Dharma Talk: A Peaceful River

By Thich Nhat Hanh

New Hamlet, Plum Village
January 26, 2012

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Dear Sangha, today is the 26th of January, 2012. We are in the Full Moon Meditation Hall of New Hamlet.

Today’s gatha from the sutra we are studying says that all of us contain a stream, and we don’t have a separate self. The gatha is as follows: Living beings is the name of a continuous stream and all phenomena as the object of perception are only signs. Therefore there is no real change of birth into death and death into birth and no person who realizes nirvana. (1)

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There are two things this gatha is teaching us. First, we don’t have a separate ego, a separate self, and second, everything comes from our perceptions, everything is an object of our perception. There is no one who attains nirvana, because if there is no separate self, then who will do that? At first we think we have to choose: either we are in the ocean of death and birth, and then we suffer, or we are in nirvana so that we don’t have to suffer. But after that we have to go further in our understanding. We have to see that birth and death is nirvana. If we are deeply in touch with birth and death, then we are in touch with nirvana. These two things are not separate; because of that, there is nobody in the stream of birth and death, and there’s nobody to go to nirvana. So we don’t have to do anything. We don’t even have to practice.

I wrote a poem about a stream, a little stream that begins at the top of a mountain. When the rain comes, it becomes a river. Many small streams come together to form the river, and the river flows down the mountain. We are describing a very young river. We are like this young river. When we are young, we are excited and we want to go very fast. Youth is always like that. We always want to attain something quickly. We all go through that stage; some have already gone through it, some are doing it right now. We want to attain something, we want to finish something, we want to go somewhere.

There are some young monks who very much want to become venerable elders quickly, so they act very serene, just like an old venerable one; they act older than their age. And there are some old monks who just want to wear the monastic robe of the novice monks so that they can look young.

So the young river was dancing and singing as he ran down the mountain quickly. He was very enthusiastic, and of course on the way he saw other streams and they all mingled together. We can see clearly that one stream, one river does not stay separate; it merges with many different streams as it travels. And our stream of life is the same: every day we have so many inputs, entering us all the time. If what enters into us is nourishing, that is good. But if what comes in is not fresh, it can make the stream of life not very good. Listening to the Dharma talk this morning is a nourishing input and helps us grow. The talk can contain insight and compassion. If we can absorb all of those little rivers within the Dharma talk, then our river later on will be very clear.

But also we have outputs. As the river flows down the mountain, it both takes in and gives out. For example, the river has to share some of the water with the grass. When the river arrives at the plains, there is no steep slope, so the river slows down. This happens to us as we grow older. We’re not excited; we have more peace. We have the ability to see what happens in the present moment because we have slowed down. When the river flows to the field it becomes a more peaceful river, and it has become larger, like the Fragrant River in Hue, the Red River in North Vietnam, the Mekong River, the Amazon River, the Mississippi, the Ganges.

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The Cloud Is Impermanent

When the river slows down, it has time to reflect many colorful clouds. Clouds have many, many colors. Then the river starts to become attached to the clouds: “Oh, that cloud is so beautiful! Ah, that cloud is also beautiful!” And the river runs from one cloud to another cloud.

We, too, are a river; we’re a stream of water and we become attracted to that cloud, that image. We become attached to many exciting, colorful, and interesting things. But the nature of everything is impermanent, including the cloud. Now the cloud is here, but in the afternoon it will move on. As the clouds disappear, you run from one cloud to another cloud, trying to hold on. We, too, run after this or that project, after another beautiful woman, another handsome man. We feel some emptiness in our hearts and we are like a river running after a cloud. But the truth of the cloud is impermanence. Its nature is to disappear. We lose our breath running after this cloud, then another cloud, and then because we have that feeling of emptiness inside, we feel lonely.

Then one day the river is so sad, missing the clouds, and she has no desire to live. The sky is empty, there is no cloud to run after, nothing for us to run after. So the river wants to die. She wants to commit suicide, but the river cannot kill herself. It is impossible. A stream must continue; it cannot stop running.

And it is the same for us. We are a river of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We say we can kill ourselves, we can commit suicide. But we can never do this because we will just appear in another form. So we have to run in a way that the stream becomes larger and larger, more and more limpid, more and more beautiful, and go in the direction which makes life more beautiful. The river was so empty and so lost, but she has to come back to the river, back to herself.

Already Enlightened

For the first time the river listens to herself. When she listens at the edge of the river, and hears a little lapping of the waves, that is like the sobbing of the river. But looking deeply, suddenly she will see that, oh, this little wave on the side of the river is also the cloud. And I, the big river, am already a cloud. I have all the clouds in myself. I have all my projects in myself, all the dreams in myself, all the aims in myself.

