Dharma Talk: Silence

A Dharma talk given by Sister Jina on September 1, 2002 in the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village



I have been aware of silence this week. I would like to share with you a little bit how I practice with noble silence in my daily life. I first came to Plum Village in 1990 for the first twenty-one day retreat in June. We were advised to observe silence on lazy days. So the first lazy day I went out to have breakfast on the veranda in the Lower Hamlet and someone came to sit next to me and said, “Oh, this may be a good opportunity to talk to you.” And at the table next to us there were three other friends and they were talking. And all of these friends had been to Plum Village before and I did not know what to make of this. For the rest of the retreat I do not remember silence being mentioned at all. We did not have a silent period on the schedule. I stayed for the Summer Opening in the Lower Hamlet. All the Vietnamese speaking friends were in the Lower Hamlet and just a handfull of non-Vietnamese speaking friends. The Summer Opening was a very joyful event and we were not very silent. I have kept the schedules of our retreats over the years and it was in 1992 that the word silence appeared on the schedule, “lights out, silence.” And in 1993 we started to call it “noble silence.”

Nowadays we have a period of silence on our schedule that starts at nine p.m. until after breakfast and sometimes we like to extend it until after lunch. Noble silence does not mean that we are not allowed to talk. It means that we don’t have to talk, we have no obligation to talk during that period of the day. It makes a difference in how we practice. I would like to thank Thay Doji for sharing how he observes the noble silence. It is a good reminder for me to know when I am approached by someone that I can ask, “Do you have to say this now? Can it wait until later?” Also when I am about to approach someone I can ask myself, Do I have to say this now, or can it wait until later? What makes silence noble is that it becomes an inner silence. The mind is calm and at ease. Whenever I hear the sound of a bell, whether it is the outside bell or the telephone or the chiming of the clock, I take it as an opportunity to practice noble silence. First I go back to my breathing. I feel the air moving in and out of my body. I become aware of the sensation moving into the body, the temperature of the air and the substance of the air when it moves in and when it moves out. Having come back to myself like that I become aware of the feeling that is present whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and the mental formation that is present. I am nourished by a pleasant feeling. When we have a neutral feeling we have means of turning it into a pleasant feeling. When the feeling is neutral as it is now, I can feel it is wonderful just to be here not being overwhelmed by an unpleasant feeling and already the neutral feeling becomes a pleasant feeling. When an unpleasant feeling is present I can bring to mind that it is impermanent and in a little while it will no longer be there. That calms down the negative mental formation.

We often speak about embracing mental formations. When I feel the impermanence of a mental formation I can stay with it because I know that just by staying with it without doing anything else it will take its course and eventually it will disappear. But often I also take care of the mental formation by finding its manifestation in my body. The mind and the body are one so if there is a strong mental formation present in the mind it is also present in the body. So I become aware of my body and I ask the question: where does this mental formation, this emotion manifest itself in my body? Sometimes it is in my throat, like tightness, sometimes it is in my abdomen, like having a knot, or in the solar plexus, or in my neck or it is butterflies in my stomach. I find out where this mental formation of emotion manifests in my body. Breathing in, I become aware of where it is located and what it feels like, and breathing out, I relax. I find in that way I calm the mental formation that is manifested in my body and at the same time I calm it in my mind. With the practice of stopping and listening to the sound of the bell I go a little bit in the direction of inner silence. Now let’s listen to the sound of the bell and practice this.


I found some tension in my shoulders and I realized that I am carrying the responsibility of what I am going to tell you. So I relax. The practice of total relaxation is very refreshing for our body and our mind. It is something that I practice every evening before going to sleep. When I am in bed I take my cassette recorder and I take a tape—very often it is a chanting tape. It can be one of our own chanting tapes, or Christian chanting or any other chanting that I find pleasant. I make myself comfortable and I listen to the chant. Rather, I open myself and let the chant come in. I receive the chant. I receive the chant and I become aware of my body and whenever and wherever I find tension in the body on the out breath I let go of the tension. While doing this I am aware of my body weight increasing. I am getting heavier and heavier. Every time I let go of some tension I notice that that part of my body gets heavier. It is a sinking feeling as if I am sinking into the mattress or onto the bedboard until I come to a place of rest and then the body is very calm and quiet and so is my mind. The cassette turns itself off and I kind of sleepily take the headphones off. In the morning my mind feels very refreshed and light and so does my mind. The body moves around very lightly and gently.

I have noticed that when the mind is busy my body is also busy and I tend to be noisy. I put things down and it makes a noise and I move things around and it makes a noise and sometimes I bump into things. I like to regard my body as a door to come to this inner silence. I become aware of the sounds that I make when I move around. If it is very noisy I just focus on doing everything quietly. This has a wonderful effect: I become quiet and my mind quiets down too. It is logical because I am bringing the mind and the body together and that is when we have peace and calm. We are practicing mindfulness.

The other day I was sharing with some friends about my time as a novice in a mountain temple in Japan. When I went to a practicing temple in Japan for the first time I was given an outfit, a kind of temple dress. And I was given stiff slippers. The temple was large with wooden floors and we had to walk a long way from the Buddha Hall to our bedrooms and to the dining hall. We were told not to make any noise while walking. You couldn’t make the sounds, “patter, patter, flip-flop.” And that was quite difficult with those stiff slippers on those very shiny wooden floors. You have to be very mindful to walk without making a noise. And further we had to be pretty quick. And we were asked not to make a breeze. So we had these long robes that would flap as we walked but we had to find a way that they wouldn’t flap, wouldn’t make a noise and they wouldn’t cause a wind. We had young monks pointing out to us every time we made a noise and would make our robes flap. They reminded us in a kind of teasing, joyful way. But it brought us to being more mindful while moving about.

