: What got you through that time?

AH: Mindful breathing and writing letters to Thay and Sister Chan Khong. Sister Chan Khong shared with me how she sent packages to poor families in Vietnam, so I started doing that. I sent packages to the families of some of my friends, especially those whose parents were put into reeducation camps because they worked for the old government.

Thay wrote to me and gave me an assignment. He said, “Write down all your conditions for happiness, all the things that you still have.” I started writing, and to my surprise, I ran out of paper. I was learning not to be so caught up in what I couldn’t do for the people in Vietnam and in the refugee camp. I cried and cried. Tears of awakening. Even before I finished the assignment, transformation already happened inside of me. I felt more present, peaceful, and happy. In fact, that assignment is not to be finished.

So I continued going to school and sending letters and packages to poor families in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong taught me to use different names when sending the packages, so the communists wouldn’t question why one person was sending so many packages to so many families. I would use the family name as the sender, as if I were a member of that family.

In my letters, I tried to water the good seeds in them and encourage and comfort them. I shared about my life in the U.S., both the challenges and the beauty of what I encountered. Sometimes I wrote in the voice of a woman who was twenty years older than me, sometimes in the voice of a younger sister or brother. This work and mindfulness practice made it possible for me to have the balance I needed in order to continue my studies.

Sometimes when a big wave of despair suddenly came upon me, I could not go to class. It happened less and less as time went on. But when it did, I would choose to miss the lecture and walk through the campus. I did not know that I was doing walking meditation, but I was breathing and walking. I felt more relaxed, solid, and calm walking among the trees and flowers on the campus grounds. Then I would go to the next class.

The teaching on mindful breathing that was transmitted to me nourished and sustained me each day. I was told that Thay and Sister Chan Khong fasted one or two evenings a week because they wanted to remember the hungry children in Vietnam. I also decided to skip one meal each week. Small things like that helped me stay connected with those who were less fortunate and keep my heart warm.

We had survived the perilous trip by boat. It was a miracle that our family of six could make it to the States, to this “land of freedom,” in my dad’s words. My parents said that they would sacrifice everything in order to free their children from the communist regime. But the transmission I received from Thay and Sister Chan Khong was the most precious gift of all. It opened my eyes and my heart. I was reborn.

I was happy and grateful to be reborn. My deepest wish is to share this happiness with others. What happened to me when I was at Rutgers was a true rebirth. And since then, I have been born again and again. Each day, I continue to receive transmission from Thay and Sister Chan Khong, and I continue to pass it on to family and friends.

Sharing with Others

MB: I’m curious how you have shared that with others. Have you helped people to experience that kind of rebirth?

AH: My desire to share this practice springs from a deep well of gratitude. I share through Sangha building; the Sangha is the place through which I can share all of my life experiences.

My story from Rutgers is about maintaining a balance between being present with the pain arising in you, and at the same time embracing the joy of being alive. When our deepest desire is to understand the suffering that is there, mindfulness practice is not hard work. Each breath or each step taken in mindfulness is a pure delight. It is in the places where there is suffering that the practice of mindfulness becomes clear and alive––whether it is the practice of cultivating joy or transforming suffering. True healing and transformation cannot happen without insights. When we practice together as a Sangha, the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration is steady and strong, which becomes fertile soil for the ripening of seeds of insights.

The Sangha helps us to be present with our pain and to nourish joy and happiness in a way that no one individual can. We may learn how to breathe, walk, release tension in our bodies and minds, how to cultivate joy, and how to be there for a painful feeling. But sometimes our mindfulness is not strong enough to hold the pain that arises in us. We need to lay this pain inside the Sangha’s cradle, so that it can be held by the collective mindfulness and concentration.

When I was in New Jersey, I did not have a local Sangha to practice with. Although Thay and Sister Chan Khong were in Plum Village, I felt their presence in me. I was nourished and sustained each day by the teachings that they had transmitted to me. The trees and the birds and my friends at school were also part of my Sangha.

We need a Sangha in order to practice. Sangha is our refuge. Our pain is not only individual pain, but also ancestral pain, collective pain. Without a Sangha, it’s very difficult to embrace and transform this pain alone. And when we talk about building Sangha, we talk about building brotherhood and sisterhood.

MB: What does building brotherhood and sisterhood mean to you?

