#40 Autumn 2005

Dharma Talk: True Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha, today is the twenty-third of June, 2005 and we are in the Lovingkindness Temple in the New Hamlet. 

Happiness is a practice. We should distinguish between happiness and excitement, and even joy. Many people in the West, especially in North America, think of excitement as happiness. They are thinking of something, or expecting something that they consider to be happiness, and, for them, that is already happiness. But when you are excited you are not really peaceful. True happiness should be based on peace, and in true happiness there is no longer any excitement.

Suppose you are walking in a desert and you are dying of thirst. Suddenly you see an oasis and you know that once you get there, there will be a stream of water and you can drink so you will survive. Although you have not actually seen or drunk the water you feel something: that is excitement, that is hope, that is joy, but not happiness yet. In Buddhist psychology we distinguish clearly between excitement, joy, and happiness. True happiness must be founded on peace. Therefore, if you don’t have peace in yourself you have not experienced true happiness.

Training Yourself to Be Happy 

You have to cultivate happiness; you cannot buy it in the supermarket. It is like playing tennis: you cannot buy the joy of playing tennis in the supermarket. You can buy the ball and the racket, but you cannot buy the joy of playing. In order to experience the joy of tennis you have to learn, to train yourself to play. In the same way, you have to cultivate happiness.

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to train yourself to be happy. You are here, and you look in the distance and see a pine tree. You make the determination that while walking to the pine tree, you will enjoy every step, that every step will provide you with peace and happiness. Peace and happiness that have the power to nourish, to heal, to satisfy.

There are those of us who are capable of going from here to the pine tree in that way, enjoying every step we make. We are not disturbed by anything: not by the past, not by the future; not by projects, not by excitement. Not even by joy, because in joy there is still excitement and not enough peace. And if you are well-trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment. You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step. You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step and touching the wonders of life in that step can be a wonder, and you live that wonder every moment of walking. If you have the capacity to walk like that, you are walking in the Kingdom of God or in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

So you may challenge yourself: I will do walking meditation from here to the pine tree. I vow that I will succeed. If you are not free, your steps will not bring you happiness and peace. So cultivating happiness is also cultivating freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the things that upset you, that keep you from being peaceful, that prevent you from being fully present in the here and the now.

One nun wrote to Thay that she has a friend visiting Plum Village. Her friend did not take the monastic path; instead she married, and now has a family, a job, a house, a car, and everything she needs for her life. She’s lucky because her husband is a good man; he does not create too many problems. Her job is enjoyable, with a salary above average. Her house is beautiful. She thinks of her relationship as a good one although it is not as she expected; sure, you can never have exactly what you expect.

And yet, she does not feel happy and she is depressed. Intellectually she knows that in terms of comfort, she has everything. Many of us think of happiness in these terms, as having material and emotional comforts. Not many people are as successful as that friend, and she knows that she is fortunate. And yet she is not happy.

We Are Immune to Happiness 

We have the tendency to think of happiness as something we will obtain in the future. We expect happiness. We think that now we don’t have the conditions we think we need to be happy, but that once we have them, happiness will be there. For example, you want to have a diploma because you think that without that diploma you cannot be happy. So you think of the diploma day and night and you do everything to get that diploma because you believe that diploma will bring you happiness. And you forecast that happiness will be there tomorrow, when you get the diploma. There may be joy and satisfaction in the days and weeks that follow the moment you receive your diploma, but you adapt to that new condition very quickly, and in just a few weeks you don’t feel happy anymore. You become used to having a diploma. So that kind of excitement, that kind of happiness is very short-lived. We are immune to happiness; we get used to our happiness, and after a while we don’t feel happy any longer.

People have made studies of poor people who have won lotteries and have become millionaires. The studies found that after two or three months the person returns to the emotional state they were in before winning the lottery. From two to three months. And during the three months there is not exactly happiness; there is a lot of thinking, a lot of excitement, a lot of planning and so on—not exactly happiness. But three months later, he falls back to exactly the same emotional level as he was before winning the lottery. So having a lot of money does not mean you will be happy.

Perhaps you want to marry someone, thinking that if you can’t marry him or her, then you cannot be happy. You believe that happiness will be great after you marry that person. After you marry, you may have a time of happiness, but eventually happiness vanishes. There is no longer any excitement, any joy, and of course, no happiness. What you get is not what you expected. Then perhaps you know that what you have attained will not continue for a long time. Even if you have a good job, you are not sure you can keep it for a long time. You may be laid off, so underneath there is fear and uncertainty. This type of happiness, without peace, has the element of fear and cannot be true happiness. The person you are living with may betray you one day; you cannot be sure that person will be faithful to you for a long time. So fear and uncertainty is present also. To preserve these so-called conditions of happiness you have to be busy all day long. And with these worries, uncertainties, and busyness, you don’t feel happy and you become depressed.

So we learn that happiness is not something we get after we obtain the so-called conditions of happiness: namely, the material and emotional comforts. True happiness does not depend on these comforts; nothing can remove it from you. When we come to a practice center, we are looking to learn how to cultivate true happiness.

The Buddha’s Teaching on Happiness 

When I was a young monk people told me that the teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in four short sentences. I was not impressed when I read these four sentences. People asked the Buddha how to be happy and he said that all the Buddhas teach the same thing:

Refrain from doing bad thingsTry to do good thingsAnd learn to subdue, purify your mindThat is the teaching of all Buddhas. (1)

Very simple; and because of that, I was not impressed. I said, “Everyone agrees that you have to do good things and refrain from doing bad things. To subdue and purify your mind is too vague.” But after sixty years of practice I have another idea of the teaching. I see now it is very deep, and that it is a real teaching of happiness.

Let us consider together. The gatha I learned is in Chinese, in four lines, and each line contains four words.

The bad things, don’t do it.The good things, try to do it.

It does not seem to be very deep: nothing spectacular about it. Everyone knows, the good things you should do and the bad things you should not do. You don’t need to be a Buddha to give such a teaching. So I was not impressed. The third line and fourth lines are:

Try to purify, subdue your own mindThat is the teaching of  all Buddhas.

Now I understand that the bad things you should refrain from are those that create suffering for you and for other people, including other living beings and the environment. But how can you recognize something as good to do, or as bad to do? Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to know that this is a good thing to do and this is a bad thing to do; to know that if you do these bad things you bring suffering to you and to the people around you. So the bad things bring suffering to you and others. This is a very simple and yet precise definition of good and bad. And of course, the good things are the things that bring you joy and true happiness. Anything that is good, try to do it. That means anything that can bring peace, stability, and joy to you and to other people. It is easy to say, it is easy to understand, but it is not easy to do or to refrain from doing. The first two things depend entirely on the third thing: to purify, subdue your mind. The mind is the ground of everything.

The Most Special Thing in Buddhism 

If there is confusion in your mind, if there is anger and craving in your mind, then your mind is not pure, your mind is not subdued, and even if you want to do good things you cannot do them, and even if you want to refrain from doing bad things you cannot. And that is why the ground, the root, is your mind.

When you refrain from doing bad things you are practicing compassion, because refraining from doing bad things means not bringing suffering to you or to other people. Practicing compassion is practicing happiness, because happiness is the absence of suffering. And then:

Try to do good things: karuna, maitri. This teaching is the practice of love, of compassion, and of lovingkindness. When you understand, the first two sentences have a lot of meaning. You practice love, you practice compassion, you practice lovingkindness and you know that practicing love brings happiness. Happiness cannot be without love. The Buddhas recommend us to love, and the concrete way is to refrain from causing suffering and to offer happiness.

You can do this easily and beautifully only when you know how to subdue your mind, how to purify your mind. This is very special. If you ask the question, “What is the most special thing in Buddhism?” the answer is that it is the art of subduing your mind, of purifying your mind. Because Buddhism gives us the concrete teaching so that we can purify, subdue, and transform our mind. And once our mind is purified, subdued, and transformed, then happiness becomes possible. With a mind that still has a lot of confusion, anger, craving, and misunderstanding, there can be no love and no happiness for oneself and for the world. So the most important thing you should learn is the art of subduing and purifying your mind. If you have not got that, you have not got anything from Buddhism.

T.S. Eliot was a poet, playwright, and critic, born in Boston in 1888. When he grew up he went to Europe and he liked it there so he became a British citizen. His poetry is a kind of meditation; he tries to look deeply and many of his poems are like gathas presenting his understanding. He said that he always tried to look deeply; those are the words he used: to look deeply, to understand the roots of suffering. He found out that the mind is the root of all suffering; our own mind is the foundation of all the suffering we have. That is exactly what the Buddha said. The suffering we have to bear and undergo all comes from within our mind, a mind that is not purified, that is not transformed and subdued. But T.S. Eliot only said half of what the Buddha said. The Buddha said that all suffering comes from the mind, but also that all happiness comes from the mind. All happiness too. So the mind that remains unsubdued, untransformed, confused with hatred and discrimination, brings a lot of unhappiness and suffering; but the purified and subdued mind can bring a lot of happiness to yourself and the people around you.

When you walk from here to the pine tree you begin with one step, and you train yourself in such a way that that step has within it the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you really practice walking meditation, you will find out that every step you make can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, bringing you a lot of happiness. Because the three elements–– mindfulness, concentration, and insight–– purify and subdue your mind and bring out all the goodness of your mind. When you walk like this, you are first aware that you are making a step: that is the energy of mindfulness. I am here. I am alive. I am making a step. You step and you know you are making a step. That is mindfulness of walking. The mindfulness helps you to be in the here and the now, fully present, fully alive so that you can make the step. Master Linji said, “The miracle is not to walk on air, or on water, or on fire. The real miracle is to walk on earth.” And walking like that––with mindfulness, concentration, and insight––is performing a miracle. You are truly alive. You are truly present, touching the wonders of life within you and around you. That is a miracle.

