All Roads Lead to Plum Village

 

By Janelle Combelic

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I left Plum Village in August 1990 after three weeks at my first summer retreat, not knowing that it would take me fourteen years to get back. But those three weeks changed my life.

I had started meditating on my own a couple of years before in Phoenix, Arizona. Every day before going to work as a technical writer I would sit for forty-five minutes. In 1989 I attended my first Vipassana retreat, a six-day silent retreat at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. The teacher was Jack Kornfield. Just about the only thing I remember was his admonition not to take ourselves too seriously. In fact, he mentioned a wonderful Vietnamese monk who told people to smile while they meditated!

A Rustic Peace

Some months later I saw an ad in a Buddhist magazine for Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastery. When I read that Plum Village was in France, where I had grown up, I knew I had to go. And so in July 1990 I found myself sitting in the sunshine outside the train station in Ste. Foy la Grande, waiting with a few strangers. And waiting. Someone finally came to pick us up and drove us to Lower Hamlet.

Conditions on the old farm were very rustic. I stayed in a primitive room in one of the old farm buildings with a few other women. Halfway through my stay I moved into a tent out in an overgrown field (where the new toilet block is now). Dharma Nectar Meditation Hall was new and bright and huge; every morning we gathered around the monks and nuns who sat around a central altar, chanting in Vietnamese. The Buddha garden beyond the windows radiated peace and beauty.

Every week we had a ceremony, as if Thay were squeezing a whole year of Vietnamese culture into a month. The Full Moon Festival in the meadow below Upper Hamlet was spectacular, with the moon rising behind the church of Puyguilhem on its hill across the valley. Most moving was the ceremony for Hiroshima Day when we processed to the pond in the oak wood at Lower Hamlet and launched little paper boats carrying candles with our prayers for peace.

At Upper Hamlet, we crowded into the Transformation Hall to listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. I loved its old white stones and small windows, the intimacy of this ancient barn converted into a Buddhist temple. One day we had a tea ceremony there with Thay. A lively and contentious discussion ensued, where some of the parents staying at Upper Hamlet complained about the lack of a children’s program. I noticed that the Vietnamese children staying at Lower Hamlet with their families, enjoying a welcome immersion in their native culture, behaved calmly and respectfully. The Western children staying at Upper Hamlet were far more boisterous, and their parents wanted more support to enjoy the retreat. I admired Thay’s honesty and openness, his willingness to listen but also his firm commitment to the practice.

Things were not nearly as organized then as they are now. There were no “families,” no work groups. Being new to the practice myself, I tried to get involved with different activities and found myself overcommitted in no time. I also re-created the isolation and loneliness of my life at home. I didn’t make friends and don’t remember learning about Sangha.

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At that time the Plum Village culture seemed rather male-dominated. The monks walked in front of the nuns during pro-cessions, just as in Vietnam. The nuns included Sister Annabel, abbess of Lower Hamlet; Sister Phuong, as Sister Chan Khong was then known; and Sister Jina, newly arrived and still wearing the formal gray robes of a Japanese monastic. I asked a senior laywoman, Joan Halifax, to lead a women’s discussion group. We were astonished when the circle filled the whole Transformation Hall! We had to schedule a second meeting so that everyone could get a chance to share.

Healing My Life

I’m not sure what specifically changed me at that retreat— perhaps one of Thay’s Dharma talks. That summer I was in my mid-thirties, suffering from chronic pain and loneliness. After one last failed relationship I had given up on men entirely to focus on healing my life. So when Thay invited us to write him questions I jumped at the chance. I thought my problems had to do with my father, and to give Thay some background I wrote page after page detailing my history. A few days later, I was astonished to hear Thay telling my story! However, he told it with profound sadness—describing this American woman who got involved with older men, who lost one baby and aborted another, whose younger brother had died of cancer, who didn’t get along with her family. For the first time I saw my own pain with real compassion. No wonder I felt sad all the time!

When I got home I made some decisions to change my life. I consulted a medical doctor and a homeopath and started getting the help I needed. Mysteriously, my healing took me far away from Plum Village and from meditation. For ten years I led an “ordinary” life, letting the world be my teacher.

By the time Thay came to Boulder in 2002 I had started meditating again and in 2003 I went on his retreat in Estes Park. That’s where I discovered Sangha. I started attending Peaceful Hearts Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, and my life has never been the same.

It has been a long and uneven road, but more and more each day I touch the wonders of life. Who knew a person could be this happy!

mb60-AllRoads3Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, co-founded Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado. In 2010 she moved to Scotland, where she lives in a cottage with her English husband and their Irish setter Seamus. She practices with Northern Lights Sangha at Findhorn.

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Unconditional Acceptance

An Interview with Joanne Friday 

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mb62-Unconditional2Joanne Friday is a Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing. In 2003, she received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh, her teacher for twenty years. Joanne leads meditation retreats for Sanghas and groups throughout the Northeastern

U.S. She lives in Rhode Island, where she is the guiding teacher for the six Sanghas that comprise the Rhode Island Community of Mindfulness. She is also an Associate Chaplain at the University of Rhode Island. Joanne was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on October 11, 2012 for this issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

 

Mindfulness Bell: October 11, is Thay’s Continuation Day. How do you see his continuation in yourself?

Joanne Friday: My ordination as a Dharma teacher was a clear example of how I see transmission and continuation. I had no thoughts of ever being a Dharma Teacher; it never had entered my mind. One day I received a letter from Plum Village inviting me to receive Lamp Transmission. After opening the letter, I went through feeling completely unworthy, and I thought, “Oh, they’ve made a mistake—my name was switched with some other person.” I really was stunned. After two minutes or so, it was as if I was struck by a bolt of lightning and I thought, “This has nothing to do with you.”

Since my first encounter with Thay, I have felt him to be very alive in every cell of my body. And the transmissions from my parents, from everybody who’s ever loved me, everybody who’s ever cared for me, all of them are alive in every cell in my body. So to say that is not good enough is an insult to all of them. This was not about my little egocentric self; it had nothing to do with me.

To prepare for the ceremony, my normal habit energy would have been to try to come up with the perfect Dharma talk, and have everybody think I knew everything about the Dharma. Instead, I could not even think about it and I had not one ounce of anxiety in those three months before the Lamp Transmission. At that time, as part of the ceremony, each new Dharma teacher gave a short talk after their ordination. Walking to take my seat, I still had no idea what I would talk about, and yet I felt nothing but pure joy, and I thought, “I wonder what I’m going to say.” So I told them the story I am telling you.

I said, “Thay gives a beautiful teaching on no-birth, no-death, using a sheet of paper. I received another deep teaching on non-self from a sheet of paper. I got this letter asking me to be here and this was my experience—I realized it is all about my non-self elements; it has nothing to do with me. It’s been so much fun; it feels so free. This is really amazing. I have almost no self-confidence, but I have total confidence in my non-self elements; clearly I do because I haven’t been the least bit anxious, and so I think I am experiencing non-self confidence.” And Thay was laughing and everyone was laughing.

And that has been the truth ever since. If I get invited to share the Dharma, I do my best to stay out of it. My goal in sharing the Dharma is to transmit what was transmitted to me and leave my little self out of it. And I don’t get tired. If my ego starts getting involved, I get tired, and so it is a good indicator that I need to go do some walking meditation and get out of the way.

MB: I went to your Day of Mindfulness in Portola Valley, California. I remember that you talked about your own life and challenges you’ve had. You are transmitting what you’ve learned and you’re getting out of your own way, and yet you are talking about your own life. I’m wondering about the balance between those two.

JF: I don’t think any of us experience things that are unique to us. When we experience suffering, the story line may be different for each of us, but suffering is suffering and that is universal. I think that’s where we can really understand interbeing. I share my own experience because the Buddha said to trust your wisdom, trust your experience. When I speak from my own experience, I can speak with conviction, because it’s true for me. Hopefully it will be something that others can put to use, too. My interest in Buddhism is how we apply the practices that the Buddha gave us to the suffering we encounter in our daily life, to transform it and become free.

Gentle Diligence

MB: Would you be willing to give an example from your own life of how you have used the practice to get free?

JF: Probably the most profound example was getting a diagnosis of cancer. My mother was dying at the time and she had been in the hospital. I had just signed her over into hospice care, and I went downstairs to the waiting room and got a call saying I had cancer. I remember feeling as if ice water were running over my body. Real fear. But within a minute, I breathed, I sent metta to myself, and then the question came to my mind: “Are you sure?” As soon as I asked the question, I felt peace, because I realized, “I have no idea. It could be almost nothing; it could be death. I don’t know.” So for me to get all wound up about it would really not make sense. I realized, “I need to find out, and that’s it. And right now, I need to be present for my mother in the hospital.”