AH: Brotherhood and sisterhood are the substance of a true Sangha. When we can listen deeply to the stories of our Sangha brothers and sisters, we may be able to hear their ancestors and ourselves at the same time. Their stories are never theirs alone. The joy and pain that we share in the Sangha are held by the entire Sangha. When the discrimination between my pain and others’ pain is not there, the false separation between me and others disappears. Struggles that are shared in the Sangha circle can help us touch the pain that lies deep within, and our hearts may feel tender for the first time.

When I take care of a brother or sister in the Sangha, I take care of myself. When my Dharma sister or brother is in pain, I want to be there for the pain. It’s not my obligation as a Dharma teacher or a senior member of the Sangha. Building brotherhood and sisterhood, taking care of the Sangha, is taking care of myself. It’s taking care of my mother, my sister, my family. It’s natural. I see myself as a small segment of a long bamboo, and the ancestral teachers’ wisdom and compassion flow through the entire bamboo. The energy that runs through me and allows me to serve the Sangha is not really mine. My practice is to keep my segment hollow so that water from the source can pass through easily.

MB: To follow up on what you shared before––are you still sending packages to Vietnam, or are you currently engaged in supporting people there?

AH: I stopped sending packages to Vietnam after I was allowed to visit when the Vietnamese government loosened their travel policy. I visited the orphanages and the poor families. Now instead of sending packages, I send money. With the help of a number of friends, we started a non-profit organization, Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam. People can send money to us, and twice a year we send it on to Vietnam to support several projects. You can learn more about the work we’re doing at www.crpcv.org. This work sustains me and sustains our Sangha. One member of our Sangha often brings vegetables from her garden to share, and the dana she receives goes to help the poor children in Vietnam.

MB: What helps you to sustain a connection with Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and the teachings?

AH: What sustains my connection with Thay and Sister Chan Khong as well as the Buddha and the Dharma is Sangha building. We are like trees that grow in the Sangha soil. Without the Sangha, we cannot grow beautifully and strongly. For me, the Sangha is everything. When I sit with my Dharma brothers and sisters, sharing stories, I feel all of our spiritual and blood ancestors are present with us. Whenever I take a walk or give a talk, Thay and my Sangha and all of my ancestral teachers are always with me.

MB: So there’s no reason to feel alone.

AH: I’ve never felt alone. Even in the most challenging times in our family and in the Sangha, I deeply trust that everything will be all right. We just need to allow ourselves to be carried in the stream of our ancestral teachers. I do not have to make any decisions or solve any problems alone. Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and all of our ancestors are doing everything with us. The Sangha is like a float. When we left Vietnam, my dad hung tires around our small boat. If he hadn’t done that, the boat would have sunk immediately as soon as we encountered high waves. For me, the Sangha is like those tires; it keeps us afloat.

The Sangha is a body. Some of us happen to be the head, some happen to be the belly, and some to be the feet. We are different parts of that body. A Dharma teacher is often perceived as Sangha leader, which can be a misperception. A Dharma teacher may belong to the head part of the Sangha body, but he or she does not have to be the leader. I or we do take care of the Sangha. But believing in the idea that there is an “I” or “we” who take care of the Sangha may take away the joy, freedom, and happiness of Sangha building. There’s taking care of the Sangha, but there’s no one who’s taking care of the Sangha.

MB: If someone has that perception of “I am taking care,” or “we are taking care of the Sangha,” how do you suggest that people work with that perception to open their minds?

AH: We are so conditioned to living, practicing, and helping in that way. When we walk in the mist, our shirt gradually gets wet. If there is one person in the Sangha who serves the Sangha without thinking that “I am taking care of the Sangha,” that spirit will penetrate into the entire Sangha. Building Sangha in the light of interbeing can bring us endless joy and freedom. People often say, “Oh, you’re an OI member, you have these responsibilities. You have to build Sangha. You have to do this and that.” Or, “As a Dharma teacher, you take on a lot more responsibility.” But I don’t feel that way because I never thought of myself as a Dharma teacher. [Laughs.]

Receiving Lamp Transmission from Thay or entering the core community of the Order of Interbeing can only help us feel more free and happy, because we are now entering the stream of our ancestral teachers. We should not let the “brown jacket” or the title “Dharma teacher” get in the way! If you’re happy, you are already a true Sangha builder. Responsibility is a wholesome trait, but when it is mixed with the notion, “I have to carry it,” then it becomes a burden, a source of unhappiness. We don’t have to carry anything. The Sangha carries everything.