Also when practicing sitting meditation I find body awareness very centering and stabilizing. When we sit on a cushion sometimes we don’t really sit. If you bring your awareness to the lower part of your body you may feel that you are not really sitting. We are almost off the cushion. So when I sit on the cushion I become aware of the contact that I have with the cushion and I become aware of the feeling that is in my body. Every time I breathe in I become aware of my body and when I breathe out I let go of any tension I may find in my body. In that process I find that I am slowly, slowly landing on my cushion until in the end I sit on the cushion. This is what I do at the beginning of the sitting meditation to really arrive on my cushion. It is very pleasant.


The tension that I find is often somewhere in my head, on my face or in my shoulders. When the shoulders are tensed I am not really on my cushion. So I relax my shoulders and I already arrive a bit more. Another place I may find tension is in my lower abdomen. I relax my lower abdomen and I have that sinking feeling of arriving on my cushion. There are times when I keep this body awareness for the whole period of sitting. I am aware of the whole body as a single unit. What I mean is that I become aware of my whole body. I start at my head and I let my mindfulness flow throughout my whole body until every nook and crook is filled with my awareness. That is when the body and mind are one. I practice keeping this awareness of the whole body throughout the whole period of sitting. This brings about a joy in the body. It feels as if every cell of the body is happy. There is a slight tingling sensation throughout my whole body. It is very nourishing to practice sitting like that.

Being aware of my whole body quite naturally helps me to be aware of my breathing because breathing is something that happens in the body. This gentle flow of breathing in and out is something that I naturally become aware of when I become aware of the whole body. Maybe we can try that. Start from your head and let your awareness spread out throughout your whole body.

When we do slow walking in the meditation hall I like to walk with my palms joined and I like to be aware of the quality of touch between my palms. It is a gentle touch, but it is firm. Also I am aware of where I hold my palms. There is a place where I hold my palms that doesn’t cost me any muscular effort. You can try. Sometimes when they are a little bit lower it feels like they are being pulled down and then if I pull them up they feel weightless with no effort whatsoever. Then I walk and I become aware of my body moving through space. Every time I put my foot down I become aware of the contact between my foot and the floor. I like to become aware of the weight of my foot on the floor and come to rest in the steps. When I put my foot down there is a little pause when I rest, I sink into the step. There is also a physical feeling I have of sinking into the step. I sink into every step. It is very pleasant. I also like to practice that outside, but not so slowly. At times to rest in each step can be very challenging. For instance when the activity bell has already been invited there is a sense that I have to hurry. When we walk in a hurried way we don’t rest in every step. Instead, we seem to quickly touch the earth in order to get somewhere. So I practice taking the hurry out of my steps so that I can come to rest in every step. It is a bit tricky because there is something in me that tells me if you don’t hurry you will be late. But I also experience that if I don’t hurry I will get there much faster because the hurry comes from the worry and the worry is very heavy and slows me down. If I drop the hurry and the worry I can move a bit quicker and be in every step and be on time. You can try, it is very interesting to experiment with that. You can meet this habit energy that says you have to hurry or you will be late. You can move faster but you don’t need to hurry. It is very handy when you are at the airport and a bit late.


I use body awareness a lot to come to inner silence. I find it important, every day, to do some learning or studying, some reflecting and then practice. The time for reflecting is very precious for me. The time for learning is when we hear teachings, or hear the sutras or read a book. And then we have some time to reflect, to see where we are in our practice and what steps we are going to take in our practice and then we put it into practice. In the sutra, Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone it says not to be carried away by how our bodies, feelings, mental formations etcetera will be in the future. When we have read that sutra in the morning I take some time during the day to note when I let myself be carried away by thoughts about the future and I do catch myself, for instance, writing scenarios.  I am thinking about having to tell somebody something, which is going to happen in the future, and in my head I write a whole scenario. I write my role of what I am going to say and then my sister’s role of what she will answer and then what I will say. I have it all written down. But my experience is that this scenario is never going to be realized, it is just something that I do in my mind. If I get caught in it then when I meet the sister I experience our whole meeting through the veil of this scenario and I react on my scenario and I don’t really act in an appropriate way to what is happening. When I find myself writing scenarios I practice dismissing it. I say this is a scenario and it may not happen at all. My experience says that it is not going to happen like this, so why do I believe in this scenario? So I can drop it and go and see my sister and see more clearly what is actually happening between the two of us. Hearing what my sister says and hearing what I am saying makes our encounter more fruitful. When I find myself trying to rewrite history, wanting it to be different—something has happened and I am going over it again and again, wishing that I have not not said or done this or he or she had not said or done that—I find that it does not help. When I notice I am doing that I practice dismissing and letting go of that habit energy and I try to look at what happened in order to get some understanding, in order to learn something from it. I take a teaching by Thay or a sutra to help me look. At times I take the Discourse on Love that speaks of loving and protecting all beings as a mother loves and protects her only child and I see in some situations I have not had that kind of mind at all. Or I take the Sutra on Reflecting and Measuring. Someone has told me something and I have answered back, not listened and just accepted it, so I can see what my contribution is to the situation and I determine to do better. Of course this doesn’t happen straightaway, it takes some time.

When I was in Japan there was a clear example of that. At the temple where I practiced in Japan we were only six or seven people. The practice leader was also the work coordinator because work is practice. My brother who was the practice leader had the habit of telling me what to do, which I experienced as being bossed around. He would come at any time of the day and he would say, “Jina-san, the toilets are dirty—go and clean them,” or “The meditation hall is dirty—go and clean it,” and I would always react in the same way. I would say, “Why do I have to do that? You always ask me to go and do these things.” And his answer would always be, “Because it is dirty and it needs to be cleaned.”

One day after chanting, something in the chant made me reflect on my habit energy. I was sitting in my room and remembering the previous day when this type of incident had happened and I looked at why I would do that. I saw that my brother had a good heart and was very committed to the practice and to our living together and he wanted to keep things neat and tidy. In fact, for me it was the same—I like to keep things neat and tidy.  So we both want the same thing, but why did I always react like that? Inside of me was a little ego, or a big ego. What if my master came and said, “Jina-san the bathroom is dirty would you mind cleaning it?” I would bow and say, “Yes, master,” and I would fly so happily because the master had asked me to do something. But the fact was that the bathroom was dirty and it needed to be cleaned all the same. So I realized that something in me would like to be asked by a special person in a special way and then I would very happily do it. So I decided next time and any other time when my brother asked me to do something I would just bow and say, “Yes, brother,” and I would smile and go do it.


