Brother Chân Pháp Dung

The convergence of dreams

Dear friends on the path,

I hope you enjoy this digital painting that was inspired by Thay’s account of his dream, in which he was a music student who had to perform in front of a university audience. I began envisioning it one morning after waking up from my own dream in which Thay 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, with some hands holding various musical instruments.

Original artwork by Br. Phap Dung

In the days I was drawing this, the violent riot at the United States Capitol occurred on January 6, 2021. America once more saw the ugly side of itself again. I felt sad for the people who were tasked to help lead and unite the divided people of this nation. So this artistic exploration became a healing activity for me, a kind of balm for my heart from the mental ache that I was feeling for our human family. Focusing on Thay’s life and all the suffering and division that he managed to overcome, I felt more determined than ever to help realize his dream of building mindful communities where people from all walks of life can live harmoniously together even with differences of opinion, values, and approaches.

I kept this image from my dream and the resounding of the 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, from the urban coasts to the rugged mountains and across the rural central valleys. I projected the energy of this serene bell to everyone who may have been feeling left out for whatever reason, that their hearts could be calm, their minds find some space, and their spirits feel some relief from all the hate, blame, and wrong perceptions of separation.

Thay’s dream

Many years ago in a Dharma talk, Thay shared about this dream in which he was a student in a prestigious music school. It was time for the finals and everyone had to perform with their instruments in front of an audience. Thay was a little nervous in the dream because he had never learned how to play any musical instruments, so he did not know how he could pass this final test.

When it was time, Thay stood at the podium with his hands in his pockets. He stared into the audience, calmly following his breathing; suddenly he felt in his pocket the cold metallic surface of the mini bell that he normally brought with him wherever he went. He had been taught to use this bell at the temple and realized in that moment that this bell was also a musical instrument. Thay took out the bell, raised it to the audience and invited a sound as he had done his whole life. The sound of the bell resonating throughout the auditorium brought peace and serenity to everyone who heard it.

As the moment ended in the dream, Thay shared that he turned to the side of the stage to look for his teacher. Thay felt excited in the dream that he would be able to see his teacher, but as his teacher was about to enter into view, Thay woke up. Even so, in his heart he somehow knew who his teacher must have been. Throughout the years, I have heard Thay share this story, 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 and finish the story ourselves. Maybe that is why I have internalized the story and it manifested in my dream.

Community of awakening

I finished this drawing on MLK (Martin Luther King Jr.) Day, at the end of our lazy days on January 18, and so I dedicated it to the spiritual friendship between Thay and Dr. King and their mutual vision of building a global “beloved community” where we see each other as siblings of one family. I penned at the bottom of the drawing a few lines that I 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.

A medicine for our time

As I write in this moment, I think of Thay’s legacy of renewing Buddhist practices and 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 bell being invited, including our thinking and conversations, and returning all of our attention to our conscious breathing was invented or adapted by our teacher. Before that, in the temples, the bell did not have this explicit function or significance. Thay formulated this practice as a medicine for our times, an antidote to our modern culture of running and grasping and our inability to be fully present to what is happening in the present moment, caught in our constant over-thinking.

Thay has even expanded this practice of listening to the bell and applied it to include the sound of the clock chiming. In almost every Plum Village practice center, you will find a chiming clock installed in the dining hall that sounds every fifteen or thirty minutes. Practitioners are asked to stop all their activities when they hear the chime and to come back and pay attention 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, and recognize the present moment and the wonder of simply being alive.

An invitation

At this moment, I invite everyone to continue Thay’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 chiming clock in your living room or kitchen to remind you to stop. You may install a digital mindfulness bell on your laptop or smartphone and program it to sound periodically, to help you stop during your busy day. When you stop, close your eyes, recite the gatha, and come back to your “true home,” envisioning all of us breathing together throughout this land and around this planet, creating a collective energy of peace and kindness, and connecting us all in a moment of interbeing. This is not a practice of magic or romanticized imagination; it has a real potential to bring immediate benefit to ourselves, to those near, and to everyone that may randomly cross our mental field and may not even be in our awareness. No energy is ever lost. No ripples in the pond are without some effect, some retribution. 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, and together we can support one another on our path to build the beloved community, to bring change, and contribute to our collective awakening.

Brother Phap Dung