The nature of the river is a cloud; the nature of the cloud is a river. Because they are both made of water. You are already water. Why do you run after water? You are already what you are running after. That is the first insight of the river.

In Buddhism we have three doors of liberation. (2) One of the doors is aimlessness.You don’t need to aim for anything.You don’t need to go anywhere. The third door of liberation is aimlessness. The second door is signlessness. The first one is emptiness.

Aimlessness means that you don’t need to aim for anything; you are what you are searching for. When the river realizes that she’s water, and that the cloud is in her because she is also water, she has no aim to run after, and she’s in peace. And it’s the same with us: we run after the Buddha, we run after satori, enlightenment. You don’t need to run after enlightenment; you are already enlightened. Where you are, steadily there, peaceful, clear in your mind, you are already what you are searching for.

When the river has found that deep vision, he runs peacefully and arrives at the ocean, which is also water. Wherever you are, you are already water. When conditions change and there is too much heat, you become water in the form of vapor, in the form of a cloud. Then as you flow peacefully as a river, there are plenty of clouds. But the river has no desire to run after the clouds because the river knows that all these clouds are himself. He doesn’t need to run after all these beauties, all these attachments. The river realizes that he is cloud.

And that night when the river realizes she is river, she is cloud, there is no discrimination between cloud and water vapor and water. That night there is a big enlightenment of cloud, moon, river, vapor, water, and they come together for walking meditation. They are together; they are one. They manifest in different forms, but they are one. They have already reached the door of liberation, aimlessness. They are not confused by the signs of their forms, and they experience non-self, interbeing. They are one.

Nirvana in You

We see the wonders of every second, of every minute. The sunshine is so beautiful. The Sangha is so beautiful. We are a river; we must run. Why do you think you can kill yourself? You cannot kill a river. The river continues to search for a way to continue. That is your practice. You only need to practice like that. You don’t need to learn thousands of sutras.You just walk on the Earth, really be with the Earth, be with the sun. The Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder. You are one.

The Earth is a great bodhisattva, the sun is a great bodhisattva. We cannot be different, we cannot find a better bodhisattva. You need only to practice like this; it’s enough. When you can walk mindfully, deeply, be one with the Earth, be one with the sunshine, be one with the universe, you can see that every step brings you to that great reality. So all your doubt will be removed.

In reality, there is nothing lost, nothing increased. Losing here, increasing there, you can see that nothing lasts. So our brother is lost, but he appears here, there, and in yourself, in many other people. Don’t try to find nirvana far away. You can find nirvana in you, in the present moment. Nothing is born, nothing dies.

Everything is no-birth, no-death, no increasing, no decreasing. We see the world of suffering and we see the world of enlightenment, because we are dualistic in our view. If you can touch the world of beauty in the world of ugliness, then you can touch the world of suffering in the world of enlightenment. The world of enlightenment is within the world of suffering. Don’t think that enlightenment is different from ignorance. From ignorance you can get enlightenment. You have to see that in suffering there are quite a lot of elements to help you reach enlightenment.

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We have to learn to take care of our suffering in order to change, to transform, to be liberated. So when we have suffering, we have to suffer together. Don’t suffer alone. When you suffer alone you cannot find the way out. But if we suffer as a Sangha, together, we will find a way out. I’m very happy that I have you all together with me. I have gone through many difficult situations, but you are there, and we all work together for transforming our pain.

So like the river, don’t try to run after clouds. What you are running after is already here in you. The water is in you; the cloud is also water. It is not a promise of the future. Heaven is here and now. The Kingdom of God is now or never. You can stay where you are, not running after anything. You have to practice, “I have arrived, I am home.” That is our anchor. It means we dwell peace fully, happily, here and now.

I vow to bring my body, my mind, my action, and my speech to end all the war, the quarrels, and bring understanding and love to everyone. That is our duty. It’s our mission. Our mission is to bring understanding in life—to ourselves first—and then together, to one another. We try to bring understanding to close friends, to beloved ones both near and far away. We dwell peacefully, mindfully, in the present moment, in order to protect our beautiful green planet, and we vow to see the interbeing of everything in order to transcend the signs, the appearance. In this way we touch reality.

You have to be aware that every word influences the whole Sangha. Every bodily action influences the whole Sangha. When you think something, it influences the whole Sangha. You are a cell of a body. You have to think in a way that brings happiness and purity to the Sangha. You have to speak in a way that brings purity and understanding to the Sangha. We have to act in a way that brings understanding and beauty to the Sangha in order to create the Pure Land. To truly arrive, not to be carried away by appearances, to transcend the signs. You love me—it means you love you. You love you—it means you love me.

