Learning to Trust the Present Moment

By Mitchell S. Ratner

Meeting Thich Nhat Hanh

In November, 1990 I heard Thich Nhat Hanh address a conference in Washington, D.C. The next day, with 300 others, I sat with him at the Lincoln Memorial and listened to him read poems from the Vietnam War years and reflect on his efforts to share with Americans the suffering caused in both countries by the war. Then we walked silently, reverently, past the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. I was deeply impressed by the quality of his presence, the flowing calmness of his words and actions and the remarkable effect this had on others. Sitting on a cushion at the conference, on a simple raised dais, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke softly about love, anger, compassion, about finding peace and joy in each step, in each action. His words and presence created an atmosphere of infectious serenity. The audience of 3,000 was wondrously quiet; even coughing was suppressed naturally for the duration of the talk.

Finding peace and joy in each moment was a lovely idea, but how could I weave that way of being into the fabric of my urban American life?

Plum Village Life

With great anticipation I set off in November 1991 for a three-month winter retreat. Plum Village was then two farm complexes or hamlets about two miles apart in the Dordogne valley, an hour’s drive from Bordeaux. The region offers vistas of small farms and vineyards, gently rolling hills, historic chateaus, and picture-perfect clouds and sunsets.

Daily life at Plum Village was fairly relaxed. Before breakfast and before retiring, the community gathered in meditation halls for an hour of sitting and walking meditation and the reading of a short Sutra. Before lunch residents did outside walking meditation together for about 30 minutes, followed by the ten mindful movements, tai-chi-like stretching exercises.

Aside from the silent meals, on most days the only other scheduled activity was a work period of two to three hours. Monastics, permanent residents, and lay visitors rotated through work assignments necessary to support the community, such as making bread or tofu, working in the gardens and greenhouses cooking, and making small repairs. Twice a week, the hamlets gathered for talks by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I was very happy to be in Plum Village-there were so many wonderful things to learn. The way I had been trained to learn was through studying. I threw myself into it, reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s books late into the night. I took notes, developed charts, glossaries, and Sanskrit word lists. I initiated discussions with advanced students about the meaning of key concepts, such as “emptiness” and “samsara.”

Three weeks after my arrival, Sister Annabel, then the Director of Practice, asked me after the evening meditation if I wanted to gain something from my stay at Plum Village, something I could carry home with me. I thought to myself, excitedly, “Here it is, my study has paid off-Sister Annabel is going to pass on to me the central organizing principle that will make sense out of it.” Her reply was not what I expected. With a slight tone of reproach she said, “Mitchell, everywhere you go should be walking meditation.”

Walking meditation, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches it, is a relaxed, slow, focused, walking with attention brought to the feet and the breath. In the meditation hall, between sittings, it is usually done with one’s palms together, in front of one’s chest. One walks slowly, with one step for an in-breath and one step for an out-breath. Outside the meditation hall it is usually done more quickly, with two, three, or even four steps for each in-breath or out-breath, and with one’s hands held or swinging naturally at one’s side.

When Sister Annabel admonished me, I already knew about walking meditation, in the sense that I understood the outer form. I had done walking meditation many, many, times, but the import of walking meditation at Plum Village had not yet entered my heart.

The Present Moment is the Teacher

What I still hadn’t learned was that the essence of Plum Village was not a philosophy or concept, but rather a way of being, a practice: that we should pay attention to the present moment. The behavioral ethic of Plum Village is to mindfully carry out each activity, working calmly and giving it our full attention, whether it is cutting carrots, tying a shoe, walking to the bathroom, or writing a letter. Acting in this way, each act becomes more real, more authentic. I could see the transformative power of this practice in others. The presence I had found so remarkable in Thich Nhat Hanh when I first met him was embodied , in varying degrees, by each of the monks, nuns, and long-term residents of Plum Village.

The importance of continuous mindfulness was being constantly taught indirectly. One afternoon during a 1993 visit, I was busily sweeping a meditation hall when I glanced over to Brother Phap Ung, a young Vietnamese-Dutch novice monk, who also was sweeping the meditation hall. Something in the way he held himself, in the quality of his broom strokes, made me aware of an agitation within me, an impatience. I was sweeping to get the job done, so I could move on to something important. In contrast, he clearly was sweeping as if what he was doing was important.

Plum Village is a place ofwonderrnent. But it is also a human community, of monastics, residents, and visitors of very different backgrounds, with different capacities and ways of embodying and expressing the spiritual lessons of Plum Village. Misunderstandings and tensions were inevitable. It was easy to get caught up in the ongoing drama of who was doing what and why. It was especially easy for me to get caught up in the drama when my feelings were being hurt, when others were not acting or responding in ways I desired. And when I was puzzled, hurt, confused, I sometimes questioned all that I had learned at Plum Village. Without really realizing it, a part of me implicitly tied the attunement to the present moment, the teachings of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh as a person, and Plum Village as a community into a single conceptual package. I couldn’t separate the message from the messenger.

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That changed one brisk winter morning, during a stay in 1996. As usual, after his Dharma talk, Thich Nhat Hanh led the community in walking meditation to an open space in the plum orchard. Instead of returning to the dining hall for lunch, Thay took a few steps forward and repeatedly motioned for everyone to come closer. The seventy of us in the circle moved in, bit by bit, until we were closely crowded around him.

He spoke softly, in English, looking directly at us, “With each step you have to say: I have arrived. l have arrived. Whether your home is in Washington, D.C. or New Delhi, you have to come home to this moment. You have to be here with each blade of grass. This is Nirvana. This is the kingdom of God … You have to be your own hero. No one else can do it for you . You need determination. You need concentration … This is the essence, the heart. If you can take one step, you can take two. The present moment is a teacher that will always be with you, a teacher that will never fail you.”

