#32 Winter/Spring 2002

The Perfect Sangha: New Zealand

By Shalom The bell calls clear and time across the courtyard. Voices from the Dharma discussion groups fall softly back into the silent container of the native bush, hills, and a translucent blue sky. Only the chirrup of thousands of midsummer cicadas remains.

We breathe softly, filled with the sharings of each other and aware of the growing compassion in our hearts and consciousness. As a group of four women we have spoken and listened deeply to each other, sharing the Dharma, our lives and aspects of the practice. In the stopping, we can also feel the tangible presence of mindfulness and of love, carried on the pure clear tones of the sounding bell. We complete our group with a bow of true reverence, deeply grateful for this format of mindful sharing. Slowly the retreatants merge to talk and share the loveliness of this still summer morning. The energy rises as preparations to serve the mid-day meal come to completion.

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For most of those present, this is a relaxed time of day easily identifiable with their everyday lives outside of the retreat time; however, for the core organizer group, this is a time to take our practice a step further and join together for the daily check-in meeting. On one level we are simply talking logistics – who will lead the meditation walk today; is the evening program clear and are the videotapes of Thay set up; do we have enough milk for breakfast tomorrow; how are the retreatants doing generally; what announcements need to be made today; and so on. On a deeper level this is the time where we really experience the practice in action.

This year we do not have a teacher present to guide us and to turn to as the wisdom holder. We only have each other, a handful of practitioners that form the core of two fairly small and relatively young Sanghas. Over the past five or so years we have had our share of challenges. Becoming familiar with our different personality types and coping (or not) with each other’s egos, differing ways of interpreting the practice, different needs, levels of commitment, stress and experience. As the days progress and the retreat deepens, it becomes more and more obvious that something wonderful is unfolding within this core group. We almost do not dare bring attention to it for fear that the magic will dissolve. As we sit together we smile, somewhat shyly, at how well the retreat is going, although we continue to focus on the organizational aspects of our meeting. I notice how differently I am seeing these people, how spaciously we accept and share ideas, problems and possible solutions. I notice how gifted and giving they are. How much I have learned and gained from this collective experience of working together with quieted egos; I feel very humble. I look around at people who in the past have judged, criticized, challenged, misunderstood and felt misunderstood by. I see myself clearly reflected. I see that the very nature of our difficulties as Sangha and the practice itself have brought us to this place of healing our arrogance and experiencing on a profound level communion and true love. There is lots to do here but there is no struggle. The retreat is going well because of the quality of our being rather than the amount of our doing. I experience myself as a cell in the body of the Sangha in transformation. What beauty, what a wonder to feel these seeds being nourished in me.

Once again the bell sounds in the courtyard. Our meeting must come to closure. The silence steps graciously into the space that the bell creates.  I breathe in.  I hear Thay’s voice:  "Don't look for the perfect Sangha." How often in the past I have been caught by my ignorance, my aversion, and desires for a different or better Sangha, my practice not ripe enough to open to the seeds of Sangha in my very own garden.

The bell sounds again. I breathe and smile in gratitude. We don't need to look for the perfect Sangha, we only need to stand still long enough and practice together, and leave the rest to nature to nourish the seeds of perfect Sangha within us.

One month later, back home and fully engrossed with the householder's life, I move through the day of deadlines at work, childcare, bills, traffic, cooking, and cleaning and I continue to be nourished by the depth of practice of my sisters and brothers in the wider Sangha. Physically we are many miles apart and on one level it continues to be a challenge for me to live in an isolated rural community with few practitioners. However, on another level, this last New Zealand Retreat has changed my relationship to others irrevocably. My interactions at work, in community projects, school support groups, and in my family all come from a freer, softer, more connected me. In my body, in my heart, in the very eel.ls of my being, Sangha continues to bloom.

Shalom, True Precious Land, lives and practices in New Zealand.

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Practicing the Mindfulness Trainings in Prison

By Mark J. Wilson I am ashamed to admit it but I am a prisoner of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), serving a life sentence for a murder I committed on June 29, 1987, when I was just eighteen years old. There is nothing I can say to excuse or justify what I did. It was a senseless act. At that point in my life I was a heavy and regular user of methamphetamines. I did not think or care about the rights or feelings of other people. I made countless hurtful, destructive and life-altering choices that affected others. I justified and rational zed every bad thing I chose to do. There came a point when I no longer valued human life.