A few days later I was in the Buddha hall and my brother came up to me and said, “Jina-san, the bathroom has not yet been cleaned, so go and do it.” And I said, “Why do I have to go do it? You always ask me to do things.” And then he answered, “Okay, you don’t need to do it.” And that brought me back to my resolution and I said, “No, brother, you know I always react like that. It is just a habit. But you also know that usually I go and do it. So never mind my reaction I will go and do it.” And he said, “Okay.” From that day on it became a joke between the two of us and my brother would come and say, “Jina-san, go and clean.” And I would bow and say, “Yes, brother.” And sometimes he would ask me in a friendly way and at other times he was grumpy. I would think sometimes I am grumpy too, and I would just smile and go and clean.

We make a resolution about our habit energies or how we contribute to a situation and then we decide what we would like to change, what steps we will take and how we will practice. For me it is important to do that everyday. I take time to do that.

Thay once advised us to write our own sutras, so I did. I wrote a sutra about practices that would help me to listen and would help me to live in harmony with my community. Listening requires a silence, an outer silence and an inner silence to be able to hear what is being said and also what is not being said. Deep listening is an expression of inner silence. I use the practice of listening in order to cultivate inner silence. I read my sutra everyday. I usually do it in my hut. I go and light incense and I sit down. I face my little altar and I read my sutra aloud, slowly. I allow every sentence to sink in to water the seeds of awareness of the practice in me. It really helps me in my daily practice when occasions arise where I need to practice what I have decided to practice. A sentence out of my sutra spontaneously comes up and it helps me to practice. There are also times where it doesn’t come up and I notice afterwards and I take some time during the day to read my sutra again or if I know it by heart I will go and sit somewhere quietly and mentally go over it again. It really helps me. I find great joy in practicing and progress in the practice motivates me to continue. I would like to read my sutra to you. It is my sutra right now. When I feel I have realized enough of my sutra then I add other things. I take another aspect of the practice that I would like to strengthen. On top I have written ”Listen” because I would like to practice listening better.

The training in the art of listening begins in silence, develops in attentiveness and is perfected in communication.

This is something I read somewhere and it makes sense to me. It gives me a good guideline for practicing listening in daily life.

I will practice refraining from saying something that lies on the tip of my tongue.

Just by reading this every day I become aware of what lies on the tip of my tongue and I realize that often I am not aware of what was there on the tip of my tongue and I say it out before I realize what I am going to say. Keeping something on the tip of my tongue, I really have the opportunity to taste what it is like. It is not always sweet. It gives me some insight into my mind, my mental formations and the strength of the seeds in my store consciousness.

I shall listen to others’ points of view before stating my own.

This ties into what lies on the tip of my tongue. This practice is very important when we want to come to consensus in a community or in a meeting. I have written this here because sometimes when I am tired in a meeting I just state my point of view and then I think that is enough, let’s just finish the meeting and I don’t really create much space for other people to state their point of view. That is not very beneficial. I have found that when I wait for others to give their input I don’t need to give my input or I do it in a different way that is more beneficial for a meeting. That is one point I am practicing with right now.

I will practice not speaking about a third person.

In a community it is easy to speak about a third person and it can cause a lot of disharmony and suffering. We can speak about a third person on occasion in the light of how we can help that person in the practice. I am certainly not perfect at any of these points, that is why they are still here in my sutra, but I am becoming more and more aware of when I speak about a third person and how. When we are discussing the practice of a third person I become aware of any internal formations I may have regarding that person or the practice of that person. I can take care of my internal formation and try not to let it interfere with the input I give on the practice of that person.

If met with anger I shall respond with loving-kindness.


The Buddha said that the antidote to anger is loving-kindness. I try to keep love alive in my heart. We all know that meeting anger with anger is not beneficial but we know that we get pulled into it anyway. Reading this every day helps me to remember to look with loving-kindness at myself and at the other.

If met with non-cooperation I shall respond with compassion.

For those of us who live in the community or at home in a family we know that there are times when things need to be taken care of and at times we are met with non-cooperation of other members of the community. I am practicing responding to this with compassion. I try to put myself in the skin of the other to try to understand where the non-cooperation comes from. I try to discern when and how to encourage and when and how to release or let go.

The sound of the bell allows me to enjoy the whole length of my in-breath and the whole length of my out-breath.

I know this is our practice but I find it necessary to be reminded of that every day. Being aware of the whole length of my in-breath and out-breath allows me to be aware of what is happening inside of me. There are times when I just find myself waiting. The bell is invited and I stop but I am just waiting for the bell to stop so I can continue with whatever I was doing. Reading this reminds me that it is nice to take the opportunity to enjoy the whole length of my in-breath and the whole length of my out-breath. When I find myself waiting it is usually when everyone starts moving around that I realize I have just been waiting. I think I missed the opportunity but I can do it here. I can take a few moments to enjoy my in-breath and out-breath.

Every step brings me peace and joy.

We know this and we practice this in theory. At least, I practice it in theory. But I want to practice it in reality, so reading it every day helps me to do so.

Then I close with some words by Saint Benedict which help me to put things in the right perspective.

In the end it is not about what we have achieved but what we have become.

I would like to realize my full potential and reading my sutra every day helps me to go in that direction. This practice of learning, reflecting, and putting into practice and my sutra all help me to go in the direction of inner silence. It is an inner silence that I can practice throughout the day. Periods of outer silence can help us to cultivate this inner silence.

