In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation has asked a few inspiring lay Plum Village women to share a little about their work and stories for our mahasangha.
Thầy, Sister Chan Khong and many other Plum Village monastics have made revolutionary changes for nuns in Plum Village, creating for them equal status, voice and influence to that of monks. Read about the major innovations for nuns in the Plum Village community.
“Martin, in Vietnam, we speak of you as a bodhisattva [...] an enlightened being trying to awaken other living beings and help them go in the direction of compassion and understanding.” Thich Nhat Hanh spoke these words to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at one of their last meetings. A few years earlier, in a letter nominating Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize, King said, “I know Thich Nhat Hanh, and am privileged to call him my friend.”
As the sangha prepares for Lunar New Year celebrations, Thay’s health remains remarkably stable. His mind is still very lucid, and he continues to receive Eastern treatment and acupuncture, go outside, and pay respect to ancestors.
Dear Thay, dear friends,
Tết, or the Lunar New Year, is upon us!
Tết is the biggest celebration in Vietnam, the birthplace of our Plum Village tradition. It is an opportunity to enjoy being with family and friends, to share food, blessings, songs and poetry. Tết is a wonderful moment to pause and appreciate the love and togetherness that exists in our lives, and look deeply at how we can bring more compassion toward our families and friendships.
To help us cultivate this love, we can use the tradition of practicing with parallel verses, or "couplets." In preparation for the Lunar New Year, Plum Village monastics all around the world print these calligraphies and display them around the dining halls, meditation halls and living quarters. You are warmly invited to do the same in your own homes for inspiration during Tết and throughout the year.
This year, we practice with the following parallel verses:
To practice these verses, we can combine them with our breathing. For example, we can contemplate "Harmony in our home" as we breathe in, and contemplate "Joy in the world" as we breathe out. These words are not a declaration, but a living aspiration we wish to nurture.
Meditation on Compassion
As part of our practice this year with these parallel verses, when difficulties arise, we can remember Thay's teaching on cultivating a mind of compassion and harmony in the home.
Love is a mind that brings peace, joy, and happiness to another person. Compassion is a mind that removes the suffering that is present in the other. We all have the seeds of love and compassion in our minds, and we can develop these fine and wonderful sources of energy. We can nurture the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return and therefore does not lead to anxiety and sorrow.
The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves "inside the skin" of the other. We "go inside" their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the object of our observation. When we are in contact with another's suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, "to suffer with."
When we observe deeply in this way, the fruit of our meditation will naturally transform into some kind of action. We will not just say, "I love him very much," but instead, "I will do something so that he will suffer less." The mind of compassion is truly present when it is effective in removing another person's suffering.
We have to find ways to nourish and express our compassion. When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express the mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable. Then we can know that our mind of compassion is firm and authentic. We ourselves will be more at ease, and the person who has been the object of our meditation will also benefit eventually. His suffering will slowly diminish, and his life will gradually be brighter and more joyful as a result of our compassion.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step
To download this year's parallel verses in English or Vietnamese, click here.
Our dear Teacher has been at Từ Hiếu Root Temple now for two months, with many of our elders, including Sister Chan Khong, Brother Phap An and a team of monastic attendants. Thay is doing well, his eyes as bright and lucid as ever. Even in the heavy rains, Thay visits the tomb of his teacher everyday, sometimes three times in the day.
Hearing from our larger community is one of the greatest joys for staff and volunteers at the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. We feel that cultivating an ever deeper understanding of our community’s needs and interests is instrumental to our work serving monastic and lay practitioners. This past spring, over eight hundred Foundation supporters shared written thoughts with us and answered our survey questions. We are immensely grateful for your assistance in guiding our aspirations and understanding our collective priorities.
Below are some of the major themes we heard from your responses this spring, along with a summary of how we combined your responses, the monastics’ guidance, and a consensus planning approach to set the Foundation’s direction for the coming years.
There was strong agreement that the Foundation should continue to focus on taking care of our monastics and our practice centers, bringing the Dharma out to the community, and helping young people and marginalized groups touch the Dharma. Your top priorities were:
1. Support for the monastics, including monastic health care.
“Make sure your monastics are fully supported to live and practice. This is the basis of the sangha and draws others to your centers and keeps them vibrant.”
“I believe EVERY monastic should have good ongoing health care insurance regardless of passport origin or current location.”
2. Support for the practice centers.
“Keeping the meditation centers strong so people can learn this practice and have wonderful experiences.”
