Dharma Talk: Throwing Away

Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

June 7 – 8, 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

During the Breath of the Buddha retreat at Plum Village, Thây focused on the Sutra on Mindful Breathing, which he had just translated from the Chinese. In this excerpt from two Dharma talks,Thây discusses exercises 11 through 14.

Exercise 11: Skillfully he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

Exercise 12: Skillfully he practices breathing in, liberating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

mb43-dharma2The practice of concentration helps us to understand the nature of affliction, and with that kind of insight, we can burn affliction away. Concentration as energy has the power of transformation. Concentration is something extremely important in the teaching of the Buddha.

To concentrate means to concentrate on something. In the teaching of the Buddha, many kinds of concentration are proposed. According to our need, we can apply one or two of these concentrations to free us, like concentration on impermanence, concentration on non-self, concentration on compassion, concentration on interbeing, and so on. Each concentration, each samadhi, has its own name.

The Buddha spoke about the three doors of liberation, which are considered to be three concentrations: emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness.

Emb43-dharma3mptiness is not a philosophy, a description of reality. Emptiness is a practice. Emptiness does not mean non-being, non-existence. There’s a big difference between non-existence and emptiness. Suppose we look at the glass. It is empty. The glass is empty, but the glass is not non-existent, right? In order to be empty, you have to be there. That is one thing you can learn—emptiness is not non-existence. The second thing is that when we say the glass is empty, you have to ask, “Empty of what?” It’s not empty of air. It is empty of tea, but it is full of air. So the intelligent question to ask is, “Empty of what?” The first answer may be: empty of a separate existence, empty of a separate self.

This is the simplest description in the Buddhist scriptures about emptiness, about interbeing: this is, because that is. As practitioners, we don’t just speak of emptiness as a teaching philosophy. We have to transform emptiness into a complete practice.

Signlessness is the second door of liberation. “Sign” means the appearance or the form. We are used to seeing the form that is the object of our perception. Nimita is the form. Animita is formlessness, or signlessness. The practice is not to be attached to the form, and this needs some training.

Those of us who have lost a loved one, we know grief. But if you are equipped with the concentration of signlessness, formlessness, you can overcome your grief, your sorrow, very quickly. You are capable of seeing things in the light of signlessness: nothing is born, nothing dies. Everything continues in this new form. You also! Your nature is the nature of deathlessness.

Aimlessness is the third door of liberation. Apranihita is the Sanskrit term. Apranihita means you don’t put anything in front of you as object of your pursuit. What you are looking for is already there, not outside of you. You are already what you want to become. You are wonderful just like that. Don’t try to be something else, someone else. You don’t have to go to the future in order to get what you want. Everything you are looking for, it is right here, in the here and the now, including the Kingdom of God, your immortality, your deathlessness. Your enlightenment is right here. And that is truly the third door of liberation: aimlessness.

The Concentration on Loving Kindness

There is a concentration called maitri, karuna—love, compassion. And the contemplation on love, on compassion, can bring you a lot of relief, can bring the nectar of healing to you.

Suppose someone has made you suffer. You think of him or her as very cruel. That person has inflicted on you a lot of suffering, on your family, on your country. And because of that you want that person or that group of persons to suffer a lot for you to get relief. You are thinking in terms of punishment. That hate, that anger, that will to revenge is a kind of fire that continues to burn your body and your mind, and you are in hell. Hell is here in the here and the now.

Just before, we spoke about the Kingdom of God being in the here and the now. But that is true of hell. Hell can be in the here and the now. If we allow the flame of affliction to burn us, there are moments when lying on our bed we cannot sleep because our whole body, our whole being is burned by the fire of hate, of anger, of despair.

The concentration on maitri, on karuna, on compassion, will help you to suffer less.

With your attention focused on the other person, you can see that the other person suffers a lot also. The fact is that when someone suffers a lot and is not capable of handling his or her own suffering, she will spill her suffering all over, and you become a victim of that.

And you may be like that. You are suffering a lot, and if you don’t know how to manage your suffering, you continue to suffer and you will make others around you suffer, including the people you love.

Looking deeply, we see that the other person, as a child, did not have a chance to learn love and compassion from his or her parents. The parents have caused a lot of wounds in him, in her, as a child; and no one has helped him or her to heal the wounds in the child. And then when they went to school, the teacher did not help, and the students around did not help. The seeds of anger, suffering, and hate continued to grow.

Such a person needs help, not punishment. By looking deeply and recognizing the presence of suffering in that person, you might see the truth that that person needs help. And now if we punish him, he will suffer more.

This insight may motivate you to do something to help that person. With that kind of insight, the hate and anger vanish, because that insight brings the nectar of compassion. And the nectar of compassion is wonderful. You stop suffering right away. The fire that has been burning, stops burning. That is the effect of metta meditation, the meditation on compassion.

Compassion for a Suicide Bomber

Nowadays we learn that there are many young people in the Mideast, they are ready to die, to blow themselves up with a bomb in order to kill as many as possible. We call them terrorists, and we believe that in order for the world to be peaceful, you have to kill all these terrorists. So you invest a lot of money and energy into what you call the war against terror. The more you kill, the more terrorists you create, because the killing is an act of punishment. Then the family and the friends of the one who is killed burn with the flame of anger, the will to punish. In killing one so-called terrorist, you create three, four terrorists more. That is what is happening.

There are many young people who suffer so much hate and despair, not only in Iraq, but also in Europe, in America. The number of young people who kill themselves every day is enormous. When you are burned by the flame of despair, of hate, of violence, you suffer so much. And as a young person, you don’t know much about your mind, about the practice. You believe that the only way to stop the suffering, the burning, is to kill yourself.

I guess for many young people, to die is much easier than to live, because they are overwhelmed by the emotions—of hate, of despair. And then you are told that by dying you might help the cause of justice, and you can go to paradise right away after death.

These kinds of perceptions and feelings lead to the act of suicide bombing. If you look deeply, you see that these people need help. And the operation to kill them is not the right answer. We have to help them to see there is a way out of suffering, that only love and compassion and understanding can solve the problem.

One side is using violence. The other side is responding with violence. And the situation goes on without a chance to stop. The way out is shown by the Buddha. Hate cannot respond to hate. Violence cannot respond to violence. There must be another way. The meditation on compassion is essential.

During the war in Vietnam we were able—myself and many friends of ours—to see that the young Americans who came to Vietnam to kill or to be killed were also victims of a wrong policy. With that kind of insight we tried to work for reconciliation rather than supporting one side of the war.

In my experience, the concentration on compassion is a wonderful practice. You may need only fifteen minutes of breathing deeply and looking deeply to recognize that the other person is a victim of his or her own suffering. That person needs you, needs your help, and does not need your punishment. Suddenly the nectar of compassion is born, your heart is blessed with that nectar, and you don’t suffer any more. Instead, you want to do something, to say something, and if you are not capable of loving speech you can write a letter. You can say something kind in order to help that person. But you cannot help that person until you have been able to help yourself. Peace and compassion always begin with yourself.

The Reality of Impermanence

Exercise 13: Contemplating impermanence, I breathe in. Contemplating impermanence, I breathe out.

Impermanence is a key that can unlock the door of reality. It is also a concentration, a practice. Intellectually we know that things are impermanent. We can agree with the truth of impermanence. Our scientists also agree that things are impermanent. But in reality we still behave as though things are permanent.

We have to keep the insight of impermanence alive. When we come in touch with anything, we should be able to see the nature of impermanence in it.

mb43-dharma4We have to distinguish between the notion of impermanence and the insight of impermanence. We may have the notion of impermanence, we may have understood what impermanence is, but we do not have the insight of impermanence. The insight is something alive.

Impermanence is a fact that science has to recognize. When you are able to see the nature of impermanence, you’ll begin to see the nature of non-self. Because non-self is not different from impermanence. Since everything is changing in every second, nothing can remain itself in two consecutive moments. So impermanence means non-self. They are the same thing.

Looking from the angle of time, you say, impermanence. Looking from the angle of space, you say, non-self. They are exactly the same thing.

In the Pali canon, non-desire comes next. In the Chinese canon, throwing away is next.

Throwing Away What?

