#65 Winter/Spring 2014

Dharma Talk: The Art of Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh mb65-DharmaTalk1mb65-DharmaTalk2These questions and answers are from the 2013 retreats at Blue Cliff Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and Deer Park Monastery. For video and audio of the 2013 teaching tour, including Dharma talks and Q&A sessions, visit www.tnhaudio.org.

Q: Why do people have to suffer?

A: Thay is breathing in and out to allow the question to go deep in him before he offers an answer. Why do people have to suffer? Because suffering and happiness are part of life.

Suffering and happiness have to be together. This is a very deep teaching of the Buddha. It’s like the left and the right. If the left is there, the right must be there also, and if there is no left, there cannot be a right.

To grow lotus flowers, you need mud. Suffering is the mud and the lotus is happiness. The mud does not smell good, but the lotus flower smells very good. If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow a beautiful lotus. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can create happiness. We need some suffering in order to create happiness, but we already have enough suffering. We don’t need to create more.

If we know the art of suffering, we will suffer much less; we will suffer only a little, and we will use our mud to grow our lotus flowers. Suffering is useful because when you look deeply at suffering, you understand, and suddenly compassion and love are born in you. So suffering is not entirely negative. It is helpful, like the mud. I hope that schools will teach the art of how to make good use of suffering to create happiness.

When you grow vegetables organically, you don’t throw the garbage away. You make it into compost to nourish flowers and vegetables. It is the same with suffering. You transform suffering into compost that grows the flower of happiness.

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Q: If you had a chance to live your life again, would you choose the same path or would you like to experience a new life?

A: I believe that I am not living just one life, I am living many lives at the same time. I am living the life of a monk, but also I live the life of a tree, of a bird, of a person in society, because I am in touch. When we have a retreat like this, many friends come and share with us their suffering and their happiness. In that sharing, we live their lives. Your happiness becomes my happiness, your suffering is my suffering. And when we do walking meditation, we get in touch with trees and rivers and flowers. When we eat, we get in touch with the cosmos.

As monks, we have more time to enjoy life. If I have to take care of a family, paying rent, having a car, I have to work hard. Not much time is left for me to enjoy being with nature or other people. As a monk, I have time not only for myself, but for my community, my disciples, my friends, and I can offer them my energy, my teaching, my time. That is very satisfying because when you can help other people to suffer less and to be joyful, you are rewarded with joy and happiness. I believe that to practice as a monk is much easier than to practice as a layperson. I chose the easiest way. [Laughs.] So next life, I will continue as a monk.

Q: What is the hardest thing that you practice?

A: Not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by despair; that is the worst thing that can happen to you. When the war in Vietnam was going on, it seemed it would last forever. Young people asked, “Dear Thay, do you think that the war will end soon?”

It was very difficult to answer because if Thay said, “I don’t know,” then the seed of despair would be watered in them. So Thay had to breathe in and out a few times, and then say: “Dear friends, the Buddha said that everything is impermanent, so the war must be impermanent also. It will end someday. Let us continue to work for peace.”

During the war, we organized the School of Youth for Social Service, similar to the Peace Corps created by John F. Kennedy. We went into the war zone and helped wounded people, created refugee centers, and rebuilt villages that had been bombed. We gave people a chance to return to a normal life.

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There is a village not far from the military zone separating the north and south. It was bombed and completely destroyed, so we helped rebuild it. Then it was bombed and destroyed again. Our social workers asked whether they should rebuild it. We said, “Rebuild it.” We rebuilt it four times. We kept rebuilding because if you give up, it will create a feeling of despair.

The hardest thing is not to lose hope, not to give in to despair. Through two wars, we saw French soldiers come to kill and be killed, and young Americans come to kill and be killed. Fifty thousand young Americans were killed in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands were wounded, both physically and emotionally. In a situation of utmost suffering like that, we practice in such a way that we preserve our hope and our compassion. If we don’t have a practice, we cannot survive. When the journalists asked us how we felt about young Americans coming to kill and die in Vietnam, we said that we didn’t hate them because they were victims of a policy based on the fear that the communists would take over Southeast Asia.

In 1966, Thay was invited to come to America and talk to people about the war. There was a peace movement opposing the war in Vietnam, but as people demanded peace and did not get it, they got very angry. Thay told these groups, “If you have a lot of anger in you, you cannot achieve peace. You have to be peace before you can do peace. You need to know how to write a love letter to your president and your congress, to tell them that you don’t want the war. If you write a strong, angry letter, they will not read it.” Thay was able to help end the war in that way. If you understand suffering and can help compassion to be born in you, you will be free from despair and anger, and you can help the cause of peace.

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Q: How have you detached from your strongest attachments in life?

A: I think meditation can help. When you look at the object of your attachment, if you see it is bringing you happiness and joy and making people around you happy and joyful, there’s no reason to remove that attachment. If you notice that the object of your attachment brings suffering to you and to the world, that kind of enlightenment will help you detach from it.

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Q: I lost my only son, Jesse, on December 14th at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I struggle with that every day and I’ve had some pretty bad days. There’s no way to describe the suffering, the heartbreak. I keep thinking, what could have prevented what happened that day? It wasn’t an act of war, it wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t an illness. It happened for no reason, a horrendous act of violence and loss of lives. My question is, what could have prevented what happened that day? What changes can we all make to prevent suffering like that in the future?

A: I think that if we do not do something, that will happen again somewhere else in America and in other places. Young men or women will bring guns into school and shoot them. Your son is telling you and telling us that the person who did the killing was a victim. His parents and teachers did not instruct him how to handle the energy of violence and anger within him. When we look into a young person, we may see the possibilities of being loving and of being violent. Your son is telling us that we should do something to prevent that from happening again.

We should practice so we know how to handle the violence and anger in us. And we should transmit that practice to the younger generation. This is the purpose of these retreats: to learn how to be happy, how to handle our suffering, the violence, fear, and anger in us. Many of us are working with schoolteachers and parents to teach those skills, so they can transmit them to their students and children. I think your son is telling you to support us in this work. We have helped thousands of schoolteachers in India, America, and other countries. Governor Brown of California allowed us to experiment with this teaching in private schools in California. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to learn how to handle fear, violence, and despair in yourself, how to speak in a way that can restore communication and reconciliation. You don’t need to embrace a religion to practice this.

We suffer the same kind of suffering that you have experienced. But there is a way to suffer. With mindfulness and concentration and insight, we suffer less. The period of suffering might be shortened, and then we can develop our understanding and compassion. We can transform our suffering into something more positive and help other people, especially the younger generation.

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Q: Our daughter, Casey, was nineteen when she died from leukemia. I try very hard to remember that she is with me, that she is in every cell in my body. But still I feel waves of such deep sorrow and longing. I want to be with her. Is it possible to ever be truly happy again?

A: The other day we spoke about a cloud in the sky. When the cloud transforms herself into rain, it’s hard for you to recognize your cloud in the rain. You need to have the kind of eyes, the wisdom of signlessness, to recognize your beloved in her new form. But she is there. If you know how to look deeply, she is still with you. It is impossible for her to die. She just manifests herself in new forms. But we suffer if we can only recognize her in her old appearance. If we are open, if we can see our cloud in the rain, we can stop our suffering and we can restore our joy.

Before giving birth to me, my mother miscarried my older brother. When I was young, I often asked whether the boy she miscarried was me or another boy. It could have been me saying, “I don’t want to come out yet. I want to wait.” So maybe she really did not miscarry anyone.

One winter doing walking meditation, I saw many buds on a tree. It was warm at the time, so the buds came out beautifully. I said, “This new year, we will have flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” If you cut a few branches to bring into the warmth, they will blossom. But before I could cut them, there was a wave of cold and all of them died. So I said, “This new year, we will have no flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” But later it became warm again and new buds appeared on the branches. The old buds that seemed to have died had not really died. Life is stronger than death. Are the new buds the same or different from the old ones?

If we are mindful, if we are concentrated, we can recognize our beloved one right here and now in her new form. We can restore our joy and happiness. She is always here, but she may not be just one, she might be in two, three, four, or five forms. If you come and live a few months with us, you will recognize her in this monastery, and you will have three, four, or five daughters instead of one.

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Q: Honorable Thay, dear Sangha, I think that the influence you had on Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is undeniable; one year later, he gave an important statement against the war in Vietnam. I have a heavy heart seeing that fifty years later, the United States is on the brink of yet another military intervention, this time in Syria. If you were the president’s spiritual advisor, what would you tell him?

A: President Obama has his own Sangha, his advisors and ministers and party. He may see the wisdom in what I tell him, but he may not be able to follow it because he is not operating on his own, he has to operate as part of a group. You might believe that a person like the President of the United States has a lot of power and can do what he wants. That’s not true.

What I suggested to Dr. King is that we’ve got to have a Sangha that has a lot of understanding, compassion, and brotherhood. Then a war will not be possible because advisors, collaborators, friends, and supporters will see things in the light of understanding and compassion. I think President Obama tries to do his best. Sometimes he practices loving speech very well. We need loving speech, we need deep listening, but we also need the collective energy of a Sangha to support us. Otherwise you are under pressure to do what the collective consciousness wants. The country still has a lot of fear and anger and you operate on that collective energy.

To transform the way of thinking in the country spiritually, you begin with your group. You cultivate seeing with understanding and compassion. You change your thinking so you are capable of being together in harmony. Organizing retreats like this helps promote understanding, compassion, and harmony. This is helping the president and helping the country.

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Q: I work for the United Nations, in the department of peacekeeping operations, as a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration officer. I negotiate and prepare programs for combatants after conflict so they can transition to a civilian life. I spent the last month in Mogadishu and Somalia, mostly dealing with young men who are involved in armed groups. There are also groups such as Al-Qaeda asking them to join. People sometimes perceive this as a religious war, but I think they are appealing to very poor young people’s sense of being dispossessed. They have nothing and Al-Qaeda gives them something. They give them a little money, but they also offer for them to become a part of something. Even though it is a jihadi movement, the young people feel respected and perhaps feared; it is very hard to compete with that. How might we approach these young men? How might we design programs that convince them to put down their guns and join us in peace? We have so little means, and Al-Qaeda and others have more convincing arguments.

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A: Maybe we should begin by inviting some of them to come to a place where there are kind people, people who have compassion and understanding. These young people need to survive and they need some money, but one of the things we can show them is that you do not need a lot of money to live happily. Suppose they come to Plum Village and see that there is true brotherhood and sisterhood, and the feeling of being useful to society. There is the happiness that comes when you have compassion and understanding. They need to come and see for themselves. If some of them have a direct experience with this kind of living and serving, they will go back and tell the rest.

The practice of looking and listening to the suffering inside us and in the other person or group is very important. We can find ways to show them that not only we suffer, but the people we are about to punish suffer also. That is the practice of the precept regarding understanding suffering. You can recognize and understand the suffering in the world, even in the people you are told are your enemies or are representing evil. That kind of understanding of suffering will bring about compassion. Compassion helps us to suffer less. When you suffer less, you can help another person to suffer less. There must be a kind of strategy in order to really help people. Money is just a small part of it.

If you are surrounded by friends and co-workers who have the same kind of vision and understanding, you will succeed. You cannot do it alone. You have to have a Sangha behind you, supporting you, supplying you with the energy of understanding and compassion. Otherwise you will give up eventually. It is very important. If you want to do something, build a Sangha. If President Obama has a Sangha like that, he will be able to do a lot of good things. The same is true for all of us. If you want to achieve something in your life, you need a Sangha. The Buddha knew that. That is why after enlightenment, the first thing he did was to look for elements of a Sangha.

