My dear students, near and far,
In the Daily Chanting book, there is a chant that I really liked when I was a novice. The prose of this piece is very beautiful, and its content has a great capacity to nourish the aspiration of monastics. Every time the novice Phùng Xuân [Thầy’s earlier name] chanted that piece, he allowed the words to embrace him and penetrate deeply into his blood vessels and into every cell of his body. This chant is a monastic’s beautiful dream, and I have a lot of gratitude to the Zen master who wrote it. You already know that chant, it is the Beginning Anew and Refuge Chant for Life. Its original title is The Vow Chant. Zen master Jiao Ran (皎 然) wrote it during the Tang dynasty. He was very famous as a poet and writer. He was the one who wrote the epitaphs for the first Zen masters. Yí Shan (怡山) is the mountain where he lived. People called him Zen master Yí Shan (怡山) instead of Zen master Jiao Ran (皎 然), out of respect. Before becoming a monk, his last name was Xie (谢) and his first name was Qing Zhou (请 晝). The famous work he transmitted to us is the Collection of the Storage Mountain, Chu Shan Ji (儲 山 集), a collection of ten volumes.
In the commentaries of the Daily Chanting Book, Zen master Guan Yue (觀月) wrote: ‘If you don’t like this Beginning Anew and Refuge Chant for Life, then you can replace it with another one, like Touching the Earth Chant, the Chant to the Buddhas in the Ten Directions and of the Three Times, or One-Pointed-Mind Refuge Chant.’ But who doesn’t like this chant? I think that many, many generations of monastics have been nourished and comforted by this chant. Even before I was twenty years old, I dreamed of translating it into Vietnamese. And that dream was realized when I was a young Dharma teacher at The Nam Việt Buddhist Institute. I translated it into the traditional Vietnamese form of a six-eight-verse poem. At that time, many monks and nuns in the Institute (Ấn Quang Temple) learned it by heart. That chant is currently published in our book Chanting from the Heart and other daily chanting books in different languages.
The majority of the verses in the Chinese text consist of four or six words, skillfully selected to create a tone that is at times gentle and soothing, and other times vigorous and powerful.
‘In my next life, thanks to holy seeds of wisdom that have been planted in this life, may I be reborn into an environment with a rich culture, and as I grow, may I be fortunate to meet a wise teacher and be ordained in my childhood. May my six senses be keen and my body, speech and mind be harmonious. May I not be polluted by worldly habit energies and may I live a holy and benevolent life. I will diligently practice the precepts and mindful manners. Free from worldly karma, I will know how to protect all living beings, even the smallest ones.’
‘I will practice the authentic Dharma and will understand deeply the Mahayana teachings. I will be able to open the door of action to the six paramitas and realize what other practitioners have to spend billions of lifetimes in order to realize.’
My dear, reading these words, do you feel that these are great dreams? How can we give rise to such aspirations if we don’t have the seed of bodhicitta or a bodhisattva vow?
Let’s continue to read the next section together :
‘I will establish practice centers everywhere. I will break the many layers in the net of doubt. I will conquer all obstacles of temptation and will transmit the lamp of the True Dharma, so that the Three Jewels will keep shining forever in the future. I will assist all the buddhas in the ten directions and never tire. I will practice and realize all the Dharma doors. I will cultivate insight and do social service for the benefit of all beings in the world. I will attain the six miraculous powers and realize the fruit of awakening right in this lifetime.’
‘Afterwards, I will not leave the world of reality, but will be present in all places. The energy of my compassion will not be less than that of Avalokita, and my ocean of vows will be as vast as Samantabhadra’s.’
‘In this world and other worlds, I will manifest in different bodies in order to spread the wonderful Dharma.’
‘In the realms of hells and hungry ghosts, I will radiate light, or perform miracles so that whoever sees me or hears my name will give rise to the mind of love and immediately overcome all suffering.’
‘All the lifeless lands parched dry by fire, all the rivers frozen by ice, I will transform into lush and fragrant forests.’
‘During times of epidemics, I will create a myriad of herbal medicines to heal even incurable sicknesses. In times of severe famine, I will produce an abundance of grains to alleviate hunger and poverty.’
‘I will not decline any work that will bring benefits to all people.’
‘I will help everyone, friends and foes in many lifetimes, as well as relatives in this life, so that each can release the bonds of attachment, and together with all living beings, we will attain enlightenment.’
‘My aspiration is even more boundless than space itself. I vow that all beings, sentient and non-sentient, will all attain the fruits of the highest awakening.’
The words of this chant long ago watered the bodhicitta seeds of the young novice chanting every morning. He did not know why, but he always believed that that dream would come true, even though all around him, there was no sign to indicate it, and no one had been able to realize it yet.
The words of this chant are so beautiful that I’ve been using them as Dharma names for ordinees at Plum Village. For example, Chân Hương Lâm is the name given to the venerable nun Đàm Nguyện who lives in Hanôi. Hương Lâm means fragrant forests. ‘All the lifeless lands parched dry by fire, all the rivers frozen by ice, I will transform them into lush and fragrant forests.’
It is truly poetic, as well as aligned with our aspiration to protect the environment. The verses are so powerful that we feel as if we are no longer small devotees praying, but great beings with miraculous power to liberate all beings without exceptions. ‘The energy of my compassion will not be less than that of Avalokita, and my ocean of vows will be as vast as Samantabhadra’s.’ Those reciting this chant no longer have an inferiority complex, and feel they too capable of accomplishing the deeds of these great bodhisattvas.
Such verses can shake the whole being of those who chant them: ‘Whoever sees me or hears my name will give rise to the mind of love and immediately overcome all suffering.’ We know: I’m not less than any buddha or bodhisattva on his or her path of service.
Is it just a dream? Or is it something to be realized?
Many generations of practitioners, including you, have chanted this refuge chant, and have probably asked this question. I myself did not ask it. Even though around me, there was no sign to indicate that the dream could be realized, I kept it in my heart and held the conviction that it would come true. The 1940’s and 50’s were decades of war and hunger. The monastics tried every way possible to maintain the practice within the boundaries of their temples, but still, they encountered many difficulties. Even young monastics were oppressed, imprisoned, and murdered. As a young monk, I studied the history of the Ly and Tran dynasties and understood that if Buddhism had the capacity to strengthen and sustain the nation’s peace and prosperity during those periods, then it should still have the same capacity in our time. Why not? That was my question, even though during those decades, Buddhism was still incapable of overcoming the situation of decline. Perhaps the great contributions of Buddhism during the Ly and Tran dynasties gave me confidence that this dream was not merely a dream but something to be realized.
When I was a young Dharma teacher at Ấn Quang monastery, I translated that chant with a humble language. I translated this passage: ‘The energy of my compassion will not be less than that of Avalokita, and my ocean of vows will be as vast as Samantabhadra’s’ as: ‘The rain of loving kindness permeates the worlds of gods and men, the vow of helping all beings is the vast ocean of action.’ ‘Whoever sees me or hears my name will give rise to the mind of love and immediately overcome all suffering’ was translated as ‘Upon seeing that image or hearing that name, it’s enough for all beings to be liberated from all bondage and pain.’ For many years living in the West, I did not have a chance to chant that translation again, so all but a few sections faded from my memory until Venerable Như Huệ, abbot of Pháp Hoa Temple in Australia, came to Plum Village in the summer of 1994 as one of the witnesses in the Hương Tích Ceremony of Full Ordination. He recited it for me and I copied down the whole text. Venerable Như Huệ had memorized it back when he was a young monk studying at the Nam Việt Buddhist Institute, about fifty years ago. Thanks to that encounter, we have been able to restore the translation of the chant in our Vietnamese Daily Chanting book, and we have now translated it into English and other languages. I think we need to chant it at least once every week, so that our bodhicitta can be continuously nourished. Bodhicitta is the vow, the aspiration, the dream of authentic practitioners. If our bodhicitta is eroded, we will not have enough energy to go forward and realize our dream.
Tonight, during the sitting meditation, let us contemplate in order to see that our dream is slowly coming true.
‘In my next life may I be reborn as a human being, encountering the Dharma and living the life of an authentic practitioner under the guidance of wise teachers.’ This has been fulfilled.
‘My six senses, body, speech and mind are all in harmony, free from the circle of Samsara; I wholeheartedly practice mindfulness with my body and go forward on the path. Practicing chastity, I am far from the world of suffering.’ That is our daily practice of precepts and mindful manners.
‘Practice centers are established in all places; the net of doubt is totally swept away from deep within and without.’ This is what we are muadiligently doing. Today, our sanghas are present all around the world. There are hundreds of groups in many countries practicing mindful living together. Big cities like New York, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Berlin have many sanghas. Retreats are organized everywhere. Works on engaged Buddhism have become a net of Dharma, clearing misunderstandings, misperceptions and doubt about Buddhism, revealing Buddhism to be a scientific humanism, not a theocratic religion, not superstitious or pessimistic. That is the meaning of ‘The net of doubt is totally swept away from deep within and without.’
‘Transmitting the Dharma Lamp to continue the endless stream.’ We have trained many Dharma teachers and Dharma teacher apprentices, monastics as well as lay. Currently, over 300 people have received the Lamp.
‘We aspire to bring medical aid to the sick, food to the hungry. With joy and happiness, we bring much benefit to all those who suffer in the world.’ This is social service, one part of applied Buddhism, of engaged Buddhism. We founded the School of Youth and Social Service where we trained over 600 social workers and thousands of assistants and volunteers. Pilot villages (Hoa Tiêu and Tự Nguyện) were established in order to increase the quality of life, focusing on the four areas of education, health care, economy and organization. Our social workers wholeheartedly helped war victims and cared for people in refugee camps, some of which held up to 11,000 people. They restored villages ravaged by war and built up new villages. Our Association of Social Restoration and Development worked with the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church (1972-1975). We had a program supporting over 10,000 war orphans. With our Boat People Program, we rescued people adrift at sea. We established the organization Pour les Enfants du Vietnam, then Partage avec les Enfants du Monde, helping children from 17 countries including Vietnam. Our Understanding and Love Program has been providing aid for flood victims, helping the poor by offering instruction in technical trades, building bridges, digging wells, opening basic schools for children living in remote areas and providing lunch for them, paying the salaries of thousands of teachers and childcare workers.*
The wonderful thing is that while these social workers do their jobs, they practice mindfulness trainings, sitting meditation, walking meditation, build brotherhood and sisterhood and learn to flow as one river….
‘I will not decline any work that will bring benefits to all people.’ This is our vow of service.
Our Dharma teachers, some of whom are still in their youth, are really bringing Buddhism into the world, engaged Buddhism. We have organized special retreats for people from all professions and backgrounds: social workers, artists, movie actors and film makers, educators, business people, physicians and nurses, congressmen and senators, police officers, peace activists, ecologists, etc. In some retreats, up to 2000 participants attended, like the one in Washington DC for psychologists and psychotherapists. We have introduced the practice in jails and hospitals to help people heal and transform.
Starting from engaged Buddhism, we have moved forward to applied Buddhism, including the Wake Up movement for young people in the world — practice communities for a healthy and compassionate society. We have founded the European Institute of Applied Buddhism, offering retreats to parents who have difficulties with their children, to young people who have lost communication with their parents, to those who have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, to those who have just lost their loved ones. Anyone can come and practice without having to become Buddhist. The Buddhism that we offer to the world is not a religion, but an art of living, with methods to transform and heal…
We are doing our best to preserve the environment, both by way of our own practice and inspiring others to live in such a way that the Earth has a future, that the process of global warming can be reversed. Our Deer Park Monastery is currently running entirely on solar energy. All our practice centers and sanghas are practicing mindful consumption, with one car-free day per week… All of these initiatives prove that we are committed to realizing our dream with determination, that we are not simply sitting around letting the chant carry us away to a utopian fantasy.
In recent years, Buddhism with its mindfulness practice has gradually been incorporated into the areas of law, science, medical and social studies. The Buddhist spirit of tolerance, of non-dualistic view and non-attachment to views has started to be acknowledged by the world. In the midst of globalization, Buddhism can offer important contributions toward a universal ethic. We know this dream can come true, and it is coming true. If we are not caught in status, fame, money, praise, etc.; if we know how to go with the sangha as a river, and not as a separate drop of water, then we will have more chance to realize this dream. Isn’t that right, my dear? I hope to hear your feedback after you read this letter.
Since 1961, the Saigon Buddhist Student Association and other Buddhist students like Huê Dương, Chiểu, Khanh, Chi, Nhiên, and Phượng have offered these services in poor districts, like Mã Lạng Quốc Thanh and Cầu Bông Bàn Cờ, and night classes at the high school level for free. In 1964-65, we have started building “Love Villages” with your eldest brother Nhất Trí, brothers Tâm Quang, Tâm Thái, and a hundred Buddhist students, including Phượng, Thảo, Thanh, Uyên, Tuyết, Quyền, Trâm, Nguyên, Tích, Thanh, and Tài. We have organized groups of students to raise funds for flood and famine victims living along the Thu Bồn River following the 1964 typhoon.
We have established the School of Youth and Social Service (1965-1975) and the Association of Social Restoration and Development (1971-1975, under the leadership of Venerable Thiện Hòa). Brothers Thanh Văn, Châu Toàn, Từ Mẫn, and Phạm Phước were among the bodhisattva’s arms coordinating thousands of social workers, assistants, and volunteers who accomplished so many projects to help tens of thousands of war victims. Seventeen of them died in the course of their missions, including Liên, Vui, Thơ, Tuấn, Hy, Lành, and your elder brother Nhất Trí. Bùi Thị Hương had to have her leg amputated, and Lê Văn Vinh has to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Nhất Chi Mai, eldest sister of the first six members of our Order of Interbeing, immolated herself on July 16, 1967 to call for peace between the warring sides.
As part of our Boat People Program in the South China Sea, in 1976 Phượng (Sister Chân Không), Luke Fogarty, Trang Fogarty, Kirsten Roep, and Mobi Warren rescued 606 people. Phượng organized an underground mission to rescue boat people with our fishing boat in the Bay of Thailand, from 1976 to 1978. Then we established another program to assist boat people, sending spiritual and material support, English and French textbooks, and chanting books to the refugee camps in Songklha, Trad, Sikkhiu, Chonburi…
From 1975 until now, we have been silently helping the hungry children and the poor elderly with the Understanding and Love Social Assistant Program. In the West, this program has been wholeheartedly supported by Kirsten Roep and Hebe Kohbrugge in the Netherlands, and by Pour les Enfants du Vietnam, Partage avec les Enfants du Monde, and Partage (with Pierre Marchand) in France. Through the latter two programs, we have aided hungry children in seventeen underdeveloped countries including Bangladesh, India, Lebanon, Brazil, and Colombia. The Maitreya Funds in Germany was founded by Chân Pháp Nhãn (Karl Schmied) and Chân Diệu Từ, and now is continued by Chân Giác Lưu (Christian Kảufl). The Swiss Sangha, with Margrit Witwer, and the Italian Sangha have been fully supporting our Understanding and Love Program. The Boat of Compassion Sangha led by Chân Ý and Chân Trí (Anh Hư?ng and Thư Nguyên) has supported over 600 hungry children in Quảng Trị and Thừa Thiên. Snow Flower Sangha has donated dozens of wells to big families living in remote areas without electricity and running water. Minh and Liên with their Compassionate Eye Program have annually cooperated with Toronto Sangha to support many flood victims. Hussman Foundation in the US has supported 75 teachers and childcare workers, and over 700 malnourished children in the provinces Bảo Lâm and Di Linh, as well as donating funds to build the meditation hall at Prajna Monastery. Lilian Cheung has contributed to build the nunneries Diệu Nghiêm and Diệu Trạm.
In the early years 1975-1990, when social services still encountered many obstacles, thanks to Venerable Nun Tịnh Nguyện and Thuần, we were able to smuggle gifts for people suffering in the toughest reeducation camps like Hàm Tân, Hà Nam Ninh, and Vĩnh Phú. We also contacted writers and poets who had lost their will to write, expressing our appreciation, trust and care to them, so that they were inspired to resume their creative work. Thanks to the courage and the dedication of Venerable Nun Trí Hải and her disciples, with their car packed full with medications, rice and clothing, and offering spontaneous “mini Dharma talks,” we also sent gifts to the poor, newly-built villages.
Before 1975, the Senior Nuns Cát Tường, Thể Quán, Thể Thanh, Như Huyền and Viên Minh, and the Senior Monks Chánh Trực, Như Vạn, Long Trí were all bodhisattva arms reaching far and wide to help people. Today, this loving work is continued by Venerable Hải Ấn in Huế; Venerable Nuns Đàm Nguyện in Hanôi, Như Minh, Diệu Đạt, Minh Tánh in Huế, Hạnh Toàn in Quảng Ngãi, Giới Minh; Brother Pháp Lộ, Sister Y Nghiêm, Chân Tướng Hòa, Việt, Tân, Dũng, Mai, Xuân, Tuyết, Thân, Chân Đoan… During the post-war years, through Chân Thể Hòa and Thuần, we sent money and rice to poor people living in remote areas. With the hands of Chân Dụng Hòa, Chân Hỷ Căn, A, and Viễn, we looked after disabled and lonely senior citizens, offered the gift of sight to those with cataracts, and raised funds to pay salaries of hundreds of teachers, opening kindergartens and schools in remote areas and providing not only instruction but also lunches and soy milk to malnourished children.
The Sangha arms are very long indeed, reaching out far and wide — not only in Vietnam; but all around the world, in Bangladesh, India, Israel, Palestine…