Memories of the 2013 Retreat of Awakening Lions Camp, Southern California
Under the warm sun of an early summer day, a group of young campers at the 2013 Retreat of Awakening gathered together under the shade of an old pine tree and asked me the above question. The answer to this question was not simple. It not only revealed the true concerns of the young people at the camp, but more importantly, this question calls upon those who have responsibilities in Buddhism to address this issue, as it has been asked over the past decades, referring to terms like “modernizing”. The young people sitting next to me did not just sporadically ask this question; they have been contemplating about their spiritual path and spirituality, as the generations before them have too asked this same question when wanting to affirm the path they have chosen.
These young people are in their thirties, born and raised in America, with a college education, and are working professionals rising and excelling in their careers. What sets them apart from others in their age group is their desire to make life more purposeful and meaningful. When building a life based on these concepts and dedicating themselves to serving society, these young people have discarded the old way of just living passively, of just “going through the daily routine of going to work, coming home, and doing it all again the next day”, but instead “stepping out and finding their own path”.
The presence of young people, not only at the Retreat of Awakening, but everywhere encourages others including myself to focus on ways to help our youth deepen their spiritual growth and their zeal/passion to pursue their dreams and goals. At this moment, I would like to express my deep heartfelt emotions towards those who have come together on this same path and recognized the need to attain our goal, often referred to as “ideals”. Being involved with the Buddhist Youth Association for almost twenty years in the U.S., I greatly cherish the IDEALS of the organization. I recognize that people who live their lives by upholding their ideals face many challenges, but in return their lives are more MEANINGFUL, bringing more benefits to others in society.
As Buddhists, we have seen how Prince Siddhartha is an excellent example of someone who had discovered the meaning of life, by teaching and showing all beings the way to truly liberate. He had the courage to leave behind his family fortune, fame, and power when he realized that the path to seek is not the monarchy throne but the path of Enlightenment to help others liberate from the suffering within the Cycle of Life.
I once read this strong warning in a literature: “Oh beings! Why do you not fear and stay away from suffering but instead continue to delve into it?”. We continue to endure it, just like in the story of how the King Monkey continuously endured the painful prodding of the needles on its head when it acted a specific way. It is like the wheels of the cart being pulled by the cow; the wheels keep rolling on and on, endlessly! By truly understanding life, you will see that you have many choices in life. You can choose to move forward and rise up, serving others similar to Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. For those with different religious faith, there are endless examples of great role models whom have devoted their lives to serving others such as Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr.
FAITH FOR OUR YOUTH
The Retreat of Awakening is a summer camp lasting 3 days and 3 nights, which is longer than the 48-hour trips I was granted (when in the military) in the past. Being at camp allows young people opportunities to reflect, contemplate on past actions but more importantly recognize the challenges on the paths that they are currently pursuing. They can clearly see the effect and true benefits of Buddhism when faced with the needs and issues of today’s time. With that said, the environment at camp does not heavily emphasize theories and philosophies! The camp program and agenda is very relaxing and lay-back. There are interactive fun games and activities, reflective meditations in the morning, talent shows in the evening, vegetarian meals to enjoy, and many opportunities to network and build friendships with good (kind, friendly) people!
At this camp, I really like the way that we carry out teamwork. While working and having fun together, we also learn about responsibilities through our assigned and shared tasks. We get the job done in the spirit of cooperation and solidarity. This spirit is what the Buddha calls “compassionate collaboration, within the four all-embracing virtues”. We live in the Information Age where collaborative work and shared information are transmitted quickly and effectively, overcoming all physical obstacles.
From any remote locations, we can “sit” together via teleconference call to exchange information, discuss, or solve problems as if we were physically in the same room.
Furthermore, recognizing the benefits of serving the common good, we need to change our attitudes and practice standing up courageously to take on a task or accept a job that we’ve been entrusted with. This attitude and spirit of service should be promoted in all cases and in all situations, especially during the camp’s staff meetings when tasks and responsibilities are assigned. For those who recognize their skills or the areas they enjoy working in, you are all welcome to “follow the calling”. For those who are good at administrative work, know a lot about designs, or are skillful in creating activities for large groups, you should volunteer and contribute.
