Transforming Self, Transforming Society

An Interview with Cheri Maples

mb61-Transform1 Cheri Maples was given the Lamp Transmission in 2008, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She worked for twenty-five years in the criminal justice system. She was a police officer for twenty years, ending her career as the Captain of Personnel and Training for the Madison Police Department. She was also the head of probation and parole for the State of Wisconsin and an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. She is a licensed attorney and a licensed clinical social worker.

Cheri has learned peace in one’s own heart is a prerequisite to providing true justice and com passion to others. She specializes in translating the language and practice of mindfulness into an understandable framework for criminal justice professionals. Cheri also helps health-care workers, teachers, and employees of social service agencies to manage the emotional effects of their work, while maintaining an open heart and healthy boundaries

Cheri Maples was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 11, 2012, for this special issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share some of the meaningful experiences from your time there?

Cheri Maples: I’ve only been in Plum Village twice—once for a summer retreat in 2002, when I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and again when Thay transmitted the Lamp to me in January of 2008. It seems like yesterday.

When I went on my first retreat with Thay in 1991, it was the beginning of a self-transformation that continues to this day. I wouldn’t have had the kind of career I had as a police officer and as head of probation and parole or as the Assistant Attorney General without Thay’s teachings.

The most significant experience I had at Plum Village was writing Thay a letter about my aspirations and putting that letter in the bell. I was in a challenging place as a police officer at the time, feeling very much on the victim continuum at times and the oppressor continuum at other times. The next day I was sitting in the back of the meditation hall during Thay’s Dharma talk. He spoke about the different faces of love and about fierce compassion and gentle compassion, and the need for wisdom and skillful means to combine them in the job of police officer. I sat in the back with tears streaming down my face. My heart was blown wide open.

Somethig very significant happened that day that affected the way I did things after that.

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MB: Did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CM: At that retreat I asked Thay during the question and answer session if he would do a retreat for police officers. He agreed, and the next year we had a retreat for criminal justice and helping professionals in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Just as memorable was receiving the Transmission of the Lamp. Thay said to me that carrying a gun with compassion in one’s heart can be an act of love. He gave me a directive to take mindfulness practice to police officers and criminal justice professionals.

Another highlight was Thay meeting with the police officers at the retreat. When they first arrived, they were so angry that Thay was saying things like, “You can never fight violence with violence.” They asked me, “Cheri, what are we supposed to do when we go to a call and people are beating each other up?”

So Thay met with them for an hour and it was incredible to watch the energy in the room change. At the end of the retreat, the police officers were asked to do a presentation to the community. I’ve never seen police officers so open, sharing what it is like for them. It was a lesson to me in how understanding can be created by just getting people talking to each other.

After the retreat, the sixteen officers from my department who attended held hands and did walking meditation. Sixteen police officers holding hands, creating peaceful steps on the earth together, forming a circle afterwards, and bowing to each other, and hugging each other. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d ever see anything like that.

A couple of weeks later, a friend who had attended the retreat told me: “I saw two of your young officers who had been at the retreat; they were arresting somebody and they very gently put the person in the back of the car, then they turned and bowed to me.” That’s what interbeing has come to mean to me—no separation. No separation between the person bowing and the person who is bowed to, between the person we are arresting and the person we are protecting. Each of us has all the elements in us and we have to take good care of all the elements.

The other experience that has been particularly transformative to me is Thay’s emphasis on practicing mindfulness in daily life. I knew nothing about any of the intellectual concepts or frameworks of Buddhism when I went to that first retreat. Now all of them make sense to me, and I’ve learned them intuitively by practicing. At first my life was so busy, I could only find moments here and there to walk or eat or meditate. I was in law school and raising two young children and working full time and I still found a way to preserve my sanity with the practice. And over the years that just got stronger and stronger.

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MB: What does “the Plum Village tradition” mean to you?

CM: I think the strongest part of our tradition that I don’t see in other Buddhist traditions in the same way, is the emphasis on Sangha and community. And also, the emphasis on engaged practice, taking your practice out into the world but being part of the practice organism. What that means to me is to build community wherever I am. To build relationships with all the people I work with and all the people I interact with, not just in the practice Sangha but in the workplace. It means seeing community and interbeing everywhere.

MB: Could you give a couple of specific examples?

CM: Our Sangha has taken on a prison project where several of us teach meditation and mindfulness. We have two people who do prison chaplaincy work and we have a number of people who run circles of support for people coming out into the community. We’ve had a few people released from prison who have become members of our Sangha.

I also travel around the country talking to different agencies in the public and private sectors about how to bring mindfulness to their organization and their daily lives. This includes attorneys, judges, and police and correctional officers, as well as people in social services who work with the families of children who have been neglected and abused. People who see horrible things that many people in society don’t see. People are starting to understand that the employees who experience trauma as the result of the violence they see over and over need help to do their job compassionately.

I also lead unconscious bias workshops as a way of personally committing myself to doing something about the incredible racial disparities in the criminal justice system throughout this country.

The thing that I am most excited about right now is an organization called the Dane County Time Bank, working to change the agreements around money in community through creating a bartering system. Many of the organizations and agencies in Madison (Wisconsin) belong, as well as over two thousand individuals. The philosophy is that one hour of my time is worth one hour of your time, so whether you’re a lawyer or work at McDonald’s, your time is valued the same.

When I spend an hour teaching somebody mindfulness, I get an hour building a website or learning accounting, having electrical work done, having the oil in my car changed. When you see this working in challenged neighborhoods, it creates public safety, because people start to see themselves as part of the community rather than just consumers and critics. Now I’m working to take time banking into a prison in Wisconsin. This is such a great way to transform the underground economy, which is usually based on drugs, to one based on human relational skills. They could provide hospice care for each other, they could tutor each other, they could sit with each other when they’re sick, they could provide legal work for each other. There are so many things that can be done.

MB: It’s moving to hear about this. It sounds revolutionary.