Applied Buddhism is the way to touch reality, in order to see that birth and death are only doors by which you enter and leave. It looks like you are born, it looks like you die, but really you are born every second, you are dying every second.

So, friends, don’t think that this body is just you, because you are a river. This river continues to flow and to flow. And if it stops here, it will appear on the other side.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong; edited by Sister Annabel and Barbara Casey.

1. Gatha 44 from the Yogacarabhumishastra by Acarya Asanga

2. The Three Doors of Liberation:

Emptiness: Interbeing; the realization that we are empty of a separate, independent self. When we practice eating meditation, seeing the cosmos in our food, this is the practice of emptiness.

Signlessness: Not getting caught in the appearance or the object of our perception; not being limited by the form: i.e., seeing that the cloud and the river are the same in essence, both made of water.

Aimlessness: The realization that we already have Buddha nature, that all the elements for happiness are already within us. The practice of aimlessness is the practice of freedom.

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Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Deepest Desire

By Thich Nhat Hanh

When a woman becomes pregnant, something happens in her body, mind, and heart. The presence of the baby in her transforms her life, and a new energy arises that allows her to do things she normally could not do. She smiles and trusts humanity and the world more, and she becomes a source of joy and hope for many others. Even when she experiences morning sickness or other adversi­ties, deep within her, an inner peace, a deep source of satisfaction, has been awakened.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We who practice meditation also need to become “pregnant”—pregnant with the desire for enlightenment. A seed that has been buried in us for many years, under layers of suffering, sorrow, and forgetfulness, needs to be touched, and when it is, transformation occurs right away. In Mahayana Buddhism, this seed is called “the mind of enlightenment,” bodhicitta, the capacity to become a buddha. The moment we get in touch with this capacity, people will see joy, energy, and hope in us, and everything we do or say will manifest its presence.

We have many desires—the desire to be happy, to be enlightened, to discover, to understand, and to bring happiness to other people. Desire has very much to do with our practice. We want something, we aspire to it. If you smoke, you know what I mean. When you need a cigarette, you feel it. First of all, you know you lack something, but you don’t know what it is. This is a desire, but not the deepest kind. When you find out what it is—”I need a cigarette. I will not be really happy until I have one”—it is a kind of enlightenment, although a shallow one. When we are motivated by the desire to awaken our deepest understanding, we become a bodhisattva right away, and everything we do or say will be an expression of that desire.

The seed of our deepest desire lies in the depths of our consciousness. We may not be aware of it in the upper level of our consciousness, because it is still buried in the lower part, the “store consciousness,” and we have not been able to touch it. But when someone—a friend, a lover, a teacher, an aunt—provokes in us the possibility that we can become pregnant with bodhicitta, we are motivated to get in touch with it. The words “conviction,” “resolve,” and “determination” mean that we are motivated to find out what we really want, not just on the surface but deep down. Deep down we have the need to love, to be loved, to make people happy, and to understand the reality of life inside us and all around us. For the practitioner, especially in the Mahayana tradition, the first task is to find out what is our deepest desire.

How can we know and get in touch with it? We may need the help of a sangha or a teacher. We may think other things are important, but our true love, our deepest desire, is always the most important. If we find out how to touch it, it will be there with us all the time. We will only need to feed and nourish it, like a baby. When we are pregnant, we know our baby is there, and everything we eat and do nourishes our baby. Motivated by our deepest desire, we do it effortlessly. When we see a dharma brother or sister who is in touch with his or her deepest desire, we see great joy, energy, and happiness, even if that person is only a beginner in the practice.

When we are not in touch with our motivation, even if we struggle to make a lot of effort, even if we torture ourselves and make ourselves suffer, concentration will not come easily. It is much better not to fight, but to touch our deepest desire and concentrate on that. When that desire is strong in us, the concentration needed to realize real awakening arises effortlessly. Whether we are eating, drinking, walking, or washing dishes, even when we think we are not very concentrated, we are concentrated. Scientists and philosophers who are concentrated on their special subjects also have this kind of desire. One philosopher named Diogenes was so absorbed in his topic of concentration that when he went out during the day, he wasn’t aware it was day and he lit his lamp as if it were night. He was very much one with his subject, although at that moment he was not very mindful of his own body. When we touch our deepest desire, concentration will come easily and stay with us for a long time. We will be in constant concentration, not only in the meditation hall, but in the bathroom, the backyard, the kitchen, while shopping, and so on. Otherwise the concentration we acquire during practice will be shallow, and we will have to struggle for even that.

