This is your first article of the month! You can read 5 articles each month. Subscribe now to read as much as you want.

Filling the Lake

photo by Tatian Greenleaf

Brother Phap Luu wrote this article in response to the Mindfulness Bell’s invitation to share about the birth of the book, Happy Teachers Change the World: A Guide to Cultivating Mindfulness in Education by Thich Nhat Hanh and Katherine Weare, published by Parallax Press in May 2017.

Many strands are woven into the tapestry of the book Happy Teachers Change the World: A Guide to Cultivating Mindfulness in Education. The main one has been Thay’s vision for mindfulness in education, what he calls “applied ethics.” This vision had its roots in the School of Youth for Social Service, founded by Thay and Sister Chan Khong in Vietnam in 1964 to inspire student workers to serve society as a response to the war. The SYSS demonstrated how children could be taught the practice, and how the teachers themselves could learn, together as a community—as a real family. 

When the SYSS trained its student workers and sent them into rural areas without any money, they used their practice of mindfulness to help seed schools in the villages just by playing with children and being present for them, establishing a rapport, while the parents were out in the rice fields. Without yet a roof overhead to call a schoolhouse, the student workers won the parents’ trust. In time, one family would offer its house as a space for classes, and eventually the villagers, inspired by the generosity of the student workers to teach, would build a schoolhouse. So the connection between teacher and student came first, and then, when the time was ripe, the building. All this work was based on love, not money! In such action Thay had a view to the importance of creating a real human connection between teacher and student. Applied ethics is just another term for this true caring. We don’t just talk about it; we do it: applied ethics.

To build a more solid foundation, Thay transmitted the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings—a set of guidelines for the student workers—to the initial six recipients, the “Six Cedars,” all board members of the SYSS (including Sister Chan Khong.) Thay’s subsequent exile from Vietnam made it challenging for the SYSS to continue in the years that followed, but the vision of applied ethics, made concrete by the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, continued to grow and put down new roots.

Thay founded Plum Village in the south of France to create, amongst other things, a space for children—mostly, at first, children of Vietnamese refugees, boat people, who had settled in Europe—and their parents to get in touch with mindfulness. A growing number of teachers arrived, like Richard Brady, a math teacher from Washington, D.C. Thay encouraged Richard to widen the scope of people who could be in touch with mindfulness to include teachers, so that they may use the practice to sustain a spiritual life in school. To this end, Richard, who went on to become a Dharma teacher, founded the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN) in 2001, a network that has grown to include over eight hundred educators internationally.

When Shantum Seth, another senior Dharma teacher, was preparing for Thay’s visit to India in 2008, he asked, “Thay, how would you like your work to continue into the future, so that we help seed it during your tour in India?”   

Thay said, “Education. We need to work with the teachers so they can bring the practice into their own lives and their classrooms.”

Teachers came from all over India to The Doon School in Dehradun for a National Workshop for Educators, titled “Towards a Compassionate and Healthy Society,” led by Thay and Plum Village monastics. That was the first educators’ retreat that I was a part of with Thay. As many as five hundred heads of schools, teachers, and policymakers gathered for four days to practice mindful breathing together, and more than a hundred decided to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Since then, more than 1,500 teachers have benefited from national, retreat-style workshops on cultivating mindfulness and applied ethics in education, led by monastics and lay teachers in India every two years. 

Inspired by the initial workshop, Thay, on returning to France, responded to the proposal of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to have “civic and moral instruction that includes learning the rules of politeness, and knowledge and respect for the values… of the French Republic” in schools. The proposal had provoked a debate in France: “If we have such a class of civic and moral instruction, what should we teach in it?”

Thay’s response was simple: we should teach applied ethics—what we say, we do. So we held the first Applied Ethics Retreat in Plum Village during the New Year’s Eve holidays of 2011-12. Thay shared, “A way of acting that has the capacity to bring peace, reconciliation, and happiness can be called applied ethics, and it is based on a profound and solid understanding of reality—on a kind of insight which transcends all discrimination and prejudice. This insight is known as right view—a view which transcends all dualistic thinking, a kind of meta-ethics.” 

Thay taught that teachers could use the sixteen steps of mindful breathing to understand more deeply their body and mind, and to learn how to embrace difficult emotions.* This retreat prompted teachers to look into what it means to live an engaged spiritual life in the classroom, and how to transmit that to their students using the practice of mindfulness. The talks Thay gave in these retreats, along with the core Plum Village practices, form the heart of Happy Teachers Change the World. Thay’s reflections are the centerpiece of the book, and they begin each chapter.

