Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962–1966

Image of Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962-1966
Reviewed by:

“A satisfying read on many levels . . .” 

Fragrant Palm Leaves is the work of a person in his mid-thirties coming to terms with realistic acceptance of the meanings that arise from his monk’s training and leadership role in trying to reform Buddhism in his country, Vietnam. Included in these musings are the great possibilities of leadership and mission as well as significant disappointments of personal loss.

The strength of the journals lies in Hahn’s honesty in his writing. The journal entries are not private musings but poignant and often powerful reflections, inspirational messages directed at his followers. A controversial figure in Vietnam as he went into to exile (for the first time) in May 1966, he wrote that he doubted if the collection would pass the censors. “If it can’t be published, I hope my friends will circulate it among themselves.”

The memoir opens in 1962 in mid-winter at Columbia University in Manhattan and at Princeton University in New Jersey. Thay is in exile from Vietnam for his controversial challenges of the government and the traditional Buddhist hierarchy in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his eighties now, is a Zen Buddhist master, a peace activist and the founder of global Communities of Mindfulness. He has written scores of books and is known affectionately by followers as “Thay” (teacher in Vietnamese).

In the first section of the journals many striking descriptions of Thay’s reminiscences of the secluded mountain monastery and retreat he built with his friends and comrades—monks and nuns—at the place they named Phuong Boi contrast with his descriptions of the stark winter beauty of an American northeastern winter. “Phuong” means “fragrant” and “boi” is a palm leaf on which the “teachings of the Buddha were written in ancient times.”

Anyone who has resonated with a “place of the heart” now lost to them will be powerfully moved by Thay’s descriptions of life at idyllic Phuong Boi and his sheer joy in the beauty he finds there. His realization that he cannot remain attached to this place is a lesson for us all. As he writes, quoting another monk, “Phuong Boi doesn’t belong to us, we belong to Phuong Boi.”

Whether it is in the starry sky in Vietnam or a winter storm in New Jersey, in any place he lives Thay finds solace and cosmic connection to nature. “I still respond to the call of the cosmos . . . with all my body, with every atom of my being, every vein, gland and nerve, I listen with awe and passion. That is how I feel when I hear the call of sky and earth.”

Among many other reflections Thay touches on the passing of youth and the permanency of truth. He shares several instances of his own growing realizations on the nature of reality and illusion. These moments contain the clarity of awakened understanding. They are illuminating and encourage us to continue in our practices knowing that we, too, can experience the conviction of Truth. “How can we continue to live if we were changeless? To live we must die every instant. We must perish in the storms that make life possible. I cannot force myself back into the shell I’ve broken out of.”

Thay returns to Vietnam in 1964 after his stint lecturing in the USA and although Phuong Boi has fallen into ruin in the tropical environment, he and his cadre of followers devise Buddhist practices in the impoverished rural village communities where they find themselves. These practices are the bedrock from which will evolve the Communities of Mindfulness that Thay will establish around the globe. Several years later Thay goes into permanent exile and settles in France where he builds Plum Village, a monastery and retreat center serving thousands of followers over many decades. There are several Communities of Mindfulness in the United States committed to serving the spiritual needs of all.

A satisfying read on many levels: a great introduction to Thay’s ideas, to the majesty of his poetic writing, and to understanding the inspiration for his spiritually based activism.

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This week of Christmas/New Year I want to honor a friend who is undergoing an unfortunate decline in health and who is often in my mind. I visited her one Christmas week several years ago and the shared experience of celebrating Christmas and New Year in New Mexico remains memorable.

She lived in Las Placitas, a newer development on a mesa between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We walked every morning across the mesa. The rimy frost was still frozen under the shaded scrubby bushes. Sunlight splashed on the semi-desert plants and we observed the occasional hawk and hare. Her dog ran free returning to check on us, tongue lolling, fur flying. The crystalline blue dome, a huge sky, reminded me of the high veld in South Africa where I was born. Johannesburg, like Las Placitas is situated at six and half thousand feet. Indeed,  with déjà vu a constant presence, I could have been anywhere on the high veld. Big Sky panoramas; powerful all encompassing feeling.

A mutual friend invited us to celebrate Christmas Eve in the nearby old village of Placitas. (See below.) She was carefully restoring a centuries old adobe house into an ecologically sustainable building. Her vegetarian meal made from produce she grew in her garden, delectable.

After dinner, at the appointed hour, we joined the throng of villagers (and some tourists) to walk around the unpaved streets of the village, singing carols at almost every house, a time-honored tradition, until we arrived at the house that served as the inn in the Christmas story. Each year a different home is chosen and a tightly kept secret among the village leaders. There we were invited to a feast around a diorama of the nativity.