CM: When you start practicing in this tradition deeply, and you begin to see the connections, and you begin to do things from a place of compassion and caring, your heart gets so much more open. It gets really fun.

I’ve been honored to be part of restorative justice days in prisons; they have been phenomenal. When I deal with victims who are only interested in punishing the perpetrator, they don’t heal. But when they start looking for some meaning from the experience, which includes forgiveness and reconciliation, they begin to heal.

MB: How have you been able to be in the midst of violence and all of the emotions that go along with it, while maintaining your own inner peace and being a peacemaker as well?

CM: Fierce compassion means knowing how to set high quality boundaries while continuing to be part of stopping violence. It’s being clear about the intention in my heart. Am I angry at this person and wanting an eye for an eye? Or do I want to protect this person from the karma of their unconscious behavior as well as the people they might hurt? That’s a very different set of values to be armed with.

And it is very difficult and there are times when I feel angry and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the wounded view of my own self, not being attached to that view. And then helping others do that.

When we do unskillful things, it’s often because we’re attached to a wounded self. Victims can develop a sense of entitlement that can be just as dangerous as the oppressor’s abuse of power. We also have to learn to have faith in our Buddha nature and accept our humanity. I encourage people to ask themselves, “When will I be enough? What would make me enough?”

Although I do have the faith that the energy of the universe is always available to me, I also know it is important to take care of myself. I can’t expose myself to violence and suffering every day. I take time to water the seeds of joy and engage in the things that to me are very refreshing and healing.

In order to engage with compassion, which means to have an open heart in response to suffering, one has to have the tools of equanimity or you’ll get lost in anger. I see myself as a drop of water in this ocean of consciousness, that can be relied upon. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my ups and downs, but they don’t scare me anymore. I’m not trying to fence myself off from them.

Everything in life to me is the Dharma; everything is an opportunity to learn something.

MB: How do you water your own seeds of joy?

CM: I bicycle, I boogie board, I go on sailing trips with friends, I go on solo motorcycle camping trips, I spend time with my family and the people that I love. I live in a place that allows me easy access to nature. Meditating to me is a joy. I make sure I take time to go on a couple of personal retreats each year where I’m not teaching but I’m just a member. Sometimes I go on very long personal retreats. I’m a big baseball fan. Baseball waters the seeds of joy for me. To me, it’s a very Buddhist sport because it’s a timeless game and the goal is to come home. Most important, I get my next year’s calendar ahead of time, and I put in all the things I want to do to nourish myself; then all my teaching and work experiences are scheduled around those things, so I make sure that I have time for me.

mb61-Transform4I’m very committed to making sure the most important things for me are not at the mercy of the things that are less important. I try to live consciously in that way. And that has meant renouncing, giving up living in fast forward. I feel like I’ve found that balance of being of service and making sure that I take care of myself. “When I take care of me, I take care of you; when I take care of you, I take and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the care of me.”

MB: Do you have any advice for people whose lives are stuck on fast forward and don’t know how to transition to a more sane life where they’re taking care of themselves?

CM: To understand that being on fast forward is a choice. It might be an unconscious choice; it certainly was for me. This culture rewards us for striving, for achieving, for being competitive. Here are three pieces of advice: 1) Look at your attachment to a wounded self. Is it there? It doesn’t have to be. 2) Proactively manage your time so that the things that matter the most are not at the mercy of the things that matter the least. 3) Understand that everything you do is a choice. Being exposed to this practice and the tools that allow us to work deeply with our own capacity for freedom is a privilege, so take advantage of it.

MB: Is there anything you would like to add?

CM: I would like to send my love to the entire Order of Interbeing and particularly to Thay and the monastics, who have been so crucial to my self-transformation.

Edited by Barbara Casey 

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Dharma Talk: Five Wonderful Precepts

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

When we think about peace, we usually think about the absence of war and nuclear weapons, or the absence of social injustice. But I would like to raise a question concern­ing our ability to enjoy peace. Even if peace is present, if we are not able to enjoy it, then what is the use of having peace? Peace is relative. Even if we do not have perfect peace, we can have some peace right now, in the present moment. But many of us do not seem capable of enjoying peace in the present moment, in ourselves, or around us.

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Many of us find peace boring, and so we do things that create war. We drink cognac, for instance, in order to feel better, when we feel bored with life—with the air we breathe, the sky above, the river that flows—and we need something else. But drinking cognac is not making peace, because cognac is made of grain, and many people in the world starve because they don’t have enough grain to eat. The fact that we drink cognac means that we are not reconciled with the people in the Third World, and there­fore, drinking cognac is not an act of peace.

We do other things, such as commit sexual misconduct and intoxicate ourselves, because we feel a vacuum within ourselves and we want to fill it. By doing these things, we destroy our happiness and the happiness of our children and grandchildren. I think this is due to the fact that we have not developed the capacity of enjoying peace. We have to educate ourselves and our children to learn to enjoy peace. By enjoying peace, we make peace stronger and more real in the world. Practicing mindfulness in the present moment is the basic way of making peace and building peace.

I know that the lack of mindfulness has led to a lot of suffering in our daily life. Many families have been broken because of sexual misconduct, alcoholism, and drug addic­tion, and their children and grandchildren continue to suffer and to transmit suffering to future generations. The seeds of suffering that they have will be transmitted to their children and grandchildren. Eventually, you will need a Twelve-Step Program to get out of it. Taking the precepts and practicing them is a “One-Step Program.” It’s much easier.

In my recent tour of North America, I emphasized very much the practice of looking deeply into the causes of our suffering so that we can overcome them. I have encouraged people in the U.S. to practice in the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. When the Buddha was about to pass away, he told his disciple, “Ananda, after I am gone, the community of monks and nuns should look upon the practice of the precepts as their teacher.” So I encouraged people who participated in retreats to take the Five Precepts and to practice them.