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Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve had much suffering, observing and participating with the consumption here at the retreat. Many of the products we’ve been using and eating are not of the highest integrity, two of which are the toilet paper––no recycled content––and the food, much of which is not organic. One example of extreme concern is the bananas we’ve been eating, from a company called Chiquita, that’s known to have participated in genocide in Central America until 1988. The people who perpetrated these crimes were never brought to justice: they’re still free, they’re still wealthy. Many of the products were bought from places like Wal-Mart, which are known for human rights abuses, especially in Southeast Asian countries where their manufacturing takes place. We’re living in a time of economic warfare, with manipulation of currency and easy money flowing to these companies. I have spoken with monastics who are doing purchasing. One brother said the Sangha is limited in resources and money, and potentially limited in options to source higher quality, ethical products. This is the most common answer given around the world: “I can’t afford to eat organic food or to support local farms.” Is that an excuse? What do we do?

A: It’s not exactly lack of money but lack of understanding and love. When we organize a retreat like this, something very positive happens. No one eats meat or drinks alcohol for six days in a row. No one tries to insult or say angry words to another person. Everyone is trying to restore peace in their body and their feelings. That is very good. If we do this, we have more peace, we have more loving kindness. Then it’s easier to change other things, like buying toilet paper that is less polluting.

I have seen ecologists who are very angry. There’s a lot of pollution in them––anger, impatience, hate, and violence. They cannot serve the cause of the environment with those kinds of energies. The activist should change himself first; he should have a lot of understanding and compassion in his way of thinking and speaking. Then instead of criticizing and demanding, he can begin to help.

We have to recognize that we are making a lot of progress on the path. We have been refraining from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products for many years. In the monastic community, no one has a bank account, no one has a private car, no one has a private home. Everyone is sharing; this is very positive. We have to recognize these positive things. The most difficult thing is to live happily as a Sangha. If you have that, everything positive will happen. Use your time and energy to build a happy Sangha with brotherhood and sisterhood.

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Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I am here with my daughter and my grandbaby. I am a new grandmother and my heart has gotten bigger and filled with so much love, and I feel a sacred responsibility to my grandchildren. I try to breathe and enjoy the beauty and the joy of these babies, and of this life, and of this world. I am also an activist and recently read your book, Love Letter to the Earth. The research on what is predicted for life on this planet is very painful, partly because I feel quite alone. I do take action and there are some positive changes happening, but I don’t feel like there are a lot of places where I can talk about this. I don’t want to be angry. I want to talk from my heart with others about how to make positive changes. How we can do that in the Sangha? It seems there is some attitude that talking about these things is too political or too social, and I feel alone in my suffering around this. Thank you.

A: Sangha building is very important work. Sangha means “harmonious community” and the main task of the Sangha is not to organize events; it is to build brotherhood and sisterhood. Through deep listening and loving speech, we should be able to communicate with each other easily, and as we share our ideas we can come to collective insight. Sitting in the Sangha you feel nourished, you feel stronger; that is real Sangha building. With a Sangha like that, everything is possible, because you don’t lose your hope.

In Sangha building we need a lot of patience, and patience is a mark of love. In Plum Village we spend a lot of time and energy building Sangha. We sit together, eat together, drink together, walk together, and share our ills and sorrow. We know that if we do not have enough harmony and happiness in our Sangha, it will not mean anything to get a lot of people to participate. Even a Buddha cannot do much without a Sangha. The Buddha was a perfect Sangha builder and spent a lot of time building his Sangha. It is not easy to build a Sangha, as the Buddha knew. But with compassion and patience, he was able to build a beautiful Sangha.

When the Buddha and King Prasenajit were both eighty, and were both traveling through the country, one day they happened to meet in the north. King Prasenajit praised the Buddha, saying, “Dear Teacher, every time I see the Sangha, I appreciate you more. I bow to you because you have such a beautiful Sangha. Once I went to a place with two carpenters who were your disciples. That night we slept in the same room and they turned their head to the direction they believed you were and they turned their feet toward me. They revered you more than they revered their king, so I know you are loved dearly by members of your Sangha.”

The Sangha is a jewel, and with a Sangha you can accomplish much in the world. With a happy Sangha, many people can come and take refuge and profit from the collective energy of peace and happiness and compassion and mindfulness.

With a Sangha like that, you can nourish your grandchildren. That is the safest place for your children. If our children are raised in such an environment, they will become instruments of peace. We have to believe that our children have Buddha nature; we need to focus our efforts on watering the seeds of love, compassion, and talent in them. We should offer our best to them, not worrying about the future. Invest all your energy into the present and nourish your children and grandchildren with the energy of hope, compassion, and insight.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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

Letter from the Editor

mb65-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha, While this issue was coming together, I spent an evening reading our teacher’s poetry on his experiences in war. Afterward, I dreamt that people in my community were drafted into military service and a war was going to break out within a few days. I was very conscious of the peaceful conditions of our lives. The sky was clear and quiet with-out bombers. No grenades were hidden in the fields. The children’s faces were innocent and happy. If war came to our community, I thought, we would look back on this day as a blissfully peaceful time, a day in heaven.

In our world, moments of peace are priceless. Too many people are living in the chaos and terror of war. Even when there’s no external violence, we can have a war going on inside us if the seeds of anger and hatred have been watered. War is never far away. My dream reminded me to cherish peace wherever I find it, and also to cultivate inner peace and use it to nurture harmony in my community.

Thay shows us the way of a bodhisattva, one who continually embodies and generates peace within the crucible of war. He showed us by his example in Vietnam. He shows us by embracing all of our suffering, by meeting one wound after another with the healing balm of compassionate presence. He shows us how places of conflict and suffering are the very places to birth peace.

This issue’s question-and-answer session is an example of Thay’s fearless welcoming of any kind of suffering in order to transform it. The volunteer who transcribed the Q&A shared: “This particular session was so moving that I had to take many breaks to soothe the emotions. I cried so often when listening to some of the deep suffering. Imagine being Thay, sitting there listening deeply to peoples’ struggles and then responding to each individual with such compassion and wisdom! May we all be a source of healing compassion and understanding to ourselves and others.”

Anh-Huong Nguyen, in this issue’s interview, encourages us to embrace our pain and to lean into the Sangha for support, because “sometimes our mindfulness is not strong enough to hold the pain that arises in us. We need to lay this pain inside the Sangha’s cradle, so that it can be held by the collective mindfulness and concentration.” Resting in the Sangha’s arms can give us the strength to practice the art of suffering—to engage with our difficulties and transmute them into gifts.

Also in this issue, young practitioners in the Wake Up movement share what it’s like for them to rely on the Sangha and to be transformed by the collective energy of awakening. Their exuberance, deep questions, playfulness, and freshness are inspirations to continue opening new doors in our practice. And practitioners of all ages share stories of their ever-deepening gratitude and compassion.

May these offerings nourish compassion and loving-kindness in us. May we nurture and share our inner peace to help transform war and amplify peace in the world.

With love and gratitude,

mb65-Editor2Natascha Bruckner True Ocean of Jewels

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Letters

A Bright Continuation After years of reading Thay’s books and attending his public talks, I finally left the spiritual path I had been on and began practicing with a local Sangha (Organic Garden Sangha), becoming an “official” student of Thay’s when I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him in 2005. Before embarking on this journey, though, I had some concerns about what the practice/training would be like without regular direct access to the teacher, and what the practitioners and Dharma teachers would have to offer––what would Thay’s continuation look like?

One of the things I did was subscribe to the Mindfulness Bell. I remember when I received my fi issue in the mail. As I leafed through its pages and then began reading, I found myself on the edge of tears. I was so tremendously moved, reassured, comforted, encouraged, and inspired. I knew conclusively that I had indeed found my path, “my tribe,” as a friend of mine called it.

Years later, I still get excited and happy whenever the Mindfulness Bell arrives. I am deeply moved by it and grateful for its existence and for the skill and care that has gone into producing it over the years. The Mindfulness Bell is like a life raft to me, a huge gift, and I hope it will continue to be for me and for people like me for many years to come. Thanks to that first issue, I knew for certain that our tradition was strong and healthy, its future bright.

Thank you for your dedicated and loving efforts, so that people like me can still get that tingle of joy every time it arrives in our mailboxes. I truly appreciate it.

A beautiful lotus for you, Alex Cline Chan Phat Son (True Buddha Mountain) Culver City, California

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No Conflict

How moved I was in reading Lennis Lyon’s recent article in the Mindfulness Bell [Autumn 2013]. The way she has practiced with her grandson is remarkably powerful. If all parents and grandparents would treat their children and grandchildren with so much respect and tenderness, there would be no conflict in this world. Wendy Warburton Rhode Island

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Telling Our Stories

We frequently read from the Bell at our weekly Northern Lights Sangha. Last month I facilitated, and we read Brother Phap Ho’s “Love Letter to the 1%” [Summer 2013]. Everyone loved it and we had a fantastic discussion afterwards. Not only that, but a few of us later that day went to a meeting of folk interested in Joanna Macy’s work, and people mentioned the article. It had an impact!

In the latest issue, the Dharma talk is a wonderful reminder. I often think of Thay’s proposal after 9/11 for compassionate listening sessions as a way to heal our own people first. People just need to tell their stories! That came out strongly at the recent Forgiveness Conference here at Findhorn. A consistent theme was the need for understanding as the first step to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Blessings to you and all the contributors for your good work, Janelle Combelic Scotland

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The Sangha Carries Everything

An Interview with Anh-Huong Nguyen mb65-TheSangha1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MB: When did you meet Thay in person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A True Rebirth

MB: What got you through that time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing with Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing Our Pain

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

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

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

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

Engaged Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Barbara Casey and Natascha Bruckner

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Poem: Walking Meditation with Anh-Huong

mb65-Walking1I felt the silence of the wind as we walked through woods where autumn leaves fell— as I wish to fall––gently. Golden, brown and fire red cleansing air, breath and me. I walked with her, held her hand–– gently, like a leaf I hugged my teacher and she shined through October’s roiling clouds. The trees bowed like Buddhist monks and her smile sang itself into my heart. More leaves slipped their moorings and floated into my sadness, fluttered, tickling the soul, and I smiled, leaves like butterflies in my heart.

-Garrett Phelan

mb65-Walking2Garrett Phelan, True Shining Heart, practices with the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (MPCF) under Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen. Garrett is the editor of the quarterly newsletter ofthe MPCF, “Along the Path.” A former high school principal and longtime teacher, he is currently a teaching artist in the Washington, D.C., area.

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A Letter to My Brothers and Sisters in Baguio City Jail

By Sister Mai Nghiem mb65-ALetter1Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It is 5 a.m. and I’m sitting on the roof of the Baguio Buddha Temple, looking out at your city and thinking of you. Are you up yet? What are you doing at this time? I wish we would’ve had more time to talk yesterday. Perhaps another time.

Thank you for our time together yesterday. It was my first time going into a jail, and before I entered, my mind was fi with questions and apprehension. I asked myself, “What do I know about their lives? How can I help? Who am I to help?”

As we spent time together, and as you shared your questions and difficulties, I realized something so simple that it may sound naive and a bit silly, something we all know in our heads, but which feels so different in our hearts. I entered the jail with the idea that “you’re you and I’m me,” the idea that you’re a young Filipino staying in the Baguio City Jail and I’m a young French nun staying in a temple in Hong Kong.

Thanks to your openness and your sharing through words, looks, and smiles, I emerged from the Baguio City Jail as quite a different person. I realized, “You’re me and I’m you.” The pain in your heart is also my pain and the smile in your eyes is also my joy. I realized that we have the same mind, that we are experiencing the same joys and suffering as well as the same need for understanding and love.