The first thing was breathing. The breath was right there as the default position. The second was metta. I have practiced metta for twenty years, so it was right there. And then to ask, “Are you sure?” That takes me right to nonattachment to view and “don’t know mind.” And in “don’t know mind,” there’s every possibility. It’s such a wonderful place.

And then I thought, “Wow, I’ve been practicing the Five Remembrances* for years.” I have been aware of impermanence, but never as aware as when I got that phone call. The next thing that came to mind was: “If you have limited minutes to be on the planet”—later I thought it was really comical to think in terms of “if ” —“how many of them do you want to spend in fear and speculation?” And the answer was, “Zero.”

So that, to me, is a clear and concise example of how the practice can be applied in daily life. And the most beautiful thing to me was, going through a year of cancer treatment, I probably didn’t spend more than maybe a half an hour in the entire year in fear and speculation. I told my husband, “You know, the real tragedy wouldn’t be to die of cancer; to me, the real tragedy would be to have wasted this time.” To not have enjoyed the time I did have.

That was reinforced after the first chemotherapy infusion I had. I was treated in New York City, and as we walked out of the hospital, a bus came around the corner cutting in too close, and my husband pulled my arm and yanked me back from it. He said, “Be careful, they’re driving like crazy people.” He looked at me, I looked at him, and we just cracked up. I said, “Wouldn’t that be ironic, here we are, we’re convinced I’m going to drop dead of cancer, and instead we get hit by a cross-town bus.” [Laughs.] It was such a beautiful teaching, because we have no clue when the time will come or how it’s going to happen. Becoming more comfortable with impermanence is such a relief. It really frees us up to enjoy life.

MB: That is an incredible example. Thank you. You used all these potent tools one after the other in a very short period of time.

JF: It’s just following directions. Thay offers the practice in a very gentle way, instructing us to be gentle with ourselves, to not do violence to ourselves. At that point I had been practicing for about seventeen years, and I felt like I had a very laid-back practice. I felt like I was probably not strengthening my mind as much as I could, my practice was not as rigorous as other practices, and I was not sure if it was as solid as it needed to be. But clearly the benefits of gentle diligence over time were there because there had been absolute transformation at the base. I can usually only see progress in my practice by noticing that I am responding very differently to a situation than I would have reacted ten years earlier. In this instance, I would have been completely tied up in knots; I would have been a nervous wreck. I would have been trying to figure out what was going to happen and completely caught in fear and speculation. I know that my mind had been trained in that way.

But the training in gentle diligence, paying attention in everyday life, and taking good care of strong emotions when they come up really paid off. When attachment to views arose, it was such a gift to be able to look clearly, to not get caught in the surface of things. And to just do that over and over and over and over and over and over. If we practice like that, when the going gets tough, the practice is there for us.

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MB: That’s a beautiful example of how we can train our minds without effort, without stress.

 JF: We don’t have to create a war with ourselves. There doesn’t have to be any judgment, criticism, any of that. It’s just to notice, and to do the practice, then to notice. To strengthen our mindfulness and concentration.

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Healing the Inner Child

MB: In the book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, you tell a wonderful story of transforming your anger to compassion by connecting with your inner three-year-old. Do you connect with your inner child on a regular basis? What have you found helpful in keeping her nourished and happy?

JF: When I went to my first retreat, I signed up for a consultation with Thay Phap An. I was brain-injured from a car accident and I was in a state of real confusion. I wanted to talk about a woman who had been very angry with me, so I said, “There’s this woman, she’s a really angry person.” And he said, “That’s not correct.” He said that whenever we assign a label to anyone or anything, it’s incorrect, because everything is impermanent. So we’re assigning a permanent status to something that is inherently impermanent. That has been a wonderful teaching; I use it all the time.

And then he went on to teach me about healing the past in the present moment and doing Beginning Anew with myself. It was such a training in the ability not to hold on to resentment and anger. And to look at myself and ask, “What is this person bringing up in me?”

I’ve been doing the practice of healing the inner child ever since. There’s hardly been a day that I haven’t used it, in one way or another. When I’m experiencing a strong emotion, I simply notice and embrace that feeling, breathe with it, and hold it. For me, just being with that feeling will usually bring a memory back of another time and place. It might have been last week or it might have been when I was three.

It inevitably takes me to times and places when I needed love and compassion and I didn’t get it. So my job is to provide that for myself. I can show that child a lot of love and compassion. My main goal in the practice is to bring the child into the present moment, to let her know the good news that she is no longer three. We’re adults now, and if people are yelling, we can leave. We don’t have to be there.

Many people do not access memories from the past when they embrace difficult emotions. If that is the case, you can breathe and send metta to yourself in the present because that child is still alive inside of you. A lot of healing can happen by doing this practice—accepting what is in the present moment and accepting ourselves unconditionally.

MB: How is your inner child today?

JF: I think that she is doing better and better, every day in every way. [Laughs.] I find there are fewer times that I need to spend a lot of time with her. Mostly now it’s a recognition, like Thay says about his anger: “Hello anger, my little friend, you’re back again.”

About fifteen years ago, my husband Richard and I were at a retreat and we were practicing noble silence. He gave me a note that said, “I called home, and so-and-so left a message. She wanted to borrow this thing of yours, so I called her back and said sure.” I was over-the-top enraged. And I was surprised at how angry I was, because I thought, “If I had retrieved the phone call, I would have called her back and said sure.” So I knew there was more to this than was meeting my eye.

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Luckily we were in noble silence, so I couldn’t say a word. I sat myself down, did my breathing, did my metta for myself, and then I invited that feeling up and what I found was [a feeling of] not being considered. When I invited the rage up in me, I was transported back to being eleven years old. At that time, I had a surrogate father. This guy who lived upstairs fell in love with me when I was a month old, and he was a blessing in my life. He showed me unconditional love and was prominent in my life until I was eleven, when he died of a heart attack.

Sitting on my cushion, when I got in touch with the rage, I was transported right back to the conversation when my parents told me he had died. They said he had the heart attack two days before, but they didn’t want to tell me because they didn’t want me to see him with tubes in his body; they thought that would be too upsetting for an eleven-year-old. And now he was dead. I realized that I had completely buried that memory. If you had asked me a week before, I would have had no recollection of that conversation ever happening.  As I was sitting, I realized that to be told someone is dead when you are eleven—there’s nothing you can do about that. So I surmise that I was enraged because they had made a decision concerning the most important thing in my life and nobody asked me.

When I went back to revisit the conversation as an adult, I could give that eleven-year-old all the understanding and love and compassion that she needed, that she didn’t get at that time. I could validate her rage at not being considered. And I could see my parents as only trying to be good parents. It was all with the best of intentions that they created the situation. To see it all with no criticism, no blame for any of us, just understanding and compassion.

Thay says mindfulness leads to concentration, concentration to insight, insight to understanding, understanding to compassion. That’s how it works. I find that to be true every time. When I get to that place of understanding, there’s nothing but compassion. I wind up feeling compassion for myself, feeling compassion for my parents, and feeling compassion for my husband, because I look at him and think, poor guy, there he is trying to do something wonderful and here sits his wife, who is enraged. He knows nothing about this baggage I’m carrying.

MB: That story took place in the context of a retreat, where you were in noble silence and you were able to go deeply and work through these things internally. I’m curious how you would advise people who are in the midst of a busy life, when a trigger like this comes up, but it’s not in the context of a retreat.

JF: Most of the retreats I offer are in silence because of my experiences of this kind of healing. To be able to practice in silence helps me develop my mindfulness and concentration. And it helps me to hard-wire in the practice, so that when I am in the rest of my life, where there is not noble silence and most people aren’t practicing at all, that gentle diligence kicks in; it becomes a default. I can recognize that I have been overreacting to not being considered for over forty years. The blessing is that I don’t have to be controlled by it. I don’t have to react blindly out of ignorance to what I’m carrying around.

Once I know that there’s a block of suffering in me that can be watered and brought to the surface, I can recognize it for what it is and I don’t have to react to it. If I’m in my daily life and somebody does or says something that’s hurtful, I make a note of it. I’ll try to say, “For future reference, the next sit I do, I need to spend some time with that.” I just make an appointment with myself to take good care of that.

