Without Blame or Judgment

Reflections on Engaged Practice in the Holy Land

By Mitchell Ratner


We did walking meditation together, each of us silently breathing and stepping, opening ourselves to the moment. We formed a circle and chanted together, giving homage to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva who hears and responds to the suffering of the world. All of us had walked and chanted before, but this time the atmosphere was noticeably different—our walking trail was the approach to the Israeli military checkpoint that separates the Palestinian authority-controlled city of Nablus from the rest of the West Bank.

This checkpoint is often in the news. Many West Bank Palestinians need to cross it each day, to work, study, do business, or seek medical treatment. Journalists and foreign observers have substantiated Palestinian claims of needlessly long waits and degrading treatment by the guards. We had come to the checkpoint to offer a healing presence.

There were about twenty of us at the checkpoint that day in June of 2003. Eleven of us had come from outside Israel, including four Plum Village monastics, three lay Dharma teachers, and several Order of Interbeing members. We had come to Israel to share the practice of mindfulness and to open ourselves to the suffering, resilience, and wisdom that is present in Israel and the West Bank.

The international program began with a five-day mindfulness retreat at Givat Haviva, a kibbutz education center in the rural heartland of Israel. The international community joined with 50 Israelis to develop our practice of mindfulness. During the Dharma talks we talked about the Buddhist understanding of suffering and the overcoming of suffering. In Dharma discussion groups and private sharings, we talked about the particular suffering that Israelis felt, especially the daily fear that some unforeseen incident will bring great harm to them or their families, and the larger, overhanging sense of despair, that the situation will not improve.


Three themes emerged for me during the Givat Haviva retreat that helped me frame what I saw, heard, and experienced in Israel.

The first theme was about blame. With mindfulness we can develop the capacity to relate to ourselves and others without blame. As Thay Phap An noted in one of the Dharma talks, “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” In the context of Israel, the words resounded. Almost every public or private discussion of the Jewish-Arab conflict focuses on attributing blame. Each side justifies the suffering they have caused in terms of the suffering they have received. The suffering is not abstract or distant; almost everyone in Israel and the West Bank has a relative, friend, or acquaintance who has been killed or wounded.

The second theme was about the importance of our daily practice, of working with our own suffering. Sister Gina shared with the community how important it was for her to be able to take care of her own anger, fear, and defensiveness:

“I really have to practice. Only if I can do it, can I expect others to do it. If I cannot do it my daily life, there’s no hope. . . I would sink into despair for myself and for the world.”

This focus on the connection between our inner lives and the conditions we wish to see in the world is a special gift that mindfulness practice offers the peace movement.


The final, third theme was about the power of history, our own history and that of our community. At Givat Haviva most of the participants were Jewish and many of the discussions led back to the Holocaust. The question was often raised in terms of whether Israeli Jews, as individuals and as a community, had worked through the Holocaust—whether that unimaginably searing and painful experience had been fully processed so that it no longer clouded understanding of the current reality.


After Givat Haviva, the international participants, along with some of our Israeli hosts, spent a long day in the West Bank. In the morning we visited activists from a Palestinian village that will be cut off from its agricultural land by the new Israeli “security wall.” In the afternoon the residents of a small Palestinian community, near Nablus, offered us mint tea and told us about the struggles of their daily life, including attacks and harassment from an Israeli-Jewish settler community that has established outposts on the hills over their village, the general economic and social instability arising from the Israeli control of the West Bank, and the daily difficulties caused by the many blocked roads and Israeli checkpoints—what was a fifteen minute drive to Nablus had become at least a two-hour ordeal, and some days it was not possible to go there at all.

Following our stop at the Nablus checkpoint, we returned to Israel, and arrived late at night at Neve Shalom/Wahat alSalam (Oasis of Peace), an intentional community founded in the 1970s by a Dominican priest in the foothills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For more than twenty-five years Israeli Jews have lived as neighbors with Palestinian Arabs and Christians. Together they have created an international peace center, a bilingual/bi-national elementary school, and a retreat program that brings together Israeli Arab and Israeli Jewish high school students. A bumper sticker they make and distribute reads simply, in Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace Is Possible.”

Our next stop was Jerusalem, where we stayed for several nights with host families and together visited historical and spiritual sites, such as the Church of the Sepulcher (built on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion) and the Western or Wailing Wall (the last remnant of the second temple). One morning we visited the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem—a harrowingly effective presentation of what it meant, life by life, for six million people, one and a half million of them children, to have died, only because they were Jewish. Afterwards, we did walking meditation together in the hall of memory, holding each other’s hands, calming ourselves, struggling to simply breathe and remain open: not to close to the suffering, not to be overwhelmed by it.


An hour later we had lunch at the Jerusalem office of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a remarkable German non-governmental organization started in the 1950s by Protestant theologians. The organization’s founding principle was that when a great harm has been committed, there must be atonement before there can be reconciliation.

We Germans began World War II and for this reason alone, more than others, we are guilty for bringing immeasurable suffering to humankind. Germans have murdered millions of Jews in an outrageous rebellion against God. Those of us who did not want this annihilation did not do enough to prevent it. For this reason, we are still not at peace. There has not been true reconciliation. …

We are requesting all peoples who suffered violence at our hands to allow us to perform good deeds in their countries, … to carry out this symbol of reconciliation.