Most of us walk like sleepwalkers. We walk, but we are not there. We don’t experience life, or the wonders of life. There is no joy. We are sleepwalking through our own life and our life is a dream. Buddhism is about waking up from your dream. Awakening. One mindful step can be a factor of awakening that brings you to life, that brings you the miracle of being alive. And when mindfulness is there, concentration is there, because mindfulness contains concentration. You can be less or more concentrated. You may be fifty, sixty, or ninety percent concentrated on your step, but the more concentrated the more you have a chance to break through into insight. Mindfulness, concentration, insight: smirti, samadhi, prajna. Every step you make can generate these three powers, these three energies. And if you are a strong practitioner then these three energies are very powerful and every step can bring you a lot of happiness, the happiness of a Buddha.

Mindfulness and concentration bring insight. Insight is a product of the practice. It is like the flower or fruit of the practice. Like an orange tree offers blossoms and oranges. What kind of insight? The insight of impermanence, of no-self, and interbeing.

Happiness Is Impermanent 

Impermanence means that everything is changing, including the happiness that you are experiencing. The step you are making allows you to get in touch with the Kingdom of God, with the Pure Land of the Buddha, with all the wonders of life that bring happiness. But that happiness is also impermanent. It lasts only for one step; if the next step does not have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then happiness will die. However, you know that you are capable of making a second step which also generates the three powers of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so you have the power to make happiness last longer. Happiness is impermanent; we know the law of impermanence, and that is why we know that we can continue to generate the next moment of happiness. Just as when we ride a bicycle, we continue to pedal so that the movement can continue.

Happiness is impermanent but it can be renewed, and that is insight. You are also impermanent and renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. Although it is impermanent, happiness is possible; the same with you. And if happiness can be renewed, so can you; because you in the next moment is the renewal of you. You are always changing, so you are experiencing impermanence in your happiness and in yourself. It’s wonderful to know that happiness can last only one in-breath or one step, because we know that we can renew it in another step or another breath, provided we know the art of generating mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

The Insight of Interbeing

Happiness is no-self, because the nature of happiness is interbeing. That is why you are not looking for happiness as an individual. You are making happiness with the insight of interbeing. The father knows that if the son is not happy then he cannot be truly happy, so while the father seeks his own happiness, he also seeks happiness for his son. And that is why the first two sentences have a wonderful meaning. Your mindful steps are not for you alone, they are for your partner and friends as well. Because the moment you stop suffering, the other person profits. You are not cultivating your individual happiness. You are walking for him, for her, you are walking for all of us. Because if you have some peace in you, that is not only good for you but good for all of us.

With that mindful step, it might look as though you are practicing as an individual. You are trying to do something for yourself. You are trying to find some peace, some stability, some happiness. It looks egoistic, when you have not touched the nature of no-self. But, with insight, you see that everything good that you are doing for yourself you are doing for all of us. You don’t have a self-complex anymore. And that is the insight of interbeing.

If, in a family of four, only one person practices, that practice will benefit all four, not only the practitioner. When that person practices correctly, she gets the insight of no-self and she knows that she’s doing it for everyone. Just as when she cleans the toilet, she cleans the toilet for everyone, not just herself.

When a feeling of anger or discrimination manifests, the practitioner recognizes that to allow such an energy to continue is not healthy for oneself or for others in the world. The practitioner practices mindfulness of breathing, of walking, in order to recognize the feeling of anger, to embrace the anger, to look deeply into the nature of the anger, and to know that practicing in order to transform your anger is to practice happiness for yourself and other people. If you don’t practice like that, anger will push you to do things or say things that will make you and others suffer. That is not something to do, but something not to do. And when you practice looking deeply into the nature of your anger, you are doing it for yourself and you are doing it for the world and you have the insight of no-self.

With the insight of no-self you no longer seek the kind of happiness that will make other people suffer. The insight of impermanence will help bring the insight of no-self. And no-self means interdependence, interconnectedness, interbeing. This is the kind of insight that can liberate you and can liberate the world. With that kind of practice you subdue your mind, you purify your mind. A mind that is not purified or subdued contains a lot of delusion. And that is why practicing looking deeply to see the nature of impermanence and no-self means to take away the element of ignorance and delusion within yourself. That is to purify yourself. When the element of ignorance is no longer there, the element of anger will be transformed. You get angry at him or her or them because you still have the mind of discrimination. He is your enemy. He makes you suffer. He is to be punished. All these thoughts are no longer there because you have already touched the nature of no-self.

Purify Your Mind 

To purify your mind is to transform your way of perceiving things, to remove wrong perceptions. When you are able to remove your wrong perceptions you are also able to remove your anger, your hate, your discrimination, and your craving. Because if you crave something, it means you have not seen the true nature of that thing. If you think of happiness in terms of fame, profit, power, and sex, it is not a correct idea of happiness, because you have seen people who have plenty of these things but suffer so much from depression and want to kill themselves. Understanding that you have wisdom within you frees you from craving. In the teachings of the Buddha, our mind can be intoxicated by many kinds of poison: the first is craving, the second is hate or violence, and the third is delusion. The three poisons. To purify your mind is to neutralize and transform these poisons in you. You neutralize these poisons by the three powers: mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

When your mind is purified, it is so easy to do good things and to refrain from doing bad things. But if your mind is still unpurified––filled with hatred, anger, delusion, and craving––you have a hard time doing good things and refraining from doing bad things. That is why this is the ground of every kind of action that benefits you and benefits the world.

We have invented many types of machines that save a lot of time. We can do wonders with a computer. A computer can work a hundred, a thousand times faster than a typewriter. In farming, it used to take several weeks to plough the fields; now you can do it in a few days. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand anymore, there’s a washing machine. You don’t have to go fetch the water, the water comes to your kitchen. We have found many ways to save labor, and yet we are much busier than our ancestors were. Everyone is busy; that is a contradiction. Why is that? Because we have acquired so much and we are afraid of losing these things, so we have to work so hard to keep and maintain them. That is why even if you have a lot, you still suffer and become depressed.

Manufacturers of medicine will tell you that the kinds of medicine we consume the most in our society now—tons and tons—are tranquilizers and antidepressants, sedatives. The whole world is under sedation. We need a lot of tranquilizers because we have created a world that has invaded us. We can no longer be peaceful and happy, and that is why we want to forget ourselves. You want to protect yourself from the world, you want to protect yourself from yourself, and that is why you take tranquilizers, antidepressants, sedatives. We are not capable of touching the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, the wonders of life that have all the powers of healing and nourishing. We have brought into ourselves so many toxins, poisons. The world we have created has come into us. We cannot escape anymore. Not even in our dreams, in our sleep. And the drugs we take are to help us forget the world we have created for a few hours or a few days. When we go in this direction we are no longer civilized, because we are not going in the direction of peace, of solidity, of awakening. The drugs help us not to be awake to reality, because we want to forget reality—the reality of the world, and the reality of the confusion, the craving, and the violence in us.

Peace and happiness are still available, once you are capable of seeing that the conditions we think are essential to our happiness may bring us the opposite of happiness—depression, despair, forgetfulness. And that is why we have to listen to the Buddha. We have to begin with our breath. We have to breathe in mindfully to know that we are alive, that there are still wonders of life around us and in us that we have to touch every minute for our transformation and healing. We have to use our feet to learn how to walk in the Kingdom of God, because each step like that will be transforming, healing, and nourishing. It is still possible.

So from here to the pine tree, I wish you good luck. Make a step in such a way that mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated, so that you are capable of being in touch with the here and the now, of touching the wonders of life. Forget about the conditions of happiness that you have been running after for a long time, because you know that once you get them, you will still be unhappy, and then you will have to use the drugs that other people are using. Buddhism is about awakening. We should be awakened to the fact that the situation of the world is like that, and we don’t want to go in that direction. We want true life, true happiness.

Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Phap Tue; edited by Barbara Casey.

(1) This translation is from the Chinese version of the Dhammapada.

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Poem: Full Moon Festival

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This poem was written in response to Vietnamese Dhyana master Lieu Quan (1670–1742), whose poem of insight has this sentence: “If I had realized that the lamp is fire itself, the rice would have been cooked for a long time already!” The insight poem was presented to his teacher, Master Tu Dung, in 1708.

What will happen when form collides with emptiness,
and what will happen when perception enters non-perception?
Come here with me, friend.
Let’s watch together.
Do you see the two clowns, life and death
setting up a play on a stage?
Here comes Autumn.
The leaves are ripe.
Let the leaves fly.
A festival of colors, yellow, red.
The branches have held on to the leaves
during Spring and Summer.
This morning they let them go.
Flags and lanterns are displayed.
Everyone is here at the Full Moon Festival.

Friend, what are you waiting for?
The bright moon shines above us.
There are no clouds tonight.
Why bother to ask about lamps and fire?
Why talk about cooking dinner?
Who is searching and who is finding?
Let us just enjoy the moon, all night.

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Letter From the Editor

To Our Readers

It’s mid-August, and I’m just beginning to feel the change of seasons, even in the ninetydegree temperatures. A new coolness in the mornings and evenings, a softness in the color of the darkening sky: I find happiness in the impermanence of the seasons, and I feel my heart turning to gratitude for the bounty in my life.

By the time you read this, Thich Nhat Hanh will have completed the U.S. tour, and many of us will have been renewed by spending days with our teacher and our Sangha. For those of us who were not able to attend a retreat, we offer this magazine as a mini-retreat, to inspire and comfort you with the presence of the Sangha.

As I write, I am looking forward to seeing many of my brothers and sisters at our root temple, Deer Park, and to the possibility that eight friends from my region will be ordained into the Order of Interbeing. Could there be a better gift to all of us, than for these dear friends to commit to a life of mindfulness and Sangha building?

