Dharma Talk: Knowing We Have Enough

A Dharma Talk by Sister Annabel
At Maple Forest Monastery, June 25, 2002
Photography by Jan Mieszczanek

This is enough, I know it well.
This is enough, I don’t need more.
The call of the bird
In the bleak gray sky
Is the bright pink rose in a sea of green.
This is enough.
I thought I needed more
But now I know I am so rich.
My teacher, my Sangha,
Are precious jewels.
Every moment a gem, alive or dead.
Health and sickness are precious gifts,
Doors of the practice for all to learn.
The great living beings are always there
To guard and to guide and bring us home.
You are enough, you know it well.
No need to do more, just come back home!
All that you want is already there,
Breathe and take a step to see your home!


Dear Sangha, today is the 25th of June in the year 2002, and we are in the Buddha Hall of the Maple Forest Monastery.

This morning I tried to find a new way to walk up to the Buddha Hall from where I was sleeping, and I lost myself in the heart of the forest! I was thinking, that I should not arrive in time for the sitting meditation that morning and maybe not even for the Dharma talk! I would go a certain distance and then I would have to turn back because the path was blocked by many wild rasp-berry brambles. Suddenly, my mind became very still. I did not know why, it just happened like that. I looked  up,  and  I  saw  the  Buddha Hall. I was just below it. That experience showed me that I often think that what is going on in my mind is disconnected from what is happening in the world. I perceive something outside of my mind. But now I see that the Buddha Hall is also in my mind, and the Buddha Hall symbolizes quiet and peace. When my mind is quiet and peaceful, then the Buddha Hall manifests itself. The hall was so beautiful with the white roof against the blue sky and the sun shining on it through the trees.

Dear Sangha, the practice of tri tuc in Vietnamese, means knowing we have enough. This has become a Buddhist practice, but in fact it was taught by Confucius. Confucius said that the important thing is to know that we have enough. The expression used by Confucius has the Chinese word tri meaning to know, to have understanding, or wisdom. Knowing when we have enough is wisdom. As long as we think that we do not have enough, we shall not have enough. When we know that we have enough, we have enough.

As a Buddhist practitioner, whether monk, nun, layman, or laywoman, knowing enough is an important part of the practice. In the Christian tradition when people take what is called the vow of poverty, it also means knowing enough. This practice belongs at least to Confucianism and Christianity as well as to Buddhism. It is a practice that our world needs very much at this moment.

Knowing enough is not just knowing enough materially – which is very important – but knowing enough spiritually and emotionally, too. Knowing that we have enough materially is based on knowing that we have enough emotionally and spiritually. Often it is an emotional need which craves more material things. Our craving comes from the feeling of insecurity rather than from a material need. That is why we have to practice mindfulness of our emotions in order to reach the root of our desire for material things. I wrote a very simple song about knowing enough. (see above)

When I feel discontent I need to look deeply at my discontent in my daily life. To do this I practice sitting still. As I sit still I begin to feel satisfied with the richness of my life. It is a very gray day with no sunshine, and I could think that the gray sky is not enough, and I need to have the sunshine. I hear the bird call through the sky, and I see that the gray sky is quite enough. The gray sky holds the call of the bird. And although the sky is so gray, there’s a pink rose, it’s very bright, and the grass is very green. The gray sky shows up the pink rose and the green grass. So I feel grateful for the gray sky. Looking deeply I see that the blue sky is always behind the gray sky. So I say to myself, “Well, this is quite enough.”

My thinking in the past made me say, “I need more.” But now I understand that I’m a very rich person already. I have an enlightened, awakened person to be my teacher, to show me the way. I have the Buddha, and all the ancestral teachers. I have my Sangha. It’s the most precious thing. One reason why my Sangha, my teacher, and my ancestral teachers are so precious is because they have taught me to be able to dwell in the present moment. The present moment becomes a most wonderful gem. Every moment is a gem.

The Treasures of Sickness and Death

I could think that when someone I love dies, I don’t have enough, because I have lost the person I love. But when I live deeply the present moment, I know that without death I cannot possibly be alive. When you walk through the forest, and see the dead leaves making room for the green leaves, it is so clear. In Australia, in forests of a special kind of eucalyptus, the seeds will only open and the new trees will grow when they are subjected to intense heat. So the forest fire makes the new forest possible. Without death there cannot be life, for death is something very precious. Death is a precious gem.

In my Buddhist meditation I have learned to look deeply into my fear of death, sickness, and old age. When I say that health and sickness are precious gifts, it’s because so many people who have come to me and have been sick have told me that it is the most precious thing that has happened to them. When we stand on the outside and we look in, without the experience of the people who tell us that, we say, “How can they say that ill-health is the most precious thing?” But that is what people have said to me. When I have been sick I have always been happy to be well again. Having been sick is an opportunity for me to appreciate good health and a wonderful opportunity to begin anew my life anew.

In the past people said that children have to be sick with measles, mumps, chicken pox, to develop an immunity to these diseases and not contract them when they were older when it would be much more serious. Today scientists have developed vaccines so that it is not necessary to go through the sickness in order to be immunized. Since scientists have seen the suffering they have compassion and do not want it to continue any longer. Without suffering there cannot be compassion and without compassion there cannot be happiness. When we know how to practice when we’re sick, then sickness can become a very precious gift. Although the experience brings us painful feelings we learn so much about ourselves and the great beings are always there to guard and to guide and to bring us home.


Faith in the Great Beings

I have faith that there are always great beings, the bodhisattvas, and I have that faith partly because I’ve recognized that in myself and all members of my sangha there’s a bodhisattva.  The doctors in Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, are bodhisattvas. They do not confine themselves to helping people in their own country, but go to the countries where there’s the least medical supply, the least favorable circumstances for curing disease. There are also teachers without frontiers. Somewhere in the world there are always great beings who can show me how to love and understand. In myself there is also that great being, although it has not yet flowered fully.

