Deciding How to Decide

By Dennis Bohn

It took the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness about a year to develop the document on decision making (see below). Some people were suprised that it took so long. but in retrospect. it surprises me that it happened so quickly. I would like to share some of the issues and difficulties we faced. so that other groups grappling with the same issues may know they are not alone.

In the late spring of 1996. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine proposed increasing the structure of our Sangha. both to provide a way for the community to grow and to share the workload with more people. The result was a series of planning meetings to plot a course for the Sangha. After the second meeting. it became apparent that not only was there disagreement over the direction we should take. but that we needed a process for coming to decisions. Opinions differed on whether a decision-making process was necessary or even desirable. Many of us worried that a voting model of decision making would divide the community. and that a consensus model would open the possibility of a “negative tyranny” by a single individual. There was also concern about how people would feel when the group made a decision with which they strongly disagreed.

At each meeting, the bell-keeper, time-keeper. recorder, and “vibes-watcher” worked together to watch the mood and flow of the meeting. When Susan Spieler, a vibes watcher, sensed deep emotions surrounding the decision-making proposal, she suggested that we schedule a meeting to explore people’s feelings and past experiences with groups and decisions. This idea was warmly received and the meeting was larger than most. We learned a lot about one another, and ultimately, I believe this experience allowed us to move ahead with the proposal. As the group leaned toward a consensus style of decision making, we received guidance from Sangha member Ruth Lamborn. She taught us the guiding principle in the consensus model: no one person has all of the truth about an issue.

Instead, we each bring our own very individual lenses, grounded in past experience. Through discussion and listening to other people’s truths, we can obtain the clearest truth about an issue. This dovetails beautifully with the notion of Interbeing. While the consensus process can be slow and cumbersome, it is also pragmatic. If one person blocks a decision, others in the group can listen again to their concerns, either amending the proposal to satisfy the objections, clearing up some misunderstanding, or persuading the individual to stand aside. Very rarely will an impasse be reached. We also found two texts useful in our process an article titled “Consensus,” by Caroline Estes in The New Catalyst, Spring 1986, and Michael J. Sheeran’s book, Beyond Majority Rule.

Personally, I found the meetings difficult and I often had unpleasant feelings when someone disagreed with me. When I sat with them, I realized that I felt attacked by disagreement. I try to resolve these feelings by cultivating compassionate listening. When I look at the person speaking, I remember that they are speaking their truth.

This document has truly evolved with our group. The  process guides us back to Buddhist principles, which have been a bell of mindfulness amidst the hurly-burly of our passionate opinions. The openness of our meetings, in which each person has a voice, is balanced by the depth of commitment that someone must demonstrate to block a decision. This proposal also allows people to disagree and then spaciously stand aside, letting the group move ahead. I am grateful that we now have this document as a loving start in the decision-making process, helpill:g us to organize and plot our course without becoming fragmented.

Peace, and good luck if your group is traveling on a similar path.

Dennis Bohn is a member of the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Amy and their dog Lucy.


Proposal for Consensus Process

In our proposals for process and structure in the Community of Mindfulness/NY Metropolitan Area, we consistently return to the spirit of the teachings [of Thich Nhat Hanh].

Part of the process of decision making involves letting go of attachment and preferences.

The process of how we respond when we feel that a decision didn’t go “our way” and our relationship to the mental formations arising from such situations is precisely one of the points of our Sangha practice together.

The spirit of Beginning Anew be built into the planning meeting process as “part of the culture,” for example, at the end of each planning meeting we give time for “flower watering.”

A short quote from Thich Nhat Hanh or “Evoking the Boddhisattvas’ Names” may be read at the beginning of each planning meeting to set the tone.

Proposed:

  1. That for a trial period of six months, decisions of the Planning Committee be made by a consensus of those present at the Planning Committee meeting, with the exception of the Dharmacharya, who is to be considered if she is not present. Prior to the end of six months, a planning meeting will be called specifically to review and revise this proposal.
  2. That, given a range of disagreement is possible in the consensus model: a) an individual or individuals may express disagreement with a proposal and then stand aside so that the rest of the group may move ahead; b) an individual or individuals may wish to be noted in the minutes as disagreeing with the proposal and then stand aside so that the rest of the group may move ahead with the proposal; c) block: an individual or individuals may take a principled position opposed to a decisions and refuse to stand aside. In this case, the group may not proceed with the matter until consensus is reached. Discussion of the issue may and probably will continue.
  3. That any individual who wishes to attend a Planning Committee meeting is welcome to attend and participate. However, in order that decisions will be blocked only by people with a significant commitment to the community and by people who are well informed about issues under discussion, there shall be two prerequisites for a person to block a decision. The person who wishes to stand in the way of a decision must have practiced for at least one year with one of the Sanghas affiliated with the larger CMNY/Metro Sangha, and have been present at a minimum of the past four planning meetings.