In the winter of 1998–1999 in the Lower Hamlet we had one day of the week where we could observe noble silence. We were allowed to put on a little badge that said, “noble silence.” It was mostly retreatants who used the opportunity to do so. I like to do this very much but I need the reassurance of the community that it is okay. I feel an obligation to always be approachable and ready to respond to the needs of the community. A period of noble silence might help me to do so better. An inner silence means nothing else than dwelling in the present moment.

I guess the Buddha wouldn’t have anything against that.

Thank you very much for listening.

Sister Jina is the abbess of the Lower Hamlet at Plum Village in France.  Photography by Big Jim.

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Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

by John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend.   In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.



There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • “Blue sky”: Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”
  • “Noting:” Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.
  • “Change the peg”: Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.
  • “Taking the hand of suffering”: Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm.  Very interesting.”  Kind and gentle.
  • “Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.


Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are
    • inherently valuable
    • deeply caring
    • enormously intelligent
    • immensely powerful
    • infinitely creative
    • naturally cooperative
    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.
    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.
    • Treat the person with complete respect.
    • Be present and
    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.
    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.
    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful
    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”


  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our  behavior.  Initially  developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.
  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.
  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.
  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy.  Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.
  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

mb36-Cultivating4John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation.  He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

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

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

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

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

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

The Sutra on Inscriptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Happiness

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

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

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

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

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


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Keeping the Flame Alive

By Brandon Rennels


Last winter in Plum Village, a friend told me my first name can be translated as “Fire-starter.” At the time I had just begun my role as a coordinator for the international Wake Up movement. I was working alongside Buddhist monks and nuns to support young adults in practicing mindfulness and creating communities where they live. Wake Up had been growing steadily over the past few years, and many conditions had come together to allow me the opportunity to dedicate my efforts to the cause. I had been searching for a way to apply my business consulting background to support mindfulness practice, and this was it. It was a dream job—my answer to: “What would you pay to do?” I saw many opportunities to contribute, to support people, to get things rolling.

But fire, when uncontrolled, can be extremely destructive. Coming from a corporate background, I was used to pushing the limits of my mental and physical capacity in order to “get things done.” Once I transitioned to working with the mindfulness community, I naively thought these habits would drop away. I soon learned that working on mindfulness projects does not necessarily mean one is working mindfully. In addition to my old work habits, I encountered a new stress, a second arrow of frustration, when I felt overburdened. Most people in the corporate world will admit they’re stressed out by work, but in the mindfulness realm I thought I should be calm 24/7. So when things went awry, as they often do, I felt bad about feeling bad.

Even though I had found work that I truly cared about, my path had really just begun. To balance doing vs. being, engagement vs. rest, making a difference vs. taking care of myself, and to protect and nurture my internal flame—this was my true “job.” To protect this flame I have often relied on the other elements of air, water, and earth. All the elements are necessary for our survival, yet all have the potential to destroy. What’s necessary is a cultivation of them in balance. Fortunately, I’ve had some help from friends along the way.

Last summer I had the good fortune of being able to visit many different Wake Up Sanghas in the Netherlands. We started most meditation sessions with a weather report about how we were feeling in the moment, aided by the metaphor of the elements.

During my time in the Lowlands, I was able to touch, taste, and play with these elements in different ways, ultimately finding ways to sustain my internal flame.


Air: I Am a Cloud

I had heard that the Netherlands is famous for its clouds. From my observations, I can see why. Big puffy clouds resemble something familiar, but when you turn away for an instant, the scene morphs, and the imagination has a fresh canvas to play with. Through the wind, air acts as an invisible force, shaping and transforming the outer landscape.

Air affects the inner landscape as well, in the form of the breath. Each Wake Up event starts with sitting meditation, following our breathing: full in-breath, full out-breath. I enjoy beginning this way. It really allows a person to arrive. (I went to visit a Wake Up Sangha in Belgium for a “Wake Up and Play” event, a gathering specifically designed to have no formal meditation, but after an hour everyone decided that we should sit! Sometimes you need to arrive before you can have fun.)

Air also carries sounds. Sound, like the wind, is an invisible force that can heal, seduce, enchant. During my fi weekend in the Netherlands, one of my hosts had a birthday party. At one moment we all lay down on the floor with our heads together, listening to the sounds, to our breathing, to one another. I was acting DJ for the evening and thought to put on a French electronic artist who just happens to be named “Air.” Shortly after the opening beat, one of the guys said, “Oh, nice! This is the perfect moment for Air.” I smiled to think that two people who grew up on different continents with different cultures and different life experiences could so easily be united by music.

As everyone was leaving, I realized that this constellation of people might never again be in the same room together. Impermanence. Just as the cloud changes shape, so does the fabric of each moment of our lives. I was grateful for the moments we shared.


Water: Flowing Like a River

It’s easy to flow like a river when you like the direction in which you’re headed. During a lazy day in Amsterdam, I had the luxury of sitting (well, lying down, really) on the back of a paddleboat. It was a magnificent, sunny summer afternoon, and I had just peeled an orange and was savoring each slice while my toes skimmed the surface of the water. At one moment we started turning sideways, and after a few seconds I began to wonder, “Where are we going?” The two people paddling seemed to have been distracted. It didn’t matter. So what if we were off track? I was confident we would find our way.

While it’s one thing to keep this trust when you’re being chauffeured on a calm canal, it can be more difficult to maintain trust when the waters are high. At one point in my stay, there was a weeklong stretch that was quite packed. We had events almost every day in different cities, my work responsibilities had picked up, and on top of it all I wasn’t sleeping very well. Our final event for the week was about awareness of food waste, and although I was interested in the topic, I debated whether it would be better for me to just rest. We arrived the night before on a cold, rainy evening, and by the time we got to our host’s house it was well past my bedtime. Knowing how much work had been put into this event, I decided to flow with the river and join.