Embracing Our Pain

The message I’d like to repeat is: Don’t run away from the pain, sadness, or depression in you. Sometimes there’s a voice inside saying that if you go back to your pain, you will die. This voice may tell you not to trust the Sangha, and that this practice can only take you thus far. I name this destructive energy “ill will,” which is present in each of us. It prevents us from taking deep root into the Sangha soil. It threatens and prevents us from opening our hearts to our Sangha. It instills us with fear and doubts. We don’t need to argue with or listen to this voice. You know the mantra I’ve been sharing with my friends in the Sangha? If you hear this voice, take a few deep breaths and practice this mantra: “Okay. I will die. I accept dying. If I die in the Sangha’s arms, that’s the best place to die. If I die in the Buddha’s arms, what could be a better place to die?”

mb65-TheSangha7Regardless of what happens, we are committed to showing up at our Sangha. I have a Dharma brother who carries deep suffering and old traumas. In the past, he didn’t come to Sangha when emotions arose because he wasn’t able to drive. Now, when that happens, he can take a taxi to Sangha. He shows up. Sometimes when old trauma returns, we suddenly do not feel safe coming to the Sangha. I suggest to him pinning a note on his shirt, saying, “Dear Sangha, I need your support so that I may rest in the Sangha today,” when he comes and lies down in the Sangha.

At the end of the day, when we are tired, we go home and rest. We can lie in bed, relax, and drop all our self-images. I wish that my brothers and sisters can find that same rest, that same comfort in their Sangha. Sangha has to be a place where people can feel safe so that they can close their eyes, relax, and enjoy their breathing. When Sangha becomes a safe place, we’re not just talking about being cells in the Sangha body, we’re living it. Brotherhood and sisterhood come alive when we go through difficult as well as happy moments together. Sangha practice weaves threads of individual practitioners into a Sangha blanket, keeping everyone warm and comfortable.

That’s why Thu quit his job as a software developer and I quit my job as a biochemistry researcher, so that we could devote our lives to Sangha building. During the first year of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, there were many days that the dana basket was empty. We lived on our savings. Our son Bao-Tich, who is now twenty, was still in kindergarten at the time. We wondered how the future of the MPCF would unfold. Many moments, we looked at each other and smiled, then looked up at Thay’s calligraphy on our altar: An Tru Trong Hien Tai (which means “Dwelling happily in the present moment”). We left it all in the hands of our ancestors and of the Sangha. We continued to share our lives and practice with friends near and far. We are happy.

Engaged Buddhism

MB: How do you define “engaged Buddhism,” and how do you practice it?

AH: Engaged Buddhism begins with being there for our pain. Not only our individual pain, but also our collective pain. We learn safe and gentle ways to pick up that baby of pain, to hold and soothe that baby with mindfulness. When our son was born, even though my mom had taught me how to hold him, and I had seen mothers holding their babies, I had to feel my way through. You have to hold the baby in your arms to bring alive that experience, not just intellectual understanding. With mindfulness and concentration, both mother and baby will be safe, comfortable, and happy.

For me, engaged Buddhism is like water. Water has no shape. When we put water in a square container, it takes on a square shape; in a round one, it has a round shape. The mindfulness practice center comes out of Thay’s brilliant idea to share the practice of mindfulness in a nonsectarian way. The Dharma takes no form, or any form. We would like to make the capital “B” of Buddhism into a small “b.” We do not need to have Buddha statues or burn incense. We do not need to bow to each other or use Buddhist terms. We learn to be present to the situation at hand and share the Dharma in a way that can help people feel safe, so that they can release tensions from their bodies and minds.

This explains why a Day of Mindfulness at MPCF begins with total body relaxation. People are so stressed. Guided meditation that is offered in the lying down position helps people to stop and connect with their bodies easily, especially for those who are new to mindfulness practice. Their minds become quiet and their hearts open. When we can be truly present, a new Dharma door will be open for that particular situation. So the format at MPCF comes from the needs of those who attend, not from us who facilitate.

Thay’s dream is to see a mindfulness practice center in every town and city. I have an image of mushrooms––centers sprouting up everywhere. Many Sangha brothers and sisters have already brought mindfulness into schools, prisons, and other places, without Buddhist form.

Once we are able to cradle the pain in our own hearts, understanding and compassion will guide us in every step along the path.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Natascha Bruckner

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