TEACHINGS, PRACTICES, AND A CHORUS OF STORIES

The specific seed of the book came later that spring of 2012 at the educators’ retreat in the American School of London, where we met Katherine Weare, who had worked for decades in the fields of social and emotional learning and then as a mindfulness practitioner and teacher. She had worked with a UK group called the Mindfulness in Schools project, with its .b (pronounced dot bee) curriculum, which brings mindfulness education into schools. We invited her to represent this program on a panel at the retreat. She was so impressed with the Plum Village approach that in her closing words, she remarked, “If I have to choose between learning mindfulness from someone in a suit or from someone in robes, I choose the one in robes.”

Katherine helped us to conceive of a guidance manual for teachers to bring Plum Village practices into their lives and classrooms. There was a need for teachers to have something to review after a retreat, so they could feel confident to teach the practices they had learned to their students. We came to the end of many retreats and the teachers said, “What now?” We wanted to give them a book and say, “This now!” But we didn’t yet have that book.

At first we planned to make an online “cookbook” of recipes that teachers could apply, with a recipe for breathing, for inviting the bell, for eating meditation, for walking meditation, and so forth. In the following year, thanks to the diligence of our first Wake Up Schools coordinator, Elli Weisbaum, we received a $10,000 grant from the Donaldson Foundation to begin work on the book. First, we had to identify the core Plum Village practices and decide how to present them for teachers. Katherine distilled these into a format that would be easily accessible to teachers—her clear-sighted vision and pragmatic approach really guided us. 

We piloted these core practices with teachers in the Dharma Primary School in Brighton, a private elementary school with a Buddhist ethic, started by volunteers and parents associated with Amaravati Monastery in England. These teachers helped us to learn better what they really need, and also what starting a school in Plum Village would entail—what issues are involved, and what sufferings and joys come with building a school community. The teachers piloted early versions of the book’s core practices in their classrooms, and then gave us feedback to make them easier, more accessible, and more relevant. We also piloted the practices with Plum Village children’s program volunteers and at a retreat for educators at Binley Farm in the UK. In this way, these practices have been tested like steel, forged over time by the experience and feedback of many teachers in a variety of settings.

The book’s underpinning element is Thay’s teachings. From cover to cover, it resonates with Thay’s voice, as expressed in his retreats for educators. Woven throughout the book are Thay’s elegant ways of offering foundational Buddhist teachings, such as: The way out is in. Happiness is here and now. We inter-are. Katherine’s role as co-author was to set Thay’s vision and the teachers’ examples into a framework of practical guidance on how teachers can cultivate mindfulness in their lives and their everyday work. As an educational practitioner and academic, she helped us link the Plum Village approach to mindfulness with ongoing educational concerns and research evidence.

The book was very much a team effort, particularly in gathering voices from the Plum Village community. We knew we wanted, in addition to the recipes and educational guidance, real-life experiences of teachers who were already using Plum Village practices in their classrooms. We knew their stories would bring the practices alive. But we were not prepared for the wealth of work we uncovered, and how its wisdom would fundamentally shape the book.

Katherine, Elli, and our current Wake Up Schools coordinator, Yvonne Mazurek, gathered anecdotes from teachers through an online survey, interviews, and emails, and elicited responses from senior practitioner-teachers on themes not covered in those anecdotes. They contacted around seventy experienced practitioners and reached out to educators around the world. Helped by Neha Kaul, they also analysed wisdom in published books and Mindfulness Bell articles written by Plum Village-inspired teachers. Approximately one hundred fifty people are quoted in the book, with many more acknowledged. Friends from around the world sought stories, translated, and transcribed, while senior Order of Interbeing members commented on drafts.

We ended up with a hoard of beautiful reflections, teaching ideas, and illustrative stories, woven by Katherine into a coherent narrative that links her educational guidance with Thay’s instruction and the educators’ practice-based techniques. The book reveals the depth and expanse of this movement, as it includes a chorus of teachers from all over the world: Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, India, as well as France, Spain, England, Germany, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. 

HOPE WITHOUT LIMITS

There is also my personal inspiration. My mom was a teacher in public elementary schools during her whole working life. I went through the public school system in the United States, and, inspired by her dedication to teaching, after university I became an English teacher in Spain. Later, while continuing my studies before becoming a monk, I was a part-time substitute teacher in inner-city schools of New Haven, Connecticut. I saw how kids had come to have unprecedented access to the body of knowledge we possess as human beings, especially through the Internet. They had access to scientific tools and research on a scale that has not been conceivable on this planet until just these past twenty years. Despite this, the vast majority of them were still growing up without knowing how to take care of their difficult emotions. They didn’t know how to take care of their anger or their despair, or how to cultivate a spiritual life—something that has been the foundation of education in every culture everywhere in the world. 

