Home is the Way – A Christmas message from Thầy

Christmas time is a time for the family, when family members return to their home. Wherever we may be, we try to find a way home to be with our family. It is like the Tết holiday in the Vietnamese culture. We decorate our house and find ways to make our home warm and cozy. We all yearn to have a home that is warm and loving; where we feel that we do not need to go anywhere, or to do or to pursue anything anymore. It is what we can call our ‘true home’. We all have this yearning, this deep desire to be in our true home.

Searching for our home
Jesus, as soon as he was born, had to be on the run right away and to be a refugee, a runaway without a home. When he grew up and became a young man, it was the same; he was still a wanderer with no real home to return to. In one of his discourses, he protested that even the birds have their nests to return to or the rabbits and squirrels have their burrows; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, no place to call home.

Siddhartha, as an adult, found himself in a similar situation. He was born into a royal family that was wealthy and privileged. He could have anything he desired. He had a beautiful wife and a good son. He had a bright future ahead of him; destined to be king and ruler of a great empire. But still, he did not feel comfortable even with all this. He did not feel at home. He was not at peace. Therefore, one day, he decided to leave his family in search of his true home, in search of inner peace.

Both Jesus and Siddhartha were searching for their true home. They wanted to find a warm abode where they would not have to search for anything anymore and where they would feel truly at home and at peace. Western people have a saying, “There is no place like home” that expresses the feeling that there is nothing like coming home after being away. Yet still, some of us do not feel at home, do not feel that we have a home to return to, even in our own families. It is because in our families, there is not enough warmth, not enough love, ease, peace or happiness.

Some of us have a homeland, living in the country where we were born, yet we still want to escape and go somewhere else. We feel like we do not have a homeland. Some Jewish people feel that they still do not have a homeland. They have been wandering and searching for a homeland for thousands of years – for a place, a piece of land to call home. Even to this day they have yet to find their homeland. And we – the French, the Americans, the British, and the Vietnamese  – we all have a country to call our homeland, but still, we do not feel contented and some of us want to leave. This is because we have not found our true home in our heart. This season, even if we buy a Christmas tree to decorate our home, this does not necessarily mean that we have found our true home or that we are at ease living in our homeland. For our home to be true, there needs to be love, warmth, and fulfillment.

Our True Home
In the end, Jesus found his true home in his heart. He found the light in his heart. He taught his disciples that they too have their own light and he taught them to bring that light out for others to see. Siddhartha taught that one’s true home can be found in the present moment. He developed practices for his disciples so that they too could find their true home. He taught that we each have an island within that is safe and secure. If we know how to return to this island, we can be in touch with our blood and spiritual ancestors, with the wonders of life, and with our own self. In the island of our true self, we can find peace and fulfillment.

Siddhartha found his true home and wanted everyone to be able to find their true home. When the Buddha was in his 80th year and knew that he would soon pass from this life, he felt a lot of compassion for his disciples and friends because he saw that many of them had not found their true home. He knew that when the time came for their teacher to pass away, they would feel abandoned and at a loss. At that time, he was practicing the Rains Retreat, residing outside of the city of Vaishali, north of the Ganges. He became very sick during that season. The Buddha’s attendant, Venerable Ananda thought his teacher would soon pass away, so he went into the forest behind some trees to weep. But the Buddha used his power of concentration to slow the progress of his illness and to find the strength to live for a few more weeks, so that he could return to his homeland, Kapilavastu, and pass away peacefully.

The Island Within
At the end of that Rains Retreat season, the Buddha went into the city of Vaishali to visit his disciples, the monks and nuns and the lay friends in the Sangha. Wherever he visited, he would give a short talk for about 5-7 minutes – a mini dharma talk. These mini talks were usually centered on the topic of ‘true home’. He felt that after he had passed on, there would be many disciples who would be at a loss. The Buddha taught them that they all had a place of refuge to return to and that they should take refuge only there.

We too, should return and take refuge in that abode and not take refuge in any other person or thing. That abode of refuge is the ‘Island of Self’; it is the Dharma, and there, one can find peace and protection; one can find our ancestors and our roots. This is our true home – our inner island where there is the light of the true Dharma. Returning there, one finds light, one finds peace and safety, and one is protected from the darkness. The ‘Island of Self’ is a safe place of refuge from the turbulent waves that can otherwise sweep us away. Taking refuge in this island within is a very important practice.

We have a song in Plum Village titled, ‘Being an Island unto Oneself’. This song is about the practice of taking refuge in oneself. If we still feel that we have not found our true home, that we do not have a place to call home, that we have not truly come home, that we still want to look for a homeland, or that we still feel lonely and at a loss; then this practice is for us. This song can remind us to return and take refuge in the island within.