When we arrived at the event the next morning, judging by the number of teacups and tired faces, it seemed everyone had had a long week. A few people shared that they were tired, and we all listened, together taking refuge in the Sangha. Our next activity was a silent walk, but as people were slowly gathering their belongings, a new idea emerged. The organizers, sensing the energy level, switched the program to an interactive game. I was unsure if this would be a welcome change, but after a few minutes of laughing and stumbling into one another, the group’s mood had clearly lifted. Sometimes a simple adjustment can have a delightful downstream effect.

The events of that week provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how to balance “doing together” and “being together.” In the face of much to do, again I saw that the habit energy of rushing had, at times, gotten the best of me. That’s okay. It happens. But I knew I needed to observe this tendency deeply if I wanted to sustain the flame in the long run. The term “burnout” is often used to describe a metaphorical extinguishment of our internal flame. A surplus of air (impermanence) or water (flowing as a river) can create unstable conditions for fire, so to protect myself I can call on the solid foundational element, earth.


Earth: Rooted as a Tree

Have you ever hugged a tree? It took me a while before I physically embraced my fi tree. The term “tree-hugger” conjured up a negative image in my mind, and this judgment persisted until I visited a national park in California. I saw someone wrapped snugly around a giant sequoia, and she looked happy enough. I tried it myself. Whoa! It actually feels great. Trees, like mountains, are metaphors of stability in mindfulness practice. In a storm the branches sway but the trunk is solid, stable, unmoved. While the Dutch claim that they don’t have much “nature” (as most areas have been developed), I found plenty of trees to take refuge in.

One stop on my trip was a Sangha meeting in Rotterdam. Upon entering the home where we would be practicing, I was immediately invited to share a meal with the hosts. This particular Sangha felt mature and stable, and as I was feeling a bit ungrounded that day, I was thankful to take refuge in them. As we all settled into sitting meditation together, I began breathing in their solidity, and soon the image of a tree appeared in my mind’s eye. It had brilliant brown bark with a wide trunk and roots that dug down deep. In the center of the trunk there was a door, and I found myself wondering what was inside. After a few more breaths the door slowly opened, and inside were my mother, my father, and me as a five-year-old child, all inviting me in. They welcomed me with open arms, gave me some space, and breathed with me. With each breath I felt recharged, encouraged, and free.

If there was ever an “island within,” I had found it. In this space I felt safe, and with each breath I was able to ground myself in the solidity of my ancestors and of Mother Earth. By the end of the evening I had rekindled the inner flame and given it space to burn brighter, like a torch guiding my way and igniting my deep aspiration to change myself, and by extension, the world.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

At the end of my time in the Netherlands, I had the honor of co-facilitating the Sangha meeting in Nijmegen. As I led the mindful movements and deep relaxation, I felt so comfortable, as if I was among old friends. Many of the people in the room I had gotten to know through numerous encounters within and outside of the Sangha meetings.

The Dharma sharing that evening was filled with a lot of emotion. There was the joy of a new baby, sadness of a pending death in the family, difficult jobs, new relationships… this was the real deal! We shared and listened, breathing together with what Jon Kabat-Zinn would call the “full catastrophe” of this shared human experience.

At the end of the evening we all gathered in a circle for a group hug. Looking around, I felt the entire community supporting me and knew I could handle whatever challenges lay ahead. The flame was burning brightly and it felt good. We sang one last song together, and it was a fitting way to end my journey:

Been traveling a day Been traveling a year
Been traveling a lifetime, to find my way home
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is, my heart is with you.

mb65-Keeping5Brandon Rennels, True Garden of Faith, has been serving, living, and lounging within the Plum Village community for the last couple years. As a coordinator for Wake Up, he has had the privilege of interfacing daily with passionate young practitioners around the world. He has also logged enough time at the monastery to significantly improve his table tennis game. In a previous life he was a management consultant based out of Dubai.

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Scorpion Nature

By Sister Dang Nghiem 


There is a story about a scorpion and a frog. One day, the scorpion needs to cross a pond. So the scorpion tells the frog, “Frog, my friend, would you please take me across the pond?” The frog replies, “Well, I want to be helpful to you, but what if you sting me midway? I will die.” The scorpion says, “Why would I do that? If I sting you, you’ll die and I’ll die too.” The frog feels reassured, so it says, “Okay, that is reasonable. I do not mind carrying you across the pond. You can jump up.” The scorpion jumps on the back of the frog, and the frog gets into the water and begins to swim. Everything is going well until, halfway across the pond, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog is in deep pain, and as it is drowning, it cries out to the scorpion, “Why did you sting me? Now I’ll die, and you are going to die, too.” The scorpion replies, “I know that, but I cannot help myself. It is my scorpion nature.”

When the scorpion stings the frog, it knows that it is going to harm itself and the frog, and yet it still does it; that is the scorpion nature. Do we have scorpion nature? What is our scorpion nature? Certain things we do and say, certain thoughts we have—we know that they are not going to help anybody, including ourselves, and yet we still do them. Why is that? It is because we cannot help it; we simply cannot resist it.

One time, Thay said to me, “It is not an issue whether you like it or not.” I did not understand what he meant, but I did not like what he said. However, out of total respect and confidence in my teacher, I received his teaching and kept it in my mind. After a few years, suddenly it came to me: when we like something or we do not like something, that is our habit energy, and it is already ingrained in us. “I like this color. I hate that color.” “I want this iPad.” “I want to sleep in, and I don’t want to wake up early in the morning to go to sitting meditation.” “I need another degree.” “I need another outfit.” There are things that we like and things that we do not like. There are things that we want and things that we do not want. These likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs are clearly defined in our minds. We can understand this as our scorpion nature, driving us to think, speak, and behave reflexively.

Our deeply ingrained instinct is to survive and to avoid death. The sense of “me” and “mine” is essential to the survival of the “I”—which is reflected in our likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. Our tendencies and habit energies have their roots in our animal ancestors, their aggression, and their primal fight-flight-freeze response. Through evolution, humans have also developed the capacity for self-awareness and inhibition. Unfortunately, many of us resort to our primal instincts more often than to our highly developed capacities, and we easily identify ourselves with our habit energies. For example, you can claim righteously, “That is the way I am! I can say whatever I want to say, and I can do whatever I want to do!” I used to say these things to my beloved friends. I said those things out of frustration, sadness, and restlessness, and still I justified them.