But what I remember vividly are the faralitos or luminarias, brown paper bags anchored by a layer of sand into which candles are set to form striking paper lanterns. These line the adobe roof lines and village roads and paths.


Images from Wikipedia








On New Year’s Day we visited a nearby pueblo. The villagers performed a reindeer/yak/buffalo dance, and I could swear I was back in Nepal or northern India witnessing Buddhist festivities with dancers in giant masks and beaded costumes. The drumbeat soon became mesmerizing echoing the steady metronome of my heart. It was difficult to take our leave.

The land bridge from eastern Siberia across the Bering Straits to the New World was suddenly real; in millennia past people made this crossing with some semblance of these dances and these rituals. Buddhists believe that a vortex of spiritual energy runs from Mt. Kailash in Tibet through our planet and emerges at a sacred mountain near Sedona, Arizona, emanating spiritual energy from east to west.

So, my friend, as you proceed on your crossing, the spiritual energy you emanate pulses through all the lives you touched and still touch in your remarkable life’s journey. I am grateful to know you.

History of Placitas
“When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, Mexican authorities advised the settlers to move their families down to their relatives in the Pueblos and villages of the Rio Grande Valley because there was no protection from raiding tribes. By the late 1830s the raiding had subsided and the settlers returned. There were greater numbers and many new areas within the Land Grant were opened up to accommodate the growing families. Around 1840 the present Village of Placitas was established with its own spring-fed acequia system which still supplies irrigation and domestic water to the Village. Here, arroyos were filled in and sloping land was terraced to provide new fields to cultivate. Springs as far away as Tunnel Springs were accessed for Village area irrigation.

“Placitas has flourished; during the 1960’s and 1970’s it was popular among the counter-culture movement in New Mexico, and now it thrives with more upscale residents seeking a scenic non-urban setting close to Albuquerque. Placitas is still home to descendants of the land grant who continue to respect the land, water and culture of the area.”

Sources used:

Place Names of New Mexico by Bob Julyan

A Brief History of the San Antonio de Las Huertas Land Grant by Tony Lucero, President of the Land Grant

The above quote from


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Winter Solstice 2012


Breathe, relax, center and smile. Let things come and go, and just let be. It’s not about trying not to think but about letting things come and go. Learning to relax, just be,center, and naturally meditate is a well known spiritual secret that people ought to be able to learn and integrate into life. Like mental flossing, it keeps one open and free, calm and clear.

–Lama Surya Das, Dzogchen Center, Austin, Texas


Season’s Greetings, I decided this year instead of a rundown of where I have been and whom I was with, and what I saw and what I didn’t see. As well as what happened to me and what didn’t happen, I’ll share two useful “message” out of the hundreds that come my way each year. The first is from one of my Buddhist meditation teachers, Lama Surya Das. How often this year I have heard these words in my head “breathe, relax, center and smile.” It is such a powerful mantra, and so useful as a centering or attention practice.     

The other (below) came my way from another teacher, Lawrence Hillman, who quotes the Apple visionary, Steve Jobs (who literally changed our world). I love Jobs’ imagery of connecting the dots of our lifelines.

My heartfelt wishes to you and yours for a healthy and fulfilling 2013. May we all “connect the dots” awaiting us and learn a little more about where we are going.

Steve Jobs once said,  “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

At this threshold moment in history, I wish to remind you that nobody can predict what will come in the future and that if you trust that part of you that knows this, you will connect the dots in due time.

–Lawrence Hillman


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Several times a year, with permission, I use this blog space to share student responses to what they are learning in my classroom. This is the response of a high school senior to an introduction to meditation practice.

1. The Universal Breath

The diamond mind of sharp, concentrated focus and the profound physical state of relaxation create a terrifyingly brilliant experience. Meditation, deeply and intricately connected to Eastern philosophical cultures, allows an individual to follow one’s own breath to find an inner state of harmony and to develop an awareness of one’s basic goodness. Compassion for one’s self and others is crucial in a harmonious society.  Through meditation, guided by the breath, one can leave the chaos and distractions of the external world for inner tranquility.  Few things are universal. However, the gentle inhale and exhale of breath, bringing oxygen to the bloodstream and thus enabling life is a common, shared experience throughout the human species.  In accordance with Eastern teachings, inner goodness—or the innate and natural tendency toward good—exists within every person, just like the breath.  With attention to the breath, one can journey to find ones inner goodness and gain the experiential knowledge that comes from meditating.