You Are Enough

You are enough, you know it well! We think that we are not enough yet. We have to be something better. We have to go somewhere, do something in order to be enough. We don’t think we are enough just as we are. Not only do we have to know that this is enough, we have to know that I am enough, or you are enough. That is also a kind of wisdom.

In Buddhism one of the doors of liberation is called wishlessness or aimlessness. It means I know that I’m enough. We have the tendency to think, “If I could do more I would be enough, I would be better. I have to be doing more all the time!” But no, we have to say that I am enough already. You don’t need to do in order to be enough. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do, right now. We’ve been taught, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But our teacher in Plum Village says, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Our teacher has also told us how to look deeply into what is called our habit energy. My habit energy wants me to do something, to do more. He asks us to look where that habit comes from. It partly comes from what we have been taught and it is also handed down to us from our ancestors in our consciousness.

Transforming Our Habit Energy

In Buddhism we say we do not only receive our body from our ancestors, we also receive our consciousness, because our body and our consciousness interare. Our consciousness is part of our body and our body is part of our consciousness. We inherit so much more than our bodies from our ancestors. We inherit habit energy and consciousness. Maybe our habit energy to do something comes from a time when our ancestors needed to work very hard. If I imagine that I have come from Europe to New England, and I was one of the first settlers, I would probably have to work very hard in order to be able to have enough to survive. I have to plant this, I have to store this, I have to prepare this, in order to have enough for the winter. So taking care of the future in order to survive would become a very important internal formation with me. In times of suffering and stress, we create internal formations, knots in our consciousness, which we can hand on to future generations if we don’t know how to untie those knots.

Here is an example. Plum Village is our practice center in France. Every year there is a retreat that lasts for a month. Many, many families come and practice together, children and parents. We teach the children, “When you’re angry, don’t say anything, don’t do anything. Just breathe deeply, because if you say or do something you may regret it afterwards.” Some of the children, especially those who have come every year, learn how to do that. When they feel anger come up in them they can close their eyes and breathe deeply. Closing the eyes is an important point, because as long as you look at the person who is making you angry, it waters the seed of your anger. So you close your eyes, close your ears, close everything, close your thinking, just breathe.


In one family, the young boy had many difficulties with his father. This difficulty probably arose because his father came from a different culture than the culture the boy had been brought up in. His father had the tendency to be angry whenever the boy fell down and hurt himself. The son would say, “ I can understand my father being angry if I do something wrong, but I can’t understand my father being angry when I have done nothing wrong.” He thought that a good father would take pity on him and help him when he fell down. So he had a strong internal formation about his father.


One day at the retreat the boy was with his younger sister. She was playing in the hammock with another little girl and the hammock tipped and they fell out. When his little sister hit the ground she cut her head and it was bleeding. The brother was standing nearby and he saw all this, and he felt very angry. He wanted to shout at her, “How stupid! Aren’t you big enough to know better?” But fortunately, he had learned to shut his eyes when he was angry. He breathed, and he walked away from the scene. He thought the best thing he could do was move away from the scene while other people took care of his little sister.

He walked into the forest slowly, he looked into his situation to realize the truth of what was happening, and he saw that this anger was his father’s anger. He didn’t want to be angry, but he was angry because he had inherited that habit energy. He then realized that the reason his father was angry with him when he fell down was because his grandmother or grandfather used to be angry with his father when his father fell and hurt himself. No one in the family had yet managed to transform this habit energy. The young boy saw that if he was not careful, when he had his own children, he would be the same, and after him his children would continue to be the same. If he could transform this habit energy in himself he would not have to hand it on to his own children. He also wanted to talk to his father about the understanding he had come to that day. When he was able to talk to his father he was able to become his father’s friend.

With mindfulness practice we can undo the knots we receive from our ancestors.   When we undo those knots we do it not only for our self, but we do it for our ancestors, because our ancestors are still alive in us, and we are their continuation. It is a simple, and essential part of our practice.

There’s no need to do any more in order to be enough. We can undo the knots of always having to be doing something. We practice for our ancestors, but we also do it for our descendants, for our children and our grandchildren. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do.

When we can be with nature, we realize how precious it is, and we automatically take good care of our environment, preserving nature. Every morning before breakfast in the Green Mountain Dharma Center Sister Susan sits outside contemplating the mountainous scenery. It does not matter what the weather is like; rain, snow and wind may come but she is still there. For her that is a time of being. She is there for the mountains and the mountains are there for her. Someone who is as close to nature as that will never take thoughtless measures which will harm the environment. Our ancestors, who had more time to be, did not behave thoughtlessly towards the environment. When we are too busy to be with nature we do not recognize how precious it is, and therefore we are not in a position to preserve the ecology of our planet earth.

Where is My Home?

You don’t need to do any more. Just come back home. A Plum Village motto is, “I have arrived, I am home.” You might like to ask, “Where is my home?”

One time the Brahmins in India came to the Buddha and they said, “In our religion we aspire to live with the Brahma, the creator-god. Can you teach us how to do that?”

So the Buddha asked them a question. He said, “What are the qualities of Brahma?”

They answered, “The qualities of Brahma are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.”


The Buddha told them, “If Brahma is practicing loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, and you want to live with Brahma, you will have to do the same. When you practice loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity you will already be living with Brahma.” These four qualities are called the Brahmaviharas the abodes of Brahma, and that is the address of Brahma.

The Buddha also has the qualities of compassion, love, joy and equanimity. The address of Brahma is also the address of the Buddha. In a place where these qualities abound we feel completely secure and our true home is where we feel secure. To help us develop love and joy we have to practice mindfulness. To practice mindfulness is to be able to live the present moment with deep awareness.

