The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai

This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.

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Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.

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Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly
Doing nothing
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.

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Dharma Talk: Taking Care of Each Other

By Thich Nhat Hanh

One day, Ananda and the Buddha came to a retreat center where there was only one monk. The monk was very sick with diarrhea. When the Buddha and Ananda came to his room, they noticed a very bad smell. The Buddha asked the sick monk, “Did nobody take care of you?” He answered, “I have been sick for a long time and many monks took care of me. But I do not want to disturb them anymore. Now I can take care of myself.” But the Buddha said, “No. You should not do it that way.”

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The Buddha told Ananda, “Go and get a bucket of water and a rag.” The Buddha cleaned and washed the sick monk, while Ananda cleaned his room. The Buddha and Ananda cleaned the room for three hours. Then Ananda offered one of his three robes to the monk. He washed the monk’s robe and dried it outside. After that, the Buddha and Ananda sat outside. Soon they saw all the monks coming home.

When the other monks saw the Buddha and Ananda, they were very happy. But the Buddha said to them, “Dear friends, we are all away from our families. Our blood sisters and brothers and our parents do not take care of us. If we don’t take care of each other, who will take care of us? If you want to take care of the Buddha, then you have to take care of your brothers. When you take care of your brothers, you are taking care of me, and when you take care of the Buddha, you are taking care of your brothers.”

Today, we too must support each other in the practice and take care of each other. Our practice is not an individual practice. We practice with other people, we practice with our Sangha. The Sangha is also our body, and all our brothers and sisters are a part of this Sangha body. Sangha bodies have eyes, noses, and ears. Our Sangha body can hear and understand.

The practice of the second body is one way we take care of each other in the Sangha. Each member of the Sangha needs a second body. When you go to sitting meditation, you invite your second body. If your second body is sick, you have to know that your second body is sick, and look for a doctor or someone to help. The second body doesn’t need to be younger, the second body can be older. The second person also has his or her second body, that third person also has a second body, and so forth.

We have to be responsible for the mindful manners and the practice of our second body. If the manners and the mindfulness of the second body are not very high, you are responsible. If you cannot do that, if you need help, you can ask help from Thay or from other brothers or sisters. If your second body’s manners and mindfulness are not very good, you have to remind him or her. If you feel that you cannot, then you should ask brothers or sisters to help you. This practice is not just for monks and nuns, but for all of us.

When each Sangha member takes care of his or her second body, the whole Sangha is taken care of. When your second body has some happiness, you share that happiness. If your second body has difficulties, you need to understand these difficulties. And if alone you cannot help your second body, you need to ask for help from somebody else. You don’t have to be better than your second body, you need to help your second body.

Practicing like this, you will see a miraculous result. You are responsible for everything that happens to your second body. When you take care of your second body, your third, fourth, and fifth bodies are also taken care of. Taking care of your second body, you take care of everybody else.

We may have a second body who feels difficult to look after. Perhaps the people we think would be easy to look after have already been taken. The method of getting a second body is this: everybody in turn says the name of the person they want to be their second body. At first, there are many people to choose from, but as we go along perhaps there is only one person left, and we have to choose that person. We may feel that this person is very difficult to look after, but you should know that this is a wonderful opportu­nity. The person who you think would be difficult can bring you a great deal of benefit and joy in your practice. Some fruits have thorns and are hard, but when we break them open, they taste very good. The monkeys know that—they break open these hard-skinned fruits. There are people we see who from the outside are not very sweet, but if we know how to open them up, the fruit is wonderful. Don’t be deceived by the outside. Don’t think that the second body is very difficult to look after. Bring all your ability to look after that person and he will become a sweet spring of water.

The practice of the second body is a wonderful Dharma door and we need to succeed in its practice. We should not practice according to the outer form, just saying I have a second body. We should not practice only half-heartedly. With sincere practice, we will have a direct experience of the benefits of the practice.

Another very important practice is Shining Light, offering guidance in the principle of Sangha eyes. The Sangha eyes can see thoroughly. Many people think that the Sangha does not know, but the Sangha knows. It can see much better than you can. This practice comes directly from the tradition that on the last day of the winter retreat (or the rainy season retreat) a monk should bow down in front of his brothers and ask, “Please, with compassion, shine light on me so that I can see my strengths and my weakness during the past three months of this retreat.” He must prostrate deeply to receive this guidance. In Plum Village, we have developed this into a practice that is not only used at the end of the winter retreat, but also from time to time, when any of us needs the guidance of the Sangha. We can come forward, make deep prostrations, and ask for guidance. Even a senior teacher, like Sister Annabel Laity, comes to the Sangha from time to time, prostrates, and asks her younger sisters to shine light on her practice. Most of the people who are there, whom she bows before, are her students.

Shining Light practice is a Dharma door which we offer to the Three Jewels and which we will hand on to future generations. We have to do what we can. We have to shine the light with all our compassion and lovingkindness, all our respect and love. We should see the person we are shining light on as ourselves. We haven’t the right to hide what we have seen. We have to be sincere in saying what we have seen. This is a method of deep looking. We may need to take time from sitting meditation to look deeply, because sitting meditation and looking deeply are the same. In a session of shining light, we need the same seriousness as we have in meditation. We should sit, body and mind as one, our backs straight, not in a sloppy way. We should shine light, sitting as straight as we do in sitting meditation and with all our heart.

The collective insight of the Sangha is offered in the form of a letter. The letter always begins by mentioning the positive qualities of the person who has asked for guidance to help him or her strengthen his or her self-esteem. The weaknesses of the person concerned will be mentioned after, with details, and then the suggestions to help him or her to practice. All are written with the language of lovingkindness and compassion.

One beautiful autumn day during a retreat at Omega, we were happy to walk in the forest beside trees with all their leaves of different colors. I came to a maple tree and looked deeply at the leaves. I realized that no leaf was perfect. Many leaves had holes or ragged edges. But when I looked at the whole tree, the maple tree was so beautiful. Each leaf has its own position, its own integrity. There are small leaves and big leaves, and the tree is beautiful because of the harmony of all leaves. The leaves on the top were not proud that they were the top leaves, and the leaves at the bottom were not sad that they were at the bottom. All the leaves were very happy with their own positions. The whole tree forms a miracle, and that is the harmony of the tree. Like the leaves, we don’t need to be perfect, but when we live together in harmony, our Sangha is beautiful and we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves.

Harmony is the practice of the Sangha. If we have harmony, we have happiness. We don’t need to be perfect. I myself am not perfect and you too, you don’t need to be perfect. But in your own position, if you can express your harmony in the Sangha, this is your beauty. The Sangha of the Buddha is called the Sangha of six harmonies. When the Sangha makes a decision, we first ask, “Has the community assembled in sufficient number?” Then we ask, “Do we have harmony in our community?” If the answer is no, then the decisions are not valid. If you want to build a Sangha, you have to remember that harmony is the basic ingredient.

We need to practice in such a way that there is harmony in our Sangha. Each of us is a younger brother or a big brother, a younger sister or a big sister; each of us has our own position. We are happy in that position, like the maple leaves. When the maple leaves are in their own position, they make the harmony of the whole tree, and when we look at the tree, the tree is so beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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