The more that I do it, it doesn’t take long at all. It’s not like I have to sit for three hours and work with it. It’s a very quick recognition now, for the most part, and I can go do walking meditation. If I can do a ten- or fifteen-minute walk, I can calm myself, get the mud to settle out of the water, then I know what to do and what not to do.

Making Good Use of Suffering

MB: What experiences in your own life have been most valuable in serving you as a Dharma teacher?

JF: I would say suffering. There’s nothing quite like it to help us to wake up. Thay says that he wouldn’t want a nirvana without suffering, and I can see why. The brain injury from a car accident is what brought me to the path, so suffering got me here. I look back at any suffering I’ve had in my life and ask: “What did it have to teach me? Did I benefit? Did I make good use of it?” If I didn’t make good use of the suffering, then it’s a waste of time.

MB: In Reconciliation, you write that you “discovered that mindful speech isn’t just choosing the right words to say—it’s transforming the ill will in my heart.” What guidance would you give to someone who wants to transform the ill will in his or her heart?

JF: One of the things I’ve been practicing with a lot is looking at stories that I’ve been told about myself or that I make up about myself and others. And getting caught in the surface of those stories and believing them. When someone does or says something hurtful, Thay invites us to look deeply, to not get caught in the surface of things, and that’s what leads to understanding, and with that comes compassion; it’s unavoidable. When I can understand somebody else’s suffering, any ill will is transformed into compassion.

When I’ve been able to cut through the story I’ve been telling myself, I feel almost childlike. I can simply show up without a story, show up not needing to make up one, and experience whatever is happening. It’s so delightful. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I try my best to show up, pay attention, and respond skillfully to life.

MB: It seems like it’s about you, but not about you—like you’ve made yourself into a fertile ground for these seeds to grow, but anyone can do that.

JF: Anybody can. If I can do it, anybody can. I’m the perfect example. I feel so blessed to have come into contact with the Dharma as transmitted through Thay in this lifetime. He has spent his life looking deeply and doing everything possible to make the Buddha’s teachings understandable—even to me. He says he has a fire in his heart. I feel that that fire is what he transmits to us. We are the luckiest people in the world and this is a very happy continuation day for all of us.

*    The Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

 

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Cultivating Balance

Reflections from a Retreat with Law Professionals 

By Leslie Rawls, Jeanne Anselmo, and Valerie Brown 

mb62-Cultivating1What do you get when you bring together sixty lawyers for a weekend mindfulness retreat? LAW – Love in Action With compassion.

Our June 2012 law retreat, “Cultivating Balance,” arose from the simple aspiration to share the nourishing practice of mindfulness with our colleagues in the law. As lawyers and a nurse teaching in law school, we are keenly aware of the difficulties lawyers face every day. The practice of law in the U.S. can be hostile and confrontational, qualities that can interfere with our ability to be calm and at ease both at work and in our home lives. We knew that we had benefitted greatly from our mindfulness practice and we had seen its transformative effects in our lives and the lives of others. So we decided to create a retreat to nurture and nourish our legal colleagues, whose suffering we knew firsthand.

On the first afternoon, lawyers arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery with uncertainty mixed with openness. The retreat began with guided deep relaxation, inviting all to let go of the business of the week and settle into the peace of the present. Throughout the weekend, the schedule was relaxed and open, to encourage everyone to rest in the present moment and let go of the deadlines, paper piles, and arguments normally crowding our active minds. Over and over again through the retreat, lawyers expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to rest. They appreciated that the retreat was not crammed with data, facts, and figures—the usual experience when we get together for continuing legal education. Instead, the retreat offered each person space and time to enjoy the practice, a respite that was a tremendous gift.

Throughout the weekend, we remembered why we entered the practice of law: a hope to serve others. In our small discussion groups, we connected with many who shared a similar aspiration and who felt it rekindled by our retreat practice. We were willing to look deeply at our way of being and our livelihood, examining the difficulties and isolation that we experience in our profession. Near strangers offered each other the gift of deep listening and loving speech. Lawyers often find it difficult to share our hearts and express our vulnerabilities. But during the retreat, we could feel safe and cared for, as we shared our hearts in mindfulness. It was touching to see our legal colleagues begin to glimpse the nourishing capacity of mindfulness and to witness many moments of transformation.

We know from experience that working in the law can harden our hearts and take us out of the present. We also know how liberating and healing the balm of mindfulness is, personally and professionally. In a profession where advocacy often becomes animosity, our mindfulness practice can help us be whole and happy. It can help us heal ourselves and take care of each other. After the retreat, we shared ways to be in touch and the hope to share another law retreat in the near future.

We are grateful to our fellow law professionals who opened their schedules and their hearts to share the weekend, and to Blue Cliff ’s monastic community, which supported our intentions and the retreat’s manifestation.

mb62-Cultivating2Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, is an attorney-lobbyist, writer, and leadership coach. She is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA, and became an OI member in 2003. She can be reached at www.leadsmartcoaching.com.

Jeanne Anselmo, True Precious Hand, is a member of the Green Island Sangha of Long Island, NY. She received Lamp Transmission from Thay in 2011. She co-founded the Contemplative Urban Law Program at City University of NY School of Law, where she co-teaches Contemplative Lawyering.

Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening, is an attorney and bar-certified appellate law specialist, and is married to a trial lawyer. Leslie received Lamp Transmission from Thay in 2009. She practices with the Charlotte (NC) Community of Mindfulness and with inmate Sanghas.

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Poem: A Wild Thing

By Larry Ward

The bones of our ancestors still dance
At ease in the field of magic stardust

An ounce of poetry from long ago
The crane says, “I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself. A tiny bird will drop dead, frozen, from a bough of a tree without having once felt sorry for itself”. *

In the thick jungles of Costa Rica I was told mother
My mother had passed away
Through the veil of no coming and no going she went
Heart broken I wandered for days
Walking jungle trails
Going no where but sorrow
Trapped in a cloud of sadness.

The cry of an unknown bird cracked open the moment
Ripe! Ripe! Ripe it was! For something, for anything, to heal my savaged soul.

Music of my roots rose up from the earth,
Like a rainbow bridge supporting every step as I climbed grief’s holy mountain
A path wet with the salt of bitter tears.

Sometimes I forget music’s vibrations can touch and quake places
The Mind dares not go, kneading, holding, inviting
With notes of wonder and surprise,
Healing pain, the pain of the second sorrow, created by an arrow fashioned by my own hands

Plucked from my own quiver and shot with my own bow,
Into my own heart.

Picked up on the dusty road of wounded souls
The sacred carriage of music lifted me up from the edge of grief’s deep pit
On the wings of sound I rode to the mysteries of grace and peace
Moment! By moment! By moment!

The music says, “Take up your rightful residence in your Hale Mana, your spiritual house.”
The music says, “Come on in, come on in, come on in,
Enter the clear light of sweet music.”

The music says,
“Take your stand on the back of the fearless dragon of wisdom and compassion
Let go of the gossamer threads of regret
Still attached to your beating heart.
Now catch your precious breath
Right now! Right now! Right now!”

Music is a wild thing
Music is a wild thing
Music is a wild thing

*    A reference to the D.H. Lawrence poem titled “Self-Pity” from Pansies (London: Martin Secker, 1929)

mb62-AWildThing1Larry Ward,True Great Sound, is the director of the Lotus Institute, an adjunct faculty member at Claremont Graduate Universityand University of the West, and a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies.With Peggy Rowe-Ward,he co-authored Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships. He received Dharma teacher transmission in 2000 from Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Dharma Talk: “Relationships” — Community as Family, Parenting as a Dharma Door, and the Five Awarenesses

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

To practice Buddhism, we have to take refuge. This means that we have to base our practice on some ground that helps us be stable, It is like building a house—you have to build it on solid ground. If we look around and inside ourselves, we can find out what is stable for us, and we can take refuge in it. We should be careful not to take refuge in what is unstable.

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This morning I was touching the ground, and I felt that there is some stability in the Earth. Why don’t we take refuge in the Earth? There is also some stability in the air, the sunshine, and the trees. We can count on the sun because we know it will rise tomorrow. We have to look around to see things that we can count on. In order to practice, we need to take refuge in stable things.

Our bodies have a healing power. Every time we cut our finger, our body has the capacity to heal itself. We take care of it by washing it carefully, and then we can leave the work of healing to our body. In a few hours or a day, the cut will be healed. Our bodies have that kind of healing power. We have to take refuge in our bodies.