It was an extraordinary moment. Standing there in the orchard, I could feel his determination, his sincerity, his great desire to teach this simple truth, as a physical presence. And when that energy entered, it melted the bonds that had held together the conceptual package of message and messenger. Suddenly I realized that I was free to trust the present moment, wholeheartedly, unreservedly. I could trust wholeheartedly and still honor and embrace the hesitations I sometimes felt about how I or others were treated at Plum Village.

Although the realization gave me permission to have hesitations, in practice I had fewer. I found that I could be more tolerant of a perceived shortcoming because there was less riding on it. Conflicts arising out of cultural misperceptions, lack of thoughtfulness arising out of human frailties could be seen as just that, not as threats. My peace and happiness did not depend on anyone in the community being perfect, much less everyone. It came as a great relief to let go.

From Seeking to Trusting

Many of us who look for spiritual comfort do so because of the wounds we have received. We want an explanation which we think will make the unhappiness go away. One of the great gifts of Thich Nhat Hanh and of Plum Village is to turn us back on ourselves, to turn us back to our own experiences, our own lives. Thinking alone can take us only so far. The disembodied intellect can compare, contrast, and perform logical operations, but without an intimate awareness of our lived experience, we are constantly battered about, vaguely or acutely dissatisfied, hoping to solve with our heads that which can only be solved with our hearts, our heads and our awareness working together. The beginning and end po ints of this spiritual journey are wonderfully captured in two lines from a talk Thich Nhat Hanh gave several days before the instructions in the orchard :

“When you are alienated from your roots, you seek Buddhas. When you are in touch with who you really are, you are a Buddha.”

Bringing it Home

Over the years I’ve looked for and found ways to bring the spirit of Plum Village home with me, to my everyday life in an American city. What helps me most are bells of mindfulness. Real bells, such as from our grandfather clock, and metaphorical bells, such as the red of a stop light, gently remind me to return to the present moment. Gradually there seems to be more calm and balance in my life, a growing inner stillness. Every once in a while, when I catch myself naturally fa lling into a more mindful way of doing something, such as being aware of my feet and breath as I climb stairs, I smile inwardly to Thich Nhat Hanh. I recognize that hi s spirit has entered my stair-walking, and that, as he teaches, the boundaries between us are more illusionary than we believe them to be and the interconnections much more real.

Mitchell, True Mirror of Wisdom, practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community. He received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in December 2001.

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Practicing as a Couple

By Brendan Sillifant

My search

I have had a deep affinity with the practice of mindfulness since I was a teenager. I had come across it in a variety of forms from different sources. From the Buddhist traditions of Thailand, Japan and Tibet, and from modern self-help psychology also. As a young man I wanted to learn to live my life fully, and I set out to travel for two years visiting different practice communities in North America looking for a teacher and a Sangha. That is where I first attended a retreat with Thay. I was drawn to his teaching which seemed so appropriate for modem society, deep and yet simple. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on joyful and continuous practice.

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Not being caught in dualistic thinking

I then came to practice with the Plum Village Sangha for six months in 1991. The Sangha was a small community made up of both monastic and lay practitioners. When I first came to Plum Village it was my love of mindfulness practice that brought me here, I had never had the thought to ordain. But after a time that wish grew in me, although that wish in me was still quite innocent, even naive. My teacher was a monk and I wanted to be like him. Nevertheless I made the determination to return to New Zealand, to sell all my worldly possessions, spend some precious time with my family, and then return to Plum Village to ordain.

Whilst in New Zealand I attended a Chinese Chan retreat in order to keep my practice strong. The retreat was held each weekend for almost two months. During this time I grew quite close to a young woman who was also practicing at the retreat. The blossoming of this relationship created a lot of confusion in me, it seemed like a conflict, to ordain or to marry. I wanted both, I wanted to be with the young woman I was growing to love, and I also wanted to practice wholeheartedly. I spent many months trying to make a decision between these two alternatives, trying to look into my real aspirations and yearnings.

Eventually I came to see that there was no conflict between these two things. When I looked deeply into my concept of monkhood, I found that what was actually important was to see what were the elements present in monastic life which would be supportive to my practice, and to find ways to bring these elements into my life and the life of my partner. With this understanding, there was no longer a decision or a choice that I needed to make. In my daily life I tried to blend my two loves, and I learned not to be caught in dualistic thinking between monastic life and lay life, but to seek to create a life with all the positive conditions present. I found I could have both a loving marriage and a strong committed practice, and there was no contradiction between the two. I experienced my relationship as a support to my practice, not a hindrance, even sexuality. My relationship supported my practice and my practice supported my relationship. I experienced these two things as a wonderful support for each other.

Relationship supports practice

My wife and I live closely together, and as a result we have grown to know each other quite intimately. This intimate understanding enables us to offer support and guidance to each other, helping each other not to fall into habit energies. An intimate relationship also provides comfort, soul sustenance, and nurturance, which can give one strength to overcome difficulties in one’s life and practice. I experience my relationship as a kind of Sangha, it supports me in the same ways as the greater Sangha does, yet very intimately. I feel very fortunate to have a small Sangha within the big Sangha. As practicing partners we also help balance each other. When one person feels sad or anxious, the other can help him or her to feel bright or relaxed again. When overcome by wrong perceptions about someone or some situation, the other can provide alternative ways of looking. When we need to nourish the five-year-old boy or girl within us but are unable to do so, the other can provide that loving embrace. When we need the firm words of a teacher or Dharma sister or brother to put us back in the practice, the other can provide those words to set us straight. We practice in some ways as a single body, being aware of our own mental formations and also the mental formations of the other. So we have both our own mindfulness to rely upon and when that is weak we also have the practice of the other to rely upon. We practice to transform our own afflictions and also the afflictions of the other.