The intention of this provision is that community decisions not be blocked by a person(s) who does not have significant “investment” in the community or by a person(s) who is not informed about the issues under discussion through their personal presence at recent meetings. In both these instances, the person(s) who does not meet the prerequisites and wishes to take a principled stand against a decision may seek, through compassionate dialogue, to persuade others to his/her point of view. If an individual or individuals who feel strongly about a proposal must be absent from a scheduled Planning Meeting, it is understood that they take responsibility for ensuring presentation of their point of view at the meeting or for finding another way to have decision making tabled on the proposal on which they feel strongly until they can be present.

PDF of this article

Refuge in the Sangha

By Richard Brady

The Washington Mindfulness Community will be ten years old this summer. Our weekly meditations, which drew two to eight people during the early years, now draw thirty to forty. As it has grown, the Sangha’s needs have become more complex and the need for more formal organization greater. Two years ago we decided to incorporate as a nonprofit, and subsequently as a church. The process thus set in motion brought out our diverse views about the nature of our Sangha, whether and how Sangha membership should be defined, how financial, legal, and practice decisions should be made, and what the Sangha’s relationship is to the Order of Interbeing.

mb24-Refuge1

A year ago, after months of difficult business meetings, impatience, hurt feelings, and Sangha disharmony, I went to Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont for a weeklong personal retreat. The snow-covered hills, the still surroundings, and the strong practice of the resident nuns and monks made a profound impression on me. In a couple of days, I succeeded in slowing down my agitated mind and achieved a very welcome sense of peace. Soon enough, however, I would return home.

Before I left Green Mountain, it was my good fortune to have an interview with Sister Annabel. I told her how beneficial my time there had been. Past visits to Plum Village had had similar effect, and I had returned home feeling I had much to share with my family and my Sangha. Each time, however, it was as though I was a tire with a slow leak. Within days, my Plum Village practice leaked away, and I was caught up in my old patterns. As I prepared to leave Green Mountain, I was afraid that the same fate awaited me.

Sister Annabel smiled. “Richard, you know that this is the practice of the present moment. When you are at Green Mountain, you are doing Green Mountain practice, conditioned by all the things you find here and many others including what you bring with you. When you go home, you will be doing the practice that is there for you. Don’t expect to continue doing Green Mountain practice at home. The conditions at home are perfect for the practice there.”

At home a few days later, I sat on my zafu for the first time. Almost immediately self-doubt, self-criticism, and other negative feelings and thoughts arose. “This is practice at home,” I thought. I smiled and watched without getting hooked by it.

Sister Annabel’s words apply to practice in the Sangha as well. Sangha practice is made of many elements. Whatever comes up for us in Sangha practice is important. If we are open, our Sanghas will teach us. The lessons for “oldtimers” tend to be different from those for the newcomers. The former often tend to be about living in community, and responding compassionately to hurt, impatience, and disharmony.

In reply to my concerns about Sangha difficulties, Svein Myreng recently said, “It seems to happen everywhere, or almost everywhere, when people get to know each other better. Perhaps it is a sign of maturation rather than a problem, although it can be quite painful. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to be patient and humbly accept the lesson. Though we can try to change situations, mainly through communication, we can’t really try to change people. Our main duty is to deepen our own practice as much as possible, and see what comes out of that.”

One thing that came from deepening my own practice over the years was the revelation that I didn’t know most of my Sangha brothers and sisters very well. Two years ago, I started inviting different people to lunch. Typically, we began talking about our practices and our relationships to the Sangha. Eventually, we brought up personal histories that shaped who we are. We were also able to share and listen to our differing perceptions of the Sangha in a more sensitive way than seemed possible in Sangha business meetings. These opportunities have deepened my understanding and appreciation of many Sangha members, which, in turn, has helped me weather Sangha tensions with more equanimity.

In our Sangha, questions related to practice have been a particular source of tension. The WMC meets from 7:00 to 9:15 Sunday evenings. For years, with a few exceptions, we have done the same thing in these hours. Some sisters and brothers returned from Plum Village and Thay’s United States retreats feeling that practice like Touching the Emth and guided meditation would enhance our Sangha experience. Their suggestions met resistance from others who felt things were fine as they were. Using our consensus decision-making process, the Sangha could not agree on any specific changes in Sangha practice or on the creation of a proposed Practice Committee of senior Mindfulness practitioners. However, the practice question was brought to two Sunday meditation evenings, where those present reflected on what they appreciated and desired in Sangha practice.