I realized that we’re who we are now because of our environment, our education, and the influences and impacts of the people in our lives. We’re who we are now because of the seeds we’ve watered in our lives, whether anger, fear, hatred, love, joy, despair, or forgiveness. If my father hadn’t helped me to change the environment I was engaging in as a teenager (an environment filled with drugs, alcohol, empty sex, and partying), I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have been able to meet all of you yesterday.

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I’d like to tell you a story. Our teacher did a retreat many years ago in America for war veterans. One of the participants was very fearful. He avoided the other participants, choosing to stay alone. After a few days, a group of brothers and sisters sat with him so he could share what was happening in his heart. And he told his story.

He was a soldier in Vietnam whose unit was killed by the Viet Cong. In revenge, he placed explosives in sandwiches, left them at the gate of a village, and hid nearby. After a while, a group of children came along, found the sandwiches, and happily ate them. As they ate, they began crying, their bodies twisting in pain as they called out for their parents. The American soldier knew there was nothing to be done. He knew the children would die.

When the soldier returned to the United States, images of the dying children haunted his mind. He couldn’t sleep or find any peace of mind. He became a very anxious and angry person and was unable to be in the same room with children.

So much guilt was in him and he could not forget. His mother was the only person with whom he spoke about what he had done. She tried to comfort him by saying, “This is what happens in war.” But her words didn’t help to release his pain.

When the soldier finished telling his story, our teacher said to him, “Yes, you killed a group of children. This is a fact. But how many children can you save today? How many children are dying right in this moment because of lack of food and medicine? Do not stay in your guilt and regret. Go out and help save children now.” And that is what the ex-soldier did. He started devoting his time and energy to saving children, and at the same time, he was healing himself.

When we experience a difficult situation, we are very lucky. Why? The difficult situation gives us a chance to understand deeply and to help other people who are experiencing the same kind of suffering.

If we have watered the seeds of anger, hatred, violence, and fear every day, and can see how these seeds, growing stronger and stronger, have brought so much damage and suffering to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to others, then we can make an aspiration in our heart. Whether we are in prison or not, we can take the time we have to reflect, to look deeply at our situation and into the situations of our children and our youth to see what we can do to create a better environment, a better place for our children to grow up so that violence, hatred, fear, and anger are not our daily bread. We can nourish ourselves and one another with joy, beauty, love, and understanding. And that doesn’t require money.

We can sit together, and as intelligent people, we will find ways to become community builders, creating a safe, healthy, and peaceful environment for our families and future generations. We have to use our time wisely. If we are in prison, we have plenty of time now to sit and look at ourselves, to sit together and share our difficulties and our insights of how to get out of these difficult situations. And we can always ask for help. There are many people around us who are ready to listen and to help.

I have much trust that you will be able to help many, many people through your own experience.

My dear brothers and sisters, thank you for being here, thank you for being who you are, thank you for being so beautiful. I promise I will use my time to breathe for you and to walk for you, because I know that my peace is your peace, and my joy is your joy.

Please pray for me as well, so that I may have your determination and your strength to face obstacles along my way. May God and all your ancestors be with you always, protecting you on your path.

Your sister, Mai

Sister Mai Nghiem (Sister Plum Blossom) ordained in 2002. She is living now in the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, helping with Applied Ethics and Wake Up programmes. She went with the monastic Sangha to the Philippines in October 2013, a yearly trip. The Baguio City Jail visit was an event organized by a Sangha member there.

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The Heart of Creativity

By Aleksandra Kumorek mb65-TheHeart1

The work of artists, creative practitioners, and those working in the media has an impact on the collective consciousness. But which seeds are being watered? What would it look like to live and work according to Buddhist ethics? How can we be part of a wholesome, supportive community of creative practitioners?

“Together we are one,” reads a calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh. This statement became the motto of the first retreat organized by the Mindful Artists Network, which took place at Findhorn, Scotland, in June 2013. Fourteen dancers, musicians, actors, writers, and visual artists from Germany, Great Britain, and Canada came together at the Victorian retreat centre, Newbold House, in order to meditate, dance, celebrate, and practice creativity. Under the spiritual guidance of Sister Jewel (Dharma teacher in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh) and Sister Hai Nghiem, and with co-facilitation by the network founders Susanne Olbrich and me, this newly formed “tribe” spent a weekend enjoying the magical Scottish midnight sun.

In the opening ceremony, everyone placed an object or image on the “altar of creativity”––something that represented each person’s connection to his or her individual creative source. It was an act of consciously joining the great stream of our ancestors, inspirations, and influences. This marked the beginning of an intense weekend of shared joys and tears, dances and performances, deep reflection, and heartfelt laughter.

In addition to sitting and walking meditations, the focus was on creative practice. Sister Jewel introduced the InterPlay* method and dance meditation, which helped us connect deeply with ourselves and with each other. In the large, walled garden of Newbold House, groups created mandalas from natural materials and then gave impromptu performances. In small groups, we reflected on ethics and the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

An informal tea ceremony provided a frame for participants to present their own creative work: music, dance, painting, sculpture, performance, movies, photography, and poetry. One of the particularly memorable artists was a most uncommon “Zen” master: a clown who works with terminally ill children in hospitals and who made us laugh that night.

By the time we parted Sunday afternoon, we’d grown into a loving community that had brought Thich Nhat Hanh’s statement to life: Together we are one, indeed. We couldn’t resolve the world’s problems during this weekend, and living our lives lovingly and mindfully will continue to be a challenge for each one of us. We know we must not allow the seeds of greed, stress, and competition, which are so dominant in our society, to be watered. We must remain true to our way of compassion and non-harming in everyday work. But we know that we no longer walk this path alone.

The next Mindful Artists Network retreat is scheduled for July 17-20, 2014, at the Source of Compassion practice centre in Berlin. It will be guided by Sister Jewel. Please visit www.mindful-artists. org for information about the previous and upcoming retreats.

*InterPlay (www.interplay.org) is a creative practice that integrates movement, storytelling, silence, and song to unlock the wisdom of the body.

Amb65-TheHeart2leksandra Kumorek is a writer, director, and lecturer in Berlin. In 2012, she became a lay member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. She has practiced with the Sangha Source of Compassion in Berlin since 2005. She and pianist/composer Susanne Olbrich launched Mindful Artists Network at Plum Village in 2012.

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Calligraphic Meditation

By Maureen Chen mb65-Calligraphic1

From September 7 to December 31, 2013, Calligraphic Meditation: The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh––the first U.S. exhibition of Thay’s calligraphies––was held at ABC Home in New York City. Jointly presented by Blue Cliff Monastery and ABC Home, the exhibition had already shown in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand.

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ABC Home sells elegant, responsibly sourced home furnishings. Its CEO and Creative Director Paulette Cole and COO Amy Chender both own Thay’s calligraphies and attended his NYC public talk in October 2011. Thus, when consultant Lorna Chiu proposed the exhibition on behalf of Blue Cliff, they were eager to host.

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In the store’s front windows, huge calligraphies were displayed with furnishings as they would appear in a home. The artwork featured two empty Zen circles as well as Thay’s aphorisms: look deeply, be beautiful be yourself, breathe, go as a river, and no mud no lotus. Occasionally, someone noticed them and even stopped to take photographs or watch the video of Thay doing calligraphy.

Just inside the entrance, breathe served as a mindfulness bell, inviting viewers to stop and become aware of their breathing. Then look deeply invited them to look at and buy Thay’s books and CDs displayed below the art.

A Sacred Sanctuary

Inside the store, the Deepak HomeBase gallery— created by Paulette Cole and bestselling author Deepak Chopra to present the work of visionary individuals—was transformed into a sacred sanctuary by the sixty-six framed calligraphies on its walls. These included more of Thay’s core teachings, such as peace is every step, this is because that is, smile, and the English, French, and Chinese versions of i have arrived i am home.

At a press conference held on September 5, a panel of five monastics––Sister Chan Khong; Brother Phap Nguyen, exhibition curator; Thay’s calligraphy assistant Brother Phap Nguyen; Sister Peace; and Brother Phap Chieu––shared their favorite calligraphies with members of the media. Brother Phap Nguyen explained that the Zen circle is a special symbol in the Zen and Plum Village traditions, and that it has multiple meanings, such as emptiness, the cosmos, and Thay’s concept of interbeing. Sister Chan Khong sang the poem “For Warmth” in her lovely voice.

Paulette Cole greeted the media by saying, “For us, it is a privilege to water positive seeds in New York City.” Deepak Chopra spoke about how one’s attitude, whether positive or negative, is infectious.

At the reception that followed, a classical string quartet of lay and monastic musicians performed for two hundred guests, including many family members, friends, colleagues, wellness experts, and artisans in the ABC Home community. Notable attendees included motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein, actor Edward Norton, actress Parker Posey, actress Amy Smart, and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman.

After Paulette Cole and Deepak Chopra welcomed the guests, Thay gave a Dharma talk about mindful breathing and transforming suffering. “The practice of mindful breathing brings the mind home to the body and helps you to be fully present, fully alive in the here and the now. You can get in touch with all the wonders of life that are there, available in the here and the now for your nourishment and healing.”

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Introducing the “Namo’valokiteshvaraya” chant— honoring the bodhisattva of great compassion—by the monastics, Thay said, “If we allow our body to be in the here and the now, and allow the collective energy to penetrate into our body, then we can release the tension in our body and feel much better after a few minutes of listening. And if we have some fear, some anger, some despair in our heart, it is time for us to open our heart and allow the collective energy of mindfulness and compassion to penetrate and help hold the massive suffering in us.”

Following the uplifting chant, Thay talked about his calligraphy. “Calligraphy, for me, is an act of meditation, very pleasant, where I enjoy happiness, freedom, brotherhood, sisterhood. I always start my practice with a cup of tea. I have the habit of always mixing some of the tea in my ink, and when I hold the brush, I begin to breathe in. For making the circle, I breathe in mindfully.” Holding up a calligraphy of an empty Zen circle and pointing to the beginning of the brushstroke, he said, “You can see my in-breath in this circle. There is a calm, there is a concentration, there is a mindfulness, and there is love. When I come to this [halfway] point, I begin to breathe out, smiling. There is always a smile somewhere from here [halfway point] to here [end of brushstroke]. Making a circle like that, doing a line of calligraphy, always brings peace, concentration, joy, happiness, and love.”

After the ceremonial ribbon cutting by Thay, Paulette Cole, and Deepak Chopra, Thay gave a demonstration. Using Chinese ink mixed with tea, French and Japanese brushes, and rice paper, he made eight new calligraphies with complete mindfulness and concentration. Upon finishing each one, he affixed his red seal, which bears his lineage name and Dharma title, Trung Quang Nhat Hanh, and held up his work with a joyous smile. A video of the reception can be viewed at www.abchome.com/video-experience-the-meditative-art-of-thich-nhat-hanh-live/.

Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape

On the following day, a flash mob meditation organized by Wake Up New York was held at Union Square Park. Led by five monastics, about three hundred people sat on hard concrete and meditated to the sound of traffic and a persistent drumbeat. Sister Chan Khong then led the meditators on a four-block walking meditation to the exhibition. There she led the singing of “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “For Warmth,” and gave a Dharma talk on taking care of one’s anger. She advised listeners not to speak when angry, but to return to the in-breath and out-breath. Paulette Cole closed the evening by thanking the monastics for their presence at ABC Home.

On October 10, a conversation on “Slowing Down, Finding Meaning: Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape” occurred in the packed gallery. The discussion was led by Ira Glass, host and executive producer of This American Life. Brother Phap Vu of Blue Cliff, Dharma teacher Joanne Friday, and Wake Up New York facilitator Zack Foley shared their personal experiences with practicing mindfulness and answered questions from the audience.