In the past, I was not very fond of ordaining people or having disciples. I tried to avoid that, especially when I saw that there were many other teachers. But during my visit last year, I changed my idea. We have to support each other, and the practice of the precepts is very important to help us. We do not practice meditation alone. We practice with a teacher and with friends. When you have a good sangha, your prac­tice is easy, because you are supported by the sangha. A sangha that is practicing a good Dharma is healthy, joyful, and happy. If you have a sangha like that, it is very easy to practice. You have to build your own sangha. You yourself have to be the first element of a good sangha, When the flower in you is real, you can help other members of the sangha. If you have a good sangha, you are a happy person.

The Five Precepts are the foundation for practicing with others. They have been practiced for more than 2,500 years. Buddha gave the Five Precepts to the father of a monk named Yasa, when he asked the Buddha what he could do that would allow him to live more like his son. Yasa was the Buddha’s sixth disciple, a wealthy young man, ordained just after the Buddha ordained his five ascetic friends. If members of a family or a sangha observe and recite these precepts regularly, Buddhism becomes a living reality. Once the precepts are received, we have to practice and recite them at least once a month. If we do not practice the precepts, the precepts’ body will cease to be a reality and the practice of Buddhism will become impossible. Bud­dhists of many generations have practiced these precepts in order to maintain happiness and to be of help to others. The Five Precepts are principles for peaceful co-existence between people and also between nations.

No one can impose anything on us. We are free people, and we do only the things we want to do. But we know that there is a kind of illness in our society, and practicing the precepts is a very good medicine that can protect us and our families and safeguard our happiness. Buddhist precepts are not commandments. To word them in a way that does not sound like commandments may be useful for a lot of people, but we have to word them in a clear, strong way. The wording of the Five Precepts may not be perfect, and those of you who practice them might like to think about the words and help all of us express the precepts in a clear way. But we want to avoid any misunderstanding.

Mindfulness is the fundamental precept. Think of the precepts as the manifestation of mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are responsible. Precepts do not have to dictate our behavior. We don’t need an elaborate code of behavior. Mindfulness is enough. Mindfulness is a torch that can show us the way. Buddhism, the practice of Buddhist meditation, should address the real issues of our life. It should address the issues of our suffering. Whatever suffering we have in the present moment, the practice of Buddhism should help. We should not say that these are only personal things, that we only deal with ultimate reality, supreme enlightenment. These do not mean anything if they have nothing to do with our daily life, with our daily suffering. So, please confront the real issues, the real problems of our life, and inquire.

If we students and teachers do not practice the precepts, we are not faithful to the tradition. We can even destroy each other. Therefore, in a community practicing Buddhist meditation, students and teachers alike have to practice the precepts, the basic teaching of Buddhism. We have to help each other. You know that you or your teacher is not practicing intelligently when you drink alcohol or engage in sexual misconduct. You believe that your teacher has insight, but if someone has insight, how could he or she do things like that? You know that alcoholism has destroyed so much of this country. Sexual misconduct has destroyed so many families and caused many young people to suffer. Even someone who does not practice Buddhism knows this and tries to avoid these kinds of things. How could practi­tioners of Buddhist meditation not practice this?

Someone said, “In the Zen tradition, people are not restricted, they are free. They don’t practice the Five Precepts.” To me, Zen Buddhism is just Buddhism. Every Buddhist practices meditation. Zen is meditation—whether it is in Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana—people practice meditation. To practice the Five Precepts is the minimum. The Five Precepts are Zen itself. So, you cannot say that Zen does not practice the Five Precepts. That is a distortion. To me, to teach, we have to preach by our own lives, not just by a sermon or a Dharma talk.

It is in practicing that we get enlightened in every second, every minute of our lives. The Buddhist teaching on suffering is very deep, very complete, about how to deal with your anguish, fear, anger, and frustration, and about how to deal with your family and your community. All these can be found in the teaching of the Buddha. If you practice correctly, you will get healed, you will be happy and joyful. You don’t need to practice ten years in order to get results. Only one day or two days a week will bring you something positive and good. As you progress on your way, you will be able to help other people also. I believe it is the time that practitioners of Buddhism in this country begin to practice the precepts seriously, responding to the kind of sufferings that have been going on in many Buddhist communities.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the spirit of the Five Precepts is present. If you go back to your traditions, you will find the equivalent of these precepts. I see very much the need for this kind of practice, and I urge you, if you don’t want to practice the Five Precepts in this Buddhist version, to go back to your Jewish or Christian traditions and ask that the equivalent of the Five Precepts be restored.

Peace is important but we have to educate ourselves and our children to enjoy peace. Otherwise, peace will be boring. There are so many positive elements, peaceful elements within us and around us, and we have to live mindfully in order to get in touch with these in order for us to have a joyful and happy life. Someone said, “Thay, when do I know that I am ready for the precepts?” I said, “The sooner the better.”

The First Precept 

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. 

The more we practice and study the precepts, the more we understand their depth.The First Precept, not to kill, is not easy, and no one can say that he or she observes it perfectly. If we are mindful in trying to practice this precept, we will see that we may be unintentionally killing people, animals, or plants, for example, by consuming alcohol, reading newspapers, or eating meat. I think all these things pertain to the precept of non-killing. So we have to be very careful to be able to practice this precept. Things are inter-con­nected. When we eat grapes or drink coffee, we may think that it has nothing to do with killing, but that is not true. So we have to be very mindful in order to deeply practice the precepts.

Sometimes we do not speak out against killing, and that is also violating the precepts. “Do not kill. Do not let others kill.” It is very difficult. You cannot do it perfectly. To practice the precept means you have the intention to go in the direction of not killing. You do the maximum in your power not to kill and not let others kill. The essential is not to be perfect but to go in that direction. When we boil some vegetables to eat, we may think that we are avoiding killing, but by boiling the vegetables, we kill many tiny beings in the water. So our vegetable dish is not entirely vegetarian. No one, including the Buddha, can practice this precept perfectly. He told his disciples not to travel much during the rainy seasons, in order to avoid stepping on tiny living beings. They were trying their best to avoid killing.