In the Zen tradition, the teacher’s role is to help the student touch his or her deepest desire. To do that, the teacher must understand the student. After observing the student for one, two, or three years, the teacher may propose a kung an (koan), and if the teacher and student succeed, after the transmission of the kung an, the student becomes really pregnant of that kung an. But successes like this do not happen every day. Both teacher and student need the right opportunity and also enough luck.

The teacher has to practice looking deeply in order to understand the student. Out of that kind of relationship, one day he may be able to give a kung an that is suitable for the student. Then the student has something to work with, a baby within him or herself. When the student is pregnant with his kung an, his practice is only to nourish that kung an—nothing else. In daily life, when he practices sweeping the floor or washing the dishes, these things have the power of nourishing the kung an. When he hears the bell of mindfulness, he practices breathing in and out, concentrating on the bell. He appears not to be concentrating on the kung an at all, just the sound of the bell and breathing in and out. But that is a dualistic way of seeing things. When the student practices listening to the bell deeply, the concentration that is generated penetrates into his store consciousness, bringing energy and support to nourish the kung an. Not only while listening to the bell, but while doing any­thing, he or she will practice motivating the best seeds in the store consciousness to come and nourish the baby.

The object of concentration while you practice listening to the bell is the sound of the bell, the in-breath, and the out-breath. But, at the same time, it is also the kung an within yourself. Without listening deeply to the bell, you will find that your kung an has no chance to grow. Whether proposed by a teacher or discovered by the student directly, the kung an needs to grow and develop in the store consciousness. It is the duty of the student to bury the kung an deep in the store conscious­ness. Mind consciousness needs to let the kung an reach store consciousness and not just play with it. Mind consciousness is the gardener; store consciousness is the garden that brings forth the flower of understanding. Entrust your kung an to your store consciousness. You have to have faith in your store consciousness.

If the kung an is a real one, it will touch the deepest level of your being, and you won’t need to make any additional effort for it to be to object of your concentra­tion, just as a mother-to-be does not need to make a special effort to be aware of the presence of the baby in her. Waking up in the morning, she knows she is pregnant, and she smiles to her baby. If you are strug­gling to be mindful, it is because you are not one with the object of your concentration, your kung an. Be pregnant with a wonderful baby, and you will know what to do. The deep desire to understand, love, and be loved is bodhicitta, the mind of the highest understanding. When you have that within you, you are a Bodhisattva, filled with energy to understand and to help. Mindful­ness is energy. A Zen student who is practicing with a true, living kung an is very concentrated, mindful of his kung an twenty-four hours a day, even while sleeping. Then one morning when he wakes up, the fruit of practice may be there, offered up by his store conscious­ness.

When you are pregnant, you trust your body. You know it has the power of healing, of nourishing your baby. Your mind consciousness is the gardener that has to bury the kung an deep in the soil of the store con­sciousness. After that, you take care and do everything in your power to help bring about a healthy birth. You practice concentration twenty-four hours a day. Breath­ing, walking, eating, drinking, or hugging—everything is to nourish the kung an within you.

When someone you love comes to visit, you are so happy. You try your best to keep her with you—one or two hours, or longer—because you know that with her there you are truly happy. But when your love is bodhicitta, your true kung an, you don’t have to detain her. She will stay with you wherever you go. True mindfulness is present twenty-four hours a day. Even if people come and talk to you, you are still concentrated. When a book is interesting, you don’t need to make an effort to pay attention. But if it is not interesting, concentration is difficult. When you are interested in something, when it is important to you, everything becomes interesting—a leaf, a pebble, a cloud, a pond, a child. You feel eager to look deeply into all of these things, to find out their true nature. When concentration  becomes easy and natural, it is true, effortless concentra­tion.

So if you want to succeed in the practice, make it interesting. If you are interested enough in the object of your practice, concentration will be easy, and it can touch the deepest level of your consciousness. Under­standing is a fruit of mindfulness and concentration. If you are not interested in something, you can never understand it. If you are not interested in someone, you can never understand that person. If you are interested in her deeply, you will be mindful and concentrated, and it will be easy to find out all about her.

In light of the practice in Mahayana Buddhism, the first thing to do is to produce the mind of enlightenment. Enlightenment means both understanding and love. In fact, love and understanding are the same thing, because if you don’t understand, the love in you is not true love. When your love is true love, you know it is made of understanding. When the Bodhisattva produces the mind of understanding, the deepest desire in her or him to understand is touched. It means love. A good teacher, a good dharma brother or sister, is someone who can help us touch that. If someone has been able to help us do that, we should be very grateful to her.