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Shortly after my arrest, the enormity of what I had done consumed me. I was stricken with guilt and filled with disgust, not only for what I had done, but also for who I had become. I vowed to do everything I possibly could to change my life.

Upon my arrival at prison, I began to do all I could to understand how it became possible for me to take someone's life and how I could now change to become a caring person. I felt the need to try somehow to make up for what I had done and the pain I caused. Fortunately, when I entered the prison system fifteen years ago there were many mental health treatment and education programs available.  I enrolled in them all. This was the beginning of what I later realized would be a life-long journey toward becoming a better, more compassionate person.

In 1998, I was scanning the bookshelf in my housing unit for something to read, when I came upon the book, A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield. I could not put it down. This was my first exposure to meditation and to Buddhist practice. I soon found my way to the prison's Buddhist Study Group, and I've been attending ever since.

Within our Sangha, we study books written by many great teachers. Thich Nhat Hanh's  teachings have been a steady presence, and each week throughout 1999 and 2000 we studied his book, For a Future to Be Possible. This was my introduction to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They resonated with me because they typify the kind of life I strive to live today: a life of love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and deep respect for all life. They represent a life so utterly contrary to the life that led me to take another person's life.

Upon completion or For a Future to Be Possible our Sangha was blessed with the opportunity to receive transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Dharma teacher Lyn Fine on October 15, 2000. I jumped at the chance. Each month, following the transmission, our Sangha recites the Trainings together and discusses their application to our lives. Recently, we had the opportunity to renew our commitment to the Trainings by again receiving transmission from Lyn Fine and Jerry Braza.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that prison is a place where suffering takes many forms and is always present. Because of this, it is also a place where many opportunities exist for prisoners to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an effort to ease suffering. I have been greatly blessed during my incarceration with the opportunity to serve the prison community in a variety of capacities, including: inmate legal assistant, facilitator of a Victim Awareness and Empathy Development program, facilitator of an "at risk" youth crime prevention program, and hospice volunteer for terminally ill prisoners. These labors of love allow me to witness suffering from many different perspectives and to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an attempt to ease that suffering. I cannot find words to express what a gift that is for me. Easing    someone    else's   suffering brings deep meaning and purpose to my life and in turn, helps ease my own suffering. Though I wish l had learned these lessons fifteen years ago, I see that today my life is dramatically different than it was in 1987. I am deeply grateful to all of the wonderful teachers I have met throughout my incarceration and for their willingness to show me true loving kindness. Thank you one and all!

Mark James Wilson lives in Oregon and practices with his Sangha inside the prison, with the support of the Sangha outside the prison.

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Book Reviews

Friends on the PathLiving Spiritual Communities

by Thich Nhat Hanh Compiled by Jack Lawlor

Review by David Percival

This book is an invaluable resource on Sangha building for beginning and advanced practitioners around the world. We are told that even the smallest Sangha nurtures and continues the living tradition of Buddhism. For those of us who are shy or introverted and were brought up in the Western tradition of individualism, a Sangha is a powerful force that pulls us away from our ego to community, togetherness, and freedom.    As Jack Lawlor says, "we have to be willing to let go of a bit or our desire to be anonymous and private." And it is so much easier to let go of our old self-centered baggage when we are with a group of loving friends. It has been a wonderful experience for me to feel the support of Sangha members as, from time to time, stumble along. The Sangha doesn't let me fall. As Thay says, "The Sangha is there to support you in your practice.  So building the Sangha means building yourself."

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Part of the message of this book is to seek out a Sangha and if there is no Sangha in your community, to start one. Enter whole­ heartedly into a mindful practice with spiritual friends. Lawlor offers words of support to all of us plagued from time to time with doubts and discouragement.  His section on "Sharing the Path: An Overview of Lay Sangha Practice" is full of advice, instruction, ideas, and encouragement. And, most of all, be makes us realize that we can do it. We don't need years of experience, a massive library of Buddhist texts, monastic or lay teachers or advisors-­we need just one friend who wants to practice in a community.

As I read this book, I thought back to the beginnings of the Rainbow Sangha here in Albuquerque. A few months after returning from my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997 I got together with Greg Sever, another Albuquerque retreat attendee. We put up a few fliers around town, set a date, and met in one of our homes. We didn't do much planning, we didn't worry, and we didn't have any guidelines or books on Sangha building. We just started. We structured our meetings based on our observations at the retreat. We invited a bell and began. Some of the advice in this book about starting a Sangha includes: start now, don't put it off. Don't get caught up with planning. Bring together one or more friends and begin.

