Saturday, March 31, 2007
Staying in Hue for the past week has been refreshing on several levels. This small city in the middle of Vietnam has a peaceful, rural quality; much calmer to the senses than Ho Chi Minh City. The talks, ceremonies and times to relax are less crowded. While it is a little cooler than down south, it has been very humid and at some moments hard to do anything but sweat. It is possible to see Thich Nhat Hanh’s roots as we experience the town and temple where he became a monastic in 1942.
Concurrent monastic and lay retreats occurred at Tu Hieu temple. We saw Thay during walking meditations. He gave a very special talk on Ancestral Day, in part, about the relationship between his teacher and himself. We are fortunate that his teacher transmitted so much compassion and understanding. We are blessed by having hundreds of skillful means offered by our teacher. Our lay retreat was filled with opportunities for joyful sharing and lessons. Inspiring talks were given by Jack Lawlor (who wrote the book “Friends on the Path”) and Mitch Ratner. Our lay retreat’s theme was “touching our roots.” We applied Thay’s teaching that the teacher and student can walk far together, transcending difficulties in this life. Very deep looking into our family, land, and spiritual roots was facilitated by everyone’s practice. Family groups offered support to each other at the monastery, as well as during outings into town or on the Perfume River. I was happy to be with many friends from Deer Park, and others I’ve met on the path. Sister Chong Khong sponsored another trip with many of us to visit local schools that the sangha supports funding teachers and classrooms. Friends were very generous, donating when they heard of school or family health needs. Being here is to witness the real meager existence many live with in Vietnam. We are often touched by how people with so little materially, have so much physical and spiritual energy. They are so welcoming to us, even with our cameras blasting away.
Today about 85 new friends arrive, as many others depart for home. About 120 people will be on this 3rd segment as the pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation continues. I will again do my best as a family group leader to facilitate harmony and a little less confusion related to the constant changes in the schedule & travel plans. In a few hours we will head to a festival in town where Thay is giving another dharma talk. Tomorrow another great requiem ceremony begins here in Hue. Last night Sister Kinh Nghiem came to explain much of the purpose and symbolism of the last great ceremony in Saigon. What might be a weeks worth of activity was packed into 3 days. All the chanting, Sutras, teaching and ceremony was to concentrate energy of compassion, understanding to help those departed be at peace. Efforts were made to keep the energy at the core of the temple focused and disturbances out. The local culture also greatly influenced much of what was seen and experienced by us. Thay made it clear over and over that the healing was without discrimination for who, where and why people died. We understood that while many hungry ghosts are departed, others are still with us, perhaps they are us, going through this life with large bellies, small throats, starving for the nourishment of love. Many of us remembered the names of American, French or other non-Vietnamese, so that energy would be sent to help those deceased and their families.
Thank you to Harriet Wrye who was a wonderful buddy in Vietnam, for transcribing this statement.
THAY'S PRAYER AND VOWS
To be Expressed during the Great Requiem Ceremonies to Untie the Knots of Great Injustice--
Van Minh Temple, Ho Chi Minh City and Tu Hieu Temple, Hue, Viet Nam
by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh March-April 2007
"Dear Ones who have passed from this life:
You are our fathers and mothers; our aunts and uncles; our husbands and wives; our sisters and brothers; our sons and daughters, who have died during the war. When our country was on fire with all the fighting, you left us tragically, suddenly, forced to abandon your precious body. We have lost you, dear ones. We know that you fought courageously for our nation without regret for your precious body and we are proud of you. But you lost your body in a very tragic situation, and the injustice could never be expressed. You died deep in a distant jungle or were lost at sea or in a dark prison cell. You may have died because of bullets or bombs, or from starvation or sheer exhaustion. You may have been raped and then killed with no way to resist. How many of you have died in despair, in injustice, the remains of your body lost somewhere in the ocean or the jungle where we who love you could not get hold of them. To fight for our independence and freedom, our country has had to bear great tragedy and injustice, and it is you who have shouldered the burden of the whole nation in your death.