We should not be too proud of being nonviolent. Trying to be nonviolent is like looking at the North Star in order to go north. We do not intend to arrive at the North Star; we only want to go north. That is the spirit of the precepts. We want to go in the direction of non-killing, nonviolence, and we make a little progress every day. We have to try all our lives in order to understand the precept better and to practice it better.

The precept is a guideline, a direction. Every time you practice the recitation of the precept, the person who leads the ceremony will say something like this: “This is the first of the Five Precepts. Have you made an effort to study and to practice it during the last two weeks?” You don’t say yes or no. You breathe three times and let the question enter, and you act from there. That is good enough, because “yes” is not entirely correct. You might have made an effort but still think that it is not enough. So, the intention is to help you move in that direction. If you say, “No,” that is not correct either, because you have practiced.

This precept needs a lot of study and practice. It is not as easy as you may think. Trying to go in the direction of the precepts, we become a shining light, and people will follow our example. 

The Second Precept 

Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffer­ing of other species on earth.

Bringing to our awareness the pain caused by social injustice, this precept urges us to work for a more livable society. This precept is linked with the First Noble Truth (awareness of suffering), Right Livelihood (of the Eightfold Path), and the First Precept (the protection of life). In order to deeply comprehend the Second Precept, we need to meditate on all these teachings.

Developing ways of preventing others from enriching themselves on human suffering is the primary duty of legislators, politicians, and revolutionary leaders. However, each of us can also act in this direction. To some degree, we can stay close to oppressed people and help them protect their right to life and defend themselves against oppression and exploitation. 

The Third Precept 

Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.

It is quite clear. This is not just Buddhist; it is universal. It is the right medicine for our illness. When we and our children take the precepts, it means we accept the medicine to protect us.

Sexual misconduct is the cause of many troubles in society, and therefore, the Third Precept is very important. Many things in our lives—films, commercials, magazines—stimulate and create impulses for sexual aggression. This kind of sexual expression has caused a lot of mental stress, and therefore, I think we should look for effective ways to heal society in this respect.

Even in practicing communities, this precept is not practiced seriously enough. I think we need a conference, a long retreat, in order to work on this very big issue. Various forms of suffering have resulted from the Iack of the practice as far as this precept is concerned. Therefore, I would urge young people to begin to practice the Five Precepts, and the parents also should be companions of their children, practicing the Five Precepts. 

The Fourth Precept 

Do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.

The Fourth Precept is about right speech. You know that sometimes we destroy our happiness just because we are not mindful in saying things. Saying things is an art. To use our speech is to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance, and we should be very artful and mindful while speaking. What is described in the precept is not everything, just a few essential lines. Words can build up a lot of happi­ness, but they can also destroy. Practicing right speech, loving speech, is very important in our lives. We have to learn a lot about the art of speaking.

The essence of the Fourth Precept is concord. Commu­nity life is only possible with concord. There are six principles of community life prescribed by the Buddha: living together at one place, sharing material resources, observing the same precepts, sharing the understanding of Dharma and the experience of practice with each other, reconciling differing viewpoints, and practicing kind speech to avoid all quarrels. These Six Concords have been practiced by Buddhist communities since the Buddha’s time and are still relevant.

Kind speech is born from understanding and patience. Only understanding and care can bring about change. Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict. Not only do both sides bear partial responsibility, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in mindfulness, we could have seen the beginning phases of the conflict and helped to end or avoid it.

Our awareness of the need to reconcile will empower us to work in that direction. The success of reconciliation will be the success of understanding and compassion for the other side as well as for ourselves.

The Fifth Precept 

Do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your parents, and also to betray the future generations. 

When we realize the interconnectedness between our ancestors, our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves, we see that by taking care of ourselves, we take care of all of them. Someone who practices the Fifth Precept could not say, “This is my body. I can do anything to it. I have the right to.” They cannot say that, because they know that their body belongs to all their ancestors, themselves, and the future generations.

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Meditation is to look at things in a way that you can see the roots and the fruits of those things. Mindfulness allows that kind of perception. When we look at a glass of whiskey with mindfulness, concentration and understanding will come. We will see the roots of the whiskey. A lot of grain is used to produce meat and alcohol. If we look more deeply at the glass of whiskey, we will see that many people in the world starve because they do not have enough grain to eat. When we see that, we will stop drinking whiskey very soon. Cereals, and the lack of cereals for hungry people, are the roots of whiskey. We know that the fruits of the whiskey include the death of hungry children, liver cancer, and a nervousness that you have in the future. These are all fruits of the whiskey. So mindfulness is the base of all precepts. Drinking a glass of whiskey with mindfulness is already practicing the precepts, because if you drink with deep mindfulness, you will live with the reality of the world and you will stop drinking very soon.

Someone asked me, “I don’t get drunk. I only have a glass of wine when I attend a reception. Isn’t it okay to drink a little bit of wine in situations like that?” 

I don’t think so. I don’t think that those who practice the Fifth Precept should drink even a glass of beer or wine, because one glass of wine will bring about the second glass, and so on. Those who are alcoholic all begin with one glass. That is why it is better not to take a drop of alcohol. During a reception, if you are offered a glass of alcohol, you say, “Thank you very much, but I do not drink alcohol. May I have a glass of juice, or something?” That is beautiful. The best teaching is with your own life, not with a sermon.

It is like when someone offers you a cigarette, you say, “Thank you, I do not smoke.” It’s very good. So those who practice this precept should be clear about it, because you do not practice it for yourself alone. You practice for your friends and other people. There are many things that are delicious to drink, so many wonderful things to drink, and nobody will die if they don’t drink alcohol. I am very firm on this, because the first drop wilt bring the second drop. And when we become alcoholic, it’s very difficult, very difficult. Too many children suffer because their parents are alcoholics. So please just stop. This is the One-Step Program.