As Sabine Lohmann, the Jerusalem office’s director explained, more than thirty-five years after that statement, young Germans still come each year to Israel, and to similar offices in eleven other countries. In Israel they learn Hebrew, provide personal care to Holocaust survivors, and work in special education classes and with people with disabilities—classes of people especially affected by Nazi policy.

The still vivid images from the Holocaust museum, coming together with the German organizations efforts to reach to the roots of reconciliation, encouraged us, right there in the organization’s meeting room, to have an intense and cathartic sharing about World War II, Jews, Germans, cruelty, guilt, blame, and atonement. Thay Phap Minh, a Plum Village monk, born and raised in Israel, reminded us that demonizing almost always accompanies blaming. We separate ourselves by highlighting certain characteristics and ignoring others. For him, it was important to remember that “the dark side of the Nazi is within me and there’s great love in the heart of a Nazi.”


After several more events in Jerusalem, we headed north to Nazareth. While the retreat at Givat Haviva followed closely the structure of a standard mindfulness retreat, the events in Nazareth also included exchanges between the Israeli mindfulness community and other groups working for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

During the days preceding the public events in Nazareth, the international group and Israeli organizers met with two extraordinary Arab groups. Memory for Peace was started in Nazareth by Father Shoufani, an Arab Greek Catholic Prelate. He brought together Christian Arabs and Islamic Arabs who felt that there was no place in the public dialogue for the positions they held in their hearts. Nazir Mgally, a journalist, shared with us:

We are Palestinian people. We are also part of the Israeli state. We suffer with the people in the West Bank. We suffer with the Israelis. We said we were the bridge, and we didn’t do it. . . . I felt the best way to stop the bloodshed was to return to our roots as human beings. I felt I needed to understand his [the Jewish persons] suffering. Maybe he will understand our suffering.

The Memory for Peace group began by studying Jewish history together, and, after some time, they invited Israeli Jews to study with them. Just weeks before we met with six members of this group, they had traveled together to Auschwitz, 150 Arab-Israelis and 150 Jewish-Israelis.

A Nazareth building contractor explained why, as an Arab, he went to Auschwitz:

We are living here together and recent events have hurt us. We’ve seen the Jewish people close down and distance themselves. We wanted to see the roots; wanted to go to the place of greatest disaster. Today we know the main problems of the Jews. The Jewish people have fear. They have always been chased. We want to support them. Our aim is holy. With all our might we want to bring together the people who are living here.

The next day we met with a small delegation led by Sheikh Abd Elsalem H. Manasra, the head of the Salam Qaderite Sufi Order in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He explained that while Sufis are Muslim, their tradition differs from many other Islamic traditions in that they try to penetrate into the texts, rather than interpret them from above. In Arabic, the words “Islam”, “peace”, “surrender”, and “wholeness”, all have the same linguistic root. The Sheikh’s spiritual vision was open and embracing:

I’m speaking as a human being, as an Arab, and as the Muslim. I begin with human being. This is what I share with you. Everything else is less.

Sufis say they have the truth, but not the whole truth. Others have a truth as well.

The holy man gives peace to the earth. We should break down the borders in order to reach the man.

There are only two commandments: love of God and love of man. This is enough for a universal religion.

The holy land can include all the Palestinians and all the Jews, if we love.

Before leaving, the sheik taught us to rhythmically chant, in the Sufi style, the name Allah, the pronoun of God. We stood and joined together our voices and spirits: Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, holding a sacred space together.

The retreat program in Nazareth, at the St. Gabriel’s Hotel, included elements from a standard mindfulness retreat, such as Dharma talks, sittings, and walking meditation, along with several public events. On Friday night, two hundred people sat in the church of St. Gabriel to listen to representatives from eight groups talk about their experiences working for reconciliation and peace. On Saturday afternoon, the retreat ended with a silent peace walk through Nazareth, to Mary’s well, in the heart of the city.


Often during the weekend, around meals and odd moments, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Jews, and members of the international community shared personal stories and reflections. In Hebrew, Arabic, and English, sometimes all three languages at once, people talked about their roots, their desire for peace, and their frustration with the distrust and fear that separated communities. Afterwards, both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews mentioned that this casual sharing from the heart, across customary boundaries, which had happened in Nazareth, was rare even at peace and reconciliation events.


Several days after the retreat, on my last full day in Israel, I sat with a Jewish Israeli friend talking about what I had seen and learned. I struggled to pull the parts together. When I talked about the spiritual lessons I had learned while in Israel, my comments centered on all that we gain when we let go of blaming. I felt I had gained insight into what Thay Phap An had said, that “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” When we blame we distort. When we blame we highlight an individual’s or group’s actions, we ignore the context, and we ignore the contributions we or others may have made to the situation. When blame is in my heart, the other person naturally becomes defensive. Communication breaks down. Authentic dialogue and reconciliation cannot occur.

And yet, a few minutes later, when I talked about the reality of daily life I had observed in Israel and the West Bank, I dwelled on the defects of Jewish Israeli society. In me were feelings of disappointment and anger. The distrust and institutional racism was more extensive than I had imagined. I asked my friend, “Of all people, after the experience of the Holocaust, how could Jewish people be so intolerant of Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank? How could they be insensitive to their pain?”