Returning from Vietnam, I knew that the fruits of that journey would continue to manifest for months and years to come, and you are invited to share those fruits in this and future issues. The stories and poems reflecting precious moments on the journey, and the reports on transformation and building long-term connections through humanitarian efforts, bring us all closer to our spiritual ancestors. We have new, expanded responsibilities there too, as Sister Chan Khong reports: two monasteries need our help, so they can respond to the needs of the many people touched by Thay’s visit and now offering their lives for monastic practice.

In Thay’s featured teaching on cultivating true happiness, the question is posed: What is the most special thing about Buddhism? The answer given is: The ability to subdue and purify your mind. My deepest gratitude is for the teachings and examples of the Buddha and my spiritual teachers who have given me a way to create a path through the brambles and toxic swamps in my mind, to clear the brush and allow light into the dark places of fear and hurt. Through the simple practice of bringing mindfulness to my daily actions, of formal sitting, and of spending time with my teachers and the Sangha, my mind has cultivated another way to be. It is a gentler way of living; a way that allows questioning my own attitudes and perceptions, of not clinging to my long held patterns of trying to control outcomes and of reacting with hurt when not feeling understood or acknowledged. A way of dwelling in peace and open-heartedness. Slowly I have found that most days my heart spends more time open than closed.

The tools of mindfulness, concentration, and insight have allowed me to begin forging this new path through the jungle of my mind and emotions. I have learned that there is no path to follow, no formula I can apply to find my way to clarity.

Rather, my teachers have given me the well-honed tools to make my own way, to create a light-filled pathway of beauty and peacefulness.

May we all take to heart the teachings and examples offered by our teachers, our ancestors, and our Sangha friends. May we all practice with ease and diligence so our lives become pathways of light for ourselves and others. We have everything we need: the instructions, the generous guidance of our teacher, and the enjoyment and comfort of our Sangha companions. In this season of the harvest, our cornucopia of love overflows.

In gratitude,

In the Footsteps of My Teacher

By Tran Kinh Tam An

Sitting at the feet of my Teacher
Seeing the rose held in two hands
Visualizing the cosmos in the rose I
walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poem: It Is Enough

By Emily Whittle

This apple by itself would be enough—
its crisp white center bearing just the right balance
of tart and sweet,
garnished with the faint scent of flowers.
But there is more!
There is the music of water cascading over rocks.
There is bee balm and mountain laurel.
There is a cool breeze playing with the trees,
sending shape-shifting clouds speeding across the sky.
Next to me, facing the river,
is my beloved, eating the other half of the apple.
Far away, barely audible, the low rumble of thunder warns
of an approaching storm.
Savor, savor this moment.
It is enough.
It is more than enough.

Emily Whittle, True Wonderful Happiness, lives and practices in Red Springs, North Carolina. She is a frequent contributor to the Mindfulness Bell.

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Monks & Nuns: Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part One

By Lori Zimring De Mori

On a quiet summer morning in the French countryside near the village of Thenac, several hundred people sit patiently in the boxy, light-filled room which serves as Upper Hamlet’s main meditation hall in Plum Village. Children are at the front—some squirming, some with their heads in a parent’s lap, a few sitting still and straight as little Buddhas-to-be. The rest of us are crowded onto cushions, meditation stools, and chairs which spill out of the hall into the summer sunshine.

Monks and nuns begin to file in from opposite sides of the room. They have the shorn heads of those who have renounced the material world in favor of a life of the spirit, and walk in the measured, unhurried way of those who have spent a lot of time with Thich Nhat Hanh—utterly without false piousness, but as if every step were the final destination. Their robes are the warm brown color of loamy soil and hang straight from their shoulders to the ground.

They assemble themselves into several rows, monks on the left, nuns on the right, facing us and holding song books. Everything about their dress and demeanor expresses the intention to de-emphasize the self-absorbed “I” whose hungry ego obsesses with the mundane vanities of fashion, hairstyles, and superficial beauty. They look composed though not solemn; cheerful but not chatty; eminently likeable and unintimidating. Some of the nuns have covered their heads with brown kerchiefs knotted at the nape of the neck. A few monks wear woolly brown caps. Mostly there are bare scalps over bony skulls. And faces. Western ones, Asian, some wizened and a great many fresh and smooth as plum skins.

I find myself studying them carefully. I’m trying to imagine what they were like before they’d taken their vows, when they were living in the world like the rest of us. Wondering what made them leave that world for one of silence, service, and vigilant mindfulness.

A bell rings clear and high, like a single note from a songbird. We scramble to our feet as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh enters the room. He seems to move in slow motion, or as if he were inhabiting some other dimension (or more likely, fully inhabiting this one)—and his gaze, should you happen to catch it, is a compelling mixture of vibrancy and stillness, so alive as to be startling.

Thay embodies the Buddha’s instruction to “make of yourself a light.” He combines the moral authority of Gandhi and Martin Luther King with a resolute steadfastness of purpose and unwavering patience and kindness. His impeccability as a teacher and a human being is inspiring, and more than a little intimidating. There is still so much work to do—so many habits of mind to recognize and transform; so many petty thoughts, self-obsessed fears, and hollow vanities to let go of; so many ways to be more kind, more patient, more generous.

Thay sounds the bell and the monastics begin to chant the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. Some sing phonetically from song books, others from memory, but all of them know the words by heart in one language or another. In English the chant is slow and melodic, one word flowing into another in a river of sound. This version is deliberately monotone, each syllable distinct and staccato, rhythmic as a chisel hacking away at the rough husks around our hearts. “Listen Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.” What does this mean? The words are plain enough but to gnaw on them with the everyday, rational mind yields little or nothing.  I imagine they can be understood with the wisdom mind—the “heart mind” that looks courageously into the true nature of things, and is nurtured by a steady diet of mindfulness and compassion. Thay calls this “watering our seeds” of kindness, compassion, and mindfulness through how we walk, eat, listen, speak, consume (or don’t), do virtually anything and everything. It seems a good way to live well. If an understanding of emptiness eventually comes with it, all the better.

The next chant is a heartfelt wish for happiness: “May the day be well and the night be well. May the midday hour bring happiness too. In every minute and every second may the day and night be well.” The words wash over us like blessings and we lap them up like hungry puppies. In any other context the world-weary cynic in me might reject the chant’s simplicity of expression. But somehow these voices, this place, and our shared aspiration to live life as a conscious journey make it feel as if our efforts actually could generate happiness. Not the impossible happiness of a life without pain or loss or disappointment, but the happiness that comes from being open to this life, at every moment, whatever it has to offer.

Coming from the monastic community the words have an added potency. We spend our days with the nuns and monks—both inside and outside the meditation hall. We share meals, conversations, slow morning walks to neighboring hamlets, and cups of tea. There are little moments—waiting in line for a meal, beginning to eat, washing dishes—when I can tell they are reciting gathas, the short mindfulness verses that help bring awareness to even the simplest actions. But they also run (barefoot, robes flying) after soccer balls with the teenagers, strum guitars and bang out rhythms on African drums, rehearse plays with the kids, and wrestle with sophisticated sound and computer equipment.

Their generosity towards us has a quality of effortlessness to it. Their practice doesn’t feel dogged or forced. To put it simply, they seem happy and joyful—not in some sort of mystical, blissed-out way, but in a most ordinary one. On some level this surprises me. I’d always thought of monastic life as requiring a noble and unnatural giving up of things: ego, wealth, possessions, sex, marriage, children. I’d expected there to be at least a whiff of teeth-gritting renunciation; a spectral air of deprivation; something other than the bright radiance of people whose lives seem to agree with them.

It is unfair and unwise to project one’s own imaginings onto the monastic robes. Things are so rarely what they seem. Yet it seems legitimate to wonder, and ultimately to ask what brings a person—especially a young one—to choose monastic life over the “go-to-college-get-a-job-get-married-raise-a-family” paradigm that propels so many of us. I posed the question to four young monastics—two I’d met on retreats, two I hadn’t known at all. What I found were four unique human beings whose individual life paths have intersected in a place called Plum Village. These are their stories.

Phap Xa

Phap Xa came to Plum Village from Holland and took his monastic vows in 2002. He is twenty-nine years old, tall and lanky, with clear green eyes and an angular face brightened by a great, flashing smile. Like all monks ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh he carries the name Phap. Xa—“equanimity” in Vietnamese—is his given name. “Thay gives us the name he thinks most suits us. It is meant to be a door to practice, either reflecting a quality or pointing to one to be developed.”

How does one become a monastic in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order?

You can’t just show up at Plum Village and ask to ordain. First you practice with the community. If you decide you want to ordain you write a letter to the Sangha saying that you aspire to become a monk. The community meets to consider whether they feel you would succeed as a monastic. If the answer is yes, you become an aspirant and live—together with other aspirants—with the monastic community for at least three months before ordaining.

Did you always want to be a monk?

[Laughter] No! It feels like my decision is a miracle. While growing up I never imagined I’d become a monastic. I was raised on a farm in Holland. My family was Protestant—we went to church every Sunday, said prayers before and after meals and read from the Bible before dinner. My interests were pretty typical: I loved soccer, hanging out with friends at bars, girls. I wasn’t a social activist. I cared a lot about myself and my own comfort.

The shift was actually a very slow process. When I went to university I had to become more responsible. I started looking for a better way of taking care of myself, of facing difficulties. My older brother was practicing transcendental meditation. My parents weren’t happy about it, but the idea seemed interesting to me. When I was about twenty I became fascinated with Eastern thought and life—especially Taoism and martial arts. I began studying kung fu, moved on to tai chi and finally to chi gong. As I kept moving to softer forms of martial arts I was always inspired by my teachers’ way of living.