We your relatives, your fellow countrymen and countrywomen, we come here---some of us are before our own altars at home---and among us there are those who still continue to suffer from injustice. Fortunately the nightmare has ended, the country is now at peace, and we are having the chance to rebuild the country, to heal the remaining wounds. Thanks to the merits and good deeds of our ancestors we have a chance to come together and offer prayers together to the Three Gems. With the support of the powerful Dharma, we request you to come back ALL TOGETHER to reunite with each other, embracing each other, loving each other like sisters and brothers in one family. WE will not distinguish between North or South, women or men, adults or children, by race, religion, party or ideology. We are all fellow countrywomen and countrymen, but because of the past bad fortune, we have been pushed to fight each other in our drive for independence, for freedom. Thanks to the merits of our ancestors we can now come back to each other, recognizing each other as siblings of a single family, to promise each other that we will not forget this painful lesson of the past now engraved on our hearts:
We vow that from now on we will not let the country be separated again, not even one more time. From now on, when there are internal difficulties, we will not request the help of any foreign power to intervene with weapons and troops in our country. From now on, we will not start a war for any ideology. From now on, we will not use foreign weapons to kill each other. From now on we will use our best efforts to build a society with real democracy, to be able to resolve all kinds of disagreements by peaceful democratic methods and we will not resort to violence against fellow countrymen and countrywomen.
Respected Blood Ancestors, Respected Spiritual Ancestors, please bear witness to our profound sincerity. We respectfully make these deep vows before you. And we know that once we have sincerely expressed ourselves in this way, all the knots of injustice can be untied, and the deep wounds in each of us will start to be healed.
Today this Great Chanting Ceremony to untie ALL INJUSTICES EQUALLY without any discrimination starts here; but at the same time, countless Vietnamese and friends of Vietnamese throughout the world are setting altars in front of their houses too, to pray for you all. We touch the earth deeply to request the grace of the Three Jewels to carry to the other shore of liberation ALL OF YOU dear deceased ones, so that, dear ones, you can be carried by the strength of the Dharma to be able to understand, to transform, to transcend and to know you are free.
We your descendants, we promise to continue your aspiration. WE vow to carry you in our hearts, to build brotherhood and sisterhood and mutual love of fellow countrymen and countrywomen. We will remember that pumpkin vines and squash vines can share a single frame, that chickens from a same mother will never fight each other. This insight from our Ancestors will shine out its light for us now, and forever."
Saturday, March 24, 2007
From the lobby of this new, very fancy hotel, where the bellboys and other workers neatly wear their green uniforms and the lobby opulence indicates that a rating of many stars is likely in some guide book. Outside is rural Vietnam, Imperial capital during the last time of kings, before the French invaded in the mid 1800's. Some businesses, especially hotels, clothes shops and autos suggest local enjoyment of economic growth. On the other hand of experience, we are routinely confronted with great poverty. In Ho Chi Minh City I was told that an adequate waged worker made about $120 per month, which could pay for rent, food and basic necessities. But some people make much less, especially field workers, and that is evident here in Hue. Most of the people who look poor seemingly have faces of contentment, if not happiness when I interact with them. It has been common that vendors present us with foods, postcards, hats, fans and other useful items, but I have been wondering about the one's that approach us with hand-made cages of captured birds, swallows perhaps. For a price, one can take possession of a bird in their hand and set it free. To me, the birds looked very crowded, unhappy and also seemed to suffer from dehydration and malnutrition.
At first this setting birds free seems to be a simple act of compassion; gratification for me and the bird(s). The people possessing the birds in cages appear impovershed, and they are quite insistent that we pay to release them. I'm told that local people, in order to make very little money, catch the birds and put them in the cages. A brother mentioned to me that most of the freed birds do not fly far, and thus are again captured. Looking deeply I can see that by paying to set birds free I am supporting a way of life that seems somewhat cruel. It's hard to know what to do. I remember once hearing the Dalai Lama say that all people in the world need 3 things; to have more love, more compassion, and to make a living. Perhaps it's just my western way of thinking that capturing birds and offering them to others to set them free for a price is somehow bad. To these local people, I'm certain they're just doing what they have to do to survive in their environment. What is right living? What is right action? How can a rich, wasteful American be critical of a very poor Vietnamese peasant who is making a living the best they can. When I can be truly honest with myself, I know that there are many actions I take, even if indirectly, that support suffering (eg. Iraq war) and abuse of the environment (unmindful consumption). These kinds of questions arise as I sit here in a lobby that gets louder and louder as westerners, and wealthy Easterners, most not from our sangha, talk about going out for an extravagant, yet, inexpensive meal. After a few breaths my mind is again and peace, if not still a little confused. My body tired from a bout with food poisoning.
