Both Far and Near

Dharma Gaia in New Zealand 

By the Dharma Gaia Core Community

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Winter Retreat, 4 a.m.

Low in the east a bright Venus
lifts the dome of sky
just as the Milky Way
has spilled herself through it.

The womb of breathable darkness
draws you in, while frost crystals
catch the moonbeams
and snap the light into tiny sparkling fragments
filling the body with stillness.

Step outside
the breath shoots up in a gasp of cold.
Ears ring and sing and the body fills
with vibrant early morning frost.

That’s when the stillness empties you of everything.

Forest, pond, building with sloping crystal hat,
and gardens,
they know how to pray. Standing still
naked in the moonlight and translucent frost
unashamed and prideless
in their beauty.

You too are like this but you do not see it.

There is nothing more you want … nothing you just breathe.
Your breath is a prayer.

In terms of the physical distance, The Centre of Mindful Living in New Zealand is probably the Sangha farthest away from Plum Village, and yet that distance shrinks to nothing in the time it takes to breathe one conscious breath. There is never loneliness or isolation.

The Centre, commonly known as Dharma Gaia, is located in beautiful countryside, flanked by a tranquil harbour and a majestic mountain on the Coromandel Peninsula, about two hours’ drive from the cities of Auckland and Hamilton. From throughout New Zealand, people come here to connect with the practice. They contribute their physical energy, financial support, and most of all their commitment to practising and building the companionship of Sangha by offering regular mindfulness weekends and retreats.

Most people who visit Dharma Gaia are deeply touched by its peace, simplicity, and profound beauty. But Sister Pho Nghiem always emphasises that our true beauty is our love for one another and our dedication to practising as a Sangha. That is what has sustained us for over eighteen years and will go on sustaining us.

In the early morning, we give ourselves over to the Earth, walking peacefully together. We walk the land in silence and stillness, aware of the generosity of many friends who offer energy, funds, and support, which maintain and nourish this island of peace and presence. Our feet are their feet; our steps an offering of gratitude to them.

Sunshine, fresh air and green banana leaves dance.
Stream and birds sing the harmonies.
Citrus are beginning to golden
and the aromatic fragrance of their leaves
heralds the freshness and cool beauty
of the Dharma Gaia autumn.
The Sangha body is everywhere.

Like Plum Village, but on a much smaller scale, Dharma Gaia hosts many people from all over the world. Those of us who live here know it is a deep blessing to have the chance to provide this haven for the constant flow of visitors. We listen and learn from those who come here, and we have the chance to be in touch with the life of the wider community in all its various joys and challenges.

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Many who come are young people searching to find their place in the world and the right way to live. They stay for a week, a month, and sometimes longer, helping in the gardens, building bridges over the stream, clearing new walking paths, and enjoying the fruits of community and mindful living. Many of them have not heard of our practice before coming here, but later go on to seek out Sanghas in their own countries, or to visit Plum Village in France and other centres in Europe and the USA. In a few weeks’ time, Sangha members will fill the Centre as we take time to share from the winter fruits, complete the Rains Retreat, and receive deep nourishment from our practice together. Wonderful!

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When the first draft of this article was written, we in New Zealand were stepping lightly into spring. The nights still had that sharp bite and the early morning air was wonderfully fresh. In spring here, the forest gently releases so many forgotten fragrances that rise up out of the sleep of winter. Our Kowhai trees bloom in magnificent splendour, their flowers falling like soft golden rain, and the days are filled with song as tui, bellbird, kereru, fantail, bees, insects, and countless other beings wake up to the glory of renewal.

Some months have passed; the season changed and changed again. Now the fullness of summer retreats is also receding and we mellow into the changing colours of autumn leaves. How strange and wondrous it is to contemplate that as you read this article in the northern hemisphere, your late winter days are edged with the promise of the spring. Bowing to the wonder of our planet and her seasons, we close by sharing this deep and precious gatha Thay offered to us in the winter of 2004.

The seed is sown in the auspicious earth
Now is the occasion to enjoy the spring
Day and night dwelling peacefully in touching the earth
Everywhere flowers open, lighting up the true mind

This article is offered in honour of two dear Sangha sisters: Aletia Hudson, who passed on December 8, 2011, and Shirley Morris, who passed on March 25, 2012.

The Core Community of Dharma Gaia consists of Sister Pho Nghiem, Doris Drinkwater, Anton Bank, Jeannine Walsh, Mark Vette, Caitlin Bush, Benni Bonnin, and Kim Morresey. For more information, see www.dharmagaia.org or email peace@dharmagaia.org.

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Entering the Stream Down Under

By Ettianne Anshin

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I practice with seveerral Sydney Sanghas and have visited Nhap Luu (Entering the Stream) Monastery three times in the last eighteen months. This monastery is a two-hour drive from Melbourne and twelve hours ffrroom Sydney, Australia. Since their arrival two years ago, the original three monastics—Sisters Thuan Tien, Luong Nghiem, and Can Nghiem—have been joined by Sister Tri Duyen from Brisbane and a novice, Nguyen Ha, from another tradition in New Zealand. I would like to share with the larger Sangha a little of my experience of the changes occurring at this monastery.

The conditions here at the beginning were probably similar to those in Plum Village about thirty years ago. For example, the monastery had no electricity or permanent buildings other than the meditation hall. However, each year the conditions have become a little easier and the Sangha acquires a greater capacity to tolerate them. This is the third winter retreat for the sisters at Nhap Luu, and I have witnessed a subtle and substantial transformation.

Last year, a member of the Sydney Sangha, with the help of friends from Melbourne, installed a beautiful wooden floor in the meditation hall. Also, Brother Ian Roberts sold his property adjoining the original monastery to Unified Buddhist Church of Australia, so the sisters now have a comfortable home with indoor plumbing. The sisters’ house, named “Peace House” by Ian, has magnificent views of the lake where there are ducks, wild geese, and black swans. The house has a loft with huge windows where the sisters can listen to talks, meditate, and work at the computer. The meditation hall and Peace House now have solar panels for electricity, which should offset the energy used at the monastery. The Sangha can use Peace House as an accommodation for retreats, too.

The bush setting at Nhap Luu is exceedingly tranquil, and the Sangha has created many beautiful paths for walking meditation. Each day we see kangaroos, wallabies, hares, and possums that have many young. The possums come every night to eat from the hands of the sisters, and indeed the wildlife has become quite used to the Sangha. The kangaroos, hares, and wallabies eat near the buildings and allow you to walk close to them. They are fond of eating the flowers that the sisters grow. In the warmer months we can see the rare echidna (a spiny form of anteater) as well. As I write, I can hear kookaburras and crows calling, and we observe many other native birds, such as robins, magpies, and eastern rosella.

Growing Community 

Nhap Luu is an extensive property that requires much work from the sisters. Sangha members come for weekend stays and sometimes longer. The Sangha in Melbourne is quite small, although recent efforts to promote the monastery locally have seen some new friends joining. Some members of the Sangha have been helping to run a monthly market stall, and their efforts are bearing fruit as they make contacts within the local community. The Melbourne Sangha has been of considerable assistance to the sisters, giving both physical support and help with administering the centre. Many have been generous with time, skills, knowledge, and financial assistance.

The sisters have become more involved with the local community. They’ve taught high school students about taking care of their suffering, helping them to transform. They’ve also done chaplaincy training, so they can assist when needed.  At Vesak, they celebrated with other monastics from the State of Victoria and the community, and led a guided meditation. They’ve also joined the Australian Sangha Association for monastics. The monastery now has a blog and a Facebook page to keep the community informed, and there is a bookshop for visitors to purchase Plum Village merchandise.

Tomorrow a group of ten community members will visit from a nearby information centre to join in a Day of Mindfulness and learn about our practice. This monastery is in a quite rural area of Victoria with many generations of farming families; it will be interesting to see their reactions to a very different culture transplanted into this community.

Last September and October, two brothers visited from Plum Village. They led retreats and gave talks here and in Sydney. Thay Phap Hai and Dharma teachers Kenley Neufeld and Karen Hilsberg have been providing a superb program of online teaching for lay friends, Sangha builders, OI aspirants, mentors, and Dharma teachers in training. Meanwhile, UBC Australia has been accepted as a sponsoring body for monastics, and in early 2013, Nhap Luu will welcome seven more sisters—six originally from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam and one who has Australian citizenship. A lay friend has been tremendously helpful, sharing her expertise and assisting with immigration paperwork and office administration—more hands to lighten the load.

I have been helping Sister Can Nghiem with her English comprehension and pronunciation, while she in turn has been helping with my Vietnamese. Sister Luong Nghiem has been instructing me on the bell, and I am tremendously grateful to her and all the sisters for their guidance, sumptuous food, and warm smiles during my stay.

The conditions are basic at Nhap Luu, but the environment is quite beautiful. As I sit and write, I watch the sun set and I hear the crickets singing against the background of a new moon. We hope to see many visitors come, support the monastery, and help us to bloom.

For more information about Nhap Luu Monastery, visit www.nhapluu.blogspot.com or find Entering the Stream Monastery on Facebook.

mb62-Entering2Ettianne Anshin, True Auspicious Path, lives in Sydney, Australia and practices with several Sydney groups, including the Lotus Bud Sangha. She works part-time for The Buddhist Council of New South Wales, coordinating the Schools Religious Education program, and consults on community development projects.

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Together Online

By Thuy Cu and Alipasha Razzaghipour

Thuy: The idea of having an online Sangha came to me when visiting Plum Village in April, 2011. I was lucky to have a one-hour consultation with Brother Phap Ung during my stay in the upper Hamlet. I shared about Sangha building, the problems we were facing in our local group, and how to stay connected with people who couldn’t practice with our Sangha due to travel distances or family circumstances. Brother Phap Ung suggested using the Internet to bring the Sangha to the people, adding that it had been done before. A seed was planted.

Ali: In early 2011, I had a strong desire to practice with a Sangha. Our local group was meeting once a month, but this wasn’t enough for me. My mind focused on finding others in this tradition. One option was to sit online. I wasn’t sure if the energy of brotherhood and sister- hood could be cultivated online, but I had an idea that it might work.

Thuy: Six months later I met my Dharma friend Ali during a retreat in Sydney. We had known each other for a few years, but hadn’t had much contact, as we practiced with different Sanghas. On the last day of the retreat, Ali and I went for a short walk, sat atop a big rock above a waterfall, and enjoyed the beautiful view overlooking the forest. We shared our experiences with Sangha, our visions and ideas of how things could be, and what the tradition meant to us. It turned out that Ali also had been thinking about establishing an online Sangha.

Ali: When I spoke with Thuy at the October retreat, I felt very uplifted. I knew if there were two of us, probably more people would be interested. In the meantime, I set up a site (peacefulpresence.org) to support people looking to establish a local Sangha. We could use the material (songs, talks, guided meditations, etc.) from this site to get started.

Thuy: At the beginning, it was hard. Our first meeting online didn’t go so well, as Skype was unstable and we found it unnatural. We switched to Google+ and worked out a Sangha program of sitting, singing, watching a teaching, and sharing.

Ali: After the first few attempts, I noticed the experience was very transformative—not too dissimilar to a local group. This was encouraging, but not many people were joining. Dozens of people were following the group in Google+, but no one actually had a regular practice. Fortunately, Thuy assured me that if we continued practicing, others would come.

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Thuy: Before long, Chi Tri and Uncle Les came along. Suddenly our group became whole. We actually knew them already, having attended retreats together, but as we began to meditate together online, a strong bond formed. Now it feels like we are siblings, coming from different branches, but actually from the same tree. We are able to sit together, listen to Thay’s talks, share from our hearts, practice touching the earth, and sing songs. We have laughter and deep sharing, and silly times as well. Together, we feel we are walking the right path, as so much happiness and joy come in these online meetings. Others have joined us—Dharma friends from Blue Mountain and Paris, and others from Poland and Germany. We now have two online Sanghas, Heart Sangha and Stillness Sangha.

Ali: As part of the journey, I came across an online group, Plumline, in Thay’s tradition. I spoke with the founder, Elaine, and realised it was probably better to receive the support of Plumline than to go it alone. When we first met, the Plumline family had two groups; now there are nine.

Thuy: Ali suggested we extend our online practice to thirty minutes of silent meditation, daily. When you sit in a meditation hall with a Sangha, within the silence you can feel the collective energy supporting you. The same is true online. I didn’t realize this until Ali went away for a work trip. It was lonely sitting by myself, but whenever Ali had time to join me (even if it was at 3:00 a.m. in the U.S. or 3:00 p.m. in London), I felt his presence and the energy he brought to the sitting.

Ali: Practicing online will never be the same as being there in person. However, it does have some advantages. I tend to travel quite a bit and the online Sangha allows me to stay connected with the group. Yesterday I sat with our group while in London; next week I’ll be joining from Hong Kong. We have yet to discover all of the ways we can connect online. One day, for example, we might be able to sit with the monastics as they practice morning and evening meditation.

Thuy: I think about this online group quite often. Ali is moving to London next year and you never know what’s going to happen. But I have high hopes for this group, knowing it’s a little branch of a huge plum tree, and each of us is a flower blossoming; when the conditions are right, the fruits will appear. Thanks to Thay, a line of plums is growing online.

mb62-Together3Alipasha  Razzaghipour, True Fluent Energy, co-founded Plumline Heart Sangha with Chan Tru Lac (Thuy) in January 2012.

 

 

mb62-Together4Thuy Cu, Chan Tru Lac, member of the Lotus Bud Sangha since 2001, co-founded Plumline Heart Sangha with True Fluent Energy (Ali).

 

 

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How to Join Our Online Sanghas

Below you will find steps to join us online. However, please remember that no matter how wonderfully we connect through social media, Sangha is not about the mechanics. We are there to meet and to learn from each other. We hope the mechanics will fade into the background over time, so we can focus our attention on the Sangha practice. We hope online Sanghas can lead to the formation of many new spiritual friendships, a very precious gift.

Mechanics

The technology our online Sangha uses is Google+ Hangouts. It’s free, and up to nine people can join simultaneously. It has some useful features, such as being able to watch a talk by Thay while still seeing everyone else in Hangout. Since it’s a Google product, many people already have a login. They can talk with one another between Sangha meetings. Moreover, Google+ Hangouts is available on mobile devices, so people without computers can join, too.

You need an invitation to join one or both of our online Sanghas. You obtain one by joining the Plumline group on Google+.

Once every four to five weeks, we open our Sanghas to those who have joined Plumline. We ask that you follow our guidelines, explained below.

Joining Plumline

Follow these steps to join us:

  • Install Chrome as your Internet browser (google.com/chrome).
  • Go to plus.google.com.
  • Search for “Plumline.”
  • Click “Follow” on the Plumline page.
  • Accept the invitation when you receive it (this may take two weeks or so).
  • Click “Join” (big blue button at the top) to log on to plus.google.com
  • Give Google permission to install the software (you only need to do this once).

Guidelines for Joining Our Sangha Meetings

We hope that our Sangha meetings will be an important place for us to support each other, no matter where we live. To do this, we request that people engage fully with us, refraining from other activities (e.g., eating, browsing the net, etc.), while in Hangout. We ask that people stay for the entire Hangout meeting. When we are practicing together, small noises can get amplified; therefore, please mute your audio (unless you’d like to speak).

Keep your video switched on. We look forward to meeting you in Hangout.

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More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder 

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ChauYoder, Tam Luu Ly / Chan Tham Tue, was born in Hanoi, Vietnam and lives in Walnut Creek, California with her husband Jim, to whom she has been married since 1971. They have two adult daughters, Ann and Lynn. Chau earned her Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronic Engineering (B.S.E.E.E.) from California State University at Fresno and worked for twenty-five years at Chevron Corporation—as a manager in Chevron Information Technology, then Manager of Network Operations, and later as a consultant in Applied Behavioral Science.