When did you begin meditation practice?

When I was twenty-five I started practicing Zen meditation with some other university students. I remember feeling strange and awkward the first time I sat. Eventually I wanted to practice formal zazen so I attended a sesshin with a Dutch teacher. My practice at this point was centered around sitting in groups and by myself. I was dedicated to it but I didn’t really have any Dharma friends.

What brought you to Plum Village?

I began reading Thay’s books—they made me want to practice with someone who had great authority. I came to Plum Village for a week. I was so happy on that first retreat. I shared a room with people who had come for three months. It inspired me that they made the time to stay. One of them had a book called Stepping into Freedom that Thay had written for monastics. I ordered it.

A year later I came back for another week. I was inspired by Thay’s writings about right livelihood and I began to feel that mine was “not that right.” I wanted my work to have meaning, to help lessen suffering or bring happiness. Working at an engineering firm wasn’t going to do that. I decided to return to Plum Village for three months in the spring.

What appealed to you about Plum Village?

The Sangha—the community of people practicing together. Thay was such a great inspiration and I looked up to him so much as a teacher but I also began to see that practice wasn’t only about a teacher. There is great value in a Sangha. I feel that what I can accomplish by living in a Sangha is so much greater than what I can accomplish by myself. Back home I felt alone in my practice and my life ideal. At Plum Village there were all these people with a similar life ideal, guided by the same teacher whom I love so much.

At what point did you decide to become a monastic?

During the first weeks of those three months my determination to practice became very strong. I’m a bit shy, but there was a Vietnamese Dutch monk I felt very comfortable around. I asked if I could speak with him, ask him a question. We found a quiet place to talk and I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. He just looked at me and said, “Do you want to become a monk?” The question went straight to my heart. I knew it was what I had wanted to talk to him about and the feeling grew stronger every day.

How did your family react to your decision?

It was a very difficult time for them. I was so happy but my parents were skeptical and concerned for me. They thought the whole thing very strange and were not happy, not supportive. I returned to Holland for six long and difficult weeks, gave most of my belongings away and came back to Plum Village with only a few things.

Were you ordained right away?

No. Thay ordains monks two to four times a year. I lived at Plum Village for six months before being ordained as a novice. As novices we take ten precepts. At full ordination (three years later)

monks take 250! The people you ordain with are like a family. There were eighteen of us all together—thirteen brothers and five sisters. As aspirants we were each assigned a Dharma teacher to mentor us—mine was the Vietnamese Dutch monk.

How has life changed now that you have ordained?

Being ordained is like a rebirth. Monastic life has been very good for me. I’m a bit shy—I need time to feel comfortable with people, to create a space for myself to feel free. I’m beginning to feel more and more at home, to build relationships, to live harmoniously with the Sangha.

My doubts are less and less, and my practice has become deeper, more stable.  My aspiration has always been strong, but at the beginning I was still ingrained with the ideals of happiness I grew up with: being successful, having a beautiful wife and children. For awhile I still had the habit of looking at women as potential partners but that has lessened. Now I feel a part of the Sangha—loved and supported by it like a family. I see more and more clearly that the life that was expected of me wouldn’t bring me the happiness that monastic life brings me.

Tue Nghiem

Tue Nghiem left Vietnam by boat with her family when she was nine years old. I first met her on a retreat with Thay in Rome where she helped run the children’s program. She is now thirtyfive years old and has been a nun for twelve years. My daughter was smitten with her playfulness, quiet wisdom, and lightness of spirit. We all were. Nghiem is the name carried by all nuns in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order. Her given name—Tue—means wisdom and understanding.

Were you raised a Buddhist in Vietnam?

Yes and no. My family was Buddhist but we didn’t practice the way we do here at Plum Village. We went to the temple on the full moon and every New Year. My older siblings were in a Buddhist youth group. I was the youngest of five kids. My father died when I was young but I grew up feeling very protected by my family. The values I grew up with were very much like the five mindfulness trainings given at Plum Village, but they were taught to us as life values rather than Buddhist ones. There was more faith than formal practice.

What do you remember about leaving Vietnam?

I lived in a big village about fifteen kilometers from Hue. There was a lot of fear and uncertainty—people’s freedom was restricted, their property taken, education had become an indoctrination in Communist thought. Many people left by boat—they left because they felt there was no future. My family wanted us to have one.

We went on my uncle’s boat. I didn’t know we were leaving. I was only told I had to go somewhere with my sister. The rest of the family split into groups and left the village in different directions. We met in a remote seaside village that night. When I saw the rest of the family I was afraid. They were acting so secretive. We had to hide under bushes and not say a word.  A man helped us onto the boat. By the way my oldest brother hugged him I knew we weren’t coming back.

There were about twenty of us on a small open boat, a third of us children. We were on it for a week. I wasn’t sad—it felt like an adventure, but I could sense my mother’s fear. We arrived in Hong Kong and lived in a refugee camp for a year. I loved that time—we were all crowded together having fun, playing.

Where did you go from Hong Kong?

My uncle asked a Protestant church to sponsor us to go to America. A couple from Oregon sponsored us—when I went back to Vietnam for the first time in 1999, they came with me. We went from Oregon to Stockton where we had family. My mom worked on a farm and took English classes in the evenings. I started school in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. I was a good student so I was transferred to the regular English classes. I wasn’t happy because I didn’t understand English and my friends were still in ESL, but I felt I was in school for a good purpose and I studied hard and ended up enjoying myself.

Did you have any sort of religious practice at that time?

There was a network of Vietnamese temples in Northern California. In Stockton we went to the temple every weekend. It was not so much a place to practice as a place to connect to our roots. There were Buddhist youth groups at the temple where young Vietnamese kids would come to learn the language, history, and Buddhist teachings.

When I was fourteen I went on a one-week Buddhist youth retreat and met Thay. Watching my breath, walking slowly, the idea of being mindful was all very new to me. At the retreat I felt like I wanted to live in that way—though not necessarily as a monastic. For the next few years three friends and I would spend our summers living at the temple in Stockton. I realized that before I hadn’t really been suffering but I was a bit lost, had no path. Adolescence was difficult—my mom supported me with all her heart but she didn’t really know how to help me understand what was going on with my body, my mind, school. I was balancing two cultures and not completely accepted by either.

Why did you feel you weren’t accepted by the Vietnamese community?

The problem wasn’t with my friends—they were mostly Vietnamese from the Buddhist youth group and temple. The conflict was between the Vietnamese who arrived in the states as adults and those who arrived as kids. We were the first generation of boat people to go to college. They were traditional, had a restrictive view of women, and thought many of us were too Americanized. I was young, playful, loud, and outspoken—and I was going to the University of California at Davis to study psychology and education. I was criticized because I was going to college. They felt I thought I was better than they were because of my education.

I stopped going to the temple because I no longer felt supported there. I decided I wanted to work with problem kids from Southeast Asia. I took an internship where I counseled kids who were having difficulties. Sometimes I’d go to their houses to meet with the parents. There was a tremendous culture, language, and generation gap between the parents and their children.

What brought you back to practice?

In my second year of college my brother became a monk (instead of going back to college to get his masters as he had planned). He didn’t tell us until he had already taken his vows. My mom and sister were so upset. They’d dreamed a dream for him which he wasn’t going to live.

When I graduated from college my brother sent me money to come to Plum Village for a month-long retreat. For the first time I felt so at home. I’d never felt like that before. My brother wanted me to come back with my mom for a three-month retreat in the fall. We did. Thay was teaching Buddhist psychology. I learned so much—so much more than I’d learned during my years at college. At college it felt like what I’d studied had nothing to do with me. These teachings felt so deep. So related to me. I was finally learning how to take care of my own emotions and I felt I could be so much more helpful counseling kids if I had a better understanding of myself. I liked the practice so I decided to stay at Plum Village—as a layperson—for the year before starting graduate school.

What did you like about the practice?

The sutra that really struck me was the Establishment of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness—body, feelings, perceptions, and objects of mind—the Satipatthana Sutra. I thought, “It can’t be this easy. It can’t be the Buddha who said this. It must have been Thay.” Of course it wasn’t, but because Buddhist psychology was so much more complicated, I couldn’t imagine that these simple, straightforward teachings also came from the Buddha.

When did you decide to become a monastic?

Toward the end of the year, before the summer retreat, I knew I had to make a decision to return to my studies or become a nun. It was a huge decision. I was so nourished by the practice and the place but I was also judgmental, resistant, stubborn, and wounded by the trouble I had with my temple in California. The nuns—there were only five of them at that time—were very supportive. So was my brother. During that year at Plum Village we would bike, take hikes, and talk. He helped me overcome my resentment.

I made the decision to become a nun only after I left Plum Village. I chose this path so that I could be myself, accept myself as I was and grow from there, never being discouraged simply because I was a woman. When I returned to the States I was struck by the amount of consumption I saw, the carelessness towards the earth.

That October Thay taught a retreat at a Vietnamese monastery in California. My brother was with him.  One afternoon I was having tea with Thay and I just blurted out, “Thay, I want to become a nun.” He didn’t say anything! After awhile he said, “Look at the sunset.” When my brother and another monk came in Thay sent us off to have dinner. I didn’t know if his answer was yes or no. I almost wished it was no. It was very scary—I felt like I was swimming against the stream. I returned to Plum Village in November—not knowing if it was to become a nun or stay as a layperson.

Three friends picked me up at the train station. They gave me a hug and I knew Thay’s answer. We all ordained together. We are so much closer now as monastics than we ever were as lay friends. I feel tremendously supported by them.

Was the transition from layperson to monastic difficult?