The same is true with our consciousness. Our conscious­ness has a healing power, and we have to trust it. When we have some anger, distress, or despair, we don’t need to panic. We can trust our consciousness to know how to heal these kinds of wounds. When we have a feeling of instabil­ity, we only need to breathe in and out consciously and recognize the feeling of instability, knowing that our consciousness is much more than that feeling. We know from our experience that there have been times in the past when we were not very solid. We know that we can take refuge in our consciousness We can let it do its work without interfering too much. After cleaning out the wound in our finger, we just let it heal. If we have a wound in our mind or heart, we just clean our wound and then we trust our consciousness to heal it.

If we have a teacher and dharma brothers and sisters who are stable, they look very much the same today as yesterday and yesterday they looked very much the same as the day before. We have to take refuge in a sangha that is stable, that we can count on. We can contribute to the quality of our sangha by our smile, and by our own stability. A sangha can be improved by our practice. We can never find a perfect sangha. An imperfect sangha is good enough. We have to do our best in order to transform ourselves into a good element of the sangha. It is not helpful to complain too much about our sangha: “This sangha is not good; this sangha is not worth my refuge,” and so on. We have to accept our sangha and build it. It is like a family. And our family is also a kind of sangha. We have to accept the members of our family as they are and begin from there. We should be a good member of our family sangha in order to help others.

Taking refuge means also taking refuge in ourselves. When we take refuge in the earth, it is because the earth is stable. When we have a friend who is stable we can take refuge in him or her. We use our insight and our experience to see his or her stability. We don’t just go on blind faith. Taking refuge is not blind faith. It must be based on our own experience. There are many stable things around. We should refrain from taking refuge in things that are not stable, that have made us shaky in the past. Sometimes we don’t know much about something. We hope that it can be a refuge for us simply because we want it. It is not based on any direct experience or observation. We should refrain from taking refuge in things like that.

Single Parenting 

If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.

We abandon the idea that we cannot be ourselves unless “that someone” or “that something” is with us. We our­selves are sufficient. We are enough for ourselves. When we transform ourselves into a cozy hermitage, with a lot of air, light, and order inside, we begin to feel a great peace, joy, and happiness. And we begin to be someone that others can rely on. Your child, your dharma brothers and sisters, and your teacher can all rely on you.

So return to your hermitage and arrange things from within. You can benefit from the sunshine, the trees, the earth. You can open your windows wide for these good elements to enter, because you are one with your environ­ment. Many times unstable elements try to enter our hermit­age. Then we must close our windows and not let them in. When thunder, winds, or heat are about to intrude into our cozy, refreshing hermitage, we should be able to prevent them from entering. The practice of being a refuge to oneself is a basic practice. We do not rely on someone or something that we do not know much about, something that may be unstable. We go back to ourselves and take refuge in our own hermitage.

If you are a mother raising your child alone—without the help of a man—you must learn what to do and how to do it. You have to learn to be a father also, otherwise you cannot raise your child. If you don’t learn how to be a father, you will continue to need someone else to play the role of a father for your child, and you will lose your sovereignty, you will lose your hermitage. But if you can say, “I don’t need anyone else, I can learn how to be both a father and mother to my child, I can succeed by myself, with the support of my friends and my community,” that is a good sign.

Every other year, I give a retreat for about sixty Viet­namese monks and nuns in northern California. One day, when we were conducting the closing of such a retreat, the Abbot of Kim Son Monastery said to me, “Thay, you are our mother.” Why didn’t he say, “You are our father,” which is a more normal thing to say? It was because some­thing in me has the manner of being a mother. When I am with children, I can play the role of a mother as well as a father. The love of a father is different from that of a mother. A mother’s love is somehow unconditional. You are the child of your mother, that is why you are loved by her. There is no other reason. A mother tries to use her body and her mind to protect that very soft, vulnerable part of herself. She has a tendency to consider her child as an extension of herself, as herself. This is good, but it may create problems in the future. She has to learn gradually that her son or daughter is a separate person.

A father’s love is different. The father says, “If you are like this, then you will receive my love. If you don’t do that, you don’t get my love.” It’s a kind of deal. I have that in myself, too. I am capable of disciplining my students and I also have the capacity of loving my students as a mother. That is why the monks and the nuns call me mommy, I know it is not easy for a mother to be a father, especially when she hasn’t learned how to do it. Single mothers should be aware that they can profit from the community, from the brothers and sisters in the dharma. If she does it well, her child will have uncles and aunts. If the child doesn’t have a father, he can consider his uncle as a father. It is not difficult to provide your child with an uncle. If you have a good sangha and good relationships with the people in the sangha, other members of your sangha can have a nephew or niece in your child.

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The nuclear family is very small. There is not enough air to breathe. When there is trouble between the father and mother, the child has no escape. That is a weakness of our time. Having a community where people can gather as brothers and sisters in the dharma, and where children have a number of uncles and aunts is a very wonderful thing.

We have to learn to create that kind of family. Each of us needs to be loved in order to go on. We need the kind of love that does not shatter our stability. If we cling to our teacher as a father and we want that father to pay attention to us only, that is not the way we love in the practice com­munity. We have to share the love of the teacher with everyone. We have to see the other members of the commu­nity as our brothers and sisters. This is something we can learn to do. It is already a tradition in the East, and it can be learned slowly here in the West. We can take the best from both cultures.

I hope that communities of practice will take that kind of shape in the West. Without that kind of warmth and family flavor, it is difficult to practice. When you bring your children to some practice centers, your children may be regarded as an obstacle for other people to practice. But if we have a community where people regard each other like brothers and sisters, a child of that community becomes the child of everyone. If he is doing something disturbing, such as hitting another child with a stick, his mother is not the only person who is responsible. Everyone in the community shares that responsibility. Together we try to find ways to prevent the child from hitting the other children. We might try holding the child tightly, doing that as an uncle, not as a foreigner or a policeman. Of course, the parent of the child should prevent their child from throwing rocks or hitting other children, but if the parent cannot discipline her child, then he or she has to let an uncle or an aunt do it.

When you are a student of your teacher, your children are grandchildren of your teacher in a spiritual family. The children in Plum Village call me “Grandpa Teacher.” I always approach them as a grandfather, not as someone outside the family. This is the way we conduct the practice in Vietnam. We do things as a family. A practice center should possess that kind of warmth, that kind of brother­hood and sisterhood that will continue to nourish us. and not be a place where people come only to take care of their own problems.

In a community of practice like this, a single parent can be very self-sufficient. At the same time, he or she will see that when the community is not there, he or she is capable of playing the roles of both mother and father. When you have learned and have the capacity of loving your child as a mother and a father at the same time, you are transformed. When you see stable families coming to practice, you can look at their stability and learn from it. You can learn a lot: how a father loves a child, how a mother loves a child. There must be some coordination between father and mother. A good father would not say, “If he’s spoiled it’s your fault.” It’s not her fault; it’s a collective lack of mindfulness.

The phenomenon of single parents is widespread in the West. If you practice and succeed in bringing up your child happily, then you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a dharma door. Single parenting is a dharma door. We need retreats, seminars, and dharma discussions on how to be parents. We cannot accept the ancient way of parenting. At the same time, we do not have a modern way of parenting. We need to elaborate on the way of being parents, drawing from our own experiences and practice. Using the greater community of practice to bring another dimension to the life of the nuclear family is important. Even though the nuclear family structure may not have much space in it, when nuclear family life is combined with the life of a practice community, a sangha. it can be very successful. You can bring your child to the practice center, very often, and both you and your child will benefit from the atmosphere there. And the practice center will benefit from your presence also.

In a good practice center, there should be a garden for the children to play in and there should be people who are skillful in helping children, people who can be good aunts and good uncles for the children. Then you will enjoy your practice, as a parent or as a single parent.

The Buddha did not specifically address the issue of single parenting. This is a new problem. But we can apply the basic teachings of the Buddha to find a way out. There are so many divorced parents: in Australia, in the West. When things become too difficult, people tend to think of divorce. Vietnamese families living in the West are also beginning to adopt this point of view. In traditional Vietnamese culture, the failure of a marriage is considered to be very bad. People don’t look on divorce with much respect.