For several hours we talked, working our way down to the roots of the incompatibility between what I was feeling and saying about Jewish Israeli society and my increased understanding of the corrosive effects of blaming. I shared with my friend that the trip had made me aware of how often blame crept into my thinking and speaking. To use words such as racism and intolerance almost automatically steers a conversation toward blaming. Often, however, it is much more subtle–spontaneous remarks directed at loved ones, and seemingly objective discussion of social issues which slip into blame. (How could you/they do that?)

Why was it so hard for me to let go of blame? For the next two months I pondered the question and talked about it with friends. Finally the realization came that in my life, in an odd way, blaming was connected to caring. When it seemed that someone else’s actions were causing pain to me or to those I cared about, my response was to blame them. When I acted in ways that seemed to undermine the goals I had set for myself, I blamed myself. When people close to me acted in ways other than what I thought was in their best interest, I blamed them. That was how I was raised.

My strong reaction to what I saw as Jewish Israeli insensitivities came out of a deep caring. I did not want that community, which had suffered so much, to be destroyed again. I deeply wanted Israeli Jews to act in ways I believed would lead to a just and lasting peace. I saw that in my reactive blaming I underplayed how debilitating the historical wounds might be (Who was I to judge that enough time had past?), and I underplayed how many causes and conditions from outside the Israeli-Jewish community contributed to what I perceived as Israeli-Jewish insensitivity to the pain of others.

For me, the great challenge, in Israel and elsewhere, is to let go of the blame and not let go of the caring. Without blame, we can still work and hope for peace. Without blame, we can still bring attention to situations of injustice. We can even ask people to act in a different way, or, when necessary, forcibly prevent some persons from hurting others. Without blame, rather than closed and angry, our hearts are open and accepting.

Mitchell Ratner, True Mirror of Wisdom, is a Dharma teacher living in Takoma Park, Maryland and practicing with  the  Still  Water  Mindfulness  Practice  Center.

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By Hilary Bichovsky


Phenomena manifest when the necessary conditions are present. We humans are phenomena. With the removal of a single condition––oxygen, for instance––we cease to manifest as living, breathing beings. In his interview with Oprah in May 2012,* Thay reflected on the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the words: “The American people had produced King but were not capable of preserving him.” Sufficient conditions for his survival, which would have included the absence of an assassin, were not present.

Every single phenomenon––a birth, an assassination––is a flower of a thousand thousand conditions. These infinite fields of specific conditions, unique for each event, are too complex for our minds to hold. The Buddhist teaching on conditions has liberated me and I would like to share what I have learned. Thay’s teachings on conditions, and the steady presence of the Sangha I meditate with in Manchester, have helped me deepen these insights.


As a young woman I was sexually used, which is not so unusual. I was consumed unmindfully, with no more particularly malign intention from those who were consuming than it is malign to eat too quickly, with bad manners, lost in appetite.

Because this happened within my own family as well as outside it, the consequences for me lasted for years. In turn, I hid events, revealed them, attributed blame, took on the stance of a victim hoping for sympathy, withdrew in anger when that did not come, and in later years finally denied to myself that anything had happened.

But in fact the drive to attribute blame never really stopped in me. It churned on like background music, or like a train on a circular route always returning to the same stops. It was his fault. It was my fault. It was their fault. It came to me with my genes, with the Second World War, with the haphazard and bohemian sexual mores of the 60s. When people were not interested in my story or directly blamed me, I blamed them back. They were bad people interested only in defending their own status quo, they were selfish, and so on. At the lowest points, worn out with my failure to get a reaction, I blamed myself exclusively not only for everything that had happened but also for wanting some response. “If I hadn’t said, if I hadn’t done, if I hadn’t gone there, if I hadn’t wanted that.”

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that three decades of circling around on these blame tracks brought me little psychological relief. In fact I now wonder if much of my genuinely felt anguish over the years arose simply from a too crude and not-fitting-to-reality understanding of causality, a Newtonian one where X causes Y, no questions asked. This Newtonian view of causality infuses my society. Disaster? Who is to blame? Let’s have an enquiry so we can pin them down. There seems to be a belief that blame is of some intrinsic usefulness.

Events do have causes, of course. If I kick that ball, it will travel. But many other causes precede my kick, and limitless consequences follow it. A flower, a birth, an assassination, a mindless act of sex: these are not end points but nodes in an infinite web of interconnected happenings. There is no end of the line. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in 1968, although it affected Thay so deeply that, in his own words, he did not eat or sleep for a while, he was determined to “go on building the beloved community.” Through this deep skillfulness he transformed his pain into a positive continuance, showing how even the deepest losses still leave us with a choice of how to go forward.

I remain free to wonder about my early life, but I have let go of striving to identify who the “really bad” people were in this story. This new openness ends a lifetime’s pointless efforts to sum it up once and for all. Deep peace comes from understanding that not knowing is not a weakness on my part, or a failure to shoulder the whole responsibility myself, but is in fact a true reflection of reality. The answer to my question, “Whose fault was that?” is: “No one’s and everyone’s.”