The Greatest Security

We have a deep insecurity. It makes us feel that we are not at home here and now, that here and now is not safe. We have to invest in the future. We have to safeguard to make sure that the future is okay, and then we’ll be secure. We sacrifice here and now for security in the future. If we look deeply at the world as it is, is there really any security? Can we guarantee our security for the future? Can anyone guarantee that security? If we look deeply we see they can’t. Do you know anybody who doesn’t die? We tell ourselves maybe, “Oh, I won’t ever die!” Do you know anyone who’s never, ever been sick? I think it would be difficult to find that person. Is there anybody who doesn’t day by day get a little bit older? All these things hap-

pen. They are the truth. They are the reality. We have to accept that.

With mindfulness we recognize that, “All that I cherish, everyone I love, is of the nature to change, and we cannot avoid being separated from each other.” That’s true. Nothing is secure. We know we have to be separated from our loved ones, and when we meditate deeply like that, it has a very positive effect. It is not negative at all. The positive effect is that we see that our loved ones will not be always be here, and so we love them even more.  We do our best for them today because we know that tomorrow may be too late.

When we practice the meditation on loving kindness we aspire first of all, “May I be happy, peaceful and light in my body and my spirit. Then we meditate: “May the one I love live in safety and security.” Finally we aspire: “May the one who has made me suffer be happy, peaceful and light in body and in spirit. We wish for all beings that they live in safety and security, because we know that is our deepest desire. We see clearly that if it is my deepest desire to be safe and secure, it must be the desire of other beings. Even of the tiny little ant.

The other day an ant crawled onto my toothbrush. I was not very happy with that ant. I wanted to clean my teeth, but there was an ant caught up in the bristles of my toothbrush! Probably there was something sweet in the toothbrush. So I banged my toothbrush rather hard to knock the ant out, and the ant fell out of the toothbrush and was quite dizzy. The ant went around and around in circles as if it was dizzy. I looked at that ant and I suddenly remembered that that morning when I woke up I had said a little poem to myself, and that poem had gone something like,

Morning, noon, and night,
all you little insects,
Please look out for yourselves.
If by chance
I happen to step on you by mistake
May you be reborn
in a pure land of great happiness.

I suddenly thought, I said that poem this morning and what did I do here? Knocked the ant till it became dizzy! I looked at the ant and I breathed on it, saying the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and the ant said to me, “Did I really deserve to get a knock on the head like that, for crawling onto your toothbrush?” When I heard the ant say that, I had to say, “Of course you didn’t deserve it at all.” It’s very clear that even the little ants want to have safety and security. So I make a deep wish, “May all beings be in safety and security.”

The chant on happiness goes, “Although there is birth, old age and sickness, now that I have a path of practice, I have nothing to be afraid of.” The greatest security is the practice of mindfulness. I am secure because I know what I am doing, so that I’m less likely to have accidents. But accidents can always happen, even if I know what I am doing. That is part of my karma, part of the fruition of my actions, that things will not always go right. But, since I have the practice, even when things go wrong I have a kind of security. That is the security that I wish for all beings to have.


Enjoying Conscious Breathing

That is my home, the practice of mindfulness, to be in the here and the now. If I can enjoy my breathing, I am in my true home, my Brahmavihara, my Buddhavihara. Why do I practice conscious breathing? Is it because the teacher says I have to? Is it because the Buddha says people have to practice conscious breathing? Is that why I practice it? Or do I practice my conscious breathing because I enjoy it? I feel that conscious breathing is to be enjoyed.


One time when some of the monks were not practicing correctly, the disciple Ananda said to the Buddha, “They practice the wrong path that has brought them much suffering and brought the Sangha much suffering.” The Buddha said, “Ananda, did no one tell them how to enjoy their breathing?” Because the Buddha had so many disciples, he could not be with them all.  It was up to the eldest students like Ananda to show the younger students how to enjoy their breathing.

When we enjoy our breathing we do not expect a result in the future, because we already have the result right now. It is the same with our mindful steps; stepping into the present moment we have the result right now. We enjoy it right now. All that you want is already there. Breathe, and take a step, to see that you’re home.

This is enough. We see everyone we love, and everything we cherish as very precious, because we know that it will not always be there. As far as relative time and space are concerned they will not always be there. With conscious breathing we look even deeper and we recognize our loved ones in new forms. They just change their appearance, like the water. You may say, “Oh, my dear cloud, you’ve gone,” but in fact the cloud is still there in the rain. You go to the lake in the early morning when the sun begins to rise, you see the mists are evaporating from the surface of the lake, and that is yesterday’s rain going back to be today’s cloud again. No increase and no decrease is the teaching of the Prajnaparamita and that is why what we have is enough.

Sister True Virtue (Sister Annabel) is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Jan Mieszczanek practices photography in her homeland of Poland. She says, “I met Thay one lazy, warm and sunny day. I was sitting in my garden and I was reading Peace is every step. That was a five years ago. Today I take a lot from Buddhism. I try to help the people around me, including myself, my two daughters, and my grandson to find happiness.”

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Loving the Whole

Reflections on Touching the Earth

Leslie  Rawls

Mist drifted across the Pacific mountain meadow as Sister Chan Khong’s voice guided several hundred retreatants in the practice of Touching the Earth beneath towering redwoods. It was 1993 and my first encounter with a practice I came to treasure: The Five Touchings of the Earth. This beautiful practice has transformed my ability to offer love and understanding to myself and others in ways I never dreamed possible.


Touching the Earth involves two parts: a guided meditation and a yogic posture of physical prostrations. The prostrations are a kneeling bow with your forehead on the floor, hands alongside your head. The physical prostrations deepen and enrich the practice for  me,  but  in  our Sangha and on our small retreats, I invite people who are not comfortable with the postures — for physical or other reasons — to experience the practice as a guided sitting meditation.

We begin in a standing posture and practice mindful breathing to center ourselves for a few breaths. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Then, we begin the guided meditation portion of the practice by focusing our attention on a different aspect within us for each touching, and standing with this awareness for a few moments before we move into full prostrations and continue the meditative focus. In my experience, even those who begin with some skepticism taste a deeply moving connection and wholeness through this practice. It may help to schedule time so the touchings are followed by Noble Silence or sitting meditation in order to allow each practitioner to absorb the experience.

In the first three prostrations, we touch our roots – first the roots of our blood ancestors in ourselves, then the roots of our spiritual ancestors, and finally the roots of our land ancestors. In the last two touchings, we send the positive energy of our ancestors, first to those we love – including ourselves – and finally, to those who we believe have caused us harm.

Each of the first three touchings presents both joy and challenge. For example, part of my blood ancestry is deeply rooted in the American South.  I descended from people who moved from Massachusetts in the mid-1700s. It is possible this white branch of my ancestors participated in slavery; I know they fought in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.  Of course, I do not defend or condone the cruelty and degradation of slavery, bigotry and hatred, but these things are present in my blood ancestry. In Touching the Earth, I accept and acknowledge both the beauties of my ancestry and this shameful heritage, so that I can undertake to transform it in my life. This practice connects me in a loving way with both the positive and the negative aspects of all my ancestors. I see they suffered and I see how their suffering spilled over to others, including me. With this acceptance I am ready to transform the suffering and to cultivate the positive qualities of my ancestors in my own life.

Touching our Ancestors

The first touching invites us to connect with our blood ancestors, recent and ancient. I have long seen my late father when I looked in the mirror or at my hands. But this practice invites me to touch him in a completely different way – not to see myself as a finished person with a physical resemblance, but to find my father directly in every cell of my body, in my breath, in my entire being. In Touching the Earth, I experience the truth that I am part of the stream of life, not a finished product that stands alone.

Some people feel a lot of pain around their blood family. This first touching can help heal that pain, but for a few of us, the pain is so strong that it is extremely difficult to touch our parents’ presence in us this way. When our parents were physically or sexually abusive, a gentler approach may allow our awareness of this root to unfold more slowly and lovingly. Perhaps it is best to skip a generation or choose another relative to focus on as we begin to take up this practice. We could touch our grandparents or an aunt of uncle who offered us love. If even this approach is not possible, the practitioner may try to connect with themselves as small children, and slowly move into awareness of our blood relatives as children rather than as adults who frightened, shamed and hurt us.

Touching my second root – my spiritual ancestors – I connect with many teachings of love and compassion. Throughout my life, I have been blessed by connecting with beautiful, living spiritual teachers. I am fortunate that my childhood church focused on love and service to others. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These were my first lessons in treating others with love and respect, taught both in my home and in the church. Very specific faces come into my mind as I touch my spiritual roots – faces of people I have known, loved, and respected. Some are people who are in a teaching position with respect to me – Thay, my church ministers, Sunday School teachers, and so forth. Some are more my peers – my Order of Interbeing brothers and sisters, my Sangha-mates here in North Carolina, my friends in many other spiritual practices. Some people lived before my time or are strangers to me – Martin Luther King Jr., Mary Magdalene, Abraham’s wife Sarah, Meher Baba, and so forth. Some are even children. And my spirituality is deeply rooted in what I have learned from all of them, and they are each part of the spiritual energy of my daily life.

Thay has encouraged us to recognize that perhaps those who taught us in our root spiritual tradition made mistakes, that they were not always able to transmit the teachings well. In this touching, we are encouraged to forgive this very human limitation and see the positive qualities offered by these ancestors, transmitted in the teachings that have nourished us. As we reach back through the stream to see our connection to spiritual teachers from earlier times, we connect with the spirit of love and compassion, the heart of the teachings transmitted to us. We see these teachings as present in our teachers and through them, in us. These ancestors touch us not through our blood, but through our tender hearts.


The third touching brings us in contact with our land ancestors – those who built our homes and schools, those who help feed us, and so forth. I always feel enormous gratitude in this touching. While I find the American Confederacy in my blood family, here I connect with the slaves of the American South and recognize how much they are part of me, and I am grateful. I see my friends and colleagues who work to preserve the Earth and its bountiful life. I am aware of the many hands that work to put food on my table and nourish me. I see the migrant farmworkers who pick the fruits and vegetables. I remember that many of them are children. In my touching, I feel deep gratitude for their efforts. I know that I have been nourished by their sweat and their tears, as well as the fruits of their labor. I see the hands of the farmworkers in the food I eat and also, in my whole being. Truly, they are me and I am them.

Reaching Out

When we connect deeply with these three roots, our hearts brim with the loving, wholesome qualities of each. We naturally begin to reach out, and with the fourth touching, we consciously share this energy with those we love. Sister Chan Khong adds “including my own small self,” when she leads this meditation. It’s a beautiful reminder that we need the love, too, and in my experience, an important part of this fourth touching.

A curious aspect of the fourth touching is that we may find ourselves sending love to ancestors we touched in one or more of the first three prostrations. My mother is present in this touching as well as each of the three earlier touchings. The “stream” becomes circular and our interconnectedness even more apparent and beautiful.

Some people like to add another touching, in the spirit of the metta meditations, and send this energy to one for whom we have neutral feelings. This can be a very powerful method to transform neutral feelings into positive, loving ones. What a wonderful way to enhance our daily interactions and promote peace in the world.

As many of us might expect, the last touching can be the trickiest: offering wholesome, loving energy to one who has caused us harm. But the more we work with this practice, the more spacious our hearts become and the better able we are to offer love to even this difficult person. In her book, Learning True Love, Sister Chan Khong writes of difficulty with a bureaucrat when she was working with the School of Youth for Social Services in Vietnam. She tells of reminding herself that even he was a “buddha-to-be,” although, she says, “a difficult buddha-to-be.” I smiled when I read this the first time, knowing that I had encountered my own “difficult buddhas-to-be” and even been one myself, no doubt. It’s a true and useful reminder that perhaps can help us defuse anger or frustration we might feel toward someone with whom we experience difficult relations. Thinking of him or her as a buddha-to-be, though perhaps a difficult one, can help our hearts begin to open wide enough to include this person.