Collective consciousness helps a lot. Instead of thinking of divorce, you make an effort to preserve your marriage, to return to your spouse with more harmony, with more understanding. In the West many people have divorced three, four, five times. They keep making the same kinds of mistakes. This is an issue which Buddhist practice has to address. We should not complain about having to deal with this issue. We should take it as an opportunity to study, look, and explore, in order to provide people with a new dharma door. How can we practice and bring the practice community into the nuclear family? How can we create a balance?

The Five Awarenesses 

Ed. Note: When Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates a marriage ce­remony, he asks the couple to repeat the Five Awarenesses and then to recite them together once each month. The fol­lowing is from a talk given at Plum Village in August, following Kathy Season and Damien Cameron’s wedding. 

Mindfulness is the basis for happiness. Before two people marry, they should practice mindfulness together, and after becoming husband and wife, they should continue to practice the Five Awarenesses as a manifestation of their Practice of Mindfulness. Happiness is not an individual matter.

In the first awareness. we see ourselves in the context of a lineage. We see that we are one element in a continuation of our ancestors, and that we open the way for future gen­erations. We play the role of connection. We can see the elements of the future and the past right in the present. The Buddha teaches us that the present contains the past and the future. By being in touch with the present, we shape the future and heal the past. If we take good care of our body and our consciousness, we take care of our ancestors in us, and at the same time we take good care of our children and our grandchildren.

The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations and that our children and their children have expectations also. Our happiness is their happiness; our suf­fering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us. We may not see them in person yet, but they are already talking to us. They want us to live in a way that they won’t be miser­able when they manifest. Buddhist practitioners, especially the Vietnamese, see themselves not as individuals, separated from their ancestors, but as a continuation representing all previous generations. Actions of the couple do not aim merely at satisfying the spiritual and physical needs of their individual selves, but also at realizing the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and at preparing for future genera­tions.

The third awareness tells us how joy, peace, freedom and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. Liberating them means liberating ourselves.  If we do not liberate them, we. will be in bondage an our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors in us. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony, at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely, happily touching the earth, we are doing it for all our ancestors and all future generations. The first three awarenesses are all aspects of one deep teaching. We have to continue to study and practice these first three awarenesses to deepen our understanding.

The fourth aware­ness is also a basic teaching of the Buddha. Where there is under­standing, there is love. When we understand the suffering of some­one, we are motivated to help. This energy is called love or compas­sion. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. But, some­times we destroy the person we love. It is like the general who said that his fighter bombers had to destroy the city of Ben Tie in order to save it. We have to practice in a way that whatever we do for others will only make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.

The first year of marriage is a difficult time. There is excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration, but the two people do not yet understand each other well. They live together twenty-four hours a day, looking, listening, and being aware of many details that they have not seen before, discovering more of their partner’s reality. Everyone of us has flowers and garbage inside us, not just of our making but of the making of our ancestors. If we know this in advance, we can be ready to accept everything that will manifest in the other person. When people fall in love, they construct a beautiful image of the other person, and they may feel shocked when they compare it with the reality. During the first year, many illusions about the other person will vanish. Until we give up our preconceived image, we miss the real beauty in the other person. We must be mindful to discover these flowers.

When we begin to see each other’s weaknesses, we may feel discouraged. We may need to be reminded of the other’s strengths. A married couple consists of two persons who have to lean on each other to help each other. We receive and nurture our partner like a tree, and we must find ways to water and protect him or her. We take care of the tree so that it flourishes. If there is some disease on the leaves, we must learn how to treat it. If the tree flowers and bears fruit, it is we who benefit. Both partners in the couple should regard themselves as the gardener, the caretaker, of the other. When we discover a weakness in the other person, we have to accept that. This is why the Buddha said, “Everyone has Buddha-nature,” the capacity of smiling, understanding, and being awake.

When we marry, we form a primary sangha, a sangha of two, and we begin to learn to love.. If we still have the feeling of being attached to each other, that is not real love yet. Love in the Buddhist context is loving kindness and compassion. It is the kind of love that does not have any conditions. We form a sangha of two in order to practice love—to take care of each other, to make our partner blossom like a flower, and to make happiness something real in that tiny sangha of two.

“Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity and of all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. Unless I succeed in loving you, I cannot love any­one else. So I am determined to love you. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth.”

This is the real message of love. How can we take advanced steps before we succeed in the primary steps? In the first one, two, or three years. this should be our purpose—to realize peace, happiness, and joy in that small sangha. We know that the small sangha should be placed in the context of a larger sangha. We are practicing with the help of our teachers, parents, friends, and all living beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. That is our larger sangha. “I want to express my love to the larger sangha, and I do it through you. Therefore I must be able to love you, take care of you, and make you happy.”

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of love itself. Looking deeply in order to understand is the basic practice. When a couple is happy, understanding and harmony are there. Then it is easy to extend that happiness, and joy to the people around us—our parents, sisters, brothers, and dharma friends.

If we blame each other and argue, we are divided. This is the fifth awareness. Everyone agrees, but when we become angry, we forget, and a force in us begins to argue and blame the other person for what happened. Only by practic­ing conscious breathing and smiling every day can we control that impulse. Conscious breathing and smiling every day help us develop the capacity to stop at that critical moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.

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Loving speech is an aspect of practice. We say only loving things. We say the truth in a loving way, with nonvi­olence. This can be done only when we are calm. When we are irritated, we may say things that are destructive. So when we feel irritated, we should refrain from saying any­thing. We can just breathe. If we need to, we can practice walking meditation in the fresh air, looking at soothing things like the trees, the clouds, the river. Once we have returned to our calmness, our serenity, we are capable again of using the language of loving kindness. If, during our expression, that feeling of irritation comes up again, we can stop and breathe. This is the practice of mindfulness.

All of us need to change for the better. When we marry, we make a promise to change ourselves and to help the other person change himself or herself so we can grow together. If we think only of changing and growing alone, eventually we will lose patience with the other person. Prac­ticing together, we change and we help the other person change. As a result, we grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of the other person. We are the gardener, the one who helps the tree grow. If the tree doesn’t grow well, we don’t blame it. We blame ourselves for not taking care of it well. Human beings are somehow like trees. If they are taken care of well, they will grow beautifully. If they are taken care of poorly, they will wither. To help a tree to grow well, we must understand its nature. How much water does it need? How much sunshine? If we understand, the tree will grow beautifully.

Every time the other person does something well, some­thing in the direction of change and growth, we should con­gratulate her or him to show our approval. This is important. We don’t take things for granted. If the other person mani­fests some of her talent and capacity to love and create hap­piness, we must be aware of it and express our appreciation. This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, “I don’t know whether you can do this” or “I doubt that you can do this.” Instead, we say, “This is difficult, darling, but I have faith that you can do it.” This kind of talk makes the other person stronger. This is true with children, also. We have to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. We have to appreciate and congratulate every good thing they say and do in order to help our children grow. When we are married, we can love each other in a way that encourages change and growth for the better, all the time.

For those who have been married for ten or twenty years, this kind of practice is also relevant. You can continue to live in mindfulness and continue to learn from the other person. You may have the impression that you know everything about your spouse, but it is not so. Nuclear scientists have studied one speck of dust for many years, and they still do not claim to understand everything about it. The more deeply they look into an electron, the more they realize how little they know about it. If a speck of dust is like that, how can a person say that he or she knows everything about the other person? Driving the car, paying attention only to your own thoughts, you just ignore your spouse. You think, “I know everything about her. There is nothing new in her anymore.” That is not correct. And if you treat her or him that way, she will die slowly. She needs your attention, your gardening, your taking care of her.

We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during our childhood, we see our mother or father do things that create happiness in the family, we can learn. But if our father and mother did not know how to create happiness in our family, we may not know how to do it. So in our practice community, we try to learn the art of making people happy. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of good will, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Good will is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy. Art is the essence of life. Try to be artful in your speech and action. Art needs some substance, and that substance is mindful­ness. When you are mindful, you are more artful. This is something I have learned from the practice.

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Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

During the lifetime of the Buddha, those of the Brahmanic faith prayed that after death they would go to Heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal God. One day a Brahmin man asked the Buddha, “What can I do to be sure that I will be with Brahma after I die?” and the Buddha replied, “As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahma-viharas—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” A vihara is an abode or a dwelling place. Love in Sanskrit is maitri; in Pali it is metta. Compassion is karuna in both languages. Joy is mudita. Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali. The Brahmaviharas are four elements of true love. They are called Immeasurable, because if you practice them, they will grow every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier and those around you will become happier, also.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha respected people’s desire to practice their own faith, so he answered the Brahmin’s question in a way that encouraged him to do so. If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha’s spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.