The remainder of the book offers inspirational and practical chapters written by thirty-five monastic and lay practitioners including sections on Practicing in the Community, Sangha Building, Sangha Practice, Practicing with Young People, and Engaged Practice. Three Appendices include the Mindfulness Trainings, Contemplations, and various practices.

In Chapter Two, "Go as a Sangha," Thay explains what a Sangha is, why we need a Sangha, and how to practice with a Sangha. Thay concludes by telling us that in building Sangha we are continuing the work of the Buddha. Our Sangha is the living Buddha. Even ordinary folks in a small Sangha "can achieve things the Buddha has not achieved, because there are many Dharma doors to be opened. There are teachings yet to be offered." Thay has observed that our task is to invent new Dharma doors that address contemporary needs.

All of us individually, and as a Sangha, are the continuation of the Buddha. Sangha building is our task. Our Sanghas, built on a foundation of love, compassion, mindfulness, freedom, and wider-standing, are torches of inspiration, shining their light on the darkness of despair, and transforming the suffering of the world.   Treasure this book, but more important, use it. Let it inspire you to step into the joy and challenges of Sangha building. This is our practice, this is the way to healing and transformation, this is the way out of despair.

Printed by Parallax Press: To order www.parallax.org

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

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Under the Rose Apple Tree

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Review by Barbara Casey

Reading this book I realized that a primary reason I am so attracted to Thay 's teaching is that he speaks directly to the child within me. Though the material found here is a compilation of talks he has given to young people over the years, for me it is a comprehensive explanation of the Dharma, in the simple and clear style I have grown accustomed to from Thay. Though he may use some different words and longer explanations when speaking to adults, I see from reading this book that all the wisdom, all the stories that help us understand with our hearts and not just our minds, are right here.

The book begins with explaining that we are all Buddhas to be, and how we can touch the Buddha inside us. Specific mindfulness practices of stopping, hugging, looking deeply to identify our habit energy and planting seeds of happiness are offered. We are taught in detail how to invite the bell. Sitting meditation is explained through the story of Siddhartha sitting in meditation for the first time under the rose apple tree swing the ceremony of plowing the fields. The concept of interbeing is taught through the story of the Buddha and Mara, followed by practices to help when "things get difficult, "including how to deal with anger and how to practice when family members are unhappy. The two promises are offered as a way to learn to love, followed by a frank discussion of how to treat our bodies with respect when making choices about sexual activity and consuming drugs, alcohol, and food.

Filled with hints and reminders of simple and effective ways to practice, two of my favorites are, "the secret of the practice is to do one thing at a time," and the last line of the book, "each of us is a river."

The last chapter, "Chasing Clouds" is a beautiful story of a stream that at one point wants to commit suicide after losing the clouds that she has been chasing. But as she looks deeply, she sees what she has been doing:

"It was strange. She had been chasing after clouds, thinking that she could not be happy without clouds, yet she herself was made of clouds. What she was seeking was already in her. Happiness can be like that. If you know how to go back to the here and now, you will realize that the elements of your happiness are already available to you. You don't need to chase them anymore.” If there were just one book on the Dharma I could offer someone, this is the book I would choose.  I hope that every young person will have the opportunity to become friends with this book. I encourage each of us to make Under the Rose Apple Tree a gift to every young person we know, and perhaps we can create a way to offer it through organizations as a gift to many children.

For its simple beauty, lightness and depth, of all of Thay's books, Under the Rose Apple Tree is my favorite.

Printed by Parallax Press: To order www.parallax.org

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, lives with her husband in Santa Rosa, California, where she practices with the Fragrant Rose Sangha. She is an editor of the Mindfulness Bell and loves to practice hugging meditation with her two young nieces, Natalie and Dru.

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Ask the Dharmacharaya

Playing Sports? Is it Mindful? By Richard Brady and Peggy Rowe

Dear Dharmacharyas,

My name is Ethan Flint. I am nine and 3/4 years old. My dad is in the Sangha in New York City. I wanted to know your opinion about playing in a sports league, like soccer or baseball. Do you think it is just a way of occupying myself or is it a good thing because I have a lot of fun in it.