In a way. I had extremes of emotions, a strong, outspoken personality, and a lot of resistance to the idea of conforming. I’d do little acts of defiance—wear bright socks, mix the colors of my robe and pants, knit myself a colored hat. I was afraid of losing my identity, of not being unique anymore. I liked the practice though—sitting, walking, working wholeheartedly—and everyone was supportive.

And now?

I’ve realized I can never be like anyone else. The idea of conformity was an illusion. It doesn’t matter anymore how I look on the outside. Who I am is so much more than how I wear my clothes or what people think of me. I’m happy. My happiness used to be so dependent on exterior conditions. I couldn’t find it in myself. Now I feel a kind of inner path—my own—not even created by Thay. Seeing that path brings me a happiness not so dependent on exterior things. There is a continual sense of understanding and self discovery. Even now. Always.

I don’t know where I got the courage to become a nun. I’ll never regret the decision. It’s funny. I never wanted to have my own family and kids—my dream was to have a small house with lots of trees, take care of my mom (who is a lay resident at Deer Park in California) and have lots of friends over on weekends. In a way, that’s what I have here at Plum Village.

You’ve become a Dharma teacher by the Lamp Transmission. What does that mean?

The Lamp Transmission—given five years after full ordination—is one of the deepest ceremonies. All the elders are there and Thay officiates, but he is really holding the ancestral energy and passing it down. At the ceremony we give a short Dharma talk and are encouraged to fulfill the role of teacher, to be a lamp, a light to all beings.

Do you like teaching?

I’m nervous if I speak from my intellect, but if I speak from what Thay calls the store consciousness—from deep knowing— then teaching and sharing become easy. You feel lighter when you speak. Your ego is not involved. I think that is how Thay speaks.

Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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To Be Ready

Though many of us accompanied Thay and the monastic Sangha to Vietnam, it was not possible to understand all that was happening, right before our eyes. In this section, we get to hear Thay’s own words, fresh from returning, on what were the most notable events during the trip, and the possible future impact on the Vietnamese government as well as the monastics and lay practitioners there. In Thay’s articulate and practical style, Thay offers the government a six-point plan to begin to transform their limited way of perceiving Buddhist practice, and to use the strengths of the past to solve current problems.

We also witness more threads continuing to be woven between our spiritual home and our Western roots. Poems, stories, and reports of humanitarian projects all bring us closer to claiming our heritage, not as an Asian or as a Westerner, but as a Buddha-to-be.

Shortly before returning to France from Vietnam, Brother Phap Huu said, “I’m ready to return” [to Plum Village]. I have thought about the words “to be ready.” Am I truly ready? If I am truly ready then I should feel at ease to either stay in Vietnam or return home. If I do not feel at ease, then I am not ready. The three months in Vietnam were very long and very deep. We need a long time to digest what we experienced, so it can nourish our bones and muscles and become part of us. We need at least six months to digest the experiences of this trip.

Before going, I felt I was ready to return to Vietnam. I knew there would be a lot of unexpected situations and difficulties, but I was ready to face them. I had already prepared the fifth mantra. An American lay practitioner devised a fifth mantra, for times when his wife has an idea and if he doesn’t agree with her, there will be discord in the family. So he created this fifth mantra: “Yes Madam. Yes Ma’am.”

We thought we would encounter a lot of obstacles in Vietnam because there are many people in power who are in conflict with each other. Going to Vietnam was like rowing a boat on the ocean, trying to steer skillfully to avoid the waves and sea monsters. We didn’t want to be upset or angry because of the obstacles, so we had to learn how to accept what occurred. When you encounter something that is difficult to accept you say, “Yes Ma’am,” and it becomes easier.

I also had faith that the ancestors, the spiritual patriarchs, had arranged everything, and they would show me the way. I went with a pure heart, a heart that has no plans, no intentions, no desire for gain or authority. If your heart is pure the patriarchs will guide you to do the things that need to be done, and to not do the things that don’t need to be done. I hope you will also have this faith because it helps you when you encounter difficulties. No matter how big the difficulty, you just entrust your whole being to the patriarchs. When you have a pure, clear heart without hidden motivations or a secret agenda, then everything will happen beautifully. This is what happened on the trip.

Accepting the Unexpected

Sometimes we think it best if everything goes according to our plan. But in truth, it is not so. For example, when we were in Hanoi, we asked the government’s permission to use large venues that hold up to six thousand people. We thought that speaking to as many people as possible would be the most effective way to share the practice. But the government would not allow this. At first, they only wanted us to speak within temple grounds. But because of protests, petitions, and requests, they allowed us to speak in a venue that held from three to five hundred people: a tiny amount. However, this turned out to be crucial, because the people who attended the talk were influential in the society: scientists, scholars, and people from important sectors of the government. Having three hundred people of this status and influence was more effective than having a crowd of thirty thousand. If we had tried, we could not have arranged to have such an audience.

For many, it was their first time receiving such helpful and wholesome teachings. After one talk, a popular Vietnamese scholar said that he thought Buddhism was a type of asceticism, that the practice was to just suffer, suppressing your body and mind. But his mind was changed when Thay talked about ways to bring happiness into your life.

What we taught responded directly to the deepest needs of the people. Their eyes and hearts opened. For the first time in history, the Dharma talk in Hanoi ripped through the curtain of delusion and spoke to the leaders of the country, and showed them a new direction. The talk changed their lives and the direction of their future. Perhaps if we had spoken to thirty thousand people, the benefit would not be as great.

During the trip, there were a lot of seeds sown into fertile earth for the first time. Once the seed is sown, it will grow into a beautiful, healthy tree. The Buddhists who listened to the talks were very happy because they need a Buddhism that will help them resolve their daily difficulties. In China and Vietnam now, the practice of Buddhism is mostly prayer and offering incense, the devotional aspect. Only a few people know of the most important aspect of Buddhism, the tradition of wisdom and insight. Venerable monks and nuns who had been practicing for sixty and seventy years, touched the joy and happiness of the Dharma for the first time and experienced real insight. We should praise them for their efforts to try to keep Buddhism alive for the next generations, but they were drying up. Also, the teachings to the young people have not been satisfying; but hearing our new teaching, they became joyful and enthusiastic.

Difficulties Created by the Government

There is a faction of people in the government that is oppressive, scared, and discriminatory, and they can create a lot of anger and division. They didn’t want Thay to return home; they accepted it only through pressure to improve their human rights record. They were determined to restrict Thay to only speaking to the old people. Many police belonged to this group.

For example, when Thay spoke at Thien Mu temple,1 one of the most beautiful temples in Vietnam, nine thousand people attended, sitting in the rain. But the police and government officials had told schoolteachers they must take their students camping that day, as a ploy to keep the students away from the event. This type of manipulation occurred from south to north, arranged by the opposing group within the government. If there was a greater attendance than expected at an event, they tried to curtail the event. In the past, the government oppressed the monastics and lay practitioners, not allowing them to have meetings. A government task force on “religious security” created a lot of wounds and division within the Buddhist community.

But there were also people who wanted Thay to return, who saw that his presence would be beneficial for the country. They hoped those opposing would see that Thay was not a threat but a help to Vietnam, that our presence would reduce their fear and discrimination. I knew that if I came home with a pure and virtuous heart, we could touch the people directly and give them faith. But I knew it would be difficult. There were also people in the government who supported Thay very much, but they could not speak out without risk to their careers.

The same happened in Hue, in Binh Dinh, and in Saigon. All together, there were eight talks for government workers and politicians, people we had never been allowed to be in touch with. Their openness was so beautiful. At the end I met President Tran Duc Luong and I suggested six points for the Communist regime to study and practice. I suggested that a Vietnamese Communist is someone firmly rooted in Vietnamese culture, and Buddhism plays an important role in the culture. It has shaped the people and played a decisive role in the governments of the former dynasties when Vietnam was becoming a united people. Buddhism has been in Vietnam for 2,000 years; it is not only a religion, it is an essence that has gone into the blood of the people. Vietnamese Catholics and Communists still have Buddhism within them.

Lighting incense on an ancestral altar in your home is part of Vietnamese culture, not superstition. It is a tradition of insight to acknowledge that you have roots in your ancestors. Buddhism is not something outside of you but inside, and everyone should have a spiritual dimension. Buddhism should not be put under surveillance; we have to let people have freedom.

Many spiritual cultures have entered Vietnam, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. They have combined to become the ethnic and ethical heritage of Vietnam. The government officials who are Buddhist know they need to renew Buddhism and offer Buddhist insight to respond to the needs of the people. The leaders of the country need to step forward and respond to the immediate needs of the people without being dogmatic. If both sides are able to do that, then the Communists and Buddhists can hold hands and go forth in the same direction, working together so that Vietnam will have a future.

If you speak out opposing Communism, there will be no communication, only more struggle and war. We were able to discuss difficulties with the government because we didn’t condemn or judge them; instead, we opened a door to communication and development.

So the people in Vietnam also have a lot to digest and contemplate. It could take the lay practitioners and the monastics five years or more to understand and practice the new teachings. Consider how much longer it will take the government.

Walking in Freedom

After thirty-nine years of exile from my homeland, my only true desire was to walk with real steps of freedom. But if I were not ready, then my steps would not be free. Over the years, as I walked throughout the world, I trained myself to walk peacefully. Taking steps in Vietnam is the same as taking steps here in France; and here, I am still walking in Vietnam. It all depends on whether or not I am ready. A free step in Vietnam is a free step in Europe or America. So my homeland comes home with every step. There are no separate places; with one step you touch home in all places.

In Vietnam, people said, “Thay, you’ve just returned after forty years and you’ve been here for only three months. Why don’t you stay here with us?” They still discriminate. If I had not been in Europe for forty years, then what value would the three months have? Through distance and time we could see more about the country and the people, so that when we returned, we were actually much closer than before.