Exercise 14: Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go. Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

Throwing away is a wonderful practice. You might like to ask, “Throwing away what?” What is to be thrown away?

We have learned that wrong perceptions are the ground of all afflictions— fear, anger, discrimination, despair. So it’s easy to know that throwing away here means to throw away wrong perceptions—ideas or notions—that are at the base of our suffering. It is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation. You have an idea, and you entertain that idea for a long time, and you continue to suffer.

Every one of us entertains an idea about happiness. It may be because of that idea of happiness that we’ve never been happy. So it’s very important to throw away that notion of happiness.

A nation is a community of people, and they may entertain together one idea, one ideology. Each political party—the socialist party, for instance—entertains an idea. And we might get caught in that idea. An ideology may be a trap, and your nation may be caught in it for sixty, seventy years, and during that time you create a lot of suffering. Those who do not agree with that ideology, you put them in psychiatric hospitals. The moment you release that idea, happiness begins to be possible.

So throwing away is very important. It takes insight and courage in order to throw away an idea.

The word is “throwing away.” It’s very strong; it’s not just letting go. The Sanskrit, the Pali term, is “throwing away” in a very strong way. The Vietnamese meditation master Tang Hoi, he used the word phong xa for throwing away. Tang Hoi was the first teacher of meditation in Vietnam, who lived in the first half of the third century.

Insights from the Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away four notions. The first notion is the notion of self. It is by intensive training that you can throw away the notion of self.

If a couple knows how to live in a spirit of non-self, there will be no difficulty, no anger, no discrimination, no despair, because they have realized the truth of non-self. If a father and son, mother and daughter, have the insight of non-self, they look at each other as interbeing.

mb43-dharma5There is the idea that I am this body. This body is mine, belongs to me. This is a notion that does not correspond to reality. When we say the words “I am,” we say it on the ground of the notion “I am,” and still people do not believe very much in that statement. That is why they try to justify it with a kind of argument.

In order to demonstrate that “I am” is a reality, René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” One day I saw a cartoon picturing Descartes touching a horse. He declared, “I think, therefore I am.” And the horse asked back, “You are what?” That is a good question. If you can answer what you are, you may have a better idea that is closer to reality.

In the scripture it is written, “This is, because that is.” This is a statement about interbeing. If you are not there, I cannot be here.

So it is very important to throw away the notion “I am,” the notion of self, because it does not reflect the truth. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, you are capable of throwing away that notion of “I am.”

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away is the notion “man,” human being. This is not too difficult. When we look into the human being, we see human ancestors, we see animal ancestors, we see vegetable ancestors, we see mineral ancestors. We see that the human is made of non-human elements. We see that we are at the same time a rock, a river, a cloud, a squirrel, a rose. And if we take away all the non-human elements, the human being is no longer there.

This is the deepest teaching on deep ecology. In order to protect the human being, you have to protect elements that are not human, because these elements are our ancestors, and if you destroy them there is no way we can be here. That is why discrimination between man and nature is a wrong view. You have to see you as nature, one with nature.

That is why harmony, respect of life, is possible. So throw away the idea that the human being is the boss, man is the boss, man can do anything to nature. The key is contemplation on impermanence of non-self.

The first to be thrown away is the notion of self, the second is the notion of man. With liberation from that notion, we become less proud, less arrogant as a species. We have to respect and protect other species in order for us to have a chance. That is why we said the Diamond Sutra is the oldest text on deep ecology.

We have the notion of la matiere inerte. But if you look deeply into the notion that matter is something without soul, without life, we see that is not true.

First of all, matter is the object of our perceptions. For a long time we believed that matter exists as a separate entity, and matter is something that does not move. But now as science advances, we see that matter is not static and immobile as we thought. In fact, the atoms, the electrons, move a lot. They are very alive. And looking more deeply, we see a lot of our mind in it, and we are not sure that they are there, in the way we imagined. So the distinction between living beings and non-living beings disappears after meditation. There is no longer any discrimination.

The fourth notion to be thrown away is the notion of lifespan. We believe that there is time, and we are born at one point of time. Our birth begins here, and we shall die at another point of time—death. I’ll only spend seventy, eighty, ninety or one hundred years on this planet. After that, I’ll be gone. This is what we believe. But as we look deeply, we see that this is a notion, a wrong perception. Birth is a notion, and death is also a notion. It’s not reality.

We have spoken of the deathlessness of a cloud. The cloud can never die. It can only become rain or snow. In our mind, to die means from something you become nothing; from someone you become no one. But if you look deeply you don’t see anything like that. A cloud can never die. If we look deeply we see that the nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. In our mind, to be born means from nothing we become something. From no one we suddenly become someone.

The cloud does not come from nothing. It has come from the water in the river, in the ocean. It has come from the sunshine, the heat. And you know that the birth of a cloud is a poetic image. It is a new manifestation. Before being a cloud, the cloud has been many other things.

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Birth and death are notions that cannot be applied to reality, because nothing can be born from nothing, and nothing can become nothing at all. This meditation practice of looking deeply will bring about insight. It will dissipate our fear and our despair.

Those are the four basic notions that are at the foundation of our fear, our desperation, our suffering. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to practice looking deeply, so that we can throw them away. The practice of throwing away your notions, your views, is so important. Emancipation and liberation would not be possible without this practice of throwing away.

If we suffer a lot, it’s because we still entertain a number of ideas. The practice of meditation helps us to get free from these ideas.

Our World Needs Wisdom

So the object of our meditation is not something alien to our daily life. The way proposed by the Buddha is to help yourself and to help the people around you. It is to practice looking more deeply in order to be liberated from these notions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence.

Writing a letter to a suicide bomber is true meditation. Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight. As a teacher, as a parent, a journalist, a filmmaker, you are capable of sharing your insight so that you can wake up your nation, your people. And if your nation, your people, are awake, then your government will have to act according to the insight of the people.

Meditation is essential for our survival, our peace, our protection. In fact, it is wrong views that are at the base of our suffering, and throwing away wrong views is the most important, most urgent thing.

To come to a retreat is not to get away from it all. To come to a retreat is an opportunity to look deeper, and to see exactly where we are.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Greg Sever and Janelle Combelic.

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing

This is what I have heard at a time when the Buddha was residing in the Jeta Grove in the town of Sravasti.

On that day, the World-Honored One told the Bhikshus:

“Dear friends, let us enjoy the practice of Mindful Breathing. If a Bhikshu knows how to skillfully practice Mindful Breathing, and does so consistently, he will find his body and mind peaceful; he will acquire positive investigations and reflections; his mind will be calm and pure; and he will have perceptions leading to Wisdom and be able to bring his practice to completion.

“This is how a bhikshu should proceed:

“Whether the bhikshu lives in a village or in a town, in the morning he puts on his sanghati, holds his begging bowl, and goes into town for alms round. While doing so, he knows how to protect his body and his six senses, his mind skillfully focused on whatever is present. After the alms round, he returns to his dwelling, puts his sanghati and begging bowl away, washes his feet, goes into the forest, to an empty room, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty space in the open air, and sits down in an upright position. He holds his mindfulness in front of him, releases all worldly pursuits, and lets go of his anger, torpor, restlessness, regret and doubt, his mind determined to be in accord with wholesome dharmas, leaving far behind the five hindrances that cause afflictions, weaken his wisdom and constitute an obstacle on the path of Nirvana.

1. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his out-breath.

2. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in a long or a short in-breath, fully aware of his long or short in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out a long or a short out-breath, fully aware of his long or short out-breath.

3. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his whole body.

4. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, relaxing his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, relaxing his whole body.

5. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing joy.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing joy.

6. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing happiness.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing happiness.

7. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his feelings.

8. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, calming his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, calming his feelings.

9. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his mind.

10. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, gladdening his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, gladdening his mind.

11. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

12. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, liberating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

13. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating impermanence.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating impermanence.

14. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

15. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating non-desire.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating non-desire.

16. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating cessation.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating cessation.

“Bhikshus! That is how the practice of Mindful Breathing helps make our body and mind peaceful, helps us acquire positive investigations and reflections, makes our mind calm and pure, helps us have perceptions leading to Wisdom, and brings our practice to completion.”