My dad and I are reading Old Path, White Clouds and that got me thinking about what things could occupy my mind in a bad way.Sincerely, Ethan Flint

Understanding What Makes Sports Fun

Dear Ethan Flint,

Thank you for the important question you raise about participating in sports leagues. It is clearly stated and, I believe, contains the beginning of an answer in your last sentence. You don't want to occupy your mind in a bad way. How can you tell if sports or anything else is a bad way to occupy your mind? One thing to look at is how you feel while you are doing the activity. You have fun playing sports. But don't stop here. Why do you have fun? For some people sports are fun because it gives them a chance to show off or to win. Their fun is based on the impressions they make or the results they achieve, and it depends on their doing or their team doing better than others. All the players involved cannot share this kind of fun. On the other hand, some people like the connection they feel with friends on their teams, or they like physical exercise, or they like to develop their skills. This kind of fun is always available to them and to all the other players. So I'm saying that having fun isn't reason enough to play on sports teams. Understand that fun and be sure that you feel good about it!

Fun may be an immediate effect of playing sports. There are also long-term effects. Your question makes me wonder whether you may be thinking of them. Perhaps you and your dad have already talked about karma, the principle that everything you think, say, and do now will affect the future. Playing sports affects the future. So does doing schoolwork and spending time with your family. Doing these things affects your future and the future of others. It is impossible to know what the effects will be. The main thing you have to go on is what is happening right now. Playing sports is providing you fun. What kind of challenges and opportunities for growth is it providing? How is it affecting your relationships with other kids? With your family? Very likely there are other important questions about sports participation to ask yourself. These questions may be as difficult to answer as ones about the future. But you do not seem to be a young person who shies away from difficult questions.

What I am trying to describe here is mindfulness of the present moment. As you ask questions and become more aware of what your present moment holds, you will probably find that your sports participation has both positive and negative aspects. The better you understand what these are, the better you will be able to choose how much and how you will participate, and what you learn from investigating this question about sports will serve you well as you encounter similar questions throughout your life.  Good luck.

Many smiles, Richard Brady

What Seeds Are Being Watered?

Dear Ethan,

Thanks for asking this great question. This is important. I am impressed that you have the courage to ask brave questions like this one. One thing I heard in your question was "is this the best use of my time in the precious gift of a human lifetime?" The only person who can ask and respond to this question is you, so that is good news.

Your question also addresses how you occupy your mind while you play. What is important is not whether to play or not play sports. What is important is how you occupy your mind while playing sports. It is about how you practice being human while you play.

If you practice soccer or baseball and water seeds of anger, frustration, jealousy, and violence, then this is not a good use of your time. If you use the team experience to practice with these seeds and to water seeds of mindfulness, support, caring, and Sangha building, then this is a good use of your time and your mind.

A soccer team and a baseball team are forms of Sangha. Being on a team is a wonderful opportunity to practice community building and to practice creating harmony and awareness.  At Plum Village there are volleyball nets, basketball hoops and soccer balls.  Many of the brothers and sisters enjoy playing together, exercising their bodies and sharing happiness in this way.

Thay has said there is no way to happiness--happiness is the way. It is good to know what you like. It is good to know what makes you happy.

Peggy Rowe

Peggy Rowe, True Original Vow, lives at the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, CA. An artist, author, and educator, she finds joy in swimming, dancing, and playing with her dog, Reggae.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness in Education Network. He teaches high school math in Washington, D.C.

Please send us your question for "Ask the Dharmacharya." We will feature different Dharmacharyas each issue. Send questions to: mindfulnessbell@sbcglobal.net

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The Mindful School Bell

By Ed Glauser I am an elementary school counselor in a conservative town in Georgia, which is part of the "Bible belt." This year I have been bringing my bell of mindfulness into the classrooms and listening to the sound of the bell as we mindfully breathe in and out I saw signs throughout the year that the students and teachers were enjoying the sound of the bell and that it was improving the lives of the schoolchildren and teachers, and enriching the community.

I knew I was on the right track when a second grade student   told me that she had taught her two-year-old brother to breathe mindfully and think of the bell during conflicts at his daycare center. She told me proudly that her brother practiced breathing mindfully when another child bit him on the nose, and her brother chose to think of the bell instead of retaliating. On another occasion a fourth grader told me that he was upset and just wanted to invite the bell to sound in my office, breathe in and out, and go back to class to resume learning. It worked beautifully for him he invited the bell three times, said, "Thank you, I feel much better," and went back to class.

In the last weeks before the end of the school year there were several occurrences of the bell changing the emotional climate of the school. First, teachers began to ask me to download the bell sound from the Washington, D.C.'s Mindfulness Practice Center Webpage, to sound periodically throughout the school day so students could pause, breathe in and out, and be refreshed to help their learning ability.

