The Angels of Summer

Sister Bồ Đề recounts the challenges and the joys of last summer’s children’s program at the EIAB (European Institute of Applied Buddhism) in Germany.

Looking at the two golden, red leaves one last time, I placed them in an envelope, my heart brimming with affection. A smile rose up in me when suddenly, I remembered those innocent words I received one fine morning, “Today is the first day I go to school. My school is in Bilthoven. I cycled 2.5 kilometers to school in the morning and back in the afternoon…” That is one of my fond memories from last summer’s children program at the EIAB in Germany.

Most of the young German and Dutch children did not speak much English, so there were many stories of tears and laughter as a result of language differences.

“What Are You Looking For?”

I was standing in the corridor cleaning when one child rushed over, looking confused. “What are you looking for?” I asked her. Very naturally she answered in German. Seeing my round and bewildered eyes, the child was completely lost. Luckily a volunteer passed by in the nick of time to rescue us from this moment of confusion. Looking at the direction she ran off in, I understood that she was looking for the bathroom. I could only put my hand on my forehead and shake my head, not knowing whether to cry or laugh.

In the first few days of the children’s program, I could only contribute my presence. Watching the children laugh, speak, and share, even though I did not understand any of it, I still felt so happy. Each child was like a flower, radiant with their own color. Slowly I remembered each child’s name and knew which ones spoke English. So if there were important things to communicate, I asked one of those children to help translate for me.

It truly required great effort from both sides. I had to express myself in the most easily understandable way and the children had to listen very carefully, and then find ways to convey my words to the other children. Sometimes we were all scratching our heads and ears! But the moment we arrived at understanding, everyone was so happy.

Sometimes, after “speaking” for a while by waving their hands and feet and seeing that I still looked confused, the children had their last solution, “Follow us!” With great excitement, they would lead me to their new discovery in the mammoth EIAB building. After climbing nearly a hundred steps, up several floors, we reached the stairs ascending into the building’s attic, where the exploration of the secret passageways began.

Love Makes One Strong

The moments I connected most with the children were outside of the scheduled activities. We played ping pong, kicked balls, swung on swings, blew bubbles, and visited the neighbors’ rabbits and donkeys. I also invited their mums and dads to join us.

Watching the children play in the afternoon, I did not wish to leave even though I knew I needed to rest. So I closed my eyes and relaxed right there and listened to the children’s laughter like birds singing by my ears. One child put a finger to her lips, “Shh…,” the group became quiet and listened. “Sister Bodhi is sleeping,” another child said. As is the nature of children, they only kept quiet for a few seconds before the excitement resumed again.

I wondered, “Why is it that children have so much energy; they can run and play all day without getting tired? Is it because they do not yet worry and grieve as grown-ups do?” Looking at the bright smiles on those wholesome, angel-like faces, I suddenly felt a twinge of compassion when I thought that one day, that carefree and innocent look would disappear. Though I know that it is an inevitable rule of life, that traversing difficulties will help them grow and mature, I still did not wish it for them.

Few people go through storms without withering a little from the pain. Will they have the courage to wipe the wounds from their eyes and still look at life with joy? The memories of a week in Plum Village may be a mere rain drop on the ocean’s surface, spreading a little, then swept away by life’s waves of emotions. But it doesn’t matter. Whenever I have the chance, I do everything in my power to plant the seeds of joy and unconditional love in their hearts.

I have faith that even the smallest things will never be lost once cast into the ocean of consciousness. I hope that on days when they feel helpless and lost, they will remember a place where they can always find refuge. I will keep this place alive with my practice and open heart to welcome the children back.

I stand here with a heart of patience,
my hands turning to stone, waiting.
One hundred years, one thousand years
sweep by the dome of the sky.
Be there winds, be there rains,
the torch of love burns quietly
in the garden of humanity.

Love is like that, but sometimes I had to learn to say “no”. During program activities a child would suddenly nudge me, “Sister, can I go play ping pong?” Looking at the starry eyes and cheerful face, I had to be firm even though it was hard, “Not right now. Let’s wait until the end of the session and I will take you.” After begging for a while and seeing that I was unshakable, with a sad look of disappointment the child quietly returned to playing with paper and crayon.

Usually when the children shared their wishes with me, I would also share them with my elder sisters and brothers. If everyone disagreed, I would also let go of the idea. I am here to support my elder siblings, not to make things more difficult for them. It might have made the children a little sad, but at most for an hour or so and then they were back to laughing and playing as if nothing had happened. I admire that in children. It seems that the older we are, the less we are able to let go, and the more we unnecessarily cling and grasp onto our opinions and emotions.