Broadly speaking, I believe the meaning of life for a young person only takes shape when it is built on the foundation of serving others. When one comes across a person in the street who is suffering, lend a helping hand.
Living with a true, pure heart, with no personal gains, and only wanting to do volunteer work, our youths will make positive contribution in life and to mankind. Hence, I believe the sessions led by Ms. Quyen Vuong and Mr. John Bell on the last day of camp will help build the spirits of the campers as they journey on their chosen paths.
ACTIVITIES IN BUDDHISM
We all recognize how living in this new country have brought vast, profound changes to many aspects of our lives, transforming some of our traditional beliefs and values, and at times even bringing about worries and concerns. Likewise, the views on traditional Buddhist beliefs cannot avoid also being transformed, but they can be explained. Some believe that most people do not uphold the image of a temple in the same regard as in the past, as described by poet Huyen Khong “a pagoda’s roof shelters the soul of a nation, the way of life of past generations”. In the thoughts and emotions of many people, not just those who believe in the Buddha, Buddhism pervades a person’s way of life, creating a connection and understanding among all people. A temple (or pagoda) symbolizes the power of love, selflessness, and desire to liberate often found upon the door of meditation.
The essence of Buddhism has not changed, but a person’s heart and mind today have changed; people have changed the way they view traditional values, including how they view Buddhism. Young people have expressed what they hope and expect in today’s Buddhism; in my opinion, that image is the journey that they will take part in and find inspiration from the nature setting at the Lions Camp (at the Retreat of Awakening).
Nature shelters and fosters us, enriching our lives. We often look to nature as a source of energy and comfort. It seems the campers present at the 2013 Retreat of Awakening (at the Lions Camp) recognize the invaluable experience of gathering together among the old pine trees towering over the mountain of 4,000 feet high. Surrounded by the majestic scenery and loving shelter of Mother Nature, campers instantly feel rejuvenated and refreshed upon arrival to the campsite. From the start, there are many interactive games and activities that help connect and bond the campers. I really enjoyed the game called GETTING ACQUAINTED; it helps campers easily get to know each other in a fun way. For example, people who drive the same type of cars find each other and form a group; those who drive a Toyota form a group with those whom also drive a Toyota. Then, the game changes and people form groups according to various age groups: middle age, early-twenties, those near “mid-life crisis”, etc. (I think it’s to differentiate who will get the red lucky money envelope in the next Lunar New Year!) The people who coordinated and led these games are very talented and creative!
Youth activities should build upon the spirit of teamwork and collaboration. Collaboration creates the condition and environment for love and friendship to flourish into fruition. It’s often said that one tree alone cannot make a difference, but a group of three trees standing tall together can become a high mountain. Let’s come together, hold hands, open our hearts and listen to each other’s sorrow, suffering, and emotional thoughts. By doing so, we will realize that nature have brought us closer together, to help us find the emotional connection with all things and all beings.
Personally for me, I became emotional when I heard a camper (named T.), a first year student studying Medicine, shared how he was currently suffering in a situation he was in. He shared in English: I am filled with sorrow. I don’t know what to do to be able to stay connected to my brothers and sisters in the Youth Group. I have known them for a long time; we had Dharma and Vietnamese classes together. I miss them; I love them a lot. I feel helpless in a situation that is difficult and out of my control. About a half hour earlier, in my conversation with T., I had comforted him with these words: Time is the best medicine for healing, let’s support each other. When I returned to my temple, I continuously thought about this: How many other young people out there are similar to T., currently enduring sorrow and anxiety and now knowing how to overcome it? These types of gatherings in a nature setting help people to easily detach from the old ways of behaving and thinking, and become more understanding and empathetic to each other. Lions Camp is adjacent to the Bodhi Youth of America Camp, which had recently been renovated to support these types of activities and spirit. I believe on the weekends of every two months, if the whole family (parents and children) could attend the BYA Camp for two days of practice and fun activities, they will feel more relax.