Next, during a very heated parent-teacher conference in my office, the bell sound from the computer saved the conference as all parties in conflict paused to breathe and be more mindful of expressing their displeasure with the other in a more respectful way. Last, my Principal, who is also a southern Baptist preacher, asked me to down load the bell on his computer. He brought the bell to a faculty meeting to sound so all the teachers could breathe together; he also reminded me to remember the bell and to breathe while I was in a stressful situation.

It was beautiful to see how the bell of mindful ness and conscious breathing could transform the atmosphere of a public school into a more mindful and respectful environment for everyone, even in a small southern "Bible belt" town in Georgia. I say, "Amen!"

Ed Glauser; True Virtuous Loyalty, practices with the Breathing Heart Sangha and the Unitarian Universalist Meditation Group of Athens, Georgia.  Married with four children, Ed is a primary school counselor and private counselor: He also offers Mindfulness and Counseling workshops with his wife for the American Counseling Association.

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Gatha for Listening to the Bell

Listening to the bell,I feel the afflictions in me begin to dissolve. My mind becomes calm, my body relaxed. A smile is born on my lips. Following the sound of the bell, my breath guides  me back to the safe island of mindfulness. In the garden of my heart, the flower of peace blooms beautifully.

found in Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

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Love

By Richard Brady During the 1996 Plum Village Summer Opening, l stayed in touch with my partner, Elisabeth, through weekly phone calls and regular letter writing. Towards the end of the retreat, I started feeling defensive of my sense of spaciousness on hearing Elisabeth's plans for our time after my return home. Gratefully, I took advantage of an opportunity to share this experience with Sister Jina. After listening quietly to my angst, Sister Jina said, "Richard, in my experience defensiveness is a sign that you are not getting the love you need." I nodded in reply, and she continued, "But, Richard, there is only one person who knows the love you need and can give it to you, and that is yourself. Furthermore, if you give yourself the love you need, you will be able to accept with gratitude the love that Elisabeth offers you."

Sister Jina's wisdom penetrated me but left me perplexed. "Are there practices for giving myself the love I need?" I asked her.  Sister Jina went on to describe a two-stage practice.  In the first stage I was to hold my five­year-old self in my lap as I meditated and shower him with all the love he needed. After several weeks of doing this, I was to switch and be that five-year-old, sitting on this large lap, and to receive all that love. I began right away. It was deeply satisfying for me to enfold my needy child with love. But when it came time to receive that love, I found it impossible. I tried this practice several more times, always with the same results.

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During Thay's twenty-one-day retreat in June, 2000, I experienced a great deal of negativity and self-doubt. This time it was my friend, Eveline, who came to my aid. Eveline described a meditation experience in which she had let her negative emotions swirl around her like a whirlwind. She had sat in the eye of this hurricane, its calm center, breathing and smiling. With Eveline holding my hand, l tried her practice. First I saw my recent distress. Then came pain I had experienced at many earlier times of my life. Finally l saw that times of suffering were not the only things swirling around me. They were interwoven with many other life experiences. After breathing and smiling to all my life for a while, I opened my eyes with a new sense of calm.

Returning home from Plum Village, I found myself constantly in the grips of a whirlwind of negative emotions. At times I would remember to find my way to its calm center. This would help, but only for a while.  Then, one night before going to sleep, I read Leslie Rawls's Mindfulness Bell article about transforming her grief over her father's death.  In her article she described experiencing her grief as a whirlwind with her little girl caught up in it. She told about repeatedly trying to bring her little girl down without success.  Finally, she understood that she had to embrace her child, whirlwind and all. As I read this, I realized that in sitting in my own hurricane's eye, I was creating a false separation between myself and my emotions.  Calm was there but not transformation.

The next morning, as l meditated, Sister Jina's self-loving practices came back to me. Suddenly I saw that in attempting to be the child on that big lap, my attention had been entirely on trying to receive love.  I had never felt my little boy's fears and neediness. This time l climbed into my child's skin, fears, neediness and all.  From that place I was able to feel love's embrace for the first time.  Nevertheless, it did not become easy for me to invite up my childhood wounds. While meditating, I might think about my little boy's emotions but not truly experience them. I have found two routes into accessing these emotions. When I have experienced a strong negative emotion such as anger, I have tried to remove myself from the situation in which it has arisen and go sit quietly with my feelings. When I have done this, I have been able to experience childhood emotions underlying my current experience. Also, on several occasions while meditating I have become aware of tensions in my body and, by simply watching these physical sensations have contacted with in them old fears and grief. I did not push away these emotions but accepted them unconditionally. This acceptance not only allowed them to remain present but to intensify. Whatever happened, I held with love and felt myself held with love.