Practice supports relationship

The practice of mindfulness is a wonderful support in cultivating a loving relationship. It deepens our ability to speak lovingly, listen deeply, and understand each other. Mindfulness practice keeps our relationship fresh and helps us not to fall into negative habits. It gives each person more self-understanding and stability so we are more secure in ourselves, as a result we become much less prone to reading into the relationship what is not there. In addition to this the presence of the greater Sangha helps not to be isolated in our couple-ness. Sometimes two people become so much alike in character and view, that they cannot offer the other a new or different way of looking when needed. Dharma and Sangha can be a great support in offering clarity in situations that are usually dominated by habit energies. So when one person in a couple is lost in confusion, the other does not also become lost but can offer new clarity and fresh ways of looking into a situation.

Conscious watering of positive seeds is one of the tools of the practice that can be a tremendous support to a couple. Many couples we see around us are fresh and loving in the beginning, but after many years the habit of blaming, arguing, and criticizing each other begins to give the relationship a sour flavor. And at one point it seems the relationship is so infused with negativity that the path to recreating a positive healthy love is such a difficult task that many couples give up, thinking its easier to start over with another person. The practice of mindfulness, of being present to each other and for each other, already increases an awareness of the preciousness of each other. The practice of watering the flowers in each other helps us to be aware of the positive qualities of each other, and to express our appreciation and gratitude towards each other. If over time we are able to water the positive seeds more than the negative seeds in each other, then the ability to appreciate and acknowledge the wonder and beauty of the other will always be present, even in the midst of difficulty. As a result, when there is disharmony, the motivation will be not to hurt the other, but to heal the relationship and to reestablish harmony between us.

From Attachment to Freedom

I have spoken about how I see that an intimate relationship can be a wonderful support to one’s practice. And now I would like to say something about the obstacles to meditation practice that can sometimes arise in a relationship.

We hear a lot about attachment in Buddhist teaching, and we may be involved in an intimate relationship and ask ourselves, “Well, what does attachment mean to me in my situation?” We need to look deeply into this area of our lives, because the practice of non-attachment can greatly enhance our relationship. Developing non-attachment does not need to go against our relationship. We need to look at our relationships clearly, not just follow an ideal we have heard about. What is our real experience of attachment, in what ways does it truly sustain us and in what ways does it make us suffer?

In our life we do take refuge in many things, we rely on many things. As children, and still as adults, we rely on our parents, we rely on our teachers, and on our friends. We rely on certain colleagues at work, we rely on our community of practice, and we rely on the three jewels. If suddenly one of these refuges is not there, we feel its lack, we suffer. This shows us the presence of attachment. Nevertheless we have been enriched by the presence of these people in our lives. Their presence has given great beauty to our lives and we would not wish to have been without them. We are attached to these people and situations because they have contributed so much to us. So the question is not to abandon these things, because we know that without them our life will be less rich, less nourishing. The question is, rather, how to bring the spirit of non-attachment into our relationships, so we can profit fully from the presence of the other whilst also maintaining our freedom and our sovereignty. The practice of non-attachment can lessen any unhealthy dependence that exists in our relationships and can allow our love to be light and joyful.

It is interesting to look deeply and to see in what way dependence is a wholesome and necessary part of our human and spiritual life, and in what way does it limit us? Does our dependence support us in becoming whole and complete or do we rely on the other person to complete us? We take refuge because we need support on our path to wholeness. But if our object of refuge or our way of taking refuge becomes a barrier to becoming whole, whether it is refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or in our partner, we need to re-examine our way of taking refuge. A true teacher does not want us to only depend on him or her for stability, he or she wants to strengthen the teacher within us and will direct us to rely on that teacher more and more over time. The disciples of the Buddha took refuge in the Buddha, their teacher. Yet near the end of his life the Buddha instructed them to take refuge in the island within themselves, because that island is the teacher within which will always be with them, it is a stable and reliable refuge. The Buddha knew that it is this island which is the real object of refuge.

I will give an example: My wife Fei-fei is someone who is very confident, she enjoys being in front of groups of people, and can be her best on stage. But me, well its something which makes me a bit nervous, something which I would prefer to avoid if possible. So I could say to her, “Fei can you talk tomorrow for me, I don’t want to speak in public.” I can rely on her in any situation where I have to speak in front of the community, and thus avoid ever having to challenge myself and grow. In did this she would become more and more confident, with all the practice she would get, and I would become more and more shy. And an imbalance would result in our relationship and also in me. I would become incomplete without her. So this would be a way of taking refuge which would prevent my becoming whole. Alternatively I can learn to see Fei-fei as a teacher and can learn from her strength in this area. I can try to emulate her confident presence, thus her presence can be a source of strength for me that supports me becoming more whole and less dependent.

This is something to be aware of in a relationship, because we may have been attracted to our partner because they have certain qualities that we lack, to complement and complete us. But we can rely on our partner in a constructive way that helps us develop and transform our weaknesses, thus overcoming our initial dependence and becoming more free. In this way our relationship can take us in the direction of greater dependence or greater freedom and wholeness, depending on our way of taking refuge.

From attached love to boundless love

Our relationships can lead us into a narrow isolated love or a broad inclusive love, and this also depends on our way of taking refuge in each other. Sometimes our way of loving, our way of taking refuge in each other is a way of hiding from the world around us. And the more deeply we invest in each other the more deeply we cut ourselves off from others. So our way of taking refuge in each other becomes a prison for us. Even taking refuge in the Sangha can be like this. Perhaps we mix only amongst our close brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and we hide from the people who come to the community to practice, we may even hide from certain people in our own community. This is a form of attachment which may imprison us and keep us from opening our hearts to all those who cross our path in life.