Recently, we began bimonthly practice forums-meetings open to anyone concerned about Sangha practice issues. They provide an oppOltunity to look deeply together at the needs of the Sangha. The first meeting was small, but productive. It had become clear that many experienced Sangha members wanted more opportunity to deepen their practice with the Sangha. So the forum agreed to recommend to the next business meeting that the Sangha sponsor an eight-session mindfulness practice course, using Andrew Weiss’ recently printed text. The recommendation was approved. The class, composed of five Order of Interbeing members and several other experienced practitioners, has just started, but already seems likely to make an important contribution to Sangha practice. The WMC has faced a number of other difficult issues over the last couple of years. As we tried to absorb the painful leave-taking of a mainstay of our community, and wrote and rewrote om by-laws and articles of incorporation, our personal histories and relationships with other Sangha members sometimes fueled feelings of mistrust and defensiveness, and fears of authority and exclusion. Some Sangha members confided in me about their difficulties with others, but my role as a supportive listener was not lessening tensions. People needed to speak directly with each other from their hearts, if harmony was ever to be achieved.

mb24-Refuge2

At our December business meeting, the Sangha invited Ted Cmarada, a mindfulness practitioner and therapist from a neighboring Sangha, to facilitate. Ted quickly saw that bottled-up feelings blocked our really hearing each other, and asked us to share whatever we were holding. Many people spoke straightforwrdly about their problems with the Sangha and with individuals. The meeting was simultaneously painful and inspiring. At its conclusion, the primary criticism of the process was that it had lacked balance. Affirmations had been too few and far between.

Will the Sangha move on to flower watering? Will we develop new by-laws and articles of incorporation which all our members can embrace? Will practice forums become an integral part of Sangha decision making? I don’t know. However, I feel some hope. On the door of my refrigerator, I keep a quotation by Vaclav Havel, sent to me by a Sangha member.

Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

The way our Sanghas are turning out does make sense when we look deeply at the conditions that give rise to them, the people who participate in them, the nutrients our Sanghas ingest, and the seeds they water. The love born of this understanding and nourished by our practice is the greatest contribution we can make to our Sanghas’ futures.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, teaches mathematics at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

PDF of this article

Cleaning the Sponge

A Dharma Talk on Beginning Anew

By Sister Dang Nghiem and Brother Phap An

At the Stonehill retreat in New York, two senior Dharma teachers teamed up to speak about the practice of Beginning Anew. This excerpt preserves some of the playfulness, humor, and depth of their presentation, which took place on August 15, 2007.

mb47-Cleaning1

Brother Phap An: Some of us have listened to Beginning Anew presentations quite a few times. If you’ve been to Thay’s retreats, every time we have a Beginning Anew presentation.

This time, the sangha asked me and Sister Dang Nghiem to do the Beginning Anew presentation — Sister Dang Nghiem, Adornment with Equality or Non-Discrimination and Brother Phap An, Dharma Seal, like the animal in the Atlantic. Actually it’s Dharma Seal like a stamp, the Dharma seal. So you can remember our names. (laughter)

The two of us met a few days ago, and I said that I’ve been doing presentations for a few years now, and every time I want to have Beginning Anew anew! What should we do about it? So tonight you will see a skit! Let’s see how it will evolve. (laughter)

This morning, in her talk, Sister Annabel mentioned a man working in the garage who turned to his wife and said, “I know that you must be suffering a lot. Please tell me about it.” This is a form of Beginning Anew. Let’s ask Sister Dang Nghiem what she thinks about that practice. What should we do before we make such a statement to our loved one? Please tell me.

Is the Sponge Clean?

Sister Dang Nghiem: I would ask, “Is the sponge clean?” (laughter)

Brother Phap An: What do you mean by “sponge”? (laughter) I don’t quite understand that term. Please explain! (laughter)

Sister Dang Nghiem: You know how we wash dishes every day? We use the sponge to clean the dishes. But how often do we think about whether the sponge is clean? Because if the sponge is not clean, the dishes will not be clean. (laughter)

We may be very eager to do Beginning Anew, but actually the first step is to come back and to do Beginning Anew with ourselves — to clean the sponge.

In our lives we often look for new things. If a pair of shoes is old, we get a new pair of shoes. If a pair of shoes is new but we don’t like them, we get another pair. Sometimes we do that with relationships. We can get another girlfriend or another boyfriend.

But how often do we do Beginning Anew with what we have, to see it fresh, to make it new, alive, and beautiful for us again? How often do we hear ourselves thinking the same thoughts and saying the same things, even sometimes those things we know will not bring more understanding and harmony? How often do we see that in our physical reactions we have very predictable patterns?

The practice of Beginning Anew starts with the sponge. It means that we begin anew with our own thoughts, our own speech, our own bodily actions.

Brother, how do we do Beginning Anew with our own thoughts? I think that’s the most difficult.

Lying Down with Anger

Brother Phap An: For me as a monk, the life of a practitioner is a life of practicing Beginning Anew every moment of daily life. That is my practice. The way I practice Beginning Anew is by returning to my breath. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. And then, breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I relax my body. That’s my practice of Beginning Anew with my physical body.