The stress of daily life will be reduced and the family willattain more happiness.
Next year, the 2014 Retreat of Awakening will be held in Texas. The camp staff will begin researching the best place to host the 2014 camp, after the announcement of the new Camp Director. Ms. Thanh Van D. Nguyen, from Oklahoma City, has been voted by the camp staff to be the 2014 Camp Director. Venerable (Thầy) Thich Dao Quang, after more than a year of leading the camp staff with new, innovative ideas for the 2013 Retreat, will now become the assistant to the 2014 Camp Director. The Retreat of Awakening developed this style of working, and hopes to preserve this tradition as it enhances the sense of share responsibilities and service.
AWARENESS OF A NEW PATH
New ideas and ways of hosting camps, such as the Retreat of Awakening, is only one of many methods to meet the needs of improving and sustaining our organization. The young people’s concerns about Buddhism were shared under the old, shady pine trees at the Lions Camp. There is a need for a new way of viewing Buddhism and the need to take actions in the youth organizations that have been in existence for over 60 years. This work, in my opinion, is similar to the movement to revive Buddhism in the 1930’s (in the 20th century), that changed the cynical Buddhist view.
This work is also meaningful, in that it continues the efforts of Buddhism in the late 1960’s, of making the Buddhist teaching more practical and applicable to our daily lives.
Now is also the time to have a fresh, new perspective on Buddhism, adapted to the true needs and demands of our time that young people have expressed.
What form of Buddhism is for us in the 21st century? I believe it is a form of Buddhism that is consistent with science, aligns with the principle of Cause and Effect, and brings sustainable peace to our daily lives.
This effort also aims to bring forth a new sense of Buddhism, in the spirit of service to benefit all beings; it is the work of everyone who believes in Buddhism, including the young people in the Retreat of Awakening with their concerns and hope.
Ven. Tu Luc visited the teachers of the Bo De School in Southern California | Photo: Quang Phap
Looking at American society so active and proliferous, we Buddhist practitioners sometimes have some conflicting ideas. We believe in the bright future and great growth of American society and the strong value of human rights in the United States; however, the law of impermanence in the Buddha’s teaching is still with us.
Through the news and TV programs, I feel the youth’s spiritual needs are not being met. We believe that without true direction, youth will not be able to develop their true potential and might be stuck in this society with such strong and fast growth.
I feel very honored and happy to attend the Vatican’s conference on ‘Buddhist – Christian dialogue’ in the summer of 2015. With my spirit of a Buddhist monk in Engaged Buddhism, I would like to contribute a few ideas in regards to youth in America.
A few key points that I would like to share are as follows:
We, as spiritual leaders need to continue understanding youth’s wishes, desires and thinking in this Information Age. From there we may be able to guide them to have strong belief in their spiritual path, in order to help them build a strong, constructive and healthy future and bring benefits to all people.
We need to encourage youth to pay attention to their family life where their daily activities and connections are with their loved ones. In the spirit of religion, families are like a warm place to nourish people. If we have a solid and harmonious family, then we have created an environment for youth to live happily and solidly in order to build a healthy society.
Now I would like to introduce my students who have accompanied me on this trip, Brother Pho Duc and Sister Pho Chau. They are also my assistants and recently were assigned to be the spiritual advisors to the Buddhist Youth groups: Chanh Tam (Right Heart) and Chanh Hoa (Right Harmony). Brother Pho Duc was born into a virtuous family of teachers. He graduated from the University of Education in Vietnam. As a monastic in the United States, he continued going to university studying multi religions until 2006.
Sister Pho Chau came to the United States when she was 10 years old; she graduated from the University of Hawaii. She became a nun to serve mankind. She also has served at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, as a chaplain; assisting the patients and their family members.
