Touching Peace – A trip to Israel – April 2010
(Sr. Hanh Nghiem, T Phap Lai, T Phap Thanh, Sr. Thai Nghiem)
Article by Sr. Thai Nghiem
Before we left to Israel, as we were saying goodbye to Thay, Thay asked us to go there for him. When we where there, people told us that they were happy to receive Thay and his teachings through us and that they could feel Thay in us. I felt lucky that people’s love for Thay touched us too. At times I felt embarrassed and unworthy to receive it, but since Thay asked us to go for him, I knew that love and gratitude we were receiving it for Thay. The support of Thay, sister Chan Khong and the Sangha, was a blessing for me, a source of courage and joy. I felt protected by an energy that was bigger than me, that was carrying me.
A trip, especially a teaching trip, doesn’t start with the flight or train ride of course, it starts with the intention and preparation of the local Sangha and the Sangha in Plum Village, with our daily life practice and with communicating with each other and as in this case, with an invitation for us to come and share the practice. I feel that it is a fruit and a seed both at the same time, an evolvement rather than a separate event.
For me the trip also started with translating anew some sutras and the texts of the 14 and the revised 5 Mindfulness Trainings – translating can be challenging but at the same time enjoyable and enriching, because every word gets attention, the meaning of words and thoughts is sharpened, and with it my own understanding of the language and of course of the practice and of the intention of the author. It is a process, and I was happy that there were friends in Israel who willingly helped with this work.
I did not think about the various things I was doing in preparation as anything special, I just did it as a natural flow of what was happening. It was only when people told me they appreciated my efforts in translating and organizing things and that they can see that it is in my heart, that I realized that it was true, that this trip and its success, naturally, was important for me, and I willingly and happily made an effort to contribute my part.
As we sat together with the organizers of the retreat before it started, some people said that they would rather hear and speak the Dharma in English, even if their English is not so good, because it is easier for them to accept it this way because it is more distant for them, it does not carry the complications of the emotional charge that your mother tongue has, and any way, they said, people need “a break” from the harsh reality, some fresh wind from the “outside”. For them, so they said, the retreat is as if Plum Village came to visit them, being an island of peace, and part of it is speaking the Dharma in English. I could see that tendency in some people and I can see that this could be true for them. I myself can feel how sometimes experiences can become more intense in my own language and home environment, and how old habits reclaim their strength. However I wanted to bring this fresh wind, these new good habits that we yearn for in the local language, from “the inside”. Because when the Dharma is translated into our mother tongue it goes much deeper, we have to rub against it through the language, and we have to touch our own roots through it, which makes it more real and valid in our life and less of some kind of an exotic experience. Then the words really come to life as entities with power that you can have a real relationship with. It may please you, inspire you, irritate you (if the translation is not good or if it is something you don’t want to hear…) – it’s alive. This was my personal experience, so I trusted that it would work for others.
By the end of the retreat it felt more natural to speak the Dharma in the local tongue, and there was a special request made to translate more books of Thay into Hebrew, by “real practitioners”. Some people promised to help with finding a way to publish and with the work of translation itself. I promise to do my best to take this request on and be part of this ongoing process. For me that was a good sign that the practice is seen not as something out there, in Plum Village or in a retreat place, but as a real part of life that can and should be applied to any reality and help to transform it.
Home visit, the desert
We started the visit with a few days with my family. It was the holyday of Passover, a special time of the year. It was good to have my parents and family meet with the brothers and sisters and the other way around – bringing parts of my life that are important to me together, and deepening the relationships. One of the first things we did was to visit a creek in the desert. There was a lot of rain the day before we arrived and so there were floods in the desert, and we could see the flood water still streaming down the valley. The desert soil is a kind of clay, and so does not absorb water. Therefore the water collects in creeks and accumulates into a flood. We walked in the water and benefited from the fresh air and peacefulness of the dessert.