After the Buddha had finished his teaching, the bhikshus, having listened to the Buddha, happily put the teachings into practice.

Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 2, No. 99, Tsa A Han (No. 29) 803.
Chinese translated from Sanskrit by Gunabhadra, A.D. 435-443 ( Liu Song period ).
Translated from Chinese by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Greed, Generosity, & Reality

 By Janice Rubin

mb43-Greed1On a recent Monday evening with my sangha, during the dharma discussion I talked about the book Hooked! In this wonderful book Buddhist scholars and teachers write about greed and the urge to consume. I also spoke about the way our culture’s encouragement of greed and acquisition run counter to Buddhist teachings.

The Second Mindfulness Training teaches us to not take what does not belong to us. Yet when we build bigger cars and homes, acquire more clothing than our closets can hold, or replace items that could have been reused, we are using more than our fair share of the resources of the earth. In Asian countries that are becoming Westernized, the Buddhist life of simplicity has been giving way to a culture of shopping and acquisition. Anxiety appears to be increasing among the people because in an acquisitive culture, adequacy is unattainable—one can never have enough or be good enough.

Letting Go of Attachment

In the Second Mindfulness Training we commit ourselves to practicing generosity by sharing what we have with those in need. The annual “Heavenly Treasures” rummage sale at the church where we meet has served to keep me focused on dana all year round. As I go into drawers or closets, or try to make room for newly acquired books on shelves, I find myself selecting items that I will donate to the sale. Over the years I have been slowly letting go of the unneeded things one accumulates during fifty-five years of marriage. At the same time I have been enabling others to pick up for a song something they might treasure. The church that has been so generous in welcoming us three times each week, and whose pastor, Jack Lohr, founded our Sangha, benefits financially from this giving and in turn, uses the money for good works for those less fortunate.

Another member of my Sangha, Madelain, mentioned that those who refuse to accede to the demands of modern society often find themselves forced to do so. She said she has refused to acquire a cell phone, but may eventually have to do so because the availability of public phones for use in an emergency away from home has diminished. Also, she said, the uncertainty that Social Security benefits will be available when her generation is ready to retire, causes many to invest their money in material goods as a form of insurance.

Steve said he had changed careers because he found the planned obsolescence in the industry in which he worked to be contrary to his beliefs. In the past few years he had experienced much loss, but each loss, whether of material things or relationships, had made him appreciate more what he does have.
Jack, a management consultant, was currently involved in setting up a meeting of large manufacturers from all over the industrialized world. He believes we are at the tail end of the consumer culture. Industrial leaders are now aware of the importance of conserving natural resources and protecting air quality. They are producing goods that are not only better made and longer lasting, but will either be biodegradable or recyclable when they are no longer useful. We are the only animals on earth whose waste is not degradable, he added.

Finding the Middle Way

A longtime Buddhist practitioner, he said one of the problems of an acquisitive lifestyle relates to the fact that acquisition is in the future. What you have can only be enjoyed in the present moment. The greedy person, consumed by thoughts of future acquisition, fails to take pleasure in what is here to be enjoyed now.

I read aloud the first few pages and the last page of an essay by Sumi Loundon, one of the seventeen Buddhist scholars and writers in Hooked! She described, with some humor, her upbringing in a 1970s American Zen Buddhist commune. While grateful for the awareness of consumerism with which she was raised, and which still affects her choices in life, she said she does not intend to raise her children in an atmosphere of such deprivation.

mb43-Greed2We agreed that the Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Waywould be a fi guide for us all on the path between self-abnegating austerity and the rampant consumerism promoted by our society.

Janice Rubin practices, teaches, and writes in Bergen County, New Jersey.

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Heart to Heart

“Heart to Heart” is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell, where we will publish short pieces on a given topic.

Keep your writing personal and concrete, focusing on the fruits of your mindfulness practice. Preference will be given to shorter pieces, under 500 words. All submissions will be edited. Submit via email to mindfulness.bell@yahoo.com.

The topic for the Winter/Spring 2007 issue will be: what you would like to write to a suicide bomber (see Thây’s words about this on page 12). We would prefer to receive submissions by October 15, 2006.

Here is a list of future topics and tentative deadlines, set in advance with the hope that things won’t change too much between now and then… Happy writing!

Issue Topic Deadline
Winter/Spring 2007 Letter to a suicide bomber October 15, 2006
Summer 2007 Second Mindfulness Training February 15, 2007
Autumn 2007 Third Mindfulness Training June 15, 2007
Winter/Spring 2008 Fourth Mindfulness Training October 15, 2007
Summer 2008 Fifth Mindfulness Training February 15, 2008

To launch this section, we present some heartfelt (and even humorous) writings on the First Mindfulness Training.

mb43-Heart1

Committed to compassion and learning ways to protect lives of people, animals, plants and minerals…

Our delightful Tibetan Terrier, Dharma, is under quarantine by the county animal control officials for a severe, unprovoked biting attack on an innocent hiker here in our mountain paradise. It is our custom to daily amble over these magical trails among some of the world’s oldest peaks and valleys. Dharma, a feral Humane Society rescue animal, had been captured as a pup in the wild almost two years ago after rampaging through the highland wilderness during two great hurricanes. She is particularly fearful and unpredictably aggressive with small humans. We have five such small-bodied grandchildren. Visits are always fraught with peril and anxiety and constant vigilance. Four previous bites to adults had not yet resulted in serious harm, nor has this current bite done permanent damage, but we fear the operative phrase is “not yet.” Dharma is ever on guard, is anxiety-ridden during these visits, and in the year-and-a-half we have loved her into the darling companion she is, she is still only to be trusted with my wife, myself, and our amazing dog sitter. All of the experts we have consulted, including Tibetan Terrier Rescue, agree: Dharma should be euthanized.

mb43-Heart2

Earnest practitioners that we fancy ourselves to be ought not to be killing, ought not to let others kill–yet we definitely also ought to cultivate compassion and protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. Unfortunately, especially for Dharma, our world is not only the beautiful, peaceful, controlled environment of our little cottage and dharma hall, it is also the wider world of strangers and children, constant visitors, and uncontrollable circumstances. I have always felt that the precepts, the Mindfulness Trainings, have a certain edge of impossiblity to them. And I have also come to feel that it may be precisely because of this “impossibility” that I practice them.

Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.
–Shantideva, Indian Buddhist Teacher, 8th Century, A.D.

Philip Toy
Black Mountain,
North Carolina

Surrounded by her loving family, Dharma was gently euthanized on July 31, 2006.

mb43-Heart1

The colours of my childhood shimmer green and yellow. Dandelions and grasses in a hot July sun. Cold, crisp white sheets warming to the gentleness of the night. Lilac, intoxicatingly sweet, drifting indoors. The colours of my childhood belong to a time long gone, and a person now dead. They belong to my Nanna and the neat council house on a tatty neglected street she inhabited. From her I learned the tenacity of a heart enveloped in kindness and equanimity. Patience and high moral standards held equal sway. Rosaries at dawn, evening contrition, and masses her comfort and strength.

Did I learn to be a better person because of her? Do I teach my children what she taught me? Or do I take the easy, lazy path of modern parenting, beset and submerged by demons? Modern parenting differs so vastly from the austerity of a Yorkshire childhood in the early 70s! Sometimes I long for simpler, less morally perplexing times. How does the Bodhisattva ideal sit comfortably with Barbie and Gameboys? consumerism and killing games?

Ask any parent or caregiver what is the greatest challenge they face, and they’ll answer unhesitantly: “nits” (head lice). Not tests, not bullying, not the rising cost of uniforms. This tiny, almost insignificant insect raises enormously complex, soul-wrenching problems. With the central moral principle of non-harming and compassion as one’s life’s principles, how exactly is one supposed to react when one’s cherished offspring is sent home from school, menagerie riding aloft, and not allowed back without a clean head?

No other insect or animal raises this issue for me. Ants, silverfish and spiders merrily waltz around the house as if they own it. The mouse in the attic over-winters as content as a maiden aunt soaking in the warm Mediterranean. Worms are rescued, spider nests painted around, birds fed, plants grown for butterflies.