According to Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extin­guishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity extinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings.

If we learn ways to practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we will know how to heal the illnesses of anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha teaches, “If a mind of anger arises, the bhikkhu (monk) can practice the meditation on love, compassion, or equanimity for the person who has brought about the feeling of anger.”

Some sutra commentators have said that the Brahma-viharas are not the highest teaching of the Buddha, that they cannot put an end to suffering and afflictions. This is not correct. One time the Buddha said to his beloved attendant Ananda, “Teach these Four Immeasurable Minds to the young monks, and they will feel secure, strong, and joyful, without afflictions of body or mind. For the whole of their lives, they will be well equipped to practice the pure way of a monk.” On another occasion, a group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

The first aspect of true love is maitri, the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In Southeast Asia, many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practicing chanting alone in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite The Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me, “Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian,” I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding. Your intention is good, but you don’t have the correct understanding.

Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved.

Maitri can be translated as “love” or “loving kindness.” Some Buddhist teachers prefer “loving kindness,” as they find the word “love” too darigerous. But I prefer the word love. Words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word “love” to mean appetite or desire, as in “I love hamburgers.” We have to use language more carefully. We have to restore the meaning of the word love. “Love” is a beautiful word. We have to restore its meaning. The word maitri has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

We all have the seeds of love in us. We can develop this wonderful source of energy, nurturing the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return. When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her. Shakyamuni Buddha declared that the Buddha of the next eon will be named Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as “compassion,” but that is not exactly correct. “Compassion” is composed of com (“together with”) and passion (“to suffer”). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may he crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use “compassion” to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practices “looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world.” Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain. You are in deep commu­nication, deep communion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha had enough understand­ing, calmness, and strength. That is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

The third element of true love is mudita, joy. True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love.

Commentators explain that happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind. This example is often given: Someone traveling in the desert sees a stream of cool water and experiences joy. On drinking the water, he experiences happiness. Ditthadhamma sukhavihari means “dwelling happily in the present moment.” We don’t rush to the future; we know that everything is here in the present moment. Many small things can bring us tremen­dous joy, such as the awareness that we have eyes in good condition. We just have to open our eyes and we can see the blue sky, the violet flowers, the children, the trees, and so many other kinds of forms and colors. Dwelling in mindful­ness, we can touch these wondrous and refreshing things, and our mind of joy arises naturally. Joy contains happiness and happiness contains joy.

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Some commentators have said that mudita means “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy,” the happi­ness we feel when others are happy. But that is too limited. It discriminates between self and others. A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves? Joy is for everyone.

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimi­nation, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upe means “over,” and ksh means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indiffer­ent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.

Upeksha has the mark called samatajnana, “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. As long as we see ourselves as the one who loves and the other as the one who is loved, as long as we value ourselves more than others or see others as different from us, we do not have true equanimity. We have to put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him. When that happens, there is no “self’ and no “other.”

Without upeksha, your love may become possessive. A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our beloved is the same. He is like a cloud, a breeze, a flower. If you imprison him in a tin can, he will die. Yet many people do just that. They rob their loved one of his liberty, until he can no longer be himself. They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfill that. That is not loving; it is destroying. You say you love him, but if you do not understand his aspirations, his needs, his difficulties, he is in a prison called love. True love allows you to preserve your freedom and the freedom of your beloved. That is upeksha.

For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity in it. For compassion to be true compassion, it has to have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy has to contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity has to have love, compassion, and joy in it. This is the interbeing nature of the Four Immeasurable Minds. When the Buddha told the Brahmin man to practice the Four Immeasurable Minds, he was offering all of us a very important teaching. But we must look deeply and practice them for ourselves to bring these four aspects of love into our own lives and into the lives we love. 

This Dharma talk is from Teachings on Love, to be pub­lished by Parallax Press in March. 

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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Dharma Talk: Breathing for Our Children

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Before he passed away, the Buddha instructed his disciples to take refuge in the island of mindfulness within themselves by practicing mindfulness in sitting, walking, breathing, and every activity of daily life. Mindfulness means to be aware of what is going on in the present moment. If we take one peaceful, happy step and know that we are taking a peaceful, happy step, mindfulness is there. Breathing in and out mindfully, we see the many elements of happiness already available.

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Mindfulness is enlightenment, understanding, compas­sion, liberation, and healing. If we touch everything with mindfulness, the world will reveal itself in its full splendor. Mindfulness makes our eyes, our heart, our non-toothache, the moon, and the trees deep and beautiful. And when we touch our suffering with mindfulness, we begin to transform it. Mindfulness is like a mother holding her baby in her arms and caring for her baby’s pain. When our pain is held by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength.

Sometimes we feel that happiness and well-being are not possible in the present moment. Our grandparents and our parents may have taught us that happiness is only possible in the future. But according to the Buddha, we can be happy right here and right now. Even if a few things are not to our liking, there are many positive conditions for our happiness. Please try this exercise:

Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.

Generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace your eyes. Smile to your eyes. Having eyes in good condition is a wonderful element for your happiness. You only need to open your eyes, and you will see a paradise of form and colors. Please enjoy this paradise. Try not to let your worries, suffering, and anger overwhelm you. Please try this practice:

Breathing in, I am aware of my heart.
Breathing out, I smile to my heart.

When you use the energy of mindfulness to embrace your heart, you will see that having a heart that functions well is another condition for your happiness. But you have neglected your heart for a long time — by the way you work, eat, and manage anxiety. Embrace your heart with tenderness, love, and compassion, and smile to your heart. Practice with your whole body, while lying down or sitting up. If any part of your body does not feel well, hold it with mindfulness and tenderness. This is a wonderful practice. Mindful breathing is the door to reconcile with and take care of our self.

The first exercise the Buddha proposed in his Discourse on Mindful Breathing is: 

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. 

The object of mindfulness is your in-breath and your out-breath, and nothing else. Identify your in-breath as in-breath and your out-breath as out-breath. It’s that simple. Just say, “In,” and “Out,” as you breathe in and out. These words are not concepts. They are instruments for maintain­ing mindfulness. Observe the reality of your in-breath throughout its duration. Stay at one with your in-breath all the way through.

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You don’t need to make an effort to stop your thinking. Just by concentrating on your in-breath one hundred percent, your thinking will quiet itself. You don’t need to “force” yourself to be mindful. Just enjoy your breathing. When the practice is pleasant, concentration becomes easy, and insight is born. Mindful­ness, concentration, and insight always go together.

Sit or lie down in a way that allows your body to rest. Sitting, your head and spine form a straight line. Relax all your muscles. If you are sitting on a cushion, select one that is the correct thickness for your physical condition. Find a way of sitting that allows you to sit for at least twenty minutes, without becoming too stiff or tired. As soon as you sit down, pay attention to your breath. Then notice your posture, a little bit everywhere. Relax the muscles in your face. If you are angry or worried, those muscles will be tense. Smile lightly, and you will relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Then notice your shoul­ders, and let go of the tension there. Don’t try too hard. Just breathe mindfully, and scan your whole body.

When you watch TV, you can sit for a long time. But in meditation, you struggle. Why not imitate the way you sit watching television? The key is effortlessness. Don’t fight or try too hard. Just allow yourself to sit in a relaxed way, and you will feel deeply calm. A period of sitting meditation is time worth living. Don’t interfere with your breathing. Breathing takes place by itself. Just light the lamp of mindfulness and shine it on your breathing. Don’t modify, bend, or make your breathing the way you think it is supposed to be. This is mindfulness of breathing, not intervention. Just become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. If your in-breath is short, let it be short. If your out-breath is long, let it be long. Become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. Don’t try to make them shorter or longer. After a few minutes of practice, you will notice an improvement in the quality of your breathing, and a feeling of well-being will be born in you.

Mindfulness recognizes what is there, and concentration allows you to be deeply present with whatever it is. Concentration is the ground of happiness. If you live twenty-four hours a day in mindfulness and concentration, one day is a lot. Each moment of your life can become a legend. The Buddha didn’t leave behind a theory or set of dogmas. He left behind his life. Every step he took was solid and peaceful. His compassion penetrated the living beings of his time, and the living beings of today, as well. Each step, each breath, and each of his words convey the energy of mindfulness, understanding, and compassion. The practice is to live mindfully and deeply each moment of your daily life, to return to your true home in the present moment.

