Book Reviews

mb41-BookReviews1We Walk the Path Together:
Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh & Meister Eckhart

By Brian J. Pierce, O.P.
Orbis Press, 2005

Reviewed by Chan Phap De

This is not another academic comparison of two great mystics; rather, it is a love affair, a meeting of two brothers in the heart of the author. Friar Brian is a Dominican monk and Zen practitioner who has been guided through his own spiritual journey by these two teachers. “Permeated by the flavor of living experience,” comments Bhikshuni Annabel Laity, “this book provides a freshness of insight and the deep humility that we need on the spiritual path.”

After years of reading Thay’s books, the author was finally able to join the Plum Village community for the 2004 winter retreat. He writes, “Meeting Thay and practicing with his monastic community have been a gift that I shall never forget, and in a surprising way, it brought me face to face with Eckhart. I realized with great delight that, through the person of Thay, I was sitting at the feet of both of these beloved teachers, drinking in their teaching in a profound way.”

Focusing mainly on Thay’s teachings in Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, the author explores the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism, finding many intersecting points in the spiritual wisdom of Thay and Eckhart. For example, the following statement of Eckhart’s sounds like Thay: “God’s seed is in us. If it were tended by a good, wise and industrious gardener, it would then flourish all the better, and would grow up to God, whose seed it is, and its fruits would be like God’s own nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree,…the seed of God grows to be God.”

Friar Brian credits the simplicity of Thay’s teachings on the practice of mindfulness and contemplative meditation with helping him understand the theologically rich and dense sermons of Eckhart, who, seven centuries ago, was “easily misunderstood and labeled as dangerous.” Whereas Eckhart emphatically said “What does it avail me that this birth of God is always happening, if it does not happen in me?” Thay simply says, “We are all mothers of the Buddha.” Thay also uses the birthing metaphor: “Waves are born from water. That is why we adopt the language that waves are sons and daughters of water. Water is the father of waves. Water is the mother of waves.”

Thay warns against trying to grab onto the Buddha: “You believe that going to the temple you will see the Buddha, but by doing so you are turning your back on the real Buddha.” Eckhart says, “If a person thinks that he or she will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable—that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it.”

What Thomas Merton said of Eckhart can be said of Thay: “He breathed his own endless vitality into the juiceless formulas of orthodox theology with such charm and passion that the common people heard them gladly.” In this book, Friar Brian taps into the good juices seemingly hidden in the Catholic tradition. He offers meditations on subjects such as suffering, the Cross, the Trinity, baptism, the Mystical Body of Christ, equanimity and grace.

As a former priest, a current Catholic, and a “beginner” monk, I felt great joy in reading this book. It not only helped me tap more deeply into my Catholic roots, it also connected me more deeply with Thay’s teaching. Like Thay, the author has made a significant contribution to helping Christians connect with their roots and spiritual ancestors.

mb41-BookReviews2Pine Gate Meditations

By Ian Prattis & Carolyn Hill

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

The guided meditations and chants offered in this CD come from the weekly practice at Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario. The hour long CD contains two chants, performed by Carolyn Hill, and four guided meditations offered by Ian Prattis.

The two chants, from the Plum Village Chanting Book, are the evening chant and the incense offering (the variation that starts,  “The  fragrance  of  this  incense”).

The guided meditations are each from twelve to fifteen minutes in length, making them a useful way to enjoy an extended guided meditation in solitary or in Sangha. There is a meditation on the Four Brahmaviharas, one on the Five Remembrances, an Earth meditation which helps us be in touch with our connection  to Mother  Earth, and  an Indian based So Hum healing meditation that comes from Ian’s practice in India. Prattis’s soothing voice and the gentle background sounds of water help to bring the hearers into a state of calmness and centeredness.

Though this presentation is rooted in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh practice, it also offers some new ways of exploring our spiritual connections. Ian encourages us to be creative in our use of these chants and meditations, and invites us to share them with family and friends.

A practical tool for Sanghas everywhere, the Pine Gate Meditations can be purchased by check or money order to Ian Prattis and mailed to 1252 Rideout Crescent, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2C 2X7. Costs are $23.00 US, including shipping; $23.50 Canadian. Or contact Ian at iprattis@cyberus.ca.

mb41-BookReviews3What the Stones Remember
A Life Rediscovered

By Patrick Lane
Trumpeter Books, 2005

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

Patrick Lane is a recipient of most of Canada’s top literary awards and considered one of the finest poets of his generation. He has also been an alcoholic and drug addict for over forty years. This book is the story of his first year of recovery as he emerges from a rehabilitation facility.

Lane finds his salvation in his half-acre garden, and shares intimate details of the lives of the flora and fauna that are his closest friends. Month by month, we track with Lane the change of seasons in the garden, and explore his circuitous path to healing and transformation through the gentle but unyielding examination of childhood memories.