Taking refuge in the sangha has been most helpful on this rigorous journey; helping me be free where I am. Here’s a little poem that comes to me about that:
Like a hard shelled nut
that has been cracked open
You have gently helped reveal
my soft sweetness inside
Taking refuge in you
Taking refuge in me, too
In the sangha there’s enough room
For the joy and the pain
Like the sound of a songbird
set free from captivity
My smile is revealed
to you and to me.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
We left at 4:30 am for the Great Forest Monastery, a couple of hours away from HCMC. It is a large, impressive and beautiful temple. You can see pictures on my flickr site. Thay mentions during his talk that the High Venerables are saying that they have never seen a ceremony as solemn, so deep and well attended as the one’s held last week at temple Vinh Nghiem. Today a continuation of that healing is occurring. Thay encourages attendees to practice mindfulness because their good understanding of the sutras and verses on consciousness is not enough to remove the pain and afflictions buried deep. He also discussed the movie in production based on his book, Old Path, White Clouds. After resting before and after lunch a powerful chanting ceremony was conducted at the temple. Westerners had places near the front to witness Thay offering incense and listen to the chanting. After a while the monastics filed out and we followed in procession, past the crowd inside and directly outside the lower part of the temple. We circumambulated the crowds and alters covered with foods to be blessed, several times. The people smiled compassionately and bowed to us. It continues to be quite humbling to receive these kinds of responses during ceremonies to heal the suffering from the war; especially in light of many of us being French or American. At the end of the day we had a small dinner, then stopping our bus on the way back at the temple of a venerable nun to pay respect for her support of the sangha over many years, Thay and the rest of us had dinner again at the nun’s temple. It had a very sweet and gentle energy. A memorable and very long day.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
In the evening our lay sangha is amazed as they become part of the lotus lamp ceremony. The procession line forms, with colorful umbrellas, flags, and other ceremonial poles. I stood near the beginning with my palms together to show respect to the monastics as they proceeded by first. As Thay walked by, about 10 feet away, he looked over at me and we both smiled. Raising his hand, he waves, wiggling his fingers in a cute gesture. I return the wave and smile as he and the monastics walk by. Our lay sangha follow the monastics, in two lines, slowly into the mass assembled out in the courtyard. All we go by in a narrow opening, offer us lotus bows and big smiles as we pass the shrines and wishing well alter. We can see on a big screen Thay and all the monastics file into the most sacred area under the temple where memorials have been put on display of high teachers and patriarchs. A place lay members are not allowed. This evening’s dark is lit up with spotlights, colored lanterns, and the booming sounds of a big drum, cymbals and bells, accompanying chants from the monastics and crowd. After a half hour our line is allowed into the patriarch’s area, ushered quickly past attendants who hand us hand made paper lotuses with candles inside. As we proceed our candles our lit, walking in formation into the night. Around the temple we stand, glowing like a most beautiful lotus candlelit lane awaiting the chant master high monk, other monastics, entourage of musicians and traditionally dressed young women, who then pass, smiling. We follow them to the river bank behind the temple, passing by big crowds bowing. The glowing lotus’ are ceremoniously placed into the river where they float light beacons. They are there to provide light to the souls lost in darkness so that they may join us during this transformative healing and reconciliation ceremony. In the tight crowd by the river I am most grateful to not have slipped on the muddy banks into the water, or have been burned by the fire all around my clothes and face. It is a most emotionally moving event. Standing along a much crowed street awaiting the bus home the thick smell of so many motor scooters, taxis, busses and pedestrians passing by the temple it is a challenge to keep the mind at ease. By the time the bus arrives I have managed to feel relaxed, along with the overwhelming ceremony experience of the day of sights, sounds, fumes and powerful healing energy.