Just stopping is a compassionate act for future genera­tions and also for our friends. Many generations have suffered from alcoholic parents and then had to undergo a very long procedure to heal the wounds. Taking precepts is much easier. That is why we should encourage our children to receive and practice the Five Precepts. And we ourselves have to practice in order to support our children. Practicing the Five Precepts is not only for our own good, but for the good of the society.

 

The Five Wonderful Precepts 

  1. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.
  2. Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffering of other species on earth.
  3. Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the suffering you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.
  4. Do not, say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or con­demn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that can cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.
  5. Do not use alcohol and other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors and your parents and also to betray the future generations.

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Dharma Talk: Diet for a Mindful Society

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindfulness is the blood of our psyche. It is exactly like the blood in our body—it has the power to wash away the toxins and heal our pain, the pain in our consciousness.

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When we are not mindful, we ingest many poisons into our consciousness. In fact, we water the seeds of suffering every day, and the people around us water these seeds also. As a result, our suffering increases. When we spend four days together in a retreat, we water the seeds of happiness inside us and around us, and we refrain from watering negative seeds, like anger, hatred, and fear. At the end of four days of practicing like this, we feel much better. We need an intelligent policy concerning our cultural environ­ment so that we do not allow ourselves to ingest indiscrimi­nately TV, movies, magazines, advertising, and other so-called “cultural products.” Many of these things poison us every day with their frantic energy, noisiness, sexual exploitation, and violence. We need a diet for our con­sciousness to avoid ingesting so many of these poisons.

When we ingest toxic substances into our body, we get sick. When we ingest toxic “cultural products” into our consciousness, we also get sick. Our society has so many kinds of spiritual and cultural foods that are toxic. Televi­sion is poisoning us and our children, as are many maga­zines, news images, and so on. We practice watering the seeds of anger, fear, and violence every day. We have to learn to live our daily lives in a way that can help us refrain from taking in more poisons. When these poisons enter our store consciousness, they weaken our power of mindfulness. Without some kind of diet for our consciousness, it is very difficult to practice mindfulness. There are already so many toxins in our store consciousness; we should stop ingesting more.

Many unwholesome seeds have been transmitted to us since our childhood. Practicing mindfulness, we become aware of that pain. But we are not yet strong enough to transform it, so it is important that we stay in touch with the many wonderful, refreshing things that are inside us and all around us—the blue sky, the eyes of a child, the evening sunset. When our mindfulness becomes strong, we will be able to touch our pain with it, and the pain will be trans­formed. I often talk about the mother as the symbol of tenderness, love, and care. When a baby is crying, the mother comes and takes the baby into her arms. Her tenderness penetrates into the baby, and the baby stops crying. When we practice mindfulness of breathing and touch our pain with that energy, our pain will be calmed and will begin to be transformed.

But our seeds of suffering are always trying to emerge, and we try to suppress them. By doing so, we create a lack of circulation in our psyche, and we get sick. As the blood of our psyche, mindfulness can loosen our pain and help dissolve it. Every time our pain is embraced by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength and returns to our store consciousness a little bit weaker. When it arises again, if our mindfulness is there, our pain will be even less. In that way, we create good circulation in our psyche. If the blood in our body circulates well, we feel much better. If our mindful­ness circulates in our consciousness, we also begin to have a feeling of well-being. We needn’t be afraid of our pain when we know that our mindfulness is there, ready to embrace and transform it.

If we have not been practicing for some time, our mindfulness may be of poor quality. It may only be a fifteen-watt light bulb. But if we practice for a few weeks, it will become a one-hundred-watt bulb. For mindfulness to be of good quality, conscious breathing should be practiced. Conscious breathing is the kind of fuel that can keep the light of mindfulness alive. If you practice five minutes of conscious breathing, you will keep mindfulness alive for five minutes. When contemplating a beautiful tree, if you stay in touch with your breathing for five minutes, you will also stay in touch with the tree for five minutes. If you lose awareness of your breathing, thinking may settle in, and the tree will vanish. Breathing is a wonderful way to sustain the seed of mindfulness in your consciousness.

In Asia, since early times, we have known that there is no boundary between food and medicine. When we eat and breathe properly, we nourish our blood. Our blood has the power to rinse away the toxins in our body and heal our pain. If we have good circulation, we will have a feeling of peace and joy, because the blood can go anywhere in our body and wash away the debris eliminated by our cells. We know that if we ingest a lot of toxic food into our intestines, our blood will receive many of these toxins and its power of cleansing and healing will be diminished. So we need to practice a kind of diet to help our blood stay clean.

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Following a diet does not mean to suffer. There are many delicious foods that have great nutritional value. And we don’t have to eat a lot. Sometimes, when we are too sad and don’t know what to do, we take refuge in eating. One woman who came to Plum Village told me, “Thay, every time I feel anxious, I just open the refrigerator door and eat. I cannot control myself.” By taking refuge in eating, we stuff a lot of poisons into our stomach that we know are not good for our blood. Sometimes we also take refuge in studying, social work, protecting the environment, or watching television. We have many refuges that we use in order to run away from ourselves, from our own unhappiness.

We should select the things we eat carefully, and chew our food very well, at least fifty times. If you do so, after eating just half the usual quantity, you will feel satisfied. And chewing every mouthful carefully and slowly, your food will reveal itself to you, and it will already be partially digested by your saliva even before it enters your digestive system. Its passage will not be slowed down, and putrefac­tion will not take place in your intestines. Eating in this way prevents poisons from entering your blood.

Massage is also very important. When there is a spot in the body where the blood cannot circulate freely, we feel some pain. The oxygen in the blood isn’t able to go there and flush out the toxins. Massage is a technique to revitalize circulation. If I practice massage on the spot that is sore, fresh blood will come there to nourish the cells and create a feeling of peace and joy in that spot. For healing to take place, we need the blood to circulate into the zone of pain. Blood is the agent of healing.