I was nine years old the first time I was really touched by something in that way. I saw on the cover of a magazine an image of the Buddha sitting on kusha grass, very calm and relaxed. I was impressed to see someone sitting that way, looking as if he had nothing else to do. He seemed to be entirely himself. I wanted to be calm, relaxed, and happy like that, able to inspire confidence and joy in those around me. That drawing was a dharma talk for me, a dharma talk without words. The seed of peace—the desire to be peaceful, relaxed, and happy in order to be able to help others be peaceful, relaxed, and happy—was touched in me.

There is a seed like that in every little boy and girl. It is important to show children beautiful images of the Buddha. An eight or nine-year-old boy or girl can be struck by such an image and motivated to practice deeply and help people. If you have young children, you can touch that desire within your child. I remember a series of articles in that magazine on “Buddhism in the World,” about practicing in society and in the family, not just in temples. Reading articles like that sparked in me the desire for awakening.

Two years later, when I was eleven, five of us—three brothers and two friends—discussed what we wanted to be in the future. One boy said, “I want to be a doctor.” Another said, “I want to become a lawyer.” We talked about choices like these. Then my big brother said, “I want to become a monk.” This was original and new. I don’t know why, but all five of us came to the conclu­sion that we wanted to be monks. For me it was easy, because I had already fallen in love with the Buddha. During our discussion, it was clear that some strong aspiration was already there in me. I did not know what it meant—being a monk was a vague idea, something about following the path of the Buddha—but I knew inside that it was what I wanted.

Six months later, our school went on a trip to Na Shun Mountain, in the northernmost province of central Vietnam. Each of us brought rice balls with sesame seeds for a picnic lunch. I had heard that there was a hermit on that mountain, and I really wanted to see him. I had met Buddhist priests, but I had never seen a hermit. I felt some affinity for him.

We walked seven miles to get to the foot of the mountain, and then we climbed up quite far. When we arrived, tired and thirsty, the hermit wasn’t there. I was disappointed. I didn’t understand that being a hermit meant you did not want to see too many people. So when the class stopped to eat lunch, I went off to search for the monk. I found a narrow rocky path and I tried to find the place where the hermit was hiding. I climbed for a few minutes, and suddenly, I heard water dripping. I fol­lowed the sound and discovered a beautiful, natural wellspring, clear and fresh, lined with stones. I felt so happy! When I looked into the well, I saw every detail at the bottom. I kneeled down and drank the water. It was cool and delicious. That spot was so quiet and wonderful that I felt I was meeting the hermit. I was completely satisfied; I did not need anything else. Then I lay down by the well and fell asleep. I slept for just a few minutes, but when I woke up, I didn’t know where I was. It must have been a very deep sleep. Then I remembered my friends, and I began walking down. On my way, this sentence appeared in my mind, not in Vietnamese, but in French: “I have just tasted the best kind of water.”

My friends had been searching for me, and they were very happy when I returned. But, during my lunch, while the other boys talked a lot, I was absorbed with the image of the well. I knew I had found the best kind of water to quench my thirst.

Nhu, my big brother, became a monk first. It was difficult for him, because our parents did not want him to do so. They thought that the life of a monk was very hard. So, although I too had that desire in me, I waited until the right moment before telling my parents. The seed continued to grow steadily in me, and four years later, thanks to my brother who did everything to help me, I became a novice at the beautiful temple Tu Hiau Temple in Central Vietnam, near the imperial city of Hue.

This essay is drawn from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s first lectures of the June 1992 retreat at Plum Village on “Looking Deeply in the Mahayana Tradition.” A book, Cultivating the Mind of Love, based on the complete lecture series, will be published by Parallax Press in 1994.

Photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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Dharma Talk: Taking Refuge in Your In-Breath

Commentary on the Teaching of Master Linji

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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In the fall and winter of 2003–2004, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) taught from the Records of Master Linji, a Buddhist monk from ninth-century China. Our lineage descends from Master Linji, so we can consider ourselves his spiritual grandchildren. He is well-known for his use of the stick to wake up students who were ripe enough for such liberation. The stick was used to skillfully remove the notions and ideas the person was carrying with him or her, or anything else that was an obstacle to living a simple, free life.  