Chau has a deep aspiration to share specific and important methods and techniques for enhancing mindful living, all emphasizing self-awareness of body and mind. She studied with Master Ce Hang Truong to become a trainer in Integral Tai Chi and learned MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. She is currently an active Dharma Teacher, ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003. Since 1989, she has offered workshops and classes on mindful leadership, mindful living, and qigong to promote healthy and happy living. She has presented her programs in youth, corporate, and retreat environments.

ChauYoder was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 17, 2012, for this special anniversary issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share a meaningful experience from your time there?

Chau Yoder: In 1997 I went to Plum Village for the first time, and in Thay’s first Dharma talk, he encouraged everybody to be in extended silence. I spent about ten days in silence except during Dharma discussions. I discovered the power of silence. Once during the week, a young nun misunderstood my actions and she scolded me, but I hadn’t done what she was accusing me of. I caught myself ready to respond and heard my inner voice: “Oh! I’m in silence.” So I just stayed quiet. I was so free. I felt so good. That’s why now I talk about the power of silence.

MB: Did you notice a deeper silence internally because of the external silence?

CY: I recognize that I catch my own thinking more. I am able to sort it out, able to understand myself better. I call it peeling the onion. I recognize my bad seeds and my good seeds.

mb61-MoreJoy3MB: When and how did you first meet Thay? As a young practitioner, did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CY: In 1987 I read Thay’s books, Peace Is Every Step and Being Peace. His writing is so clear. Thay’s Dharma body exhibits a peace and calmness that I really like. I observed his mindful walk—he was so there in the moment. I felt like when I found Thay’s teaching I returned to my roots, both with blood and spiritual ancestors.

In 1991, I had a pivotal moment during a five-day retreat at Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. I was sitting with my mom next to me when Thay Phap Dang chanted a sutra. Suddenly, tears poured down my face and I couldn’t stop crying through the lunch that followed. I couldn’t eat.  After lunch, I wrote a letter to Thay and put it in the bell.

When you ask Thay a question, he’ll often answer it in public somewhere, and you feel like, “Oh, he’s talking to me.” That afternoon Thay said in his talk, “Watch out for your desire. Don’t think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” I felt like he was talking to me. I had signed my name to the letter, so the abbot of Kim Son, Thay Tinh Tu, came out and touched my head and talked to me, trying to console me. That was a pivotal moment. That’s when I recognized that the seeds in me of wanting to be a nun were so strong.

Years later, Thay talked to me when I was at his hut in Plum Village with a few others. Thay was talking about people like me, who are married. He turned to me and said, “If your will is strong, then you can do it. Right, Chau?” I knew he was right. I knew that my will was not strong enough to become a nun. More and more, people keep encouraging me to nurture the seeds inside of me to be a monastic and maybe one of these days, one of these years, at least next lifetime, I can be. And that’s my vow. Next lifetime, I want to be a little boy novice. [Smiles.]

mb61-MoreJoy4My parents didn’t want me to be a monastic, so I studied hard to get a scholarship and came from Vietnam to the U.S. The first day I arrived at California State University, Fresno (which was about two weeks after I arrived in the U.S.), I saw my husband, Jim, and fell in love and that was it!

MB: You’ve devoted your life to the practice as a layperson. How have you manifested a devout daily practice?

CY: I believe that practicing with Thay Tu Luc, the abbot of the Compassion Meditation Center in Hayward, California, is one of my key activities that help me to be on the path of mindfulness. I am lucky to have this condition in my life, so I don’t have to go to Deer Park Monastery or wait until Thay Nhat Hanh comes. Thay Tu Luc represents Thay Nhat Hanh’s teaching here for me.

When I went to the retreat with Thay at Kim Son Monastery in 1989, the abbot, Thay Tinh Tu, taught us the sixteen health stick exercises, the ones that Plum Village does now. Every morning, I went and practiced with him at 5:30, before Thay’s events. One morning, he handed the stick to me and said, “Take this home and practice.” So I took it home, practiced, and eventually taught it along with meditation to my work colleagues at Chevron. It really helped them with their stress. That started my teaching career.

Then Jim and I went to the retreat for business people at Plum Village in 1999. There, Sister Chan Khong asked me to lead La Boi Publishing [publishers of Thay’s books in Vietnamese]. The more I got to edit Thay’s books, the deeper I got into his teaching. I really treasure that.

MB: Can you tell me a little bit more about La Boi Publishing?

CY: At the beginning, I headed a team of volunteers. Every year for a while, we published two or three books of Thay’s in Vietnamese. It was really active. But in 2005, when Thay started to go to Vietnam, more books were printed in Vietnam. They’re much cheaper to publish there. Eventually we lost our free storage space for La Boi, so it became more practical to print all the books in Vietnam.

Thay also encouraged us to share the Dharma and to practice together. In 1999, we created a monthly meditation group called La Boi Sangha. At first it was purely Vietnamese, and then a few English-speaking people joined us. We became bilingual. But now we’ve returned to only Vietnamese. I feel like I’m a bridge between Vietnamese and English, so I encourage people to do both.

MB: I am curious about your work with bridging between the Vietnamese and Western cultures. How are you a bridge, and how does that feel for you?

CY: It’s just natural, I think, because I’m married to Jim and because I came here when I went to school in 1967. My English speaking and understanding is pretty good, so I can connect with English-speaking people and I still have the roots of Vietnamese, especially after I started to edit and publish Thay’s books in Vietnamese. Also conditions have been right, because in 1999 I started to be more involved with the English-speaking Community of Mindful Living in Northern California and with Parallax Press.

MB: Did you find that your practice changed after you received the Lamp Transmission?

CY: Not really. Like I mentioned, I have been teaching since 1989. After the Lamp Transmission, maybe people notice you more. Thay said that we are all Dharma teachers already, and we just have to share what we learn. The key thing is that we have to stay fresh and joyful and we have to watch out for becoming cocky. Of course, I’m very honored. The lamp is in the front of my house, so I’m reminded and thankful for Thay and the community to keep the trust in me, to give me that opportunity.

MB: What activities are you involved in that bring the Dharma to life for you?

CY: For sixteen years I have been teaching mindful leadership to 147 senior high school students and twenty adults at an annual Rotary Leadership camp. Since 2007, about once a year I travel with my husband to a foreign country to deliver several hundred prosthetic hands and train people who have lost their hands.

MB: Your email address includes the phrase “high spirits.” In my perception, you’re a person of very high spirits and joy. How do you keep your joy alive every day?

CY: Every day I lie down and appreciate the Buddhas in the ten thousand directions who help me and the people around me to see and follow the path. Namo Amitabha, Namo  Avalokiteshvara. I also write in a little notebook all the affirmations for my five organs, for my mind and body, to stay centered and happy. Every morning before I get up, I recite in Vietnamese the waking-up gatha that Thay wrote. I pray that beings around me help themselves and protect themselves, and if I accidentally harm any beings, then please help them to go to nirvana. That’s my normal routine. Then I get up, and I sit and meditate and pray and chant and invite the bell. I walk here and there mindfully every day. For exercise I do tai chi, qigong, and yoga.

I remember Thay said it is important to be fresh as flowers. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Morning and night, I focus on my joyful and beneficial daily spirit with a beginner’s mind vow and appreciation. Since 1989, I’ve been teaching at a weekly cancer support group. I also teach at a Jewish old folks’ home, and I still teach at Chevron once a month. I’ve pretty much surrounded myself with these things. I’m just so thankful, sitting here, looking out the window, thankful for this little awesome place we have to remind me of nature and practice.

Since I began to practice with Thay, I’ve learned to enjoy nature so much more. I used to be a city girl. And I used to be very scared of death—of my family’s death, of my own death. I had a one-year-old brother who died when I was only five; I cried and cried. When I studied with Thay and understood better about no coming, no going, that helped me so much. I no longer feel fear of death or worry about my loved ones. I learned from Thay and other teachers that we are nothing but energy. That helped me survive raising my two daughters. Now they are thirty-seven and thirty-three. Otherwise I would just worry about them so much. When I learned these things, I would pray to Avalokiteshvara, send Avalokiteshvara energy through me, in me, and then I’d give them loving energy and prayer energy. So I feel much more at peace. All of these practices help me to be in the moment.

Since I began to study with Thay and the community, I understand my body reactions much faster. I used to have pain from worry, from anxiety. I used to be a super Type A person. I know some of that energy is still in me, but I’m a calmer Type A! [Laughter.]

Before I studied with Thay, I learned from another practice how to transform my migraine headaches into nothing. No more migraine headaches! If I don’t do the mindful practices, both physical and mental, I can see the impact on my body.

MB: It sounds like you’ve had some deep transformations thanks to the practice.

CY: Yes, definitely. Someone who worked for me told me, “I used to be very scared of you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, we used to call you dragon lady! We were so scared of you.” If they didn’t perform, I would nail them, I guess. But then he said, “But now you’re very nice. You’re the best manager. We love you now.” So I learned to listen to people better, and understand them better, and empathize better. I know that when I first studied these things, I was so critical of myself. I was a perfectionist, and very critical of myself and of others. So I just created suffering for myself and others.

I have to agree; I have transformed a lot. My life is much more peaceful and joyful. I still yell back at Jim sometimes, but I know how to apologize and I stop myself much faster. I rarely have the blow-ups that I used to have frequently! I still have fear, anger, and anxiety when dealing with the difficulties of life; however, I feel that they are much less than before. I have to constantly work on being mindful and peeling my onion to transform my bad habit energy.

I am so thankful to the practice for my transformation. This is the momentum that helps me help others. I have found this path helps me have more joy and less suffering. That’s my vow, now—to help others and equally, myself, to have more joy and less suffering in life.

MB: What guidance would you like to share with young practitioners?

CY: PBS (Pause, Breathe, and Smile). Practice mindful breathing even just ten minutes a day to be a balanced, ethical, and compassionate leader—a leader of yourself. Treasure your greatness. Appreciate your youth and live mindfully in the moment. Practice when you are young; then you will have a much fuller life and balance in all areas of your life. You will definitely be happier. Practice a new routine for twenty-eight days straight to change your habits.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

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The Spirit of Non-Self

Living in Sangha Paradise 

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

A mist thickly covers the forests and mountains of Deer Park Monastery. The entire practice center is embraced by an atmosphere of stillness. The activity bell wakes all from slumber at exactly 5:00 a.m., followed by reverberating sounds of the Great Temple Bell in front of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. The powerful sounds of the bell, harmonizing with the light and flowing voice of a sister chanting, enhance the peacefulness of a new day.

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Today is the fourth day of a five-day retreat, “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” for people who speak Vietnamese. In the tranquil atmosphere of the morning, the Sangha queues up to get a packed breakfast in preparation for hiking up the misty mountain and enjoying their first meal of the day.  About 500 monastic and lay friends practice walking meditation along the winding path. When the Sangha reaches Elephant Peak, some people are, perhaps, surprised to see Thay already seated in meditation with    his attendants. Standing here, one faces an ocean of clouds that covers an area of the city of Escondido. It feels as if one is hovering among the clouds of a faraway land of enchantment. It is truly a Zen experience to be in the spaciousness of earth and grand open sky. Everyone finds a comfortable place to sit among the huge flat rock formations that have been here for hundreds of years.

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After practicing sitting meditation for half an hour, I slowly open my eyes to see that the sun has risen and made the sea of clouds appear even clearer. The Sangha begins eating breakfast in silence. After some time, Thay shows me a cluster of tiny ants carrying crumbs dropped from our rice cakes. They carry their food in just one direction. Some ants move rice cake crumbs or potato skins many times larger than themselves. Sometimes two or three ants clutch one piece together. Thay compassionately gives them some more food that they can bring back to their nest for the colony to enjoy.

Thay tells me to take a photo of these ants. I do so and feel curious about where they are taking these provisions and how big their colony is. I follow their trail and feel pity to see how small they are, because they have to carry food so much larger than their bodies. Their paths wind up and down the rock surface. Some lose their balance and topple over due to their heavy load. I just let them be and don’t interfere, as if I were not there. My observation takes me to the entrance of their nest, a crack in the rock with a lot of sand surrounding it. I feel despondent that I can’t continue farther while they unaffectedly carry on their task. A sense of curiosity continues in my store consciousness for the next few days.

Like A Colony of Ants

Recently, I saw a short documentary film called “Animal Planet,” which examined the life and activities of a colony of ants. Thousands of them followed each other in a meadow of tall green grass that resembled the young plants in a rice paddy. Many climbed grass stems and bit off young shoots, while those on the ground carried the shoots back to the nest. Each had its own particular task to do, be it to bite off the shoots, transport provisions, or remain inside to build the underground nest from the grass that had been carried back. They seemed to work like an ensemble without a leader or discrimination. None of them seemed to complain about each other. The way they lived reminded me of our Sangha.

As brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we work together like ants in a colony, or like cells in a body. In a body, there is no single cell that is considered the leader of all other cells. A retreatant once asked one of our sisters who plays the violin, “Why does Thay travel with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour?” She replied, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra.” The conductor would not attract an audience by himself; yet if there were no conductor, the quality of music produced by the orchestra would not be very high. Thay has never wanted to control us. He only seeks to open doors and clear obstacles for us. Thay just allows things to unfold naturally and tries to find the best way to help all of us develop our various talents. We inter-depend on one another; we inter-are with each other. When our individual skills are combined, they no longer belong to any particular person, but become the effectiveness of the whole Sangha.

Whether we are at our monastery or on the road, and especially during the recent retreats in North America, our brothers and sisters live and work together like a colony of ants; we flow as a river. Our 2011 U.S. Tour, which spanned three months, included five public talks, eight Days of Mindfulness (DOM), an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, seven retreats in as many states, a half DOM with the Google staff at their headquarters in California, and a talk for congressmen and women in Washington, D.C. Each retreat had from eight hundred to one thousand participants, the DOMs had from one thousand to sixteen hundred people, and the public talks attracted approximately twenty five hundred attendees. The majority of activities were organized by monastic brothers and sisters. The tour took the organizing team two years to plan.

We work together as an ensemble, and each person is allocated a task: some oversee logistics, others take care of registration, and others welcome and orient retreatants. Some brothers and sisters do the grocery shopping while others cook. Some manage the accommodations and others are in charge of hygiene. We have a transportation coordinator and children’s program supervisors. A team films the Dharma talks, a team produces the DVDs, and a team sells Thay’s calligraphies and books. All these tasks are tightly coordinated, and they all relate to each other.

When we’re on big teaching tours and retreats, the brothers and sisters do much work, but there are rarely complaints or criticism. Glitches are opportunities for us to learn new things and better understand each other. One brother is the treasurer, and he is on a cooking team, the CD producing team, and the organizing team. He has such a lot of work to do, but he is always fresh, smiling, and full of energy! One time when I saw that he had a great deal of bookkeeping work to do, I said to him, “Dear brother, you have so much work to do. May I give you a hand?” He looked at me kindly and replied, “The paperwork is a bit complicated. It’s okay, I’ll do it.” I continued, “But please take care of your health.” He smiled and said in his humorous way, “There’s no need to live a long life. Forty years is enough!” Matching his wit, I replied, “Thay has said that whoever goes before he does is not showing enough filial piety! The Buddha and Thay have entrusted their mission to us, so we can’t go so early!” We both laughed.