If you have any niggling concern about the way things have turned out for you, dwell deeply with this precious teaching of conditions, and let it dissolve any tightly structured stories of heroes and villains you may have constructed. Deep understanding of the nature of conditions brings a fall into the free space of no blame, an opportunity to really experience yourself as a flower manifesting in every breath, always new. The truth has a sonorous ring, like a bell, and is composed of endless ripples, like the waves of sound from a bell. Like these waves of sound, the expanding circles of influence which radiate out from every act themselves become conditions of the future.

*To see Oprah’s interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxsUwFNBBvo

mb64-Conditions3Hilary Bichovsky practices with the Heart of Manchester Sangha in the United Kingdom. 

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The Hands of the Bodhisattvas

By Sister Hy Nghiem 


Dear Thay, dear Brothers, dear Sisters, and dear Sangha,

Today is February 19, 2012, and we are in our final week of the winter retreat here at Magnolia Grove Monastery. Today we continue our investigation of the Fifth and Sixth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing.




Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying, nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness, such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, well-being, and joy in our body and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth.

This mindfulness training wants us to know that true happiness is not something that we can find outside of us. If we want to have true happiness, then we need to know how to create the conditions for happiness to manifest. The Buddha taught that we must know how to take care of our body and our mind. He showed us how to do that through the practice of mindful breathing.

We depend on our breathing to live. If we breathe in and we cannot breathe out, then our life ends. Sometimes when we are busy in our daily lives, we don’t have the capacity to get in touch with our breathing. That is why in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha taught us a very simple and concrete practice: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Awareness of breathing helps us to cultivate and establish wisdom, and that wisdom gives us the capacity to recognize what really brings us happiness. Do money, fame, or praise bring us happiness?

Recently, the famous singer Whitney Houston died. She had a special voice and she could sing many styles of music. She was very famous and very wealthy. But let us ask ourselves, did these conditions bring her happiness? Even though she used her money to help organizations that alleviate hunger in Africa, she was not able to find peace and happiness. The loneliness in her was too immense. She used drugs to cover that loneliness and one day she overdosed and died.

We may have looked at her talent, wealth, and fame, and wanted to be like her. But the truth is that all those things didn’t alleviate her loneliness and sadness; they were not able to give her true happiness and peace. If we want true happiness, then we must live with mindfulness. And if we want to be mindful, we must use many methods to help ourselves, to develop peace in our body and in our mind. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing teaches us to become aware of our in-breath and our out-breath, and in this way, to calm our whole body and mind. Our mind’s tendency is to think about the past and the future instead of staying in the present moment. We only need to be dwelling in the present moment and we find happiness here. We see that happiness is very simple.

Offering Dharma to Ourselves 

In 1999 there was a flood in Vietnam and many people died. When I first entered the monastery I really wanted to do charity work, so I helped with the Love and Understanding program. In this program, we send letters to our friends who have participated in our retreats, inviting them to give us a helping hand to alleviate the suffering in Vietnam. I worked with so much love and inspiration. And in one day I received hundreds of letters from friends. When we receive a donation, we send out a thank you letter. But one day I received so many letters, and I began to feel, “How come no one is helping me?” And suddenly I began to blame others, and sadness and anger arose.

So I lost my peace for a few minutes. Fortunately, I did not let that energy carry me for long. A few minutes were enough to destroy me. I could see that I was making myself suffer because of blaming. As practitioners, we bring our compassion to many places, but if we lose our peace, then the work we do only becomes an outer form. No real helping can happen.

And that is the lesson I learned. From then on, each time I worked I became more aware of bringing my practice into the work that I did. When we want to offer compassion to other people, the first thing we must do is to learn to love ourselves. We come back to our breathing to calm down the negative thoughts, the negative mental formations. That is why the Buddha taught us to use mindful breathing to calm our body.

This precept also says that we do not take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Our practice is to know how to live satisfied with what fulfills simple needs. In the Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, the third realization says that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled. This searching brings about unwholesome activity. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, know the value of having few desires. They regard the realization of perfect understanding to be their only career. For example, sometimes we need electronic devices to keep in touch with the news, but we should not waste too much time with them. We should not think that in order to have happiness we need them. We should not run after them.

So first we must offer the Dharma to ourselves, transform our suffering, transform our pain, transform what has become stuck in our heart. When we are able to practice like this, then the spirit of this precept will give us happiness in the present moment and we won’t need to seek material goods, wealth, or fame.


Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are committed to taking care of the energy of anger when it arises, and to recognizing and transforming the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger manifests, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking to acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We know that the roots of anger are not outside of ourselves but can be found in our wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in ourselves and others. By contemplating impermanence, we will be able to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger, and to recognize the preciousness of our relationships. We will practice Right Diligence in order to nourish our capacity of understanding, love, joy, and inclusive- ness, gradually transforming our anger, violence, and fear, and helping others do the same.
When our anger arises, we must use our eyes of compassion to look at the situation. For example, when a person does or says something that makes us suffer, if we can look with compassion at that situation, then we are able to understand the reasons why this person acted that way. And if we know how to practice, to nourish that peace inside of us, then this becomes a source of energy that can help us to deal with our strong emotions. If we do not practice, then suffering will always be there. The Buddha taught us in the Four Noble Truths that there is suffering, and that we have a path to overcome that suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the path of practice.

There is a story about a couple who didn’t know how to speak lovingly or nourish each other’s happiness, so, day by day a distance grew between them. They lost their ability to communicate, and irritation, loneliness, and fear manifested. The husband began to go out and get drunk, then came home and hit his wife and reprimanded her for being the cause of his misery.