As a human being we often act like an automated machine. As soon as a button is pushed, we act in a certain way. To respond properly to any situation, the first practice is to stop. Awareness of breathing is very important; it helps us to stop.

I used to have a very hot temper. But now I have lower blood pressure! It took me a long time to practice stopping, but that is the training of a monk.

I remember one time there was a ceremony in the Upper Hamlet, a monks’ residence in Plum Village in southern France. That day the abbot of the hamlet asked some of us to hang a wooden plaque with Thay’s calligraphy and to prepare an ancestral altar. We discussed where to hang it, but the abbot was not there, he was busy; perhaps he was busy having tea. Thay Giac Thanh was the abbot at the time, a very dear brother, very kind, very Zen.

So we hung it up, and it was about noon when we took away the ladder, the drill, the hammer, all the tools. With his Zen master’s stick, the abbot came and walked through the meditation hall. He looked and said, “Well, the wooden plaque with Thay’s calligraphy doesn’t look nice over there. The altar should be in another place.” (laughter)

It was a Zen training, you know. Whenever you go to monastery and you have frustration, think of it as a training. (laughter)

When he came in and said we need to move it, my anger just came up like crazy. And you know what I did? As soon as he left, I lay on the floor, flat! Just like this. (demonstrates; laughter) So I lie on the floor, and I put my arms around me, and I begin to follow my breath. Breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in! (laughter) Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out. And I feel the anger so strong, it wants to take me off the floor.

Breathing in, I know that I’m very angry. (laughter) Breathing out, I embrace my anger with all of my love! This is the real transmission for you tonight (laughter). When you are angry with your beloved, even if you are on a paved road, lie down. It’s the Zen way of practicing. (laughter) But make sure there’s no truck going by! (laughter)

Luckily I was able to lie down and embrace my anger. After five or ten minutes, I felt calmed down and I stood up, and went out to look for another brother so we could move the ancestral altar.

So my practice of Beginning Anew has very much to do with our daily life. The practice of walking meditation is the practice of Beginning Anew. The moment that we put one step on the floor, aware of the step, aware of our body, aware of the blue sky or our feeling, that is a wonderful practice of Beginning Anew.

My Sister Dang Nghiem said, “That’s the way to clean the sponge.” In every one of us there is a block of suffering. We are all born with a block of suffering, which has been transmitted to us by our ancestors, the way they lived, the way they acted, the way they talked with each other. They made each other suffer. As we grew up this block of suffering began to snowball. Beginning Anew is a practice of reversing the process of the snowball effect, to make that snowball smaller.

That’s the basis of the practice of Beginning Anew. Once we are able to have that calm and peace within us, then we can approach the other person.

Sister Dang Nghiem, how do you approach a sister when she’s angry with you? How do you practice Beginning Anew with her? After you clean your sponge, what do you do?

A Tale of Two Sisters

Sister Dang Nghiem: Well, actually the situation happened not very long ago. One sister came up to me, and as we were passing by, she gave me a note. She and I have been really close because we were aspirants together. We came as young lay women, and we played together and then we became ordained at the same time. So we are sisters in the same family.

Recently there was something that made us feel a little strange towards each other. Her note said something like this: “I’m ready, if you are ready, to talk to me about your anger towards me.” (laughter) I almost choked when I read that note! And then she walked away. On the way back, I was standing there and I said something to her. But first I have to give you a little bit of background or else it may shock you!

When I was young — my grandmother was the one to raise my brother and me — every time I tried to be a little bit philosophical or argumentative, my grandma just saw right through it and she would say, “You make me want to poop!” (laughter) That effectively deflated my ego.

So when my sister passed by me this second time, I said, “You make me want to poop!” (laughter) It’s loving speech between us.

She said, “Poop, so that you’re unblocked!” (laughter)

When she said that, I just kind of pulled her cone hat and kissed her on the cheek. And then she walked away.

It made me really happy in that moment. We could just be goofy together again. As the day proceeded, I thought, now I can go and talk to her. And then it came to me, no, I don’t want to go to talk to her, I’ll let her suffer! (laughter) I just didn’t want to go talk to her.

Even though in our precepts as monks and nuns we should not hold our anger for more than twenty-four hours, I wanted her to wait for a few days! But deep inside me, I was cleaning my sponge. I always do my best, because I know that I am very unskillful. I was very aware that I wanted revenge, but at the same time I was just smiling because I have always felt a lot of love for my sister. It was just a matter of time until we came to talk to each other.

When we did Beginning Anew there was a full moon, and she sat there and I talked to her. I said, “Actually, I am not angry at you. It’s not anger that you feel from me, but hurt. When you shared like that, it took me by complete surprise. I thought we knew each other, and now I hear that you cannot talk to me. I feel that you don’t understand me, and that’s what hurts me the most.”