Our love, to be deep and fulfilling, cannot be limited to only one person. If we love one person yet are alienated from others then our love will grow in on itself, it will not flower. It seems natural for a relationship to want to express itself in service of something greater. Perhaps that is why it seems so natural for couples to want to have children, so that the love that is cultivated between two people can seek a greater expression and flowering. When we can love one person we can love others also, love needn’t be limited to one person. For this we need to be able to see the deep nature of the one we love. To see that that person contains her mother, father, grandparents, a whole lineage and culture. Our love then becomes embracing and we can learn to accept the things in the other person which are the most difficult for us to accept. Mindfulness and looking deeply helps us to see beyond the appearance of the one we love, so our small love becomes a door to great love. The relationship becomes a labaratory or testing ground for our love, allowing us to cultivate a mature love which then extends to the many people we come into contact with. In loving one person we do learn to love many people, because the person we love contains multitudes.

Over the years I have been together with my wife I see more and more how deeply she is.the continuation of her parents and ancestors. That in marrying and making the vow to love her, I have married and made the vow to love also her parents, siblings, grandparents, society, and indeed all beings. A couple relationship is really the coming together of two streams, not just two people, so there is a lot of potential there, potential for strife and for strength. And for certain our love will be cultured and matured over the years, like a good cheese.

Sexuality

Sexuality is another area that can easily become an obstacle to our practice if we are not skillful. But my experience tells me that sexuality can be an integral part of an intimate relationship, and also an integral part of a spiritual life and practice. We sometimes make too much out of sexuality by either being preoccupied by it or by not wanting to have anything to do with it. But sexuality can be a beautiful and nourishing part of a committed relationship. We try to bring the practice of mindfulness to every area of our lives and sexuality is an area of our life that also profits from the practice of mindfulness.

With the practice of mindfulness the sexual act can be no less than a sacred and beautiful ritual that is performed in deep concentration and joy, a deep expression of love and care for each other. With mindfulness present we are able to maintain a peaceful and relaxed presence, without becoming lost in sensual desire. Desire is an obstacle to peace, and it can also be an obstacle to deep communion, because the other becomes an object of desire, and we lose the deep love and intimacy that is present. Sexuality is a form of expression between two people that can nourish joy in being together, and helps establish closeness   and love. But this is only possible in the context of a committed relationship where attention is also given to other forms of communication. Sometimes sexuality is sought outside of a committed relationship, because we yearn for intimacy but we do not know how to establish real intimacy. Perhaps in our relationship there is so much misunderstanding and so many small unresolved hurts that there is no longer intimacy between us. So we naively seek intimacy elsewhere, in new relationships which do not have the same baggage of suffering. We need to remember that intimacy comes from the meeting of hearts not bodies, the meeting of bodies is only an expression. And for the meeting of hearts to be deep and present even after many years together we need to practice constantly.

How do we maintain our love over many years?

In the early days of a relationship there can be a lot of excitement, passion and romance. These feelings can be very compelling and attractive, they set our heart pumping and make us feel very alive. Our love is fresh and new, filled with hope and expectation. We do not know the other deeply and we imagine how wonderful they are. After sometime of being together, we begin to get used to one another more. We think we know pretty well everything there is to know about them. We quickly settle into a routine; our relationship becomes mundane, ho-hum, perhaps even boring. Th\ngs are ok, but not very alive. We think back to the early days and remember how fresh and wonderful it was to be with each other. But we don’t know how to return to that freshness again. We think we need to do something spectacular to get the vitality back into the relationship, like taking a romantic holiday on a deserted island in the Bahamas.

But it is much simplier than that. We just need to be more attentive to maintaining our full presence for our loved one, and not fall into the habit of taking each other for granted. Fei-fei said that when we first met, she thought I was very romantic. For my part, I do not really feel I am a romantic person, neither do I aspire to be. But I think what gave this impression, was that I practiced really being there for her, giving her my full attention when we were together, and perhaps she had not experienced this kind of attention very often before. This kind of mindfulness is the tofu and potatoes of our love, it is the daily food of our relationship. And with this steady loving presence our relationship stays fresh and vital, even if our life appears very routine.

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Personal Time versus time for each other

Another way in which we might consider a relationship as an obstacle to a solid practice is that we may feel we have less space in our lives. I sometimes hear people say that they need more space in their relationship. They need time away from their partners. I have had this feeling occasionally in my relationship, although I feel lucky that this feeling comes up very seldom. For me this is a signal to look deeply, of course I can honor that feeling and take the opportunity to go for a walk by myself. But I need to ask myself, why do I not experience enough space in being together at the moment? I cannot just say that I need space and that’s normal , and take my space. Perhaps our way of being together has settled into a habit of being too talkative. We may have been spending excessive time gossiping about others. Or maybe there is some tension in our relationship that makes it difficult for us to be at peace in the presence of the other. All these things are signals to us to pay more attention to the quality of our time together, and the quality of our practice together. Just as the Sangha is a support for our practice so to can be our couple re lationship. And when we retum there we find a refuge of warmth, space, acceptance, ease, and peace. If these things are not present in our relationship, it is because we have not cultivated our relationship in a skillful enough way.

Oneness – from individual to couple

Life as a couple has a certain vitality and richness which takes us beyond our individual desires and aspirations. We are two but we are one, and we really need to leam to think, feel , and see as one, or there will be conflict. If we continue to follow our own wants and needs and the other continues to follow their own wants and needs, we will not find a deep harmony and unity in our relationship.

For our love to return to us a deep sustenance for our soul, for there to be a deep intimacy between the two of us, we really need to learn to see the happiness of the other as our own happiness, and our happiness as the happiness of the other. This is not an attitude of sacrifice, because in sacrifice there is still duality, there is still “I” give up my needs to satisfy “your” needs. Where there is sacrifice there is still the unconsciolls debt of the other that we hold in our hearts and expect to be paid back sometime. To see that our happiness is one is to see that giver, gift, and receiver are one. We don’t want to sacrifice because we know that deep down, for the other person to be happy, we also need to be happy. How can the other be bright and cheerful when we are moping around, feeling tired all the time having given beyond our capacity. So to give to ourselves, to nurture ourselves and our own deep peace and joy, is to make an offering to the person we love.