Brother Pho Duc and sister Pho Chau are young and represent the young generation; they both will contribute direct and practical experiences to young people. The reason we create this document is to share our hearts with you, the conference attendees, to build our relationship and fraternity.
I sincerely express my deep appreciation to Pope Francis who shows a generous heart when he created and supported this opportunity. I also want to thank Professor Donald Mitchell of Purdue University who has helped and encouraged me on the journey to attend this conference.
MY YOUTH, MY STORY:
My youth occurred during the war in Vietnam, therefore I had more sorrow than joy. I remember my family was in a village that was about 20 km in the south of Hue city, which is Central Vietnam. In high school at the age of 14, I already felt there was something wrong in my future. I stopped going to school and left home when I was 15 years old, even though my family had enough food and clothes, and I knew my parents loved me very much. The only thing was that I felt nobody understood me and I needed to leave home and find my own path! During these 2 years away from home, I lived with friends. One of my best friends was a member of the Buddhist Youth group; he was three years older than me. We shared with each other many experiences of happiness and sorrow. We had lots of fun discussing ancient Chinese stories. We felt sad when feeling lonely and disconnected from life; we also felt poor when we had to share a cigarette. During this period, I also was a friend with a Catholic man. The interesting thing was that both of us had a dream to live a monastic life. Dũng wanted to be a Jesuit priest, focusing on education. I had to wait for eight more years to have the ‘right condition’ to realize my dream. Knowing Dũng, and a friend with many Catholic practitioners, and especially because of my father’s acquaintance with Father Ngoc & Uncle Oai at the Catholic village, My Luong, I had love and respect for other religions early.
As a refugee in the United States in 1975, and living by myself, I had the opportunity to look closely at my life. Leaving behind me the sorrow past of a war-torn life, I did my best to rebuild my life in this new free society. Because I experienced a poor quality of life in a war-torn country that I had just left, I appreciate the meals full of nourishment in this country. Since then I also love the children who are starving in Africa and in many other places in the world. I remember when I contribute to the fundraising to support the hungry children in Vietnam, coordinated by sister Chan Khong of Plum Village since 1978, every month $10.
I deeply connect with the loneliness and lost feelings of young people; especially when they no longer have faith in society, or they can not lean on their loved ones or have a warm and loving connection with their family members. My personal experience was the months and years away from home, as a homeless person, lying on a hammock, in the middle of the jungle full of danger in the Central part of Vietnam. I love and respect the warm, connected atmosphere of families. I realize that growing up in a family full of care with understanding and love, a child may be able to become a solid person both spiritually and physically.
Believing in this, when I graduated from University and started to work with youth, I focused on building and working closely with the Buddhist Youth groups. At the Compassion Meditation Center in Hayward, California where I reside, we now have three Buddhist Youth groups: Right Heart, Right Virtue, and Right Harmony, a total of about 300 students. I also participate in retreats of the Retreat of Awakening, Harmony Pine Camp and the WakeUp movement. I also attend many camps of Boy Scouts, youth of Catholic groups to maintain the Vietnamese culture in many places in the United States.
I believe that through our common activities with the same goal of supporting society and humanity with love and compassion for youth, we can build a close, sincere and long lasting brotherhood and sisterhood relationship.
I feel at ease and happy as a Buddhist monk. Looking back, for the last 20 years plus, I made friends with many young people. Despite our various religions, languages and cultures, we collaborated to build our community in friendship and love. I specifically remember the connection at the summer camp with Unaccompanied Minors (orphans) coordinated by the Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. I treasure this memory (I have a picture of this event hanging in my room.) Wow! I felt love and heart-felt emotion looking at young children, thinking of my poor situation in my past, and being lonely without connections to my parents and other family members.