When sister Hanh Nghiem asked me what is my favourite town in Israel I said “the desert”… Whenever I go there I feel like I could stay there forever. If I don’t visit the desert for more than one year I feel that something is missing. I feel that the desert is very inclusive, and it has a sense of vastness, of space and of silence. We visited the desert one more time when we went to the dead sea. It was very crowded there because of the Passover holyday, but it still felt that there is enough space for everyone. The silence of the desert makes everything seem peaceful to me. And the desert sun – you can not bargain with it, you have to be humble and careful, the interdependence of humans and the elements (especially water…) becomes very clear.
In the desert I feel at home.
I had a chance to meet my siblings and my nieces and nephew. It was joyful, as always, especially it being a holyday. They all ask questions about my life as a nun, because it is still something strange to them. I am happy that they ask, especially the young ones, and I was also happy to have the presence of my sister and brothers there when questions were asked. I myself don’t always have the best answers.
A Peace Walk
We had one event that took place in a public space - that was a small peace walk with the Sangha in Jerusalem. We walked in a promenade where Palestinians and Jews – religious and non-religious, spend their free time. And because it was a holyday, it was especially populated with people of all ages, children on bikes, and dogs. At some point there was even a wedding going on there, and we could hear the singing. It all seemed to mix together well. And to add to that mixture, there were us – four Buddhist monks and nuns and friends, walking slowly. Once in a while there were children on bikes passing us by, and when they saw our group blocking the path, they just got off their bikes and carried them around us without saying anything. Some children asked – “why are they walking so slow?” and some people looked at us a bit funny but we didn’t mind, so they didn’t mind either. There were also those who were interested to know what we are doing. It seems so simple to create peace with such a small act.
Earlier that day we visited “Yad Vashem”, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem (literally meaning “a memorial and a name”, a quote from Isaiah). We spent about two hours in the main exhibition there. After spending two hours there I felt that it was enough for me, and that the other exhibitions will have to wait for another time. For me it was not the first visit, for the others it was their first time there. The visit in “Yad Vashem” can be a subject for a whole new article. For now I would just say that the visit was a meditation, a time of touching deep emotions, and a time of deep reflections, sometimes beyond words. It is an experience that touches the core of our being.
Days of Mindfulness
We had two days of mindfulness in Neve Shalom – Wahat el Salam (the meaning of the name is “Oasis of Peace”, it is a small village where Palestinians and Israelis choose to live together), one of them was a “wake up” day for young adults. Both were during Passover, when traditionally bread is not served, only matza, a kind of dry, big cracker. There are some other food restrictions and normal cakes and cookies are replaces with special ones for Passover. Never the less there was so much food offered – each person brought something to share, and it was all so tasty and healthy. There were about 60 people for the day of mindfulness, both experienced practitioners and new ones.
We were very happy to have about 20 young people for the wake up day, most of them quite new to the practice. It was the first time we had a young-adults day in Israel. It seemed like a friend brought a friend, and that is how a nice group of people came together. We had a good time together and hopefully there will be more active members of the “Wake Up” movement in Israel.
Going up to the North
I enjoyed very much the Middle Eastern food and the fruits of the land. When we went up to the north, were the five days retreat took place, we met with Sameye, a friend of ours. She is Palestinian and she took us to visit some Palestinian villages in Israel. We took the opportunity to buy bags of fruit which we enjoyed for the next few days.