(1) Thien Mu Pagoda is also known for having staged pro-democracy demonstrations in the recent past. Their abbot has been in jail, though is now released. And the site holds the car-relic of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who drove the car to Saigon and immolated himself in protest during the war years under the Diem regime.

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The Six Points Suggested by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

on the Openness of the Vietnamese Communist Party

  1. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease with the cultural traditions of Vietnam and is determined to live in such a way as to make it more beautiful day by day.

  2. The Vietnamese Communist is aware that trees have roots, water has its sources and that ancestors are one’s origin, from which one has received many insights, experiences, and good and beautiful ways of

  3. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease while wearing the national dress and while offering incense at the shrine of King Hung, at their home’s ancestral altar, and at memorials to deceased The shrine of King Hung, the ancestral altars, and the memorials to deceased soldiers are symbols of gratitude towards and respect and love for one’s origin. They are not the objects of a deity faith. (The Ho Chi Minh Memorial is also a symbol of origin and gratitude.)

  4. The Vietnamese Communist understands that religious beliefs are not the essence of The essence of Buddhism is the source of insight that transcends perceptions of being/non-being, mind/body; that has the capacity to embrace, to cultivate brotherhood (love and compassion), and to transform hatred and discrimination. The essence of Buddhism is a wealth of concrete practices which help one to untie internal knots, to reestablish communication, and to bring about reconciliation in oneself, in one’s family and in society. This source of insight and these practices, if applied properly, have the capacity to rebuild peaceful and happy families, villages, and cities free from social ills such as crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and debauchery. This tradition of love and understanding has helped build a gentle and peaceful way of life, helped create many centuries of peace and prosperity, and has become the character of the national culture. This character is in the blood of every Vietnamese, including those who do not consider themselves Buddhist.

  5. Even when seeing those who consider themselves Buddhist but who only know to worship and to pray for favor, the Vietnamese Communist still feels at ease, and does not discriminate against He or she is aware of being more fortunate, of having had the chance to study and to utilize the insight of Buddhism in order to develop a profound internal life, to have more strength to overcome difficulties, to create sympathy and happiness in his or her family, and to organize and to succeed swiftly in his or her career.

  6. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease living together with all traditions (including those introduced into Vietnam long ago or just recently) that incline to become nationalized traditions and thus a part of the people’s The brotherhood among these nationalized traditions is a fact that does not need to bear the title of religion, race, doctrine, or ideology.

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Poem: Thien Mu



By Larry Ward

Around the bend of the Perfume River
Our Dragon Boat took time
Above steep ancient stone steps
Stood a golden pagoda constructed by an Emperor,
Silently resting on the earth
Seven levels reaching for the sky

Surprised with its simplicity, grace, and beauty
The grounds, the temple, the sound of the big bell still echoes in my heart
Touching the earth three times
In touch with my breath
In touch with my heart
In touch with my devotion

The old blue Austin that Thich Quang Duc rode
That day in Saigon 1963
A vehicle for offering his life
Engulfed in flames perfect peace,
lotus in a sea of fire Compassion speaks

The Bonsai trees laugh at my notions of age
Surrounded by the living graves of ancestors
The Temple and pine trees,
Thousands had gathered here for a day with Thay
A striking view of Hue
A red tea house peaks at me through the jackfruit trees
A gentle smiling monk

I make this pilgrimage three times
Who knew?
I would be
So moved
By quiet love

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Poem: A Walk with Thay

By Larry Ward

Walking meditation through the thick green jungle
Sights and sounds of war revealed

Fear, confusion, sorrow, and anger

What are we doing here?


Deformed bodies, still rising from the womb
Of mother earth

Scorched by the ideas of war

Easy to forget, so far away

We continue to create suffering

Babies’ cries fall on the deaf ears of companies and courts
Agent Orange harmed even our own

Too busy to remember

Hidden from view

Our depression comes from reality

Eyes of hope and forgiveness
Look at me through child ancestors of war

Orphanage visit shocks my heart

Into life

What am I doing now?

The jungle opens to a great space
A crowd of a thousand comes into view

Bowing with joined palms

Silence is thick

Smiles and tears

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, is a Dharma teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina.

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School of the Beloved

By Janelle Combelic

On this rainy day, Sister Chan Khong has led the lay delegation into the shiny, sodden, impossibly green countryside around Hue. She is exposing us to the social service work of the Order of Interbeing sponsored by Plum Village—a life-giving well dug for a farmer, a vibrant preschool, a small temple and school built among the rice paddies. We end the day at an extraordinary place run by an extraordinary woman, Sister Minh Tanh’s school for disabled children.

The Beloved School is unique in Vietnam, a place where children with moderate to severe handicaps, both mental and physical, receive education, food, and love. Some of them, who in the West would have been treated long ago, get medical care and surgery.

The school was founded in 2001 by Sr. Minh Tanh, Dr. Ha Vinh Tho and his wife Lisi of the Eurasia Association and Dr. Alan Sandler. It receives considerable support from the Dutch Sangha, among other sources of funding. On our visit we were fortunate to have with us Rochelle Griffin and Jantien Lodder, from Heerewaarden, Holland, both passionate sponsors of the school.

“In Vietnam there is no money for any kind of special care for medical procedures or for education for disabled people,” says Rochelle. “They feel left out of society, shame for their handicap, guilt for their bad luck and the extra trouble that it creates for their family; and because of their poverty, they experience a great deal of helplessness and hopelessness.” The school gives them a place to go during the day, transporting them by cyclo (bicycle taxi) if necessary. That way both parents can go to work.

As an American, I was shocked to learn that many of the children’s handicaps are due to Agent Orange, the defoliant dropped by the tons on this region of Vietnam during the war more than thirty years ago. Sadly, some 500,000 children have been born with birth defects attributed to the dioxin that contaminated the soil and water. For them, the war is not over.

Sister Minh Tanh, director of the school, radiates kindness and efficiency. She has devoted her life to improving the quality of life for handicapped children and poor families. (There are over 150 disabled children in the village.) Abbess of Long Tho Temple

in Thuy Bieu Village, she is also treasurer of Tu Hieu, our root temple in Hue, and coordinates all the funds collected through Plum Village and other organizations.

The school is financed entirely by donations. In addition to medical care for the children, this includes paying the teachers’ salaries and health insurance, purchasing food and supplies, and providing additional assistance to the poorest families.

Since 2001, when Rochelle and Jantien first traveled to Vietnam, they have been energetic fundraisers for the school. Rochelle, an American who has lived in Holland for many years, was disabled in a car accident in 1980 and suffers from chronic pain. She often used a wheelchair during the trip, powered by the tireless Jantien. Rochelle directs the Vuurvlinder Foundation, a center for people confronted with serious illness and other kinds of loss and change who are looking for inspiration and quality of life.

The Beloved School is close to Rochelle’s heart. “Becoming involved in this project,” she says, “is helping me to heal many wounds, some stemming from the American-Vietnam war that I was so angry about in the 1960s. It’s also been a means of honoring my mother who was a pioneer in the field of special education; she integrated disabled children in a vocational program into the public school system in the 1980s. And it allows me to help other disabled people.”

During our visit a dozen children sang a song for us. Some of them were shy and withdrawn, some bursting with enthusiasm. All of them touched our hearts.

Janelle Combelic, Sweet Wisdom of the Heart, lives in Loubes-Bernac, France, and practices at Plum Village. She is a contributing editor to the Mindfulness Bell.

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Airplane Dharma: No Birth , No Death

By Christian Bergmann

We flew one night with the Sangha from Hue to Hanoi. Half the airplane was filled with monastics and lay Sangha. Over an hour into the flight we were told that bad weather conditions were preventing us from landing in Hanoi. Now we were heading for Haiphong, a town by the sea two hours’ drive from Hanoi, and would take a bus from there back to Hanoi. As we approached Haiphong, we could see that the weather there was not much better. It was so foggy we could barely see our own wings, much less any city lights below.

As we got close to the ground the pilot switched off all the cabin lights. We sat in the blackness, flying slower and slower, expecting to touch down any minute but with no idea how close to the ground we actually were. Time seemed to stretch forever sitting in the dark plane.

Suddenly the airplane was thundering, the engines going full blast, as the pilot pulled the plane sharply up. It was very loud in the cabin. I wondered if this would be my last minute in this life. I expected we might hit a building or the trees at any second.

My wife, Angela, and I held hands, saying that we loved each another, just in case these were to be our last words. I trembled.

My legs were shaking, my heart was beating fast and hard, my breath was choppy. Fear of death captured my mind.

It was a powerful teaching. Being a hospice nurse, I had fooled myself into believing I had accepted the impermanence of life. But when that reality got personal and real, I saw that I have a long way to go in my understanding! I was not willing to let go of this life.

So we sang some spiritual songs as I tried to focus on my breath. What brought me the most calm was chanting Avalokiteshvara’s name and visualizing the Buddha’s and Thay’s smiling faces.

This experience was a great mirror in which I saw that my practice has yielded only partial success. And it was a great inspiration to practice wholeheartedly, and to live each day as if it may be the last. As we gained altitude, we flew back to Hue. After refueling, we reboarded the plane for another try.

Christian Bergmann, Joyful Gratitude of the Heart, lives in Berlin, Germany and practices with the Source of Compassion Sangha.

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Healing Old Wounds

By Paul Davis

In Vietnam this year, as I walked mindfully on the earth that had experienced such destruction and suffering during the American war, my mind returned to the Vietnam of 1965. At that time, I was often part of a team searching for land mines. In many ways, that was also mindful walking, but the seeds being watered were fear and anxiety and the psychological ground was ignorance. Now, walking with the support of Thay and a loving and compassionate Sangha, I was able to breathe in the suffering of war and breathe out peace and compassion to all those killed or wounded and for those who killed or wounded others. The psychological ground had been transformed from ignorance to awareness and the seeds from fear to compassion.