However, I had many connections with friends to nourish human touch. Recently Professor Mitchell kindly offered to help me transport a mindfulness bell to Rome. The sound of the spiritual bell reminds me of a lovely memory spending time with some young people. I used a lid of a pan as a mindfulness bell to guide a sitting meditation with a Catholic family. Such a courageous young man, no roadblocks! I have fun thinking about this story. That year I was 32 years old. I took 3 months going through 20 states in the United States to share the dharma in many places with many people. In my youth, I had neither serious obstacles nor disaster. Similar to so many other families and people in a country during wartime, we had to be patient, tolerant and even be-friend with the difficulties and danger of war. I recognize I did not have a clear future for myself. Luckily, perhaps because I was raised in a strong and healthy family, I did not fall into serious problem. After that, growing more in the United States, I had many wonderful opportunities of ‘right conditions’, I found peace and joy in my life. On the path of service, through my own experience, I understand somewhat the wishes and desires of youth in this modern society, what do they want, what are they struggling with. I vow to do my best to guide youth, to help young people have better spiritual path and energy to progress solidly in life. Hopefully society will be peaceful and have more joy and less suffering. I believe exactly as the teaching and wishes of the Pope. This is also the path of Bodhisattvas in Buddhism:
May all beings be safe.
May the world be peaceful and happy.
HOW IS YOUR YOUTH?
Each morning when I wake up, I ask myself: How do I live? Life is not permanent; I know that each minute, each hour during the day is for me to live in each moment. I need to live in peace in order to bring joy and happiness for myself and consequently for others. I practice this gatha from the practice of Plum Village tradition, and I want to invite you to do the same:
“Waking up this morning, I smile,
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment;
and to look at all beings with eyes of love and compassion”.
This is mindfulness, love and compassion. You may light up your mindfulness energy with your breath. Then smile and offer your gift to life. Let go of worries, and remember not to chase after a material life. The more I want in the material world, the less freedom and peace I have. I know the same is true for all of us. When I know I have ‘enough’ for both mind and body then I have happiness. I then vow to beautify the world. This is the path of compassion and loving kindness in Buddhism. We can look at all the people around us with loving eyes, from kind neighbors to police officers who protect us, from our loved ones to our coworkers. We can treat each other with loving-kindness, and we will see life is a joy and life is peaceful in each day, each hour.
I want to introduce another method, for example, PBS that is an acronym for Public Broadcasting System on television in San Francisco. And we can use it this way in mindfulness: P: Pause, B: Breathe & S: Smile. Once in a while, stop what you are doing; follow your breathing with awareness and a smile.
Another code from the world Medical Society is: SAFE. We need to look at this deeply.
S: Smoking A: Alcohol F: Food
We need to pay attention to these four areas of our life, and take care of them carefully. Naturally, don’t smoke or indulge in alcohol. Daily we need to watch out for our consumption in moderation and we need to exercise. If we apply these guidelines in pagodas or at home, we foster a happy and healthy life right in this world for ourselves and for those around us, even though the world may not be perfect.
If you want to progress further on this path, and you can achieve more peace and joy, plus have the capacity to help others; please let me introduce to you the Buddhist mindfulness practice. Mainly Buddhist mindfulness has two parts: stopping and looking deeply.
Stop wishing for things that are far-reaching ambition. Stop wanting material things and forget that you are living right here, right now, moment by moment. At our pagoda, I practice: mindfulness is the heart of life. I believe that with mindfulness we can stop and prevent creating bad things and cultivate good things. Therefore we can create goodness and beauty in our lives.
First thing we need to remember: When we have mindfulness, we can be our own bosses. Then look deeply in our activities during the day. For example, when you feel some sadness or anger, don’t let that anger hurt yourself and others. Don’t let a small anger become a huge deal, and regret later. Use mindfulness skillfully, breathing in and out with awareness and you will be the boss of that anger.
You will find peace and joy as a result of practicing mindfulness daily and being aware of your daily activities. You may want to practice 20 minutes a day. This is a time of peace and nourishment for our spiritual lives. I believe strongly in this. I wish you success.