Sameye invited us to spend an evening with a group of Palestinian women (Israeli citizens) from the area where she lives. The evening had to be cancelled at the last minute, because the families of the women (who are Muslim) feared the encounter with what they see as a foreign “religion” (meaning Buddhism) that according to their perception does not believe in one God. We were all sad to hear that. Sameye works with groups of Palestinians, and her main work is to empower them, giving them tools to grow, especially as members of a society which is a minority in Israel and is often oppressed. This is especially true with women. Also, we know that Sameye would like to start her own little Sangha to support her practice and to be an island of the practice in her society and it was our wish to support that. Although the evening was cancelled we still wanted to meet with Sameye, which we did. She walked us around some of the villages se works in, doing her work for social change. So many people stopped to greet her, with such joy and warmth. That is how we learned that she is a kind of a bodhisattva. Sameye took the time to show us the area and to explain the difficulties and discrimination the Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer from, as well as the cultural and identity crisis they are going through. We also just walked around and went into shops and I noticed she was quite pleased with it. When I asked her about it, she said that if the evening of practice was not made possible this time, at least she can “show us around”, and because of our robes, people will approach her and ask questions, which is just the kind of an initial exposure to the practice she hoped for. She was pleased because it worked, people did ask and she was able to share a bit, knowing that a personal impression we make is quite different from ideas people may have about us. We, of course, were happy to co-operate.
I was grateful that we could spend time with her in her home neighborhood and get to know her life and the life of the society she lives in from a closer view point. I was moved and learned a lot from her fighter spirit, her patience, faith and wisdom of transforming disappointment into hope and joy.
Because there were four of us, and maybe because of spring time, I felt that the days of mindfulness and the retreat were joyful. Of course people always bring in their own suffering, and we do to, but it was held by the joy and mindfulness that we had and so had a chance to begin to transform. For me it was also nice to see some old friends as well as get to know new people. It felt cozy, even if my nun form is still, a little bit, something we all need to get used to. I do not wish my form to be an obstacle to my relationship with people, so the best way for me is to be just who I am, while knowing that the robes, the form, do represent something – the precepts, my teacher, our community and my own path and practice.
There was only one time that we separated from the brothers, only for one day, and even that seemed like it was too much for some of us. We enjoyed being together and it feels like this experience we had together was bonding. Of course there were moments when we wished someone would just stop talking a little bit, or we got a bit tired, but that was fine, there was space for that too and for being grumpy once in a while. “Disagreements are not clashes and differences are not a conflict” – I read this sentence in a book and felt it in our togetherness. When we came back, we found time to get together and talk about the trip, water each others flowers and in a way celebrate the fruits of our efforts and time spent together – because of course the trip doesn’t end with the landing of the plane just as it doesn’t start with the taking off of a plane.
When we were walking in the streets, on the beach and in other places, there would always be someone who would ask us who we are and what do we do, and most had positive reactions. The brothers were called “father” a few times, especially in the Palestinian areas.
Throughout our visit, when it came to the retreat and other organized practice events, I tried not to stick out too much. To begin with, it is not so much in my nature to put myself in the front unless I need to. I was happy to share the practice but I did not want to overdo it. People did engage me of course, and also sometimes felt easier to come to me than to the other monastics with all kinds of matters, me being an Israeli and speaking Hebrew, and I was happy about that. In Hebrew there is a saying (from the bible) – “there is no prophet in his/her hometown.” I don’t know if I am a prophet or not, but I do look sort of different and have a different life style from most people, and Israel is sort of my “hometown”, so in a way I was trying to feel the ground, to see how far can I go, for myself and others. I feel that it all worked out well, especially for someone who is young in the Dharma like myself and in a culture that does not have a monastic tradition (as such). All together being in my home land and speaking Hebrew, being with my family and friends and being able to bring in the practice, was a grounding experience for me.
The Retreat – “Touching Peace”
The main event of our visit was a five day retreat in the north of Israel, just above the Sea of Galilee, called “Touching Peace”. We arrived there a day earlier. Our rooms were well prepared and there was food left for us there. We had one free day before the retreat which we took to discuss some things and to go for a walk in the beautiful canyon just below the Kibbutz took place. It is a beautiful canyon whit eagles nesting above it. Touching the nature around the place I am at (and we were very lucky to be in a place where nature was so close and so spectacular) always helps me to feel more at ease, grounded and nourished. The evening before the retreat we were offered dinner at the dining hall. It is a big dining hall that can host a few hundred people, but we were there all by ourselves – just the four of us, getting a special service from the Chef who made sure that we are getting the right vegetarian food and explained to us about the food. He is originally from Russia, and explained that the main dish he made for us was a traditional dish eaten by the monks in Russia during the period of lent (since it is vegetarian).
