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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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