We know that to improve the quality of our blood, breathing is important. Our lungs have a three-and-a-half-quart capacity, but usually we breathe in and out only one-tenth of a quart. And if we don’t breathe good air, the amount of oxygen we take in will be even less, and the quality of our blood will be poor. Therefore, we practice breathing in and out consciously, and as our breathing becomes deeper, we exhale more carbon dioxide and inhale more fresh, clean air. We have to learn to breathe more deeply, from our abdomen, and to breathe air that is of good quality. Diet, massage, and conscious breathing improve the quality of our blood. They also increase the quality of our mindfulness.

Please write down three things: First, what kind of toxins do you already have in your body, and what kind of toxins do you already have in your psyche? “Breathing in and breathing out, I recognize that these toxins are already in my body.” What kind of toxins do you have in your conscious­ness? A guilt complex is a toxin, anger is a toxin, despair is a toxin, jealousy is a toxin. If you need to practice walking meditation or sitting meditation in order to look, please do so. Look and see for yourself what kind of toxins you have in your body, and what kind of toxins you have in your mind. What makes you suffer now? What blocks of suffer­ing do you have right now? When you have done that, you will know what you have in your body and in your con­sciousness. Then, please go further, and look into the bodies and souls of your children and your spouse, since all of you are practicing together as a sangha. (Practicing as a commu­nity or a family is always easier. Not only will you refrain from watering the seeds of your own suffering, but your spouse and children will also practice not watering the seeds of your irritation, anger, and so on. That is why we take refuge in the sangha, the community that practices together.) When you recognize these toxins and list them on a sheet of paper, that is also meditation—looking deeply, recognizing, and calling things by their true names.

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After that we come to Item Two: “What kind of poisons am I putting into my body and my consciousness every day?” We do this as individuals, as a family, as a city, and as a nation. We need administrators, legislators, and politicians to practice with us. If you are a psychotherapist, a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, a lawyer, a businessperson, or a social worker, you have to practice in this way for all of us. What am I ingesting every day that is toxic to my body and my consciousness? What is my family ingesting? What are my city and my nation ingesting every day concerning violence, hatred, and fear? The beating of Rodney King, the young driver in Los Angeles, by the five policemen is a good example of how much hatred, fear, and violence are in our society. What kinds of poisons do we ingest every day in our families, our city, and our nation? This is a collective meditation. We need everyone to participate.

Third, write down the prescription that arises out of that insight. For example, “I vow from today on not to ingest more of this, this, and this. I vow only to use this, this, and this to nourish my body and my consciousness.” This is the ground of the practice—the practice of loving kindness to yourself. You cannot love someone else unless you love and take care of yourself. Practicing in this way is to practice love, peace, and enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight. When you look deeply, you have insight, and your insight brings about compassion. Before you begin to eat, breathe in and out and look at the table to see what is good for your body and what is not. This is to practice the precept of protecting your body. When you want to watch television or go to the movies, first look deeply in order to determine what should be viewed and what should not be viewed by you and your children. Think about the books and maga­zines you read, and decide what should be read and what should not be read by you and your children. Practicing together as a community, we don’t need to take refuge in eating or entertaining ourselves with any more poisons. Practicing the precepts in this way helps all of us. Buddhist precepts are not imposed from the outside. From our own insight, we decide what to ingest and what not to ingest into our body and our soul.

For example, if all of us practice looking deeply into war, we will see into the true nature of our society and we will know what to do and how to live in order to prevent the next war. If we prescribe a healthy diet to ourselves, our families, our cities, and our nation and practice that kind of diet, another war will not take place. If we do not practice, a war like the Persian Gulf War will happen again in one, two, or five years. If we continue to live forgetfully, we will be overwhelmed again when we have to confront such a war. The true nature of war and the true nature of our collective consciousness are the same. For war not to come, we need to begin now to prevent it. The best way to prevent a war is to change our collective consciousness. As long as people believe that the war in the Persian Gulf was a war of liberation, a clean and just war, they will be tempted to do it again as soon as there is another conflict somewhere in the world. To change that kind of mentality, we have to practice looking deeply in order to understand the true nature of the war, which was not liberation, moral, or clean. If we don’t practice mindfulness, the amount of hatred, illusion, anger, and violence in our society will lead our leaders to adopt such means again. Without an intelligent diet, we cannot reduce the amount of delusion, hatred, and violence in our society. When we practice well, we will stop bringing poisons into our blood, our soul, and our society.

Insight meditation, looking deeply, is a practice of massage. You practice in order to push the energy of mindfulness into your pain. As it penetrates more and more deeply, your pain will dissolve. I offer you an example: There are those who do not get along with their father (or their mother), because their father has made them so unhappy, has created in their store consciousness so many seeds of unhappiness that they don’t want to look at him, they don’t want to hear his name. They may have been abused as children. For these people I offer the meditation on the five-year-old child, which is a mindfulness massage. “Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old child. Breath­ing out, I smile to the five-year-old child in me.” During the meditation you try to see yourself as a five-year-old child. If you can look deeply at that child, you can see that he or she is so vulnerable and fragile, can be hurt easily by anything that is not kind, can be wounded very easily. A stern look from his father can cause internal formations in his store consciousness. A shout from his father can cause another wound within his store consciousness. When his father makes his mother suffer, when his parents fight and scream at each other, the five-year-old receives a lot of seeds of suffering in him. I have heard young people say, “The most precious gift my parents can give is their own happiness.” If parents live happily with each other, that is the greatest gift they can offer their children. This is true, and I hope all parents can understand it.

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By living unhappily, by making his wife suffer, the father is making his son suffer a lot. He may have brutalized him so severely that the young man has not been able to smile or think of his father. But now he is sitting and visualizing himself as a five-year-old child, very vulnerable, easily hurt. When he smiles at that child, he smiles with compassion. “I was so young and tender, and I received so much pain.”