If we keep doing that, with time, people put up a wall to protect themselves against us. They are not open to be there for us and to listen to us anymore, and so we become more frustrated, our speech becomes harsher, and the vicious cycle continues. Before we know it, we are far apart as parents and children, as friends, as brothers and sisters. We are like separate cosmos because we think, “I am like that. This is how I am, and this is my nature. You are like that. This is how you are, and this is your nature.” If you look deeply, you will realize that this is the scorpion nature because it bites us and it bites our loved ones, severing us and killing us slowly.

In medical school, when I rotated through the hospital ward with patients with Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other chronic intestinal problems, I was told that they could be the most irritable and needy patients. Now I can understand this phenomenon from an insider’s perspective. Chronic physical pain can cause a person to feel uncomfortable, restless, irritable, and reactive. When you are sick for a long time, your family members and friends become used to your illness, so they may not pay as much attention to you. It is easy to feel lonely, deserted, depressed, and needy as a result. If people say something insensitive or unskillful, you may replay their words a thousand times, harboring feelings of unworthiness, disappointment, resentment, and even hatred. All of these emotions are harsh and powerful, and they can cause your speech and bodily actions to be unpleasant and difficult for others to tolerate. Therefore, others avoid you, and your negative feelings are confirmed and strengthened, creating a vicious cycle. These fleeting feelings, if fed day after day, can become our attitudes and then our personality.


From my own illness, I have learned to pay close attention to my likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. For example, monastic brothers and sisters are preparing to go hiking. Usually I would not miss a chance to go hiking, but when my energy level is low, the thought of walking under the sun for a long distance feels repugnant, and the mind translates this feeling with conviction: “I don’t want to go hiking.” It even goes so far as to say, “I don’t like hiking anymore.” Aware of this thought, I breathe and smile, returning my mind to right view: “It is not that I don’t want to go hiking or that I don’t like hiking. I simply do not have enough energy to do that right now. Perhaps I will have enough energy to do it tomorrow or some other time.” When you are not well, you find yourself not wanting to do many things and not liking many people. It is important to recognize the reason behind your likes and dislikes and not to identify yourself with these feelings, which can mold you into a certain personality.

Transforming Scorpion Nature 

Mindfulness will help us to recognize our Buddha nature as well as our scorpion nature as they are. For example, you can have a beautiful flowerbed, but if a lot of tall grass grows, you will not be able to see the flowers. Once you are able to identify the grass and weed it, the flowers can reveal themselves more clearly. Earlier today, I was doing walking meditation with the Sangha. The heat was scorching, my headache felt worse, and I began to hear myself wishing that I were in a cool room. Then I touched the cone hat that I was wearing, and I felt grateful for it. I had a pair of sunglasses on, too. Otherwise, the sunlight would have been too bright for my eyes and worsened my headache, and so I was grateful for my pair of sunglasses. Then I heard the breeze moving through the trees, so I stood waiting for it to come and felt it brushing my cheeks with its coolness. In just a few seconds, my awareness and my gratitude cooled down the heat that was inside of me.


Walking meditation is one of the practices that can help us to transform our scorpion nature. The scorching heat is there, but there are also conditions that we can be grateful for, like the cone hat, the pair of sunglasses, the occasional breeze, and the presence of the community. Mindfulness helps us to take care of our scorpion nature, which is complaining, “Gosh, it’s so hot! Why do we have to walk in the heat like this? I must be crazy. I want to be inside doing something better. Why do I have to be out here?” One of the characteristics of the scorpion nature is that it complains. Aware of our steps and breaths—one step at a time and one breath at a time—our mind becomes more focused, the inner chattering quiets down, and we become aware that many conditions of happiness are supporting us. Mindfulness helps us to recognize the negativity in our internal dialogue, be present for it, and quiet it down.

If we do not recognize the negativity as it is, then it goes on and on in our mind without our awareness. Suddenly, we can explode and yell at somebody, because the undercurrent has built up enough momentum to surface as a powerful wave. Therefore, it is important simply to recognize something as it is. We can say to ourselves: “Breathing in, I am aware that this experience is unpleasant. Breathing out, I am here to relax the tension in it.” Or: “Breathing in, I am aware that there is something unpleasant arising in me. Breathing out, I am here for you.” This practice of simple recognition helps us to face a situation or person with more stability and equanimity.

The cultivation of gratitude is essential to the transformation of our suffering. If a person is blind, what she wants the most is to be able to see. If a person is having an asthma attack, what he wants the most at that moment is to be able to breathe in and breathe out normally. If you are having chest pain or a heart attack, what you want the most is for the pain to go away and for the heart to function normally again. What conditions are we in right now? Can our eyes see? Can our lungs breathe normally? Can our heart function normally? Yet, we may not recognize or acknowledge them, and so we are not grateful for them. Instead, the scorpion nature will say, “I wish I could be here or I could be there. I wish I could have this or have that.” The wanting never stops, driving us to be restless and dissatisfied, which is the source of our suffering. We want things other than what we already have, but in the most critical moments, what we truly wish is for things to be normal again. Our practice is to recognize daily the positive conditions in our lives and to be grateful for them, so we don’t wait until they are gone and then yearn for them.

There is a practice called “tri tuc,” meaning you know that you have enough. “Tri” means “to know, to master, to remember,” and “tuc” means “enough.” Interestingly, this character “tuc” also means “feet.” You remember that you have enough and you master what you have. It also means you remember that you have feet, and you master your feet! In your daily life, do you have awareness that you have feet? When you walk across the parking lot or around your office, do you have mastery of your steps?