Head lice are an itchy curse to any school-age child, and schools take the position that no child can return until they are louse free. What to do? Options are limited, traditional shorn heads not sitting well with six-year-old divas. Kill them quickly and humanely, snapping their little bodies with a deft flick of a fingernail, and a heart filled with contrition and atonement? Silent prayers for the dead and dying in a scented bathroom. Comb them out? Each released to its own destiny, karmic fine teeth refusing to take responsibility for their eventual demise. Or, most drastic of all, pungent chemicals shrivelling and desiccating innards and limbs? Modern chemicals absolved of ancient worries and intransigencies.

I doubt a satisfactory answer to the dilemma exists. My Nanna, template of compassion, never faced the issue with us, bereft as we were of “friends.” Probably she would have tutted and placed human health paramount; chided me for being “soft”; and sent me outside to play, dandelions yellow and grasses green swaying in the breeze. Simpler times, poor preparation for complex modern conundrums.

Kathryn C.
Hallas Wakefield, West Yorkshire, U.K.

After reading the book Seeds from a Birch Tree by Clark Strand, I discovered that writing haiku poetry is a very lovely way to practice mindfulness. I attempted to distill the First Mindfulness Training to only 17 syllables and humbly offer my effort as encouragement to others to try writing haiku. At the very least, you will have a little gatha to remind you of the mindfulness training.

vowing not to kill —
I carry an ant outside
on a newspaper

Beth Howard
Cheyenne, Wyoming

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Earlier this year, a group of practitioners came together as the Ripening Sangha under the guidance and support of Dharma Teacher Brother Phap Tri at Deer Park Monastery. The group includes Order of Interbeing members and aspirants, and we are studying and practicing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Once a month, we visit Deer Park for a Day of Mindfulness, the Fourteen Mindfulness Recitation Ceremony, and a class that focuses on one Mindfulness Training per month. We have also begun enjoying quarterly Weekends of Mindfulness together.

Each month, we write about our study and practice of the Mindfulness Training of the month. We write journal entries and gathas, rewrite the Mindfulness Training from our own experience, and use other methods to deepen our practice.

In April, I wrote a guided meditation to practice with the Twelfth Mindfulness Training (equivalent to the First of the Five) during my morning sitting meditation time. This guided meditation integrates my practice of yogic breathing, in which one inhales the qualities and aspirations one most wants to embody and exhales the qualities one most wants to release or, in Thây’s most recent terminology, “throw away.”

Breathing in, I bring looking deeply in
Breathing out, I release narrow-mindedness and my need for premature closure (my need to make quick decisions and premature judgments)
Breathing in, I bring compassion in
Breathing out, I release judgment (of myself and others)
Breathing in, I bring understanding in
Breathing out, I release disappointment (that things aren’t the way I want them to be or think they should be)
Breathing in, I bring acceptance in
Breathing out, I release attachment to outcome (especially the outcome I want)
Breathing in, I bring peace in
Breathing out, I release blame and violence (toward myself and others)

Karen Hilsberg
Culver City, California

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Hugging as Practice

By David Hughes

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I’ve always viewed myself as a hugger, a toucher. I hug my family members, and like to be hugged. I touch a lot — I’ll walk by my wife and touch her shoulder, or reach over and touch my daughter’s arm. My Dad was like this, too. Touching is good; hugging is better. In the workplace, I’m conscious of this tendency, and I have to pay attention to make sure that I curb the impulse to touch lest it be considered inappropriate. I know that many people don’t want to be touched, or at least don’t want to be touched except by a carefully chosen small group of people close to them. But I’ve always thought of myself as a person who likes hugging and touching.

So it should come as no surprise that I had a very positive reaction when I first encountered my spiritual leader’s teachings on hugging and hugging meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh has done for hugging what he has done for so many other activities of daily life — transformed the ordinary into the sacred. Thay tells a very funny story of his first visit to the United States, and being given a great big hug of welcome by a large woman. When he describes how truly “foreign” this experience was for him, you can actually feel it. In his culture, people don’t hug very much; people simply don’t hug Zen masters; women don’t even touch monks. Thay confesses to having been taken aback by this enthusiastic hug — but in typical Thich Nhat Hanh fashion, he doesn’t simply leave it at that. Looking deeply at the hugging experience, he recognized how wonderful and positive this practice was at its core. He developed Mindful Hugging as a means of deepening one’s dharma practice.

Three Simple Breaths

Thay suggests that before actually hugging, we take a couple of breaths to bring ourselves fully into the present moment, so that we can really be there for the person we are about to hug. As we then embrace, we breathe in deeply, and on the first in-breath we say to ourselves: breathing in, I am aware that you are alive and in my arms; breathing out, I am so happy. On the second in-breath, we say: breathing in, I know that I am alive and in your arms; breathing out, I am so happy. And finally, a third breath: breathing in, I am aware that we are both alive right now and embraced in each others’ arms; breathing out, I am very happy.

Three simple breaths, three simple gathas. A simple practice that anyone can do at any time. Sounds really easy, doesn’t it? But have you tried it? I have, and I have found that this practice brings up a whole lot of stuff from deep within me — stuff that may be hard-wired into me as a male, or acquired from the culture in which I have lived, or even cultivated by me over the years as a part of my professional and social persona. In short, it’s a deep and profound practice.

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Sitting here at my keyboard, I find that taking three long breaths takes a total of about thirty seconds. Standing around after a sangha hugging discussion and actually practicing a single three-breath hugging meditation, I found that it took about an hour! Or so it seemed. Ten seconds for a preparatory breath to be sure I am fully present, the arms around one another, and an hour later I finish with my third breath and release. What’s up with that? Of course, I am more used to the perfunctory tap on the arm, to the quickie social hugging that one gives and gets as a good-night or a good-bye, or a greeting for an old friend. This three-breath, mindful hug is intense! I truly am fully present, and the experience of it is powerful. The urge to break off after that first breath — or even sooner — is palpable. By the second breath, if I stick with it, I know that I am experiencing something very different. And as that third breath rises and falls, I feel the presence of myself and the presence of my friend, alive, real, physical, and very intimate.

Intimate, Intense, Physical

Ah, maybe that’s the real issue. Aside from being the longest thirty seconds in history, it is really intimate. So up comes all of my psychological conditioning about intimacy, about sexuality, about appearances and image. This experience doesn’t fit neatly into any of my pre-existing boxes; it’s out of my comfort zone. This is an intimate, intense, and physical experience with someone who is not my spouse, who is not my daughter or my mother. Do I ever hug my daughters or my mother in such an intense way? Is this sort of physicality reserved exclusively for my wife? Do we as mates even hug this intensely, this intimately?

The friend I hug at sangha is a male, as am I. Two heterosexual males both well over 50. Is this hugging sexual? Does he think it is? Do others, watching, see it as such? Intimate, intense, physical—does that make it sexual? Can I experience those three things all together without also being sexual? Can he? Is this what’s behind the urge to break off the hug prematurely?

Later that evening, after giving another sangha friend a ride, we give each other a hug in my car. I break it off fast. And she confronts me. What’s going on; what happened to the mindful hugging? Again, questions of conditioning, sexuality, and appearance come up strongly. Can I hug a woman so intimately, so meaningfully, without the stereotypical sexual overtones? I can almost hear Billy Crystal’s diatribe in When Harry Met Sally about all relations between a man and a woman being fundamentally sexual. But I have had female friends all of my life, non-sexual friends. I don’t restrict my contact with women, or my concept of women, to the realm of sexuality.

But there it is. I recoil from a deep, close, meaningful hug with a female friend even more abruptly than with my male friend.

The Gift of Being Fully Alive

To hug like this also demands trust. I am vulnerable in this openness. My intentions may be misconstrued. What are my intentions, really? Is this hug in any way in conflict with my commitments, with the third of the Five Mindfulness Trainings? Am I doing this for show? To prove my practice to myself or others? And what about him/her? Where is she coming from? What is his experience right now? Is he thinking something negative about me?

I now see hugging as a very powerful exercise in the context of a committed dharma practice. Mindful hugging, hugging that brings us fully into the present moment, is an extremely skillful means of focusing on our aliveness in all of its glory, with all its wrinkles, its hang-ups, its beauty. It is a practice, not a concept. To take 30 seconds to be fully and completely present with one another is to touch deeply our life right here and right now. We are fully alive. We have bodies. We have texture, we have smells, we have sounds.