Recognizing Paradise

During our retreats there is much joy, and peals of laughter can be heard everywhere, especially in the kitchen. Each kitchen team has only five or six people, but they cook for over a thousand retreatants. They do so with happiness cultivated from the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. One day I went into the kitchen and saw a sister at the stove frying tofu. I was surprised at how tall she was that day, and then I realized that she was standing on a step in order to comfortably reach the stove top. I saw the large tray of delicious fried tofu pieces, and thought it must have taken her quite some time to fry all of that tofu in the midday heat, yet her face was still fresh. I said to her, “Sister, you are so good!”

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An elder brother had been assigned to that same cooking team. He was cooking a huge pot of curry and using a large wooden ladle to stir. The curry was appealing, but the most amusing sight was that the pot was as tall as his ribs! This pot surely would need to be carried by three or four people. I had a funny thought: Cooking like this, one does not need to go to the gym and lift weights! I felt very happy because I knew for sure that the food cooked by the brothers and sisters had a lot of love in it, and that the retreatants would be able to taste and enjoy it.

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When I have a bit of spare time during a tour, I like to watch children play together; I think they look like innocent angels. I particularly relish hearing their spontaneous laughter echoing in the summer air. At least a few dozen children come with their parents to each retreat. Brothers and sisters take care of the children’s program very skillfully; they are mostly “baby monks” or “baby nuns” who have grown up in the monastery. They wholeheartedly guide, play with, and offer their presence to the children. That’s why the children who attend Plum Village retreats are so happy. When I look into the bright eyes of these children, I know that we are sowing good seeds in them—seeds of peace, happiness, and liberation.

I also like to drop by the bookshop to see Thay’s new calligraphy, which helps remind people to practice mindfulness at home. The calligraphies may say, for example, “Breathe, my dear,” or “Peace is every step,” or “Happiness begins with your lovely smile.” The calligraphy stand is always full of people. An elder sister is happily helping her younger sisters distribute the calligraphies, even though she has many other things to do. Promoting calligraphy involves more than just selling individual sheets; there are also elements of practice and play. People often have many questions about the meaning of Thay’s calligraphies; therefore the stand is like a Dharma hall. This is an opportunity for elder sisters to pass on their experience to younger ones, while also working to serve and liberate all beings. The elder sisters explain the calligraphies in a dynamic way, while the younger sisters’ fresh faces and witty comments attract visitors, as well.

Despite the crowds, the atmosphere at retreats is serene and peaceful. One practitioner commented, “Even though there are about a thousand retreatants here, it doesn’t feel like it. The atmosphere here is totally different from outside.” There are not only those who are experienced in the practices of Plum Village, but also many newcomers. The long-time practitioners are a much-needed foundation and source of support for newer practitioners. During one walking meditation session full of people, one retreatant exclaimed, “This is a miracle! We are walking in paradise!” Thanks to the mindful presence and collective energy of the Sangha, we can recognize this paradise.

Our Source of Energy

mb61-Spirit5During a Dharma sharing session at Estes Park, Colorado, one retreatant commented, “In this retreat there are up to eight hundred people and everything is done by the brothers and sisters. I’m truly surprised to see that you do all of these things so wholeheartedly. I’m curious to know how you all have so much energy.” I looked at her and simply replied, “Your tears and smiles are our source of energy.” It is true that there are tears from pain and suffering, but there are also tears born of happiness. And smiles are signs of joy, peace, happiness, and transformation. Both tears and smiles are a source of inspiration that nourishes our mind of love. That is why we have so much energy to continue what we are doing. I feel so nourished and happy as a monastic because my brothers and sisters and I have come across a way of practice that is relevant to us. We are able to continue the Buddha’s task of liberating beings in the way that Thay has transmitted to us.

Personally, I think we monastics benefit the most from these retreats. When we conduct such retreats, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the suffering of people from many sectors of society. As monastics, there are places that we cannot go; there are things that only laypeople can do. However, through our interactions with lay friends, and listening to their life experiences and suffering, we are able to see different aspects of life more clearly. Sometimes, just by listening, we alleviate much of their pain and suffering. When I’m able to sit and listen to people’s deepest pain and hidden difficulties, then naturally the energy of compassion arises within me. This kind of energy makes me so happy whenever I’m able to generate it.

I think it’s truly wonderful to be a monastic, especially when I have the chance to help others. In my opinion, “miraculous” things don’t need to be lofty; it is what I can do every day that counts. To be able to help others benefit from their practice, to bring about healing, transformation, happiness, peace, and joy in others is already a miracle. My life is so fulfilling and happy. What else is there to search for?

The Spirit of Sangha

We monastics spend much time learning, practicing, and conducting retreats. Another art needs to be nourished every day, as well: the art of developing brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the foundation of happiness in our daily practice. Everything we do holds the purpose of building brotherhood and sisterhood, and drinking tea together is one of our favourite methods for doing so. Drinking tea is a meditation practice. Each pot of tea contains so many joyful stories that we share with each other, especially after a session of sitting meditation and chanting. And nothing beats hiking up a mountain and drinking tea together there. Our daily activities have all the elements of mindfulness practice, play, work, and learning. It is only when we live and work in this spirit of inclusiveness and inter-relatedness that large-scale teaching tours can be successful and beneficial for practitioners.

Living and practicing in the Sangha, as well as going on teaching tours with Thay, have given me a precious lesson—anything can be accomplished when we have ideals, aspirations, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Further, when we are able to let go of our individualism, then we can easily flow with togetherness. That is the spirit of living in the Sangha, the spirit of non-self. That is the love of brotherhood and sisterhood.

There is a popular proverb in Vietnamese: “One stick cannot make a mountain, but three sticks together create a solid peak.” It is a sensible proverb that everyone likes and appreciates. Before I was ordained, it did not hold much meaning for me. It was merely a nice idea. But after becoming a monk, having lived and practiced with the Sangha, I realize its depth and truth. I appreciate this proverb, thanks to the miraculous power of the Sangha and the wonders of a lifestyle of non-self. This lifestyle is truly a Sangha paradise.

mb61-Spirit6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

 

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Dharma Talk: A Peaceful River

By Thich Nhat Hanh

New Hamlet, Plum Village
January 26, 2012

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Dear Sangha, today is the 26th of January, 2012. We are in the Full Moon Meditation Hall of New Hamlet.

Today’s gatha from the sutra we are studying says that all of us contain a stream, and we don’t have a separate self. The gatha is as follows: Living beings is the name of a continuous stream and all phenomena as the object of perception are only signs. Therefore there is no real change of birth into death and death into birth and no person who realizes nirvana. (1)

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There are two things this gatha is teaching us. First, we don’t have a separate ego, a separate self, and second, everything comes from our perceptions, everything is an object of our perception. There is no one who attains nirvana, because if there is no separate self, then who will do that? At first we think we have to choose: either we are in the ocean of death and birth, and then we suffer, or we are in nirvana so that we don’t have to suffer. But after that we have to go further in our understanding. We have to see that birth and death is nirvana. If we are deeply in touch with birth and death, then we are in touch with nirvana. These two things are not separate; because of that, there is nobody in the stream of birth and death, and there’s nobody to go to nirvana. So we don’t have to do anything. We don’t even have to practice.

I wrote a poem about a stream, a little stream that begins at the top of a mountain. When the rain comes, it becomes a river. Many small streams come together to form the river, and the river flows down the mountain. We are describing a very young river. We are like this young river. When we are young, we are excited and we want to go very fast. Youth is always like that. We always want to attain something quickly. We all go through that stage; some have already gone through it, some are doing it right now. We want to attain something, we want to finish something, we want to go somewhere.

There are some young monks who very much want to become venerable elders quickly, so they act very serene, just like an old venerable one; they act older than their age. And there are some old monks who just want to wear the monastic robe of the novice monks so that they can look young.

So the young river was dancing and singing as he ran down the mountain quickly. He was very enthusiastic, and of course on the way he saw other streams and they all mingled together. We can see clearly that one stream, one river does not stay separate; it merges with many different streams as it travels. And our stream of life is the same: every day we have so many inputs, entering us all the time. If what enters into us is nourishing, that is good. But if what comes in is not fresh, it can make the stream of life not very good. Listening to the Dharma talk this morning is a nourishing input and helps us grow. The talk can contain insight and compassion. If we can absorb all of those little rivers within the Dharma talk, then our river later on will be very clear.

But also we have outputs. As the river flows down the mountain, it both takes in and gives out. For example, the river has to share some of the water with the grass. When the river arrives at the plains, there is no steep slope, so the river slows down. This happens to us as we grow older. We’re not excited; we have more peace. We have the ability to see what happens in the present moment because we have slowed down. When the river flows to the field it becomes a more peaceful river, and it has become larger, like the Fragrant River in Hue, the Red River in North Vietnam, the Mekong River, the Amazon River, the Mississippi, the Ganges.

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The Cloud Is Impermanent

When the river slows down, it has time to reflect many colorful clouds. Clouds have many, many colors. Then the river starts to become attached to the clouds: “Oh, that cloud is so beautiful! Ah, that cloud is also beautiful!” And the river runs from one cloud to another cloud.

We, too, are a river; we’re a stream of water and we become attracted to that cloud, that image. We become attached to many exciting, colorful, and interesting things. But the nature of everything is impermanent, including the cloud. Now the cloud is here, but in the afternoon it will move on.  As the clouds disappear, you run from one cloud to another cloud, trying to hold on. We, too, run after this or that project, after another beautiful woman, another handsome man. We feel some emptiness in our hearts and we are like a river running after a cloud. But the truth of the cloud is impermanence. Its nature is to disappear. We lose our breath running after this cloud, then another cloud, and then because we have that feeling of emptiness inside, we feel lonely.

Then one day the river is so sad, missing the clouds, and she has no desire to live. The sky is empty, there is no cloud to run after, nothing for us to run after. So the river wants to die. She wants to commit suicide, but the river cannot kill herself. It is impossible. A stream must continue; it cannot stop running.

And it is the same for us. We are a river of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We say we can kill ourselves, we can commit suicide. But we can never do this because we will just appear in another form. So we have to run in a way that the stream becomes larger and larger, more and more limpid, more and more beautiful, and go in the direction which makes life more beautiful. The river was so empty and so lost, but she has to come back to the river, back to herself.

Already Enlightened

For the first time the river listens to herself. When she listens at the edge of the river, and hears a little lapping of the waves, that is like the sobbing of the river. But looking deeply, suddenly she will see that, oh, this little wave on the side of the river is also the cloud. And I, the big river, am already a cloud. I have all the clouds in myself. I have all my projects in myself, all the dreams in myself, all the aims in myself.

The nature of the river is a cloud; the nature of the cloud is a river. Because they are both made of water. You are already water. Why do you run after water? You are already what you are running after. That is the first insight of the river.

In Buddhism we have three doors of liberation. (2) One of the doors is aimlessness.You don’t need to aim for anything.You don’t need to go anywhere. The third door of liberation is aimlessness. The second door is signlessness. The first one is emptiness.

Aimlessness means that you don’t need to aim for anything; you are what you are searching for. When the river realizes that she’s water, and that the cloud is in her because she is also water, she has no aim to run after, and she’s in peace. And it’s the same with us: we run after the Buddha, we run after satori, enlightenment. You don’t need to run after enlightenment; you are already enlightened. Where you are, steadily there, peaceful, clear in your mind, you are already what you are searching for.

When the river has found that deep vision, he runs peacefully and arrives at the ocean, which is also water. Wherever you are, you are already water. When conditions change and there is too much heat, you become water in the form of vapor, in the form of a cloud. Then as you flow peacefully as a river, there are plenty of clouds. But the river has no desire to run after the clouds because the river knows that all these clouds are himself. He doesn’t need to run after all these beauties, all these attachments. The river realizes that he is cloud.

And that night when the river realizes she is river, she is cloud, there is no discrimination between cloud and water vapor and water. That night there is a big enlightenment of cloud, moon, river, vapor, water, and they come together for walking meditation. They are together; they are one. They manifest in different forms, but they are one. They have already reached the door of liberation, aimlessness. They are not confused by the signs of their forms, and they experience non-self, interbeing. They are one.

Nirvana in You 

We see the wonders of every second, of every minute. The sunshine is so beautiful. The Sangha is so beautiful. We are a river; we must run. Why do you think you can kill yourself? You cannot kill a river. The river continues to search for a way to continue. That is your practice. You only need to practice like that. You don’t need to learn thousands of sutras.You just walk on the Earth, really be with the Earth, be with the sun. The Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder. You are one.

The Earth is a great bodhisattva, the sun is a great bodhisattva. We cannot be different, we cannot find a better bodhisattva. You need only to practice like this; it’s enough. When you can walk mindfully, deeply, be one with the Earth, be one with the sunshine, be one with the universe, you can see that every step brings you to that great reality. So all your doubt will be removed.

In reality, there is nothing lost, nothing increased. Losing here, increasing there, you can see that nothing lasts. So our brother is lost, but he appears here, there, and in yourself, in many other people. Don’t try to find nirvana far away. You can find nirvana in you, in the present moment. Nothing is born, nothing dies.

Everything is no-birth, no-death, no increasing, no decreasing. We see the world of suffering and we see the world of enlightenment, because we are dualistic in our view. If you can touch the world of beauty in the world of ugliness, then you can touch the world of suffering in the world of enlightenment. The world of enlightenment is within the world of suffering. Don’t think that enlightenment is different from ignorance. From ignorance you can get enlightenment. You have to see that in suffering there are quite a lot of elements to help you reach enlightenment.

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We have to learn to take care of our suffering in order to change, to transform, to be liberated. So when we have suffering, we have to suffer together. Don’t suffer alone. When you suffer alone you cannot find the way out. But if we suffer as a Sangha, together, we will find a way out. I’m very happy that I have you all together with me. I have gone through many difficult situations, but you are there, and we all work together for transforming our pain.

So like the river, don’t try to run after clouds. What you are running after is already here in you. The water is in you; the cloud is also water. It is not a promise of the future. Heaven is here and now. The Kingdom of God is now or never. You can stay where you are, not running after anything. You have to practice, “I have arrived, I am home.” That is our anchor. It means we dwell peace fully, happily, here and now.

I vow to bring my body, my mind, my action, and my speech to end all the war, the quarrels, and bring understanding and love to everyone. That is our duty. It’s our mission. Our mission is to bring understanding in life—to ourselves first—and then together, to one another. We try to bring understanding to close friends, to beloved ones both near and far away. We dwell peacefully, mindfully, in the present moment, in order to protect our beautiful green planet, and we vow to see the interbeing of everything in order to transcend the signs, the appearance. In this way we touch reality.

You have to be aware that every word influences the whole Sangha. Every bodily action influences the whole Sangha. When you think something, it influences the whole Sangha. You are a cell of a body. You have to think in a way that brings happiness and purity to the Sangha. You have to speak in a way that brings purity and understanding to the Sangha. We have to act in a way that brings understanding and beauty to the Sangha in order to create the Pure Land. To truly arrive, not to be carried away by appearances, to transcend the signs. You love me—it means you love you. You love you—it means you love me.

Applied Buddhism is the way to touch reality, in order to see that birth and death are only doors by which you enter and leave. It looks like you are born, it looks like you die, but really you are born every second, you are dying every second.

So, friends, don’t think that this body is just you, because you are a river. This river continues to flow and to flow. And if it stops here, it will appear on the other side.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong; edited by Sister Annabel and Barbara Casey.

1. Gatha 44 from the Yogacarabhumishastra by Acarya Asanga

2. The Three Doors of Liberation:

Emptiness: Interbeing; the realization that we are empty of a separate, independent self. When we practice eating meditation, seeing the cosmos in our food, this is the practice of emptiness.

