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The Wonderful World of Gathas

By David Percival

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The mind can go in a thousand directions,
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a cool wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.

If your path is like mine, you often find your mind jumping into the future, back to the past, fabricating ridiculous situations, and taking you to places you don’t want to go. Before you know it your path is littered with boulders of fear, anger, despair, frustration, and forgetfulness.

Thay tells us that the practice of Plum Village is to come back to the present moment and take care of the situation. Wherever we are — at home, at work, driving, gardening, at a meeting — we can use the energy of mindfulness to bring us back to ourselves, to the present moment. One powerful resource available to all of us is to make use of gathas throughout our day. Gathas are short poems or verses that we can recite, regardless of where we are, to help us return to the present moment and to dwell in mindfulness. Monastics in Thay's tradition practice gathas throughout their day.

As Thay says, “when we practice well, the gathas are with us continuously and we live our whole lives in awareness.” Gathas allow us to focus our mind, making it possible to almost instantly return to ourselves. Gathas help us to stop our relentless running, to slow down, to enjoy life in the here and now. While we enjoy walking, sitting, washing the dishes, turning the compost, we can stop our wild thinking; then we see the wonders of life in the present moment.

At my first retreat in the late 1980s, Thay taught us the following gatha, strongly suggesting that we memorize it:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

I did what Thay suggested and I will carry this gatha with me always. It is a continuous source of peace and calm.

Dwelling in Mindfulness

In June, 2006 at the Breath of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, Thay told us to use gathas and poetry to help us dwell in mindfulness throughout our day. For example, early in the morning, standing in front of my altar, I start every day as follows:

Waking 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 compassion.

Start by memorizing a few short gathas (see sidebar). Then add more, including longer ones. Notice the rhythm of the lines: recite the first line as you breathe in and recite the second line as you breathe out, and so on. When you are stuck in traffic, waiting in the queue at the bank, walking down a hallway at work, or going to the restroom, recite this gatha:

I have arrived (in-breath)

I am home (out-breath)

In the here (in)

And in the now (out) (repeat all four lines)

 

I am solid (in)

I am free (out) (repeat two lines)

 

In the ultimate I dwell (in)

In the Pure Land I dwell (out) (repeat two lines)

You will be able to sit, stand, or walk at ease. You can calm yourself, you can smile at the chaos around you, and you will be able to continue what you are doing in a focused mindful way. Then, when you find your mind going off in another direction pull another gatha from your gatha storehouse.

If you do a lot of walking meditation, either slow or fast (for exercise), you will note the built-in rhythm of walking and the gatha adapts well to any kind of walking. For example, with fast walking, my rhythm is four steps to each stanza:

In (in breath, four steps)

Out (out breath, four steps)

Deep (in, four steps)

Slow (out, four steps)

Calm (in, four steps)

Ease (out, four steps)

Smile (in, four steps)

Release (out, four steps)

Present moment (in, four steps)

Wonderful moment (out, four steps)

Or, with slow walking use one step per line. For me, fast walking is a very mindful practice and I try to do it in the present moment, enjoying the blue sky, the flowers, the insects, the birds, and my faster breathing.

A gatha is a poem, a song (see A Basket of Plums), and a guided meditation. They are the same and used in different situations. For example, with “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” I sing or chant it to myself as I walk, as I drive, as I work in my garden. The rhythm of walking, weightlifting, and working adapts well to the stanzas.

continued

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