Ultimately, it seems to me that this is a deep practice of letting go. Letting go of concepts, of conditioning. Letting go of fears, letting go of the impulse for security. Letting go and just experiencing — fully experiencing — the present moment, the wonder of this precious human birth.

Dmb45-Hugging3avid Hughes, Committed Direction of the Heart, is a member of Open Heart Sangha in Yarmouth, Maine, and an aspirant to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

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The Collective Bodhisattva

Sisterhood and Brotherhood in the Twenty-first Century

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

If you were to ask me what could save this planet Earth I would say not eating meat, not using fossil fuels — but only if based on sisterhood and brotherhood. Sisterhood and brotherhood come first. Whatever we do we should do as a Sangha, as a community. First we look deeply as a community then we come to a consensus on how we should act, and then we act as a community. Our community wants to establish sisterhood and brotherhood within itself and then within society and in the world. As a monk or nun our community is the one into which we have been ordained. As a layperson your community is your family, your church or local Sangha, and possibly also your work place. Having established brotherhood and sisterhood here, you can also bring sisterhood and brotherhood into the society.

Your spouse, your children, your parents and siblings are all your brothers and sisters. To the best of your ability you can practice looking deeply together, come to a consensus, and act together. Children from five years or seven years old can be encouraged to share their views, listen to the views of others that can be simply expressed, and play a role in family decision-making. Teachers and pupils in the school also practice sisterhood and brotherhood in this way. Sisterhood and brotherhood is not just reaching consensus and acting together. It is also communication: listening deeply and speaking lovingly. We should all train in expressing our sincere appreciation of each other; expressing our regret when we do something hurtful; asking others if we have done anything to hurt them; and expressing mindfully and without blame or resentment when we have been hurt.

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You may say this is wonderful but it is unrealistic. Yet others have done it and you should make your best effort for the sake of the planet Earth. I have faith in it and I will go on singing my song until this body disintegrates — and the song will continue.

About which programmes you will watch on the television, parents share and children share. If we do decide to watch a programme that is not wholesome, it is not the end of the world, but having watched it we share how it affected each one of us. What seeds were watered, how tired or otherwise we felt afterwards.

Our Contribution to a Global Ethic

There are more than 84,000 things we can choose from to do to save this planet Earth from global warming, from toxic wastes, from running out of drinking water — we have to choose for our own community what is realistic. We do as much as we can and we learn from what other communities are doing but we do not force our ideas on other communities. We encourage them to do what is best for the planet in the context of the appropriateness of their own situation. This is the practice of the Third of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, “Freedom of Thought” [see below].

Once we embark on this path, we feel safe. We are living in a time where the challenges are great, but we face the challenge with compassion and resolution. Knowing that we are doing our best we do not despair. Our minds are at peace and if our efforts to save our planet fail, we will accept to offer up the merit of what we have done for a new civilization that could arise millions of years from now. After all, all civilizations are impermanent. In past lives we have died with our civilization and in future lives we shall die with our civilization. The important thing is the heritage we leave behind us with the actions of our body, speech, and mind.

The Mindfulness Trainings are there to guide us. They are our contribution to a global ethic. They are a living reality. They come alive when we bring them into our daily life. Every day new situations will arise for us to find new ways to put the Mindfulness Trainings into practice. When we see the different situations that arise we shall know how to revise the Trainings every twenty years. The cultural and social situation is constantly changing. There are new challenges that arise and need to be faced. The spirit of the Trainings is clear and they need to be appropriately worded in order to help guide us in the new challenges that are arising.

Buddha Shakyamuni said this clearly, “Ananda, the minor precepts should be revised according to the culture and the time.” When Ananda reported this to the elders, they asked, “But Ananda, did the Buddha say what are the minor precepts? Which precepts specifically can be revised?” Ananda said no and as a result no one ever revised the monastic pratimoksha for 2,600 years. Certain avenues have been opened up by technology that can lead to real corruption of the monastic order, but these cannot be dealt with, because the precepts cannot be changed. When the Buddha said minor precepts he said we can add precepts that are needed because of the time and the culture. We can word precepts in such a way that keeps the spirit of the vinaya but gives concrete guidance where it is needed. The major precepts: not killing, not stealing, keeping celibacy, not lying about our attainments. The minor precepts are there to help us observe the major precepts. If we break them we have not broken the major precepts but we may be on the way to doing so. Technological advances such as the Internet, telephone, and e-mail can be means that take us in the direction of breaking the major precepts. The revised pratimoksha that has been recited and practised in Plum Village and affiliated monasteries since 2000 guide us so that we use these things skillfully in a way that benefits society and our community and not for our corruption as a monk or a nun.

Stopping vs. Acting

We can analyse the Mindfulness Trainings according to the three different actions of body, speech, and mind. We can also analyse them according to the two aspects, stopping and doing. Mindfulness Trainings are not just to remind us to refrain from unskillful actions, they also encourage us to replace unskillful with skillful — in other words, to transform unskillful into skillful energy. If we look at the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we see how the First Training is to stop the principally physical action of killing and replace it with action that protects life. It is mainly a Mindfulness Training encouraging bodily action but in a minor way it includes speech and thought action — “I am determined not to condone any act of killing in my thinking and in my way of life.” We condone by our way of thinking and speaking. At this point, mind and speech action are involved.

Here we can digress a little to see how the aspect of doing has gained importance in the wording of the Plum Village versions of the lay Mindfulness Trainings. In the revised pratimoksha the prescriptive aspect of the Trainings is a little more prominent than in the classical pratimoksha, but it is still of comparatively minor importance. Master Chih I, founder of the Tendai school (late 6) was already discussing Mindfulness Trainings in terms of stopping and acting. He discusses the ten wholesome action trainings (dasakusala-karmani.) These ten trainings that belong to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions include three trainings for body action, four for speech action, and three for mind action. The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are a revolutionary continuation of the ten wholesome trainings. The ten wholesome trainings were as follows:

1. Refraining from killing (stopping)
Protecting life (acting)

2. Not stealing (stopping)
Practicing generosity (acting)

3. Refraining from sexual misconduct (stopping)
Protecting the good name, happiness, respectability and commitments of others and oneself (acting)

4. Not speaking falsehood (stopping)
Speaking of things as they are (acting)

5. Not speaking divisively (stopping)
Speaking constructively and to bring about reconciliation (acting)

6. Not insulting or denigrating others (stopping)
Speaking gently, respectfully and with compassion (acting)

7. Not exaggerating (stopping)
Speaking words that give rise to confidence and respect (acting)

8. Not being carried away by craving (stopping)
Living simply (acting)

9. Refraining from anger and enmity (stopping)
Developing compassion (acting)

10. Not holding on to prejudices, preconceived ideas (stopping)
Being open and ready to exchange ideas (acting)

If we examine these ten traditional trainings and their continuation in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, we shall see that the fifty-fifty stopping and acting ratio has been maintained. What is different in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings is the ratio of trainings concerning mind action in comparison with those concerning speech and body action. At least half of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings concern mind action. The tenth training of the ten has become the first three trainings of the Fourteen.

The Six Harmonies

Our next link is the Six Harmonies or Togethernesses — how to live in harmony with each other. If we analyse these six we shall see that one is for the body, one for speech, and two for mind action. The remaining two are for body, speech, and mind. Here are the Six Harmonies:

  1. The harmony of the body, to perform bodily actions that promote harmony (body).
  2. The harmony of sharing – to share equally and according to need, benefits that accrue to the individual or the Sangha (body, speech, and mind)
  3. The harmony of speech – speech to promote harmony (speech).
  4. The harmony of thought – thought that promotes harmony (mind).
  5. The harmony of views – resolving questions by harmonizing views (mind).
  6. The harmony of the mindfulness trainings the whole community practises the same mindfulness trainings (body, speech, and mind).

Thus we see that mind is involved in four of the harmonies, body in three, and speech in three.

The Six Harmonies are guides to practicing sisterhood and brotherhood. It is clear that mind action is the overriding practice.

