Sitting Still Hut, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village
July 20, 2009
To my students in Bat Nha, Tu Hieu and everywhere,
Thay is sitting at “Sitting Still Hut,” in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village while writing this letter to you. The Summer Retreat in Plum Village is very joyful and peaceful. There is economic difficulty in the world, but the number of people coming to Plum Village during the four weeks is still very high, and perhaps it is higher than the previous years. Not only are there many children, but the teenagers from age 13 to 18 are also numerous. The number of young adults from 18 to 25 is also quite high. Each age group practices together, having Dharma discussions and eating dinner together, in order to share their practice experiences with each other and to build brotherhood and sisterhood. The Wake Up movement for the young Western friends is also growing quickly. Have you seen the Wake Up T-shirts? There are many young people coming to Plum Village yearly; they are used to the way of life and practice in Plum Village, so they are able to help those who just come for the first time. On the morning of July 16th, 2009, in the New Hamlet, Brother Phap Trien displayed for the first time the wrist-watch bearing the sign of the present moment. This watch was designed by our young monks in the Upper Hamlet, with Thay’s calligraphy: ”It’s now.” Anytime we raise our hands to look at our watch, it will let us know that this is the present moment. There is a design for men and a design for women. That same day, 150 people came to the bookshop to buy the watch. One lay practitioner clicked his tongue and said, “This is really a brilliant idea.” We call it “the watch of the present moment.” Brother Phap Trien was one of the two young monks who helped Thay to design this watch. The other was Brother Phap Chieu, who is also very young, and who will receive the lamp transmission at the end of this year! This watch is made in the United States.
There were up to 800 lay friends who came to the third week of the Summer Retreat, representing about 50 countries in the world. Including permanent residents, right now we have over 1000 people in the four hamlets. Yet it is very peaceful and calm. Everyone is happy to do walking meditation to the hillside of New Hamlet, to the forest of Lower Hamlet, and to do sitting meditation under the oak trees of Upper Hamlet, looking in the direction of the Lower Mountain Hamlet. The Pure Land is no longer a notion; it becomes a reality during those walking and sitting meditation sessions. Children as well as adults are able to dwell in the present moment. Yesterday while giving the Dharma talk, Thay saw a mother listening to the Dharma talk and breast-feeding her child at the same time; both mother and child were clearly happy. In the Asian culture, it is not yet acceptable for a mother to listen to the Dharma talk while breast-feeding her child, because people will think that it is not respectful enough of an expression towards the Dharma. But Thay thinks that this is an environment for Applied Buddhism – the child, while receiving her mother’s nutritious milk for her body, can also benefit from the peaceful and calm atmosphere of the meditation hall as spiritual food. To Thay, this is a beautiful image. We don’t know if our camera brother or sister had a chance to video it or not. During the four weeks, even though the monastic and long-term practitioners had to invest a lot of time and mind-power to guide and care for our lay friends, all of us felt happy about the lay friends’ happiness. The transformation and joy of our lay friends are the substances that nourish the happiness of our permanent residents. Having the opportunity to bring happiness to others is the aspiration of spiritual practitioners, and we, teacher and students, have this opportunity at Plum Village, Deer Park, Blue Cliff, and everywhere else. Thay envisions clearly that in the future, every country must have many practice centers like Plum Village in order to accommodate the growing need to practice of the people. The Dharma teachers whom we are training will have the responsibility to establish practice centers like that everywhere in the future. Our aim is not to transmit the teachings; neither is it to obtain more Buddhist followers. Our aim is to establish practice environments, so that everyone has a chance to come to practice, transforming their suffering and learning how to live with more happiness. We never want lay practitioners to deny their cultural and spiritual roots. On the contrary, we always encourage them to come back to clear the stream of their traditions.
“Worrying back and forth”
We have learned a lot from what has happened to Prajna Monastery during the past months. Thay has received many letters from those of you at Prajna these last few weeks. You tell me many stories, but there is no letter that doesn’t have the phrase: “Dear Thay, please don’t worry about us.” Your statement means that: Dear Thay, we are not worried about ourselves, but we are worried that you are worried about us! If Thay is worried, then Thay will get sick and it will spoil everything. Therefore, Thay is writing this letter to let you know: Thay is not worried about you, so don’t be worried about Thay. Don’t “worry back and forth.” Each side only needs to behave beautifully, doing our part, and that is enough! Is that message clear, my dear children?