But many of us do not want to go home to ourselves. We were wounded as children, and it is hard for us to trust others or allow their love to penetrate us. So, instead of going home, we make every effort to avoid ourselves. We say we don’t have enough time to be with ourselves, and even when we do have five or ten minutes, we turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or get in the car and go out for a drive. We haven’t been in close touch with our body, our feelings, and our mind for a long time. We are afraid to go home to ourselves, because we don’t have the means to protect ourselves from the suffering that is within us. But mindfulness can be our protection, making it possible for us to go home safely. With mindfulness, we can touch the wounded child within and embrace him or her without being overwhelmed. With training in mindful breathing and walking, we will be able to go home and embrace our suffering. The practice is to prepare ourselves to go back and touch the wounded child within. Doing this will help many beings — past, present, and future — and not only ourselves.

To practice is not to transform ourselves into a battle­field, the good fighting the evil. There is no battle. There are only positive and negative elements within us, and both sides are us. We can embrace all of them, and when we do, the negative elements will transform themselves into positive ones, without any fighting or discarding. We need to learn to transform our garbage into compost. If we continue to practice dwelling in mindfulness, accepting all the elements we discover within us as ourselves, one day our wounds won’t force us to do and say things we don’t want to do or say, anymore. With mindful breathing, we learn to recognize our unwholesome mental formations even before they arise, and we can stop being the victim of the habit energies we’ve received from so many generations of ancestors. At that moment, we become an instrument in the work of transformation, for our own sake and for the sake of our ancestors and future generations.

The Buddha gave many talks on breathing in and breathing out in mindfulness. My little book, Breathe! You Are Alive, presents several of these, with commentaries on how to practice. The Buddha did not offer these exercises as theories or means for analysis. He offered them as concrete practices for us to do. Please practice mindful breathing, and enjoy your breathing. Breathing is enjoyable.

Twenty years ago we could not have imagined non-smoking flights. We suffered for years every time we had to sit in an airplane among those who were smoking. Now, thanks to our collective awakening, there are many non-smoking flights all over the world. Awakening is possible. In every one of us there is a seed of awakening. We should have confidence in this seed, and not be over­whelmed by despair. The practice is to touch the positive elements that are already there, so we will benefit from these elements and realize awakening.

If you practice mindful breathing, mindful smiling, mindful walking, and mindful working, your stability and strength will inspire those around you. Please practice together as a Sangha. When you see a group of people living mindfully, capable of smiling and loving, it will give you confidence in the future. Please learn the art of Sangha building. We mustn’t allow the younger generation to lose hope. Breathe, walk, act, and live each moment of life in a way that demonstrates to our children that a future is possible. 

This Dharma talk is from Thich Nhat Hanh’s 21-Day Retreat in Burlington, Vermont, in June 1998, on The Path of Emancipation. The talks will be published by Parallax Press in 1999. 

Photo: Mark Sternfield.

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Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

Every one of us is trying to find our true home. We know that our true home is inside, and with the energy of mindfulness, we can go back to our true home in the here and the now. Sangha is our true home.

In Vietnamese, the husband calls the wife “my home.” And the wife calls the husband her home. Nha toi means my house, my home. When a gentleman is asked “Where is your wife?” he will say, “My home is now at the post office.” And if a guest said to the wife, “Your home is beautiful; who decorated it?” she would answer, “It’s my home who decorated it,” meaning, “my husband.” When the husband calls his wife, he says, “Nha oi,” my home. And she says, “Here I am.” Nha oi. Nha toi.

When you are in such a relationship, the other person is your true home. And you should be a true home for him or for her. First you need to be your own true home so that you can be the home of your beloved. We should practice so we can be a true home for ourselves and for the one that we love. How? We need the practice of mindfulness.

In Plum Village, every time you hear the bell, you stop thinking, you stop talking, you stop doing things. You pay attention to your in-breath as you breathe in and you say, “I listen, I listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” My true home is inside. My true home is in the here and the now. So practicing going home is what we do all day long, because we are only comfortable in our true home. Our true home is available, and we can go home every moment. Our home should be safe, intimate, and cozy, and it is we who make it that way.

Last week I had tea with a couple who came from the United Kingdom. They spent two weeks in Plum Village, with the monks in the Upper Hamlet. The lady said, “It’s strange. It’s the first time that I’ve lived in a place where there are hundreds of men and no women, and I feel very safe in the Upper Hamlet. I have never felt safe like that.” In the Upper Hamlet she was the only woman, and she felt very safe. And if she feels safe, the place is her home, because home should provide that kind of safety. Are you a safe place for him or for her? Do you have enough stability, strength, protection for the one you love?

And the gentleman said, “The last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.” That is because of the work of Sangha building. When you build a Sangha, you build a home for yourself. And in that place, you feel at home, you feel at ease, you feel safe. If you don’t feel safe within yourself, you are not a home for your own self, and you cannot provide your loved one a home. That is why it’s very important to go back to yourself and make it safe for you and for the ones you love.

If you feel lonely, if you feel cut off, if you suffer, if you need healing, you cannot expect to heal by having a sexual relationship with another person. That cannot heal you. You will create more suffering for him, for her, and for yourself. In the Third Mindfulness Training, we learn that sexual desire is not love. And without love, sexual activities can only bring suffering to you and to the other person. Loneliness cannot be dissipated by sexual activity; you cannot heal yourself by having sex. You have to learn how to heal yourself, to be comfortable within, and then you begin to create a home. Then you have something to offer to the other person. The other person also has to heal, so that she will feel at ease, and she can become your home. Otherwise, what she has to share is only her loneliness, her sickness, her suffering. That cannot help heal you at all.

Three Kinds of Intimacy

There are three kinds of intimacy. The first one is physical and sexual. The second is emotional. And the third one is spiritual. Sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy. They go together. And if spiritual intimacy is there, the physical, sexual intimacy will have meaning and will be healthy and healing. Otherwise it will be destructive.

Every one of us is seeking emotional intimacy. We want to have real communication, mutual understanding, communion. In the light of Buddhist practice, you have to listen to your own suffering. There is suffering inside of you, and there is suffering inside of the other person. If you do not listen to your own suffering, you will not understand it, and you will not have compassion for yourself; and compassion is the element that helps you heal.

The first thing the Buddha talked about is the suffering inside. Many of us are fearful. We don’t want to go back to ourselves, because we believe that we will encounter the block of suffering inside, and that we will be overwhelmed. Instead, we try to cover it up by means of consumption. We consume food, we consume music, we consume many other things, and we consume sex. But that does not help. That is why the Buddha proposed that we go home to ourselves with courage, in order to recognize and listen deeply to the suffering inside. We can use the energy of mindfulness, generated by conscious breathing and walking, to embrace it tenderly. “My suffering, I know you are there. I am home. And I will take care of you.”

There are times when we suffer but we don’t know the nature of the suffering. Our ancestors, our parents may not have been able to transform their suffering, and they have transmitted it to us. And now, because we have encountered the Buddhadharma, we have a chance to recognize it, embrace it, and transform it for ourselves and our ancestors, our parents. “Dear ancestors, dear father, dear mother, I have received this block of suffering from you. I know the Dharma, I know the practice. I will learn to recognize this block of suffering that has been transmitted to me, and with love I will try to accept and to transform it.” You can do it out of love. You do it for your parents, for your ancestors, because we are our ancestors.

According to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, unless you listen to your suffering, unless you look deeply into your suffering,and embrace it tenderly with your energy of mindfulness, you cannot understand the roots of your suffering. When you begin to understand the roots of your suffering, suddenly the energy of compassion, of understanding, arises. And understanding and compassion have the power to heal. By embracing and listening to your suffering, you bring about understanding and compassion. And when the nectar of compassion is born in you, you suffer less, you feel less lonely. You begin to feel the warmth within yourself; you are building a home inside yourself. The Buddha recommends that we build a home inside, an island within ourselves. Be an island unto yourself. You’ll feel comfortable, you’ll feel warm, and you can be a refuge for the other person too.

When you have understood your own suffering, your own loneliness, you feel lighter and you can listen to the suffering of the other person. Your suffering carries within itself the suffering of your ancestors, of the world, of society. Interbeing means that my suffering is in your suffering, and your suffering is in my suffering. That is why, when I have understood my suffering, it is easier for me to understand your suffering. When you understand someone’s suffering, that is a great gift that you can offer to him or to her. The other person feels for the first time that she is understood. To offer understanding means to offer love. And understanding another person is not possible without understanding self. Home-building begins with yourself. Your partner too builds a home within, and then you can call her your home, and she can call you her home.

