Turning Darkness into Light on a Grand Scale – 10 years of the EIAB

Without gratitude I know I cannot be happy and expressing gratitude is a way of expressing happiness.

This article is about my sense of gratitude to the EIAB – European Institute of Applied Buddhism, Germany.

Land Ancestors

First of all I wish to express my gratitude to the land ancestors of the EIAB; in particular, the evangelical pastor, the reverend Hollenberg, and Doctor Karl Venn. It was these two gentlemen who founded, more than 100 years ago, the hospital for mentally and physically handicapped poor people, that stood where the EIAB now stands. Their motivation was purely to help those who otherwise would have received no help. Their photographs stand on our ancestral altar. Thay in his wisdom told us to honour these two gentlemen and wrote their names to be placed on our ancestral altars along with their photographs. Their compassionate action continues to support us.

Ashoka Building – EIAB

In 1938 when plans were being set afoot to take away and kill the 700 hundred mentally and physically handicapped inmates of the hospital- according to the Nazi policy of purifying the Aryan race – there were doctors in the hospital, who, out of bravery and compassion, tried to find, at the risk of their own lives, ways to save these lives by not disclosing that the patient was there or not certifying that he or she was handicapped. We do not know the names of these doctors but their compassion and bravery continue to support us.

Later on after the 2nd World War, the new nazi building (which is now the home of EIAB) built on the foundations of the former hospital, became a hospital for Waldbroel and the many compassionate actions of doctors and nurses in their daily lives of ministering to the sick, continue to support us.

When a new hospital was built for Waldbroel the building became a military academy for research into chemical warfare. I am grateful to the local people who would come and hold demonstrations there in protest against chemical warfare. Their compassionate activism continues to support us.

Our land ancestors include the trees, the squirrels and the birds. I am very grateful for the many ancient trees that stand around the EIAB like Dharma protectors. We have the run of the park which separates us from the busy main road, a place where Thay would like to go in his free time and hang his hammock. In the park there is a huge oak tree and a weeping beech which are more than 100 hundred years old. The park was part of the hospital and at its entrance there is still an old notice reminding us that this is a place of recovery and healing and we should protect its atmosphere of quiet. On all side of the EIAB there are large trees with luxuriant foliage. The size of the trees is no doubt due to the frequent rainfall that Waldbroel enjoys.

Thay at the EIAB some years ago.

The trees are the home of squirrels and many birds. Thay remarked upon the birdsong of EIAB in a Dharma talk. The birds sing very loudly and joyfully often beginning before dawn. They have found a safe refuge from the town and are happy and bring joy to our hearts. To see a red squirrel leap from branch to branch or stand chewing a nut, shows us what it is to enjoy the present moment.

Spiritual Ancestors

Thay has brought to Waldbroel a lineage of spiritual ancestors. Thank you, Thay for your insight and compassion. Many German people could not understand why you agreed to come to Waldbroel to found the EIAB. They thought that by coming to a nazi building you were somehow condoning the nazi régime. They wanted the EIAB to be in a place that had a peaceful energy and wholesome history. They did not want to be reminded of this dark past. You said, Thay, that we did not choose Waldbroel, Waldbroel chose us. There were land ancestors there who approved of and supported our coming and of course all our spiritual ancestors supported us too. We needed to come there in order to transform the cruelty, intolerance and discrimination of the past with understanding and compassion. Dear Thay, you yourself remarked and many people also say that after we had been practising a couple of years in that place the atmosphere of that heavy, dark building began to lighten. People who, on their way to work, had to walk through our grounds said it felt different now, more peaceful. Lay friends who before did not want us to set up the EIAB in Waldbroel are now moved by the transformation of the place.

Thank you for the letter you wrote to the hungry spirits that are the continuation of the hospital inmates who were sterilised, cruelly treated or put to death and of the perpetrators of these actions in the 1930’s. We read this letter at our ceremony of offering to hungry spirits. It always waters the seeds of compassion and forgiveness in our hearts.

Gratitude for Thay

Thank you for coming in September 2008 when the EIAB was opened and going into every room, 400 rooms in all, chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara, in order to cleanse the energy of the building with consecrated water and the energy of concentration and compassion.