Our Refuge of Practice
Around the 4th or 5th century, when these mini talks were translated into Chinese, the monks translated the ‘Island of Self’ as ‘tự châu’ (tự is self and châu is island). “Dear monks, practice being islands unto yourselves, knowing how to take refuge in yourselves.” Those were the words the Buddha uttered just one month before he had passed away. If we consider ourselves to be soul mates of the Buddha, to be real students of the Buddha, we should take his advice and not go looking for our homeland, our true home, in time and space. We should look for this true home right within our own self, within our own heart; where there is everything we are searching for. There, we can touch our ancestors, blood and spiritual, and touch our roots, our heritage. There, we can find peace and stability. There, we can find the light of wisdom. Let us take refuge in our own island – in the island of the Dharma. We do not take refuge in any other person or thing, even Thầy.

The Buddha’s love is immense. He knew that there would be many students who would feel lost after he had gone, so he reminded them that his body was not something permanent and eternal. He taught them that that which was most worthy for them to take refuge in, was their own island of self. We know that it is always there for us. We do not have to take the plane or the bus or the train to go there, but with our mindful breathing and mindful steps, we can be there right away. Our island within is our true refuge. It is our practice of the Dharma.

This Christmas, if you buy and bring home a Christmas tree to decorate, remember that your ‘True Home’ is not found outside yourself, but it is right in your own heart. We do not need to bring home anything for us to feel fulfilled. We have everything we need right in our heart. We do not need to practice for many years or to travel far to arrive at our true home. If we know how to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration, then with each breath, with each step, we arrive at our true home. Our true home is not a place far removed from us in space and time. It is not something that we can buy. Our true home is present right in the here and now; if only we know how to return and to be truly present to it.

Home in the Present Moment
The other day, Thầy was reflecting on what message to send to his friends and students abroad so that they can practice, so that they can be like Jesus or be like the Buddha. Thầy then wrote this calligraphy: “There is no way home, Home is the way.”

The means and the ends are not two separate things. There is no way to return to our home. Our home is the way. Once we take a step on that path home, we are home right in that moment. This is true to the practice of Plum Village. There is no way to happiness, Happiness is the way. Recently, Thầy also shared in his Dharma Talk that, There is no way to nirvana, Nirvana is the way. Every breath and every step has the capacity to bring us right back to our true home, right in the here and now. This is the fundamental practice of Plum Village. This is the message that Thầy wants to send to his friends and students during this Christmas season. If you want to send a Holiday greeting to your friends and loved ones, you can also send this message. If you can practice it truly, then sending it will have a deep meaning; but if you do not practice it, then the message will have little substance.

Let us all enjoy our practice of coming home this Holiday season. Let us truly be at home within, and so become a home for our loved ones and all our friends.

With trust and love,

Thầy

 

Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain

How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice

By Paul Tingen

Around twenty-five years ago, neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners, and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories,  emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” writes Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.1

Until the 1980s, conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood. This belief in the brain’s static cellular circuitry gave rise to a very limited view of human consciousness, a “neurological nihilism,” in which consciousness was seen as no more than the byproduct of these fixed pathways. With the emergence of the computer, the analogy was made that the hardware of the brain determined and limited the software (our feelings and our thoughts).

However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich,2 this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer language, the software and the hardware inter-are: the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way around. Neuroscience today is governed by what is known as Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.

The idea of neuroplasticity has given new hope to people with physical, emotional, and mental impairments that had hitherto been regarded as unchangeable. Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the more they resist the process of rewiring. The older, entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thoughts, and actions. Every time we use a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood that we will do it again.

Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering, we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again. Suffering is not a free ride.

Rewiring for Well-being

There are many parallels between these theories of neuroscience and Thay’s teachings. The essence of our Buddhist practice is to use mindfulness to develop singularity of thought (concentration/samadhi), which can help us to get out of habitual thinking and feeling and help us to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering. Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for improved well-being.

Mindfulness is intentional and based on our free will. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them. Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware, and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.

The way we use the mantra, “This is a happy moment,” is a good example. We train the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might not otherwise be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthening the neural pathways associated with our suffering. We know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not. Another factor is whether we look at our suffering with Right View; wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being. The light of mindfulness cooks the raw potatoes, so they become a joy to eat.

Thay has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings. Neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathways indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thay has long recommended that people who come to Plum Village don’t immediately start digging into their suffering, but instead begin with watering their seeds of well-being. Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough, we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.