She just listened, and I did the best I could not to blame her in any way but to explain how I felt. I also explained how I contributed to the situation. Because admittedly there were times when she tried to give me advice or something, and I didn’t want to hear it so I brushed it off. That was how we came to a point where she felt that I did not listen and that she could not speak to me.

At the end she said, “Now I don’t want to say anything, but it makes me feel lighter to hear you.” We did hugging meditation and I said, “Please forgive me for my limitations.” She said, “Don’t worry about it.” We walked away feeling a lot happier.

Beginning Anew, Anew

The interesting thing is that the awkwardness continued. Beginning Anew is not some kind of magic. Sometimes it works and the situation is resolved, but to me it’s a continual process.

It comes back to the sponge that has to clean itself. Deep inside us there are still thoughts and views, grudges or resentments or whatever. When we do Beginning Anew, it resolves to a certain level, but the deeper levels are still there. When the awkwardness between us was still there, I knew that deep inside me there are still other issues, as there are inside her. It takes a lot of patience and love.

I see that we have trust in each other because we want to make that commitment to live together as partners, as parents and children, or as brothers and sisters. We want our relationship to be healthy, to be beautiful, but at the same time we realize that it is a continual process, and it is very difficult. The best thing we can offer each other is our practice. We take responsibility for our sponge, and we give ourselves the space and time to constantly cleanse ourselves. We also give the other person the time and space to do that, because if we push ourselves or the other person when we’re not ready to do Beginning Anew, to share, or to go to a deeper level, then it becomes very awkward and unnatural, and it can even cause more damage. It’s really a process that is like a dance, and we learn to be sensitive to it.

I would like my brother to share a little bit about the process of Beginning Anew. We don’t jump in with what’s difficult because that would cause imbalance. We start with flower watering; we acknowledge what’s beautiful first. My brother is one of the best practitioners of flower watering! And I would like to know how, when you live with your brothers and sisters, year after year, how do you manage to see beautiful things in us and not just boring things?

Master of Flower Watering

Brother Phap An: Flower watering is the practice of looking deeply into the other person; you recognize his or her beauty and how that beauty offers love and support to your life. You need to say something sincere, and something that comes from your observation — not a form of flattery.

For example, just last night, my brother who is at the CD table brought in a sleeping bag for me. My body does not feel up to cold weather, and I have felt cold the last few days. The fact that he brought in the sleeping bag, materially, made me very warm, but his care and kindness also gave me a lot of warmth. So I’m watering the flower right now for him down there, at the CD table.

You don’t need to say, now I’m doing flower watering for you. You can do it very skillfully without revealing what you are doing, but people see and feel that you are watering their positive seeds. And that’s how I do it, Sister, to answer your question.

Don’t wait until the situation becomes difficult. If we do the flower watering then, it’s too late. We should learn to practice it in our daily life. It becomes a habit to see the goodness in the other person.

I think I have a very good seed from my ancestors, perhaps from my mom. My tendency is to look at the wholesome seed in the other person. It’s very rare that I look at the negative seed. My practice is to see everything that people do for me as something very wonderful. Every day I can water flowers all the time, all day long. So that’s the problem with me! (laughter) You see, when you do it too little, you have a problem. But when you do it too much, it becomes a problem, too. Many brothers and sisters just don’t trust my flower watering. (laughter) They say I am too professional! (laughter) And they don’t trust it. But I say it from my heart.

So my brothers and sisters gave me a very bad name: Master of Flower Watering. (laughter) There’s Zen Master, there’s Tea Master, and I’m Flower Watering Master! But the truth is I see good acts in all of my brothers and sisters. In very small acts, I appreciate them.

Your First Love

The key of the practice of Beginning Anew is to return and touch that deep love within you. When we have a relationship — with ourselves, with our environment, or with a partner or a friend — we approach it with that first love. When you come to a retreat the first time, you have that first love. Then when you come the second time, things become more familiar and somehow that first love begins to deteriorate a little bit, because we use the old experience to respond to the new situation. That’s our human tendency. We are like a machine, and we tend to act that way.

Beginning Anew is to lighten up, to turn to the first love that’s within us. I believe that in any relationship there is that first love. The first moment that you touch the earth and do that first step in walking meditation, that is your first love. If you practice for some time and you don’t get happiness from it, you don’t get much joy from it, then that love is beginning to deteriorate.

When a relationship becomes less nourishing, less joyful, less happy, then that first love is withering away. Beginning Anew is to go back and to touch that love one more time. In my sister’s language, it is to clean our sponge, to clean that sponge so that the first love reveals itself again.

Transcribed by Greg Sever, edited by Janelle Combelic and Barbara Casey.

mb47-Cleaning2The Practice of Beginning Anew

From the Deer Park Monastery Website

To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, our past actions, speech and thoughts, and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others. At the practice center we practice Beginning Anew as a community every two weeks and individually as often as we like.

We practice Beginning Anew to clear our mind and keep our practice fresh. When a difficulty arises in our relationships with fellow practitioners and one of us feels resentment or hurt, we know it is time to Begin Anew. The following is a description of the four-part process of Beginning Anew as used in a formal setting. One person speaks at a time and is not interrupted during his or her turn. The other practitioners practice deep listening and following their breath.

1. Flower watering

This is a chance to share our appreciation for the other person. We may mention specific instances that the other person said or did something that we admired. This is an opportunity to shine light on the other’s strengths and contributions to the Sangha and to encourage the growth of his or her positive qualities.

2. Sharing regrets

We may mention any unskillfulness in our actions, speech, or thoughts that we have not yet had an opportunity to apologize for.

3. Expressing a hurt

We may share how we felt hurt by an interaction with another practitioner, due to his or her actions, speech, or thoughts. (To express a hurt we should first water the other person’s flower by sharing two positive qualities that we have truly observed in him or her. Expressing a hurt is often performed one on one with another practitioner rather than in the group setting. You may ask for a third party that you both trust and respect to be present, if desired.)

4. Sharing a long-term difficulty & asking for support

At times we each have difficulties and pain arise from our past and surface in the present. When we share an issue that we are dealing with we can let the people around us understand us better and offer the support that we really need.

The practice of Beginning Anew helps us develop our kind speech and compassionate listening. Beginning Anew is a practice of recognition and appreciation of the positive elements within our Sangha. For instance, we may notice that our roommate is generous in sharing her insights, and another friend is caring towards plants. Recognizing others’ positive traits allows us to see our own good qualities as well.

Along with these good traits, we each have areas of weakness, such as speaking out of anger or being caught in our misperceptions. When we practice “flower watering” we support the development of good qualities in each other and at the same time we help to weaken the difficulties in the other person. As in a garden, when we “water the flowers” of loving kindness and compassion in each other, we also take energy away from the weeds of anger, jealousy, and misperception.

We can practice Beginning Anew every day by expressing our appreciation for our fellow practitioners and apologizing right away when we do or say something that hurts them. We can politely let others know when we have been hurt as well. The health and happiness of the whole community depends on the harmony, peace and joy that exists between every member in the Sangha.

mb47-Cleaning3

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Returning Home

By Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I have arrived.
I am home,
In the here
And the now.
I feel solid.
I feel free.
In the ultimate
I dwell.

 

mb10-dharma1

It is important for us to return home — to come back to the here and the now — and make peace with ourselves, our society, and those we love.

At times we suffer so much we want to run away. We feel burned out, overwhelmed, and so we take refuge in our projects, even our projects for social change. At these times we need a source of peace and joy, but when we arrive home, we may find a lot of violence and suffering there. We begin to practice mindful breathing, and, after a while, we are able to touch real peace and joy. Going home and touching peace is a source of great nourishment. The practice is to arrive home in each moment, to touch the peace and joy that are within us, and to open our eyes to the wonders of life around us — the blue sky, the sunset, the eyes of our beloved. When we do this, we experience real happiness.

Touching our eyes with mindfulness, we know that our eyes are a condition for peace and joy. Touching the beautiful trees, we realize how wonderful they are. We feel nourished, and we vow to do whatever we can to protect them and keep them healthy. Then, when our mindfulness has become strong enough, we can touch the war that is also going on inside us. But we must be careful. If we touch the suffering too soon, before we have developed concentration, stability, and the energy of mindfulness, we may be overwhelmed.

Sometimes when we suffer, we blame another person — our partner, our son, our daughter, our parents — as the cause. But when we look deeply in mindfulness we can see that they too are suffering. We see that our enemy is not the person. It is the seed of despair, anger, frustration, or fear in us. In Buddhism, we describe consciousness in terms of “seeds” — seeds of peace, joy, and happiness, and seeds of war, anger, despair, and hatred. All of these are in us. I know that you are not my enemy. In fact, I need you to help me transform my seeds of suffering. We are both victims of our own suffering, so why don’t we come together and touch some of the positive things instead? Looking deeply, we can see seeds of peace, joy, talent, and happiness in each other, and we can tell each other how much we appreciate these things.

When two warring parties arrive at a peace conference, they always begin by accusing each other, touching the negative seeds. A third party, someone who can practice “flower watering” — pointing out the positive jewels in the traditions of both sides — is needed. Both sides need more respect and appreciation for each other. These kinds of negotiations can drag on for months just disputing procedures. Why not devote the first days to flower watering? When two individuals are in conflict, when their fears and frustrations are too great for them to reconcile alone, the practice of touching peace and flower watering is also very helpful. In fact, in any relationship, this is a useful practice. Psychotherapists can practice walking meditation, looking at the beautiful sky, and touching the seeds of joy, peace, and happiness that have not been touched in a long time, with their clients. Then, when the balance is restored, it will be much easier to touch the pain, the war going on inside.