The teachings are often given in the form of interactions between Master Linji and those who came to learn from him. The moment of human relationship is thus the moment of waking up, of realizing our blindness and also our capacity to live with freedom and joy. In these interactions there is a fierceness, the punch, and also a tenderness, the willingness to engage, to commit oneself to another for the sake of liberation, for the sake of becoming a real human being.  

The original language of Master Linji’s teachings can be confusing, but Thay explains their essence in a way that makes them accessible and meaningful. Thay shows us how to bring them down to earth with the concrete practices of mindful breathing and walking. 

The ideal person, our ancestral teacher Linji tell us, is a free person, who lives a simple, authentic life. This person is free from pretention, free from busyness or business—a businessless person. His teachings were medicine for people of his times and they are medicine for us too. Like good medicine, these teachings kill the disease, yet leave the person whole. 

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Good morning, dear Sangha, today is October the 12th in the year 2003 and we are in the Loving Kindness Temple of the New Hamlet during our autumn retreat.

There is a sutra that was translated into Chinese around the second century. It is called the Sutra of the Forty-Two Chapters. Each chapter is very short and as a novice I had the opportunity to learn the sutra during my first year of studying classical Chinese. In that sutra there is one sentence that says: “My practice is the practice of non-practice.” It reads like this: “My practice is to practice the action of non-action, to practice the practice of no practice and to attain the attainment of no attainment.” When we hear the teachings of our patriarch Linji we hear the same thing. We should be an ordinary person, we should not try to be a saint. If you are seeking for holiness you lose it. Holiness is right there before you but when you begin to seek it you lose it. You begin to run and run and run and you can never catch it. What we learn from the patriarch Linji is not a set of ideas. That is what he hates the most—a set of ideas, especially abstract ideas about the absolute that symbolize the ultimate, the perfection that you are running after. This is what he is always trying to tell us. His teaching is that we should live a simple life properly and become a person without business.

What is your business? You may describe your business as trying to transform yourself, trying to reach enlightenment, trying to save human beings. Throw it away. Don’t consider it to be your business. If you run after that kind of business you cannot be yourself. You are a wonder of life and you are surrounded by wonders of life. A person without enterprise, without any project, without any business—that reflects the practice of non-attainment. There is nothing to obtain.

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Our practice is to take refuge in the present moment because the present moment is always available. The present moment is full of life, full of wonders. We don’t have to run towards the future to get it. You are already a wonder and surrounding you are wonders you can experience, if you know how to stop and to become fully present.

Taking Refuge in Your In-Breath 

How can you come fully into the present moment? One way is to take refuge in your in-breath. Is this possible? Some may say that our in-breath has a very short life span, perhaps only lasting ten seconds. Why should you take refuge in such a temporary thing? I remember when we held a retreat in Moscow for the first time. Some Protestant teachers from Korea were there, and said, “You should not take refuge in the Buddha because he was a mortal. You should take refuge in Jesus because he is immortal.” Taking refuge in our in-breath is very short and ephemeral. When we talk about taking refuge we think we want something that is very solid and long-lasting so that we can have peace and safety for a long time. If we are to choose between something that is short-lived and something that is long-lived for our place of refuge we may choose the long-lived refuge. Yet the question is, who are you to take refuge? As Master Linji said, you are looking for the Buddha—but who are you who is looking for the Buddha? Are you something that lasts very long? Or do you only last for a second?

We have the tendency to think that we are something that lasts longer than our in-breath, but that is not true. We are just like our in-breath. In the Sutra of the Forty-Two Chapters there is a chapter in which the Buddha asked his disciples how long a human life lasts. One person said, one hundred years; one said, fifty years; one said, one day and one night. Then one person said, it lasts for the length of your in-breath. And the Buddha said to that person, Yes, you have seen the reality of the human life—it lasts for only one in-breath. And it may even be shorter than that because as you breathe in you become another person. The you who is there before the in-breath is no longer the same you after the in-breath. You think that you are something that lasts for a long time so you try to take refuge in something that always remains the same and lasts forever. But if you know that the one who takes refuge and that which we take refuge in are one, you can understand why we can speak of taking refuge in one in-breath. This is very concrete. As we breathe in we can be with our in-breath and we become alive. If we know how to take refuge in our in-breath we can take refuge in our out-breath also.