Our Sun of Mindfulness

To describe these processes more clearly, I would like to build on Thay’s analogy of our practice as that of a gardener. A gardener transforms compost (the mud) into flowers (the lotus). A skillful gardener knows how to create a pleasant garden with lots of flowers and just enough compost to feed them. Being a skillful gardener of our own inner garden is our spiritual work of self-love. To offer another analogy: neural pathways can be described as a collection of gullies, brooks, canals, and canyons; our feelings and thoughts can be considered the water in them. Mindfulness has often been described as a light, and in this case we could extend the analogy by describing mindfulness as the sun.

And so, it rains and a rivulet forms: the first arrow has hit and we suffer. The Buddha’s teachings tell us this is unavoidable; life will fire us arrows. Suffering is inevitable. But if we don’t handle this arrow correctly, if we add other arrows to it with wrong thinking, the rivulet turns into a stream, a river, and eventually a flood of suffering. The one neural connection has turned into a pathway and is likely to join with other similar pathways, and all of them may be deepened. As these neural pathways are strengthened, so are the corresponding mental formations, and they will be more difficult to transform. And once this gully or canal or canyon has formed, new rain will be drawn to it, deepening these pathways still further.

There is a belief in Western culture that we have to go through our suffering (the dark night of the soul), but from the perspective of neuroplasticity and our practice, we cannot transform our suffering from inside our suffering. We cannot affect the course of a canal while being caught in the stream. We cannot dissolve neural pathways while firing them simultaneously. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. We have to step out of the stream and shine our sun of mindfulness on it. Only with the healthy parts of ourselves can we heal our afflictions.

When we’re suffering, streams (or storms) of thoughts and feelings run through us; and when we manage to breathe and become mindful, these streams calm down to a gentle trickle. As the water slows down, as the storm abates to a gentle breeze, the neurons stop firing together, and we no longer strengthen our neural pathway of suffering. The suffering, the neural pathway, may still be there, but it is no longer a danger to us. It is like the mother embracing her angry child: she holds him firmly, so he can do no damage, and also lovingly, so he can come back to his true self. At that point, the water can mingle with the earth and turn into mud, or it can evaporate in the light of the sun of our mindfulness and fall down as rain (our tears) somewhere else in our garden. In both cases, the water will help grow flowers rather than deepen the pathway of suffering.

When we consider this analogy, it’s easy to see why Thay so often stresses that we should not judge or suppress our suffering. In seeing our suffering as water flowing through a canal, we realize that we need that water to tend our garden. If handled unskillfully, the water can deepen the groove of our suffering; if we know how to practice, we can use it to grow flowers in our garden. The analogy can be extended yet further. Sometimes our suffering has become frozen, hidden, inaccessible: we may have become bitter or repressed our feelings. One can’t grow flowers with ice, so we have to first melt our frozen feelings.

Mindfulness practice in general, and sitting meditation in particular, are ways of strengthening the power of the sun of our mindfulness, or the power of our concentration (samadhi). But sometimes, if our sun of mindfulness isn’t strong enough to transform our suffering, we need the compassionate and mindful presence of another person. As the water starts to flow, we cry, and we begin to disarm and transform our suffering with our collective mindfulness. This is one of several reasons why practicing in a Sangha is so important. Neuroscience offers an additional reason, emanating from its research of a particular class of neurons called mirror neurons, which are triggered when we observe the actions and/or feelings of others, and which then fire in corresponding ways. Neuroscientists have argued that mirror neurons make empathy possible; and even simply being in the company of other practitioners will trigger mirror neurons that strengthen our own practice.

What Thay calls our store consciousness can be seen as the network of neural pathways in our brain, much of it inherited from our ancestors, with each seed corresponding to a neural pathway. Intense feelings, addictions, and many of the noxious things we consume in our society can strengthen our neural pathways of suffering (hence the importance of the Fifth Mindfulness Training). By contrast, the calming nature of our entire practice makes it easier to rewire our brain. There are no magic formulas or strategies; the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful, at all times, of whether we’re transforming our suffering or merely rehearsing it.

Living lightly offers more freedom and clarity to practitioners and also makes it possible to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones—in other words, to turn neutral and often forgotten neural pathways into pathways that trigger well-being. It is, so to speak, far easier to cultivate flowers in the gently rolling hills of Plum Village than in the steep crags of the Grand Canyon.

© 2012, Paul Tingen

1) All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:

* Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005).
* Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008.
* Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007).
* Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Harper-Perrenial, 2002).

2) Carr, pages 24-26.

Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of  a book about the electric music of  Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album titled Metamorphosis. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

Seven Interbeings

photo by Paul Davis

By Tetsunori Koizumi

Interbeing as a Binary Relation

“Interbeing” is a new word invented by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), which he employs to explain the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. A sheet of paper, for example, is an interbeing as it is connected with a cloud through a chain of relationships. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper,” Thay writes in The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Things that appear totally unconnected to most people—a sheet of paper and a cloud, in this example—become connected with each other in a relationship which Thay calls “inter-are.”