It’s like when a lake dries up, and we find ourselves analyzing the dried algae and detritus that remain on the bottom to figure out what happened. Yet at times in the past, in our way of educating young people, there was real water. The rain fell and filled the lake. Seeing the situation of this dry lakebed in schools deeply motivates me to act. I feel that every child should have a chance to learn to be aware of their breath and their body, and know how to embrace a strong emotion with mindfulness: how to take care of it, how to see it is always changing. These things can be taught regardless of anyone’s religious (or lack of religious) background. It is becoming ever more urgent that we offer this service for teachers, so the coming generations of students will know what true freedom is. This is a deep aspiration of the book.

Our hope is really without limit. It’s to reach every student and every teacher who is open and willing: to bring mindfulness into their life and to scale up our capacity to make this insight and practice available to all children everywhere. We want to make it as easy as possible for teachers to do this.

NON-FEAR IN THE CLASSROOM

Education is the beginning of our civic life. If our teachers and students are happy, then no matter what the leadership of the country, society will be happy. There will be no fear for any government or ruler to play into. The Buddha had that insight when told by a Magadhan minister that the expansionist King Ajatasattu wanted to invade the neighboring Vajji country.

The Buddha asked a question of Ananda:

“Is it so that the Vajjians meet frequently, and are those meetings well attended?”

And Ananda said, “Yes, it is true.”

“So long, Ananda, that this is so, the growth of the Vajjis can be expected and not their decline.”

The Buddha continued, “Is it so that the Vajjians meet in harmony and disperse in harmony?”  

Again, Ananda said, “Yes, it is true.”

“Is it true that they respect the traditions of their elders?”

Once again, Ananda said, “Yes, it is true.”

And so on. Each time the Buddha says, “So long, Ananda, that this is so, the growth of the Vajjis can be expected, and not their decline.”

As Happy Teachers Change the World makes clear, education is based on our interconnectedness and our authentic presence in interacting with one another. We need to look at our relationships: teachers with students, parents with children, and how we relate to each other in our communities. Are we being kind enough to each other? Are we being helpful to one another? Are we, as teachers, imparting kindness, generosity, and freedom to our students, and embodying it in our own lives? This is what’s essential. We learn science, math, and technology, but are we learning as well how to build community in the classroom? When we do, no matter what violence we might encounter, the community will not react with fear but with compassion.

We need to look deeply into fear. We need to be able to embrace our fear. We need to be able to help our students touch non-fear in their everyday life. The education system can easily become a fear-imparting structure, with its emphasis on examinations, on equating test results with self-confidence and self-worth. Happy Teachers Change the World inspires us with theory and guides us to touch non-fear by learning to explore our experience, embrace our suffering, and reach out for support. 

The vision of our book, and the intention for a true Wake Up school, is to allow students to realize their fullest potential as human beings on the planet. That may well result in a math genius, a great writer, or a great political leader, but this is just a side effect of the solidity of that child’s awakening. And the school must be inclusive—it must include all elements of life, including how to embrace the difficult emotions that may arise in the face of cultural differences.

When I was a substitute teacher at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, which was one of the lower-ranking public high schools in Connecticut at that time, I had just started practicing mindfulness. I saw there every day a cross-section of what is the United States of America: a large number of immigrant students were in the classes I was teaching—they were often a Spanish-speaking classes, though a number of immigrants came from Asia and the Middle East. Because of a student who had brought a gun to school, there were gun checks at the door and security guards in the hallway. Some of the teachers were real bodhisattvas; many had reached the limit of their capacity to teach.

Imagine, if you can, a school like that, where Latino, African-American, and European-American students, as well as students from the Middle East and Asia, are all growing up together, studying together, but with a practice that allows them all to stop at the sound of the bell and go back to their breath. That can generate a collective energy that is palpable—a school where you can live in brotherhood and sisterhood. If there is nothing else, they always have the connection of coming back to the breath.

The breath has no ideology, no religion, and it does not force us to submit to any nationalistic or other creed. It connects us as living beings. If students in a school like that are able to build this kind of connection, imagine what that would do for society as a whole! You cannot conquer or frighten a society that has real brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the insight the Buddha had on the Vajjis, which he transmitted to us. I hope that Happy Teachers Change the World can contribute to creating communities like that all over the world.  

1 The sixteen steps of mindful breathing are described in the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing (plumvillage.org/sutra/discourse-on-the-full-awareness-of-breathing).
Load Previous Issue
Hide Transcript

What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

00:00 / 00:00
Show Hide Transcript Close
Shopping cart
There are no products in the cart!