Recently Thay has said that practicing as a Sangha is like practicing as a couple. It can be a true practice of non-self to see that we are one body, and that we can no longer seek only for our own happiness without considering the happiness ofthe other. As a couple we become so interconnected, that this way of thinking no longer functions well. We simply have to learn to think in a new way, a way that really acknowledges our true interconnectedness, our interconnectedness as a couple, as a Sangha, and as a world.

Brendan, True Virtue of Loving Kindness, lives in the Upper Hamlet with his wife, Fei-Fei.

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Drinking Tea

Savitri  Tsering

There are times in my day that my actions are like ritual moments that help me remember to come back to the present moment. Some of those critical times are when I ride my bike to and from work, when I go for a walk at lunchtime and, most important to me, the time in the morning when I sit and drink tea with my partner, Tsering.

At our house we serve Indian sweet tea – now well known throughout the world as chai. Drinking chai became a habit of ours prior to our meeting. Tsering grew up in India and he has done this since childhood.

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And I have had chai drinking come in and out of my life since my first trip to India in 1984. Most anyone you meet who has traveled a while in India will tell you of significant moments they have spent over a hot cup of chai. Most likely they were sitting inside a shop which resembled a large hole in the wall, sitting with locals, breathing in the steam and holding the hot cup as though for a moment one held in their hands the nectar of the gods.

When Tsering and I get ready to go to work in the morning, making the tea is an integral part of our preparation to leave the house. When I come to my cup of chai, often I am behind schedule and need to head off to work shortly after. Our time drinking together is very important to both of us. If one of us has the day off we still get up to drink tea together before the other has to leave. Sometimes when I have to leave very early in the morning to go to a meeting in Milwaukee, I will make the tea and then go up to our bed and sit and drink it while Tsering sleeps.

When the tea is ready, one of us brings it to the table – the location of where we sit varies with the season. And for some time the tea sits. Steaming hot, cooling and letting us know the moment to drink is coming soon. When I am able to take the tea in my hand, there is a shift in my consciousness. I become more present. I become more aligned.

I feel the treasured jewel of life and the present moment in my hand. I feel the warm cup and the heat of the hot liquid enter into my body through my hands. This warmth spreads and touches my whole being, bringing me in contact with the joy and realization that I am here again, another day. Lucky to have the chance to sit and drink tea, lucky to have this moment of quiet and rest before I head out into the world.

The knowledge of impermanence sits with me too, holding this warm cup. I become aware that time passes, that my dear Tsering sitting next to me won’t always be here as he is today. That thought makes me pause and look at him with the great love I have for him and appreciate the fact that for this moment, this day, he is here and I can touch that.

I know, holding the cup in my hand, that I cannot stop the pace of time – soon the cup will be empty and I will need to go.

That this moment, even though it is treasured, cannot be clung to and that circumstances in the future may prevent me from being able to enjoy this pleasure in the future.

In this cup, I can find the whole universe. The cup of tea puts me in contact with the world – tea plantations far away, spices grown in other countries, milk from cows in Wisconsin.

In the cup I hold are the friends and family I have shared  cups of tea with before; in the cup I hold are friends I have drunk tea with that have moved or passed away; in this cup there is sunshine, blue sky and earth.

When I drink the tea, I can know that I am not alone. Most times I am with my partner and that is dear to me. But there are countless people from countries all around the world drinking tea too, finding a moment to sit and drink. There are countless others coming in contact with a hot cup of warmth that soothes something deep inside of them, something that needs comfort and warmth, something that provides them with nurturing during a difficult moment or during a quiet time.

This tea drinking is so important to Tsering and me that when we travel to visit family, we take what we need to make our tea. We have purchased tea for other family members so they can drink it too. We have created a recipe so that it can be repeated in the same manner that we do each morning. When we traveled to Spain our tea and cups came with us. When we go camping our tea and cups join us. Perhaps it is symbolic of our intention to bring ourselves fully into our lives. I am not sure. It could just be a warm and cozy habit.

As I sip the tea, I feel the joining of my mind and body. I am here with the tea. The tea and I inter-are. The tea, Tsering and I inter-are. Our lives and the lives of others in that moment interare. We are touching the miracle of life in that moment.

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We talk about our day ahead. We talk of friends and family. We talk of hopes and dreams. We sip our tea. We feel the warmth. We hold the present in our hands. We sit in silence. We sit with the slurping noise. The sound of blowing, cooling the hot liquid and the sip, sip, sip. We note the color of the leaves outside, the squirrel running up the tree.

When the cup is empty I feel satisfied and ready. I feel grateful and full. I have appreciated this encounter and can move into the next moment with peace and satisfaction. I vow not to leave myself behind. Body, mind and spirit are one, moving into my day.

Savitri Tsering shares, “I have been part of SnowFlower Sangha in Madison Wisconsin since its beginning. I work in the area of public health.  I greatly appreciate the deep feeling of connection and community that Sangha gives to our lives.”

Two Recipes for Chai

Savitri’s Chai:

We use tea that is available at most Indian food stores. Buy Brooks Red Label tea and Lipton’s Green Label tea. Mix together in 1 to 1 proportion. For the spices, we usually use cardamom but you can use also use ginger, cinnamon sticks or ground cloves, in any combination.

For 3 cups of chai:

5 green cardamom pods 1 1/3 cups of water,
teaspoons tea mixture<
green cardamom pods (ground with a mortar and pestle) Boil the tea and Add 1 2/3 cups of milk (at least 2% milk, for a real delight use whole milk organic milk is best).

Bring to a boil again. In Indian chai stalls they let it come to a boil, lower the heat, boil again three times.

Add sugar to taste. And drink with joy!