2. Confusion or Liberation

Many teachings of philosophy incorporate a metaphor indicative of the closed minded nature of the majority of human beings, whether it is the metaphor of the cave in Plato’s The Republic—where all the people watching the shadows on the walls of the cave are in utter disbelief of the world outside and shun the man who has seen beyond—or, as depicted in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the people who cannot look within themselves to find their own inner goodness and instead live in fear of themselves and the world around them.  Our consciousness manifests within the universe in two distinctive states: confusion or liberation.  Liberation is the state of enlightenment and meditation is the means by which one can access such a state of internal clarity, peace, and harmony.  As outlined in Shambhala, basic goodness is the innate good of “being alive” regardless of more material things such as “accomplishments or fulfilling our desires.” To acknowledge basic goodness is to recognize our “actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good.” Through meditation, one can become awake, acknowledge the superficiality of society while maintaining an unshakable understanding of true, basic goodness. Meditation has given me a refuge as I have seen a glimpse of the universe within myself.

3. The Essence of Now-ness

A spiritual warrior is “one who is brave” and such bravery must manifest in “the tradition of fearlessness”; “ultimately…the definition of bravery [is] not being afraid of yourself.” I often feel disconnected and almost alienated from the world around me when my mind and body are pulled in different directions and even divisions of my mind—my heart, my soul, my conscious attention, my focus, etc—are at odds with one another.  In a chaotic world, it is easy to fall victim to compelling and yet opposing forces.  If one allows this to happen, the luxury of introspection is lost, as is the awareness of basic goodness. As “synchronizing mind and body is looking and seeing directly beyond language”, I find meditation weds my deepest, most profound inner conflict: how to understand science and religion in relation to one another.  The answer, lies within the gentle, peaceful harmony that is buried within each of our chests and can be traced to the gentle rise and fall of the chest with each deep inhale and each beautiful exhale.

Poet Li-Young Lee speaks about the power of the breath and how, when one pays attention to it and trains oneself to go beyond the shallow, superficial few seconds we have usually allot each breath, one can change their perspective.  With deep breath comes deep thought.  Reality transforms as we ground ourselves to be present in each moment as our lungs fill to their full capacity.  Meditation is a perpetual state of introspective focus, the union of body and mind, and comes to find peace within reality.  To be afraid of nothing is to be “experiencing that very moment of your state of mind, which is the essence of ‘now-ness’.”

4. Meditation—Access to Clarity and Alleviation of Fear

Throughout our guided meditations, I have become deeply invested in the experiential aspects of learning.  My personal experiences have been profound. In the first meditation, I focused intently on the breath.  I felt my lungs open as my posture improved, my shoulders rolled back and my head aligned with my spine. As breath pushed my diaphragm out, and my focused dropped from the tension of worldly thoughts, I felt the bright warmth of light radiate within my chest cavity.  To articulate my experience in the most juvenile of manners, I felt a tingle, an excitement that radiated from my concentration and my breath that I experienced as a child when waiting for Santa Claus to come, with his mystical reindeer and brightly wrapped presents, on Christmas Eve.  In coming out of the first mediation, I found it curious to equate the two experiences, but as I internalized the innate sensation, I realized that I found hope, pure joy, or, ultimately, unadulterated goodness through meditation.  As a child, this sensation is easily accessible, as we are not so grounded in the superficial realities we engage in later.  However, as we grow up, we fall into our roles in society, becoming fearful of the back corners of our minds.  Meditation is our access to clarity and alleviation of fear.

My second experience meditating came to me when I heard our teacher say, “Good, the energy in the room is much better now” as everyone’s focus had dropped from their heads to their bodies.  In a focused trance  I had forgotten those around me.  As I heard the vibrations of her voice, reminding me of their presence, I shifted my focus to the energies in the room.  Immediately, from the blank, dark of my mind, a spiraling gold light materialized, twisting towards me.  Shocked, I abandoned the image and dropped down to the breath once again.

Back in class, we spoke about transformational figures and monks who had devoted their entire lives to meditation.; we spoke of how those individuals have an incredible presence and that their goodness emanates from them at all times.  On some level, I believe that everyone has an energy that radiates from within.  Without the clutter of language and the trivialities of words exchanged, we can sense others’ presences as I intensely experienced in my meditation. Through meditation, we can find the true, good energy within ourselves and channel it.  The Dalai Lama responded in the movie “Kundun” when asked if he was the Lord Buddha, “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”  In this manner, each person has unknown, universal goodness within themselves that can be reflected in the eyes of others.