The wife suffered so much she decided to go to the temple. She told the abbot her family situation. The wise abbot told her, “Let me give you the nectar of compassion and if you use it right you will suffer less. Each time your husband comes home and yells at you, you must drink it but don’t swallow; just let it stay in your mouth. If you swallow it, the sacredness will not be there to protect you.”

When her husband came home, she took a sip of the nectar of compassion and kept it in her mouth. No matter what her husband said, she could not say anything in return. For many days he came home and yelled at her, and when she didn’t respond, he fell asleep. And then one day the husband thought to himself: Why is my wife being so kind? Before, whenever I came home and said something to her, she would say something back. And if I threw a small bowl, then she would throw a pot. He told her, “My darling, recently you seem kinder, you are not angry like before. And thanks to your kindness, today I am able to transform.”

The wife told her husband about the nectar of compassion given to her by the abbot. So the husband went to the temple and told the abbot the nectar of compassion given to his wife was wonderful. The abbot responded, “It is not the nectar of compassion; it’s just water! When you are both angry, you can create a fire that will burn the whole house. But when you hold the water in your mouth, you cannot say anything, and your anger dies.”

This method helped the family to reestablish harmony, but they still didn’t know how to transform their anger. To do this we must know how to look deeply to find the roots of suffering. When we see someone act in anger, we bring our mind of compassion to look deeply into it. Then we do not blame or punish the person, but we want to find the best ways to help them transform their suffering and find happiness. This is the practice called Right View that leads to Right Thinking and Right Speech, through which communication can be established.

Refuge in the Practice

If our anger is triggered, we must take refuge in the practice; we must come back to our breathing so that we can control our body and our mind. Then we can bring the energy of love so that we can understand the situation. To do that we must know how to stop. We stop our bodily movements and our speech, and then we stop what is not so beautiful in our mind. And then we are able to see the roots of the suffering in this person: their family history and the long process that has created this person. And we are able to let go of that anger.

This precept tells us that each time we have anger we should not do or say anything. We take refuge in our breathing; we practice walking meditation. When we are calm, we are able to reconcile what is in ourselves and we learn to look at other people with eyes of compassion.

Once there was a young gentleman who got angry very easily.  And each time he got angry, he would hit things. His mother could not stand it. One day he went into the forest, where he found a cave. Into the cave, he yelled, “I hate you.” The echo from the cave came back to him, saying, “I hate you.” When he heard this, he was so disappointed and so sad. He went back home and asked his mom, “Why does everybody hate me?” When his mother asked what had happened, he told her about the message from the cave, and that it meant that in the whole world, nobody loved him. The mother told him to go back to the cave, and this time to say, “I love you.” When he did this, of course the cave answered back with love. When your mind has love, your eyes shine, and when you shine with love, the world responds with love.

These two precepts show us how to live the simple and healthy life of a practitioner. When we know how to take care of our body and our mind, our understanding and love grow. When we are able to make one step in peace, when we sit with our minds peaceful, the person next to us can feel that energy.  As practitioners we must know how to love ourselves, to establish peace in our body and our mind. Then we have the capacity to share our practice with the world. We can be the hands of the bodhisattvas.

Translated by Sister Boi Nghiem Edited by Barbara Casey

mb61-Hands4Sister Hy Nghiem (Sister True Joy) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1996. Sister Joy enjoys coming back to herself to be present for her body and mind. Reading sutras from the Buddha is also a source of nourishment for her daily practice.

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Dharma Talk: Taking the Hand of Suffering

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Some days the sky is completely clear, without a single cloud. When we look up, we see the blue sky – very peaceful, very powerful. The blue sky is always there for us. When it rains and storms, clouds cover the sky, but we are confident the blue sky is still there. And we are at peace, because we know that blue sky and fine weather will return after the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes our mind is very clear like a blue sky. We have so much happiness. We practice walking meditation with our brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and feel so happy. Our hearts are at peace and open, with a lot of space and freedom like the blue sky. We feel light and free, and we smile. We are kind to everyone. We make ourselves happy and we make others happy. If we practice mindfulness on days like that, our happiness will increase, and so will the happiness of those around us. We know how to benefit from the times when our mind is as clear as the vault of the blue sky without any clouds. That is a very important practice.

But there are also times when our mind is not clear. It is not at peace, it is not free. We have worries, afflictions, and sadness in us, like the sky has clouds. We cannot see the blue sky of our minds anymore. We see only clouds in all directions.

Sometimes we are not angry or in despair, but our heart is full of clouds. This is a very common state of mind—the absence of happiness. Just a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of sadness, and we don’t know whether it is real anxiety or real sadness. We know that it’s not happiness, but we are not sure that it’s suffering. We’re bored. Everything is too ordinary; nothing is clear or bright. As the poet said, “Today the flowers rise high, and I am sad. I don’t know why.” When a day passes with that kind of sadness and boredom, it’s a terrible waste. We want to get beyond that sadness and boredom, and touch the blue sky.