This process is a slow one. I still get defensive, but now l can share this defensiveness with Elisabeth and work with it myself. I have become much better at communicating my relationship needs to Elisabeth and responding lovingly to hers, in part, because I am more able to see doing both as opportunities for growth. With gratitude I thank my Dharma Sisters Elisabeth, Jina, Evelyn, and Leslie for all you have given me.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge.

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Honoring My Brother

By Sister Tenzin Namdrol It was acute generational family dysfunction that led my brother to alcoholism, marginality, schizoid spells, total paralysis and eventually the loss to gangrene of one leg and then of the other. We were born less than one year apart and separated at birth by sex, parents' preferences, grandmothers, different nannies, temperaments, boarding schools, and eventually continents. Memories of him are vague. He was kind and generous but unable to measure the consequences of his acts. He practiced a daily rosary of misdeeds for which he received a daily rosary of punishments. Towards the end of his life I asked him, "Bruce, was there ever a happy day in your life?"  And he replied, ''No." "Surely there were birthdays, Christmases, graduations... there must have been some." Again he said, "No, they always had a bad ending." Towards the fifth and sixth decade of my own life, I began to focus on the family as a whole, more than on individual members. I researched parts of our family tree and realized that ostracism was a constant from both the paternal and maternal lineages. Bruce became a mere link between his ancestors and his unfortunate issue.

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He was neglected and bedridden for eight years, yet there was grace in the acceptance of his condition; to some extent he was practicing the Paramitas and even when oscillating between psychic clarity and delusion he was a teacher to many of us. On occasion, I saw a certain aura around the remains of his devastated and minute body. Bruce chose to give his body for study to the University Hospital in Florianopolis, Brazil, hence his remains would not receive a formal burial. However, on the forty-ninth day following his death, in the evening, in Upper Hamlet, there was a magnificent double funeral ceremony for Thay Giac Thanh and for the brother of Thay Phap Thanh. Visually and musically it was the most beautiful I had ever attended and l dedicated it to my brother.

After the ceremony forty monks in their bright yellow sanghati robes walked in procession to the Buddha Garden carrying the urns containing the ashes of the dead as well as, symbolically, the remains of my brother. Much moved and the only nun present, I followed the monks to the Buddha Garden and visualized his ashes  being spread in that peaceful and holy place when Thay Phap Thanh offered me the urn containing his brother 's ashes.  In deep gratitude, I took a handful and looking around for a proper tombstone, found a large and beautiful stone around which I spread the ashes of both brothers, Thay Phap Thanh's and my own.

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It is said that the ordination of a monk or a nun will liberate seven prior and seven subsequent generations. It is my sincere prayer that, through monastics everywhere, all families can liberate ancestors and future issue from such insidious and long­lasting habit energies.

Sister Tenzin Namdrol is a nun in the Tibetan tradition. She received full ordination from Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in 1998 and periodically comes to Plum Village to practice. She lives and supports Sanghas in Brazil, her native country.  She attended the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in June 2002 accompanied by a delegation of practitioners from Brazil.

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Stair Step Meditation

By Carole Baker The day I arrived in New Hamlet, I started to cry, and I didn't stop for two weeks. I'm a pretty stable person, no astronomical highs, no bottomless lows, and the last one in the room to panic. I had  no  idea  why  I was crying, as I didn't feel sad; and, after several days of waterworks, I  became embarrassed by my behavior. But I couldn't stop the tears, so I let them flow. Sometimes I spoke through my tears, hoping the other people would bear my words.

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I felt as if I were among family, as if l had been in New Hamlet all of my life. I felt comfortable, loved, and safe. I had never meditated before.   Sitting on a cushion was new to me. So, when Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) described in his Dharma talks to the children how to do pebble meditation, I took their lesson for my own. During walking meditation, I gathered pebbles on the path and put them in a small cloth bag and used them to support the lessons he was teaching about compassion and solidity.

One day, Thay explained how to do what he called Stair Step Meditation. It was a way to practice transforming what he called habit energy. He said each of us inherits the habits of our ancestors. Our grandfather may have been lonely; our great-grandmother may have lived in pain; an ancestor may have lived a violent, hate-filled, embattled life. All of the actions, emotions, and conditions of each of our ancestors down through history are passed to each of us.  It is our responsibility and our joy  to conduct our lives in such a way as to relieve the negative aspects of our inherited habit energy and to enjoy and pass on to our children the positive aspects of their ancestors' character and experiences.