Thay is not worried about you, but it does not mean that Thay is not paying attention to you. Thay pays attention to you every day, every hour, and every minute. Thay is not worried about you because Thay has confidence in you. Thay has the confidence that you can behave true to the Dharma in challenging and difficult circumstances. And you have proven that you can do it. And because of that, Thay’s confidence in you has grown quickly. This brings so much happiness both to Thay and to you.
In the old times, your Grandfather Teacher Thanh Quy [Thay’s root teacher] never told Thay that he loved Thay or that he had confidence in Thay. That was the way of the elder generation. They believed if they expressed their love that it would lose some sacredness. However, Thay could feel the love and trust from Grandfather Teacher, and Thay was very happy. There is no greater happiness for a disciple than that of knowing that he/she is loved and trusted by his/her teacher. For Thay’s whole life of practice, Thay has been nourished by that quiet love and trust from Grandfather Teacher. And Thay believes that Grandfather Teacher also had a lot of happiness when he had disciples to which he could entrust all of his love and confidence. Thay is someone with great happiness, because Thay has confidence in you. To have confidence in you means to have confidence in the future. Suppose we don’t have confidence in the future–is it possible then that we can live happily?
Thay trusts that you have enough capacity to understand, to love, and to respond with non-violence. If we can maintain our loving kindness and compassion and respond with loving kindness and compassion in any difficult situation, then we will be protected by a wholesome energy. That is the energy of the Three Jewels. There is no protection that is as stable and safe as the energy of the Three Jewels, of understanding and of compassion. The day Thay received the news that people invaded your monastic residence Fragrant Palm Forest, throwing out your belongings, pushing whoever got in their way, and going to the third floor only to find all of you doing sitting meditation, evoking the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening Avalokiteshvara in the imperturbable posture, and not trying to react or fight back, Thay knew that you are able to do what Thay has hoped for, and there is no more reason for Thay to be worried about you.
Thay is not worried about you, but many people have been very worried about you–those within the country and around the world; Vietnamese people as well as international friends; Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists. Not only are your parents and relatives are worried, but the four-fold sanghas, with or without responsibility in the Buddhist Church, are also worried about you. Your elder and younger monastic brothers and sisters everywhere in the country and outside of the country are also worried about you. And like you, everyone is also worried about Thay. They are worried that Thay is worried. And if Thay is worried, Thay will be sick. Right here in Plum Village your monastic brothers and sisters all thought that Thay was very worried about you, especially during the most heated days. During those days, Thay often did sitting meditation or walking meditation to send extra energy to you. It was on one of the most intense days when all monastics from the four hamlets came to Thay’s hermitage to attend the Monastic Day. Seeing that Thay was sitting by the stream Phuong Khe, looking fresh and without worry, they were all surprised and glad. It turned out that everyone was worried about you and about Thay. Poor things! Thay heard on that very evening that there was a big storm in Prajna. Everyone was happy. When it was that rainy and stormy, people would not have the chance to come and harasss you. When the rain was that heavy, at least you could collect some water so that you could endure through the day. One close friend told Thay that he called to Prajna on one of those heated days, and he could hear the laughter of the young monks and nuns; this made him feel reassured. Thay believes that if there were no brotherhood and sisterhood; if we did not know our direction and the way to behave in difficult situations; and if we did not have faith in the path of love, there is no way we could maintain that laughter and that joy for life.