Much painstaking work by the entire ABC Home team, led by Paulette Cole, Amy Chender, Head of Events Paula Gilovich, and Visual Director Manena Frazier, went into creating and maintaining this exhibition and its events. Supporting Thay were many monastics and lay friends, the NYC Dharma teachers, consultant Lorna Chiu, and Blue Cliff staffer Stephanie Davies, coordinated by Brother Phap Vu, Sister Lang Nghiem, and Brother Phap Chieu.

Indeed everyone and everything in the cosmos came together in this exhibition: all who supplied materials for the calligraphies, books, and decorations; all who transported Thay, the calligraphies, monastics, guests, and viewers to the exhibition; everyone’s ancestors, including Paulette Cole’s great-grandfather, who founded the store; and many more elements too numerous to mention.

Mmb65-Calligraphic5aureen Chen, Radiant Opening of the Heart, of Morning Star Sangha in Queens, New York, deeply thanks everyone who helped with this article.

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To Draw a Zen Circle

By Maureen Chen mb65-ToDraw1

“Calligraphy is a deep practice,” says Thay. To do calligraphy as a meditation practice, you do not need the ink, brushes, and rice paper that Thay uses. Any pen, pencil, or marker and any paper, such as the paper in your computer printer, will do.

To draw a Zen circle, first set the point of your pen, pencil, or marker on your paper where you want the bottom of your circle to be. As you breathe in, draw the first half of the circle. As you breathe out, draw the other half.

In this meditation practice, you can coordinate your drawing with your breathing so that you draw a complete circle in the duration of one in-breath and one out-breath. Whether your circle is perfectly round or not is unimportant, as long as you practice with mindfulness and concentration. Those who do Thay’s mindful movements will recognize this practice as similar to movement #4, making circles in the air with the arms, except that the circles are smaller and are made on paper.

You can choose to write a meaningful word or phrase in your circle. Still being aware of your breathing, write in your normal handwriting, mindfully taking the time and effort needed to make each letter beautiful.

While Thay’s exhibition is part of history, he has given us this new practice. Says Thay, “When you practice calligraphy, you can touch the insight of no-self, of interbeing, because you cannot be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with the whole cosmos. And that is why calligraphy can be a deep practice and why you do calligraphy. You get concentration, you get mindfulness, you get the insight of interbeing, the insight of no-self. It has the power to liberate us from fear, anger, suffering, separation, discrimination.”

For inspiration, see Thay’s video demonstration at www.thichnhathanhcalligraphy.org.

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Keeping the Flame Alive

By Brandon Rennels mb65-Keeping1

Last winter in Plum Village, a friend told me my first name can be translated as “Fire-starter.” At the time I had just begun my role as a coordinator for the international Wake Up movement. I was working alongside Buddhist monks and nuns to support young adults in practicing mindfulness and creating communities where they live. Wake Up had been growing steadily over the past few years, and many conditions had come together to allow me the opportunity to dedicate my efforts to the cause. I had been searching for a way to apply my business consulting background to support mindfulness practice, and this was it. It was a dream job—my answer to: “What would you pay to do?” I saw many opportunities to contribute, to support people, to get things rolling.

But fire, when uncontrolled, can be extremely destructive. Coming from a corporate background, I was used to pushing the limits of my mental and physical capacity in order to “get things done.” Once I transitioned to working with the mindfulness community, I naively thought these habits would drop away. I soon learned that working on mindfulness projects does not necessarily mean one is working mindfully. In addition to my old work habits, I encountered a new stress, a second arrow of frustration, when I felt overburdened. Most people in the corporate world will admit they’re stressed out by work, but in the mindfulness realm I thought I should be calm 24/7. So when things went awry, as they often do, I felt bad about feeling bad.

Even though I had found work that I truly cared about, my path had really just begun. To balance doing vs. being, engagement vs. rest, making a difference vs. taking care of myself, and to protect and nurture my internal flame—this was my true “job.” To protect this flame I have often relied on the other elements of air, water, and earth. All the elements are necessary for our survival, yet all have the potential to destroy. What’s necessary is a cultivation of them in balance. Fortunately, I’ve had some help from friends along the way.

Last summer I had the good fortune of being able to visit many different Wake Up Sanghas in the Netherlands. We started most meditation sessions with a weather report about how we were feeling in the moment, aided by the metaphor of the elements.

During my time in the Lowlands, I was able to touch, taste, and play with these elements in different ways, ultimately finding ways to sustain my internal flame.

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Air: I Am a Cloud

I had heard that the Netherlands is famous for its clouds. From my observations, I can see why. Big puffy clouds resemble something familiar, but when you turn away for an instant, the scene morphs, and the imagination has a fresh canvas to play with. Through the wind, air acts as an invisible force, shaping and transforming the outer landscape.

Air affects the inner landscape as well, in the form of the breath. Each Wake Up event starts with sitting meditation, following our breathing: full in-breath, full out-breath. I enjoy beginning this way. It really allows a person to arrive. (I went to visit a Wake Up Sangha in Belgium for a “Wake Up and Play” event, a gathering specifically designed to have no formal meditation, but after an hour everyone decided that we should sit! Sometimes you need to arrive before you can have fun.)

Air also carries sounds. Sound, like the wind, is an invisible force that can heal, seduce, enchant. During my fi weekend in the Netherlands, one of my hosts had a birthday party. At one moment we all lay down on the floor with our heads together, listening to the sounds, to our breathing, to one another. I was acting DJ for the evening and thought to put on a French electronic artist who just happens to be named “Air.” Shortly after the opening beat, one of the guys said, “Oh, nice! This is the perfect moment for Air.” I smiled to think that two people who grew up on different continents with different cultures and different life experiences could so easily be united by music.

As everyone was leaving, I realized that this constellation of people might never again be in the same room together. Impermanence. Just as the cloud changes shape, so does the fabric of each moment of our lives. I was grateful for the moments we shared.

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Water: Flowing Like a River

It’s easy to flow like a river when you like the direction in which you’re headed. During a lazy day in Amsterdam, I had the luxury of sitting (well, lying down, really) on the back of a paddleboat. It was a magnificent, sunny summer afternoon, and I had just peeled an orange and was savoring each slice while my toes skimmed the surface of the water. At one moment we started turning sideways, and after a few seconds I began to wonder, “Where are we going?” The two people paddling seemed to have been distracted. It didn’t matter. So what if we were off track? I was confident we would find our way.

While it’s one thing to keep this trust when you’re being chauffeured on a calm canal, it can be more difficult to maintain trust when the waters are high. At one point in my stay, there was a weeklong stretch that was quite packed. We had events almost every day in different cities, my work responsibilities had picked up, and on top of it all I wasn’t sleeping very well. Our final event for the week was about awareness of food waste, and although I was interested in the topic, I debated whether it would be better for me to just rest. We arrived the night before on a cold, rainy evening, and by the time we got to our host’s house it was well past my bedtime. Knowing how much work had been put into this event, I decided to flow with the river and join.

When we arrived at the event the next morning, judging by the number of teacups and tired faces, it seemed everyone had had a long week. A few people shared that they were tired, and we all listened, together taking refuge in the Sangha. Our next activity was a silent walk, but as people were slowly gathering their belongings, a new idea emerged. The organizers, sensing the energy level, switched the program to an interactive game. I was unsure if this would be a welcome change, but after a few minutes of laughing and stumbling into one another, the group’s mood had clearly lifted. Sometimes a simple adjustment can have a delightful downstream effect.

The events of that week provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how to balance “doing together” and “being together.” In the face of much to do, again I saw that the habit energy of rushing had, at times, gotten the best of me. That’s okay. It happens. But I knew I needed to observe this tendency deeply if I wanted to sustain the flame in the long run. The term “burnout” is often used to describe a metaphorical extinguishment of our internal flame. A surplus of air (impermanence) or water (flowing as a river) can create unstable conditions for fire, so to protect myself I can call on the solid foundational element, earth.

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Earth: Rooted as a Tree

Have you ever hugged a tree? It took me a while before I physically embraced my fi tree. The term “tree-hugger” conjured up a negative image in my mind, and this judgment persisted until I visited a national park in California. I saw someone wrapped snugly around a giant sequoia, and she looked happy enough. I tried it myself. Whoa! It actually feels great. Trees, like mountains, are metaphors of stability in mindfulness practice. In a storm the branches sway but the trunk is solid, stable, unmoved. While the Dutch claim that they don’t have much “nature” (as most areas have been developed), I found plenty of trees to take refuge in.

One stop on my trip was a Sangha meeting in Rotterdam. Upon entering the home where we would be practicing, I was immediately invited to share a meal with the hosts. This particular Sangha felt mature and stable, and as I was feeling a bit ungrounded that day, I was thankful to take refuge in them. As we all settled into sitting meditation together, I began breathing in their solidity, and soon the image of a tree appeared in my mind’s eye. It had brilliant brown bark with a wide trunk and roots that dug down deep. In the center of the trunk there was a door, and I found myself wondering what was inside. After a few more breaths the door slowly opened, and inside were my mother, my father, and me as a five-year-old child, all inviting me in. They welcomed me with open arms, gave me some space, and breathed with me. With each breath I felt recharged, encouraged, and free.

If there was ever an “island within,” I had found it. In this space I felt safe, and with each breath I was able to ground myself in the solidity of my ancestors and of Mother Earth. By the end of the evening I had rekindled the inner flame and given it space to burn brighter, like a torch guiding my way and igniting my deep aspiration to change myself, and by extension, the world.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

At the end of my time in the Netherlands, I had the honor of co-facilitating the Sangha meeting in Nijmegen. As I led the mindful movements and deep relaxation, I felt so comfortable, as if I was among old friends. Many of the people in the room I had gotten to know through numerous encounters within and outside of the Sangha meetings.

The Dharma sharing that evening was filled with a lot of emotion. There was the joy of a new baby, sadness of a pending death in the family, difficult jobs, new relationships… this was the real deal! We shared and listened, breathing together with what Jon Kabat-Zinn would call the “full catastrophe” of this shared human experience.

At the end of the evening we all gathered in a circle for a group hug. Looking around, I felt the entire community supporting me and knew I could handle whatever challenges lay ahead. The flame was burning brightly and it felt good. We sang one last song together, and it was a fitting way to end my journey:

Been traveling a day Been traveling a year Been traveling a lifetime, to find my way home Home is where the heart is Home is where the heart is Home is where the heart is, my heart is with you.

mb65-Keeping5Brandon Rennels, True Garden of Faith, has been serving, living, and lounging within the Plum Village community for the last couple years. As a coordinator for Wake Up, he has had the privilege of interfacing daily with passionate young practitioners around the world. He has also logged enough time at the monastery to significantly improve his table tennis game. In a previous life he was a management consultant based out of Dubai.

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Wake Up

Young Buddhists and Non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society mb65-WakeUp1

Nutshell

Wake Up is an active global community of young mindfulness practitioners, aged 18-35, inspired by the teachings of Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. We come together to practice mindfulness in order to take care of ourselves, nourish happiness, and contribute to building a healthier and more compassionate society.

We want to help our world, which is overloaded with intolerance, discrimination, craving, anger, and despair. Seeing the environmental degradation caused by our society, we want to live in such a way that our planet Earth can survive for a long time. Practicing mindfulness, concentration, and insight enables us to cultivate tolerance, non-discrimination, understanding, and compassion in ourselves and the world.