We feel that we don’t have solidity, stability. We are not ourselves. We are pulled away by so many things, so many ideas, so many projects, so much fear, and so many afflictions. We don’t have peace. That is why we need to take refuge. To take refuge is to be yourself again. It is possible. Taking refuge in your in-breath, you suddenly become yourself right away. You are safe, you are solid. You are fully present right here and now. You are aware that you are a wonder of life and you can get in touch with many wonders of life surrounding you. Oh wonderful in-breath—it makes me feel at home. It makes me feel that I have arrived. It helps me not to run. That is why taking refuge in your in-breath is a very wonderful practice. We breathe in and out anyway, so we don’t have to invent the in-breath before taking refuge in it. It is already there. Bring your mind back to the present moment and enjoy. You suddenly become alive. You suddenly become yourself and you cultivate your solidity and your freedom. You are no longer a victim. You have your sovereignty. Mindful breathing is very important, and it is a non-practice because you breathe in and out anyway. You are sitting there enjoying your in-breath. You don’t seem like you are a practitioner, but you are a true practitioner. You are not trying hard, you are just enjoying your in-breath. That is what our ancestral teacher Linji wants us to do. Not to do anything, just be yourself. Sitting there enjoying your in-breath you become everything, you become immortal.

Taking Refuge in Your Steps 

You are always walking, going from your room to the restroom, to the office, to the kitchen. So why don’t you enjoy walking? Why don’t you go home to the present moment and enjoy taking refuge in your steps? Why do you allow yourself to be pulled in many directions? When you are distracted, you are not yourself, you are a victim. But you can change this by taking refuge in your steps right now, right here. It is wonderful to combine your in-breath with one, two, or three steps. In that moment you are truly yourself. You have your sovereignty; you are no longer a victim. You are no longer pulled away by the waves of birth and death. You are no longer drowning in the ocean of afflictions.

Pemb36-dharma4ople like to say, take refuge in the Buddha, take refuge in the Dharma, take refuge in the Sangha. But, I like to say, take refuge in your in-breath, take refuge in your out-breath, take refuge in your steps. The Buddha may be an abstract idea, but your in-breath is a reality, your steps are a reality. You are looking for the Buddha, you are looking for the Dharma. You are not truly taking refuge in them because you have not found them. But you don’t have to look for your in-breath; it is right there in front of your nose. You don’t have to look for your steps; they are right there in your feet. That is why taking refuge in your in-breath, taking refuge in your steps is very concrete. When you are doing that the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha become concrete also. You don’t have to run after the Buddha; the Buddha will run to you. You don’t have to look for the Dharma; the Dharma will come to you. That is what Master Linji tried to say: You do not need to look for the ultimate —the ultimate will come to you.

Although you do not look like a practitioner, you are a true practitioner because you are practicing the practice of non-practice. You practice in such a way that life becomes a reality in every moment of your day. We are looking for a spiritual path because we don’t have peace, solidity, and freedom. That is what a spiritual path is supposed to bring us. But in the market of spirituality you may be fooled by so many people, so many paths, and so many teachers because what they offer you is just ideas—ideas about the Dharma, about God, about the Sangha. There are so many people selling spirituality because there are so many spiritual seekers. Our ancestral teacher Linji was aware of this. He told us not to be fooled by these teachers, even if they are monks and nuns. Do not believe them because they are not really monks and nuns if they have not truly renounced the worldly life, if they are still looking for such things as fame, profit, and power.

Linji’s Teacher 

The teacher of Linji was Master Huang-Bo. When Master Linji was a young monk and had been in the temple for some time he was very eager to learn something directly from his teacher. An elder brother said, “Why don’t you ask the master to teach you something?” Master Linji said, “What should I ask?” His elder brother said, “You can ask: What is the essential idea of Buddhism?” So the young monk Linji went to his teacher and asked: “Dear teacher, what is the main idea of Buddhism?” And his teacher punched him. He asked again: “But teacher, please tell me what is the main idea of Buddhism?” And he got a second punch. But he still persisted and asked a third time: “Dear teacher, it is okay to hit me, but please tell me what is the main idea of Buddhism?” And he got a third punch. He was very disappointed. After some time he left the temple because he thought that his teacher was not very kind to him. After leaving his temple, while on a pilgrimage, he met another teacher called Da-Yu. He asked the young Linji, “Where have you come from?” Linji said, “I come from Master Huang-Bo.” “Why have you left him?” “Because three times I asked him what is the main idea of Buddhism and three times he hit me so I had to leave.” Da-Yu said, “You are a fool. You do not see that he has been extremely compassionate to you. Go home and bow to him.”

mb36-dharma6The young Linji went home and bowed to his teacher. His teacher said, “Where have you come from?” The young Linji said, “I met a teacher named Da-Yu and I told him that I asked you the question three times and you gave me three blows. He looked at me and he said, ‘You are foolish, you don’t see that your teacher is compassionate.’” And Master Huang-Bo asked, “What did you do after he said that?” In fact, when the teacher Da-Yu told him that he had not seen the compassion of his teacher the young Linji woke up and he said, “Oh, I see, there is not much in the teaching of my teacher.” He realized that these three hits were the real teaching of Buddhism and he laughed and laughed. The teacher Da-Yu shouted at him, “You just told me that your teacher was not kind to you and now you say that there is not much in his teaching. What do you want!”