In the sutra, the Buddha taught us the way of changing the peg. When we have a mental formation that we don’t like very much, we can change it with another mental formation, like a carpenter changing a peg that holds two planks of wood together. The carpenter hammers a new peg into the place where the rotten peg is; the rotten peg goes out. That is changing the peg. When we are bored, we can change the peg by bringing another kind of mind along, a mind that is fresher, happier. Boredom has arisen because this freshness has not yet manifested. Now, what can we do for this freshness to take the place of our sadness and boredom? An elder brother or sister can help us, or a younger brother or sister can help us. They can rescue us from our sadness. That person is as fresh and joyful as a morning bird. That person comes and takes our hand, and leads us out of our sadness, our darkness. Thanks to the presence of the Sangha, thanks to a fellow practitioner, we are able to get out of this darkness. Or maybe we can do it on our own. We have the sutras, poems, practices, and short stories that can help us develop positive mental formations. In this way, we “change the peg.”

There is another aspect of the practice. Instead of changing the peg, we allow the feeling to stay, because our desire to change the peg immediately sometimes has a negative side to it. When we have some kind of sadness or anxiety, no happiness, we should embrace our sadness, our anxiety. Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. We should ask, “My mental formation, are you suffering or not? Are you my enemy, my little mental formation?” Don’t treat it like an enemy. Don’t be in a hurry to find a way to oppress it. Embrace it and allow it to stay. “Dear mental formation, I know you are there. Now stay with me a little bit. Are you really suffering?”

Our mind is like the sky. Sometimes the sky just has blueness, sometimes it has clouds. Why do we have to be so anxious? The Earth has different climates and weather, and our mind does too. The sky is changeable and people are also changeable. There is morning rain, thunder, sunshine. There are times when the sky is cloudy, times when it is dull, times when it is blue and clear. Some people have boredom or sadness from time to time. It’s quite normal. We say to our boredom or our sadness, “I know you are there.” It’s okay. And we have to be happy, although the feeling is sadness. We accept that this is real. This sadness is real, this anxiety is real. It couldn’t be anything else. So our new attitude is to embrace it, to be its friend. And then, it becomes very easy to bear. It’s just anxiety or sadness, and it’s not so difficult to bear.

Don’t think that happiness is the absence of all suffering. If we understand it like that, we have not understood happiness. We don’t have to oppress or push all our suffering out of us in order to have happiness. We can have happiness if our suffering is still within us. It’s like gardening. If we are good gardeners, if we garden organically, we know our garden will have flowers, and it will have garbage. If there are flowers, there is garbage. A good gardener will never burn the garbage or dump it somewhere else. They keep the garbage in order to make com­post. The garbage, the compost makes the flowers and fruits of the garden grow better. If we want to have the vegetables and the fruit, we must have the garbage.

As practitioners, we know that our minds are gardens. In our minds, there are positive, pleasant mental formations, and there are negative, unpleasant mental formations. To be good gardeners, we need to have a heart of great understanding. We have to accept both the flowers and the garbage in our garden. When we see garbage, we are not angry or sad, because we know the garbage can always be transformed into flowers.

We may want to push away unpleasant mental formations, to transform them as quickly as possible. But I suggest that when the sky of your mind is cloudy, you practice to give rise to a kind of caring. Return to that mental formation, make its acquain­tance. “Mental formation, are you my suffering? Are you my enemy? I know you are my friend. You have been my friend in the past, you are my friend in the present, and you will be my friend in the future. So we should learn how to live together with peace and joy, and with a non-dualistic attitude.” It is not possible to have flowers without compost, without garbage. It is not possible to have happiness without sadness. Because of our suffering, we really know how to maintain our happiness. Some days, our cloudiness lasts a long time, and then, when the sun comes out, we see how wonderful it is. To accept the rainy days is very important.

When it rains, we are not afflicted, we are not suffering. We accept the rain. We cannot go outside. We close the door to keep warm. We have our lunch and our tea inside. Our mind is the same. When our mind is clear, we do different things than we do when our mind is cloudy. We should not be afraid. If our mind is dull, we know how to practice. If it is clear, we know how to practice. We do not oppose any kind of mind. When we sit down with our dull mental formation with all our caring and love, we will begin to understand it, and we will say, “Cloudy mental formation, I really need you. Because of you, I have the capacity to see my beautiful mental formations. And I don’t want to oppress you. You are not my enemy. I know you are necessary for the manifesta­tion and growth of positive mental formations.” When we know how to take hold of our cloudy mental formations and do walking meditation with them, then quite naturally, the situation becomes easier to bear. We no longer have a desire to push it away. We just want to take its hand and look deeply at it. Then the situation will become more bearable and we can accept a day that is rainy and windy very easily. That is my practice.

This practice is based on the non-dualistic way of looking at things. I asked a very young sister, “Is your mind sometimes cloudy like the sky today?” She replied, “Yes.” She is still very young, but she still has cloudy days in her mind. I asked, “What do you do when you have those cloudy days in your mind? Tell me.” She said she was not worried, because although she was still very young, she had the experience of those moments in the past, and they always give way to clear moments later. So they do not disturb her. She did not have to push them away, and she was not anxious about her cloudy mind. She also has the seeds of happiness. And her elder brothers and sisters have seeds of happiness and they can water her seeds. When seeds of happiness manifest, the cloudiness disappears.