Practice: Essence

We follow the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are ethical guidelines that offer concrete practices of true love and compassion, and a path toward a life in harmony with each other and the Earth. These guidelines are the foundation of our lives and represent our ideal of service. Our practice is based on cultivating awareness of the breath and living deeply in the present moment, aware of what is happening within us and around us. This practice helps us to release the tension in our bodies and feelings, to live life deeply and more happily, and to use compassionate listening and loving speech to help restore communication and reconcile with others.

Roots/Inclusiveness

The Wake Up movement is inspired by Buddhism’s long tradition of wisdom and practices that help cultivate understanding and love; it is not based on beliefs or ideology. The spirit of our practice is close to the spirit of science; both help us cultivate an open and non-discriminating mind. We honor everyone’s diverse spiritual and cultural roots. You can join as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, as an agnostic or atheist, or as a member of any other spiritual or religious tradition.

What We Do

We aspire to be a place of refuge, nourishment, and support for people with an aspiration to transform their own suffering and contribute to a healthy and compassionate society. We gather weekly or monthly in Wake Up groups to practice sitting and walking meditation, listen to a teaching, practice total relaxation, listen deeply to one another, and recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. We also organize mindfulness events and retreats, and visit meditation practice centers together to refresh ourselves and strengthen our practice. Many groups also organize music evenings, meditation flash mobs, picnics, hikes, and other special events or actions.

You Can Do It

If you are a young person inspired to cultivate mindfulness and compassion in your life, we invite you to join the Wake Up movement in your country. Wake Up offers a way for us to pool our energy and act collectively, to create the world we want to live in! You can get together and form a Wake Up group wherever you are. Please let us know what you are planning to do and what you are trying to achieve. We will do our best to support you.

For more information about joining a group, starting a group, attending a retreat, or connecting online, visit wkup.org.

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Building Happiness from Scratch

By Bas Bruggeman, Han Nguyen, and Felipe Viveros mb65-Building1

“Being young today, you have a world to invent. The old world has dead-ended, and a new reality is about to emerge. It is a moment of crisis and transition––full of danger and full of opportunity. And since everything starts as a seed, a thought in the mind, it is up to us what to cultivate. That is why we need to have a vision for the future.” --Dr. Ha Vinh Tho, Program Director of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Centre in Bhutan, opening speech at the Wake Up GNH Retreat

Seeds were planted on a spring evening at the University of Cambridge during the first Wake Up University Tour in 2011. We were sitting with Brother Phap Linh, Sister Hien Nghiem, and a group of students. The room was filled with warm light, and the collective energy of mindfulness was vibrant. A circle was formed to contemplate these questions: “How can we keep the fire of our deepest aspiration alive? How can we, as the young generation, respond to the situation of our planet?”

Following our breath, we listened to stories of frustration about environmental engagement, and of how the social machinery was making us move further away from our initial aspirations, but also stories of transformation, showing that there was a way to align our inner aspirations with the external world. Toward the end of the session, Brother Phap Linh shared with us that the greatest obstacle was our fear and that only from a place of acceptance could we truly act. “How can we create an environment that cultivates the practice of mindfulness and non-fear in us, thus helping us sustain our inner fire?” This was among the burning questions that we kept in our hearts as we left this circle.

Five months later, we found ourselves in the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) in Saigon, practicing Touching the Earth and sharing a discussion with the first members of the Order of Interbeing. What a powerful experience it was to connect to our stream of spiritual ancestors and predecessors. We became aware of the present moment, the moment of being together. In this place, about forty years ago, amidst dogmatism, violence, destruction, and death, more than 10,000 young people came together to cultivate peace and find ways to relieve suffering by applying Buddhist practice in concrete actions that responded to the societal context. Feeling inspired, one of our friends asked the elders, “How can we continue the SYSS?” “As soon as you ask yourself this question, you have already started to continue the SYSS,” one of them responded.

Present Histories

Connecting the history of the SYSS to our present, we asked ourselves, “What is engaged Buddhism in the twenty-first century? What are our own sufferings and challenges as well as those of our contemporary society, and how do we learn to cultivate happiness and relieve suffering within ourselves and in society amidst these conditions?” Over the course of the last three years, our Wake Up team of seven young people from various countries in Europe (the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, and Germany) has been co-investigating this web of interconnected questions by practicing and working together to give rise to concrete projects in Europe and Asia. Project-based retreats or retreat-based projects, as we call our ventures, are inner and outer journeys to find ways to deepen our understanding of ourselves and one another, to build Sangha, and to unite the spiritual dimension and the working dimension.

An in-breath naturally leads to an out-breath. Filled with these aspirations and questions, we encountered Ha Vinh Tho, a Dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition, on our journey. About one year after our circle in Cambridge, Tho was appointed the Program Director of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Centre in Bhutan. From the beginning, he has emphasized the common aspirations that the Gross National Happiness Centre and Wake Up movement share, and he mapped out possibilities of collaboration. The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, being at the core of engaged Buddhist practice, formed an inspiring dialogue with the development philosophy of GNH, which measures progress in relation to the happiness and well-being of all living beings, and explores a way toward a paradigm shift in order to bring about equilibrium between mental and material wealth, human needs, and the needs of nature. Seeing the potential that lay in the cross-pollination of these two approaches, we have continuously looked for ways to connect them in our projects.

mb65-Building2From Aspiration to Realization

Tho has been very generous toward us, supporting us with his presence and wisdom during Wake Up Retreats at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism each year. After experiencing a wonderful intergenerational Wake Up summer retreat on “The Economics of Happiness” in Germany, we then teleported the economics of happiness back to the country where it emerged. In 2013, we helped manifest a twenty-one-day, project-based retreat for young people on the future GNH Centre site in Eastern Bhutan.

The first Wake Up GNH Program was born out of the awareness that our generation is growing up in a time of transition, with tremendous changes and challenges confronting our Earth, our society, and ourselves. Taking the practice of mindfulness as the basis, we retreated into nature for three weeks to reconsider how we live our lives, and to reflect on our impact on our society and planet. The intention was to create a mutual learning experience of living in community and nature, to learn new practical skills for our hands and hearts, and to start the collective process of developing a vision of how we can make a difference in our daily life and work. As we explored the relation between inner and social transformation through our daily activities, we contemplated how the philosophy of GNH could be of value to our lives.

Stepping on the wild territory of the retreat site during the preparation phase, we encountered questions like, “What do we need to be happy on a daily basis? How do we create conditions of happiness for community living in this environment?” These questions reconnected to the ones we had asked in Cambridge and Saigon, forming the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new phase in our practice.

Hermitage among the Clouds

We spent ten days turning the jungle into a retreat space, and by the time the rest of our group arrived, almost all the preparations had been completed. With the help of local villagers, we built from scratch a camp that consisted of a wood-fired kitchen, two dormitories, a compost toilet, and a bear-proof camping area. We tapped water from a nearby spring, and presto: our dreams were beginning to come true.

Twenty-five participants came from places as diverse as Alaska, Hanoi, Hamburg, and Thimphu, to live simply and focus on the practice. We engaged in basic activities such as cooking, cleaning, making fires, and boiling water in order to sustain the camp. Daily morning meditation was a great way to set an intention for the day and blend our different traditions. While TV and the Internet were introduced to Bhutan only ten years ago, Bhutanese youth are not immune to the global trends of materialism, substance abuse, and loss of cultural traditions. However, we could sense a strong faith among them, based on respect for the Earth and all sentient beings. Hence, Dharma sharing proved to be another infallible bonding method that helped deepen our understanding of one another and further our connection, as we discovered that we all had our strengths, weaknesses, and struggles as young people searching for a path.

Raising the Pole of Brotherhood

At the beginning of our retreat, we planned a Puja, a traditional Buddhist ceremony to remove obstacles and purify the land. This was also an opportunity to meet with the nomads, the elders, and the peasants who lived nearby. As part of the preparations for the ceremony, our first collective task was to search for, cut, and carry a fifty-four-foot tree that would be raised during the opening ceremony for prayer flags. The flags would carry our prayers and aspirations for all the people who were suffering on the planet to find well-being, happiness, and peace. Finding an appropriate tree for such a commendable job did not prove to be so difficult, since we were in the middle of a fragrant blue pine forest. The real challenge was to carry the fallen, quite heavy tree to the only clear space in the forty-six acres that constitute the GNH territory. With all our strength and might, ten of us lifted and then transported that precious tree––a real exercise in community building.

Our guests from the local community crossed the glacier-fed river to join the Puja ceremony. The burning incense smudging the air, the sounds of the bells, chants, prayers, and horns shifted something inside of us. We were opening up to new possibilities. After the blessing, we were ready to raise the pole with bright and colourful flags attached to it. This took a lot more than plain muscle. After several failed attempts to raise it by pulling the ropes that were tied to the pole and pushing it from beneath, we finally did it. The experience was a gift, showing us how we could bridge our many differences to raise a common prayer for the well-being of all and for the future generations.

Creating Possibilities

This retreat was a humble attempt to create possibilities of community living and to experience the conditions that create happiness. The participants––many of us at points of transition in our lives––were able to train and practice living in harmony in community. Living together in nature, we were able to be in touch with the conditions that make a more stable happiness. The participants left with a strong sense of community, with inner transformation, and with new answers and questions.

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Jacoba Harm, a participant from Hamburg, shared, “Right now, a few days after Bhutan, the sun is shining and it is raining. There is a very beautiful rainbow at the horizon that invites me to go forward and to trust. More great programs like this will follow, and I feel I really want to be part of the young generation wanting to move something in today’s society. During the hiking in the mountains of Bumthang, I decided to apply for a specific education in university and to bring GNH back home. We all live together on one planet and in one community. I want to give more people the opportunity to enter this sustainable and new way of behaving, living, and working.”

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This retreat was the manifestation of a painting we co-created with our thoughts, speech, and actions, and with our brotherhood and sisterhood. It showed us the miraculous interconnection between our inner and outer worlds, and was a priceless learning experience in community building.

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mb65-Building6Bas Bruggeman made it to a Plum Village youth retreat for the first time in 2008 and has been enchanted ever since. In 2013, he spent several months in Plum Village, joined the Wake Up tours in the US and UK, traveled to Vietnam, and organized Wake Up retreats in Germany and Bhutan. He wrote his master’s thesis in cultural anthropology on Plum Village practice and is currently the Youth Program Co-ordinator at the GNH Centre.

Han Nguyen, Precious Virtue of the Heart, is an active member of Wake Up Europe, based in Germany. She enjoys sitting, walking, smiling, drinking tea, observing the sky, and playing with children.

Felipe Viveros, True Fruit of the Practice, is a Chilean writer based in the UK. He shares his time between gardening, working on social and environmental projects that engage young people, and doing an MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.

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Wake Up Spirit

By Brian Kimmel mb65-WakeUpSpirit1

What is Wake Up Spirit? The intention to “wake up” beyond our usual notions of ourselves and our environment, to enter deeply into meditation and move out into the world, to celebrate and share our gifts with collective awareness, inclusion, and fun. It is a coming together of people of different ages to support the new generation in Dharma practice, and to apply mindfulness trainings to our intimate, daily lives with emphasis on personal transformation and collective action in the world.

In October 2012, four non-monastic and five monastic friends of Deer Park Monastery went on a sort of modern-day mission: we toured the Pacific Northwest offering workshops, retreats, and meditation flash mobs on college campuses and on city streets with mindfulness trainings, loving speech and deep listening, and fun! Washington State, the home of the Mountain Lamp Community, was our last stop. Three months later, three Wake Up Peer Facilitators––Maria, an OI aspirant and Wake Up Seattle member; David, an OI member from northern California; and me, an OI member from Boulder, Colorado––met with Dharma teacher and Mountain Lamp resident, Eileen Kiera, to discuss and organize a five-day Mountain Lamp Wake Up Retreat and Intergenerational Day of Mindfulness to be held at the end of June.