The difficulties happening to Prajna not only increase Thay’s confidence and trust in you, but they also open the eyes of many people. Thanks to those difficulties the truth slowly is revealed. All along, people want to say that what happens at Prajna is a small, internal thing, not worth communicating as news, not worth the attention of people inside and outside of the country. We all knew from the beginning that this was not about an internal struggle over a temple, but it was the result of a delusion: that the presence of Prajna may be a threat to national security, because the monastics at Prajna, that means you, are people who want to do politics. Didn’t the television channel in Lam Dong suggest that theory twice? There was someone phoning to find ways to help Prajna, and he was told: ”This is an issue about national security, and you should not get involved.” What has been happening at Prajna prove that those fabrications are completely untrue. Projecting it like that, making up things like that is like what is said in the sutra about drawing a painting in the air: without the canvas, without the sketch paper, it can never be drawn! Now everyone within the country and around the world is able to see that the monks and the nuns and the aspirants at Prajna only do one thing. That is: to practice and to guide others to practice. The aim of practitioners is to practice for ourselves in order to transform and recover the ethical and cultural values that were and are being eroded slowly, so that we can help to stop the spread of social afflictions, such as violence, drug addiction, prostitution, suicide, broken families, corruption, and the abuse of power. At the same time, we can help everyone in society to have a healthy spiritual direction. After those storms, everyone sees that you are true practitioners. You are young, but your aspiration to help others is very great, and your confidence in your national ethics is unshakable. You did not come to Prajna to seek after fame, position, or land, but you came for an ideal – an ideal to practice in order to help life. There were a number of people incited to come to Prajna to threaten you and to chase you away, but thanks to your loving and non-violent responses they have realized that you are real practitioners, that you are their children, their brothers and sisters, their spiritual companions. So they cried and left. Do you remember those times when people were told to attack you? When they heard your evocation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, many of them joined their palms and directed themselves towards your living quarters Cloud on the Mountain, Glowing Hearth, and Fragrant Palm Forest? After that, they left without joining the mob. It was because of your compassionate and non-violent behavior that they realized that what they had heard was untrue; and what they had witnessed was the image of true young practitioners. Thay trusts that many police officers, after days and months of interacting with you, having demanded your legal papers and proofs of residency, and having witnessed many groups of people organized to come to Prajna to insult you and incite you – they have also realized that you are true practitioners, and that you have no desire for politics. With certainty, there are police officers who come home and cry alone in the dark, not understanding why they have to do the things they do not really want to do, and asking themselves why is the presence of peaceful monks and nuns like that dangerous to national security as others have told them so?
With certainty, the Venerable Duc Nghi also knows clearly that you are true monastic practitioners, carrying out the precepts and the mindful manners faithfully. Thay Duc Nghi also has his own suffering. On the one hand, he wants to realize his own ambitions. On the other hand, he is feeling guilty and uneasy because he has to behave unkindly to his own brothers and sisters on the path. Thay heard that there is not a night that Thay Duc Nghi does not cry. How painful this is! Su Phu Duc Nghi [our young brothers and sisters refer to the Venerable Abbot as “Su Phu,” which means Teacher Father] told your elder brothers many times that he received a lot of pressure from the outside. The disciples of Su Phu Duc Nghi also know that you practice precepts and mindful manners with stability, that you only want to practice, and that you never want to get involved in politics or to take possessions from someone else. However, once they are webbed into the machinery they cannot stop. The Dong Brothers [the Venerable Duc Nghi's monastic students] also have their own suffering, and certainly, they can neither sleep well nor eat well. Thay heard that you always treat the Dong Brothers with respect, that you never criticize or reproach them, and that every time you see them, you join your palms as a lotus to greet them. Thay is very happy about this. Our basic practice is not to allow our brotherhood and sisterhood to be destroyed. We have to be prepared so that when that day comes we can mend our relationship easily.
The true practice is not just practicing precepts and mindful manners outwardly in the form. If we do not know how to look deeply, if we do not have effective practices, then we cannot take care of the energies of violence, fear, cowardice, and hatred in us. When those energies control our bodies and minds, we cannot pretend to be calm and non-violent. Thay heard the story about one of our young novices, who has been ordained for less than a year, and who had been trained in martial arts. When a number of young men came to your living quarter The Beginner’s Mind and threw your beds and belongings outside deliberately, that young brother could not endure their violent provocation. He asked his mentor for permission to handle those men. The young novice said, “Please allow me to quit being a monk. I cannot bear it anymore. I only need 15 minutes to defeat all of those gangsters. After that, if needed, I will go to prision for six months to a year. When I finish my term, I will return to be a monk again.” His mentor was a young Dharma teacher, not yet 30 years old, but he said to his mentee: “Dear brother, don’t call those young people gangsters. They are also young people like you, but they were misinformed, so they behave like that. They are thinking that we are gangsters who have come here to take over the buildings and the land. They are victims of wrong information, and they need help more than punishment. They are not your enemies. Your enemy is the anger that is controlling you. Sit down here and begin to breathe deep and long. Embrace the anger in you and look deeply into its nature. If you can master the anger in you, you can give rise to understanding and love, and you will become fresh. In the future, you will be able to help those people to understand that the information fed to them is wrong; then they will not behave like they are behaving right now. The Buddha did that, Thay did that, and now you also have to do that. Sit down. Sit down right here and practice, my young brother!” The young novice sat down to practice. Those first breaths were loud like a cow rumbling, heavy and laborious, but slowly he calmed down and in the end, he was able to control his mind. A few days later, he said: “Whoops! If I had not practiced that day, if I had used violence to respond to violence, then I would have destroyed the great example set by the Buddha and by Thay, because the Buddha and Thay would never behave like that.”