To know that we have feet—that is enough to make us happy. Therefore, our feet symbolize all the conditions of happiness that are available to us right here and right now. Without mindfulness, we take what we have for granted, and we feel forever impoverished. We can even take the mindfulness practice for granted; as a result, we are actually less fortunate than those who are sincerely seeking a spiritual path. With awareness of our steps, of our bodily movements, of the in-breaths and out-breaths, we train to dwell stably and gratefully in the present moment. This is also a concrete way to check whether we are practicing correctly and authentically or not.


Learning to Be Grateful to Our Illness 

A teenager in a retreat shared, “I have asthma, and I hate it! I just hate asthma!” He said it with all of his conviction. Should we hate our illness? Hating our illness is our usual response. However, we can learn to be grateful to our illness. When I was in medical school, I was strong and athletic. From my school on 3rd Street, I could run through Golden Gate Park all the way to the ocean, which was near 57th Street. Then I swam in the ocean even though the water was perpetually cold. After that, I jogged back to my school. It was something fun and effortless to do. Then, I developed low blood pressure in my late thirties and contracted Lyme disease in my early forties. Right now, I cannot run as I used to. I even feel out of breath walking from the dining hall to my room at times. Yet, instead of feeling distraught about what I have lost, I am learning to be more grateful for what I still have. I am also more grateful for the moments when I am well.


When you have limitations or discomfort in your body, you can practice sitting still and coming back to your breathing, or you can lie down and put your hand on your abdomen and say, “I am here for you. It is okay.” You learn to recognize the fragility of your body, feeling deeper love and appreciation for your body because against all chances, your body is often healthy and forgiving. Even if you stay up until one in the morning or even if you drink and smoke, your body still tries to heal itself. It will heal itself repeatedly so that you can wake up the next morning and function normally. It continues like that year after year, until one day it is not able to recover so well. You start to cough and feel tired walking up a hill because of the damage that has been done to your body. At every stage, we can recognize what is going on and what we still have. We can say “I am here” for the losses as well as for the gains of life.

Often I say “I am sorry” to myself. I did not know to say “I am sorry” to myself before. I just expected things to be a certain way, and when it was not like that, I felt frustrated, angry, or despairing. As a monastic practitioner, I have learned to be grateful and to be sorry for my own unskillfulness. It is a sign of true love when you can say “I am sorry” to your own body. You learn not to show off your body because it is beautiful, because it has nice clothes on, or because it is attached to a nice looking car or a cool phone. You learn to love your body because you realize that it is the best friend that you can ever have, and that it is the most forgiving partner that you can ever find. This is “tri tuc:” to know, to remember, and to master what you already have.

If you have a bell, you can invite one sound of the bell while you sit beautifully, with your back upright and relaxed. As you listen to the sound of the bell, scan through your body slowly and say to yourself:

Breathing in, I am aware of my head.
Breathing out, I relax my head.
Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, thank you, eyes. You are still in good condition. Thank you for allowing me to see the beautiful nature and the lovely faces around me.

Take time to scan each part of your body: the ears, the nose, the mouth, the hands, feet, the lungs, the heart, and all the other organs. They are always there for you, taking good care of you and forgiving your unskillful thoughts and deeds.

This Too Shall Pass 

When we experience something pleasant, we want more of it. When we eat an ice cream cone and it tastes good, we eat quickly while thinking about the next one. When we have a lot of fun, we wish it would last forever. However, in our practice we also learn to recognize that “this too shall pass.” This practice helps me to cherish deeply what I have in the moment and, at the same time, to release it from my grasping. Even when I am very happy being in the presence of a particular person—we can truly connect and understand each other—something in me whispers, “This too shall pass.” It is bittersweet, because you remember that everything is impermanent; it comes and it will go. Every so often I look at myself in a mirror and say, “My youth is passing by me right now.” It was yesterday that I was a child singing to myself on the street, and today I am already confronting early premenopausal symptoms.

When we listen to the sound of a bell, we simply stop to follow our breathing and we let go of our speaking, moving around, or doing things. Even if a thought or a feeling arises, we smile and release it with our out-breath. When impermanence becomes a concentration in our daily life, our capacity to let go deepens. Slowly and steadily, we train ourselves to be aware of the arising and the disappearance of the in-breaths, out-breaths, thoughts, and feelings, as well as all other phenomena. Even the most beautiful things we have to let go.

The awareness that “this too shall pass” helps you to be there, thoroughly and wholeheartedly, in that moment. You do not take the person in front of you for granted and think, “Oh, I will see him again,” or “This situation is always like that.” Then when the person walks away, or when the situation is no longer there, you will not regret. We only regret because we don’t touch the moment deeply. When we touch something deeply, it is always there inside of us, and we have access to it to nourish us in times to come. Therefore, the concentration on impermanence and the understanding of “this too shall pass” helps us to enjoy the present stage of our life. We do not have to regret the past or feel afraid about the future. This is it, and we are free from worries, fears, and grasping.

mb64-Scorpion6Sister Dang Nghiem received her Doctor of Medicine degree from UC San Francisco School of Medicine. She’s been a monastic practitioner for thirteen years. Her deep joy is to be with teenagers and young adults. She is currently at Blue Cliff Monastery. This article was adapted from a Dharma talk she gave at Magnolia Grove Monastery in June of 2011.

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Lamp in the Mountains

An Interview with Eileen Kiera

By Tracey Pickup

I first met Dharmacarya Eileen Kiera (True Lamp) at Deer Park Monastery when she was giving a Dharma talk. I found myself drawn in by her simple and illuminating presence and the intimate way that she spoke about the natural environment of the rural practice center, Mountain Lamp, where she lives in northern Washington. Since that time I have returned to Mountain Lamp regularly to practice with her, the Sangha, the trees, and the forest creatures. On a late February day with the snow falling on firs and cedars, we sat down to talk about her life of practice.

Tracey Pickup: How and why did you start your spiritual journey?