A famous nun in the eleventh century wrote a gatha. She said, “Birth, sickness, old age, and death are just everyday things. Why do we always pray to be liberated from them? If we spend our whole time trying to get away from birth, sickness, old age, and death, we will just be more caught in them.” If we can take the hand of birth, sickness, old age, and death, it’s no problem. But if we want to run away, we want to push away, we will be caught even more, because in that attitude is struggling. That is the dualistic view, and we get caught.

Our method is not to have that dualistic attitude in our practice, but to find a way to look at our mental formation with the eyes of non-dualism, with love, as a friend. We must know how to invite that suffering to sit down with us, and ask, “My dear suffering, what is your nature? Are you my enemy?” We will take the hand of our suffering and do walking meditation, sitting meditation. And we know that the suffering will help us see and experience peace and joy, liberation and happiness. We have to be grateful to our suffering, because without suffering, we cannot grow up and have the capacity to accept the great joy of liberation. Therefore, the attitude of running away from, destroying, or oppressing our suffering is not an intelligent attitude.

One day in waking meditation, I embraced my state of mind, and I asked, “Are you really suffer­ing?” It wasn’t really suffering. It was just kind of a normal thing, like a cloud in the sky. After the rain, there will be sunshine, and after the sunshine, there will be rain. And I could see there was no need to get rid of this mental formation. “I accept you as you are. I can be happy with you.” And therefore, it didn’t make me suffer anymore. I could live with it very naturally, as something wonderful. “Your presence is natural. I accept you as you are.” I invite you to practice this way, and you will see it is a wonderful practice.


I would like to offer you an exercise. It may take weeks to do; it may take days. It’s up to you. It’s not the kind of homework you do with a pencil and a sheet of paper. You will have to do it with a lot of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful breathing. You may like to ask for help from another brother or sister, so you can do the work in a deeper way. The focus of the exercise is a period of time you considered hard for you. This difficult time belongs to the past, but you are grounded in the present moment. You bring the past into the present moment, and consider that moment as the object of your inquiry, the object of your meditation. Practice looking deeply into it. This lesson is not the work of the intellect. The intellect can play a certain role in this exercise, but you need your heart. You need your mindfulness, concentration, and insight—body and mind united—in order to practice looking deeply and to recognize every aspect of the crisis.

First, look at the event in space and time, and describe it. When did it start? How long did it last? Where did it happen? How did it happen? What triggered that difficult period? Look at the elements within you that helped trigger that difficult moment, and the elements without—around you—that helped trigger it. Did it come out of the blue? What ground served as its base for manifestation? Look deeply to recognize the roots of that affliction, of that difficult period of time. Some elements are close, and you can easily recognize them. Some elements are far away, rooted in the past, maybe in the time of your parents or ancestors.

You can always ask another person to help you to identify the elements that came together and brought you to that difficult period of time. When you feel you have finished, you may tell yourself that there must be more. If you practice looking more deeply, you can identify other elements as the roots of the affliction. And you can always rely on the Sangha eyes, on your brothers and sisters in the Dharma to help you to see more clearly. How did you feel? How did you behave in terms of thought, words, action? How did you react? You acted and reacted. You need a lot of concentration. Remember how you behaved in terms of thinking, speech, and action. And again, you can ask your friend who was there, “Dear friend, how did I look at that period of time?” You have to bow to him, “Please, please, help.” And he will help you see yourself. Your eyes alone may not be enough. You need the Sangha eyes to see the situation better. In Plum Village, we know that any exercise could be initiated by ourselves, but the work of looking deeply, of having deeper insight, deeper understanding, can be supported by our brothers and sisters in the Dharma. When you do this exercise, please go to the brothers and sisters who were with you during the difficult time, and ask them to help you look and reveal all aspects of the crisis, both inside and outside.


You were suffering. How did you feel in your heart, in your body? Did you apply the teaching you have received in order to calm down, to get relief? Or did you just allow the suffering to overwhelm you? Did you ask for help from your brothers, from your sisters, from your teacher? Or did you just allow yourself to be seized by your suffering, and become a victim of your suffering? You have to be honest with yourself.

What if, in the difficult moment, you tried walking meditation or sitting meditation, but it didn’t help at all? Why didn’t it help? Did you ask for help? Did you tell your big brother that you tried hard with the walking, the sitting, but did not feel relief? Did you lose your faith in the practice? Because in difficult moments, you would rely on your practice to get better, and if you did not succeed, you may tell yourself that the practice is not effective, and you lose some trust in the practice. You have to look at all these things with courage.

Did you blame the other person, the person who you believe triggered Hell for you? Or did you blame the situation? You lost your confidence in the Dharma; you lost your confidence in the Sangha. Your faith in the Dharma and the Sangha became very weak, and you lost the confidence in your practice, because you did not get quick relief after some time trying. It did not happen. Did you blame the other person? Did you blame the situation? Did you blame the Sangha?

And in your suffering, did you have the tendency to punish the other person, or punish the Sangha? Did you have the idea of punishing, even if you did not do anything to punish? If you believe that the other person made you suffer, it’s natural that you want to make him or her suffer a little bit, so you can get relief. You may believe that punishing him or her, or the Sangha will give you a little relief. That’s a natural tendency of humans.

