The monks and nuns who answered our questions during the panel discussion at the retreat astonished us with their wisdom and enlightened us with their insight. This heavily edited version gives you a taste; we hope to publish more excerpts in future issues.
Question 1 (from a lay man): How can we practice with the current political situation, in particular America's role in the world, and how do we judge and understand what we're being told by the media? How do we maintain optimism and remain agents of change, without feeling confusion and despair?
Question 2 (lay woman): A lot of my family loves the military; they draw their support and livelihood from it. When they tell their war stories, I feel aversion and don't want to be there, but I love them and want to connect with them in other ways. Do you have suggestions for my practice around this?
Brother Phap Xo — Watering Positive Seeds
When I lived back home in Stockholm, Sweden, I really wanted to make a difference and contribute to a more beautiful world. Problems felt so overwhelming, so big; how can I ever understand? There’s so much suffering everywhere.
We’re all different. We talk about seeds, the different tendencies or qualities we have inside — despair, joy, hope, confidence, being judgmental. Some might have a very strong seed of joy and hope in them, and their seed of despair is not so strong; maybe they can consume a lot and still see clearly a path of light and beauty. For some of us when we consume even a little, we are heavy and discouraged.
When suffering arises in me due to causes around me or just inside, I think they’re real. I think it’s something that needs to be solved. I think it’s a matter of life-and-death urgency. And in those moments, I very easily forget that there are things going well, too. The sun is shining on my face. The wind is coming in, a gentle breeze. Sometimes my brothers, they see that I get a bit heavy and they try to make me laugh. Sometimes I feel like, Oh, what are you doing? I’m trying to do something serious, I’m practicing! Don’t distract me! [laughter] Little by little I'm getting better.
We have a wonderful practice of nourishing the positive elements in us. There is the teaching of changing the peg, changing the CD. When we see that our minds go in a way that makes us feel heavy and we keep having irritation against someone, the world, the government or whatever, we can change the CD.
It’s not that I ignore the suffering, it’s not that I ignore the difficulties inside or outside. But I see them in a little bit bigger light. I don’t forget that the sky is there and that the earth is still here. There might be some suffering but still there's a lot of solidity in you.
We learn from our practice. We stumble a little here and pick ourselves up; it’s a bit like trial and error. We have to know ourselves. Little by little we become more aware, we see more clearly, we know how to deal with difficulties and how to nourish ourselves. But we have to practice.
Sister Lang Nghiem — A Ghost in a Hammock
When I was about to move from Lower Hamlet to Deep Park — Lower Hamlet is in Plum Village in France, and Deer Park is in California — I wanted to write a letter to my sisters and to express my gratitude for each of them in a concrete way, recollecting a positive experience I had with each of them. This would nourish those seeds in myself and also in my sisters. Everyone got a really good paragraph, and when I got to this sister, absolutely nothing came up! [laughter] I tried. I picked up my pen and said, Okay, Dear Sister — and then I would wait, and nothing came up. But I continued to try, and several days later suddenly I remembered an experience that I’d had with her.
One night I couldn’t sleep, there was a storm raging in me, so I went out and sat in the hammock. In Lower Hamlet there’s a hammock next to the bookshop in a cluster of trees, and you can overlook the lotus pond and see the plum orchard. That night it was a full moon, and I could see the path like sand around the lotus pond, and the plum orchard, and the shadows of the trees. I sat there for a while and inside the storm was still raging. I was just trying to calm it down.
uddenly I heard footsteps behind me and someone asked, “Who is it?” I didn’t want to answer, I was focused on me, and I just sat still, swinging in my hammock. So I guess I was moving in and out of light and darkness, between the shadows from the tree and the moonlight. She asked, “Who is it?” several times. And I didn’t answer. Suddenly I felt pebbles at my feet, I was continuously being pelted with things. I realized what she was thinking and I just started smiling to myself. In Vietnam and in many cultures, ghosts don’t have feet.
I knew she thought I was a ghost or something. At one point I just turned around and stared at her as she continued to throws things at me. Then she came up and she recognized that it was me. “Oh, it’s you.” She sat next to me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I was really closed so I said nothing. So that night she just sat there, and she said she was determined to sit there, too, and I was wishing she’d go away! I kept telling her I was fine but finally it was too much for me so I got up and said, “Okay, we’ll both go to bed.”
I didn’t think much of that moment, but when I was writing the letter to her I was able to acknowledge that her presence that night helped to change the storm in me. That letter nourished me so much because as soon as I was able to acknowledge some goodness in her, my views completely changed about her. I didn’t look at her the same anymore, and I came to care for her in a way that I had never been able to care for her before.
If you’re having difficulties with someone, sit down and think of something really good that came of that person. It may change your perspective of the situation, the person, or the organization, and the government, too. If we look closely we’ll be able to identify people with wisdom, insight, and compassion, and we can find ways to support them. Even those whom we feel we really disagree with, we can look a little bit more and see that they’re not just that, they’re much more. We can look again to pick out these things, and then we can act from there.
Brother Phap Luu — No Fear, No View
So much of the suffering that we experience in the world, in America today, is because of fear. It comes from a sense of being a victim, a sense that we are not in control, a sense that there are outside forces that somehow have power over us. So the question is, how do we bring the Dharma into this moment, into our lives, so that we generate non-fear in ourselves and in those around us?
If we ask ourselves that question, moment to moment, we’re really asking ourselves, how am I generating non-fear for myself, for my family, for my community? That way we’re no longer prisoners to any government, to our society, to the fear of someone coming and shooting our young son, whatever fear we might have.
Our fears are irrational. We get in cars and drive around every day, and it’s much more likely that we’re going to die in a car accident than we’re ever going to be hijacked in an airplane. Global warming is something to be a afraid of — we’re talking about all of our successive generations.
In my practice, when I look at what I’m to do in every moment, I’m careful not to base what I’m doing in a view. I feel this is a lot of why we are ineffective in transforming the way society functions. I was in activist groups before I became a monk, so I have experienced what it means to base your actions on a view. This is clear, these people are killing, they're destroying the environment, right? Thus, I need to do this.
In his teachings on the Eightfold Path the Buddha said everything is based on right view. If we don’t have right view, how can we talk about right thinking? How can we talk about right concentration? We need to have a clear view.
Ultimately right view is the absence of any view. It’s only a matter of whether we're clear or not clear. It’s not a matter of good or bad, of judging, punishing, or even statistics. Those are all just views, ways of looking at the world. Avidya is ignorance; one way you can translate it is the absence of light.
How can we keep this mind clear moment to moment? There’s not fear, because in clarity there’s no birth, there’s no death. It’s just manifestation, and the absence of manifestation.
What we’re doing now, ten thousand years ago it was the same thing. At the time of the Buddha, there was a prince who killed his father and terrorized the countryside. The Buddha didn’t go out and protest. This is what they did at that time. Now we have elections. [laughter]
When we do walking meditations with Thay, we call it a peace walk, but what’s going on there? I’ve walked with banners, it’s very boring. But when you see Thay walking, it’s really interesting! You’re not quite sure what it is he’s doing. And we’re not quite sure either! We’re walking. No, we’re following our breathing, we’re following our steps. But is this about Iraq?
It’s for a reason that Thay is not saying this or that. What’s happening now, the seeds were planted hundreds of years ago. But if we want to change, we have to have a clear view right now, to affect what’s happening to our children, to successive generations.
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