Paul Davis, Authentic Connection of the Heart, sits with the Eastside Sangha in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Poem: Alms Round Tu Hieu Temple, Hue, Vietnam

By Beth Sanchez

Again the loaves and fishes multiply
on this morning with no time for breakfast
the road to Tu Hieu thickly lined with common folk
draped in robes like so many gray doves

We file down the road,
we foreigners we brothers and sisters,
members of one body slow steps deep breaths
soft smiles we are here to show the homeland
that their practice is worth it

We ease past kitchen tables, pulled onto the street
and loaded up with presents here are bags of cooked rice
and mushrooms cheery tangerines leaf swathed sweets
Chinese candies throughout

The old women flash black teeth
their eyes pale with age and memories
of war the babies in silk suits and hands
of all sizes folded at the heart pair after pair after pair
the givers queue as far as the eye can see
they offer the lotus bow and sneak in a dumpling
this one gives a peanut candy,
that one a bean cake another slides round
to slip a box of juice into a sister’s bag

All at once their eyes grow bright something
in the air sings out I turn to look at the river of monks
serenely flowing our teacher flanked by attendants
trying to contain the rush of givers the reverse pickpockets
of his own beloved town

He steps One Small Brown Clog
and then the next a new heart cracked  
open step by monumental step starting with my own

Suddenly everyone is giving everything to everyone
I give a yogurt I get a cake!
I offer a box of milk And a whole meal appears
The fruits are flowing everywhere
The mind of love is here

The smiling nuns are weighted with the fullness
of this love a monk uses his upturned hat
as a receiving vessel he can barely carry the cornucopia
he smiles
he breathes
he walks through the land of milk and honey
knowing always
that the giver, the receiver,
and the received are one.

Beth A. Sanchez, Seeds of Awakening Sangha, Louisville, Colorado.

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The Maidens and the Crone

By Janey Gieber

We traveled with Sister Chan Khong and the monastic brothers and sisters in Quang Tri province to visit schools and projects supported by the Order of Interbeing.

Turning off the main highway, the driver took us down a small country road as the sun was just beginning to rise. He pulled over and parked. “Where are we going?” I wondered. “There is only jungle here.” We filed off the bus and began to stride mindfully down a narrow, muddy trail, dutifully following Sister Chan Khong. It was raining torrentially. The blue plastic raincoat I’d bought in Hue at an outdoor market was keeping the wet off my clothes but not out of my shoes. I looked down at my trudging feet, ensconced in mud. At that moment I understood the meaning of, “Present moment, wonderful moment.” I felt completely alive in every cell of my body, and understood more fully the unifying energy of going as a Sangha.

Gongs and drums began to sing loudly, and we were drawn into a clearing where a beautiful temple and schoolhouse stood. Villagers greeted us with huge smiles. We entered the little schoolhouse and the children sang “Breathing In, Breathing Out” with angelic voices, their hands making the accompanying gestures. As Sister Chan Khong explained that we were in the village of Thay’s mother, tears came to my eyes as I remembered my own mother, who had died only a few months before.

I remembered the jewelry made by a Sangha sister, Carrie, from our Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington. “Maybe I should get it out now to give to the children,” I thought. I noticed a dozen young ladies standing beside me. I tapped one girl on the shoulder and motioned for her to step toward me. I handed her a bauble of green and pink beads with a dragonfly pendant. She giggled and gasped as I attached the pin to her blouse.

After I had handed out the last one, I noticed a flurry of energy at the back of the crowd. An old woman pushed to the front to join the circle of maidens. Dark eyes boring into me, she unfolded her hands toward me, placing them inches from my chest. This four-foot ten-inch, hundred-pound crone commanded my attention!

Deep-set, wizened eyes with a glint of wildness were set in a tiny wrinkled face. Her hair, surprisingly brown with just a touch of gray at the temples, was tied in a peasant scarf. She smiled at me, her mouth filled with blackened teeth, some missing. “I don’t have any more. I gave the last one away,” I said regretfully, knowing she couldn’t understand English. Once more she poked a girl’s jeweled chest with her finger, then my chest, and finally her own. I panicked. Then I caught a glimpse of the mala bracelet of amber-colored beads on my right wrist, the one I’d received during the ceremony in which I’d expressed my aspirations to join the Order of Interbeing. Receiving the mala had touched me so deeply that I hadn’t taken it off since. Taking her hand in mine, I rolled the mala from my wrist and gently placed it on hers.

She lifted her hand, looking at the mala, looking at me, looking at the maidens. Then she stretched out her arm, bent her wrist and displayed her bracelet to the maidens and villagers watching. Spiraling playfully in a circle like a princess revealing royal jewels to her audience, she embodied both the maiden and the crone.

As we prepared to leave, the crone followed me to the bus, standing at the door to hug me and kiss my hand. I looked into her eyes and saw her love and gratitude. I kissed her hand in return, grateful that she had helped me transform a piece of my grief from my mother’s passing and led me to a deeper understanding of the nature of interbeing.

Janey Gieber, Inclusive Intention of the Heart, practices with the Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington.

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Poem: Ancestors

By David Percival

Walking through clouds descended like a lush wet blanket
Impermanence hangs heavy in the saturated air.
Trails and lanes climb over hills through the neighborhoods of Hue
Past homes, gardens, lush undergrowth, bamboo, tall pine trees,
Neighborhoods where graves and tombs sit serenely on the hills,
next to homes, in rice paddies,
Some cared for, some abandoned or forgotten.
Our ancestors are everywhere.
At Tu Hieu we walked and sat amidst the tombs,
Contemplated hundreds of graves
And achieved a oneness with these spiritual ancestors
I had never dreamed of.
Interbeing settles on me like the mist falling on my clothes
And penetrates into my very bones.
Now I know I will bring this penetration with me
To my land of disposable people, broken families, life extending pills and potions, plastic surgery.
A place where I didn’t think too much about my ancestors
Yet in Hue they are in my mind daily.
So in the hot dry desert air where I live
I can see clearly our responsibility to those who have departed
And I celebrate our global community of ancestors
And the peace and compassion of interbeing.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Walking Meditation Song

By Laurie Rabut

Every step I have arrived, touching joy to be alive.
Touching peace with every step, touching truth, no birth, no death
And our smiles as the water fresh and clear.
It’s good to walk with you, my dear

As we walk upon the land, Mother Earth holds out her hand
As we walk in peace, with grace, seeds of joy on every face
And our smiles as the flowers fresh with dew.
It’s good dear friends to walk with you.

This song came to me while traveling with Thay’s delegation in Vietnam. It is dedicated to Thay, the delegation of monastics and lay Sangha members and to all the beautiful Vietnamese people with whom we practiced walking meditation. During the trip I received many gifts and I was deeply moved. This song is my gift in return. It brings me great joy to share it with the Sangha.

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My Nephew’s Transformation

By Susan Glogovac

I left Vietnam late on the afternoon of April 12th, arriving at the airport to see off our friends from Chile and Europe who were traveling together as far as Kuala Lumpur. When they disappeared from view, I was alone for the first time in over six weeks, with no gray or brown robes in sight. Yet I felt the presence of the Sangha very deeply. It surrounded me as I began to think about home, particularly of my dear nephew, a young man living for over nine years with ALS, a disease that was gradually taking its toll. My family hadn’t mentioned much about him in our numerous e-mails. I hadn’t wanted to ask, and yet he was with me throughout the retreat. He was the one I held close each time the brothers and sisters sang, “Namo Avalokiteshvara.”

Within three days of arriving home, I was on a plane to Colorado to visit my nephew and join in the celebration of my mother’s ninetieth birthday. What was to be a joyous occasion was soon transformed into something quite different. My mother fell, breaking her arm and badly bruising her face. Then we learned that in just two days, on Sunday morning, my nephew was to begin his journey from this life as we know it. I felt my equanimity slipping away, replaced by the sorrow of what was to come. I sat alone that night. Focusing on my breath, I slowly eased into a place of stillness, readying myself for the days to come.

We spent Saturday afternoon saying our good-byes to him. It wasn’t easy. He is my hero and I knew I would miss his physical presence. Yet I felt that all my weeks of practice with the Sangha had given me the peace and solidity I needed to be with him for him. Thay’s teachings on no-birth no-death, and on accompanying the dying made it possible for me to wish him a peaceful journey without any fear. I held him close and could feel his peace as well. I shared with him some of my happiest memories of our times together. His eyes sparkled.

My nephew once was asked what he thought about heaven. He replied, “I think it’s like graduating to God.” But for me, he already had manifested his God-like nature in his patience, acceptance, and surrender without complaint to his illness, and in his joy of living in a body that increasingly was unable to support him. In graduating to God long ago, he allowed the lives he touched to awaken just a little bit more to the God within, to the Buddha within. This was a gift he gave to me.

Family and friends arrived early Sunday morning. I did walking meditation before we gathered, and periodically during the day and evening as the process unfolded, which helped me maintain a center of calm. I joined in massaging his hands and feet. I silently sang to him “Namo Avalokiteshvara,” and I could hear the monastic brothers and sisters and our lay Sangha in Hue, Hanoi, and Binh Dinh singing with me. Throughout, I felt the love and support of our Sangha, and while my practice is far from perfect, I was able to bring into the room the peace and stability I had developed on the retreat. During the night, I followed my nephew’s breath as it gradually eased and the time between breaths lengthened. And finally, with only his parents present, he passed from this life early the next morning.

Several months have passed. To some, it might look as though very little has changed. My mother’s arm has mended, her bruises faded. Our family has returned to the busyness of life, much as before. Yet I am aware that my nephew’s transformation has been my transformation as well. I am taking more time to be with family and friends. My heart is more open. There are times when the tenderness is almost too much to bear. More shared tears and joy, more awareness of life in the present moment. This too is a gift my nephew gave me.