Signlessness: Not getting caught in the appearance or the object of our perception; not being limited by the form: i.e., seeing that the cloud and the river are the same in essence, both made of water.

Aimlessness: The realization that we already have Buddha nature, that all the elements for happiness are already within us. The practice of aimlessness is the practice of freedom.

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Dharma Talk: Community as a Resource

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

We can make people happy. One person has the capacity to be an infinite resource of happiness for others. The more we practice the art of mindful living, the more we become a source of happiness and joy. This is possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh

But we need a place, such as a retreat center or a monastery, where we can go to renew ourselves. The features of the landscape, the buildings, and the sound of the bell should be designed to remind us to return to awareness. Even when we cannot actually go to the retreat center, we can think of it, smile, and feel ourselves becoming peaceful.

The community does not need to be big. It is enough to have ten or fifteen permanent residents who emanate freshness and peace, the fruits of living in awareness. When we go there, they care for us, console and support us, and help us heal our wounds.

From time to time, the residents can organize large retreats so that we can learn the arts of enjoying our lives more and taking good care of each other. Mindful living is an art, and this community can be a place where joy and happiness are real. They can also offer Days of Mindfulness, so that people can come and live one happy day together in community. And they can organize courses that teach The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and other courses on Buddhist psychology and healing in a Buddhist way. Most retreats will be for preventive practice, practicing mindful­ness before things get too bad. But some retreats should be for people who are undergoing a lot of suffering, although even then two-thirds of the retreatants should be healthy, happy people. Otherwise it may be difficult to succeed.

Practice has a lot to do with the happiness of the people in a family or a community. We practice not only in the meditation room, but in the kitchen, the backyard, the office, and in school as well. How can we incorporate practice into our daily lives, so that our daily lives can be joyful and happy?

The sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. When you are with your family and you practice smiling, breathing, recognizing the Buddha in yourself and your children, then your family becomes a sangha. If you have a bell in your home, the bell becomes part of your sangha, because the bell helps you to practice. If you have a cushion, then the cushion also becomes part of the sangha. Many things help us practice. The air, for breathing. If you have a park or a river bank near your home, you can enjoy practicing walking meditation. You have to discover your sangha. Invite a friend to come and practice with you, have tea meditation, sit with you, join you for walking medita­tion. All these efforts can help you establish your sangha at home. Practice is easier if you have a sangha.

The foundation of a community is a daily life that is joyful and happy. In Plum Village, children are the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children be happy, because we know that if the children are happy, it is easy for the adults to be happy. In old times, families were bigger. Not only nuclear families, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all lived together. Houses were surrounded by trees where they could hang hammocks and organize picnics. In those times, people did not have many of the problems we do now. Today, our families are very small. Besides Mom and Dad, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the whole family feels the effects. The atmosphere in the house is heavy, and there is nowhere to escape. Sometimes a child may go to the bathroom and lock the door just to be alone, but still there is no escape. The heavy atmosphere permeates the bathroom too. So the child grows up with many seeds of suffering and can never feel truly happy and then transmits these seeds to his or her children.

Formerly, when Mom and Dad had some problems, the children could always escape by going to an aunt or an uncle. They still had someone to look up to, and the atmosphere was not so threatening. I think that communities of mindful living can replace our former big families, be­cause when we go to these communities, we see many aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that can help us a lot.

You know that aged people are very sad when they have to live separately from their children and grandchildren. This is one of the things in the West that I do not like very much. In my country, aged people have the right to live with the younger people. It is the grandparents who tell fairy tales to the children. When they get old, their skin is cold and wrinkled, and it is a great joy to hold their grandchild, so warm, so tender. When a person grows old, his or her deepest hope is to have a grandchild to hold in his or her arms. They hope for it day and night, and when they hear that their daughter is pregnant, they are so happy. Nowadays the elderly have to go to a home where they live only among other aged people. Just once a week they receive a short visit, and afterwards they feel even sadder. We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.

A community of mindful living should be in a beautiful location in the countryside. In many cities today, you do not see a lot of trees, because so many trees have been cut down. I imagine—and I believe it is very close to reality—a city which has only one tree left. (I don’t know what kind of miracle helped preserve that one tree.) Many people in that city have become mentally ill because they are so alienated from nature, our mother. In the old time, we lived among trees and we sat in hammocks. Now we live in small boxes made of concrete. The air we breathe is not clean, and we get sick, not only in our bodies but in our souls.

I imagine that there is a doctor in the city who under­stands why everyone is getting sick, and every time some­one comes to him, he tells them, “You are sick because you are cut off from Mother Nature.” And he gives them this prescription: “Each morning, take the bus and go to the tree in the center of the city and practice tree-hugging medita­tion. Hold the tree and breathe in, ‘I am with my mother.’ Then breathe out, ‘I am happy.’ And look at the leaves so green and smell the bark of the tree that is so fragrant.” The prescription is for fifteen minutes of breathing and hugging the tree. After doing it for three months, the patient feels much better. But the doctor has many patients, and he gives each of them the same prescription.

So I imagine a bus in the city going in the direction of the tree, while people are standing in line, waiting their turn to embrace the tree and breathe. But the line is several miles long, and the crowd is becoming impatient because they have to wait for such a long time. They demand new laws which will limit each person to just one minute of tree-hugging. But one minute is not long enough to be effective, and then there is no remedy for society’s sickness. I am afraid we will be close to that situation very soon, if we are not mindful of what is going on in the present moment.

When we practice mindful living, we know what is going on in every moment of our daily lives. When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, we know it is a banana peel, and that banana peels decompose quickly and become flowers. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we have to know that it is a plastic bag. This is a practice of meditation: “I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage can.” If we practice mindfulness, we will refrain from using things made of plastic, because we know that they take much more time to degrade into soil and become flowers. And we know that disposable diapers take four or five hundred years, so we refrain from using them. Nuclear waste, the most difficult kind of garbage, takes 250,000 years to become a flower. We are making the Earth an impossible place for our children to grow up.

Practicing mindfulness with friends allows us to get in touch with the healing aspects of life, Breathing mindfully the clean air, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves, our friends, and society. Smiling, we realize peace and joy. Communities of mindful living are very important for us to cultivate these practices.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lecture at the “Cultivat­ing Mindfulness” Retreat, Mt. Madonna Center, Watson­ville, California, April 1989.

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Dharma Talk: Five Wonderful Precepts

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

When we think about peace, we usually think about the absence of war and nuclear weapons, or the absence of social injustice. But I would like to raise a question concern­ing our ability to enjoy peace. Even if peace is present, if we are not able to enjoy it, then what is the use of having peace? Peace is relative. Even if we do not have perfect peace, we can have some peace right now, in the present moment. But many of us do not seem capable of enjoying peace in the present moment, in ourselves, or around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Many of us find peace boring, and so we do things that create war. We drink cognac, for instance, in order to feel better, when we feel bored with life—with the air we breathe, the sky above, the river that flows—and we need something else. But drinking cognac is not making peace, because cognac is made of grain, and many people in the world starve because they don’t have enough grain to eat. The fact that we drink cognac means that we are not reconciled with the people in the Third World, and there­fore, drinking cognac is not an act of peace.

We do other things, such as commit sexual misconduct and intoxicate ourselves, because we feel a vacuum within ourselves and we want to fill it. By doing these things, we destroy our happiness and the happiness of our children and grandchildren. I think this is due to the fact that we have not developed the capacity of enjoying peace. We have to educate ourselves and our children to learn to enjoy peace. By enjoying peace, we make peace stronger and more real in the world. Practicing mindfulness in the present moment is the basic way of making peace and building peace.

I know that the lack of mindfulness has led to a lot of suffering in our daily life. Many families have been broken because of sexual misconduct, alcoholism, and drug addic­tion, and their children and grandchildren continue to suffer and to transmit suffering to future generations. The seeds of suffering that they have will be transmitted to their children and grandchildren. Eventually, you will need a Twelve-Step Program to get out of it. Taking the precepts and practicing them is a “One-Step Program.” It’s much easier.

In my recent tour of North America, I emphasized very much the practice of looking deeply into the causes of our suffering so that we can overcome them. I have encouraged people in the U.S. to practice in the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. When the Buddha was about to pass away, he told his disciple, “Ananda, after I am gone, the community of monks and nuns should look upon the practice of the precepts as their teacher.” So I encouraged people who participated in retreats to take the Five Precepts and to practice them.

In the past, I was not very fond of ordaining people or having disciples. I tried to avoid that, especially when I saw that there were many other teachers. But during my visit last year, I changed my idea. We have to support each other, and the practice of the precepts is very important to help us. We do not practice meditation alone. We practice with a teacher and with friends. When you have a good sangha, your prac­tice is easy, because you are supported by the sangha. A sangha that is practicing a good Dharma is healthy, joyful, and happy. If you have a sangha like that, it is very easy to practice. You have to build your own sangha. You yourself have to be the first element of a good sangha, When the flower in you is real, you can help other members of the sangha. If you have a good sangha, you are a happy person.

The Five Precepts are the foundation for practicing with others. They have been practiced for more than 2,500 years. Buddha gave the Five Precepts to the father of a monk named Yasa, when he asked the Buddha what he could do that would allow him to live more like his son. Yasa was the Buddha’s sixth disciple, a wealthy young man, ordained just after the Buddha ordained his five ascetic friends. If members of a family or a sangha observe and recite these precepts regularly, Buddhism becomes a living reality. Once the precepts are received, we have to practice and recite them at least once a month. If we do not practice the precepts, the precepts’ body will cease to be a reality and the practice of Buddhism will become impossible. Bud­dhists of many generations have practiced these precepts in order to maintain happiness and to be of help to others. The Five Precepts are principles for peaceful co-existence between people and also between nations.

No one can impose anything on us. We are free people, and we do only the things we want to do. But we know that there is a kind of illness in our society, and practicing the precepts is a very good medicine that can protect us and our families and safeguard our happiness. Buddhist precepts are not commandments. To word them in a way that does not sound like commandments may be useful for a lot of people, but we have to word them in a clear, strong way. The wording of the Five Precepts may not be perfect, and those of you who practice them might like to think about the words and help all of us express the precepts in a clear way. But we want to avoid any misunderstanding.

Mindfulness is the fundamental precept. Think of the precepts as the manifestation of mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are responsible. Precepts do not have to dictate our behavior. We don’t need an elaborate code of behavior. Mindfulness is enough. Mindfulness is a torch that can show us the way. Buddhism, the practice of Buddhist meditation, should address the real issues of our life. It should address the issues of our suffering. Whatever suffering we have in the present moment, the practice of Buddhism should help. We should not say that these are only personal things, that we only deal with ultimate reality, supreme enlightenment. These do not mean anything if they have nothing to do with our daily life, with our daily suffering. So, please confront the real issues, the real problems of our life, and inquire.

If we students and teachers do not practice the precepts, we are not faithful to the tradition. We can even destroy each other. Therefore, in a community practicing Buddhist meditation, students and teachers alike have to practice the precepts, the basic teaching of Buddhism. We have to help each other. You know that you or your teacher is not practicing intelligently when you drink alcohol or engage in sexual misconduct. You believe that your teacher has insight, but if someone has insight, how could he or she do things like that? You know that alcoholism has destroyed so much of this country. Sexual misconduct has destroyed so many families and caused many young people to suffer. Even someone who does not practice Buddhism knows this and tries to avoid these kinds of things. How could practi­tioners of Buddhist meditation not practice this?

Someone said, “In the Zen tradition, people are not restricted, they are free. They don’t practice the Five Precepts.” To me, Zen Buddhism is just Buddhism. Every Buddhist practices meditation. Zen is meditation—whether it is in Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana—people practice meditation. To practice the Five Precepts is the minimum. The Five Precepts are Zen itself. So, you cannot say that Zen does not practice the Five Precepts. That is a distortion. To me, to teach, we have to preach by our own lives, not just by a sermon or a Dharma talk.

It is in practicing that we get enlightened in every second, every minute of our lives. The Buddhist teaching on suffering is very deep, very complete, about how to deal with your anguish, fear, anger, and frustration, and about how to deal with your family and your community. All these can be found in the teaching of the Buddha. If you practice correctly, you will get healed, you will be happy and joyful. You don’t need to practice ten years in order to get results. Only one day or two days a week will bring you something positive and good. As you progress on your way, you will be able to help other people also. I believe it is the time that practitioners of Buddhism in this country begin to practice the precepts seriously, responding to the kind of sufferings that have been going on in many Buddhist communities.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the spirit of the Five Precepts is present. If you go back to your traditions, you will find the equivalent of these precepts. I see very much the need for this kind of practice, and I urge you, if you don’t want to practice the Five Precepts in this Buddhist version, to go back to your Jewish or Christian traditions and ask that the equivalent of the Five Precepts be restored.

Peace is important but we have to educate ourselves and our children to enjoy peace. Otherwise, peace will be boring. There are so many positive elements, peaceful elements within us and around us, and we have to live mindfully in order to get in touch with these in order for us to have a joyful and happy life. Someone said, “Thay, when do I know that I am ready for the precepts?” I said, “The sooner the better.”

The First Precept 

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. 

The more we practice and study the precepts, the more we understand their depth.The First Precept, not to kill, is not easy, and no one can say that he or she observes it perfectly. If we are mindful in trying to practice this precept, we will see that we may be unintentionally killing people, animals, or plants, for example, by consuming alcohol, reading newspapers, or eating meat. I think all these things pertain to the precept of non-killing. So we have to be very careful to be able to practice this precept. Things are inter-con­nected. When we eat grapes or drink coffee, we may think that it has nothing to do with killing, but that is not true. So we have to be very mindful in order to deeply practice the precepts.

Sometimes we do not speak out against killing, and that is also violating the precepts. “Do not kill. Do not let others kill.” It is very difficult. You cannot do it perfectly. To practice the precept means you have the intention to go in the direction of not killing. You do the maximum in your power not to kill and not let others kill. The essential is not to be perfect but to go in that direction. When we boil some vegetables to eat, we may think that we are avoiding killing, but by boiling the vegetables, we kill many tiny beings in the water. So our vegetable dish is not entirely vegetarian. No one, including the Buddha, can practice this precept perfectly. He told his disciples not to travel much during the rainy seasons, in order to avoid stepping on tiny living beings. They were trying their best to avoid killing.

We should not be too proud of being nonviolent. Trying to be nonviolent is like looking at the North Star in order to go north. We do not intend to arrive at the North Star; we only want to go north. That is the spirit of the precepts. We want to go in the direction of non-killing, nonviolence, and we make a little progress every day. We have to try all our lives in order to understand the precept better and to practice it better.

The precept is a guideline, a direction. Every time you practice the recitation of the precept, the person who leads the ceremony will say something like this: “This is the first of the Five Precepts. Have you made an effort to study and to practice it during the last two weeks?” You don’t say yes or no. You breathe three times and let the question enter, and you act from there. That is good enough, because “yes” is not entirely correct. You might have made an effort but still think that it is not enough. So, the intention is to help you move in that direction. If you say, “No,” that is not correct either, because you have practiced.

This precept needs a lot of study and practice. It is not as easy as you may think. Trying to go in the direction of the precepts, we become a shining light, and people will follow our example. 

The Second Precept 

Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffer­ing of other species on earth.

Bringing to our awareness the pain caused by social injustice, this precept urges us to work for a more livable society. This precept is linked with the First Noble Truth (awareness of suffering), Right Livelihood (of the Eightfold Path), and the First Precept (the protection of life). In order to deeply comprehend the Second Precept, we need to meditate on all these teachings.