On day three Thay states that this is the most ever in Vietnam. An action of love to bring individuals, families and the nation into harmony and peace. The fans offer comfort from the heat and sitting close to so many. We are told that the knots of injustice are being untied for all beings. They are being offered the dharma, prayers and food. Thay offers prayers for all those who lost their precious body. That they will be healed in our consciousness, and that we will heal and not transmit habit energy of suffering to future generations. Thay helps the audience understand how to walk and breath as he does, with the energy of lightness and freedom. The dead have been invited to the temple to begin anew with us. Sister Chong Khong sings a song of beginning anew, teaching it to the audience and they sing along, many with tears in their eyes. I see people giving comfort to the one next to them. As fans wave, the screen inside project the crowd’s faces of regret, forgiveness and hope. Greed, anger, passion and ignorance are offered a chance of transformation during this mass beginning anew. Thay mentions that even the Communist party has admitted mistakes of taking land and killing so many, although they referred to it as a correction and not beginning anew. Everyone learns that once the mind is purified there is no trace of past unskillful ness, no guilt, no sin. Sitting in the spring breeze, teacher and students happy as a family. My body is tired, but my spirits are high.
After the ceremony, Cher and Crow a couple of Canadian filmmakers interview me as part of their collecting material for a wonderful film on spiritual activism throughout the world. They traveled as part of our sangha during segment one and are finishing the part of the filming about Thay and the sangha going to Vietnam at the conclusion of today’s ceremony. Other spiritually-engaged practices are also to be featured in their filmed scheduled for release in 2008. You can read more about what they are doing, an interview with Thay and some pictures at www.fiercelight.org.
Friday, March 16, 2007
Where have my loved ones, who died, gone, asks Thay. He suggests that one needs to look deeply to see that they are present in us. Just as a kernel of corn manifests as a new plant, and the cloud becomes the rain, then tea, our ancestors are continue on in us. If we are well, light and free in our mind and body, then so will the ancestors in us will be so, too. The crowd of several thousand was told that it is a wrong view to think that from being something becomes non-being. Understanding impermanence one can see that everything changes and transforms to a new manifestation. During the talk the power went out. After a few minutes of darkness and silence the monastics began to chant. For about five minutes the chanting continued until the power came on and the talk and ceremony continued. Our loved ones only change shape and form, taught Thay. The lesson of no coming, no going, no birth, no death. The 5-6 million that died unjustly during the war need the collective energy of the country to heal. All were solicited to set up a simple alter of rice soup and salt. During the 3 days all are asked to practice letting go, and speaking with love and kindness so that reconciliation can occur between us and our dead loved ones, and that their souls will be liberated.
After the ceremony my friend Ed found that his shoes were missing. Unfortunately these things happen with big crowds. I walked up and down the street in front of the temple looking for a shoe store but had no luck. Every taxi and many motorbikes wanted my business, but I just wanted to walk, even though it was so hot and muggy in Ho Chi Minh City. A sister found Ed a pair of plastic slippers. In the afternoon it was hot and humid in the temple, also. The sound of chanting echoes along with drums, cymbals, some kind of ethnic clarinet and bells. The air is thick with the strong smell of incense. An old man in a brown robe offers me a moment to use his fan to cool off; I wave it back and forth quickly. Into the afternoon, I see lay friends looking wilted and slowly pacing the temple hall. A continual flow of people proceed up to the alter in front of the 25 foot Buddha with their palms together, bowing, then touching the earth honoring their ancestors to the sounds of chanting and musicians.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
After the walk our western lay sangha conducted a 5 mindfulness trainings ceremony and 8 people took the trainings. Conducted by our lay dharma teacher Tony Mills and others, it was a very nice occasion in the Buddha hall. In the afternoon our sangha organized and conducted a very sweet tea ceremony. People offered gratitude, stories, poems and songs, to enjoy along with fresh tea, cookies and other treats. On the way over to the ceremony I saw the photographer and his assistant selling pictures that, amazingly, had been taken that morning. Looking through them I found this picture that looked like it could have been taken from on top of me. It was nice of him to offer it to me for free. Perhaps he recognized his footprints.