What is it that our world needs? The happiness brought about by sisterhood and brotherhood. We need mind action to bring this about. One right thought can heal the person and heal the world. We should give greater emphasis to mind because mind action can also be very harmful. Mind action can be violent and destructive both to the thinker and to the world. How we think matters. Thinking produces karma; it is not only bodily and speech actions that produce karma. Right thinking is a basic need in order for harmony, sisterhood, and brotherhood to be possible. Right thinking can make harmony of the bodily action possible.

The Buddha gave the example that a monk sees a bowl that has not been washed. He thinks to himself: “The owner of the bowl must have been called away on urgent business to help someone. Why do I not wash his bowl for him?” Thinking like that he washes the bowl, feeling joy in his heart. Or the monk thinks: “What scoundrel left his bowl lying here, unwashed?!” And feeling irritated he turns his back on the bowl. Or the monk thinks: “It is not correct practice to leave the bowl unwashed, but there are demanding circumstances. I have time now, let me wash his bowl.” This shows how right thinking makes right action possible and the feeling of joy that comes with right thinking.

Right thinking also makes right speech possible. The Buddha gives this example. Suppose you want to say something to someone in a discussion or meeting. The situation could be delicate and you want to have a positive outcome from your words. So, before speaking you stop and ask yourself: “If I were to say this, would it make the other(s) happy?” Having breathed mindfully you can either feel a near certainty that it will bring happiness or unhappiness (in which case you do not say it) or you feel unsure and in this case you do not say it. The harmony of mind is the way of thought that produces harmony. When we are thinking negatively about a person we are mindful of our thinking and change the thought as we would a television channel we do not want to watch. We change the thought for a positive thought about the other person. That is how to practice harmony of thought.

Harmony of views depends on mind action. When we hear an item on the agenda to be discussed, our mind may immediately have a view about that item. There is nothing wrong about that. We can share our view, but we are not caught in it. We listen to everyone who has a different view. We feel happy when we hear a view that is more sensible than our own, and immediately let go of our view. When we have listened to everyone’s view and we still like our own idea, we ask ourselves what it is that we like about it and try to see how we can synthesize part of our idea to arrive at consensus, only maintaining our own view if we see it is a matter of life and death — a real danger to body or mind could exist if our own idea is not heeded.

Letting Go of a Separate Self

When I first came to Plum Village twenty-four years ago, it was not a practice centre as it is now. Thay and Sister Chan Khong sponsored refugees from the boat people who were held in refugee camps. They stayed here until they were ready to go out into French society and work. I, too, was a refugee from England from a difficult teaching job. Since we were not yet a practice centre we made our living by agriculture. We were quite poor if you compare it to our community now. We did not have the money to mend the roof in the Lower Hamlet and it needed mending. Our cultivation of soya beans, colza, oats, and vegetables was important to us as a source of revenue. Apart from that there was only the one month summer-retreat.

My mind was shocked to see that the cultivation was not organic. Thay taught me to practice the harmony of views, which is also to practice the first three of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I was somewhat surprised that Thay did not agree that we must cultivate our land organically and impose this idea on the other refugees. Thay told me: you must sit down together and decide as a community how you are going to cultivate. We did this and I was the only one who wanted to go organic. When I told Thay he said that if I wished I could make a small organic garden, cultivate a few plum trees organically, and see how it worked. If it worked well it would be a good argument for increasing the percentage of organic cultivation. I still feel strongly sometimes about certain matters, but I remind myself to practice harmony of views and the first of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. If we are not careful, something like organic gardening can become an –ism or ideology rather than a collective action by the community for the common good.

In practicing letting go of our views and perceptions, we are practicing letting go of our separate self. There is no single pair of eyes that can see as clearly as the Sangha eyes. Working with mind consciousness we are beginning to work with manas. Manas is the layer of consciousness that lies below mind consciousness. It is not as conscious as mind consciousness. It has an energy of its own that seldom rests. It is the energy of cogitation. This cogitation produces and preserves a separate self idea. Sometimes in deep sleep manas is inactive, no longer producing the idea of a separate self. On awakening it immediately comes into action, preserving the idea of self. We could explain this as a primitive survival mechanism. We need to ask, is survival possible without the idea of a separate self? If we can wake up and follow our breathing without needing the idea of a separate self, we are safe. We do not need any other survival mechanism.

The Fourth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings also concerns thought action. It concerns not avoiding suffering. It is the natural tendency of manas to run away from suffering and seek pleasure. In transforming this natural tendency we are mindful of cogitation and can transform manas along with its four mental formations of self — self-love, self-ignorance, self-view, and self complex. Self-love is what makes us feel that suffering is bad and fail to see that suffering is necessary and can also be good. The Fourth Training is to learn to face suffering, accept it, and use it as the mud upon which lotuses can grow. The wording of this Training may also be revised to help us see more clearly the interbeing nature of suffering and happiness.

The transformation of manas does not take place through ideas. In the beginning we hear the teachings on no-self, we meditate on them, and we put them into practice. In order to transform manas we have to practice no-self. What better place than in a practice community? Sitting together, walking together we entrust ourselves to the Sangha body. In the case of personal needs we can bring them to the Sangha body. If the Sangha sees fit and possible the Sangha will help. It is by living no-self that we transform manas. The experience will penetrate down into the deeper levels of consciousness but not the intellectual ideas of no-self.

Education as Key

People have conducted surveys in the United States and Europe to find out what percentage of the population lives in a relatively awakened way — caring for the environment, open to multicultural experience, giving importance to a spiritual dimension in life, living simply in order to have time to share with family and follow the pursuits that nourish oneself, devoting time to helping society, wanting to transform self more than demanding that others transform. What percentage of the population would you think lives this way? Somewhere between seventeen and twenty percent. People such as this are open to a global ethic. They want to live in an ethical way but are not interested in political or moral authorities. When we talk of a global ethic we are talking of something that does not belong to any particular creed or faith but can be accepted by anyone whether he has a creed or not. Such people can easily accept the precepts of the Order of Interbeing.

mb51-TheCollective2We are living at an exciting time when our world can either make a turn for the better or continue down the hill for the worse. Let us stand at the junction and direct the traffic by our compassion and inclusiveness and especially by our right thinking. Education will help more than political or moral authority. Education is to discover, to make known, and to participate. In some schools now children participate, growing and cooking their food in the school garden. It is not only children who need education, we all need it, and it is quite possible to educate without imposing our ideas on others. You can tell your children that they cannot watch television or eat junk food but they might go to their friends’ houses and do just that. The question is how to communicate about toxic foods and allow the children to discover for themselves what is harmful for their minds. Some parents have succeeded in following this middle way.

Education takes place in the framework of the Sangha of sisterhood and brotherhood. If parents are able to educate their children in how to watch television healthily, that is because they have the support of Sangha friends and because the children are able to attend retreats and Days of Mindfulness where there is a children’s programme. We educate each other through the wonderful practice of Dharma discussion. What could be more beautiful than the scene at large retreats of many small groups sitting in circles and listening deeply to learn from each other?

Enlightenment is no longer (or was it ever?) an individual matter. The only way we can proceed is as a collective — a Sangha body. We wake up and help others to wake up together. We are a collective  bodhisattva.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, resides in Waldbröl, Germany where she is helping Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

THE FOURTEEN MINDFULNESS TRAININGS

  1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

  1. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment to Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

  1. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

  1. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering

Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.

  1. The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Simple, Healthy Living

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, we are determined not to take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying. We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need. We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, or any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness.

  1. The Sixth Mindfulness Training: Dealing with Anger

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognize and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger.

  1. The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment

Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness.

  1. The Eighth Mindfulness Training: Community and Communication

Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. We will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

  1. The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will not spread news that we do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten our safety.

  1. The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

  1. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood

Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.

  1. The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.

  1. The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. We will practice generosity by sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. We are determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. We will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.

  1. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: Right Conduct

(For lay members): Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, we must be aware of future suffering that may be caused. We know that to preserve the happiness

of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with respect and preserve our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.

(For monastic members): Aware that the aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of worldly love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated by the coming together of two bodies in a sexual relationship, but by the practice of true understanding and compassion. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our life as a monk or a nun, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body or to look upon our body as only an instrument, but to learn to handle our body with respect. We are determined to preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.