Helena’s Chai:

2 cups water
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon black tea
1/2 teaspoon descoriated cardomon seeds, or 10 green with skin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper corns 1 thin slice ginger root
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
optional: pinch garam masala, or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Add spices to the water in saucepan over a moderate heat until it comes to a boil. Allow this to slowly boil for about 5 minutes. Add the milk to the saucepan and bring back to a slow boil. When mixture begins to boil, lower the heat and allow it to simmer for a few minutes to reduce the volume by 1/3 and condense the milk. Remove from the heat and add the tea, let this steep 3-4 minutes and strain. Sweeten to taste.

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“Mitakuye Oyasin”

Monks’ Experiences of the Ancient Stone People Lodge Ceremony

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Immediately after the Colors of Compassion retreat, on the first of April, fifteen monks participated in an ancient ceremony of the Indigenous Peoples of this land—a Stone People Lodge ceremony. It was a historic event, in that we had the opportunity to experience firsthand the joining of Buddhist and Native spiritual traditions, from Vietnamese and Lakota lineages. Plus, it was a sacred meeting of representatives from several cultures: Vietnamese, French, English, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, Swedish, Filipino, African American, Canadian, American, Chinese, and Lakota. Truly, a United Nations meeting of the heart, a meeting of spirit.

Built on Kumeyaay land on the Viejas Reservation (east of San Diego), the lodge is a simple structure made from willow saplings. The Inipi (from the Lakota language) / Stone People Lodge ceremony is a means for purifying and renewing our mind, body, and spirit. This sacred Indigenous spiritual practice allows us to shed manifestations of ego as we sit inside the lodge—the womb of our Earth Mother, Maka Tizi—and pray for all beings. The prayer “Mitakuye Oyasin”—To All Relations/We Are All Related—encompasses this understanding of inter-being, inter-dependence and inter-connectedness with all life. Through all the preparations––covering the lodge, selecting the stones, building the fire, making the prayer bundle offerings––every step, every action is part of the prayer of the ceremony.

The experience in the Stone People Lodge is an immersion into another realm of reality, into a realm beyond time and space, where our prayers for health, peace, and the planet have a particular potency. This ceremony feels as ancient as the red hot Stone People who are sitting with us in the center of the lodge. Sitting in the lodge, touching the Earth, we begin anew with our Earth Mother and with all our sisters and brothers of the Earth. The lodge ceremony reaffirms and strengthens our connection to the sacred hoop of life, to the Sacred Mystery, to all our ancestors, and to the ancestors of this land, Turtle Island (the American continents).

Once inside the lodge, embraced by the steam—the breath of Earth Mother—and enveloped in the sacred black light, we dissolve into the black light and the stillness, as ego, distinctions, definitions, discriminations, and thoughts fade. A shift from the visible to the invisible takes place. The sacredness all around us and within us, inter-connectedness, nondiscrimination, and non-separation are experienced very directly.

It was a great honor to facilitate this lodge ceremony for our brother monks. It was an amazing and deep experience which affected each of us profoundly, and sent ripples into the world and into the cosmos. In the days following the ceremony, the participants wrote about their experiences. With deep respect and gratitude we offer some of these writings to you.

Mitakuye Oyasin / To All Relations / We Are All Related,
—Chan Tue Nang, Joseph Lam Medicine Robe

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Hello to grandmother earth
Hello to the stone people, my ancestors
Hello to father sun
Hello to the fire, my ancestor
Hello to the air that I breathe
Hello to the steam and water I drink
All of you are my relations
I bow to you
We are one
Sitting in the beginning
Looking at the black light
I am in the womb of the earth
Mother’s breath penetrating into me
Spirit radiating out into the cosmos
—Chan Phap Ngo

Stone People Lodge

Four hours cooking in a willow branch hut. Too small to stand, sitting close, no room to move, next to each other, sixteen brothers, in a circle, around the red hot stone people, embraced by the steam, breath of the earth, grandmother earth, mother’s love in this womb. Together in the heat, in love, in water, with brotherhood and grandfather spirit, in blackness—there we sat to renew, to purify, rebirthing, allowing ourselves to burn, to die, but not to sleep, not to dream.

Touching the Earth, we sat on the ground—a circle of brothers, a circle of life, a cycle of ages—heritage passed down to keep us in touch with all our relations—Mitakuye Oyasin. Offering our prayers for peace, for transformation, for healing. In preparation we gathered wood and placed so mindfully the stones one by one—one to the west, one to the north, then east, then south, in line with the colors black, red, yellow, white on poles on this ceremonial site, this land within a land within a land. An expanse of flat land, with bare black burned trees, a circle of mountains made our horizon, and blue for above, green for below.

Lighting the fire, a line of energy now alive between the fire, altar and into the door through which we crouched to go inside a blacked out space—the willow branch lodge. In preparation we generated mindfulness, brotherhood, and more and more concentration. Aware, sensing, in touch with each other. Strings of prayer bundles for all beings in the entire cosmos and one for our own family and close ones. Circumambulating the lodge and the fire with my string of seven prayer bundles, I brought to mind all those who have made me, shaped me, nurtured me, neglected me, hurt me, loved and supported me, taught and guided me—with my breath I brought them into my body and those ancestors I do not know and children of cousins and children not yet born—I took them all with me into this so small space.

And so this lodge becomes a house with many mansions containing past, present, and future. We all shared deeply of our aspirations and fear and suffering—we gave thanks for this ceremony and expressed regret for past wrongs of peoples to peoples. I shared of being in touch with the suffering of my father and his brothers when one of them took his own life, and of a brother or sister who was lost before birth. We chanted in the intense heat and in the blackness. I saw a nothingness to my personality and life—what did my fear mean in that black?—and yet a sense of trust was also there.

In gratitude, Mitakuye Oyasin
—Chan Phap Lai

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Black Light Night

It was a night in which the sun disappeared and, then, reappeared in the blazing wood people who transmitted their red hot energy into the stone people so that the earth men could be purified.

It was a night in which mother earth embraced all her sons, collecting them into the half sphere lodge, all her sons from all around the globe.