Developing ways of preventing others from enriching themselves on human suffering is the primary duty of legislators, politicians, and revolutionary leaders. However, each of us can also act in this direction. To some degree, we can stay close to oppressed people and help them protect their right to life and defend themselves against oppression and exploitation. 

The Third Precept 

Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.

It is quite clear. This is not just Buddhist; it is universal. It is the right medicine for our illness. When we and our children take the precepts, it means we accept the medicine to protect us.

Sexual misconduct is the cause of many troubles in society, and therefore, the Third Precept is very important. Many things in our lives—films, commercials, magazines—stimulate and create impulses for sexual aggression. This kind of sexual expression has caused a lot of mental stress, and therefore, I think we should look for effective ways to heal society in this respect.

Even in practicing communities, this precept is not practiced seriously enough. I think we need a conference, a long retreat, in order to work on this very big issue. Various forms of suffering have resulted from the Iack of the practice as far as this precept is concerned. Therefore, I would urge young people to begin to practice the Five Precepts, and the parents also should be companions of their children, practicing the Five Precepts. 

The Fourth Precept 

Do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.

The Fourth Precept is about right speech. You know that sometimes we destroy our happiness just because we are not mindful in saying things. Saying things is an art. To use our speech is to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance, and we should be very artful and mindful while speaking. What is described in the precept is not everything, just a few essential lines. Words can build up a lot of happi­ness, but they can also destroy. Practicing right speech, loving speech, is very important in our lives. We have to learn a lot about the art of speaking.

The essence of the Fourth Precept is concord. Commu­nity life is only possible with concord. There are six principles of community life prescribed by the Buddha: living together at one place, sharing material resources, observing the same precepts, sharing the understanding of Dharma and the experience of practice with each other, reconciling differing viewpoints, and practicing kind speech to avoid all quarrels. These Six Concords have been practiced by Buddhist communities since the Buddha’s time and are still relevant.

Kind speech is born from understanding and patience. Only understanding and care can bring about change. Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict. Not only do both sides bear partial responsibility, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in mindfulness, we could have seen the beginning phases of the conflict and helped to end or avoid it.

Our awareness of the need to reconcile will empower us to work in that direction. The success of reconciliation will be the success of understanding and compassion for the other side as well as for ourselves.

The Fifth Precept 

Do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your parents, and also to betray the future generations. 

When we realize the interconnectedness between our ancestors, our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves, we see that by taking care of ourselves, we take care of all of them. Someone who practices the Fifth Precept could not say, “This is my body. I can do anything to it. I have the right to.” They cannot say that, because they know that their body belongs to all their ancestors, themselves, and the future generations.

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Meditation is to look at things in a way that you can see the roots and the fruits of those things. Mindfulness allows that kind of perception. When we look at a glass of whiskey with mindfulness, concentration and understanding will come. We will see the roots of the whiskey. A lot of grain is used to produce meat and alcohol. If we look more deeply at the glass of whiskey, we will see that many people in the world starve because they do not have enough grain to eat. When we see that, we will stop drinking whiskey very soon. Cereals, and the lack of cereals for hungry people, are the roots of whiskey. We know that the fruits of the whiskey include the death of hungry children, liver cancer, and a nervousness that you have in the future. These are all fruits of the whiskey. So mindfulness is the base of all precepts. Drinking a glass of whiskey with mindfulness is already practicing the precepts, because if you drink with deep mindfulness, you will live with the reality of the world and you will stop drinking very soon.

Someone asked me, “I don’t get drunk. I only have a glass of wine when I attend a reception. Isn’t it okay to drink a little bit of wine in situations like that?” 

I don’t think so. I don’t think that those who practice the Fifth Precept should drink even a glass of beer or wine, because one glass of wine will bring about the second glass, and so on. Those who are alcoholic all begin with one glass. That is why it is better not to take a drop of alcohol. During a reception, if you are offered a glass of alcohol, you say, “Thank you very much, but I do not drink alcohol. May I have a glass of juice, or something?” That is beautiful. The best teaching is with your own life, not with a sermon.

It is like when someone offers you a cigarette, you say, “Thank you, I do not smoke.” It’s very good. So those who practice this precept should be clear about it, because you do not practice it for yourself alone. You practice for your friends and other people. There are many things that are delicious to drink, so many wonderful things to drink, and nobody will die if they don’t drink alcohol. I am very firm on this, because the first drop wilt bring the second drop. And when we become alcoholic, it’s very difficult, very difficult. Too many children suffer because their parents are alcoholics. So please just stop. This is the One-Step Program.

Just stopping is a compassionate act for future genera­tions and also for our friends. Many generations have suffered from alcoholic parents and then had to undergo a very long procedure to heal the wounds. Taking precepts is much easier. That is why we should encourage our children to receive and practice the Five Precepts. And we ourselves have to practice in order to support our children. Practicing the Five Precepts is not only for our own good, but for the good of the society.

 

The Five Wonderful Precepts 

  1. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.
  2. Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffering of other species on earth.
  3. Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the suffering you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.
  4. Do not, say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or con­demn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that can cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.
  5. Do not use alcohol and other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors and your parents and also to betray the future generations.

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

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single Parenting 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Awarenesses 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples’ feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child’s life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “No talent. Needs to be better motivated.” This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher’s Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students’ families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words “true person” were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, “Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?” The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, “Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?” Disappointed by the monk’s question, Linchi said, “That true person? What the heck!” No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach’s acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill’s content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

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Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother’s illness. We should tell people, “Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance.” We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. “Resis­tance” does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society’s pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society’s destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, “In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you.” The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father’s request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him “the destitute son.” No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos:
First photo by Ingo Gunther.
Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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Dharma Talk: The Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Noble Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, Right Action and Right Effort. Right View is the insight that we have within us of the reality of life. Our insight, understanding, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and the happiness of those around us depend very much on the degree of Right View that we have. That is why Buddhist practice always aims at helping us develop a deeper understanding of what is going on within us and around us.

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Right View can be termed prajna. It can also be described as enlightenment, understanding, or wisdom. There are people who practice hard, but instead of developing Right View, they become more narrow-minded. By looking at their insight, their capacity of understanding, their ways of loving others, we can know whether their practice is correct or not. It is not a problem of the mind or the heart. It is a problem of right practice. Right practice is always pleasant and joyful in this very moment and always leads to dissolving notions and developing Right View.

Can Right View be transmitted to another person? This is an important question. Sometimes parents have a deep understanding of life, but they are unable to transmit their insight to their children. There are many reasons for this. One is communication. If the line of communication is broken, no matter how much insight you have, you cannot transmit it. Another is that you do not speak the same language. A third is that your insight might be too personalized. It works for you, but it must be practiced and presented in another way to others.

Wisdom insight is the kind of energy that makes us happy, alive, and loving. Sometimes we try to express it in words, as in the sutras or the Abhidharma, the treatise on the Dharma. When the Buddha was fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he had that kind of energy in him, prajna. It made him very happy and loving. He wanted to share that insight with others; that is why he thought of the five ascetics who had practiced with him in the past. But before he set off for the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha remained near the Bodhi tree to enjoy his enlightenment. Enlightenment is enjoyable. The Buddha practiced sitting, walking, smiling to the trees, and playing with children from the village of Uruvela.

One day he went to a nearby lotus pond and sat for a long time, contemplating the lotus flowers and leaves. It was at that moment he discovered a way to communicate his insight to others. Insight is not made of concepts, but if you want to share your insight, you must use concepts, words, and notions. As the Buddha was looking at the lotus pond, he realized that people are of many different psychologies. Like the lotuses, some have roots deep in the mud, some have leaves still curled and underwater, some have buds partially exposed to the air, and some have leaves entirely above the water. That is why we need different means to share the Dharma with various kinds of people. The intention to create different Dharma doors was born at that time. One Dharma door is not enough.

During his 49 days of enjoying himself – sitting and walking around the Bodhi tree – the Buddha continued to translate his insight into notions and words. Then, during his first Dharma to the five ascetics, he spoke about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are the eight right practices. A sutra, or a Dharma talk, is a translation of the insight that has been achieved. Dharma talks are not insight in and of themselves. Sutras are just means of presenting insight in terms of concepts and notions. Even if it is a good description of the insight in terms of notions and words, there may be some difficulty. When you buy a map of New York City, you know that the map is not the city. You just use it to enjoy the city. It is important not to mistake the map for the city itself. Many people get caught by notions and words and miss the real insight. The Buddha said, “My teaching is like a finger pointing to the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” Do not get caught by the words and the notions, or you will never touch the real insight.

The Buddha also said, “My teaching is like a raft that can help you get to the other shore. Don’t grasp at the raft and think that the raft is the shore.” Another day he said, “It is dangerous to misunderstand my teaching. If you don’t learn and practice with intelligence, you will spread more harm than good. It is like a person who does not know the better way to catch a snake. He may get bitten by it. A clever person will use a forked stick to catch the snake by the back of the neck, so he can pick it up safely. If you catch a snake by the tail, you may be bitten. Learning and practicing the Dharma is the same. You need intelligence, you need a teacher, you need sisters and brothers in the Dharma to help you learn and practice.”

Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. Right View is living insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace. It is quite different from Dharma talks, sutras, or books. We must use words and notions and the understanding behind them. Imagine someone who has never eaten a kiwifruit. When he hears the word “kiwi,” many concepts or notions are created in his mind. If you try to explain a kiwi to him, you might describe it as a fruit of such and such size, a certain color, feel, and taste. But no matter how well you do the job, you cannot give the other person the direct experience of the kiwi. It must be tasted. That is the only way. No matter how intelligent the other person is, kiwi cannot be understood until he places a slice of kiwi into his mouth. The same difficulty confronts anyone trying to convey insight or enlightenment. You must have direct experience. We practice mindfulness, concentration, and looking, touching, and understanding deeply, so that insight might be possible.

Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View are the basis of the practice. The practice of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are easy and natural when the practice of Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View have become solid. The Venerable Nyanaponika, a German-born bhikkhu, has described mindfulness as the heart of Buddhist meditation. I fully agree. Right Thinking is a practice, and its essence lies in mindfulness. If you are not mindful, your thinking cannot be right. If you are not mindful, how can you practice Right Speech? You can make a lot of people unhappy and create a war within your community or family. That is why mindfulness in speaking is the heart of right speech. Right Action – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. – cannot be practiced properly unless mindfulness is the foundation of your being. The same applies to Right Livelihood; if you are mindful of the ecosystem and the suffering of other species, your attempt to practice Right Livelihood has a chance to succeed. If you are not mindful about what is happening to the earth, the water, the air, the suffering of humans and animals, how can you practice Right Livelihood? Mindfulness must be the basis of your practice. If your efforts are not mindful, those efforts will not bring about the good result you hope for. Without mindfulness, the more effort you make, the more you can create suffering and disorder. That is why Right Effort, too, should be based on mindfulness.

When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, concentration, and Right View are the essence of Buddhist practice. They are called the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight). Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to protect all life. I vow not to kill.” That First Precept is born from mindfulness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. Precepts are a concrete expression of mindfulness. I you don’t practice the precepts, you cannot say that you are practicing mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to practice the precepts in your daily life.

“Aware of the destruction of families and couples, aware of the suffering of the children who are sexually molested by others, I promise to practice protecting the integrity of the individual and the family. I vow to protect children from abuse. I vow to refrain from any act that creates a disintegration of families or couples. I vow to do my best to protect children.” This Third Precept is born from our mindfulness of what happens when we practice sexual misbehavior. All precepts, whether they number 5, 10, 14, 250, or 380, are born from the practice of mindfulness. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are all practices of the precepts. When you live your daily life this way, your mindfulness will grow. The energy of mindfulness brings about concentration. You are concentrated in your daily life. You are concentrated in your sitting and walking meditation, and you look deeply and touch deeply, which brings about more and more insight. More insight helps you practice mindfulness in your daily life more easily.

If we look into any one of the eight branches of the path, we see that the other seven are present in it. If we look at Right Speech, insight is present because correct speech is born from insight. We can see that we have concentration. If we are speaking mindfully about something, we know what we are saying. Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also found in Right Speech. We can see the nature of interbeing in all elements of the path.

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Mindfulness practice must be applied to our daily life in order to be true practice. At Plum Village, we practice not only in the meditation hall, but in the kitchen, the garden, and the bathroom as well. It is helpful to slow down. We enjoy walking, reading, bending down, and all that we do in mindfulness. When you drive, hold your baby, wash your dishes, or work at the office, you can practice mindfulness. But for that to be possible, you need the support of a Sangha. You must create a Sangha where you live, because you need the support of brothers and sisters in the practice. The Buddha was quite clear that the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of our daily lives, not of intensive retreats alone. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of an engaged Buddhist. Right Action – not to kill but to protect all life, not to steal but to be generous in giving time and energy for the people who suffer, not to break up families and couples, not to harm children but to protect them – all these things are meant to be practiced in real life.

To say “engaged Buddhism” is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not “engaged?” To communicate, we must use words, and hopefully our words will be heard and understood. In his first Dharma talk to the five ascetics at Deer park, the Buddha offered the Noble Eightfold Path, and in his last Dharma talk, spoken to the monk Sudhana, the Buddha also offered the Noble Eightfold Path. He said that where there is the Noble Path, there is insight. We must use our intelligence to apply the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to our daily lives.

The practice of Right View helps us develop a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. If you have deep insight into the truth of the suffering of beings, the truth of origination, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path, you have Right View. In fact, if you have a deep insight into any of these Four Noble Truths, you have deep insight into all four. Each truth contains all the others. This is the teaching of the Buddha about Right View from the historical dimension.

From the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said about Right View. There is a Zen story about two monks walking together. One sees a beautiful bird fly by. It is so beautiful that he wants to share the sight with the other monk. But the other monk has a pebble in his shoe and he is bending down to remove it. When the other monk looks up, there is no bird at all. So he asks, “What is it you want me to see?” But the bird is no longer there. All the first monk can say is, “A beautiful bird has just passed by.” It is not the same as showing him the bird. It is impossible for him to share his wonderful feeling. Sometimes we must just be quiet, when it is impossible to convey the insight.

A philosopher came to the Buddha and asked, “Is there a self? Is there a world?” Bombarded with questions like these, the Buddha said nothing. The philosopher became frustrated and left. Finally Ananda asked the Buddha, “You always say there is no self. Why didn’t you tell him?” The Buddha replied, “Anything I would have said would have done him more harm than good. I said nothing at all, to protect him from wrong views.”

Another time, an ascetic asked the Buddha to explain ultimate reality without using the terms being and nonbeing. The Buddha maintained silence for a long time, and the ascetic bowed three times and left. Ananda marveled and stated, “Lord, you did not say anything, yet he seemed to understand you.” The Buddha replied, “For a good horse, you don’t need a whip.”

Sometimes in Zen circles, they use language that is difficult to understand. This language is not made of concepts. It is a language to help us drop our concepts. From time to time, I try to use that kind of language myself. In 1968, when I was in Philadelphia for a peace demonstration, a reporter asked me, “Are you from the north or the south?” He wanted to put me in a box. If I said I am from the north, he would think I was anti-American. If I said I am from the south, he would think I was either with the National Liberation Front or pro-American. So I smiled and said, “I am from the center.” I hoped that would help him find a way to transcend the conflict. To understand the speech used in Zen circles, you must become familiar with this kind of language.

One Zen student said to his teacher, “I have been at the monastery for three years, and you have never told me about the true way of ultimate reality.” The teacher pointed his finger and said, “Monk, do you see the cypress in the front yard?” It is very important to notice the trees in the front yard. That monk had been living in the monastery for several years and he passed that cypress tree thousands of times, yet he never became aware of its presence. If he had been mindful, he could have touched the ultimate reality directly. How could he expect to touch ultimate reality if he had not even touched the tree in the front yard?