Susan Glogovac, Wonderful Calling of the Heart, lives in Long Beach, California and practices with the Los Angeles Compassionate Heart Sangha. A retired psychology professor, she now serves her community as a mediator in victim-offender reconciliation cases.

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True Wonderful Action

By Anissa Housley

I’m in Estes Park, Colorado. The cavernous meeting hall is filled with people. It’s early morning; everything is dimly lit. Monks and nuns sit onstage and Thay is leading the ceremony for the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I’m standing, I’m prostrating, I’m kneeling, I’m singing.

I find myself before the stage. Sister Chan Kong hands me my ordination certificate. I can’t believe it—the name I’ve been given is “True Wonderful Action.” I feel deep gratitude to receive such a beautiful name, hand-picked for me by Thay and the monks and nuns, but I also struggle with feelings of insufficiency. Is this a name of which I can be worthy?

This transmission occurred two years ago. I had looked forward to learning my Dharma name and had wondered what it might be. When I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I had been pleased and grateful for the name “Wise Caring of the Source.” I could see how it applied to who I was at that point in my life. I could also see how it was something I was becoming.

But True Wonderful Action? This is a name about which I’ve had conflicting emotions, especially as I’ve tried to understand more deeply the foundation of our Order: Engaged Buddhism. Why is this sometimes a struggle? Part of it is my perception of both Engaged Buddhism and Right Action. Many people, both in my local Sangha and in the OI community at large, are diligent social activists. I hear and read about their dedication, commitment, and wonderful actions often.

I do not, however, view myself as a social activist. I tried many times to summon the energy to get involved. I attended peace walks, donated funds, and signed petitions. But it didn’t go much deeper than that. My heart wasn’t attached to any particular cause.

This has been a source of shame for me. I felt like an ant in the company of giants. Surrounded by people moving social and political mountains, I’m doing well just trying to keep my anthill in good order.

Shortly after receiving my ordination, I made a post to the OI Announce listserv, signed with my new Dharma name. I received a kind e-mail from a brother who shares the English translation of my Dharma name (the original names in Vietnamese are not identical). He asked me about myself and shared his experiences. We could not have been more different. He is an amazingly active member who has done much for the community and for the world through his conscientious and consistent social action. His accomplishments overwhelmed me. He had wondered if he had been given his name because of his dedication to social activism. I wondered if it disappointed him to learn that I, a tiny ant, shared a similar name with him, a true giant.

I tried to deal with my fluctuating feelings of inadequacy through humor. I would jokingly sign e-mails to my brothers and sisters “True Wonderful (In)action.” I was disturbed even by this little joke, since “inaction,” when broken into two words, is “in action.” I was still convinced I was anything but active. Even when I took action, it felt empty and forced, as though I were going through the motions in order not to be judged.

The real sticking point for me was the word “true.” I could perform “wonderful actions” if I had to, but for them to be “true” didn’t they need to fit my true nature? Didn’t they need to arise from a place of compassion and understanding? Even though I’m only a wave in the ocean, I’m a specific wave and my actions flow from my individual amplitude and frequency. How could I be authentically active?

So I continued to feel slightly uncomfortable with the fit of my name. Sometimes it felt like I was walking around in someone else’s clothes, of a fine material and cut, but too large for me, dragging in the dirt.

After receiving my name, I became more aware of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. As the bodhisattva of great action, I hoped he could help teach me to grow into my oversized name. I took as an ant-sized goal to “ease the pain of one person in the morning and bring joy to one person in the afternoon.” It wasn’t going to bring war to a screeching halt, end world hunger, or cause all suffering to cease, but it was something I could see clearly, something I could do. It was a Tiny True Wonderful Action––or so I hoped.

Time passed. I stopped analyzing so much and learned to let go a little. My name is my name and it won’t change. My name is a gift and I decided to be patient, to accept it, to see what it might offer.

So I continued my ant life. I wrote. I painted. I listened and talked to my friends and relatives. I participated in Sangha. I meditated. I read. I walked in the park.

Finding True Action

About a month ago I find myself walking to my park with the intention of feeding the hungry (in this case, the hungry ducks). As I arrive at the large pond, I see three boys. Two of them are throwing rocks at the ducks and the third is charging at them with his bicycle.

I’m instantly angry. My first impulse is to yell at them and tell them to stop. “Why are people so cruel?” I wonder. “Why must children be destructive and hateful? No wonder our world is such a mess.”

My stomach is churning and my heart is beating quickly. My usual course of action would be to walk past the upsetting scene and forget about it as quickly as possible.

But something happens. My habit energy is interrupted by a sudden burning awareness of the bag of bread in my hand. I came here for a specific reason and that reason wakes me up. An idea springs full-formed into my head.

I feel hot all over. What I intend to do is outside my normal, comfortable range of behavior. But I have to do it.

I walk over to the boys.

I don’t have children of my own. Nor do I work with children. In fact, I’m still learning how to be around children because I don’t automatically know what to do or say or how to act. Walking up to these three boys is an act of courage, especially for an ant like me.

I stop in front of the boy who has been leading the rock-throwing.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hello,” he responds, obviously wondering why I’m speaking to him. I feel a flicker of encouragement. Some part of me expects him to ignore me, to run away, to mock. Instead, he’s just a boy, saying hello to a grownup, and to a stranger at that.

“Can I ask you a question?” I begin.

“Yeeesssss,” he answers, still unsure about what’s happening.

I forge ahead with my plan. It feels exactly right. “Why are you throwing rocks at the ducks?”

I wait. He looks down at his feet. I feel his discomfort. I know he thinks I’m going to yell at him, tell him how bad he is. I know this because I remember. I remember what it is like to be him.

He answers: “I don’t know.”

I look at him and nod. I’m silent for a moment. I realize he’s telling me the absolute truth. He has no idea why he is throwing rocks at the ducks. I know what I have to do.

“Well,” I say, and I pause again, gathering my courage, getting ready to put it all out there.  “How would you like to feed them instead?” I hold up my bag of stale bread.

His face clouds over for a moment with confusion. Then his eyes clear and he half-smiles.

“Sure,” he says. “I’d like that.

I give him a couple of bread slices and start to walk away, but the second rock-throwing boy runs up to me.

“Can I feed the ducks, too?”  he asks eagerly.  I oblige and hand him some bread.

A few seconds later, the third boy on the bike rides towards me.

“Do you want some bread for the ducks?” I ask.

“Please!” he says, with excitement.  More bread changes hands.

As I continue on my walk, I glance back over my shoulder at three boys surrounded by ducks. In spite of myself, I feel my eyes become hot with tears.

True Wonderful Action. I think I’m beginning to understand.

Anissa Housley, True Wonderful Action, practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas. She is a writer and an artist.

Sister Annabel on Dharma Names

Until fifteen years ago Thay knew all OI aspirants personally and they were invited to receive the OI ordination. After that time candidates began to request ordination and often they were not known to Thay. More than fifty people receive the lay OI ordination every year and Thay cannot possibly know them all personally. It is therefore very important that ordinees practice deeply while writing their aspirations because the Dharma teachers of Plum Village and Thay use those words of aspiration when giving a name. Giving a name is a meditation and is never done by one Dharma teacher alone. After the Dharma teachers are agreed about the name, Thay has to give Thay’s approval. The list of names already given has to be consulted so no two people have the same name, although sometimes two different Chinese words have only one English equivalent. It is necessary that an aspirant writes her aspirations with all her concentration and mindfulness as if she were writing to the Buddha about what matters most to her in this life. Once the aspirant has done his best, he can be sure that the name he receives will help him. She should receive her name with humility and gratitude. If he does not understand his name he can ask his mentor or a monastic Dharma teacher to help. Otherwise she may recognize that she has not yet realized the full implication of her name, and be willing to give it time to reveal itself as her practice deepens. A Dharma name is to point to a quality that we have, and we need to practice to help that quality manifest more. “True” is the name that Thay has chosen for his own disciples. The quality that follows may be something that we already have, but not yet in its truest form. We need to practice to make it more true.

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Poem: Tranquil Sea



By Luan Dinh

I sit and breathe gently,
Waves that wash my lungs.
The surges of rising tides,
Swelling inside my chest.

Turbulence from deep within,
Swirling like a whirlpool.
Thoughts scattered everywhere,
A sea of spinning driftwood.

But I know it will be all right,
This muddy mix of water.
I observe the frantic swirling,
I observe the ceaseless flowing.

There is beauty in this chaos,
This mass of rapid turning.
Absorbed in observation,
I find a centre of calming.

The spin has great momentum,
Spraying great arms of froth.
Bits and bobs of floating,
Hard to recognize clearly.

As I continue to observe,
Watching this transformation.
The sea that once was raging,
Is now quietly subsiding.

Breezes are gently blowing,
Waves rippling on the surface.
What once was dark and murky,
Is now wonderfully clearing.

The surface is gently stirring,
Above the forests of shades.
Objects that are long forgotten,
Old shipwrecks and lost treasures.

Still I carry on observing,
Curious to see much more.
The wind gives way to silence,
A tranquility that is immersive.

Stretching across the horizon,
A lake as far as the eye can see.
Its murky depths are clearing,
Fish appear from deep shadows.

Their fins break the surface,
Sending ripples in all directions.
Returning beneath the water,
Fading in the depth of the ocean.

As I sit and breathe gently,
This great ocean is a lake.
Within this body of breathing,
All things are clearly reflected.

Luan Viet Dinh was born in Vietnam and lives in England, practicing with the Guildford Sangha and the Vietnamese Sangha TTT. His Dharma names are Tam Tu Quy and Compassionate Refuge of the Heart.

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