5. Harmony Between Mind and Body

In abandoning fear, in diving within myself, in finding harmony between body and mind, I have unearthed a compassion for those around me, as well as for myself. Fear inhibits our potential beyond belief and above my desk, I have the quote “Be fearless: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” as a constant reminder that so often, the bars of our cages—cages that define our social and cultural experiences in life—are fashioned from our own thoughts of fear and apprehension.  To release oneself from such negativity is to sit gently on the earth and allow the soul to reunite with the sky, to find harmony between body and mind is to access basic goodness.  To meditate is to find “drala”: “the unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that [go] beyond any dualism.” Meditation allows me to understand my ego and the societal cultivation of empty materialism so as to align myself with the metaphysical or the universal spirit of goodness.  Through meditation, I see myself, and those around me in relation to the earth and the sky.


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This week I find myself in the north-east kingdom of Vermont at a retreat center near St. Johnsbury. Over the almost thirty years since I came to this country with my American born husband and South African born children, I have stayed every several years somewhere in the Green Mountain state. Together with the Pacific northwest I find it to be the most beautiful and, dare I use the word, spiritual, of all the states in our presently troubled Union. Lush shades of green everywhere and from here, now, where I look from my porch when I raise my head from my laptop, I see a valley of grasses and bushes, a line of magnificent trees, tops of mountains and a blue sky traversed by slowly moving cloud galleons. Yesterday on a short walk across the fields (beware of ticks) I saw a groundhog, a woodchuck, and a doe. Nothing remarkable, except they were not scared, they did not run off until I could almost touch them, and that is unusual. The perfectly sculptured doe stared back at me with queenly curiosity. Even the monarch butterfly stayed motionless so I could take a photograph, as well as a black, white and blue beauty called The White Admiral.

My retreat cabin measures seven by nine feet, scarcely room to fit a single bed. It has many small shelves, a desk that folds away and drawers under the bed. It reminds of a small yacht cabin carefully designed to make use of all the space. I have electricity and an internet connection but no plumbing. The outdoor privy, thirty feet from the cabin, opens to the fields and the sky, the world is mine. This is like camping in a thin wooden and not a canvas shell (or whatever the modern hi-tech tent material is called).

Essentially I am here to write, and delighted to have this time and this space. It is so important for me to immerse myself in my rewriting, to come to know my characters and their story, as if they are here with me.

Yet like Transcendentalist Thoreau, who after a session in his cabin or a walk in the woods at Walden Pond, would return home to Concord for lunch; I enjoy going to the main house to take my meals with the hard-working and friendly staff. We have a young chef who creates wholesome and delicious vegetarian meals from the center's own garden. I trust the concoction of my own fiction will be as easy on the reading palate and as digestible as hers.


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It has been an interesting couple of weeks. I have been on holiday with my son, my niece (his cousin), her husband and their two baby girls, aged 4 years and 17 months. We have been visited by my ex (my son’s father) and by my son’s friend. That makes three generations under one roof and provides a petri dish for examining family dynamics. At times I have found that I was listening attentively to a four-year old as she recited the story of “Cinderella” and then I created and play-acted with her our own post-modern ending after the ending, while also playing a game with the baby of repetitive calling of our names to one another, listening to my niece’s logistical plans for the day, and my son’s account of the baseball game the previous night. I observed how space opened in me to be attentive and accommodate the various interactions. This is situational dynamics that I am sure many of you recognize. I enjoyed the shift of energy and the non-stop activity from six am until somewhere around eleven pm.


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Lotus pond, Lumbini, India ©Janet Levine 2007

One of the Buddha’s profound teachings is that the greatest prayer is patience. Nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to think, but simply to be, and be patient. Let’s examine this further, what is  patience? According to the Buddha’s teachings, patience is a mind structure that accepts the truth of a situation as it is. It contains all the meditation and self-awareness practices you have undertaken in order for you to arrive at this patient point that is the eternally present moment and from where you can see cause and effect, the subjective conditioning we bring to all our psychological states and interactions, our understanding of the ephemeral nature of change and nature of duality in this realm where we live our lives.

From this vantage point we can understand that to experience insult and distress without resentment and to persevere is not wimpish behavior but an act that arises from  self-knowledge and courage. The stance manifests our understanding of objective truth. From a negative point of view, it seems that patient endurance is to tolerate an adverse situation. However, in reality, endurance is not in a cowardly way blindly accepting what happens. Once we have glimpsed objective reality beyond our relativism we can be proactive, yes proactive, by being patient, and not expending energy on emotions of anger, fear, resentment and blame. A mind-state of patience is effortless, a state of clear understanding.

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