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A Frolic Down the Path of the Buddha

By Janelle Combelic

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A Buddhist retreat at Plum Village is unlike any other Buddhist retreat (as far as I know). There’s relatively little sitting meditation, which surprises and disappoints some folks. But there are lots of other forms of meditation — in fact the practice of mindfulness means meditating twenty-four hours a day, no matter what we are doing. The point, of course, is to teach us how to do this in daily life, out in the “real” world.

There are two particularly ingenious methods that Plum Village has devised for teaching the practice of mindfulness. The first is working meditation. At the Path of the Buddha retreat, I was in the francophone family with my friend Pascale and my mentor, Sister Dao Nghiem. Our job for the three-week retreat was to clean the bathrooms in Lower Hamlet. Hence our name: Delicate Fragrance.

Working with people every day, you get to know who likes to scrub every corner and who would rather pick flowers for the sinks. Who has a bad back but doesn’t want to complain. Who stops to chat (and chat and chat), who’s cheerful no matter what, who’s grumpy. Who wants to tell people exactly how to do everything (me) and who on the second day realizes that grown women know how to clean bathrooms and can decide among themselves who’s going to do what (me again).

You learn a lot about other people, but mainly you learn about yourself, in the context of community and activity. Being as how most of us live and work with others, these lessons come in very handy once we return home.

On the Road to Plum Village

The other ingenious device to teach mindfulness on retreat is the skit. Most Vietnamese people love to play; and since their culture was only recently infected with modern technology, they still enjoy old-fashioned homegrown entertainment. So at the end of every retreat there’s a grand performance. Fortunately, we’re doing the performances within each hamlet rather than all 600 of us together. After living together for three weeks, Lower Hamlet feels like one big family.

Which is a good thing, because there’s nothing that brings up people’s neuroses like the idea of performing in public.

Unlike most families, we started working on our skit the very first week. Serge, the one man among twenty-three women (our hamlet hosts women and a few couples), proposed a lovely old French folk song that someone had rewritten into a Plum Village song, “On the Road to Plum Village.” We decided to rewrite the song again with a story about us: arriving at Plum Village all tired and stressed out, then cleaning toilets and showers together, finally finding freedom and happiness.

Working on the song that first week was a blast. A few people did the writing, then Beatrice, a delightful and energetic Swiss woman who could not for the life of her hold a tune, emerged as the director. We formed two choirs who sang back and forth to each other. Sur la route des Pruniers…

At the end of the second week it all turned sour. We’d been rehearsing every day, and had the music down pretty well but were getting tired of it. Hélène, who happens to be a fabulous singer, arrived at the retreat two weeks late. That evening she sat down with the only two people who still wanted to rehearse and she taught them a slightly different version of the tune. And the three of them came up with a new way of performing it.

The next evening after dinner we started to rehearse, and all hell broke loose. Ah non non non! On recommence pas à zéro! No, we’re not starting over, someone huffed and stomped off. Others shook their heads in disgust and did not return from cleaning their dishes. The rest of us regrouped, decided to put the song mostly back the way we had it, and had a great time singing our hearts out and laughing.

The next day we started adding the skit. It had been my bright idea to have actors pantomime what the words were saying. (No one in our audience was going to understand our song, because it was in French! The other 140 retreatants at Lower Hamlet were British, Dutch, German, American, with a few Italians.) From the supply closet by the kitchen, I had collected all kinds of props — new brushes, sponges, mops, spray bottles — all stashed in a suitcase for the first part of the skit.

Retreat Rockettes

Don’t you just wish that after all these years of listening to Dharma talks, meditating, paying therapists, going on retreat — don’t you wish you could stay enlightened for more than thirty seconds at a time? When it came time to create the little skit, just three minutes of pantomime, my ego came out to play. Big time.

Because I had some really good ideas! Brilliant ideas! Every morning and every evening in meditation, in the deep stillness of the meditation hall, it was the first thing that sprang into my mind: Sur la route des Pruniers… I saw our three nuns doing this, and our lay friends doing that in the next verse, and a stupendous finale with everybody dancing… as stunning as the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Enough already! Quiet.

When it came time to rehearse with our family, my overbearing enthusiasm was not well received. Beatrice was a little miffed that I had wrenched all the fun stuff away from her. And the actors never managed to come together at the same time: Andréa got sick, Géraldine had to make an emergency trip to care for a friend, Josslyn had somewhere else to be after Dharma discussion. But the obvious reason that it didn’t come together is that it was supposed to be a collaboration. Silly me.

Day after day, I dealt with my feelings and frustrations — looking deeply in meditation, stepping back when rehearsals weren’t going well, letting go, letting go.

Thank goodness the performance was pushed back to Thursday. On Tuesday Sister Dao Nghiem, who had left us to our own devices, initiated a rehearsal. The two groups sullenly stood facing each other in a semicircle and half-heartedly sang: Sur la route des Pruniers… The nuns walked through the center as we had scripted. The actors feebly acted out our part. With only a little squabbling in the middle, we limped to the finale.

Sister Dao Nghiem calmly admonished us to relax a little bit and have fun. Then she redesigned the ending, adding some peaceful walking in pairs rather than our manic scurrying and jumping. We performed it a few more times but our hearts weren’t in it.

I Have an Idea!

The big day came. We rehearsed before dinner, but it wasn’t going very well. I was disgusted with myself for getting so hung up on the whole thing, for not being able to communicate my ideas effectively, and especially because my magnificent finale had been scrapped.

Finally I decided to just throw myself into it. What did I have to lose? I banished my ego once and for all and joined in the fun. We were nervous, we were excited, we were enjoying ourselves again.

Then Hélène said, “Attendez, j’ai une idée! Wait, I have an idea!” We all screamed. She was joking of course. Béatrice suggested next time we do a skit we should call it “I have an idea!” We all laughed; we knew exactly what she meant.

That night in the meditation hall we were one of the last acts to perform. There were five or six before us, all funnier and more inspired than the last. The pot-washing family pounded tubs and pans for an energetic percussion piece, accompanied by nuns and laywomen waving big pot lids in a traditional Vietnamese hat dance. The vegetable-chopping family did a skit about having to work in silence (Delicate Fragrance conveniently forgot about the practice of silent working meditation).

When it came our turn, yes, you guessed it — we pulled it off! Our fellow retreatants laughed and clapped along to our silly song. We exited the stage area breathless, joyful, eminently pleased with ourselves.

Someone from another family later remarked on how much harmony there was in our family. We laughed our heads off when we heard that.

But there was harmony. A far deeper harmony than when we started. During the worst of it, when some people disappeared from the family for a day or two and our dinners together were glum, Sister Dao Nghiem told us that harmony does not mean the absence of conflict. You can have differences — in a community there will always be differences — but still you have harmony because you care about one another. You want it to work, so you do whatever it takes.

In fact, I believe those very difficulties are what knit the community into a harmonious whole. How else would we get to know one another deeply, to know ourselves?

That’s why Thay says he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven where there’s no suffering. It’s in those cracks that healing occurs. It’s when our heart breaks that we learn how to love.

That’s the whole point of the skit — aside from motivating us to relax and play, us Westerners who can take the whole thing so seriously. It’s fi to feel peaceful and loving when you’re sitting on a cushion or walking in the woods or eating with friends in silence. But try to do something together and that’s where the real practice begins.

Those are the lessons that I’ve taken home with me, and put to use in my daily life — humility, joy, Sur la route des Pruniers…

mb52-AFrolic2Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, practices with Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado.

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Practicing in Uncertain Times

By Bethany Klug

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Uncertain economic times can bring up difficult emotions and challenge our practice. Mindfulness practice can decrease our stress and help us see opportunities that we might otherwise miss. Here are a few tips to keep our practice on track.

Dwell in the present moment. Certainty is a notion that causes suffering, as all things—even human-made things like companies, stock markets, and jobs—are born, change form, and die. This is impermanence. Dwelling in the present moment increases our awareness of how things change, and lessens our surprise or shock when they do.

Let go of external definitions. We suffer when we define ourselves by our job or possessions. If we lose them, we feel worthless. Identifying with our job or possessions prevents us from being happy and free. Letting go of external definitions of ourselves and enjoying the fullness of the present moment, we can lose our job, possessions, and even everything we cherish, and still be happy and free.