Over time, as our practice deepens, we clearly experience ourselves as part of the stream of ancestors, and we see that others, even those who have caused us great harm, are also part of a stream. While we may still choose not to put ourselves in a dangerous situation or remain in a situation that is toxic to us, through this fifth touching, our hearts can become as vast as the ocean and we are better able to offer love completely and unconditionally, even to those who have caused us harm.

Encountering  Difficulties

I am aware that Touching the Earth practice is sometimes difficult when our suffering is great or intimately associated with our direct ancestors. For example, it can be a tremendous challenge for people who were abused as children by someone they loved and trusted. Practicing with a group of supportive friends – a Sangha – can help somewhat in this regard, even when the other folks don’t know our specific difficulty. Two other perspectives may help. Thay suggests that we see our mother and father as innocent children, and recognize that they too suffered. Sister Chan Khong has offered the image of our parents as young men and women full of love, hope, and promise. Both of these gentle approaches help open our hearts to those whose suffering has spilled over and hurt us so deeply, whether our parents or another person.

Loving my Children

One of the most valuable gifts of this practice has been its power in my relationship with my children. I have beautiful, wonderful children, and we are not biologically related. My husband and I adopted our children when they were babies. When I first touched the earth in that Pacific mountain meadow, I knew this was a practice I wanted to share with my beloved children. At the same time, I wondered where I would fit into their touchings if they took up the practice.

I learned that some people include adoptive parents in the blood family touching. While this may work for some people, it feels unsuitable to me. At one time or another, an adoptive parent is likely to wish that their precious child was also their biological child. Our love for our children is so strong, so woven into the fabric of our beings that the wish naturally arises. To include myself in the blood family touching seems to encourage this fantasy, which I do not find beneficial. Eventually, I realized that if my children pick up this practice, I might belong in their spiritual family. Each time I touch my own spiritual family, I begin with “the one who first taught me to love” – my mother – so seeing myself in this touching for my children was a natural extension.

But my own practice of Touching the Earth gave me another, unexpected benefit with regard to my children. As I came in closer and more loving contact with my own ancestors, I began to see the presence of ancestors in people around me, including my children. I began to see that my children’s biological parents are in every cell of their body, in their movements, in the light of their eyes and the bells of their laughter. Immense gratitude wells up in me for the gift of life that these people gave to my children.

I cannot imagine loving anyone or anything more than I love my children. Thanks to the practice of Touching the Earth, I love them wholly. I can touch their biological parents present in them and offer love and acceptance to this aspect of their being. Through this practice, I have become capable of loving my children as whole beings.

Like all our practices, each person’s experience with Touching the Earth will differ. The truth is found in our own experience, not in duplicating the experiences of others. I love this practice enough to want to share it. In my experience, it is a doorway through which we can experience wholly – holy – love and offer it to others.


Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening, lives with her family in Charlotte, North Carolina. She practices with the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary. She is an appellate lawyer, and teaches mindfulness meditation in workshops, retreats, and prisons. Leslie was the editor of the Mindfulness Bell from 1997 to 2000.

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Caring for Our Children by Caring for Ourselves

By John R. Snyder


On the occasions when I slow down enough to actually think about it, it occurs to me that my job as a Montessori teacher is too hard for someone of my limited abilities––i.e., someone who is still dependent on food, sleep, and occasional recreation. The demands never seem to stop, and if they do happen to slow down from time to time, I have a huge backlog of practice-improvement projects to fill the gaps.

Parents sometimes ask with a certain awe, “How do you do it?” How, indeed? How does one not only keep going, but do so with good cheer, grace, a sense of perspective, and, more often than not, a calm presence in the classroom?

I am happy to share at least part of “how I do it.” I suspect that behind every successful teacher is a similar practice of self-care and reflection, although we seldom talk about these things with each other. Perhaps we should.

The crux of the matter is that less is more. At the center of the hurricane of teacherly activity, there must be a still center, a place of repose in the heart and the mind. This, I am convinced, can only be maintained through the regular, disciplined practice of stopping, paying quiet attention to one’s inner voices, and reconnecting with one’s highest self. One could call it a practice of prayer, or meditation, or affirmation, or self-reflection; the point is that it must be a regular period of quiet time, free from interruptions, an appointment one keeps with oneself.

I think of this quiet time both as a gift to myself and as a period of spiritual conditioning that keeps me emotionally prepared for whatever comes my way in and out of the classroom. Although the children do not know of my practice of reflection, I am certain they could identify which days I have failed to keep my appointment with myself.

My anchor, the backbone of my daily preparation for the classroom, is a practice found in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Teachings on Love. It is his version of a 1,500-year-old text from Sri Lanka:

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May I be safe and free from injury.
May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.



Just as a good weightlifting routine works all the major muscle groups, I find that these nine lines exercise all the psycho-spiritual “muscles” I need to strengthen for my work with children, parents, and colleagues. I start my day with these lines, and I keep a copy in the front cover of my lesson-planning book so that when I feel myself slipping away, I can read them to re-center and refresh myself.

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

I appreciate that this meditation starts with a clear statement of the desired state, the end result of the practice. Sitting quietly, following my breath, I can bring my body and mind back from their habitual agitation and anxiety to the place of peace, happiness, and lightness that is gradually becoming a habit through years of this practice. Like a tennis player mentally rehearsing her stroke, I can mentally rehearse, noticing the places of tension and disconnection in me and shifting them to calm connectedness. What could be more useful and important to someone working intensively with children?

May I be safe and free from injury.

I have come to realize over the years that every kind of progress in the classroom depends upon all members of the community feeling safe and free from injury. This line reminds me of that, and allows me to renew my intent to provide physical and emotional safety for myself so I can better provide it for the community. This hallows the many mundane things I do every day to insure the safety of the community, from giving lessons on the safe use of science equipment, to keeping the first-aid kit well stocked, to mediating conflict on the playground, to honoring the children’s efforts instead of their products. Looking a little more deeply, I also see that part of my practice is to know how to take care of myself and others when injuries do happen. Having the confidence that comes from being prepared, I believe, allows me to take appropriate risks on behalf of the community. So, far from being an invitation to always “play it safe,” this line stretches me and allows me to walk away from fearful states of mind.

May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

It is so helpful to have such a clear list of the major obstacles I face in my relationships with children, parents, and colleagues. It is even more helpful to have time to envision myself free of these obstacles and look calmly at the roots of these problems. I can, for example, rededicate myself to my practice of noticing when anger and fear are arising in me and not acting on them until I have had a chance to calm myself and inquire into what the emotions are telling me. My experience has been that simply acknowledging the presence of anger, fear, anxiety, craving, jealousy, and the like, greatly diminishes the urgency and force with which they batter my body and mind. The function of these emotions is to call my attention to something I need to take care of, and when I calmly give them my full attention, their job is done and they can relax.

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.

This line is priceless because it goes straight to the heart of so much self-inflicted pain, and it also helps to remove one of the biggest obstacles between me and the relationships that I need to build in a peaceful classroom. Behind this line is the wisdom that until we understand, accept, and love ourselves, we cannot adequately understand, accept, and love others. Indeed, whenever we think that other people are making us miserable with their foolishness and bad behavior, it is very likely that we are projecting onto them some self-criticism or fearful insecurity that has taken root in us. To our chagrin, we find those hypercritical, perfectionistic voices that chatter in our own heads speaking through our mouths to inflict harm on others. How wonderful to be able to practice stepping out of that cycle of injury by beginning to extend to ourselves the compassion that will allow us to connect compassionately with others!

May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.

This line comes from a view of human nature as being like a garden in which are planted all kinds of seeds––each one representing a capacity of body and mind. In each of us are the seeds of great evil, suffering, and destruction, side by side with the seeds of great goodness, joy, courage, and the highest states of being. Some of these seeds we inherited; some have been planted by our culture and personal history. The seeds we water and tend, whether wholesome or otherwise, grow to crowd out the others, coming to dominate our internal gardens and our very lives. I find this outlook to be completely aligned with Dr. Montessori’s views on the richness and essential goodness of human nature, and the importance of the environment in the self-construction of the human being. The salient point in this line is that, although it is easy to lose sight of it when we are in the grip of some negative emotion, the seeds of joy and happiness are still there. We do not have to wait for our lives (or even just our classrooms!) to be perfect before we can be genuinely happy.

May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.

Now we go beyond a clear intent to be free of anger, fear, and anxiety to search for the roots of these negative forces in our lives. Quietly, deeply, consistently looking at these things while not being carried away by them, gives us the chance to see the patterns, to understand the ways these things work in our particular minds. Seeing clearly, we have a chance to reorient our thinking and rebuild our habits into something more positive and free. To me, this line moves beyond intending and visualizing to doing something about the situation.

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.

Continuing the metaphor of seeds and the intent to learn to view and treat ourselves with compassion, this line invites us to take concrete action on our own behalf. The positive seeds are there, so how can I water them? I have gradually developed a mental list of very concrete ways that I can touch the seeds of joy and peace in myself, and I try to do some of these things every day. Here are a few of my touchstones: taking a slow walk in nature; really seeing and experiencing a blue sky, a flower, a stone, or a child’s face; thinking of someone I love; enjoying a quiet cup of tea; giving my full attention to a great piece of music or art; holding my dog in my lap; reading a good poem or science magazine. Your list might be very different, but you can make one by noticing the things that give you joy. In particular, instead of reacting mindlessly out of anger, irritability, or fear, I try to stop and do one or more of my “joy things” to ground myself again in my best nature before responding to a situation.

May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

As a teacher, I often think of this line as a description of the opposite of burnout. Surrounded as I am by the freshness of children, may I be able to find that freshness in myself. May I be solid enough to withstand the winds and waves of experience, stable enough to provide the consistent strength of purpose it takes to build a good community. May I live as a free person, not a thrall to my faulty perceptions, fearful attachments and aversions, public personae, or life history.

May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

Montessorians are passionate people, the idealistic followers of a passionate and visionary leader. We have great expectations and bold plans. We have strong feelings about many things, strong likes and dislikes, long lists of both shibboleths and taboos. And yet, these attachments and aversions are often our undoing, the very things that get in the way of our realizing our vision. This line, when regularly rehearsed, helps me let go of my certainties, both positive and negative, and helps me live instead with the kind of openness that Montessori herself exhibited; she allowed a group of young children from the Roman slums to completely change her culturally conditioned views of who children are and what they can do. It reminds me that the opposite of passionate attachment and ego investment is not indifference, but mindfulness: holding my perceptions and beliefs lightly and being fully present to whatever the moment brings.

Now for the best part. Having taken good care of myself, I take the time to traverse these nine lines again, but this time the energy is directed outward to the community.

May the children [or a specific child] be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May the children be safe and free from injury.
May the children be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

For me, this closes the circle, and I am ready to enter the classroom again to see what great good can be wrought from whatever raw materials the day brings.

mb65-Caring4John Snyder, True Precious Goodness, taught nine-to twelve-year-olds and was an administrator at Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas. This article was written in 2008, when John was still teaching. He practices with Plum Blossom Sangha. You can reach him at jsnyder@pobox.com.

This work by John R. Snyder is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.