In the Upper Hamlet, we build a Sangha as our home. You build your family as a Sangha too, because Sangha means simply “community.” The most noble task is to build a Sangha. After enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha taught us was to look for elements to build a Sangha. A Sangha is a refuge for ourselves and for many people.

So we go home to ourselves, we listen to the suffering inside of us. We embrace our pain, our sorrow, our loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. And that kind of understanding, that kind of insight will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter, we begin to feel warmth and peace inside. And then when the other person joins you in building home, you have an ally. You are helping him and he is helping you. And together you have home. You have home in yourself, you have home in him, in her also. If that kind of intimacy does not exist, then a sexual relationship can cause a lot of damage. That is why  earlier I said that physical, sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy.

Between the spiritual and the emotional there is a link. Spirituality is not just a belief in a teaching; it is a practice. And the practice always brings  relief, communication, transformation. Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in his or her life. Without a spiritual dimension in our life, we cannot deal with the difficulties that we encounter. We should have a spiritual practice, a Dharma life. We learn how to put the Dharma into practice. With that kind of practice, we can deal with the difficulties we encounter in our daily life.

Your spiritual practice can help you a lot in dealing with your emotions, helping you to listen, to embrace your own suffering, and to recognize and embrace the suffering of the other person. That is why these two forms of intimacy inter-are. You know how to deal with a strong emotion, like fear, anger, despair. Because you know how to do that, you can feel more peaceful within yourself. That spiritual practice helps you build a home within yourself, for your sake and for the sake of the other person. That is why emotional intimacy cannot be separated from spiritual intimacy. The three kinds of intimacy inter-are.

Reverence for the Body

Sexual activity without love is empty sex. It is prevalent in our society and is causing a lot of suffering for our young people. If you are schoolteachers, if you are parents, you should help your children and your students to avoid empty sex. Empty sex is bringing a lot of damage to their minds and their bodies. Damage will emerge later on in the forms of depression, mental disorders, suicide. Many young people don’t see the connection between empty sex and these physical and mental disorders in themselves.

What happens in the body will have an effect on the mind and vice versa. Mind relies on the body to manifest and body relies on mind to be alive, to be possible. When you love someone, you have to respect not only her mind but also her body. You respect your own body, and you respect his body. True love should have the nature of reverence, respect. In the Asian tradition you have to treat your spouse with respect, like a guest. And in order to respect her, you have to respect yourself first. Reverence should be the nature of our love.

In my country, parents are proud to introduce their child to a guest. The guest will usually ask, “Do you love your father, your mother?” The child says, “Yes! I love my father, I love my mother.” The next question is: “Where do you put your love?” The child has been instructed to answer: “My love, I put it on my head.” Not “in my heart,” but “on my head.” When a monk is about to put on his sanghati, the saffron robe, for a ceremony, he’s holding his sanghati with reverence, the same as when handling a scripture. If you approach the monk and you bow to him, and if he does not find any decent place to put his sanghati, he will put it on his head because this is a noble place; it is like the altar. That is why in Vietnamese good manners, you should not touch the head of another person if you don’t know him or her well. This is one of the sacred places of the body, because the head is the altar to worship ancestors and the Buddha.

There are other parts of the body that are also sacred that you should not touch. It’s like inside the Imperial City, there is the Purple City* where the family of the king lives. And you are not supposed to go in that area. If you do, they will arrest you and cut off your head. In a person’s body there are areas that are forbidden to touch. And if you don’t show respect, if you touch that part of the body, you are penetrating the Purple City. When a child is sexually abused, she suffers, he suffers very deeply. Someone has violated her Purple City and she did not have the ability to protect herself. There are children who have been abused at the age of eight, nine, ten, and they suffer very deeply. They blame their parents for not having protected them, and their relationship with their parents becomes difficult. Then their relationship with their friends and their future lovers will also be very difficult. The wounds are always there.

Sexual abuse of children is overwhelming. It is said that in the U.S. from five to fifteen percent of young boys are abused sexually and from fifteen to thirty-five percent of little girls are abused sexually. That’s a lot. And when a child is abused like that, she or he will suffer all her life from many things, because her body hasn’t been respected.

In school, and in the family, we need to teach them to respect themselves, to respect their own body, and to respect the body of the other person. If you are religious leaders, if you are politicians, if you are parents or teachers, if you are educators, please think about it. We can learn from the teaching of the Buddha to organize our life in the family, in the school, in society in such a way that we can be protected and our child will be always protected.

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

We said earlier that sensual pleasure, sexual desire, is not love, but our society is organized in such a way that sensual pleasure becomes the most important thing. To sell their products, corporations create advertisements that water the seeds of craving in you. They want you to consume so that you will develop a craving for sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. What we need is mutual understanding, trust, love, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy. But we don’t have the opportunity to meet that kind of deep need in us.

There are women’s fashion magazines that tell us that in order to succeed, you have to look a certain way, and use a certain product. Many young people in our society want to have cosmetic surgery in order to meet that standard of beauty. They suffer very much, because they cannot accept their bodies. When you do not accept your body as it is, you are not your true home. Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. Your body is a kind of flower, and flowers differ from one another. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. If you can accept your body, then you have a chance to see your body as home. If you don’t accept your body, you cannot have a home. If you cannot accept your mind, you cannot be a home to yourself. And there are many young people who do not accept their body, who do not accept who they are; they want to be someone else. We have to tell young people they are already beautiful as they are; they don’t have to be another person.

Thay has a calligraphy: “Be beautiful; be yourself.” That is a very important practice. You have to accept yourself as you are. And when you practice building a home in yourself, you’ll become more and more beautiful. You have peace, you have warmth, you have joy. You feel wonderful within yourself. And people will recognize the beauty of your flower.

Mindfulness is the kind of energy that can help you to go home to yourself, to be in the here and the now, so that you know what to do and what not to do, in order to preserve yourself, in order to build your true home, in order to transform your own afflictions, and to be a home for other people. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete way of practicing mindfulness. In the Buddhist tradition, holiness is made of mindfulness. And mindfulness brings within itself the energy of concentration and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight make you holy.

Holiness does not exist only with celibacy. There are those who are celibate but who are not holy, because they don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. There are those who live a conjugal life, but if they have mindfulness and concentration and insight, they have the element of holiness in them. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise it will be very  destructive. A sutra describes the moment when Queen Mahamaya was pregnant with the Buddha. Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant whose trunk was holding a lotus flower. The elephant touched her with the lotus flower and entered into her very, very softly, and she was pregnant with Siddhartha. That is the way they describe a sexual relationship, in the palace before Siddhartha was conceived: gentleness, beauty. Sexual intimacy should not occur before there is communion, understanding, sharing on the emotional and spiritual level. And then the physical, sexual intimacy can also become holy.

To practice Buddhism as a monk is always easier than to practice as a layperson. There is a Vietnamese saying: to practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a layperson is much more difficult. So to refrain from all sexual activities is much easier than to have a sexual relationship. To have a sexual relationship in the context of mutual understanding and love, you need a lot of practice. Otherwise you create suffering for him, for you, for her.

There is a woman doctor in Switzerland who came to practice in Plum Village. She had suffered several times because of relationships. Since she was young, every time she was asked to have a sexual relationship with a man, she felt she had to say yes even if she did not feel ready, because she was afraid. Many teenagers in our time feel that way. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, they don’t feel ready for it, but they do not dare to say no, because they are afraid to be looked upon as weird, as abnormal. They don’t want to be rejected; they want to be accepted. That is a psychological fact parents and teachers have to be aware of. We have to tell the young people that they can learn to say no when they are not ready, when they are afraid. Otherwise they will destroy their body and their mind. Please listen to the young people, be compassionate, help them. We have to help them find skillful ways to say no.

When she came to Plum Village, the woman from Switzerland learned skillful ways to say no. In her last relationship, she was able to say no. She said, “I need you, my beloved. We need to understand each other. I need your presence. I need someone to help me when I have difficulties, to understand me.” They spent one year and a half together without having a sexual relationship. And when we went to her country for a Dharma talk, she proudly introduced her husband to us. Their relationship was wonderful, very successful, because she was able to say no until she was ready, and together they could build the kind of relationship that is lasting.

* In China and Vietnam, the Imperial City contained an enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City.

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