Love, understanding and non-violence are not topics to talk about. They are exercises for us to look deeply into and to practice. There are those who have been practitioners for 20 or 30 years, but when they encounter irritating and provoking situations they cannot resist their anger and fear, and they respond with violent behavior. Amongst you there are those who have practiced for only three or four years, and there are those who have practiced for only six months, yet you are able to behave calmly because you have concrete Dharma practices: recognizing, embracing, and transforming your unwholesome mental formations. As a result, people can see that you are true practitioners, and your Dharma practices are not just for « beginners at a rudimentary level » or only « meditation on the skin, » as some people have criticized. These are Dharma practices that we must believe in one hundred percent. They are our ultimate truths, directly taught by the Buddha in the « Sutra on the Awareness of Breathing. » Thay sees that many venerables, with or without positions in the Buddhist Church, have also recognized that you truly love to learn and to practice, and that you have let go of worldly fame and ambition in order to follow the path of true monastic practitioners. They know that you practice precepts and mindful manners diligently. Thus, they have tried their best to protect you, even though their capacities are limited. Thay recalls that they wrote clearly in one official document: “Prajna Monastery is an establishment that belongs to the Buddhist Church. Whoever practices properly, that person may continue to reside there. Whoever misbehaves and exhibits violence, that person must leave.” Sometimes, through their official writings, these venerables sponsored you so that you could dwell peacefullly under their protection. And recently, they gave orders that violent behaviors must stop, and electricity and water must be reconnected for you. Don’t you know that this is already a lot for these venerables to do? If the situation is not as they hope for, it is because their power is limited. Besides that, there must be other conditions. Once the truth is revealed, wholesome, favorable conditions will come together. In a few years, when it is clear that the presence of Prajna Monastery is not at all dangerous to national security; on the contrary, when many see that it helps to rectify and recover the ethical, moral and cultural values for the country, then that notion, that fear, that suspicion will dissipate, and we will be left in peace to practice and to help others.
Do you know that right now, in our country and around the world, everyone knows about Prajna, and everyone is aware of what has been happening? Everyone is able to see your calm and non-violent practice, and everyone is proud of you. The photograph of you sitting still in meditation in the midst of violence and provocation has been sent out widely, and millions of people have viewed it. It is not any different from the photograph of the Most Venerable Quang Duc immolating himself to call for peace in 1963. We have been embraced and protected by many spiritual friends. Thay knows that his children are not worried, because you know that Thay is not worried. You only need to sit very still over there, just like Thay and your brothers and sisters only need to sit very still over here, then with certainty, the thunder will calm, and the clouds will dissolve. Our energy of silence is the energy of understanding and love. This is a Noble Silence, and it is also a Thundering Silence. Even though on the outward appearance, tomorrow we, teacher and disciples, may be in separate places; we will always have each other. The diamond seed is in the heart of every one of you, and in the future, each one of you will become a Fragrant Palm Leaf; each one of you will become a Prajna Monastery. There will be hundreds and thousands of Prajna Monasteries in our homeland and in the world. It is gradually becoming a reality, isn’t it, my children? We are a Sangha. We are not an establishment. Let Thay write down for you a poem of Zen Master Tinh Quang, who lived in the mid 12th century. This poem reflects the freedom and the fearlessness of the Zen Master. When we read it, we also feel that the Zen Master is speaking about our own stance: