Dear Friends on the Path,
I hope you enjoy this digital painting. It was inspired by Thầy’s account of a dream he once had in which he was a music student who had to perform in front of a university audience. I had a vision of this dream one morning after waking up from one of my own dreams in which Thầy invited a bell to help us all come back to the present moment. As he invited the bell, his hands moved around it in a cinematographic way, with multiple hands merging in and out of each other. Some of the hands held different musical instruments.
During the days I spent drawing this, the violent riot in the US Capitol occurred. America once more saw the ugly side of itself. I felt sad for the people who were tasked to help lead and unite the divided people of this nation. This artistic exploration became a healing activity for me, a kind of balm for my heart from the mental ache that I felt for our human family. As I focused on Thầy’s life and all the suffering and division that he managed to overcome I felt more convinced than ever of the need to help realize his dream of building mindful communities—communities where people from all walks of life can live harmoniously together, even though they may have differences of opinion, of values, and of approach.
I kept this image from my dream and the reverberating bell in my heart throughout the day, stopping periodically while walking, eating or sitting, to breathe and remember what is most important. I prayed for the people of this land, on the urban coasts, in the rugged mountains and across the rural central valleys. I projected the energy of this serene bell to anyone who might be feeling left out for whatever reason or cause: “May your heart be calm, your mind find some space, and your spirit some relief from all the hate, blame and wrong perceptions of separation.”
Many years ago in a Dharma talk, Thầy shared about a dream in which he was a student in a prestigious music school. It was time for finals and everyone had to perform with their instrument in front of an audience. Thầy was a little nervous in the dream because he knew that he had never learned how to play any musical instrument. He did not know how he would pass this final test.
When it was his turn, Thầy stood at the podium with his hands in his pocket. He stared into the audience calmly following his breathing. Suddenly he felt in his pocket the cold metallic surface of the small bell that he normally brings with him wherever he goes. He had been taught to use this bell in the temple, and had used it throughout his life. Realizing in that moment that this bell was also a musical instrument, Thầy took out the bell, raised it to the audience and invited it to sound as he had done all his life. The sound of the bell resonated through the auditorium and brought peace and serenity to everyone who heard it.
As the sound of the bell faded in the dream, Thầy turned to the side of the stage to look for his teacher. Thầy felt excited that he would be able to see his teacher. But as his teacher was about to enter into his view—just before seeing his teacher’s face—Thầy woke up from the dream. In his heart, though, he somehow knew who his teacher must have been. Throughout the years, I have heard Thầy share this story a few times, always leaving the ending open as an invitation for us to all imagine and discover for ourselves who the “teacher” must have been. It is my favorite part of his account, because it allows us to participate in the dream and finish it for ourselves. Maybe that is why I have internalized the story and it has manifested in my dream.
I finished this drawing on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, at the end of our Monday lazy day on January 18th, so I dedicate it to the spiritual friendship between Thầy and Dr. King and to their mutual vision of building a global “beloved community”—a community where we see each other as siblings of one family. At the bottom of the drawing I penned a few lines adapted from the bell gatha: “May the sound of this bell bring relief to the world. May the hearers awaken from their delusion of a separate self.”
In the moment that I write this, I think of Thầy’s legacy of renewing Buddhist practice. I think of all the effort he put into introducing to the world the meaning and practice of inviting and listening to the sound of the bell. I cannot imagine how many Dharma Talks our teacher must have given on this topic! The simple act of stopping everything that we are doing when we hear the sound of the bell—including our thinking and conversations—and returning with all our attention to our conscious breathing was invented or adapted by our teacher. Before he brought in this new practice, the bell in temples did not have this explicit function or purpose. It was used mostly for chanting and ceremonies of prayer—except perhaps in the monasteries where meditation was practiced and the bell was invited to begin a session of sitting. Thầy formulated this practice as medicine for our times—an antidote to our modern culture of running and grasping. By stopping and listening to the bell when we are caught in our constant thinking we transform our incapacity to be fully present to what is happening in the present moment.
Thầy expanded this practice of listening to the bell to apply it also to the sound of the clock chime. In almost every Plum Village practice center you will find a clock installed in the dining hall that chimes every fifteen or thirty minutes. Practitioners are invited, when they hear the chime, to stop all their activities and come back to their breathing for a few in- and out-breaths. We are taught to close our eyes and to silently recite this gatha: “Listen, listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” In this way we recognize the wonder of simply being alive in the present moment.
Right now, I invite everyone to continue Thầy’s legacy by maintaining this practice of listening to the sound of the bell in your own home, workplace or wherever you may be. You may like to install a clock with a chime in your living room or kitchen to remind you. You may install a digital mindfulness bell to sound periodically on your laptop or smartphone to help you stop what you are doing during your busy day. When you stop close your eyes, recite the gatha, and come back to your “true home.” Envision all of us breathing together throughout this land and all over this planet, creating a collective energy of peace and kindness and connecting us all in a moment of interbeing. This is not the practice of magic or romanticized imagination. It has the real potential to bring immediate benefit to ourselves, to those near to us, and to everyone—to those who may randomly cross our mental field or even to those who may not be in our awareness. No energy is ever lost. No ripples in the pond are without some effect, some contribution. No mental intention of kindness and acceptance will be lost. I invite everyone to help us maintain this collective field of good-will—as opposed to ill-will—of heart force instead of aggression no matter what or who confronts us. Together we can support one another on our path to build the beloved community, bring change and contribute to our collective awakening.
Brother Pháp Dung
Jan. 27th 2021