Technically speaking, interbeing can be regarded as what mathematicians call a “binary relation,” a relationship established on a set of elements by pair-wise comparison of them, defined in this case on the set of all things in the universe, including our consciousness. It is not difficult to see that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity. First of all, it is obvious that anything inter-is with itself, albeit in a trivial sense of that word. Thus, the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the law of reflexivity, namely, xRx, where the symbol R designates the binary relation of interbeing.

The binary relation of interbeing also satisfies the law of commutativity, namely, xRy implies yRx, for if one thing inter-is with some other thing, then the second thing inter-is with the first. By bringing three things into consideration now and examining the applicability of interbeing among the three pairs of two things that result from them, we can see that the binary relation of interbeing further satisfies the law of transitivity; namely, xRy and yRz imply xRz. In the above example, a cloud inter-is with rain and rain inter-is with trees, implying that a cloud inter-is with trees.

Given that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity, it becomes a matter of logical exercise, aided by a modicum of poetic insight, to establish the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. Thus, roses and garbage inter-are, another favorite example used by Thay to illustrate the concept of interbeing. We can also appeal to P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) who employs poetic insight to express the same binary relation of interbeing in a poem entitled “Music:”

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed.

And that beloved’s bed, as we know, is the soil from which a new rose tree grows with a new set of rose leaves and flowers!

This Is Because That Is

The genius of Thay as a teacher of Buddhist thought becomes quite evident when he skillfully employs the concept of interbeing to explain the idea of sunyata, or emptiness, which is probably the most profound teaching of the Buddha on the nature of reality in the world around us. In terms of the binary relation of interbeing introduced above, the Buddha’s words as recorded in Samyukta Agama—“the Middle Way says that this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not”—can be expressed as follows: that x exists in M, or the manifest world, implies that there exists y, different from x, such that xRy; x does not exist in M if there does not exist y, different from x, such that xRy.

By applying this binary relation of interbeing repeatedly to all the other elements that connect a sheet of paper to a cloud, we derive another of Thay’s favorite expressions: “A sheet of paper is made of non-paper elements.” This can be expressed as: xR(~x), where x stands for a sheet of paper, and (~x) for non-paper elements. A natural conclusion that follows from this logical exercise is that a sheet of paper—indeed any thing, for that matter—does not exist as a separate and independent entity, and is therefore inherently empty.

The term interbeing, although it appears to designate something that lies in between being and nonbeing, is actually a word Thay invented to expound the Buddhist idea of the Middle Way. We must go beyond the concepts of both being and nonbeing if we are to understand the idea of emptiness. As he puts it in Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way: “The Middle Way goes beyond ideas of being and nonbeing, birth and death, one and many, coming and going, same and different.”

By going beyond our dualistic way of seeing things (either “something exists” or “something does not exist”), we are able to develop the right view to see things, not in the lokadhatu, or the manifest world where things appear to be born and to die and to exist independently of one another, but in the dharmadhatu, or the ultimate realm of things as they are. As we learn to see things as they are, it will become clear to us that there is neither being nor nonbeing, neither birth nor death.

A Child’s Wisdom

Let us now go back in time—as time is conceived in classical physics—to 1798 when Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a delightful poem titled “We Are Seven.” In this poem, Wordsworth writes about his encounter with an eight-year-old cottage girl:

A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

Asked by the poet how many sisters and brothers she has, this little girl answers:

“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”

The answer confounds the poet because two of the seven brothers and sisters are already dead and buried in the churchyard. To the poet who reminds her that only five boys and girls are left if two are buried in the churchyard, the little girl answers emphatically, “O Master! We are seven.” As far as this little cottage girl is concerned, two of the seven brothers and sisters who are buried beneath the churchyard tree are not dead, as she daily plays with them in the churchyard.

Can we reject this little cottage girl’s answer as a reflection of her ignorance and concur with Wordsworth that she knows nothing of death? What is more intriguing for us is to speculate how Wordsworth would have responded had she answered, “O Master! We are seven—seven interbeings.” The poet, to be sure, would have been even more confounded by this answer. On the other hand, we can easily imagine how Thay would nod approvingly with a smile on his face. It was this cottage girl with her innocence of a simple child, not the poet with his knowledge of a mature adult, who was able to see things as they are.

Tetsunori Koizumi, a member of Blue Heron Sangha, is Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies in Columbus, Ohio. This article was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma talks during the “Science of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June 2012.

PDF of article