Thank you for all the calligraphies that made up the calligraphy exhibition which extended the length of 500 metres of hallway; especially the calligraphy: With the mud of discrimination and fanaticism we grow the lotus of intolerance and inclusiveness, which always reminds of the reason why we are in the EIAB practising. These calligraphies have done much to transform the energy of the building reminding us at every step of the essence of the practice.

Dear Thay, often when you came to the EIAB, especially in more recent years, you were not in good health. Still you came to give the talks in the German and Dutch retreats, nourishing so many people with joy and transformation. In August 2014 when you were living on volition food alone ( Thay was not able to eat during this time due to his health problems) you made that wonderful revision of the Heart Sutra in your small room on the third floor of the huge building. That revision is essential for our correct understanding and practice of Buddhism and we are honoured that it was made in the EIAB.

Dear Thay, you wanted us to have a sangha of Buddha statues from Indonesia sitting in meditation to the south of the building on the hill in the orchard in order to offer support and protection. Three Buddha statues moved there. Unfortunately some local young people in their ignorance broke off the finger of one Buddha statue. A lay friend, specialised in mending broken statues, mended the finger and the young people broke it off again. Our friend mended it again and so far so good. It remains intact. Some of us did not dare to put the other Buddha statues up there on the hill, in case they were broken too, but in our hearts we want to move all the Buddha statues up there in accordance with your wishes. It is so wonderful during walking meditation to be able to sit down peacefully amongst the beautiful Buddha statues which radiate peace and joy.

The Fourfold Sangha

Many lay practitioners inspired by the presence of EIAB have moved house in order to be in close proximity to the EIAB, to join the daily sitting or walking mediations and the weekly Waldbroel Sangha gathering. It was Thay’s suggestion that we should start offering the practice to the inhabitants of Waldbroel and in the beginning we organized the Waldbroel sangha in the rooms over the library in the town. Now that sangha meets with the support of monastic brothers and sisters in the EIAB. Not only do these practitioners support us with their practice but also with their voluntary service in the office and in the garden.

I am grateful to my monastic sisters and brothers who have, although still very young in age and in Dharma age, organized programmes of study for monks and nuns. This is in accord with Thay’s wishes. Thay said that the fourfold sangha of the EIAB can be compared to a peach. The monks and nuns are the kernel of the peach and the lay friends the flesh. The kernel has its own programme of studies and Dharma teachers with four or five younger brothers or sisters take turns to lead the practice for lay friends, leaving the kernel for the flesh for a while and then returning to the kernel to teach their younger brothers and sisters. Thay emphasized the importance of taking care of the kernel.

There are monastic brothers and sisters who have learnt German and this has brought much happiness to our German lay friends. German is not an easy language, very different from Vietnamese, and it takes much time and commitment to learn.

I am grateful to elder monks and nuns who have borne the heavy burden of administration and finance, attending lengthy meetings and having to deal patiently with bureaucracy. It is not easy to avoid anxiety in these situations and a strong practice of mindful breathing, walking and smiling is the only way. In the early years of the EIAB I also attended these meetings but it was too much for me. If it were not for these monks and nuns the EIAB could not continue to function.  These monks and nuns are the EIAB’s interface with the legal and governmental world. It is a task which no one enjoys very much to do but it has to be done and done in a way that increases the faith that people, who do not practise, have in the spiritual life. I am very grateful for the self- sacrifice of these elder monks and nuns.

Over 10 years many changes have taken place in the EIAB. Slowly the great building is being renovated. Monastic brothers and sisters have come and gone, but everyone has left something precious and everyone has something to be grateful for; maybe what we remember most of all is the brotherhood and sisterhood that we have enjoyed together while we have been there. As long as there is brotherhood and sisterhood the EIAB can continue to offer transformation to Waldbroel, Germany, Europe and the world.

Sr. Chân Đức

Sister Annabel Laity, (Chan Duc, True Virtue), was born in England. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, and in 1988 in India, she became the first Western European  woman to be ordained as a nun by Thich Nhat Hanh. She is a  much-loved senior Dharma Teacher and travels widely, leading meditation retreats and inspiring many with her unique teaching style throughout the world. In 2000, she became the first Western/European nun to teach Buddhist Dharma in Thailand, and is currently Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

Related Article: A transcript of a talk given by Sr Chan Duc at EIAB  Our Environment

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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