Thay  described Stair Step Meditation as he teaches everything, clearly and simply. He said, if you want to cease the pain of your ancestors and reverse the effect  of their  negative  actions, just find a staircase. Decide which ancestor you wish to connect with. Put one foot on the first step, as you breathe in say, "Father, I am here for you." (You can substitute the name of whichever ancestor you choose.) When you breathe out, lift the other foot and place it on the next step.  Say, "Father, I am here for you." That's it.  That's all you do.   Breathe in, step; breathe out, step.

I thought about the people in my family who needed relief from pain and suffering. My folks were all working people, pioneers. My mother's side of the family came from the British Isles and settled in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Ididn't know my grandparents. My people were woodsmen, lumberjacks. My mother was the first in her family to gain a high school education. There were hard times, hard work, little food, much suffering. People had to be tough to survive. I come from good stock, a long line of stoic fatalists.  You take your lot in life, and you do the best you can with it. What's the use of crying?

I chose to walk the stairs with my mother, Martha Holland Baker. Mom had a difficult life and in retrospect, I don't think she was very happy, just dutiful. Mom and I never had any big conflicts, but we certainly were products of different eras. The first few days, because of the deep emotion of saying directly to my dead mother, "Mom, I'm here for you," every step up, and down, the eighteen steps to my second floor room, I bawled!

Each day when I walked the eighteen stairs, it was just Mom and me. I found some reassurance in the routine of it.   Before I reached the stairs I stopped and took a few slow, soft breaths to get ready for Stair Step Meditation.  Regardless of my emotions, I made a clear effort to devote those stairs to that special meditation.

Stair Step Meditation converged with Touching the Earth meditation, led by Sister Chan Khong. This day, as I walked slowly towards the meditation hall with a group of nuns, I said to Sister Eleni, "I really don't want to go to this meditation."   She asked, "Why not?" I said, "I don't know." She said, "Well, just go ahead and try it." So, I entered the meditation hall, bowed, and placed my mats for the meditation. As Sister Chan Khong led us through total relaxation and Touching the Earth, at one point all of my emotion welled up in my chest. I was encouraged to let all of the suffering of my ancestors flow into the earth. I felt an enormous release as profound sorrow and pain really did seem to flow into the earth. I think I went to sleep.

Walking slowly from the meditation hall to the farmhouse, suddenly, my mother's voice stopped me. She said, "Hello, Carole. I am here for you. Thank you for walking with me and healing my pain." I stopped still on the gravel path, causing a number of people to adjust their walking meditation, stood and declared, "Oh, these are your tears!"  My mom said, "Yes, it's me.”

After lunch, I approached the eighteen stairs with my usual preparatory stopping. My mother took my hand! And she said, "Come walk with me; this is why you are here." I walked the eighteen stairs with my mom beside me. Happiness overtook my initial nervousness. It was such a happy thing to be walking, hand in hand with my mother in complete spiritual communication, up and down those ordinary stairs. After a few days, my entire affect changed. My emotions began to settle and I began feeling the deep joy and satisfaction of helping my mother to heal her sorrows. My roommate, Kim Nguyen, said I blossomed and became a flower.

One day I felt lazy and thought I would skip Dharma discussion and have a nap. As I climbed the stairs to my room, in her own voice and phrasing, my mom said, "You'd better get to that Dharma discussion!" I laughed and mentally replied, "You can be a pain sometimes," but I obeyed as when she was alive. I turned around and went down to the discussion group. We laughed together then, and many times since.  Now, I feel my mother is always with me, and she is happy.

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Carole Baker; Healing Joy of the Heart, sits with her black kitty, M.B., curled up at her feet. His purring helps to keep her in the present moment.

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Poem: If You Long for Peace

By Pamela Overeynder, True Sun of Understanding On September 11th, 2002, in Austin, Texas about sixty people walked in silence across the Colorado River on a beautiful footbridge at sunset. As we walked, I sensed a deep reverence, palpable, from the joggers and others out for their evening sunset walk -- peace is contagious. After the walk we sat next to the lake on the grass and shared poetry, hopes, fears, prayers, songs, and metta, meditation on loving kindness, along with a sense of aliveness and possibility. I n my experience, sharing poetry with my community is so essential to my/our well-being. Here is my poem.