The next day, I would advise him to practice this: “Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old child. Breathing out, I smile to that child with compassion.” We are not used to seeing our father as a five-year-old child. We think of him as always being a big person, stern, with a lot of authority. But we have not taken the time to see our father as a tender, young boy who can be easily wounded by other people. The practice is to visualize your father as a five-year-old boy—fragile, vulnerable, easily hurt. If it helps, you can look in the family album to study the image of your father as a boy. When you are able to visualize him as vulnerable and easily hurt, you will realize that he too may have been the victim of his father. If he received many seeds of suffering from his father, of course he will not know how to treat his son well. So he makes you suffer, and the circle of samsara continues. Grandfather makes Father unhappy, Father makes Son unhappy, and so on. If you don’t practice mindfulness, you will do exactly the same to your own children.

The moment you see your father as a victim of brutality, compassion will be born in your heart. When you smile to him with compassion, you will begin to bring blood into your pain. With mindfulness touching the pain, insight will also begin to touch your pain. If you practice like that for several hours or several days, your anger toward your father will dissolve. This is to massage the pain by way of mind­fulness. It works in exactly the same way as the blood does in your body. One day, you will smile to your father in person and hug him, saying, “I understand you, Dad. You suffered very much during your childhood.”

Therefore, mindfulness is the blood. Whatever it touches, it transforms. When it touches something beau­tiful, it makes it more beautiful. When it touches something painful, it begins the work of transformation.

Please discuss among yourselves a diet for your body, a diet for your consciousness, and also a diet for the collective consciousness of our society. This is the basic practice. It is true peace work. Peace begins with each of us taking care of our bodies and our minds every day.

Photos:
First and third photo by Michele Hill.
Second photo by Gaetano Maida

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Dharma Talk: Sangha

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all need love. Without enough love, we may not be able to survive, as individuals and as a planet. It is said that the next Buddha will be named “Maitreya,” the Buddha of Love. I believe that Maitreya might not take the form of an individual, but as a community showing us the way of love and compassion.

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The basic condition for love is mindfulness. Unless you are present, it is not possible to love. Learning to be present may sound easy, but until you get the habit, it is not. We have been running for thousands of years, and it is difficult to stop, to encounter life deeply in the present moment. We need to be supported in this kind of learning, and that is the work of a Sangha.

In Buddhist circles, we speak of Buddhakaya (Buddha body) and Dharmakaya (Dharma body), but we rarely speak of Sanghakaya (Sangha body). As practitioners, we carry the body of the Buddha in us. The body of the Buddha is mindfulness, and mindfulness always leads to concentration, insight, and love. When we notice that we have mindfulness, concentration, insight, and love, we know that the body of the Buddha is in us. Mindfulness is something we can touch in ourselves.

The Dharma is the way of calming, healing, looking deeply, and transforming. When we are able to walk in mindfulness, the Dharma body is in us. Every time we take one peaceful step, every time we breathe mindfully, the Buddha and Dharma bodies in us grow.

The Sangha is a jewel, no less important than the Buddha and the Dharma. Please practice Sangha building. Stick to your Sangha. Without a Sangha body, sooner or later you will abandon the practice. Take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Sangha always carries within it the Buddha and the Dharma. The Sangha is a holy body. Don’t look for holiness somewhere else. Don’t think that holiness is only for the Dalai Lama or the Pope. Holiness is within you and within the body of your Sangha. When a community of people sit, breathe, walk, and eat in mindfulness, holiness is there, and we can recognize it. When you take one peaceful step, you touch the earth with your holiness. If members of the Sangha practice mindfully together, the Sangha is holy. We have to learn to take care of our Sangha body. We nourish our Sangha body by practicing deeply together with friends. We know that such-and-such a food is toxic for us, but we continue to eat it. Alone, we are tempted. But surrounded by others, it is easy to stop. Ten years ago, a young boy came to Plum Village whose most acute suffer­ing was the absence of television. He felt he could not survive even one day without TV. His mother persuaded him to stay half a day and we brought other youngsters to play with him. At noon he decided to stay the whole day. Then he stayed for another day, then for two weeks. He was able to survive without television because of the Sangha. He found by being with other young people that life is possible without television.

The Sangha can be described as a stream of life going in the direction of emancipation, joy, and peace. The only condition for us to enter the stream of the holy Sangha is that we practice. If we do, we will obtain “stream entrance” right away. This was the word used by the Buddha. If we embrace the practice of mindful living, we join the Sangha and enter the stream. This is the first holy fruit we obtain as a practitioner. It is not difficult. If you want to practice in a joyful way, build a Sangha where you are. The Sangha is your protection. It is the raft that will carry you to the shore of liberation. Without a Sangha, even with the best of intentions, your practice will falter. “I take refuge in the Sangha” is not a declaration of faith. It is a daily practice.

If there is love between teacher and student and among the students themselves, you will be able to put down roots in the Sangha. When I became a monk, I was loved by my teacher and fellow monks. Later, when I had to leave the warm atmosphere of the temple, I encountered many storms. But the roots that had grown in the temple could never die, and I was able to continue steadily on the path of practice. Many people today are unable to put down roots in their families, churches, or society. If these people come to a Sangha of practice and see it as wholesome, true, and worthy of their confidence, they will be able to put down roots. It may be easier to love in a Sangha than in our own family, because in a Sangha we are all going in the same direction. Later, we can return home and help rebuild our family, church, and society.

If you are going to dig a well, you cannot dig down a few inches and say, “I give up. There are too many stones.” Your teacher and your brothers and sisters are the earth you are digging into. Digging a well is not easy. If you throw away your practice—your shovel—you will not succeed. Dig down inside yourself, into your own mind. Drink the pure, sweet water of the earth. When you have difficulties with your teacher or friends, you have to find the roots of the difficulties. It may be a matter of needing to reorganize things or something simple like that. Be open to discovering new ways of being together. Thanks to such difficulties, we see how to continue the work of transforming.