Did you have the idea of shutting off from everyone? You no longer wanted to have communication with other people. Did you have the idea of boycotting the Sangha as a form of punishment? “I don’t want to talk to them anymore. I hate everyone. They are not really my brothers or sisters. They didn’t know how to be compassionate and understanding.” Did you want to punish by shutting yourself off from the Sangha? “I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to listen to them. I have suffered so much.” Did you have the idea of running away? Just quitting? Running away is a form of punishment. “Because the Sangha is not nice to me, I run away. I don’t appreci­ate you.” If not the Sangha, but your partner or your family, your society or your church, it’s the same.

In your suffering, you might have felt that you are completely, absolutely alone. Cut off. No one in the Sangha was able to understand you. No sharing of suffering was possible. Did you intend to look for someone who can share your anger, your suffering, your fear? Because the tendency is that when you get angry with someone, you have the tendency to blame that someone for having made you suffer, and you want someone else to support your view that that person is bad, that he or she always makes us suffer. So, did you seek for an ally? Did you find someone who supported you that way, who agreed with you that the other person is impossible, the other person is always making other people suffer? Did you get relief when you found someone like that? Or were you lucky to find someone who did not support your view, but helped you practice looking more deeply, in order to understand the problem more deeply?

Did anyone sit close to you and say, “Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am here for you. I support you in the practice.” And did anyone tell you that the best way to handle the situation is with compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are the instruments of the bodhisattva. If you apply your compassion and your understanding to the situation, you will get relief very quickly. Anything you do will come from understanding or compassion. The act of blaming isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. The act of punishing isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. Shutting off from others, running away, all these things do not seem to be motivated by understanding and compassion.

What will you do if you are plunged into that situation again? Would you do the same things? Or would you behave differently? Have you learned anything from that time when you suffered so much? How did you come out of it? Did you do anything to get out, or did it just die out slowly, the difficult moment, that difficult period? Did something happen or did someone intervene so that the period of Hell ended? How did it stop—abruptly or slowly? You have to remember, because everything is imperma­nent, even your suffering.

Did anyone remind you during that period of time that the suffering is going to end? It will not last forever. Did anyone remind you of that? Suffering, like any other thing, is impermanent. And we know that suffering will end some day. You have to remember that. Because during the time of suffering, we may think that it will last forever and you will not be able to survive the suffering. It’s like a strong emotion, a storm. The storm always stays for some time, and any storm will stop after some time. Your suffering is the same. Did anyone remind you of that?

Every time you suffer, you have to remember that suffering is impermanent. Suffering will not be there forever. Seeing this, you get relief already. “I wish that it would not stay too long. I know it will die, but I wish it would die quickly.” But wishing is not the only thing you can do. You can do something in order to speed up the ending of the suffering. How did you get out of your difficult moment? Did it end by itself? Did someone help you? Did something happen to rescue you? Or did you get out of it because you had already hit the bottom? And when you hit the bottom, you begin to emerge again.

This is a very important exercise. We have to do it totally, as deeply as possible, because we can learn a lot. Through the practice of looking deeply, transformation will take place. After you finish the exercise, you know that the next time you suffer will be different. You know how to go through it in a much lighter way, smiling. And you are no longer afraid. Difficult moments may come, but you know how to handle them.

Bodhisattvas are not afraid, because they know how to deal with the storms, the difficulties. They know how to handle these difficulties. Bodhisattvas are not people who don’t have difficulties. Bodhisattvas are those who know how to handle the difficult times. You are a student of the bodhisattvas, or you want to become a bodhisattva yourself. Therefore, you have to learn to hear with your eye, to look with your ear, to listen with your tongue, to speak with your body, to take care, because bodhisattvas are always using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their bodies, and their minds to get through the difficult moments.

When you have understanding and compassion, you only think in a way that can bring you space and relief. You will only say things that can bring more harmony and relief, and you will only do things that can bring about relief and reconciliation. And the most important thing to do is to generate more understanding and compassion. If you know how to apply them in the three levels of action—thinking, speaking, and acting—then the relief can come very quickly. Reconciliation can take place very quickly.

In the future, you are likely to be plunged into a period of time like that again. If you are not prepared, you will suffer just like the last time. So look deeply at this difficult time, and prepare so that when an event like that happens again, you’ll be more ready to handle it. And you have a brother or a sister who will be able to step in and help you go in the direction of understanding and compassion. When you begin to think and act and speak in terms of compassion, peace begins to settle in you and relief comes very quickly. These are the experiences of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And those of us who have practiced know that in these moments, understanding and compassion should be generated by you and by the people who practice with you. The energy of under­standing and compassion can bring relief right away. It can shorten the period of crisis, so you begin to experience joy again.

When you were in school writing a thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, you spent one year or even two years to write on this project. But what you get is only a diploma. This exercise is very important. If you do it totally and deeply, you get liberation, you get happiness. So invest yourself into the practice. Out of our success and our insight, we can help many people around us. This is not a dissertation to be submitted to a teacher; this is a real practice. This is a gift you make to yourself, to society, and to the world. Whether you can help people, society, living beings in the future depends on the success you get in this kind of practice. So invest yourself entirely into the exercise, and if you want to share it with Thay, please don’t hesitate to do so. If you want to share it with another brother or sister, please do so. This is not for a degree or a diploma, this is for your libera­tion. your happiness, and the liberation and happiness of many, many people.

Photos by Nicholaes Roosevelt.

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