“Maintaining the existing Practice Centers and the monks, nuns, and lay people who live and/or help out there.”
“Being able to attend a dharma talk or program led by very experienced teachers.”
3. Dharma outreach and Sangha building, particularly for youth, urban, and underserved communities.
“Dharma sharing programs that reach diverse groups including Wake Up, sanghas of color, etc.”
“Helping bring the teaching outside of the echo chamber of existing practitioners and to new and more inaccessible communities.”
“Connecting to communities who don’t have awareness or access to practical mindful practice. Through public service, social media, community outreach.”
4. Online access to Dharma talks and teachings.
“Supporting lay practitioners by providing audio and video teachings.”
“A long-term goal of teaching and spreading mindfulness over several generations through personal contact and online content.”
5. Humanitarian relief.
“Humanitarian aid, children in particular.”
6. World peace through sharing of our practice.
“World peace through training in mindfulness & compassion.”
Additionally, many of you shared the deep transformation you and your communities have experienced thanks to Thay’s teachings, our monastics, and our Dharma Teachers:
“My heart opens softly always when I watch, listen or read Thay’s words. I don’t know how to adequately express his impact and enduring mark on me.”
“Help keep the community going so others can experience the healing that I have experienced through this community.”
“It is medicine needed in our world today. The practice has helped me so much in my life.”
Vision Plan for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation
In April, the TNHF Board gathered to assess what we heard from our community and to set the Foundation’s direction for the next several years. We are fortunate to have on our board senior monastics from all three U.S. practice centers, and volunteers experienced in the practice and in lay skills related to the Foundation’s work. Our Board met for three days and in our planning journey we gained a stronger understanding of how best to realize our mission.
Several board members with professional experience in strategic planning guided us through our visioning, as monastics helped us apply their suggestions to be true to Thay’s teachings. We enjoyed transforming our first step in strategic planning, known as situation analysis, into “stopping and looking deeply.” Strategic planning concepts like goal setting and strategy development transformed into exercises in “intention setting” and “finding an appropriate path.” These exercises gave us all a deeper understanding of each other and of how we can work in harmony to support the community.
Through our vision planning, the Foundation Board set the following aspirations for the next three years:
1. Aware that our monastics are the foundation of the Plum Village tradition and the monasteries serve as an important place of refuge and transformation, we aspire to secure and develop the monastic practice centers to meet the needs of the growing monastic and lay community.
2. Aware of the inter-being nature of the health of our monastics, ourselves, and our society, we aspire to provide for the health and wellbeing of our monastics.
3. Aware that true community is rooted in inclusiveness, we aspire to offer Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village teachings to a wide and diverse audience, nurture a “beloved community,” and realize collective awakening.
4. Aware of the suffering caused by the economic, political, social and environmental realities around the world and the great need for teachers to help illuminate a path of happiness, peace, compassion, and solidity for our society, we aspire to facilitate the support and development of monastic and lay Dharma teachers.
5. Aware that we are cells in one Sangha body, we aspire to continue to build brotherhood and sisterhood, understanding, and harmony by expanding communications and growing relationships within our collective Plum Village community.
Our board and staff will be using these aspirations and the vision plan to guide our operational plans for the next three years. The board will keep our aspirations fresh by reviewing them regularly and as conditions change.
As our dear Thay has said “Happiness is knowing you are on the right path.” The board and staff feel that happiness and we feel the support and trust of our community.
Thank you for your practice and thank you for being on this path with us.
Thay’s letter to his brothers, sisters and descendants, on dwelling in his Root Temple for the remainder of his days.
After spending time recuperating in San Francisco in 2015, and then from January to December 2016 at home in Plum Village in France, Thay requested to travel to Thailand, to join his monastic students at our large monastery near Khao Yai National Park. Since that time, Thay has been nourished by the joy and youthfulness of over two hundred monastics at Thai Plum Village. In the warm and tropical climate, and surrounded by his young students, Thay has been able to continue on his path of healing, while also offering his presence to support his beloved young community’s strength and growth. In Thailand Thay has the opportunity to receive world-class healthcare from both Eastern and Western specialists. We are deeply grateful to Thay’s “doctors sangha” who have been caring for Thay with immense generosity, love and respect; and also to all the many specialists in acupuncture and oriental medicine who have offered their skills and expertise.
For me, there is no happiness without freedom, and freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. I will share with you how we get greater freedom for ourselves. During the time that we sit, walk, eat, or work outside, we cultivate our freedom. Freedom is what we practice every day.