If you have a difficult Dharma sister or brother, help her, because she is you. If you cannot help her, you will not be successful in your own practice. If you continue to exist as an individual and think that happiness is an individual matter, you will not succeed. When you have put your roots down in each other, the feelings of isolation and loneliness will be transformed. You are no longer merely an indi­vidual. You carry in your heart all your brothers, sisters, and ancestral teachers.

Sangha building is an art. To take care of the Sangha is to take care of the Buddha. Through a Sangha, it is possible to be in touch with the living Dharma. To take care of the Sangha is to take care of ourselves, and to take care of ourselves is to take care of our Sangha. When we eat and drink in moderation, we are looking after our Sangha body. When we look after a brother or sister and help them smile again, we are looking after the Sangha. When we take our younger sister’s hand and console her, we are looking after the Sangha. When we reconcile with our brother, the whole community will feel better, and we are looking after the Sangha. It is not enough just to go into the meditation halland offer incense to the Buddha. When we cause our Sangha to be healed, we are healing the body of the Buddha.

A young man told me, “I am happy to take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma, but I cannot respect the Sangha.” He did not understand that each jewel contains all three jewels. Without the Sangha, there can be no Buddha and no Dharma. An elderly friend told me, “I only take refuge in a Holy Sangha, the Sangha of saints who lived in the past. In the present time, there is no Holy Sangha.” But a Sangha that is made of people of this world is the only Sangha we have. If my friend had been on Vulture Peak when the Buddha was giving teachings, he would have seen many dis­turbing elements in the Buddha’s own Sangha. When we read the Vinaya, we can see that. We need a Sangha that we can touch in the present moment, made up of all kinds of people. They may not be fully enlightened, but if they can support us in our practice, that alone makes them a worthy object of our refuge. They may not be saints, but they are the Sangha we have.

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The best way to improve the quality of the Sangha is to improve the quality of our own practice. If members of the Sangha practice mindfulness and have been liberated from the worst part of their suffering, the Sangha is a jewel that can help many people. Our community in Plum Village is by no means perfect. It is a community of ordinary people on the path of practice. But if our Sangha practices well, it can become a Sangha of deep realization. The holy element is there in each member of the Sangha. And with daily practice, we practice holiness every day.

In any community, it is clear that some people have more peace than others. If we leave a Sangha because some of its members are not very holy, we are leaving the holy elements as well. The practice is to help build a Sangha that has peace and joy. Every member of the community can practice this. This is the way to cultivate faith in the Sangha.

If you do not have the means to travel and live with an established Sangha, create a Sangha where you are. It can be a small community of practice with your family and friends. You can meet every day, or once a week, or even just once a month to recite the mindfulness trainings together. The work you do for the Sangha is not just washing the dishes, working in the office, or performing ceremonies. It is organizing yourself and your life in a way that brings happiness to the Sangha.

We have to learn to practice meditation collectively—as a family, a city, a nation, and a community of nations. A Sangha that practices love and compassion together is the Buddha we need for the twenty-first century. It is up to us to bring the next Buddha into existence—Maitreya, the Buddha of Love, Ms. Love, Mr. Love. We have the privilege and the duty to prepare the ground for bringing that Buddha to life—for our sake and the sake of our children and our planet. Each of us has a role to play. Each of us can bring the Buddha into our daily life by practic­ing mindful living. Each of us is a cell in Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the twenty-first century, the Buddha of Love. 

This article, based on a Dharma talk given at Plum Village in September 1996, will appear as a chapter in Thich Nhat Hanh’s forthcoming book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, to be published by Parallax Press.

 

The Six Concords

The Buddha taught Six Concords to help his disciples have happiness in their daily life together. Concord is the basis of a Sanghakaya. 

The first is the Concord of “bodily action.” A Sangha lives together like a family. Our actions affect all those with whom we live, so our actions need to be conducive to concord. 

The second is the Concord of “sharing the benefits.” We share food, sleeping accommodations, and the opportunity to practice sitting and walking meditation. We listen to the Dharma together. We share all sorts of benefits with each other. If one person has three days to go on retreat, others in the Sangha should have the same opportunity at some time. We support each other. 

The third is the Concord of “keeping the same mindfulness trainings.” Our aspirations are the same, and we agree that practicing the same mindfulness trainings is the best way to realize those aspirations. 

The fourth is the Concord of “speech.” Our speech also needs to inspire concord. We need to base our speaking on certain principles, such as knowing how not to react when we hear something we do not like, knowing how to make note of what the other says in order to be able to meditate on it before we reply, and knowing how to encourage and increase the confidence of those we talk to. 

The fifth is the Concord of “view.” We come from different backgrounds. We cannot possibly share the views of everyone in our community. But we do not assume that our view is correct and others’ views are wrong. We don’t argue about our different views. When we have an idea, we share it with the other members of our Sangha, and we modify our ideas as we listen to others. A Dharma discussion is an opportunity to listen carefully to all the different viewpoints in order to have deeper insight. Our own idea is only one small part of the picture. When others speak, we listen carefully to find the wisdom in their words. If we cannot listen to others, we cannot learn. We need to help others know they are accepted and appreciated. 

The sixth is the Concord of “activity of mind” We have different ways of thinking and different feelings. We should not isolate ourselves on the island of our thinking. We have to communicate. When we see someone drowning in their thinking, their sadness, and their suffering, we can say to them, “A penny for your thoughts,” or, “A penny for your feelings.” When the other person is able to share his feeling, he is no longer isolated. When we express what is happening in our mind to another person, it relieves our isolation. If you ask someone, “What are you feeling?” and she says, “I am unhappy,” you can practice walking meditation together and that alone will bring some joy.

Photos:
First photo by Karen Preuss.
Second photo by Michael Grossi.

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