Eileen Kiera: I believe I always had a spiritual draw toward stillness and the beauty of nature. That led to my eventual career as an ecologist specializing in arctic/alpine ecology. I began my meditation practice while working in the Arctic, where there was the vast spaciousness and deep stillness of the place. Only the periodic call of a bird or whistle of the wind broke the silence. I spent hours sitting behind a spotting scope watching the nesting sites of the Black Brant, and other activity in the salt marshes I was studying. In the summer the sun never sets, and I would sit through the days of bright, white sunlight and the golden nights when the sun ran along the northern horizon.

TP: What inspired you to follow Thay in those early years?

EK: Thay feels like a being of love. And peace. He emanates that, even in the face of all that he and Sister Chan Khong went through in Vietnam. When he talked about what he had gone through in the war, I always asked myself, “What would I have done in that situation?” I was challenged by his example as well as moved by his love.

TP: Was there any memorable moment or interaction that illuminated that?

EK: There were many. When we were at KokoAn, Thay noticed a beautiful calligraphy by Zen master Hannya Gempo. We walked up to look at it, so Thay could read the characters. I stood one step behind him out of respect, but he stepped back to stand equal with me. He wouldn’t let me stand behind him. Through the years, he has consistently shown me great kindness. At the same time, he cut me no slack when I’ve done something wrong. He told me when I was being foolish. He helped me see and transform so many habit energies and for that, I am eternally grateful.

TP: What are the general principles that he would consider foolish?

EK: Excluding other people, jealousy, competition, arguing, and picking and choosing who you did and did not want to associate with.

TP: What did you learn from being with him?

EK: I’ve learned to let go and to look with the eyes of love.

TP: You sought and found instruction in meditation. Why was it important to have teachers in your life? Couldn’t you have found this by seeking on your own?

EK: I couldn’t have. I continually get too caught in myself and my ideas and my constructs. I need a form and a teacher to challenge me to let those ideas, constructs, viewpoints, and attachments go.

TP: And by letting go of those attachments, what happened?

EK: Many layers of personality have fallen away, bit by bit, over the years. I feel more free, and in that freedom, there is a sense of peace and the connection that love gives.

TP: For most of your life you have been struggling with chronic celiac disease. How did you practice with the pain and the impact it had on you?

EK: I was sick without knowing why for many years. Before I was diagnosed, my practice allowed me to rest, and to transform personal pain and losses, kind of on a moment-by-moment basis—I didn’t know why life was so difficult, but practice allowed me to be there with whatever came. After I was diagnosed, and I under stood my difficulties better, my practice helped me to grieve and accept the losses. Mostly, however, celiac disease strengthened my determination and intention in practice.

TP: How did you touch that intention when you were so sick?

EK: When I was most sick, shortly before diagnosis, I couldn’t sustain a sitting meditation practice. I didn’t have the energy to sit upright for any amount of time, but I could practice when I took a step from the bed. I could be completely there in that step. That’s what became my practice—just this breath, just this step. I couldn’t do what I thought of as practice, ideas like “now I do twenty-five minutes of sitting meditation,” or “now I need to go on a retreat.” I couldn’t do any of that. I could just take this step. It was really very helpful. My intention to practice became really strong. When I got diagnosed and began the journey back to health, that deep aspiration and strength of intention carried me through other ob­stacles. I knew I could practice with any circumstances: healthy or not healthy, living or dying, with suffering or with joy. Fewer things got in the way of being mindful.

TP: Do you find you still carry that same intention?

EK: Of course it has changed now, but yes. It kept my practice alive and constant through working in the world, raising a daughter, being with my father over the years of his illness and death. It was also the wellspring that gave rise to the vision of Mountain Lamp.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, Eileen Kiera, Jack Duggy, and Sangha at a retreat held by Aitken Roshi (seated beside That), KokoAn Zendo, Honolulu, Hawaii, November 1985

TP: In addition to supporting local Sanghas, working with stu­dents to deepen their practice, and leading retreats both here and in other countries, you are also developing a rural practice center in Washington for laypeople called Mountain Lamp. What gave you the inspiration to do this and why do you think it is important?

EK: A lot of it came from Jack and I wanting a lifestyle we came to know at KokoAn and Plum Village. We wanted to live in com­munity, to have people to sit with and walk with, and to have the support of others in practice. We knew there were some things that were essential for practice—having a spiritual home, having a teacher, having a Sangha that shares an ethical basis of precepts and mindfulness trainings. So the aspiration is to create a life of practice that has the potential to support other laypeople and create community—a spiritual home for many people.

Photo by Dzung Vo

TP: What is happening with the community of Mountain Lamp right now?

EK: We have a daily schedule of sitting meditation in the morn­ing, followed by breakfast in community and a period of work meditation. There are regular Days of Mindfulness and an annual one-month retreat. People come for personal retreats, and some people stay longer as residents.

In addition, my husband is a teacher in the lineage of Aitken Roshi. We hold Zen sesshin at Mountain Lamp as well as mind­fulness retreats. In some things, Jack and I co-teach, but mostly we keep the forms of the traditions pure in their own right. Ad­ditionally there are Sangha-led events, like Days of Mindfulness, Buddha’s birthday, and the annual harvest festival.

Over the years, we’ve welcomed Sister Jina, Sister Annabel, Thay Phap Dung, and Thay Phap Tri to teach and lead the com­munity in practice. We were grateful to have two brothers from Deer Park, Brother Phap Ho and Brother Phap De, lead a Day of Mindfulness at Mountain Lamp in May. In the years to come, we look forward to many more visits from our monastic brothers and sisters.

We are moving toward a more structured schedule with the awareness that as laypeople we need to work, and we have commitments outside of Mountain Lamp. We live together in an atmosphere of trust that we are together for the same purpose—to support each other and offer joy in practice.

More information about Mountain Lamp can be found at www.mountainlamp.org.

Tracey Pickup, True Fragrant Field, started the Wild Rose Sangha (www.wildrosesangha.ca) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and is currently residing at Mountain Lamp as the Temple Keeper.

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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.



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.

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

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