It was a night in which brothers huddled together, bundled their prayers for all beings in the universe as well their own individual blood families, sharing their aspirations and gratitude.

It was a night in which brothers from all over mother earth gathered to chant and send energy of the Native American and Buddhist bodhisattvas to all beings.

It was a night in which the Lakota Shaman guided his young bald headed brothers, plus one not so young, through their anxiety, uncertainty, unknowing—in the Black Light Heat—to a deeper realization and consciousness of their oneness, their interbeing with each other and all beings.

It was a night that ended with the brothers being soaked with the blessings of the cosmos, sopping wet and dripping gratitude.

—Chan Phap De

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A Hut

A hut made of willow branches,
like a mother’s belly
directed to each planet,
in the center, a hole in the ground.
An altar, made of soil and stones, the moon.
The sun of fire embraced by a half-circle,
a wall protecting from the winds.
Simple blankets cover us up,
the brothers sitting in the hut are listening
to the fire, the air, the steam.
In the belly of our Mother Earth,
listening to the Mystery.
Dear Grandfather,
in gratitude for that love
that surrounds us,
for this opening and the little more abandoning,
I thank you for teaching me the confidence
of being in the here and in the now,
enriched by love and at the same time even more poor.
I thank you for being more conscious too.
On the path of celebration
in gratitude for our teacher Thay.
Discovering the Eye who sees
simple joy of being together.
Time has disappeared.
The rain is blessing the earth.
The stars are joining us.
Fire, master fire, Thay fire,
who shows us how to love,
how to respect the right distance,
without fear.
The red stones in the center of the earth
filled with the light of the stars.
The clear water perfumed with sage,
the steam which envelopes us and penetrates us.
A chant from the Buddhist tradition,
A chant from the Native Indian tradition,
one breath, one heart.
A deeper and more subtle release.
Joy of being here and now,
in the Mother’s arms, in the Father’s arms.
Mystery of an invisible Presence,
Free hands offered,
each cell offered as flowers.
In gratitude —Chan Phap Tap
The hot air brought me close to my fear, my panic of losing it totally.
Let me meet with courage the most difficult state of mind, so I can live freely, without shadows of doubt and fear.
May we all be free from our mind shadows.
May we come out to the light and stand freely there.
May compassion embrace the whole of our minds and hearts.
—Chan Phap Son

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Stone Presence Lodge

There is a grace to stone that weathers centuries.
Infused with the heat of joy fire
we offer this stone to the womb of the willow.
Imbued with the tumult of sky
we offer this grace to the womb of our body.
The moon at the zenith, waxing our limbs
we offer what is to the womb of the awakened.
In time unborn we rest here
Enfolded by vapors
The sweat runs unchecked off the bulk of our baggage
To flay bare the unspoken
To fuel this still yearning
To release the stuck remnants of past altercations
For the call of the eagle,
The caress of the soil,
For the presence of stone heat enlodged in our membranes.
For the space where all going and coming is done for
and rest poised in vision subdues all desire.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the current which guides us from known to unknowing
and blesses the soil it carries with laughter.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the clan of the spirit that moves us as one mind
and perfumes our abode with fragrance of silence.
Mitakuye oyasin.
Let the oceans bring rain.
Let the charred stems bear branches
to bear witness to rumor, this fine simple offer.
Let this kinship of blood, sweat and steam forge a vision
of the exotic here, of unprecedented now
Casting down what with measure would ream the unbroken
And take him to the view we of old have forecasted.
Let the holy find ground
In the temple of the wishless.
—Chan Phap Luu

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Painting Spring

By Tasha Chuang

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Right where you stand
is the valley of endless spring.
–Dogen

I left home at a very young age, determined to see the world and live a life of my own. My parents were heartbroken, yet nothing could stop me from setting out to explore the world. Like a little river on the mountaintop, I wanted to see and swim in the vast ocean! For as long as I could remember, I had incessantly searched for a paradise outside of myself, believing that it was somewhere on the other side of the horizon. Yet, even after traveling to so many stunning lands, I never arrived, nor was I ever content where I was for long, until one day I arrived at the refuge of Thay’s teachings.

I came to learn that I really had no need to run or to search. All I needed to do was simply be present with what was right in front of me, here and now, with my breath and my whole being. I learned to breathe. I learned to walk. I learned to be with the natural environment. I learned to be with myself.

Mindfulness has taught me to live life deeply—whenever I am able to—and helped me touch the wonders of life all around me and within me, something I had dreamed of being able to do since a young teenager. I feel so blessed to finally have a tiny taste of living that dream, a dream that does not require much wealth or great success, but the freedom of being able to simply live life deeply and beautifully.

Smiles often bloom on my face as I discover the wonders of life around me. Thanks to the practice, the world has once again been revealed beautifully to me. The practice has helped me see, hear, touch, and just be with life. As I began to see miracles every day and everywhere, I began to touch the child inside me and to create the way I did when I was a kid. I delight in the childlike freedom of expressing my experiences and feelings without worrying about being perfect or being judged. I try to remember always that I am a child of Mother Earth and how I love her and wish to protect her in every way that I can.

I have happily arrived home, here on Earth. I have touched and painted endless spring.

Oneness

I love walking in the rain, my steps in sync with the droplets. One rainy night, as I enjoyed the refreshing air cleansed by the rain, I noticed a little snail. He was crawling slowly toward the grass on a sidewalk littered with the remains of his companions, all crushed to death by passers-by.

I picked up a leaf and prodded him to move a bit faster. I found myself talking to him— “If you don’t move faster, you will surely be stomped to death like your friends!”—and saw that he was slowly crawling back into his shell for protection.

Looking closely at him, so fragile, struggling for survival, I felt a deep sense of love for him. His desire to live and to breathe was just as grand as mine. In our shared worlds, his existence is just as important as mine. Yet for humans like me, it is so easy to carelessly kill him with our steps.