The story of that cypress tree became very well known throughout China. Another monk who heard the story of the cypress tree traveled very far to visit that teacher to ask him about it. But by the time the monk arrived, the teacher had already passed away. He was distraught as he now had no chance to ask his question. Another monk pointed him in the direction of the former teacher’s head disciple and suggested he direct his questions to him. The visiting monk went through many formalities to obtain an audience with this disciple, who was now senior monk. After listening to the visitor’s inquiry about the famous cypress tree, the senior monk answered, “Cypress tree? There is no cypress tree here.” The visitor could not believe it; the entire country had heard about that cypress tree. It had become an important topic of debate. Yet the head of the very temple where it originated did not seem to know anything about it? He tried to explain to the head monk that it was a very deep subject of meditation. He asked him if he was really the disciple of the master. The senior monk replied, “I am.”

When I first heard this story, I understood the senior monk’s intention to “kill” the cypress. Too many people were caught by it. If the visiting monk is intelligent enough, he can be enlightened by this “new” cypress. The cypress is a Dharma door. When you understand this type of exchange, you change your way of looking and understanding, and that can help lead you to enlightenment.

Another teacher when asked a philosophical question, replied, “Have you eaten breakfast?” When the disciple said, “Yes,” the teacher said, “Then please go and wash your dishes.” Washing the dishes mindfully is the door to the ultimate reality, the key to Right View and the whole Noble Eightfold Path. In the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra it is said, “no ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path; no understanding, no attainment” – no Right View, no Right Thinking. These are all notions, and you must free yourself from notions and words. The Buddha said, “My teaching is just a raft to help you get to the other shore. Don’t be caught by the raft.” We do our best practice this way.

This lecture was given in Plum Village during the 1994 Summer Opening. A book on Basic Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh will be published later this year.

Photos:
First photo by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.
Second photo by Tran Van Minh

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Dharma Talk: True Presence

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Four Mantras 

When you love someone, you have to be truly present for him or for her. A ten-year-old boy I know was asked by his father what he wanted for his birthday, and he didn’t know how to answer. His father is quite wealthy and could afford to buy almost anything he might want. But the young man only said, “Daddy, I want you!” His father is too busy – he has no time for his wife or his children. To demonstrate true love, we have to make ourselves available. If that father learns to breathe in and out consciously and be present for his son, he can say, “My son, I am really here for you.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The greatest gift we can make to others is out true presence. “I am here for you” is a mantra to be uttered in perfect concentration. When you are concentrated – mind and body together – you produce your true presence, and anything you say is a mantra. It does not have to be in Sanskrit or Tibetan. A mantra can be spoken in your own language: “Darling, I am here for you.” And if you are truly present, this mantra will produce a miracle. You become real, the other person becomes real, and life is real in that moment. You bring happiness to yourself and to the other person.

“I know you are there, and I am very happy” is the second mantra. When I look at the moon, I breathe in and out deeply and say, “Full moon, I know you are there, and I am very happy.” I do the same with the morning star. Last spring in Korea, walking mindfully among magnolia trees, I looked at the magnolia flowers and said, “I know you are there and I am very happy.” To be really present and know that the other is also there is a miracle. When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, if you are really there, you will recognize and appreciate it deeply. Looking at the sunset, you feel very happy. Whenever you are really there, you are able to recognize and appreciate the presence of the other – the full moon, the North Star, the magnolia flowers, or the person you love the most.

First you practice breathing in and out deeply to recover yourself, and then you sit close to the one you love and, in that state of deep concentration, pronounce the second mantra. You are happy, and the person you love is happy at the same time. These mantras can be practiced in our daily life. To be a true lover, you have to practice mindfulness of breathing, sitting, and walking in order to produce your true presence.

The third mantra is: “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” When you are mindful, you notice when the person you love suffers. If we suffer and if the person we love is not aware of our suffering, we will suffer even more. Just practice deep breathing, then sit close to the one you love and say, “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” Your presence alone will relieve a lot of his or her suffering. No matter how old or young you are, you can do it.

The fourth mantra is the most difficult. It is practiced when you yourself suffer and you believe that the person you love is the one who has caused you to suffer. The mantra is, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” Only five words, but many people cannot say it because of the pride in their heart. If anyone else had said or done that to you, you would not suffer so much, but because it was the person you love, you feel deeply hurt. You want to go to your room and weep. But if you really love him or her, when you suffer like that you have to ask for help. You must overcome your pride.

There is a story that is well-known in my country about a husband who had to go off to war, and he left his wife behind, pregnant. Three years later, when he was released from the army, he returned home. His wife came to the village gate to welcome him, and she brought along their little boy. When husband and wife saw each other, they could not hold back their tears of joy. They were so thankful to their ancestors for protecting them that the young man asked his wife to go to the marketplace to buy some fruit, flowers, and other offerings to place on the ancestors’ altar.

While she was shopping, the young father asked his son to call him “daddy,” but the little boy refused. “Sir, you are not my daddy! My daddy used to come every night, and my mother would talk to him and cry. When mother sat down, daddy also sat down. When mother lay down, he also lay down.” Hearing these words, the young father’s heart turned to stone.

When his wife came home, he couldn’t even look at her. The young man offered fruit, flowers, and incense to the ancestors, made prostrations, and then rolled up the bowing mat and did not allow his wife to do the same. He believed that she was not worthy to present herself in front of the ancestors. His wife was deeply hurt. She could not understand why he was acting like that. He did not stay home. He spent his days at the liquor shop in the village and did not come back until very late at night. Finally, after three days, she could no longer bear it, and she jumped into the river and drowned.

That evening after the funeral, when the young father lit the kerosene lamp, his little boy shouted, “There is my daddy.” He pointed to his father’s shadow projected on the wall and said, “My daddy used to come every night like that and my mother would talk to him and cry a lot. When my mother sat down, he sat down. When my mother lay down, he lay down.” “Darling, you have been away for too long. How can I raise our child alone? She cried to her shadow.” One night the child asked her who and where his father was. She pointed to her shadow on the wall and said, “This is your father.” She missed him so much.

Suddenly, the young father understood, but it was too late. If he had gone to his wife even yesterday and asked, “Darling, I suffer so much. Our little boy said a man used to come every night and you would talk to him and cry with him, and every time you sat down, he also sat down. Who is that person?” she would have had an opportunity to explain and avert the tragedy. But he did not because of the pride in him.

The lady behaved the same. She was deeply hurt because of her husband’s behavior, but she did not ask for his help. She should have practiced the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer so much. Please help. I do not understand why you will not look at me or talk with me. Why didn’t you allow me to prostrate before the ancestors? Have I done anything wrong?” If she had done that, her husband could have told her what the little boy had said. But she did not, because she was also caught in pride.

In true love, there is no place for pride. Please do not fall into the same trap. When you are hurt by the person you love, when you suffer and believe that your suffering has been caused by the person you love the most, remember this story. Do not act like the father or the mother of the little boy. Do not let pride stand in the way. Practice the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” If you really consider her to be the one you love the most in this life, you have to do that. When the other person hears your words, she will come back to herself and practice looking deeply. Then the two of you will be able to sort things out, reconcile, and dissolve the wrong perception.

The Practice of Loving Kindness

In our daily lives, we are often caught by wrong perceptions. We are human, and we make mistakes. When we listen unmindfully, we misunderstand the other person. We have to be aware of that. The Buddha said that we are caught many times a day by our wrong perceptions. We have to be careful not to be too sure of our perceptions. You might like to calligraphy these three words and put them on your wall as a bell of mindfulness: “Are you sure?”

When we look deeply, we often discover that it is we who cause ourselves the most suffering. We think our suffering is brought about by others – our parents, our partner, our so-called enemy – but when we look deeply, we see that out of forgetfulness, anger, or jealousy, we have said or done things to create our own suffering and the suffering of those around us. Suppose in the past I said something unkind to someone and made him suffer. Now, touching deeply the present, I can breathe in and out, smile to that person, and say, “I am sorry. I will never do that again.” When I practice this, I see the other person smiling to me even if he is not there, even if he has already passed away, and my wound can be healed. Touching the present deeply, we can heal the past. The practice of dwelling in the present moment can help us calm ourselves and transform our pain. If you were abused by your parents or your society, it is important to learn how to transform the violence that is within you, so that violence will stop destroying you and those around you.

Whenever there is a fight between parents and children, both sides lose. Children who have been sexually abused by adults often feel helpless. They feel that violence will eventually destroy them. It is very important to learn the art of transforming the energy of violence in you into something more positive, like understanding or compassion. If you have suffered because of violence, you may tend to use that violence against yourself. That is why it is so important to practice looking deeply to take good care of the violence that is within you. Looking deeply, you will be able to see what could have caused the other person to act so violently towards you. You see the person who sexually abused you as someone who is sick and needs to be helped. Children who have been victims of that kind of sickness also need to be helped. If you are aware of their suffering, you will be able to generate the energy of compassion and bring about healing. In the past, you may have been animated by the energies of hatred, violence, and blaming, but through the practice of looking deeply, those energies can be gradually transformed into understanding and compassion. Compassion helps us understand others, even those who have caused our suffering. With compassion and loving kindness in us, we suffer much less.

Looking deeply, we can see the other person as our mother, father, or ourself. Then it is easy to act with compassion. The hatred and anger we have towards the other person prevent us from being happy or peaceful. But if we practice looking deeply into the other person, we see that she also suffers. She may be living in hell, and she needs help. Maybe you are the only one who can help. With that kind of insight, the stream of compassion suddenly begins to flow in your heart, and you suffer much less. Your insight is the fruit of your practice of looking deeply.

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Just as there is no need to worry about the past, there is no need to worry about the future. The future is made only of the present. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. If you walk deeply, drink deeply, and act deeply – in ways that bring real peace and joy to yourself and those around you – the future will be assured. When you have a fight with the person you love, try closing your eyes and visualizing yourself and the other person 200 years from now. After three breaths, open your eyes and I am sure you will see the other person differently. You will only want to take him or her into your arms and practice hugging meditation. Breathing deeply and holding the one you love, the energy of love, care, and mindfulness will penetrate her and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower. You will want to do everything you can to make her happy now. Don’t wait until tomorrow.

Taking care of the present moment, you recognize the presence of the sunset, the morning star, the magnolia blossoms, and the person in front of you. When you practice this way, you will not be lost in your worries or anxieties about the future, or caught by the suffering of the past. The teaching of the Buddha is clear. You only have to practice it. With the presence of a loving Sangha, it is easy.

Buddhist meditation is, first of all, living mindfully. We practice precepts (sila), concentration (Samadhi), and insight (prajna). Being present helps us touch and look deeply into whatever is there. When you live deeply each moment of your life, you will have insight into yourself and also the person you think is the cause of your suffering. When insight is present, it is easy to love and accept, and you will see that the other person is not your enemy. He is yourself, and he needs you in order to be transformed. With that insight, the nectar of compassion is born in your heat. That nectar is the Buddha, the Holy Spirit, God, and it is available to us twenty-four hours a day.

After practicing taking ourselves as the object of love, we change the word “I” into “he” or “she.” (See The Nine Prayers, below.) We can do that only when we have some understanding, peace, and solidity within ourselves. Self-love is the foundation for the love of others. We begin with love for someone we have sympathy with; then for someone we are fond of; and then for someone who has made us suffer. The children in Somalia, the victims of war in the former Yugoslavia, the children in my mother’s native village may be considered first as neutral, people we don’t really know. But if we touch them deeply, looking into them, they are no longer neutral to us. We see that they are ourselves, and suddenly compassion and loving kindness are born in us. They become true objects of our love. Finally, we come to the person we consider our enemy, the person who made us suffer. With the practice of deep looking and deep understanding, that person can also become the object of our love.

But first, we have to learn to look at ourselves with the eyes of understanding (prajna) and love (maître). Many of us cannot accept ourselves. We are at war with ourselves and want to run away from ourselves. Practicing looking deeply into ourselves and seeing the nature of the joy and pain within us, gradually we are able to accept, love, and take care of ourselves. “Know thyself” is the practice of love. If we look deeply into ourselves, we discover the conditions that have formed us and then we can accept ourselves – both our suffering and our happiness. So first of all, we accept ourselves as we are. Then we can accept the other person as she or he is. Looking deeply, we see how that person has been formed. Just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements, that person has been made of elements that are not him – his ancestors, his parents, his society, and so on. Once we see the causes and conditions that have made him, we are able to accept him and take good care of him.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, love is made of understanding. With understanding, you can love. To understand is to see all the difficulties, pain, and problems the other person is having. If you ignore the suffering and aspirations of the other person, how can you say you love him or her? But to love and understand is also to see the aspirations and hopes of the other person. To understand him more, you can go to him and ask, “I want to make you happy, but I do not understand you. Please help.” If you want to love someone you don’t understand, you might make him or her suffer more. A father has to go to his son and ask, “My son, do I understand you enough? Or is my love making you suffer?” Husbands have to ask wives the same question. Otherwise our love can suffocate the other person. It may be just a person for him or her. The practice of mindfulness helps us be there, look deeply, and understand the other person. We need to say to the other person, “I really want to love you and make you happy, but I need your help. Tell me what is in your heart. Tell me your difficulties. Tell me whether my way of loving is making you happy or unhappy.” That is the language of true love. We need the other person’s help to love properly and deeply.

All of us are subject to wrong perceptions. We have an idea of happiness and we want the people we love to follow that idea, but by forcing them to do so, we make them suffer. True love is always made of true understanding. That is in the teaching of the Buddha. “Looking with the eyes of compassion” is an expression from the Lotus Sutra, describing Avalokiteshvara. When you look at others with the eyes of compassion, not only do they feel pleasant but you also feel very pleasant, because understanding and love pervade your heart. The amount of happiness you have depends on the amount of compassion that is in your heart. Compassion always carries with it joy and freedom. If you love someone without understanding, you deprive her of her freedom.

In Buddhist psychology, we say that our consciousness is made of two levels. The lower level is called store consciousness (alayavijnana), like the basement. We keep all our seeds down there, and every time we or someone else waters a seed, that seed will sprout and manifest itself on the upper level of our consciousness, called mind consciousness (manovijnana). Mind consciousness is like the living room consciousness. Seeds in the storehouse consciousness manifest themselves in the living room consciousness. There are also mental formations. Mental formations are of 51 kinds, according to the Northern tradition of Buddhism. Mindfulness, loving kindness, hatred, violence, fear, equanimity, and faithfulness are mental formations. They manifest themselves on the upper level of our consciousness.

Our store consciousness is described as the soil, the earth, containing many positive and negative seeds. We have to be aware of all these seeds and their importance. We have seeds of suffering in us, but not only seeds of suffering. When we look deeply into ourselves, we hay touch the suffering first, but we should know that there are other seeds present. Our ancestors have transmitted to us seeds of suffering, but also seeds of peace, freedom, joy, and happiness. Even if these seeds are buried deep in our consciousness, we can touch them and help them manifest.

To touch the seeds of joy, peace, and love within you is a very important practice. You can ask your friends to do the same for you. If you love someone, you acknowledge their positive seeds, and practice touching them every day. Touching and watering the seeds in one person is a very concrete practice of love. If you love me please refrain from watering only the seeds of anger, despair, and hatred in me. If you love me, recognize the seeds of joy, gladness, peace, and solidity in me also and touch them, several times a day. That will help me grow in the direction of health, joy, and happiness.

To practice mindfulness is to practice selective touching. Your happiness and suffering depend on you and the people around you. If they refrain from touching your negative seeds, if they know the art of touching the positive seeds in you, you become a happy person and your suffering will gradually be transformed by that kind of selective touching.