For the retreat, we were able to create a schedule that was light and rich at the same time. We could rely a lot on the help of the local Sangha, which helped us to feel at ease. It seems that the mentality in Israel is more communal than the European one for example, and so it is easier for people to do things together, and to combine efforts. For example people naturally practice car pooling. That makes it also easier for us, because we know we can count on people to show up and help.
We designed a schedule that we ourselves would enjoy – every day ended with sitting meditation, and we had walking meditation twice a day! We also had deep relaxation almost every day. We were able to have two Dharma sharing sessions and one tea meditation. For a five day retreat we did quite a bit, including transmissions of the 5 MTs and the 14 MTs (which were transmitted in Israel for the first time). Yet people wanted to have more sharing – they find it helpful to be sharing in a calm and embracing environment. I guess we all do.
During the retreat it was clear that people were very open and interested to receive the practice, each in his or her way, and all in the Israeli way, which means asking a lot of questions, not taking things for granted and also relaxed and rarely starting on time…
It was not easy to convince some people to practice no talking while walking, because people really like to discuss things and they were happy to see and talk to each other, but we did not give up, and tried to find creative ways to support the practice.
People in Israel have a very engaged way of conducting a conversation and we all like to express our views about this and that. When we had a Questions and Answers session, there was one topic that became a bit “hot” (“to bow or not to bow?”). People moved from asking questions to sharing their views. One after the other they raised their hand to “just share something”. To me it seemed to be a deep, lively discussion, and I could feel that sr. Hanh n. was enjoying it too somehow. However the the discussion did get a it long and it wasn’t clear if it was going to naturally end soon… There was also the possibility that some people still may have had other questions they wanted to ask. So finally, after allowing just “one more person” to share, brother Phap Lai asked firmly “can we end here? Can we change the subject now?” people were just as enthusiastic in expressing their agreement as they were in expressing their views.
I myself see how a good, deep, mindful discussion can help to uncover wounds and painful issues, touch them and possibly start a process of healing. I feel that it is especially true in Israel, where people are so willing to share and discuss, and are very open to a group process.
During the retreat, On Friday evening, we had a “Kabalat Shabat” service – a traditional service to greet the Sabbath day (Saturday). Together we light candles and blessed the fruit of the vine by drinking grape juice (instead of the traditional sweet wine). We set in a circle and many traditional Sabbath songs were sang. It was joyful, warm, uplifting and inclusive. The service went a bit longer than planned, so the evening program had to be adjusted a bit, but everyone seemed happy. I myself was also happy. I like “Kabalat Shabat”, its warmth and joy that is magically mixed with sadness. I also like the specific way we sing Sabbath songs, which is very soulful. It seems to me, whenever I take part in it, that through this kind of Sabbath service it is easy to transcend mundane worries, to transcend the little self, being carried and transported by the energy of the Holy Sabbath and of being together in it. I was also happy that the practice of mindfulness could be combined with the Jewish tradition in this way. I do not wish that the practice of mindfulness will be separate from the local tradition or that there would be a contradiction there. I wish that when conditions will be sufficient for the practice to come to more Christian and Muslim Palestinians, the same would happen there, and that the practice will be introduces with respect to the local tradition.
At the end of the retreat many people came to our rooms which were close to where the meditation hall was and to where everything was happening to say goodbye, even though we already said goodbye earlier in the hall. It seemed like they felt a lot of gratitude and wanted to express it somehow, so they came to us. It looked like it was not easy for some of them to leave, and as if they are trying to catch a few more moments of the retreat atmosphere that they could take with them to their home, into their daily life.
To me, growing up in Israel, I think that in our practice people can find a space in which there is no need to talk and discuss so much and in which everybody and everything is embraced by the practice, by something that is bigger than all the disputes and fractions and bigger than ideas or thoughts. It is also a way to start touching peace inside.