Do you know how the young Linji reacted? He gave Da-Yu a punch. Da-Yu said, “Well, anyway you are his disciple, not mine. I don’t want to have any more to do with you.” And he left. So when the young Linji went back to his teacher Huang-Bo he told the whole story. Master Huang-Bo said, “If that guy comes here I will give him a punch.” And Linji said, “Don’t wait, here it is.” and Linji punched his teacher. Then Master Huang-Bo called his attendant and said, “Take this fool out of here!” That is the story of our patriarch Linji and his teacher. Do you want to try? Do you dare?

Removing the Object 

Linji told us that sometimes you have to remove the object and not the subject. If you come to Thay with your question, with your object then you may get a blow from him. Thay’s style is different, but it is very much in the same spirit. Very often Thay practices removing the object so that the questioner will find him or herself alone without his object. In the teachings of Master Linji there is a passage saying, “In the last twelve years I have not seen anyone coming without an object. Everyone has come to me with an object. As they begin to show it by way of their eyes, I hit their eyes. If they try to show it with their mouth, I hit their mouth. If they want to show it with their hands, I hit their hands.” That is removing the object without removing the subject. If someone comes to you with a question and you spend a lot of time explaining this and that and you are drawn to him, you are not practicing the way of Linji. You have to remove that object of his right away. It may be a very false problem. You have observed Thay doing that with many people. When someone asks a question Thay always tries to remove the question, to give it back to him or to her.

In the market of spirituality you are always looking for something and there are many people who are trying to fool you, presenting you with this or that idea. But Linji is not one of them; he denounced them all. Linji said you should not look outside; you should look inside because God is in you, Buddha is in you, the Dharma is in you. If you have enough faith in that understanding, you have a chance. But if you only look outside you cannot get anywhere. This is the true teaching of Linji. They are selling things because you need them. But if you don’t need them anymore they will not sell them. And that is a chance for them because they spend all their time selling things. If they stop selling they may go home to themselves and get enlightenment, transformation, and healing. If you allow them to continue to sell things like that they will never have a chance. That is why it is very important to stop buying.

You have not come to Plum Village to buy things or ideas, but to have a chance to go home to yourself and to realize that what you have been looking for is already within you. If you want to show your kindness to Thay and the Sangha, take refuge in your in-breath and become fully yourself. Take refuge in your steps and right in that very moment you will have solidity and freedom, you will have the capacity of getting in touch with the wonders of life.

Where do you look for the Kingdom of God? Where do you look for the Pure Land of the Buddha? Where do you look for salvation, for enlightenment? It is in your in-breath and your steps that you can find these things. Don’t do anything, just be an ordinary person. Live your life in an authentic way. Don’t try to use the cosmetics that are provided in the market of spirituality.

Have Faith in Yourself 

In the Records of Master Linji the term that our ancestral teacher used for “teacher” is “a good friend” or a “friend who knows about goodness.” We should look upon our teacher as a friend who knows goodness through his or her own experience. That friend should embody stability, solidity, compassion, and understanding. Because he is your friend and has had his own experience of goodness, he can help you. Help you to do what? He can help you to do the same as he has done—to go home to yourself and to get in touch with the seed of goodness that is in you, the seed of solidity and freedom that is in you, the seed of the Kingdom of God that is within you. Don’t have the notion that you have nothing within yourself and that you have to depend only on your teacher. Your teacher is only a friend who can support you to go home to yourself. That is what our ancestral teacher called faith.

In the Records of Master Linji it says, “The practitioners of our time do not succeed because they do not have faith in themselves. They are always looking outside.” They think that they can get compassion and wisdom from the Buddha, from the Dharma, from the Sangha outside of themselves. They don’t know that they are the Buddha, they are the Dharma, and they are the Sangha. They should allow themselves to become the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They should allow the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha to become themselves. This is the teaching of Master Linji.

Thay can tell you that there is not much in the teachings of Master Linji. We know that the first expression of enlightenment by our ancestral teacher Linji was, “Oh I see, there is not much in the teaching of my teacher.” If you can tell that to Thay, you are a good student. Thay only teaches breathing in and breathing out.

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