We learn how to touch the beauty of the sky and the autumn leaves even if pain and sorrow are still there. If it is difficult, we have to rely on the presence of a Dharma sister or brother ot help us do so. If one mindful person, capable of joy and happiness, sits close to us, her energy of mindfulness and joy will support us and help restore our balance. Suddenly, with her sitting close, we are able to touch the blue sky and the colors of autumn again. I think all of us have had that kind of experience. Alone it may be difficult. But with someone beside you, solid and free, it is less difficult. We profit very much from his or her presence. If you find yourself in a desperate situation and that person is far away, you go to her, because her presence can help you restore your balance and get in touch with the positive elements that are within and around you. That is why a Sangha and a practice center are so crucial.

You need a practice center where you can find brothers and sisters, so that in difficult moments you know where to go to get support. Even if you cannot come, just thinking about it can give you some relief. Building a practice center, building a small Sangha in your city so that you have the opportunity of meeting other brothers and sisters for the practice of walking meditation, mindful breathing, tea meditation, and recitation of the precepts is very important. It is a raft that can rescue us.

One young American who practiced during the Winter Retreat at Plum Village was asked to write down all the positive traits of his father and his mother. He found it easy to list positive things concerning his father, but he was having difficulty with his mother. He was able to write only two or three positive things about her. But when he began to look deeply, he was surprised to find that he could touch many positive things in his mother. He practiced walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and all the activities of the Sangha. Then when he sat down to write, the insight came very naturally. In a few days he discovered dozens of positive qualities in his mother. The more his discovered, the more his resentment toward his mother vanished, and he reestablished his deep connection with her. Compassion and love flowed in his heart. Then he sat down and wrote a love letter to her.

When his mother received the letter, she was very moved. Her son had never talked to her that way, in the language of true love. He recognized all her qualities and felt grateful for her presence. She rediscovered her son and her own happiness. She regretted that her mother was not still alive so she could write the same kind of letter to her. The son then wrote another letter, saying, “Mother, my grandmother is still alive in you. You think that she has passed away, but she is still alive in you. You can touch her deeply. So why don’t you write that letter now? I am sure Grandmother will read your letter, even as you are writing it.” That was the insight he got in the practice – that all our ancestors are still alive in us. Our parents, even if we hate them and do not want anything to do with them, are still inside us. We are only a continuation of them. The son wrote the second letter to his mother, and his mother practiced writing the same letter to her mother. One person practicing may help the whole family to practice.

The practice of Buddhist meditation is the practice of true love. True love has the power to liberate us ad bring happiness to ourselves and to living beings around us. True love is the love that retains liberty and creates joy. We cannot be peaceful and happy if we do not have true love in us.

The Nine Prayers

  1. May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
  2. May I be free from injury. May I live in safety.
  3. May I be free from disturbance, fear, and anxiety.
  4. May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and of love.
  5. May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
  6. May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
  7. May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
  8. May I be able to live fresh, solid and free.
  9. May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

NOTE: After practicing “May I be…”, you can practice, “May he (or she) be…”, visualizing first someone you like, then the one you love the most, then someone who is neutral to you, and finally the person whom thinking of makes you suffer the most. Then you can practice, “May they be…’, beginning with the group, the people, the nation, or the species you like, then the one you love, then the one that is neutral to you, and finally the one you suffer the most when you think of.

Photos:
First photo by Simon Chaput.
Second photo by Debora Faust.

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Dharma Talk: Loving the Unlovable

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Sangha, today is the 28th of January, 1996. We are in the Lower Hamlet (of Plum Village). It is the Winter Retreat. With us today are friends from the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. In France we are in the middle of winter. In Australia it is the middle of summer. Time and space have been brought together. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the beginning of 1996, Plum Village invented the Telecom Dharma talk. The first was directed to Vietnam. The Vietnamese monks and nuns here were very happy and moved to be able to “go back” to our ancestral temple. This is the second Telecom Dharma talk, directed to the Australian continent. 

Do you have someone to love? If you do not love anyone, your heart may dry up. Love brings happiness to ourselves and to those we love. We may want to love children who are hungry, disabled, or abused, to relieve them of their suffering. We carry that love in our heart and hope that someday we will be able to realize it. But when we actually contact these children, they may appear to be difficult to love. They may be rude, they may lie, they may steal. After a short time, our love for them may fade. We had the idea that loving children who need our help would be wonderful, but when confronted with the reality, we cannot sustain our love. When we discover that the object of our love is not lovable, we feel deep disappointment, shame, and regret, as though we have failed. If we cannot love a poor or disabled child, who can we love?

Everyone has an image of the Buddha. We think that if we meet the Buddha, he will be easy to love. He has so much compassion and understanding. But what if scientists were to find a way for us to see the faces of those who lived in the past? We see stars that perished thousands of light-years ago. Perhaps images do not travel in straight lines. When you fly from Paris to Los Angeles, the plane goes in a circular route. Maybe the image of the Buddha is also traveling in a circle. The sight of the Buddha teaching his disciples on Gridhrakuta Peak, the sound of his voice, those images went into space 2,500 years ago. With the right instruments, perhaps we could capture those images and sounds and see and hear the Buddha. Then we would be able to compare the Buddha’s teachings with the recorded sutras and discover mistakes that were made when the sutras were written down after being transmitted orally for several centuries.

A monk at Plum Village said to me, “My image of the Buddha is so beautiful. If I could see the real Buddha, I am afraid he might not be as beautiful. What do you think the Buddha looked like?”

I said, “He may have looked like Mahatma Gandhi.” The monk was disappointed. To him, Gandhi is not as handsome as his image of the Buddha. I have visited families in Lumbini and Kapilavasu, belonging to the same Shakya clan as the Buddha, and I got an idea what the Buddha may have looked like.

We have beautiful images of Buddha and Jesus. We love our images and hold them in our store consciousness. But if we were to meet the Buddha at the Sainte Foy la Grande station (near Plum Village), I am not sure if we would love him. If we met Jesus in the Leclerc Supermarket, I am not sure we would love him as much as our image. Our images of the Buddha and Jesus may be quite different from the real Buddha and the real Jesus.

There were people at the time of the Buddha who did not love him. Some of his own monks left the Buddha’s Sangha to start an opposing Sangha. Some people tried to murder the Buddha. Others brought the body of a young woman to the Jeta Grove and accused the monks of violating and killing her. Love is not merely about enjoyment. It has to do with understanding. If we don’t truly understand, our love will vanish.

mb16-dharma2

We think we love disabled and hungry children, but the truth might turn out to be different. A number of monks, nuns, and laypeople from Plum Village want to go back to Vietnam to help the children there and to bring about unity and faith among people. They want their country to have a future. The war created much division, hatred, suspicion and destruction in the hearts of people. These monks, nuns, and laypeople want to go home and walk on their native land. They want to embrace the people, relieve them of their suffering, and help them taste joy and peace.

But before they go back, they must prepare themselves. The people they want to help may not be easy to love. Real love must include those who are difficult, those who have been unkind. If we go back to Vietnam without first learning to love, when we find the people being unpleasant, we will suffer and we may even come to hate them.

When you lose your ability to love, you lose your life. We think we can change the world, but we should not be naïve. Don’t think that the moment you arrive in Vietnam, you will sit down with all the conflicting factions and establish communication immediately. You may be able to give beautiful talks about harmony, but if you are not prepared, you will not be able to put your words into practice.

In Plum Village, we live together 24 hours a day. Do we cooperate to bring each other happiness? Do we work together in harmony? Are we able to overcome our individual views in order to bring together the views of everyone? Or do we maintain our own view and think that it alone is correct? If you cannot practice “harmony of views,” bringing your views together with the views of others to arrive at a collective view that everyone can accept, if you cannot love and accept each other, if you do not use loving speech every day, what will you be able to offer our countrymen when you return to Vietnam?

In Vietnam there are people who can give very good Dharma talks, who can explain how to reconcile and live in harmony, but not everyone can do it. We should not only talk about it. If we do not actually practice what we preach, what can we offer anyone? If older sisters do not hold each other’s hands like children of the same mother, how can the younger children have faith in the future?

We must practice harmony of views and harmony of speech. We bring our views together to have a deeper understanding, and we use loving speech to inspire others and not hurt anyone. We practice walking together, eating together, discussing together, so we can realize love and understanding. If you are able to breathe and smile when your sister says something unkind, that is the beginning of love. You do not have to go someplace else to serve. You can serve right here by practicing walking meditation, smiling, and shining your eyes of love on others.

We want to go out and share what we have learned. But if we do not practice breathing to untie the knots of pain in ourselves – the knots of anger, sadness, jealousy, and irritation – what can we teach others? We must understand and practice the teachings in our daily lives. We can only teach from our experience. People need to hear how we have to be able to overcome our own suffering and the irritations in our own heart. When we talk about the Dharma, our words need to have energy. That is not possible if our words come only from ideas, theories, or even sutras. We can only teach what we have done ourselves.

When we practice the First Prostration, we have to be able to see our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors at the same time. Some of our ancestors have done beautiful things, and others have made big mistakes. But all of them are our ancestors, and we have to accept them all, those only 20 years older than us and those 2,000 years older, those who are wonderful, and those who are very difficult. Our parents and some of our ancestors may have made us suffer, but they are still our parents and our ancestors. Until we accept them, we cannot feel at peace. If we say, “That person is not worthy of being my ancestor,” we will suffer our whole life.

After that, we get in touch with our descendants – our younger sisters and brothers, our disciples, our grandchildren, and our students. Some of them are beautiful. Some may argue with us. Some may be rude to us. When we practice the First Prostration, we have to accept all our children, those who are good and those who are difficult. That is the only way to find peace. The Three Prostrations are not just a devotional practice. They are a practice of insight, of looking deeply. We see that we are part of a stream of life comprised of all our spiritual and blood ancestors. We transcend our personal self, which is a basic Buddhist practice, and see what is meant by “no self.” When we realize that we are our ancestors and our descendants, our “self” dissolves and we accept everyone, however wicked or wonderful they have been. If we do not have that insight when we prostrate, we are still caught in the individual self, a self apart from the Sangha. We think we are not our brother, our sister, or our teacher. If we think like that, we are not ready to go out and teach other people. We have a theory about no-self, but we do not yet have the insight.

At Plum Village we practice dwelling peacefully in the present moment. By abiding peacefully in the present moment, we avoid running around in circles and we begin to have happiness. When we breathe and walk on the meditation path, when we eat a meal together in mindfulness, we see that we have the capacity for happiness every day. If we do not know how to make use of these practices and enjoy them, if we look for happiness somewhere else, we will never find it.

In Vietnam we say, “Standing on the top of one mountain, you look with envy at the top of another mountain.” We don’t realize how beautiful our mountain is. We look at the other mountain and think, It is much more beautiful over there. If only I could go over there, I would be happy. We have a husband, but we look at another family and think, Her husband is much kinder than mine. We are a child and we say, His mother is much sweeter than my mother. I wish I could exchange mothers. If we stand on this mountain peak and want to be on the other, that is because we do not know how to have happiness in the present moment in this very place. We do not have the capacity to accept the conditions for happiness that are already within us and all around us. In our Sangha, there are people who have the capacity to live happily in the present moment. They do not have the attitude of standing on the top of one mountain wanting to be on the other. They can sit very still, without feeling as though they are sitting on hot coals, wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

Those who cannot be happy may think, If I could be a Dharma teacher, or a monk or a nun, I would be happy. But those who have the capacity to dwell peacefully in the present moment say, I am not a Dharma teacher or a monk or a nun, but I am just as happy. If you are not happy, becoming a Dharma teacher, a monk, or a nun will not make you happier.

How high is this peak? It represents the year 2050. We have only four more years to get to the 21st century. I am advanced in years, and I don’t know if I am going to arrive at the foot of the 21st century hill. But I think about that hill every day. I think about my descendants who are going to climb it. I don’t know whether I am going to live two years. Some things we cannot know. But one thing is certain. I am going to climb this hill with my descendants. I don’t agree with being a teacher for just three or four more years. I want to be a teacher and a companion for thousands of years.

You may think that Brother Phap Canh will get to the top of the mountain in the year 2050. He is 20 now, so he will be 74 years old. When he stands there, what will he see? He will look down and see the Sangha climbing up together. At 74, he will probably have many disciples, both lay and monastic. They will call him “Grandfather Teacher.” What I want to say is we have to climb this hill together. We cannot go up as individuals. Our practice lies in doing it together. We cannot go up as individuals. If we go as a Sangha, we will reach our goal. If we go as individuals, we will never get anywhere. We must go up the hill of the 21st century together. That is how we will transcend our individual selves.

Your grandfather teacher is called Thanh Guy. He is present with us today in this Dharma Hall. He gave me the Dharma Lamp Transmission. He sent me out on the path with all his love and care. Now he is carrying me in his passing. I am carrying him in my passing, and I am transmitting him to you so you can carry him with you. If it were not for my teacher, how could I be here? We are just a stream called “life.” When we give Dharma Transmission, we are not giving it just to one person. We give it to many people at the same time. When your receive Dharma Transmission, you also receive it for many.

The Sangha body of the Buddha has never ceased to be. Today we bear in our heart the Sangha of the Buddha, which is more than 2,500 years old. We may still be young, but we are also very, very old. Our Sangha body is sitting in the Dharma Nectar Hall in France and in the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. But the Sangha is much greater and wider than this.

You have seen me teach the Dharma a little bit everywhere, and you have experienced the Sangha in many different parts of the world. Each part of the Sangha nourishes itself using different methods and different teachings, yet we are present in all these Sanghas, and our descendants will be present in them, also. To see this is the realization of no-self. You need this insight to be able to take stable steps on the path of life. We are not individuals suffering in isolation. When one horse in the stable is sick, none of the horses will eat hay. Our suffering is the suffering of others. Our smile is the smile of others. Our joy is the joy of others. Only when we live this way is the Buddha’s teaching of no-self a reality.

If you think you are standing outside, that is an illusion. You are standing on this mountain thinking you should be standing on that one. Everything depends on your way of looking. To have a cup of tea with Thay may be happiness. But not drinking tea with Thay is also happiness. Can you be at peace in the present moment? Can you accept the elements of happiness that are already here? If you don’t have happiness, it doesn’t matter whether you are a monk, a nun, a Dharma teacher, or a layperson.

During this winter retreat, we have been studying “The Living Tradition of Buddhist Meditation.” Today we are going to learn a little more about the poem by Nhan Tong, the Bamboo Forest Master, called “Living in the World of the Dust, but Enjoying the Path of Practice.”

If you understand,
All wrongdoings from the past are wiped away.
If you are able to understand,
Past wrongdoings will not be repeated.
Practicing in daily life,
Keep your true nature shining.
Realizing that Buddha is you mind,
You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu.
When you are mindful, here and now,
When your light is shining,
Why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu?
Don’t even think about his methods.
When you realize that Buddha is your mind,
You will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods.  

If you understand, all wrongdoings from the past are wiped away. We misbehave because we do not really understand what we are doing. Once we understand, we will stop. How can we understand what we are doing? By looking deeply. That is called the “shining nature” in us.

At times we have to prostrate before six other people and ask them to shine light on our practice. When we do this, we will receive great benefit. We have wrong perceptions that imprison us. We need at least six people to shine their light on us. They will do this only if we prostrate before them, and, with all our sincerity, ask for their help. The Sangha’s wisdom is greater than that of any individual. I always take refuge in the Sangha. Six is the minimum. You can ask sixty people if you like. When you ask them to shine light on your practice, it can reveal the darkest places in yourself, the things that bring about your suffering.