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Teaching the Whole Child

By Susan Kaiser Greenland

mb54-TeachingTheWhole1In classes with kids, I hold up a Quaker Oats box and ask, “What’s in here?” We get all sorts of answers, from Quaker Oats to lizards to spiders to candy. But we come down pretty quickly to the fact that we don’t know what’s in it. And it’s not always comfortable to sit with not knowing.

I like to help children become more comfortable with not knowing, to approach it with curiosity, an open mind and an open heart. We start to think about how our bodies feel when we don’t know something and we feel we should. Very often we feel a clutching in our body, in our throat for instance, or our heart races. By encouraging kids to notice how their bodies feel when they don’t know something, and wish they did, we’re building an awareness that helps them identify what’s happening in their inner and outer worlds. Do they look with an open mind, with curiosity, with as little fear as possible, with the perspective of the friendly, impartial spectator?

The next question is extremely important. Once you’ve looked at something, what do you do about it? After looking, we develop a capacity to respond to what we see, in a way that is both in our own best interests, and also kind and compassionate to all those involved. As we better understand interconnection and change, we’ll understand that what’s compassionate for all involved is also in our own best interest.

Clear Seeing

Everyone in education is looking for the magic wand. One thing that comes close, for me, is clear seeing, a concept deeply embedded in traditional Buddhism. For kids it’s clearly seeing what’s happening, as it’s happening, without an emotional charge. Then they’re able to respond with compassion.


I love this quote: “Rowing harder doesn’t help if it involves moving in the wrong direction.” How often have we worked so hard at something, and it’s just the wrong thing to be working at? The only way we can figure that out is if we learn to clearly see, without an emotional charge. That requires us to step back from experience before we dig in and start trying to fix it.

mb54-TeachingTheWhole2This is how mindfulness is used in real life situations. You see a child who is upset calmly take a breath, settle down, and use calming skills to settle the mind and see things more clearly. Sometimes it takes quite a while. They get upset again, they get excited again; that’s normal. We use our calming skills over and over again.

The Hello Game

We start every class with the Hello Game. Kids say “hello,” and look at the color of each other’s eyes. It’s a terrific practice that helps kids really look at somebody else in a way that’s not emotionally charged. This grounds what we’re doing in the practice of mindfulness. Children start to notice and identify what’s happening in their minds and bodies when they look at people closely. They start to recognize their mind-body reactions to social exchanges. It is rare for people to really look at each other without bias, with an open mind. Kids can learn to see the value of gentle curiosity in the friendly, impartial spectator.

The Whole Child

We work to integrate the whole child. We start with the body, and then the mind (thoughts), and the heart (emotions and worldview). Mindful awareness can’t leave any of these three elements out: body, mind, and heart.

Also important for kids is integration of left hemisphere/right hemisphere processes. We use mindful awareness to integrate right hemisphere creativity and left hemisphere analytical or linear processes. That’s very important in today’s school system, which is tilted toward traditional left-brain processes: memorize information, analyze data, report back.

How do we teach kids about non-conceptual experience? One example is a movie I show about a fabulous Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier. It has 180,000 lights, each one powered by wind and sun. It took a really smart left-brain processing person to figure out how to make those lights, but also somebody with right-brain creative skills to come up with a beautiful work of art that lights up the Santa Monica skyline.

Mindfulness can, through focused awareness practices, build left-brain concentration skills, and also more holistic, right-brain skills. But that’s only the first part, because mindful awareness is more than the sum of its parts. It’s also about getting on that Ferris wheel, strapping yourself in, and taking a ride. It’s fully experiencing the present moment the best you can. It’s taking that ride through the integration of the left brain and the right brain.

There’s been a lot of research about mindfulness, with scientists picking it apart into “concentrated attention” and other elements. When we bring mindfulness practices into a school, we need to show how we combine all these elements to teach a certain way of being, a felt sense of experience that is more than the sum of its parts. That’s why it is so important that those who are teaching mindfulness practice it, know it themselves from experience. They have to embody it.

Friendly Wishes

Along with attention, you must have kindness and compassion. To teach that, we start with what we call “friendly wishes.” It’s basically the metta practice. The traditional instruction is to send friendly wishes to yourself, to people you like, to your friends or family, then to your enemies, and then to the whole world. But that’s awfully abstract for little kids, so we start with friendly wishes to me, and then friendly wishes to people I know. If I have enough time I’ll start with people in the room, and then people we don’t know, and then everyone and everything. It’s important to give examples each time.

After they’ve done it for a while, I ask kids, “Who do you send friendly wishes to?” They say, “I send friendly wishes to me,” and I post that on the board. Then we post “grandma and grandpa,” “the farmer,” and “my sister.” Then we go through the animals. “The frogs.” “The bunnies.” “Cats.” Then I say, “What kind of things do we send friendly wishes to?” “The sun, the corn, the breakfast cereal, the rain.”

Four-year-olds can understand how these things relate. One of the fundamental pieces in mindfulness training is teaching people about interdependence. That helps explain why it makes perfect sense to be compassionate to everyone involved, and to pay attention. A child will say, “The rain is connected to the corn because it makes it grow.” Somebody else will say, “Grandma is connected to the corn because she makes the cornmeal.” Then they’ll say, “And we eat the corn!”

Metta for Enemies

For years I stayed from away from the traditional metta practice, which includes sending friendly wishes to enemies, because I am extremely sensitive to the violence in the world. I read that one in five children in the U.S. has been a victim or a witness of domestic violence. I was recently told by a trauma expert that the number is one in three. I didn’t want to encourage kids to end friendly wishes to people who were hurting them.

But recently, Mathieu Ricard, who is one of my heroes, encouraged me to figure out a way to include friendly wishes for people we really don’t like. He had some ideas, which I have tried, and it has been feeling safer to me. I still don’t practice this with young kids, but I do practice it with older kids in elementary schools.