We three peer facilitators, along with Eileen and Jack, her husband who is a teacher in another tradition, wanted to organize a retreat based on peer-facilitated practices. We wanted to build upon the foundation offered to us from monastic-led retreats and mentoring. This was our gift back to our teachers and community.

We invited a group of young adults, ages 18-35, into the Mountain Lamp environment, a “Dharma family” that, for the past ten years, has practiced mindfulness and cultivated the land and themselves through daily meditation and loving work. Our aspirations were to explore present moment practice together and re-envision the stereotype that “kids these days” only know how to have fun, and to learn Wake Up practices within a mixed age community, where retreatants, residents, and we would essentially wake up together.

After six months of intense preparation, we greeted our first retreatants on June 26, 2013. In our opening circle, tears and laughter flowed with yearnings to heal and our need for physical and spiritual support to connect with what is vital and profoundly urgent to our own lives, and incidentally to the planet and society.

Each retreatant was offered the responsibility of inviting meal bells and reciting the Five Contemplations before we ate. Each was assigned a work duty during joyful working meditation, beginning with singing, dancing, and games. The bellmaster sounded the bell to remind us to breathe during work periods and to invite daily sitting and walking meditation. Retreatants shared that having Wake Up-aged practitioners guiding the retreat and being invited to facilitate parts of the retreat themselves, like inviting bells and guiding the Five Contemplations, made mindfulness practice real.

At least twice during the retreat we held formal meal ceremonies. The community gathered, recited meal verses, offered food, and ate in silence guided by sounds of the bell. In the times of noble silence throughout the retreat, we were able to suspend talking and dwell more fully with ourselves. During the Five Mindfulness Trainings transmission, the power of our chanting, touching the Earth, incense offering, and concentrated sitting practice offered a clear transmission of mindfulness to recipients of the trainings that day and to all of us.

If I were to describe the outcome of this retreat in a few words, I would say, “Each of us were as we were.” We shared activities such as Dharma art, daily Dharma sharing, canoeing, swimming, scooping goose poop, singing and dancing around a campfire, and open space discussion forums with “elders.” Mountain Lamp Wake Up proved that we of Wake Up age know how to have fun––AND that collectively with other ages, and individually, we can access a profound sense of how to live our lives awake, engaged, and resilient.

mb65-WakeUpSpirit2Brian Otto Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, age thirty-three, ordained as a core member of the Order of Interbeing at Plum Village in 2006. He took part in the East Coast, West Coast, and Pacific Northwest Wake Up USA teaching tours. He lives in Colorado, where he helps facilitate Wake Up as well as Young OI International and North America Skype calls.

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Joyfully Together

By Maria Y. Rodriguez mb65-Joyfully1

I moved to Seattle, Washington, two years ago from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It took me a while to find a practice community, mostly because there is only one in Thay’s tradition and I lived quite far from it. When I did arrive at MCPS (Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound, the urban sister practice center to rural Mountain Lamp) a year later, I was happy to find such a strong, deeply committed community, but I wondered: Where were the younger folks?

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Practicing with elders is wonderful and incredibly enriching, but I also felt like I needed an opportunity to connect with people who identified as I did in the world and were going through some of the same life transitions––being a student, starting a career, building intimate relationships, understanding my own and others’ sexuality and sexual identity, understanding my own and others’ gender identity, etc.

As a person of color, I am aware that practicing with people who share my identities is a powerful gift, a chance to heal pain and suffering that might not otherwise be touched. In my experience, in order to breach the walls that keep people separated (walls of pain, fear, suspicion, loss, and heartache), it is important first to give ourselves strong, safe spaces for practice. We come together within our identities to remember our strength, resilience, and connection, and to fall in love with life all over again.

Sharing the Dharma

While living in Philadelphia, I had participated in some Wake Up events, and I was eager to continue exploring Wake Up’s healing spirit and energy. After a few months of practicing with MCPS, I was approached by the folks putting together the Pacific Northwest Wake Up tour and they asked if I could help with organizing. With the help of the People of Color and Allies Sangha of Seattle (POCAS), we secured a room for an event on the University of Washington campus.

MCPS also supported the Wake Up tour by offering the practice center, Dharma Gate, for a non-residential, weekend Wake Up retreat and to serve as a dorm for the tour facilitators. What a great experience! Singing, laughing, crying, practicing together helped shift so much pain and suffering in the hearts of the retreatants. There was so much joy nourished, so much happiness shared––writing about it makes me smile even now! The experience convinced a few of us that a Seattle Wake Up group was possible. A month or so later, seattle@wkup.org was born.

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Seattle Wake Up members wanted the chance to practice together with other Wake Up Sanghas across the Pacific Northwest in a retreat setting, so when I was asked to be part of a planning team to help put together a five-day retreat at Mountain Lamp, I readily agreed. My greatest aspiration is to share the Dharma with those who would like to receive it––those seeking comfort and spiritual nourishment. I was not about to pass up the opportunity to be of service. What I didn’t know was how much the experience would serve me.

Aspiring Together

Arriving at Mountain Lamp, I was awestruck: the hills rolled and the birds and butterflies sang for me. I was so eager to meet all of the retreatants and to practice with them in this sacred space.

Together, we laid out our goals. We wanted to:

  1. Create a format that would allow for mindfulness instruction but emphasize the fact that we were all on retreat together. Our peer facilitator format allowed for instruction without hierarchy, a central way of being within the Wake Up movement.
  2. Create opportunities for leadership development within the Wake Up Sangha. To encourage this, we focused on helping folks learn how to invite the bell as a central form of our practice; it was important for us to make sure everyone had the chance to invite bells for at least one activity if they wanted to, no matter what their level of experience had been before. After all, if you don’t start somewhere you won’t be anywhere!
  3. Make sure that retreatants had FUN! Sitting and walking meditation are wonderful, so we sought to have a strong practice schedule that left plenty of time to apply our mindfulness in activities such as swimming and canoeing in a lake, hiking, singing, dancing, and even a bonfire complete with vegan s’mores!

Surrendering  in  Sangha

During the fi day of the retreat, one of the retreatants and I began talking about our experience with the Fifth Mindfulness Training, specifi y around compulsive overeating. This is something that has caused me a lot of pain and suffering from a very young age. I have tried every book, every diet, every behavioral/cognitive trick, but have never been able to relieve the suffering or get help. My new friend shared some stories and literature from a twelve-step program that sought to help compulsive overeaters like me with a solution that works, one based on deep spiritual work.

The next day, as I was preparing for a trip to the lake, I stopped next to a beautiful old tree (I always turn to trees in my moments of greatest despair––their solidity and steadiness soothe me) and started sobbing. Huge waves of anger, resentment, frustration, loneliness, and despair welled up in me and moved through my tears. My new friend had shown me what my heart had been searching for. I needed the kind of help that came from connecting with others. I needed the strength of a power greater than myself. I needed a Sangha dedicated to the alleviation of the compulsion to overeat. I finally had a solution––I was ready to begin the process of surrendering my years of pain and isolation. What a relief!

The physical retreat ended June 30, 2013. I went to my first twelve-step meeting July 1. Since then, I have surrendered fifty pounds and am working, one day at a time, to surrender even more. I feel that the balance between formal practice and time spent in community is what helped make my transformation possible. My heart was able to open wide and let in the light and love of a kind friend in the practice. This balanced format, for me, is the epitome of engaged Buddhism––engagement with every moment, with each other, and most importantly, with ourselves.

My dis-ease, once hidden away in the darkest corners of my heart, was showered with the light of compassion and understanding generated from our sitting, walking, and sharing mindfully together. I have no idea what I would have done if this retreat had not happened––if I had not been invited to show up for others and gifted with the capacity to show up for myself. I’m grateful to all those who have supported Wake Up in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the world, because thanks to them, I do not have to find out.

May all beings be free from suffering. May they all be happy and healthy. May all beings be loved and cherished. May they all know peace.

Maria Y. Rodriguez, Compassionate Light of the Heart, is thirty and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. She has participated in Wake Up events in Philadelphia and the Pacific Northwest. She is a Wake Up Ambassador for Seattle Wake Up, where she currently lives and works as a Ph.D. student in Social Welfare.

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Caring for Our Children by Caring for Ourselves

By John R. Snyder mb65-Caring1

On the occasions when I slow down enough to actually think about it, it occurs to me that my job as a Montessori teacher is too hard for someone of my limited abilities––i.e., someone who is still dependent on food, sleep, and occasional recreation. The demands never seem to stop, and if they do happen to slow down from time to time, I have a huge backlog of practice-improvement projects to fill the gaps.

Parents sometimes ask with a certain awe, “How do you do it?” How, indeed? How does one not only keep going, but do so with good cheer, grace, a sense of perspective, and, more often than not, a calm presence in the classroom?

I am happy to share at least part of “how I do it.” I suspect that behind every successful teacher is a similar practice of self-care and reflection, although we seldom talk about these things with each other. Perhaps we should.

The crux of the matter is that less is more. At the center of the hurricane of teacherly activity, there must be a still center, a place of repose in the heart and the mind. This, I am convinced, can only be maintained through the regular, disciplined practice of stopping, paying quiet attention to one’s inner voices, and reconnecting with one’s highest self. One could call it a practice of prayer, or meditation, or affirmation, or self-reflection; the point is that it must be a regular period of quiet time, free from interruptions, an appointment one keeps with oneself.

I think of this quiet time both as a gift to myself and as a period of spiritual conditioning that keeps me emotionally prepared for whatever comes my way in and out of the classroom. Although the children do not know of my practice of reflection, I am certain they could identify which days I have failed to keep my appointment with myself.

My anchor, the backbone of my daily preparation for the classroom, is a practice found in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Teachings on Love. It is his version of a 1,500-year-old text from Sri Lanka:

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit. May I be safe and free from injury. May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety. May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love. May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself. May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day. May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free. May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

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Just as a good weightlifting routine works all the major muscle groups, I find that these nine lines exercise all the psycho-spiritual “muscles” I need to strengthen for my work with children, parents, and colleagues. I start my day with these lines, and I keep a copy in the front cover of my lesson-planning book so that when I feel myself slipping away, I can read them to re-center and refresh myself.

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

I appreciate that this meditation starts with a clear statement of the desired state, the end result of the practice. Sitting quietly, following my breath, I can bring my body and mind back from their habitual agitation and anxiety to the place of peace, happiness, and lightness that is gradually becoming a habit through years of this practice. Like a tennis player mentally rehearsing her stroke, I can mentally rehearse, noticing the places of tension and disconnection in me and shifting them to calm connectedness. What could be more useful and important to someone working intensively with children?

May I be safe and free from injury.

I have come to realize over the years that every kind of progress in the classroom depends upon all members of the community feeling safe and free from injury. This line reminds me of that, and allows me to renew my intent to provide physical and emotional safety for myself so I can better provide it for the community. This hallows the many mundane things I do every day to insure the safety of the community, from giving lessons on the safe use of science equipment, to keeping the first-aid kit well stocked, to mediating conflict on the playground, to honoring the children’s efforts instead of their products. Looking a little more deeply, I also see that part of my practice is to know how to take care of myself and others when injuries do happen. Having the confidence that comes from being prepared, I believe, allows me to take appropriate risks on behalf of the community. So, far from being an invitation to always “play it safe,” this line stretches me and allows me to walk away from fearful states of mind.