During the tea ceremony I sang a song and shared the story of the picture and turned around to show my muddy robe. The incident seemed like a metaphor for my experience with this international sangha; it's peaceful mostly, then at times like getting stepped on, as sometimes I perceive happiness from the others, and other times it seems less happy. I realize that it is my own mind causing me suffering and I have another opportunity to practice beginning anew with myself. We have been practicing as well as we can to go with constantly changing schedules, activities and locations. This is a beautiful pilgrimage with Thay. Fortunately the mud came off in the hotel bathroom sink.
Thursday, March 08, 2007
Monday, March 05, 2007
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Today was the last day of this most incredible first mindfulness retreat in Vietnam. It began with nearly a thousand taking the 5 mindfulness trainings. After breakfast came the Rose ceremony in honor of mothers. Thay reminded us to say something nice to make our mother happy, as she is a precious treasure. We could wear a red rose if she still is living and a white one if she is no longer living. If father is not living you can wear a second white flower. Up to 10,000 came for this ceremony and dedication to the monument for mother.
I was moved to see the local people practice so well, so quickly. Thay reminded parents that the most precious thing we can pass on to our children is our happiness. They don't learn from our lecture, but rather from our true way of living. Very skillfully Thay was able to inspire traditions of respect for ancestors and family.
Thay concluded the retreat stating that the purpose has been to generate reconcilliation and bring peace within the family. Participants learned deeply how to offer their true presence to loved ones. After the retreat they could continue to practice and build sangha. Participants were told how lucky they were to practice with the international western sangha friends. They were given the 3 mantras to allevate trouble in relationships: "dear one, I am angry and I want you to know it"; "Darling, I am trying my best"; and, "Please help me."
When Thay said we will now listen to the bell and enjoy our breathing I was so happy to see the difference four days of practice could bring. An attendee wrote a nice poem to Thay about having to wait many years to see you, and now as she sits in the breeze of the spring with her teacher is has great happiness. I too feel great happiness to have experienced this event. Now it is time to sleep, deeply.
Saturday, March 03, 2007
It is such a joy to experience the generous outpouring of love from the Vietnamese people here at Prajna. Today I was surrounded by children who proudly asked me, in their best English, what my name was, how am I, and my age. They'd shake my hand while their parent(s) beamed big smiles next to them. Others smiled and bowed, before posing for a picture. Almost everytime I look at someone,m young or old, they give me back a beaming smile, and often a bow. Many offer words in Vietnamese and I listen, then we both smile. I've managed to be in the right restroom and not had any major embarrassment that I know of. Often the westerners are hugged and having their pictures taken.
Early this morning 77 aspirants went through their ordination ceremony. A lock of hair was cut off during the ceremony, then afterwards they went outside with their parents and had the rest cut off. It was emotional to ordinees and parents, with tears, and likely mixed feelings, and they offered their life to serve others in such a compassionate way.
Our westerner group is practicing well for themselves and the mission. Still there are physical aches and pains. I've had them come and go myself. Despite everything, this trip is wonderful. A mission of love and peace. When we think the bus rides, changing schedules, crowds and so on are difficult, we can take solice that we're not one of the thousand people sleeping side-by-side in the temple; who are gotten up before 4 am so the hall can be readied for sitting meditation. A couple of quotes that give understanding in these situations: "the schedule is a back-up plan for when something else isn't happening"; "inconveniences are transformable."
Thay's talk and answers to questions are often very direct and playful. "In America, many teachers have shared the mindfulness practice with students; that that the teachers will not have to suffer so much." "Let your smile be genuine, let it come from your heart. Do not offer others an Ambassador's smile." The majestic dharma treasure is being polished and practiced so that suffering in the body and mind can be transformed. I'm reminded that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
Other pictures I've posted can be see at www.flickr.com\photos\rezdog.
Friday, March 02, 2007
2500 people registered retreatants are at the lay retreat in Prajna Monastery. Another 2000 to 3000 commute for the dharma talks and meals. The first retreat Thay has been able to offer the people of Vietnam. It is an incredible act of love to be present for.