If You Long for Peace

If you long for peace . . . If you long for peace between Israel and Palestine If you long for peace between the US and Iraq lf you long for peace in the middle of the night If you wake up filled with longing, tears rolling down the slope of your face, for an end to the anger you feel inside, for an end to the troubled confusion of words and actions that can't be recalled,

Come! Meet at the footbridge as the full moon comes up, round and bright, as the wolf begins to howl somewhere far away. Come, feet padded with trust, eyes still moist with longing, and Walk! Walk the footbridge. Walk with fierceness straight across your own lack of understanding, across the bunkered, fear-frozen tundra of your heart. Walk towards the

brightness of freedom. Walk even as warm tears of compassion stream down and down, till they roll off the footbridge and join the dark river below, even now holding the moon in its glance.  Walk till your heart opens like a flower— opens to everyone and everything. Walk till your mind clears and opens, releases its fragrance the fragrance of freedom, and every being, seeing you, knows the same freedom, the only freedom that will yield peace.

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Touching and Helping: Hungry Children Project in Vietnam

Letter from School Teachers of an "Understanding and Love School" in Buong Dang Dung Village July 12, 2002

Dear Venerable Teacher, Brothers and Sisters of Plum Village,

Today I am so happy to be able to with to you and share our news with you. We live in a remote region in the mountains and forests. Our life is like that of our ancestors before us and all those who live in such remote and dangerous areas: we cut wood and harvest tea and coffee all year round. That is the economy of our village.

To be able to have contact with the Sisters and Brothers of the Understanding and Love Program is a great honor for us. Thanks to our contact with the monastics and social workers from Saigon we have been supported in our practice of mindfulness and in the work of helping society.

We are 95 families living here, not knowing anything of the outside world. The families here only seek to work to survive from day to day and do not know the basics things of life, such as good hygiene and literacy. The support from the Understanding and Love program has brought us relief. Thanks to our contact with your program we have been able to build a bridge, open a school, saving children who were hungry and giving them education. Now we have a kindergarten class and a nursery called, "The Pink Lotus."

As Buong Dang Dung Village is in a desolate area, the young children play with the earth and stay dirty because there is no well to get water from and the streams are far away. Today the Brothers from the Understanding and Love program have come to help us dig a well so the children can be bathed, cared for, and fed at lunchtime. This is very important for us in the village.

We don't know how to thank you. Today the entire village can benefit from the cement bridge, the new well, the kindergarten, the nursery and also the teachings of mindfulness. We are so happy and grateful to our teachers, sisters and brothers from Plum Village and benefactors who have a big heart to relieve the difficulties of a poor village.

Affectionately,

Your School Teachers, Dich and Ngot

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Touching and Helping Programs in Vietnam Sponsorship Form

Name                                     _

Address                  __             __             City                             _

State_                    _ Zip code ___ Country             Telephone           _       _ e-mail   ___

l wish to sponsor  (please circle and fill in appropriate lines):

  • for $6 a month or $72 a year

a preschool toddler in a daycare center or a 5-yr-old child in kindergarten to receive 2 cups of milk and lunch every day at school ___boy(s) ___girl(s) a young college student ___ boy(s) __ girl(s) or a destitute elderly or handicapped person _ male(s) _ female(s)

  • for $25 a month or $300 a year

a teacher(s) who goes to remote rural areas to teach children in kindergarten through grade school levels (ages 5-12) ___ a teenager(s) to receive vocational training in traditional Vietnamese crafts: woodworking, embroidery, or tailoring, carpentry, mechanics and electricity _ boy(s) _ girl(s)

  • donation amount ___(specified by you)

sponsor development programs in rural areas to build schools, build bridges, plant trees, dig wells, and make roads support victims of monsoon floods and tragedies to receive medical support and food and blankets

Please make your check payable to Unified Buddhist Church. All money will be given to the persons who need help.

No charge is deducted for administrative costs. Please send to or for more information contact Touching and Helping Committees

Europe: Plum Village, 13 Martineau 33580 Dieulivol, France

East Coast USA: Green Mountain Dharma Center, Box 182 , Hart land-Four-Corners, VT 05049

West Coast USA: Deer Park Monastery,2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026

You are helping many people to lessen their hunger, to feel the love of humanity mu/ to improve their lives. This act will continue its way to strengthen hope, understanding, and compassion in each of us. Our way of living and relating to the world in the present is the base for social changes. We look forward to receiving support from you.

A lotus for you, Sister Chan Khong and the Touching and Helping Committees

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