There is no need to be afraid to go home. At home, we can touch the most beautiful things. Home is in the present moment, the only moment we can touch life. If we do not go back to the present moment, how can we touch the beautiful sky, the sunset, or the eyes of our dear child? If we do not go home, how can we touch our heart, our lungs, our liver, and our eyes to give them a chance to be healthy? At home, we can touch all the wonders of life, the refreshing, beautiful, and healing elements.

Touching the present moment deeply, we also touch the past, and any damage that was done in the past can be repaired in that moment. We see that the future is also made of the present moment. There is no need to worry about the future. The way to take care of the future is to take good care of the present moment.

According to the Buddha, most of our suffering is caused by wrong perceptions. One man I know believed that the baby his wife gave birth to was really the child of his neighbor, and he held onto that wrong perception for twelve years, too proud to talk about it with anyone. The man became distant and cold to his wife, and the whole family suffered deeply. Then one day, after twelve years, a house guest observed that the twelve-year-old boy looked exactly like his father, and only then did the man abandon his wrong perception. A lot of damage was done during those twelve years. Wrong perceptions, like walking in the twilight and mistaking a length of rope for a snake, are common in our daily lives. That is why it is so important to practice mindfulness and stay in close touch with our perceptions.

Each of us has habit energies that cause us difficulties. One Frenchwoman I know left home at the age of seventeen to live in England, because she was so angry at her mother. Thirty years later, after reading a book on Buddhism, she felt the desire to return home and reconcile with her mother. Her mother also felt the desire to reconcile, but every time the two of them met, there was a kind of explosion. Their seeds of suffering had been cultivated over a long time, and there was a lot of habit energy. The willingness to make peace is not enough. We also need to practice.

So I invited her to come to Plum Village to practice sitting, walking, breathing, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness. Through that daily practice, she was able to touch the seeds of her anger and her habit energies. Then she wrote a letter of reconciliation to her mother. Without her mother present, it was easier to write such a letter. When her mother read it, she tasted the fruit of her daughter’s flower watering, and peace was finally possible.

If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give is your presence. If you are not really there, how can you love? The most meaningful declaration you can offer is, “Darling, I am here for you.” You breathe in and out mindfully, and when you are really present, you recognize the presence of the other. To embrace someone with the energy of mindfulness is the most nourishing thing you can offer. If the person you love does not get your attention, she may die slowly. When she is suffering, you have to make yourself available right away: “Darling, I know that you suffer. I am here for you.” This is the practice of mindfulness.

If you yourself suffer, you have to go to the person you love and tell him, “Darling, I am suffering. Please help.” If you cannot say that, something is wrong in your relation­ship. Pride does not have a place in true love. Pride should not prevent you from going to him and saying that you suffer and need his help. We need each other.

One day in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village, I saw a young woman walking alone who looked like a ghost. I thought she must be from a broken family, from a society that does not appreciate her, and from a tradition not capable of nourishing her. I have met many people like that, without roots. They are angry, and they want to leave their parents, their society, and their nation behind and find something else that is good, beautiful, and true. They want something they can believe in. Many people like that come to medita­tion centers, but because they have no roots, it is difficult for them to absorb the teaching. They do not trust easily, so the first thing to do is to earn their trust.

In many Asian countries, we pay a lot of respect to our ancestors. We have an ancestors’ altar in each home. On the full moon day of the seventh month, we offer flowers, fruits, and drink to them. It is a happy day, because we feel that our ancestors are with us. But, at the same time, we are aware that many souls, “hungry ghosts,” have no home to go back to. So we set up a table for them in the front yard and offer them food and drink. Hungry ghosts are hungry for love, understanding, and something to believe in. They have not received love, and no one understands them. They have large bellies and their throats are as small as a needle. Even if we offer them food, water, or love, it is difficult for them to receive it. They are very suspicious. Our society produces thousands of hungry ghosts like that every day. We have to look deeply if we want to understand them, and not just blame them.

To be happy and stable, we need two families — a blood family and a spiritual family. If our parents are happy with each other, they will be able to transmit to us the love, trust, and the values of our ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, we are connected with our ancestors through them. But if we are not, we can easily become a hungry ghost, rootless. In our spiritual family, we have ancestors, too, those who represent the tradition. If they are not happy, if they have not been lucky enough to receive the jewels of the tradition, they will not be able to transmit them to us. If we are not on good terms with our rabbi, our pastor, or our priest, we will want to run away. Disconnected from our spiritual ancestors, we will suffer, and our children will suffer too. We have to look deeply to see what is wrong. If those who represent our tradition do not embody the best values of the tradition, there must be causes, and when we see the causes, insight, acceptance, and compassion will arise. Then we will be able to return home, reconnect with them, and help them.