After the retreat, we went to visit Jerusalem for the last time. This time we wanted to visit the old city and the holy places in it. I was very tired that day but did not want to miss the chance to go there with my brothers and sister (and to get some last minute gifts). We had a good day together and by the end of he day I felt much better. Some Sangha members joined us and we also had a chance to meet Palestinian friends who live in Jerusalem and who are friends of brother Phap Thanh’s family in Germany. It was good to meet with them, as they were kind and friendly, and to get from them a touch of the reality from a Palestinian point of view.
At some point Sr. Hanh Nghiem and I walked through the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem (the other quarters are the Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters). I have been there many times before, but this time it felt like people were tense and we were not quite sure what is going on. We both experienced that. We passed through a famous sweet shop to get “knafee” – a sort of Arab cake served warm from a round pan, one of our favourite local dishes. There again the people looked quite serious.
Later in the evening we came back there to buy some oriental cakes as a gift to the Sangha in Plum Village (and to get another bite of “knafee” of course…). The Israeli Sangha gave us some money they had wanted us to use to buy gifts. As we were leaving the place, Sr. Hanh Nghiem thought of asking the shop keeper “How was your day?” at first it seemed like he wasn’t sure what she was asking and still looked serious. She asked again to make it clear and then finally he smiled and said “good, why should it not be? Everything went well today.” We were so happy to see him smiling and realizing that he had a good day. Perhaps he just forgot to smile, which happens to all of us sometimes.
On the last day of our trip we went to the ancient city of Beth Lehem – in the West Bank.
We met with Sami Awad – A Christian Palestinian, and his colleagues in the “Holy Land Trust” - a Palestinian organization working for and advocating non-violence, inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. The first part of the day was spent in their office. It was a good exchange - they shared about their world view and their work and we shared the practice with them. They said that they practice meditation once a week in their office.
I was impressed by what seemed to me to be a good team of young, inspired, open-hearted, energetic people that seem to have a good team spirit and mutual respect for each other. We hope that this visit will help to create a future connection between Plum Village and the people of Beth Lehem, especially the workers of the “Holy Land Trust”.
It was good to hear from Sami about his personal process of realizing that an important part of developing a non-violent approach is to make steps towards understanding the “other side” in the conflict, in his case, the Israelis and the Jewish people.
Their work has a large scope and involves acitivities in many different areas. That includes an independent news agency based on local reporters located all over the West Bank; A travel agency that actually engages in ancounter programs, having visitors to the West Bank get in touch with local people and visit their homes; A leadership training program which includes deep listening sessions; various social work programs in cities and villages in the West Bank.
We spent the second part of the visit walking in Beth Lehem. We first visited to the Nativity Church and then had a chance to see a refugee camp, where Palestinians who had to leave/were deported from their villages during the war in 1948 still live – third and four generations of those refugee families. They live in houses and are free to leave, but find it difficult to do so due to their poor financial conditioned. They are still supported by the UN.
We also had a chance to see the separation wall built recently by the Israeli government to separate Israel from the West Bank, as what they see as a “security measure”. It is about eight meters high and, because of its arbitrary location, in some places cuts right through some areas and streets inhabited by Palestinians, causing a significant amount of suffering there. It was not a pleasant thing to witness, especially it being in my own country, but not something I wish to avoid seeing either, because I could see it as the people who live right by it see it, not just as a news item and so get a better grasp of its meaning and consequences.
In Beth Lehem, as anywhere else during our trip, we were greeted with kindness and friendliness by our hosts.
The trip to Israel also gave me a chance to learn more about how to organize a retreat and I am making my own check list now. I suppose an important part of the check list would be “trust” – trust that the Dharma will work, for us and for others. I feel that during this trip we all had that trust and that was part of our joy.
There is a lot more I could write, because so much more happened, but the article is getting long, so I will conclude here.
To end, I would like to take the opportunity to thank my family and the friends in Israel for their great hospitality.
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Last Updated (Friday, 21 May 2010 09:57)