With our irresponsible ways of living and consuming, we humans are extinguishing the rights of many species to live on this beautiful planet, and those of our own future generations. We act as if we were the only species on this planet, superior to all.

Without the sun, we cannot exist.
Without the water, we cannot exist.
Without the minerals, we cannot exist.
Without the trees, we cannot exist.

When we have the awareness of interconnectedness, we will naturally want to live in such a way that we cause less harm to our beloved planet. We will respect the rights of all other species as brothers and sisters of one big family. Together we can transform the suffering of our planet by living mindfully and gently as individuals, societies, and as a global community.

Ocean Waves
The fragrance
of winter sands
of winter grasses
Entered me
Entered me
As I listened to ocean waves blossom overnight
As I watched the soul of Mother Earth rose in flight

mb55-Painting2Tasha Chuang, Peaceful Calling of the Heart, practices with the Morning Star Sangha, Rock Blossom Sangha, and Blue Cliff Monastery, and works as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator in New York City. She considers Sangha building as her greatest teacher and aspiration.

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Seven Interbeings

photo by Paul Davis

By Tetsunori Koizumi

Interbeing as a Binary Relation

“Interbeing” is a new word invented by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), which he employs to explain the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. A sheet of paper, for example, is an interbeing as it is connected with a cloud through a chain of relationships. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper,” Thay writes in The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Things that appear totally unconnected to most people—a sheet of paper and a cloud, in this example—become connected with each other in a relationship which Thay calls “inter-are.”

Technically speaking, interbeing can be regarded as what mathematicians call a “binary relation,” a relationship established on a set of elements by pair-wise comparison of them, defined in this case on the set of all things in the universe, including our consciousness. It is not difficult to see that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity. First of all, it is obvious that anything inter-is with itself, albeit in a trivial sense of that word. Thus, the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the law of reflexivity, namely, xRx, where the symbol R designates the binary relation of interbeing.

The binary relation of interbeing also satisfies the law of commutativity, namely, xRy implies yRx, for if one thing inter-is with some other thing, then the second thing inter-is with the first. By bringing three things into consideration now and examining the applicability of interbeing among the three pairs of two things that result from them, we can see that the binary relation of interbeing further satisfies the law of transitivity; namely, xRy and yRz imply xRz. In the above example, a cloud inter-is with rain and rain inter-is with trees, implying that a cloud inter-is with trees.

Given that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity, it becomes a matter of logical exercise, aided by a modicum of poetic insight, to establish the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. Thus, roses and garbage inter-are, another favorite example used by Thay to illustrate the concept of interbeing. We can also appeal to P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) who employs poetic insight to express the same binary relation of interbeing in a poem entitled “Music:”

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed.

And that beloved’s bed, as we know, is the soil from which a new rose tree grows with a new set of rose leaves and flowers!

This Is Because That Is

The genius of Thay as a teacher of Buddhist thought becomes quite evident when he skillfully employs the concept of interbeing to explain the idea of sunyata, or emptiness, which is probably the most profound teaching of the Buddha on the nature of reality in the world around us. In terms of the binary relation of interbeing introduced above, the Buddha’s words as recorded in Samyukta Agama—“the Middle Way says that this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not”—can be expressed as follows: that x exists in M, or the manifest world, implies that there exists y, different from x, such that xRy; x does not exist in M if there does not exist y, different from x, such that xRy.

By applying this binary relation of interbeing repeatedly to all the other elements that connect a sheet of paper to a cloud, we derive another of Thay’s favorite expressions: “A sheet of paper is made of non-paper elements.” This can be expressed as: xR(~x), where x stands for a sheet of paper, and (~x) for non-paper elements. A natural conclusion that follows from this logical exercise is that a sheet of paper—indeed any thing, for that matter—does not exist as a separate and independent entity, and is therefore inherently empty.

The term interbeing, although it appears to designate something that lies in between being and nonbeing, is actually a word Thay invented to expound the Buddhist idea of the Middle Way. We must go beyond the concepts of both being and nonbeing if we are to understand the idea of emptiness. As he puts it in Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way: “The Middle Way goes beyond ideas of being and nonbeing, birth and death, one and many, coming and going, same and different.”

By going beyond our dualistic way of seeing things (either “something exists” or “something does not exist”), we are able to develop the right view to see things, not in the lokadhatu, or the manifest world where things appear to be born and to die and to exist independently of one another, but in the dharmadhatu, or the ultimate realm of things as they are. As we learn to see things as they are, it will become clear to us that there is neither being nor nonbeing, neither birth nor death.

A Child’s Wisdom

Let us now go back in time—as time is conceived in classical physics—to 1798 when Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a delightful poem titled “We Are Seven.” In this poem, Wordsworth writes about his encounter with an eight-year-old cottage girl:

A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

Asked by the poet how many sisters and brothers she has, this little girl answers:

“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”

The answer confounds the poet because two of the seven brothers and sisters are already dead and buried in the churchyard. To the poet who reminds her that only five boys and girls are left if two are buried in the churchyard, the little girl answers emphatically, “O Master! We are seven.” As far as this little cottage girl is concerned, two of the seven brothers and sisters who are buried beneath the churchyard tree are not dead, as she daily plays with them in the churchyard.

Can we reject this little cottage girl’s answer as a reflection of her ignorance and concur with Wordsworth that she knows nothing of death? What is more intriguing for us is to speculate how Wordsworth would have responded had she answered, “O Master! We are seven—seven interbeings.” The poet, to be sure, would have been even more confounded by this answer. On the other hand, we can easily imagine how Thay would nod approvingly with a smile on his face. It was this cottage girl with her innocence of a simple child, not the poet with his knowledge of a mature adult, who was able to see things as they are.

Tetsunori Koizumi, a member of Blue Heron Sangha, is Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies in Columbus, Ohio. This article was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma talks during the “Science of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June 2012.

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