If you are able to understand, past wrongdoings will not be repeated. Practicing in daily life, keep your true nature shining. You perfect yourself in the Three Trainings of precepts, concentration, and insight. Gin means protect, maintain, look after. Tinh sang means the essential nature that is shining and clear and resides in all of us. The energy of mindfulness is light. With mindfulness, we know what is happening. When we are angry and we know we are angry, we can transform it, because mindfulness is there. If we nourish our mindfulness for ten or fifteen minutes, our anger will be transformed. Keep your true nature shining. The shining nature is not a vague idea. It is mindfulness itself, and it helps us have concentration. With concentration, we look deeply, see, and understand. That is called prajna, wisdom or insight.

Keep your true nature shining so you do not enter the path of wrong practice. Ta is wrong or crooked. Dao is path. This is the path of suffering and self pity, the path that leads away from our teacher and our Sangha. The Sangha is a precious jewel, even with its weaknesses. It is essential for our practice. There are things you cannot accomplish without a Sangha. To lose your Sangha is like falling into the ocean without a life jacket. You might die. Keep your true nature shining so you do not venture onto the path of wrong practice. Keep the light of mindfulness shining so you develop the power of concentration and see the truth in your heart, in the environment, and in the Sangha. That will prevent you from falling into the path of suffering.

Always improve yourself by true practice. The word tu, “practice” in Vietnamese means, literally, “to make more beautiful or correct” or “to repair.” If you have a leaky roof, you repair it. If you have some jealousy, you have to transform it. To better yourself, to cultivate happiness, all these things are included in the Vietnamese word for “practice.”

Always improve yourself by true learning. Always follow the “right tradition,” which is the true teaching of the Buddha, not the things people added to the teachings later. The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, but there has always been a tendency to bring in other teachings that are more complicated. We have to be careful not to travel down paths of wrong teaching, or we will lose our way. The way of practice in the right tradition is the tradition of precepts, mindfulness, and living with the Sangha. To say that we can take drugs or drink alcohol while practicing meditation is an example of wrong teaching. To practice meditation without also practicing precepts, concentration, and insight is not following the right tradition. When Zen Buddhism first came to the West, people thought it had something to do with drugs, and they did not practice the precepts. That kind of practice always brings about suffering. Please follow the right tradition.

Realizing that Buddha is your mind, you don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. Mind is Buddha. Buddha is your mind. Buddha is not some statue made of wood or jade. Buddha is not a god. Buddha cannot be found in heaven. The Buddha is in your heart and mind. When your mind has precepts, concentration, and wisdom, Buddha is present. The Buddha is not the mind of forgetfulness. He is the mind of mindfulness.

When you are mindful, here and now, when your light is shining, why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu? Don’t even think about his methods. You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu, such as kung an, questioning, shouting, or using the stick. Yelling and hitting are tools that can help meditation students untie the knots of suffering in themselves. These kung an, questions and answers, are used by the Dhyana masters to undo the knots of the students. I prefer simpler methods, like asking “What are you doing?” Sometimes when Sr. Chan Khong is looking through her files, I ask her, “What are you doing?” Sometimes she says, “You’ve caught me. I wasn’t practicing mindfulness.”

When you are cooking, sweeping, or working in the garden, practice mindfulness. If not, it is a waste of time. When I ask, “What are you doing?” if you are present, you can just look at me and smile. But if you are not practicing, you have to say, “Thay, you’ve caught me. I’m not practicing.”

When you realize that Buddha is your mind, you will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods. Ma Tsu was a very famous Dhyana master from China. He was born in 707 and he lived to be 81 years old. There is a story about a conversation between Ma Tsu and one of his students. One day, the student was sitting diligently practicing sitting meditation. The teacher asked, “What are you doing?” and the monk answered, proudly, “I am practicing sitting meditation.” The teacher said, “Why are you doing that?” and the student replied, “To become Buddha.” Ma Tsu began polishing a tile, and the student asked, “Master, why are you doing that?” Ma Tsu replied, “To make a mirror.” The student said, “Polishing the tile will not make a mirror.” Ma Tsu replied, “Sitting in meditation will not make a Buddha.”

To become a Buddha, you have to know how to smile, how to speak, how to stand, how to walk, how to work, how to wash pots, and do all those things while you look deeply in the state of Samadhi (concentration). Meditation is not just sitting. Once a student came to Master Ma Tsu and asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Ma Tsu said nothing. He just beat him. You see how kind the teacher of Plum Village is.

The great Bamboo Forest Master, realizing that Buddha is mind, said that you do not have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. If you are free from attachments, you will be happy. Wealth and sex, for example, are like worms on the end of a hook. If you don’t look deeply, you will get caught, and suffer a lot. If you see the dangers of wealth and sex, you can behave according to the precepts and keep your freedom. Without inner freedom, you can never be happy.

Thoi means the behavior or way of life that is pure. Layman P’ang lived at the time of Ma Tsu in 8th century China. He had a wife, a daughter, and a son, and the four of them practiced together. Although they came from a wealthy family, they gave up their luxurious ways when they tasted the Dharma. They were very pleased to live simple lives.

One day Layman P’ang’s daughter came to Master Ta Dao and asked, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, objects of mind, what can I do?” Master Ta Dao just put his hand over his mouth. The next time Layman P’ang met Master Ma Tsu, he asked the same question, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, how should I act?” Ma Tsu said, “Layman, if you can drink all the water in the Han River, I will answer your question.” Upon hearing that, he was awakened.

Layman P’ang and his family symbolize happiness with a simple life. This is the opposite of thinking you have to buy a lot of things to be happy. If you are not attached to wealth, it is because you have realized your shining nature of enlightenment.

You don’t have to go to a mountain to practice. If you follow the precepts, you will not be carried away by sounds and appearances. Some appearances infatuate us and we get carried away by them. Some sounds make us angry, others make us afraid. We practice mindfulness in order to stop – to stop our wrong perceptions, to stop being carried away by sounds and appearances, to stop our mind from running from place to place, unable to settle anywhere. We can do this because we have learned the art of mindful living.

The First Prostration

The Stream of Life

Contemplate while touching the earth with your knees and forehead:

Touching the earth, I connect with ancestors and descendants of both my spiritual and blood families. My spiritual ancestors include the Buddha, the bodhisattvas, the noble Sangha of Buddha’s disciples, and my own spiritual teachers still alive or already passed away. They are present in me, because they have transmitted to me seeds of peace, wisdom, love, and happiness. They have awakened in me my resource of understanding, and compassion. When I look at my spiritual ancestors, I see those who are perfect in the practice of the precepts, understanding, and compassion, and those who are still imperfect. I accept them all, because I also see shortcomings and weaknesses within myself. Aware that my practice of the precepts is not always perfect, that I am not always understanding and compassionate, I open my heart and accept all my spiritual descendants. Some of my descendants practice the precepts, understanding, and compassion in ways that invite confidence and respect, but there are others who come across many difficulties and are constantly subject to ups and downs in their practice. 

In the same way, I accept all my blood ancestors on my mother’s and father’s sides. I accept their good qualities and virtuous actions, and also their weaknesses. I open my heart and accept all my blood descendants with their good qualities, their talents, and also their weaknesses. 

My spiritual ancestors and my blood ancestors, my spiritual descendants and my blood descendants are all part of me. I am them and they are me. I do not have a separate self. All of us are part of a wonderful stream of life.

The Second Prostration

The Wonderful Pattern of Life 

Touching the earth, I connect with all people and species that are alive at this moment. I am one with the wonderful pattern of life that radiates out in all directions. I see the close connection between myself and others – how we share our happiness and our suffering. I am one with those who were born disabled or who become disabled because of war, accident, or illness. I am one with those who are caught in war or oppression. I am one with those who find no happiness in their families, who have no roots or peace of mind, who are hungry for understanding and love and who are looking for something beautiful, wholesome, and true to embrace and believe in. I am someone at the point of death who is very afraid, not knowing what will happen. I am a child who lives in poverty and disease, whose arms and legs are like sticks. I am the manufacturer of bombs that are sold to poor countries. I am the frog swimming in the pond, and I am also the snake that needs the body of the frog to nourish itself. I am the caterpillar or the ant that the bird is looking for to eat, but I am also the bird that is looking for the caterpillar or the ant. I am the forest that is being cut down. I am the river and air that are being polluted, and I am also the one who cuts down the forest and pollutes the river and the air. I see myself in all species, and I see all species in me. 

The Third Prostration

Limitless Time and Space 

Touching the earth, I let go of my idea that I am this body with a limited life span. I see that this body, made up of the four elements, is not me, and I am not limited by this body. I am part of a stream of life of spiritual and blood ancestors that for thousands of years has been flowing into the present and flows on for thousands of years into the future. I am one with my ancestors. I am one with all people and all species, whether they are peaceful and fearless or suffering and afraid. At this very moment, I am present everywhere on this planet. I am also present in the past and in the future. The disintegration of this body does not touch me, just as when the plum blossom falls, it is not the end of the plum tree. I see myself as a wave on the surface of the ocean. I am in all the other waves, and all the other waves are in me. My nature is water. The appearance and disappearance of my form as a wave does not affect the ocean. My Dharma body and wisdom life are not subject to birth and death. I see myself before my body manifested and after my body disintegrates. I see how I exist everywhere. Seventy or eighty years is not my life span. My life span, like that of a leaf or a Buddha, is limitless. I have gone beyond the idea that I am a body that is separated in space and time from all other forms of life.

Photos:
First photo by Sr. Jina van Hengel.
Second photo by Joseph Lam.

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Kinds of Intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverence for the Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain

How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice

By Paul Tingen

Around twenty-five years ago, neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners, and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories,  emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” writes Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.1

Until the 1980s, conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood. This belief in the brain’s static cellular circuitry gave rise to a very limited view of human consciousness, a “neurological nihilism,” in which consciousness was seen as no more than the byproduct of these fixed pathways. With the emergence of the computer, the analogy was made that the hardware of the brain determined and limited the software (our feelings and our thoughts).

However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich,2 this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer language, the software and the hardware inter-are: the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way around. Neuroscience today is governed by what is known as Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.

The idea of neuroplasticity has given new hope to people with physical, emotional, and mental impairments that had hitherto been regarded as unchangeable. Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the more they resist the process of rewiring. The older, entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thoughts, and actions. Every time we use a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood that we will do it again.

Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering, we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again. Suffering is not a free ride.

Rewiring for Well-being

There are many parallels between these theories of neuroscience and Thay’s teachings. The essence of our Buddhist practice is to use mindfulness to develop singularity of thought (concentration/samadhi), which can help us to get out of habitual thinking and feeling and help us to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering. Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for improved well-being.

Mindfulness is intentional and based on our free will. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them. Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware, and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.

The way we use the mantra, “This is a happy moment,” is a good example. We train the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might not otherwise be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthening the neural pathways associated with our suffering. We know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not. Another factor is whether we look at our suffering with Right View; wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being. The light of mindfulness cooks the raw potatoes, so they become a joy to eat.

Thay has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings. Neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathways indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thay has long recommended that people who come to Plum Village don’t immediately start digging into their suffering, but instead begin with watering their seeds of well-being. Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough, we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.

Our Sun of Mindfulness

To describe these processes more clearly, I would like to build on Thay’s analogy of our practice as that of a gardener. A gardener transforms compost (the mud) into flowers (the lotus). A skillful gardener knows how to create a pleasant garden with lots of flowers and just enough compost to feed them. Being a skillful gardener of our own inner garden is our spiritual work of self-love. To offer another analogy: neural pathways can be described as a collection of gullies, brooks, canals, and canyons; our feelings and thoughts can be considered the water in them. Mindfulness has often been described as a light, and in this case we could extend the analogy by describing mindfulness as the sun.

And so, it rains and a rivulet forms: the first arrow has hit and we suffer. The Buddha’s teachings tell us this is unavoidable; life will fire us arrows. Suffering is inevitable. But if we don’t handle this arrow correctly, if we add other arrows to it with wrong thinking, the rivulet turns into a stream, a river, and eventually a flood of suffering. The one neural connection has turned into a pathway and is likely to join with other similar pathways, and all of them may be deepened. As these neural pathways are strengthened, so are the corresponding mental formations, and they will be more difficult to transform. And once this gully or canal or canyon has formed, new rain will be drawn to it, deepening these pathways still further.

There is a belief in Western culture that we have to go through our suffering (the dark night of the soul), but from the perspective of neuroplasticity and our practice, we cannot transform our suffering from inside our suffering. We cannot affect the course of a canal while being caught in the stream. We cannot dissolve neural pathways while firing them simultaneously. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. We have to step out of the stream and shine our sun of mindfulness on it. Only with the healthy parts of ourselves can we heal our afflictions.

When we’re suffering, streams (or storms) of thoughts and feelings run through us; and when we manage to breathe and become mindful, these streams calm down to a gentle trickle. As the water slows down, as the storm abates to a gentle breeze, the neurons stop firing together, and we no longer strengthen our neural pathway of suffering. The suffering, the neural pathway, may still be there, but it is no longer a danger to us. It is like the mother embracing her angry child: she holds him firmly, so he can do no damage, and also lovingly, so he can come back to his true self. At that point, the water can mingle with the earth and turn into mud, or it can evaporate in the light of the sun of our mindfulness and fall down as rain (our tears) somewhere else in our garden. In both cases, the water will help grow flowers rather than deepen the pathway of suffering.

When we consider this analogy, it’s easy to see why Thay so often stresses that we should not judge or suppress our suffering. In seeing our suffering as water flowing through a canal, we realize that we need that water to tend our garden. If handled unskillfully, the water can deepen the groove of our suffering; if we know how to practice, we can use it to grow flowers in our garden. The analogy can be extended yet further. Sometimes our suffering has become frozen, hidden, inaccessible: we may have become bitter or repressed our feelings. One can’t grow flowers with ice, so we have to first melt our frozen feelings.

Mindfulness practice in general, and sitting meditation in particular, are ways of strengthening the power of the sun of our mindfulness, or the power of our concentration (samadhi). But sometimes, if our sun of mindfulness isn’t strong enough to transform our suffering, we need the compassionate and mindful presence of another person. As the water starts to flow, we cry, and we begin to disarm and transform our suffering with our collective mindfulness. This is one of several reasons why practicing in a Sangha is so important. Neuroscience offers an additional reason, emanating from its research of a particular class of neurons called mirror neurons, which are triggered when we observe the actions and/or feelings of others, and which then fire in corresponding ways. Neuroscientists have argued that mirror neurons make empathy possible; and even simply being in the company of other practitioners will trigger mirror neurons that strengthen our own practice.

What Thay calls our store consciousness can be seen as the network of neural pathways in our brain, much of it inherited from our ancestors, with each seed corresponding to a neural pathway. Intense feelings, addictions, and many of the noxious things we consume in our society can strengthen our neural pathways of suffering (hence the importance of the Fifth Mindfulness Training). By contrast, the calming nature of our entire practice makes it easier to rewire our brain. There are no magic formulas or strategies; the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful, at all times, of whether we’re transforming our suffering or merely rehearsing it.

Living lightly offers more freedom and clarity to practitioners and also makes it possible to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones—in other words, to turn neutral and often forgotten neural pathways into pathways that trigger well-being. It is, so to speak, far easier to cultivate flowers in the gently rolling hills of Plum Village than in the steep crags of the Grand Canyon.

© 2012, Paul Tingen

1) All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:

* Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005).
* Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008.
* Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007).
* Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Harper-Perrenial, 2002).

2) Carr, pages 24-26.

Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of  a book about the electric music of  Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album titled Metamorphosis. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.