It’s wonderful to see how powerful these practices can be for kids. There’s no magic wand, but clearly seeing and responding with compassion for yourself and others does have a magical quality. What’s amazing is how many kids take this home to their parents, and how many parents report back that the kids are singing the breathing song in the back of the car.

Susan Kaiser Greenland develops mindfulness programs for children, classroom teachers, parents, therapists, and health care professionals. She is co-founder of InnerKids and is on the clinical team for the Pediatric Pain Clinic, UCLA’s Children’s Hospital. This article was excerpted with permission from the Insight Journal, Winter 2010 (www.dharma.org/bcbs).

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Begin Anew Smile

By David M. Nelson



Today I take time to note the actions that feel like acts of true love toward myself. Waking up, I look deeply into the mirror and find a nearly smiling face. An intention is there. Soon a real smile warms. Within a few breaths, my body and mind feel happier, in harmony. Today I offer my smile to all.

Tweet-tweets dance around my ears, accompanying the wild bird seed tossed into the yard. Since spring, the seeds have attracted the grey squirrels’ appetite. I’ve come to accept their occasional visits. When rodent signs were recently recognized, I set out Havahart live traps. Lately a neighbor’s cat has jumped the fence to hunt the birds. So just a handful of seed keeps the back yard in harmony today. May the animals be well.

I bicycle for grocery shopping and posting a letter, sharing the road with vehicles hurrying past. I smile at the interbeing of road, bike, cars, drivers, and rider. May they be well, see the impending red traffic light, and ease safely to a stop. May they stay present and look out for each other. At the store I breathe with gratitude that advertisements no longer trigger craving. I find a few groceries, then without further browsing, go directly to the cashier who acknowledges my smile with one of her own.

Upon returning home I notice some broken glass on the street in front of my apartment, get my broom, and sweep it up. I smile, knowing that pets and bike tires will be safer. Now filling up several five gallon buckets, I haul the bath water to the yard and offer it to jasmine vines growing along the fence, rose bushes, and geraniums. May the plants be well.

Preparing a simple meal, I slowly eat in silence. When a feeling of loneliness arises, I remember there are friends all over the world, transforming suffering and generating the healing energy of mindfulness for all. I’m now living in this city to offer assistance for the recovery of my mother’s ill health. For the time being, this is where I choose to be. At the effort to do what’s right, I smile. May all beings be well, have enough food, be happy and light in body and spirit.

Getting ready to sleep, once again I find a smiling face in the mirror. It was a good day, simple, not too busy, and often mindful. My intention to show the smile as a symbol of my freedom, letting it support my actions and encounters, was frequently a success. My lotus smile blooms from the mud of my mind. Flowers freshly watered begin anew. As I’m lying down to rest, Charlie Chaplin’s tune “Smile” pops into my mind: “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you’ll just smile.”

mb56-BeginAnew3David M. Nelson, Truly Holding Equanimity, is a public health nutritionist  who has produced practice videos for the Sangha, including “Each of My Steps is a Prayer.” He enjoys sitting with the Morning Light and Mindful Peacebuilding Sanghas in Berkeley.

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The Heart Pushup

By Peter Cutler


I’ve begun doing a practice to transform suffering. It’s been very effective for me. The practice involves a combination of three Buddhist practices—mindfulness of suffering, tonglen, and metta. I call it the Heart Pushup. I often do it lying down the first thing in the morning, just after I wake up. It’s a wonderful way to start the day.


Take any pain or suffering, and bring your attention to it. If it’s strong and immediate, this isn’t much of a problem. Now open your heart wider to accept this pain fully. Stop resisting it or wishing it would go away. This will quickly reduce the intensity of it. It’s usually the resistance that creates the most pain.

As you open to the pain, you will find yourself becoming curious about it. If it’s physical pain, notice the quality and texture of the sensations. Where do they start? Where do they end? Is it dull and throbbing or sharp? Is there a color or shape to it? The more we embrace our pain, the less intense and frightening it becomes. This occurs because of love.

Now we’ve reduced the intensity of our pain and come to know it very intimately. We’ve embraced it into our heart. We now know a great deal about this pain and about ourselves.


Now we begin the Tibetan practice of tonglen. Because we are part of the human family, many other people have pain that is similar to ours. Begin to visualize one of these people. You might visualize their pain as a dark black cloud. On your in-breath, breathe in this dark cloud. Let it flow into your heart, where you transform it into a bright healing light that can heal all pain. On your out-breath, breathe all your healing light into this person. On your next in-breath, do the same with a different person. Eventually, breathe in the pain and suffering of many people at once and breathe out healing to all of them.

Most people unfamiliar with tonglen think it is contradictory to healing. After all, we are the ones with the pain. Why shouldn’t we send healing energy to ourselves instead of other folks? But if you try it, you will begin to notice that your heart expands and you feel filled with compassion. You feel connected to all humanity, all beings, the whole universe, and you seem to have forgotten about your pain.


Now that our hearts are filled with all beings, we send all of them unconditional love. This is metta, or loving kindness. We wish only for their greatest good and happiness. As we do this, we can feel our heart filling with unconditional love. This energy radiates out and fills our entire body. It fills the room, the house, the neighborhood, touching and healing each person. It expands further to encompass the city, the state. It touches and heals everyone we know as it continues growing. It radiates throughout the country and then encompasses the world. It only takes our intention to love this way.


At this point we are filled with love. The sensation of pain may still be there a little, or it may be completely gone. But mostly we are love. The interesting thing is that without the pain and suffering, the intensity of this practice would not be as strong, nor would the wonderful results. Some people say love conquers all. I try not to indulge in blanket statements, but I am partial to that idea. I do know that this particular practice seems to work wonderfully for me. May it bring peace, love, and joy to you as well.

mb56-TheHeart3Peter Cutler, True Sangha Virtue, practices with Boston’s Old Path Sangha. His Zen brush paintings can be seen at www.zen-brush.com.

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Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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