Transmission has three components — the one who transmits, the object transmitted, and the receiver. Our body and our consciousness are objects transmitted to us; our parents are the transmitters; and we are the receiver of the transmission. Looking deeply, we can see that the three components are one — this is called the “emptiness of transmission.” Our body and many of the seeds we carry in our consciousness are actually our parents. They did not transmit anything less than themselves — seeds of suffering, happiness, and talent, many of which they received from their ancestors. We cannot escape the fact that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. To be angry at our parents is to be angry at ourselves. To reconcile with our father and mother is to make peace with ourselves.

One young American man who came to Plum Village told me that he was so angry at his father that even after his father passed away, he still could not reconcile with him. The young man put a photo of his father on his desk, with a small lamp near it, and every time he got close to the desk, he would look into the eyes of his father and practice conscious breathing. Doing this, he was able to see that he is his father, a true continuation of his father. He also saw that his father was incapable of transmitting seeds of love and trust to him, because his father had not been helped by anyone to touch these seeds in himself, seeds that were covered over by many layers of suffering. When the young man became aware of that, he was able to understand and forgive. His father had been the victim of his father. He knew that if he did not practice mindfulness and deep looking, the seeds of love and trust in him would remain buried, and then when he had a child, he would behave exactly as his father did, continuing the wheel of samsara. The only thing to do is to go back and make peace with his own parents, and through his parents, reconnect with all of his ancestors.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we can also discover important jewels and values in our spiritual traditions. In Christianity, for example, Holy Communion is an act of mindfulness — eating a piece of bread deeply in order to touch the entire cosmos. In Judaism, you practice mindfulness when you set the table or pour tea, doing everything in the presence of God. Even the equivalents of the Three Jewels and the Five Wonderful Precepts can be found in Christianity, Judaism, and other great traditions. After you practice mindfulness according to the Buddhist tradition, you will be able to return home and discover the jewels in your own tradition. I urge you to do so — for your nourishment and the nourishment of your children.

Without roots, we cannot be happy. If we return home and touch the wondrous jewels that are there in our traditions — blood and spiritual — we can become whole.

I would like to offer an exercise that can help us do this. It is called Touching the Earth. In each of us, there are many kinds of ideas, notions, attachments, and discrimination. The practice is to bow down and touch the Earth, emptying ourselves, and surrendering to Earth. You touch the Earth with your forehead, your two hands, and your two feet, and you surrender to your true nature, accepting any form of life your true nature offers you. Surrender your pride, hopes, ideas, fears, and notions. Empty yourself of any resentments you feel toward anyone. Surrender everything, and empty yourself completely. To do this is the best way to get replenished. If you do not exhale and empty your lungs, how can fresh air come in? In this practice, the body and the mind are working together, in harmony, to form a perfect whole.

We prostrate ourselves six times to help us realize our deep connection to our own roots. The first bow is directed towards all generations of ancestors in our blood family. Our parents are the youngest, closest ancestors, and through them we connect with other generations of ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, the connection is easy. But if we are not, we have to empty our resentments and reconnect with them. Our parents had seeds of love and trust they wanted to transmit to us, perhaps they were not able to do so. Instead of transmitting loving kindness and trust, they transmitted suffering and anger. The practice is to look deeply and see that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. When we understand the “emptiness of transmission,” reconciliation is possible. Bowing down, touching the Earth, we should be able to surrender the idea of our separate self and become one with our ancestors. Only then should true communion become possible and the energy of our ancestors able to flow into us.

The second bow is directed towards Buddhist ancestors who came before us, those who have transmitted these teachings and practices to us for more than 25 centuries. The third bow is directed towards our land and the ancestors who made it available to us. The fourth is to channel and transmit the energy of loving kindness to those we love. We touch the Earth, look deeply into our relationship, and see how we can improve it. The fifth bow is directed towards those who have made us suffer. Looking deeply, we see that these people suffer also, and do not have the insight to prevent their suffering from spilling over onto others. Motivated by compassion, we want to share our energy with them, hoping it will help them suffer less and be able to enjoy some peace and happiness.

The sixth bow is directed towards our own spiritual ancestors. If we are lucky, it may be easy for us to connect with the representatives of our spiritual tradition — our rabbi, pastor, or priest. But if we have had problems with them, our effort is to understand how they themselves were not able to receive the jewels of the tradition. Instead of feeling resentment toward them, we vow to go back and rediscover the jewels of our tradition ourselves. Getting connected with our church, synagogue, rabbi, or priest will enable us to touch all our spiritual ancestors.

Photos:
First photo by Karen Hagen Liste.
Second photo by Stuart Rodgers.

PDF of this article

To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.