May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

It is so helpful to have such a clear list of the major obstacles I face in my relationships with children, parents, and colleagues. It is even more helpful to have time to envision myself free of these obstacles and look calmly at the roots of these problems. I can, for example, rededicate myself to my practice of noticing when anger and fear are arising in me and not acting on them until I have had a chance to calm myself and inquire into what the emotions are telling me. My experience has been that simply acknowledging the presence of anger, fear, anxiety, craving, jealousy, and the like, greatly diminishes the urgency and force with which they batter my body and mind. The function of these emotions is to call my attention to something I need to take care of, and when I calmly give them my full attention, their job is done and they can relax.

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.

This line is priceless because it goes straight to the heart of so much self-inflicted pain, and it also helps to remove one of the biggest obstacles between me and the relationships that I need to build in a peaceful classroom. Behind this line is the wisdom that until we understand, accept, and love ourselves, we cannot adequately understand, accept, and love others. Indeed, whenever we think that other people are making us miserable with their foolishness and bad behavior, it is very likely that we are projecting onto them some self-criticism or fearful insecurity that has taken root in us. To our chagrin, we find those hypercritical, perfectionistic voices that chatter in our own heads speaking through our mouths to inflict harm on others. How wonderful to be able to practice stepping out of that cycle of injury by beginning to extend to ourselves the compassion that will allow us to connect compassionately with others!

May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.

This line comes from a view of human nature as being like a garden in which are planted all kinds of seeds––each one representing a capacity of body and mind. In each of us are the seeds of great evil, suffering, and destruction, side by side with the seeds of great goodness, joy, courage, and the highest states of being. Some of these seeds we inherited; some have been planted by our culture and personal history. The seeds we water and tend, whether wholesome or otherwise, grow to crowd out the others, coming to dominate our internal gardens and our very lives. I find this outlook to be completely aligned with Dr. Montessori’s views on the richness and essential goodness of human nature, and the importance of the environment in the self-construction of the human being. The salient point in this line is that, although it is easy to lose sight of it when we are in the grip of some negative emotion, the seeds of joy and happiness are still there. We do not have to wait for our lives (or even just our classrooms!) to be perfect before we can be genuinely happy.

May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.

Now we go beyond a clear intent to be free of anger, fear, and anxiety to search for the roots of these negative forces in our lives. Quietly, deeply, consistently looking at these things while not being carried away by them, gives us the chance to see the patterns, to understand the ways these things work in our particular minds. Seeing clearly, we have a chance to reorient our thinking and rebuild our habits into something more positive and free. To me, this line moves beyond intending and visualizing to doing something about the situation.

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.

Continuing the metaphor of seeds and the intent to learn to view and treat ourselves with compassion, this line invites us to take concrete action on our own behalf. The positive seeds are there, so how can I water them? I have gradually developed a mental list of very concrete ways that I can touch the seeds of joy and peace in myself, and I try to do some of these things every day. Here are a few of my touchstones: taking a slow walk in nature; really seeing and experiencing a blue sky, a flower, a stone, or a child’s face; thinking of someone I love; enjoying a quiet cup of tea; giving my full attention to a great piece of music or art; holding my dog in my lap; reading a good poem or science magazine. Your list might be very different, but you can make one by noticing the things that give you joy. In particular, instead of reacting mindlessly out of anger, irritability, or fear, I try to stop and do one or more of my “joy things” to ground myself again in my best nature before responding to a situation.

May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

As a teacher, I often think of this line as a description of the opposite of burnout. Surrounded as I am by the freshness of children, may I be able to find that freshness in myself. May I be solid enough to withstand the winds and waves of experience, stable enough to provide the consistent strength of purpose it takes to build a good community. May I live as a free person, not a thrall to my faulty perceptions, fearful attachments and aversions, public personae, or life history.

May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

Montessorians are passionate people, the idealistic followers of a passionate and visionary leader. We have great expectations and bold plans. We have strong feelings about many things, strong likes and dislikes, long lists of both shibboleths and taboos. And yet, these attachments and aversions are often our undoing, the very things that get in the way of our realizing our vision. This line, when regularly rehearsed, helps me let go of my certainties, both positive and negative, and helps me live instead with the kind of openness that Montessori herself exhibited; she allowed a group of young children from the Roman slums to completely change her culturally conditioned views of who children are and what they can do. It reminds me that the opposite of passionate attachment and ego investment is not indifference, but mindfulness: holding my perceptions and beliefs lightly and being fully present to whatever the moment brings.

Now for the best part. Having taken good care of myself, I take the time to traverse these nine lines again, but this time the energy is directed outward to the community.

May the children [or a specific child] be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit. May the children be safe and free from injury. May the children be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety. Etc.

For me, this closes the circle, and I am ready to enter the classroom again to see what great good can be wrought from whatever raw materials the day brings.

mb65-Caring4John Snyder, True Precious Goodness, taught nine-to twelve-year-olds and was an administrator at Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas. This article was written in 2008, when John was still teaching. He practices with Plum Blossom Sangha. You can reach him at jsnyder@pobox.com.

This work by John R. Snyder is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.

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How to Live with Two Religious Paths

By Emily Hilsberg I am seventeen years old, and I am Jewish and Buddhist. I study mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. I have been going to Deer Park since I was six years old. This year marks my eleventh year being a part of the Sangha. I am also involved in my Jewish community. I am a member of Temple Beth Am’s youth group, and I have volunteered at many Jewish organizations. Every summer, I attend the family retreat at Deer Park and then I spend a month at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleep-away camp in Ojai, California. When people ask me my religion, I say, “I’m Jewish and Buddhist.” Their reaction is always the same. They ask, “Why do you have two religions? You can only commit to one god.” This idea is false.

mb65-How1Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me so much since 2003. Thay says that you need to show compassion to others and that compassion is the basis for true happiness. Similarly, one of my Camp Ramah directors has had a huge impact on my life. He taught me to be a person who fights for change. Be that person who steps up and takes charge and is always trying to make the community a better place. I’ve also learned that lesson at Deer Park. For example, one year some developers wanted to build houses on the ridge facing the large meditation hall. The community fought to preserve the ridge and after many months, they earned enough money to save it.

Many people underestimate others. I was born with Asperger’s disorder, which affects my brain, and I’ve struggled socially and in school. People have often underestimated my capabilities. I’ve been beaten down by the speech and actions of others. Administrators at my elementary school had no confidence in my abilities and the so-called resource specialist often yelled at me and gave me answers to classwork without teaching me how to do the work myself. The principal did nothing to help me. My fifth grade teacher did not understand me and did not help me when other kids bullied me because she never caught them in the act. Kids can be so mean and they often harassed me! As a result of my life experiences, I want to make a change in the world.

I’ve learned so much from going to Deer Park and from the five summers I’ve spent at Ramah. I can be who I want to be and I can teach others to be active leaders. I recently attended Thay’s public talk in Pasadena. My mom was on staff and I decided to help out. I had a long talk with one of the brothers, whom I hadn’t seen in years. I told him that I’ve changed. I learned so much from Deer Park and appreciate how much it’s helped me. He was very impressed. Later that day, while my mom and I were driving home, I thought to myself, “I am proud to be both a Jew and Buddhist. Having both makes me stronger as a person.”

I consider Sister Ho Nghiem, one of the monastic sisters, to be my godmother. She’s known me since I was a young girl. Before the children’s program was started, I often spent time in the sisters’ hamlet. One year when she broke her leg, I visited her in her room to cheer her up and keep her company. For many years I helped her in the bookstore. When I saw Sister Ho Nghiem at the public talk, I was overjoyed. I can’t imagine my life without my brothers and sisters of Deer Park. The practice has grown on me, and I hope to teach it to my own children one day.

Buddhism teaches me to be more compassionate and understanding toward other people who are suffering. Judaism teaches me to be close to god and to be the person I want to become. In my mind, these lessons are very much alike. Both focus on ethics and the value of strong community. I am fortunate to have two very supportive communities to guide me on my path: my Jewish community and my Buddhist community.

Emily Hilsberg, Crystal Mountain of the Heart, lives in Culver City, California.

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Reverence for Life

By Evelyn van de Veen During the Summer Retreat in Plum Village, I was asked to give a short presentation about how I practice with the First Mindfulness Training, “Reverence for Life.” While I was preparing this presentation, something funny happened. I was sitting with my notebook, thinking about the theme of not killing, of protecting the lives of people and animals, and how I have tried to integrate the practice of the First Mindfulness Training into my life. It was very pleasant, letting my thoughts roam and feeling in touch with the beauty of the aspiration of the training. The bell for the working meditation was invited, and my work happened to be washing lettuce. Within a few minutes I found myself dunking lettuces into white tubs filled with cold water and salt, drowning many tiny insects. In that working meditation, I faced the contrast between my lofty aspirations and the impossibility of fully living up to them.

Dealing with small insects has taught me an interesting lesson. I was brought up to take great care of the well-being of animals. In our house, pets were fed before people. But this care did not extend to small insects such as spiders and mosquitoes. I swatted mosquitoes and vacuumed spiders without thinking about it. After taking the mindfulness trainings, I decided this was one area that needed the focus of my practice. Instead of using the vacuum, I tried to entice spiders to walk onto a piece of paper so I could put them outside. Or I would carefully cup my two hands around them and carry them that way, feeling their legs tickle the palms of my hands.

And then I noticed something. I had never been afraid of spiders (at least not the smallish ones you find in Europe), but I didn’t particularly like them. I was indifferent about them. But treating them with more care created a connection. As I watch a spider scurry off after I release it outside, I get a wonderful warm feeling of satisfaction and tenderness. It is as if the tenderness with which I treat the spider is also tenderness toward myself. I discovered that by being kind to a spider, I watered my own seeds of happiness. Being nice to spiders is not only good for them; it’s also very good for me!

Not every small animal is safe with me. Occasionally, I swat a buzzing mosquito that keeps me awake at night and refuses to fly out the window. I use an organic spray to kill the lice that eat my plants. I drowned tiny insects so we could all eat clean lettuce leaves. And so the list goes on. However, making a small change in my behaviour has taught me a valuable lesson about the close connection between actions and feelings, and about the value of trying to put the mindfulness trainings into practice in daily life, however imperfectly.

When I first came across the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I felt it was pointless to promise to try to do things that I knew were impossible. But I have changed my mind about this. A manager of the London Underground once said in an interview that their policy was to completely eliminate the chance of fatal accidents.

When the journalist commented that surely that was impossible, the manager replied, “Of course it’s impossible, but we cannot do otherwise than strive for it anyway. You can’t have as an official policy that one death a year is acceptable.”

I have begun to see the mindfulness trainings in the same way. The goal may be impossible, but it’s not an option to have a goal that is less ambitious.

mb65-Reverence1Evelyn van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, lives in Amsterdam and works as a teacher trainer in higher education. She visited Plum Village for the first time in 1999 and has been coming back ever since. She practises with the Amsterdam Sangha.

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Awakening to Life

Two Stories by Dzung Vo mb65-Awakening1

mb65-Awakening2Dzung Vo, True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen), lives in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, and practices with the Mindfulness Practice Community of Vancouver. As a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, he practices engaged Buddhism by offering mindfulness to young people suffering from stress and pain.

Just One Thing

In 2013, I attended a five-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the international Sangha at Deer Park Monastery. Mindfulness retreats are such a wonderful gift. Retreats are so important for me, to have time to free myself from my day-to-day habit energies, and to nourish my soul and spirit to bring the practice back home and to the world. Coming to Deer Park, or any of the other practice centers in the Plum Village Sangha, feels like coming home. I am deeply grateful to my teachers and the Sangha for this compassionate offering.

During a question-and-answer session at the retreat, Thay reflected on how to stay involved in social activism and positive social change, while at the same time not burning out or giving in to despair. He answered, “My name, Nhat Hanh, means ‘Just One Thing.’ Find just one thing to do, and do that with all of your heart. That is enough.”