Nourish peace and joy. Often, letting go means confronting difficult feelings and perceptions. We must be sure to nourish our peace and joy to avoid feeling overwhelmed. This could be as simple as appreciating birdsong in the morning or fireflies at night. How is it possible to enjoy anything in difficult times? The Buddha taught that the mind is a field of seeds where wholesome and unwholesome states exist side by side. We make unwholesome seeds stronger by giving them the wrong kind of attention, such as obsessing or worrying over them. Tough emotions invade our consciousness like a pop-up window on a website. By returning our attention to our breath and a more neutral feeling—such as the freshness of the morning—we can close the pop-up window and shift to a more wholesome mind state. Once we feel stronger, we may consciously re-open the pop-up and look more deeply into the feelings that arise from it.

Empower yourself. We may feel powerless amidst the news of plants closing, the Gulf oil spill, and home foreclosures, unless we recognize that the economy is a manifestation of our collective mind. Since our thoughts and actions create our economy, they can change it for the better. This is empowering. Each of us can pick an area of the economy we’d like to improve and change our relationship to it. For instance, I don’t like the impact of industrial agriculture on our health or the planet’s, so I buy my food from local organic farmers and grow a garden. Last year I built a root cellar, stocked it with squash and root vegetables, fermented vegetables, and canned using low temperature methods. I didn’t need to shop for vegetables until March.

Looking deeply into the Fifth Mindfulness Training, mindful consumption, helps us see ways to create a more equitable and sustainable economy. We have the power and the responsibility to change our situation. If we don’t, who will?

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Be sure to practice! When life gets stressful, it’s easy to resonate with that stress and do things that make it worse. Instead of taking a mindful walk after dinner or attending a Sangha gathering, we might watch bad economic news on TV, becoming so consumed in fear and anxiety that we miss that fact that we’ve eaten a bag of chips or cookies—leaving us more depressed and five pounds heavier! With deep intention and awareness we can turn off the TV or other source of bad news, and do what nourishes our happiness, peace, and joy.

Many years ago, my teacher, Brother Chan Huy, suggested the profoundly beneficial practice of reciting the wake-up gatha each morning upon rising and the gatha on impermanence before going to sleep. The wake-up gatha helps us touch joy and affirms our aspiration to live in an awakened way before our feet even touch the ground. The gatha on impermanence reminds us that another day has passed, and encourages us to reflect on our practice “so that life does not drift away without meaning.”

Wake-up Gatha
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

Gatha on Impermanence
The day is now ended.
Our lives are shorter.
Let us look carefully,
What have we done?
Noble Sangha, with all of our heart,
Let us be diligent,
Engaging in the practice.
Let us live deeply,
Free from our afflictions,
Aware of impermanence,
So that life does not drift away without meaning.

mb55-Practicing3Bethany Klug, The Practice of True Emptiness, convenes the Heartland Community of Mindful Living along with her husband David, True Wonderful Lamp (pictured). They reside in Kansas City with their spiritual director, Shanti the Cat.

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The Love of a Mother

By Bettina Romhardt

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“A mother’s life is not confined to her alone. She is the starting point of life that unfolds into the infinite future. With this in mind, a mother should be careful in thoughts, choice of words and behavior, and live her life with reverence.”
– Shundo Aoyama, a Japanese Zen priest

The love of a mother is highly valued in different religions and cultures. It is often evoked as the highest expression of unconditional and selfless love. Many mothers share that they hadn’t experienced this kind of devotion before giving birth to a child. In the Discourse on Love, we find: “Just as a mother protects and loves her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos.” Yet many mothers don’t appreciate that motherhood can be a kind of spiritual training, a path to explore love and to learn true love.

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I became a mother one year after I left Plum Village, where I had lived in Lower Hamlet for five years. I’d made a big change from life in an international community to life within a small family. For me, giving birth was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and our son Jonathan filled my husband Kai and me with love and amazement. My husband and I had both lived in Plum Village before our marriage, and as a married couple we continued to live a life centered in the practice, but I could not appreciate being a mother. I was used to offering my time, energy, and care to the members and guests of the Sangha, and now I found myself caring for one little being, twenty-four hours a day. It felt somehow narrow.

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It took time to discover that I was being asked to cultivate and strengthen the same qualities I had practiced in Plum Village: presence, discipline, patience, kindness, devotion, and letting go. One night when I got out of bed to tend to Jonathan, I remembered how much I had appreciated getting up to greet guests when they arrived late at night at the Lower Hamlet. I smiled, seeing that life always asks us to respond to what is needed in this very moment in whatever form it appears, no more, no less. In the faces of mothers and fathers I met, I began to see their dedication and effort, their steadiness and generosity, their tiredness and exhaustion, and I felt much appreciation and compassion for them.

Looking Deeply at Motherhood

But amazingly, when I looked more deeply, I saw many mothers who could not appreciate themselves as mothers, or who appreciated themselves very little, and I began to wonder why this was so. One aspect is that our modern society doesn’t really value being “just a mother,” but there are also inner attitudes that contribute. One is the ideal of the “perfect” mother as a source of never-ending energy for her children, which is very hard to live up to and can lead to feeling “never good enough.” There are many such ideals, personal and collective, transmitted to us by our mothers, grandmothers, ancestors, and society. We need awareness of these expectations to be able to relax into the challenges of daily life with loving kindness towards ourselves and acceptance of our limitations.

Listening to mothers talking to one other, I also discovered that about eighty percent of their conversation is about the life, growth, and development of their children, and very little of it is about how they themselves are growing as mothers and what they are learning about themselves. Becoming a mother seems so natural that there is often little awareness about what it really means in one’s personal life and growth. It is very beneficial to look at this.

After offering days of mindfulness for families for some years, I started to offer retreats for mothers so that they could take time and space to deeply look into motherhood. In guided meditations we look into what we have learned as mothers, what we have given to our children, and what they have given to us. One participant said, “I learned with my children something I could not accept before: that I can’t control life. With my children I constantly need to let go of my plans and see my needs as only one part of the whole picture.” Another said, “I feel so challenged to develop patience, seeing my daughter forgetting her jacket here and there.” Just by giving attention, mothers see so many of the wholesome qualities they have cultivated. Joy, appreciation, confidence, and strength grow out of this awareness. If I appreciate and love myself as a mother, appreciation and love for my child can flow naturally.

Another common concern among mothers is finding time and energy to practice a spiritual path. A frequent comment is “I am often too tired for sitting meditation.” A mother of a young child cannot spend hours in sitting meditation, but we are challenged to cultivate and strengthen qualities of heart and mind, which we often attempt to do in extended retreats. In our tradition, we are invited to practice twenty-four hours a day, and we will not find any place or time on earth that doesn’t allow us to practice being mindful. But we need to take care of ourselves and restore our energy in order to sustain and strengthen the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

“Mama, You Can Go Rest”

To take time “just for myself ” is often challenging for a mother. I need to look deeply to see that by respecting myself, I respect my child. Every hour of every day, I transmit everything to my child: my joy, irritation, contentment, sadness, the way I talk, the way I think or handle my emotions. Of course, parents want to offer the best to their children—the best food, the best kindergarten, and the best school—but they also need to keep in mind Thay’s teaching that the best we can offer is our true presence and our own happiness.

The practice of stopping to care for myself and my child is crucial. If I stop and take three breaths, I can come back to myself and remember, “I am here for me and I am here for you.” When I am in touch with myself, I feel my true needs and learn to take care of them. I need to nourish myself with the same wholesome nutriments I feed my child. In my experience, children understand and support our efforts to do this. When Jonathan grew old enough to no longer need a nap in the afternoon, I told him that I still needed this time to stop and renew myself. Nowadays he sometimes tells me, “Mama, you can go rest.” We need creativity to find time for our true needs and we need discipline to take care of them.

It is wonderful to sit in a circle of mothers, sharing our joy and pain, our experiences and questions. Let us create circles of mothers to support one other on the path of learning true love for ourselves, our children, and all beings.

mb56-TheLove4Bettina Romhardt, Tree of True Awakening, is a Dharma teacher practicing with her son Jonathan (7), her husband Kai, and the Sangha  Zehlendorf/Berlin.

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