There were also times when the children said “no” to the program activities. Some were not interested in going to the forest and refused to participate. That was a really tough moment for me. I hesitated, “We cannot force the children against their wishes. But we also have to respect the program activities.” I then decided to go to the forest with the group. Passing by those children, I couldn’t help feeling guilty because it was as if I had left them behind. I walked very slowly, looking back many times to see if the children had changed their minds to follow us. When I recognized that my heart was fluttering, I returned to my breath and steps to stop the wandering thoughts and to be present for the serene surroundings and those walking with me. Strangely enough, at that moment I suddenly realized that the children didn’t want to go because there were fears in them. Fear of distance, of heat, of fatigue, or they disliked walking.

Though we were already half way, I turned back, taking strong steps with the hope that my angels had not yet “flapped away”. As I got closer I could hear the children’s chatter. I secretly rejoiced. The children were surprised to see me, “Sister, you are not going to the forest?” I smiled as I said, “I went and saw that it is a very beautiful place. There is a lake and a stream with clear, cool water we can drink. I thought you might like to come, so I came back to ask you.” The children looked at each other with curiosity. Great! Seeing that they had mellowed, I made the last move. With a soothing voice I said, “Come with me if you’d like to try. Whenever you feel tired I will bring you back right away.” They agreed. So the forest walking program began for the children and myself.

I walked and talked with the children, frequently asking if they were tired. I discovered that they did not want to go simply because of their preconceptions. Nearing the destination, the silence in the forest brought up a little anxiety in me. Where was everyone? How would I find them in this vast forest? Fortunately, we met a brother who came to fetch water. He told us, “Everyone is playing in the woods up ahead.” Indeed, I heard sounds coming from afar. In that moment, the brother’s answer and the serenity of the forest mingled with the rustling brook, full of pure and sweet water, forming a silence of peace and wellbeing in the traveler’s soul.

“Sister, the water of the stream is delicious!” The young voice of an angel made me laugh. I led the children up the hill with carefree steps. Arriving, they quickly joined in the fun with the other angels. My elder sister asked, “How did you manage to persuade them?” Looking at the hammock swinging hard under the weight of the angels, I replied, “Well, I guess they love me and so they followed. Besides, I promised that whenever they felt tired I would bring them back.” If there hadn’t already been good communication with the children, I would have found it hard to succeed no matter how skillful I was. “Angels love to sit in hammocks. Next time we come to the forest I will bring more hammocks,” I thought quietly to myself.

The Super Naughty Can Also Be Sad

I found that I was able to love the children equally, whether they easily followed our guidance or not. During the two weeks of retreats in Germany, there were two girls who were incredibly energetic, smart, and … super naughty. They set up all sorts of games to play, to destroy, and to tease everyone. To be honest, I only dared to look from afar and did not have the courage to come close and play with them.

One afternoon while playing shuttlecock with the brothers and sisters, “Super naughty #1” came and whispered, “Sister, can you play with me?” From the look on her face I knew that she was sad because she had to say goodbye to her friend, as “Super naughty #2” had gone home. I turned and asked with an affectionate voice, “Yes, what game do you want to play?” Playing with her, I discovered that she was a very emotionally sensitive girl. Once she could feel the love from the brothers and sisters, she became more at ease and quiet than before. From that, I realized that no matter how indescribably naughty a child can be, if we have enough inclusiveness, embrace and acceptance, it will be an opportunity for them to change.

The Future of the World Lies in the Hands of the Angels

One tranquil morning, the golden sun painted the mulberry leaves and the meditation hall roof. The sun’s rays skipped and hopped everywhere amidst the chirping music of small birds. In stillness, I enjoyed the scene before my eyes. Suddenly a thought arose, If people in the future no longer value spiritual life and society moves more towards consumption, this peaceful natural setting may disappear and the meditation hall may become a supermarket. I thought of the angels at that moment.

Besides their freshness and innocence, children also have seeds of fear, violence, anger, and despair. Whether they are angels or not depends on how the seeds in their consciousness are watered. If I water the seeds of love for nature and life, then the children will know the pain of seeing a tree cut down, they will know to let the accidentally lost small bee fly out of the house, they will take careful steps so as not to step on a snail crossing the road…

I transmit the seed of love to them through my smiles, my eyes, my words, and my conduct. I do everything I need to do so that tomorrow, when I become the wind and the cloud, I can smile peacefully. Because I know that the angels will continue the mission of bringing love to the earth.

Whether the future of the world is bright or not depends on how you treat a child in the present moment. There are many ways to protect Mother Earth. And one of the most concrete ways is to care for your children and grandchildren with all your love and awareness.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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