When I heard this, I noticed my initial thought-response: “Wait a minute, Thay, how can you say that? You write books, you do calligraphy, give Dharma talks, lead retreats, organize an international Sangha, speak out for social change, meet with world leaders … you do so many things, not just one thing!”

As I looked more deeply into the teaching, I began to receive a different message. I saw that when Thay is giving a Dharma talk to the Sangha, he is fully there with us, 100%, unburdened in that moment by any of his other projects. When he is walking, he is just walking. When he is writing, he is just writing. I believe that this is one way he keeps his joy and compassion alive and protects himself from burnout and despair.

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Since returning to Vancouver, I’ve been trying to practice Just One Thing. That first Monday morning, as I was brewing my coffee, I felt a familiar pang of “back to work” anxiety as I began automatically running through my mental to-do list. I noticed it, breathed and smiled, and returned my full attention to the simple act of brewing coffee. The same thing happened again as I was cutting an apple for breakfast. And again as I shaved and brushed my teeth.

One challenge for me about mindfulness practice is that it demands constant attention, endless repetition, to be awake to life in every moment. One wonderful thing about mindfulness practice is that every moment is an opportunity to be awake, to be free. Every moment. This moment. This is it.

mb65-Awakening4Opening, Opening, Now

I decided to become an aspirant for the Order of Interbeing about three years ago, when I began teaching mindfulness to youth in an explicit and intentional way. I knew that I needed to strengthen my own mindfulness practice, and I asked for the guidance and container of the Order of Interbeing to support me. I wanted my practice to be as solid and compassionate as possible, in order for me to be able to offer something beautiful and healing to the youth.

I received the ordination on October 15, 2013, at the Deer Park retreat. Thay gave me the ordination name True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen). Our ordination family name is True Garden, which I love because it is a reminder that practice is always organic and alive, and it needs continuous love and tending in order to produce beautiful vegetables and flowers. I feel that the name “Diligence” is a challenge––as if Thay were reminding me, “Don’t get complacent; don’t take anything for granted. Keep practicing, always!” During the ordination, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. What a compassionate gift from Thay, from the fourfold Sangha that held us in a loving embrace, from my order aspirant teachers Jeanie Seward-Magee and Brother Phap Hai, and from all ancestral teachers. I felt that their greatest hope for us is to wake up to our true nature of interbeing, compassion, and mindfulness. The most I can do to repay that gift is to practice diligently and joyfully, and offer that to the world.

The day before the ordination, I practiced heart-opening in order to be fully present to receive the nourishment and support of the Sangha. My gatha with each step and each breath was,“Opening.” I wrote this haiku on the morning of ordination as I walked slowly to the Ocean of Peace meditation hall, feeling enveloped by and deeply connected to the vast universe of stars in the pre-dawn sky.

ordination day opening, opening, now universe is here

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In Gratitude

Support for a Nunnery at Deer Park Monastery

By Mary Gorman

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Driving up the winding road to Deer Park Monastery, you naturally slow down and pay attention to the curves in front of you. An open landscape of rocks and hardy desert plants unfolds and brings you into the present moment. You are entering high chaparral country where the ridges are 1,400 feet above sea level. Then the road descends and enters a canopy of oak trees, which thrives at the bottom of the hills. At last, you are greeted by a sign that reads, “You have arrived.” You know that you have come home. To the right is another sign that reads, “Clarity Hamlet.” This is the home of the nuns.

At Thay’s last retreat of his North American tour at Deer Park Monastery, the community was informed about plans to build a nunnery in Clarity Hamlet. Those of us who regularly visit the monastery had heard about the need for new living quarters for the nuns, but few of us knew much about their current living conditions. We learned that the sisters currently live in separated living quarters. Many of the nuns occupy changing rooms that were once part of an outdoor swimming pool area. Since these rooms were not meant as housing, they have no insulation or cooling features, making them cold and damp in the winters and terribly hot and dry during blistering southern California summers.

Fortunately, the monastery has plans to build energy-efficient straw bale dormitories for the nuns, as well as a new hut for Thay. The construction project was designed by Hubbell & Hubbell Architects, using a sustainable and environmentally friendly design. The rice straw bales will provide insulation and stable temperatures year round. The new buildings will have room for up to forty nuns and will be situated on a hill, where Thay’s current hut stands.

Our True Sisters

For the nunnery to manifest, the lay community will have to lend its support. Phase one of construction was scheduled to start in December 2013. Funds are needed to complete phases two and three in 2014. A committee is helping to raise funds for the nunnery, and we asked retreatants about their feelings regarding the nuns’ living conditions. People were very vocal and clear in their responses. “The nuns are like my mother and my true sisters. I love and adore them, and I want them to be safe,” said one retreatant. “The nuns are the core of the practice. We need to keep them safe in order to keep the practice going. I have received so much from them!” said another. Attendees who were familiar with the nuns’ living quarters were convinced that the environment was unsafe and unhealthy. “We need the nuns to have good health, to be safe and warm,” was heard repeatedly.

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There was also an outpouring of gratitude for the nuns. “The nuns provide so much for us. Deer Park and the Sangha have just about saved my life. I was going in the wrong direction. Now I have found my volition.” We heard over and over that the nuns do not complain. They serve and take care of everyone. “The nuns have embraced my children. They are my family. And they don’t ask for themselves; they don’t ask for anything.” Everyone felt strongly that the situation needed to be addressed soon.

A Vibrant Example

These comments made me think about why I felt such a strong need to take action. Sitting and looking deeply, I found myself acknowledging how dramatically my life has changed thanks to the nuns, monks, and lay practitioners of Deer Park. When I first arrived there, I was full of suffering—the kind of suffering that comes with life and the kind of suffering that we make for ourselves. I wanted to find a way out.

Arriving at Deer Park, I felt that I had come home. I met wonderful monastic and lay practitioners who were role models. With these examples and Thay’s clear directions, it was possible for me to develop a personal practice, use that practice in real life, and obtain insights that transformed my relationships.

The years following my early visits to Deer Park have been wonderful. Life is good and my deep aspiration leads me. I visit Deer Park as often as possible, taking refuge in the Sangha. I am very grateful. Gratitude and compassion are the feelings that move me to write this article—gratitude for the happiness that has been brought to my family, and compassion for the generations that follow me. The Deer Park community is a living, vibrant example of Thay’s teachings. I want the Deer Park community to be here, strong and well, and to help others as I was helped.

So, with gratitude and compassion in mind, I am considering what kind of financial contribution to make to support the nunnery. As I write this article, the holidays are approaching, and there will be expenses for family and friends. Reflecting on the cost of gifts, I wonder what material gift could equal the gift of happiness that I have received. No iPhone or sweater or dinner out with the family could provide a fraction of the benefits that I have received from the practice. Dollars cannot be compared to the gifts I have received from Deer Park over the years.

How about you? Is this the right time for you to consider the value of Deer Park, or of your local practice center, in your life?

mb65-InGratitude3Mary Gorman, True Ever Lasting Ocean, lives with her husband in Los Angeles. She wrote this article with the assistance of Vivian Hermiz, Serene Awakening of the Heart, of the Deer Park Nunnery Committee.

mb65-InGratitude4Join in Supporting a New Nunnery

If Deer Park is your closest practice center, whether you live in the US, Mexico, or Canada, we hope that you will take a personal interest in supporting this effort. There are so many ways you can help. If you are a member of the international Sangha, please consider the needs of your local practice center and find ways to support your community.

Ways you can help:
  • Make a personal donation to the nunnery Make your check payable to the Unified Buddhist Church, and be sure to write “Deer Park Nunnery” on the check. Send it with gratitude in your heart to: Deer Park Monastery 2499 Melru Lane Escondido, CA 92026
  • Donate via the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation website at deerparknunnery.org. Click “Donate Now,” and then select “Deer Park Monastery Nunnery” from the gift designation pull-down list.
  • Talk with your local Sangha and raise awareness of the urgency of this Many practitioners do not know about this opportunity to support the monastic Sangha.
  • Encourage your local Sangha to hold a fundraiser, such as a Day of Mindfulness or a silent auction.

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Grandma, Do You See the Palm Trees?

By Sandi Simons When I was asked to write an article for our Sangha’s newsletter on the topic of “Ripening Practice: Gifts along the Path,” I thought my upcoming trip to Deer Park Monastery would be the perfect time to reflect. Little did I know the wonderful gift I would receive.

I watched out the window of the shuttle all the way from the San Diego airport to Deer Park Monastery. I had never been to California before and wanted to take in all the sights. There were so many buildings and highways, but what struck me most were the palm trees; they were taller than a lot of buildings and I could easily see them on the skylines above the city. With their straight trunks and spray of fronds on the top, they reminded me of natural fireworks.

Seeing these trees sparked a memory in me from long ago: I was sitting with my grandmother, Irene, in her living room; we must have been watching a TV show with a setting far from Montana, where we lived, because she said, “I wish I could have seen a palm tree in real life.” When this memory came up, many emotions did as well.

Memories of my grandmother: her laughter; her slow shuffling walk; the never-empty pitcher of orange Kool-Aid; the bottomless candy drawer kept always within a child’s reach; her patience and her ability to forgive. When I went to the University of Montana in Missoula, I lived with her; it helped me save money and gave her some company, since my grandfather had passed away shortly before that. After I moved away in 2000, I regretted that I hadn’t spent more time with her and done more for her. There always seemed to be something more important to do. I felt ashamed that I put my needs first and was frustrated and impatient with her so many times.

In 2002, while living in Glasgow, Montana, I was alerted that she might not live much longer so I drove down to Missoula to spend time with her. I wanted to apologize to her, but it never seemed like the time was right. Two weeks later, I was back home and had a feeling I should call her. We spoke on the phone for some time but then visitors came to her room and our conversation was cut short. Again, I didn’t tell her my regrets. That night she passed away.

I felt then that there would be no way I could resolve these feelings, that I would just need to “get over it,” but the feelings persisted and surfaced whenever I thought of her. I broke one of her mixing bowls some years after she passed, and cried for hours. Pat, my husband, couldn’t understand what was wrong and I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t understand either.

I carried these regrets and feelings until 2007, when I started sitting with Open Way Sangha in Missoula and learned of Thay’s teachings. I began to understand these emotions, or internal knots, and how to slowly loosen them through mindfulness, loving kindness, and the teachings on interbeing. The knots grew weaker as I practiced but I could still feel them when I thought of her.

The sight of palm trees brought all these memories to mind along with sadness that she was never able to see these wondrous plants. As I walked up the hill in Deer Park past the meditation hall, I slowed to a stop where the road branches off to the dining area. A group of palm trees grew there and as I walked up to them, a smile started at my mouth and traveled up to my eyes, which, like my grandmother’s, are brown. She was the only grandparent with brown eyes, and she passed them on to my dad and he on to me. The sadness and old regrets fell away with the wisdom of interbeing, the knowledge that I am a continuation of my ancestors and that at this very moment my grandmother was seeing the palm trees, too. I felt her presence, and that of my other ancestors, throughout the retreat and during the ordination ceremony. I knew they were all present in me.

The knots of regret and sadness haven’t resurfaced since I returned from Deer Park. That is one gift of many that this practice has given me. It has given back to me the sweet memories of my grandmother.

Smb65-Grandma1andi Simons, True Flower Garden, lives near Bozeman, Montana, with her husband, Pat, and  two four-legged teachers, Doc and Cisco. She sits with the Bozeman Zen Group and participates in retreats with Open Way, Flowing Mountains, and Open Sky Sanghas. When she’s not working, you can find her gardening, hiking, volunteering at the local animal shelter, or curled up with a book.

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