No matter how or where you find yourself, if you have freedom, you are happy. I have many friends who spent time in forced labor camps and because they knew how to practice, they did not suffer as greatly. In fact, they grew in their spiritual lives, for which I am very proud of them.
By freedom I mean freedom from afflictions, from anger, and from despair. If you have anger in you, you have to transform anger in order to get your freedom back. If there is despair in you, you need to recognize that energy and not allow it to overwhelm you. You have to practice in such a way that you transform the energy of despair and attain the freedom you deserve - the freedom from despair.
The Cedar Society is a path for practitioners to offer stable, long-term funding support for the Plum Village community through planned legacy gifts. When Thay was a young monk in Vietnam, he trained thirteen young people to help support and root the Buddha’s teachings during the war. He called them the “thirteen cedars,” choosing the cedar’s strength and solidity for inspiration. The Foundation’s bequest giving program is a legacy of the original thirteen cedars, whose deeply engaged practice continues to inspire our community.
Jeffrey Johnson, Fearless Surrender of the Heart, is a Cedar Society member who practices with the True Names Sangha in Baltimore, Maryland and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax in Virginia. He offers these reflections on his legacy gift.
If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.
Life patiently waits for true heroes. It is dangerous when those aspiring to be heroes cannot wait until they find themselves. When aspiring heroes have not found themselves, they are tempted to borrow the world’s weapons – money, fame, and power – to fight their battles. These weapons cannot protect the inner life of the hero. To cope with his fears and insecurities, the premature hero has to stay busy all the time. The destructive capacity of nonstop busyness rivals nuclear weapons and is as addictive as opium. It empties the life of the spirit. False heroes find it easier to make war than deal with the emptiness in their own souls. They may complain about never having time to rest, but the truth is, if they were given time to rest, they would not know what to do. People today do not know how to rest. They fill their free time with countless diversions. People cannot tolerate even a few minutes of unoccupied time. They have to turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, reading anything at all, even the advertisements. They constantly need something to look at, listen to, or talk about, all to keep the emptiness inside from rearing its terrifying head.
Our parents play an important role in our lives. Whether they are still alive or have passed away, whether we have a good relationship with them, difficult relationship with them, or no relationship at all, strengthening our relationship with the people who gave us life can be a nourishing and healing practice.
In order to help us cultivate our understanding, love, and gratitude for our mothers, our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote A Rose for Your Pocket. In recognition of Mother's day, we hope this writing will lead you to a new and deeper appreciation of your mother whether she is still alive or has passed away. For those of us who have a challenging relationship with our mother, we may instead use this reflection to develop a deeper appreciation for our father, a teacher, or another loved one who has been a positive figure in our life.
When we met for our first Mindful Cooking potluck, we never imagined we were starting a practice that would continue for nine years and beyond. Apparently, we have evolved a format that meets a need and keeps people coming.
We began as a small group of sangha members who were inspired by Thay's 2007 call to move to a plant-based diet for the sake of the Earth. After several months of e-mailing recipes to each other, we met for a potluck in my garden. We gathered around the food table and read the Five Contemplations together. When our plates were filled, we settled ourselves in a circle and took turns telling our food stories, going around the circle, and being sure to hear from everyone. The result was a fascinating, surprisingly deep conversation.
To be alive with this awareness is to practice being an Earth Holder. Breathing in, I am aware of all the trees and plants that offer me oxygen. Breathing out, I am aware that I offer the gift of carbon dioxide to the trees and plants as well. We interare. In fact, it is not possible to be separate.
A single breath can bring me to the realization of interbeing. As Thay teaches us, it only takes one breath to come back to ourselves. In this case, the first breath helps me be aware that I am a part of the Great Bodhisattva Earth. In the next breath, I can ask myself, “What will I do with this precious moment, this day, or this life to support my Mother Earth?”
The role of an OI member is to build Sangha. But you don’t have to be an OI member to start building a Sangha. How do we build Sangha? The manuals for Sangha building say that we need a bell, a vase of flowers, cushions and chairs, the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and some of Thay’s books. We learn how to give simple instructions on mindful breathing, sitting and walking meditation. But when we get caught in form, structure and guidelines, the practice can’t be as fresh, gentle and alive. We are unable to create safe space for nurturing brotherhood and sisterhood, which is the essence of a true Sangha. When we build Sangha, we build a new culture – the culture of mindfulness and love.