The book flows seamlessly between childhood and early adulthood memories, usually painful; brief but sharply aware observations of a body and mind coming out of a lifetime haze of addiction; and intimate observations of the natural world. But perhaps more remarkable is the honesty that comes from deeply chosen words which reflect both the beauty and the pain of this man’s story. Lane tells us what his discovery of language meant to him: “Poetry was more important to me then than food or sleep, my wife or my children. I found my place in the world with language. I was certain that with language I could heal myself and control what surrounded me. If the house should burn down what would be most important was how I would describe the flames the next day. Love for me lay in imagined places, not in the real world. Death’s only dominion was in a poem.”

Walking through these stories with Lane––sitting with him by his pond with a cup of coffee in the early morning; watching the arrival and departure of the many spiders and birds that inhabit this territory; gathering boulders at a far-off quarry––weave this man into the reader’s heart. Though the stories focus mostly on his challenging early family life and his refuge in the natural world, the brief but stark reminders of the addiction he has just stepped out of remind us of his fragility and vulnerability.

In one of the many short paragraphs that sear with the challenge of freeing oneself of addiction, he states, “This is a fearful time for me and this first morning I stare at a whirl of flies and think the mad thoughts of an alcoholic. The absence of others has always meant excess to me. Bottles of vodka clink in my mind like wind chimes. I know my sickness will abate, the sickness of drinking will slip away, but I pray to the garden that I live this one day sober.”

As the months go by, it seems that Lane goes through a softening, an increasing sensitivity to the beings in his world. One story tells of his starting to drive down the road in his pickup, only to discover a small spider in her web on the outside mirror. Knowing that increasing his speed as he approaches the highway would kill this creature, he pulls to the side of the road and finds a place to gently put her in the bushes.

The final garden project is the creation of a meditation garden. Though at first its location is surprising––in the front yard, near the road––this choice seems to represent the final stage of healing, returning to the world, centered and imperturbable.

In this remarkable book, we witness the suffering of one man, healed and transformed through a deep awareness of the world around and within him. A model for us all.

mb41-BookReviews4A Mindful Way
A Simple Guide to Happiness, Peace and Freedom in Eight Weeks

By Jeanie Seward-Magee
Trafford Publishers, 2005

Reviewed by Constance Alexander

A Mindful Way offers an eight-week course combining mindfulness meditation with writing exercises as a means to self-exploration. The three-part program includes a daily ten-to twenty-minute sit with emphasis on breathing, two to four pages of free writing (in the tradition of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), and a nightly gratitude recollection. The layout of the book, wide margins with sidebar quotes from many traditions, makes for easy reading. The central five chapters each take one of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their focus.

The author has practiced in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition for a number of years, and Thay has written an introduction to this book. All profits from the sale of the book go to support Plum Village.

As a practitioner for four years, I decided to undertake this program as a way to deepen my own practice. I like to write—a bonus, given the many writing exercises. For those of us in a post-therapy era of our lives, going back to write about childhood and family may feel like “been there/done that.” However, the author raises enough interesting questions to keep one writing; for example, “Describe your life for the past ten years, but do it as though it’s ten years from now.” Talk about confronting all your hopes, dreams, and fears of the future!

I also enjoyed taking time before bed to remember five things for which I was grateful that day. I realized how often I prepared for sleep feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Remembering the small treasures of the past twenty-four hours and writing them down helped recast things in a brighter light. That little gratitude book became my reverse “to do” list—instead of guiltily reviewing what I hadn’t “crossed off my list,” I could refer to the list of blessings which had been heaped on me (many of which, I realized gratefully, were out of my control).

The author recommends that anyone using this book, if not already in a spiritual community, join with like-minded friends for this eight week journey. I agree. Sharing what arises will sustain and enrich the experience. In the early days of my practice, I dreaded reading the Five Mindfulness Trainings as, coming out of a strict religious background, I tended to see them as the Five Commandments (think stone tablets backlit with flashes of lightning!). It was only in sitting and sharing with my Sangha that I learned the beauty of the Trainings.

The author’s personal reflections, the stories she shares from her life, are an integral part of A Mindful Way. For me, these are sometimes not quite on target as illustrations of her point. This cavil aside, I found A Mindful Way a useful practice tool. It is an ambitious book, seeking to combine a spiritual guide with a more conventional self-help manual. But as such, it may also garner readers who would not otherwise pick up one of Thay’s books. There are many doorways to the practice.

mb41-BookReviews5No Time to Lose
A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva

By Pema Chödrön
Shambhala Publications, 2005

Reviewed by Judith Toy

The night the Buddha died in the tiny village of Kusinara, nearly three hundred bhikkhus lit torches. Until dawn they told stories of the Buddha’s life in the presence of his body in repose, while sal blossoms floated to earth. It was as if the torches symbolized the light of the Buddha himself entering the bodies of his disciples. Pema Chödrön has lit such a torch for us with her book, No Time to Lose, A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, her commentary on the Tibetan Buddhist classic, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharyavat ara) by Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master from the monastic university of Nalanda, India. The author calls Shantideva’s work “a rhapsody on the wonders of bodhicitta,” the mind of love.

Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group into quatrains with the accessible cadence of iambic pentameter, Shantideva’s words sing: And may the naked now be clothed,/And all the hungry eat their fill./And may those parched with thirst receive/ Pure waters and delicious drink.(10.19) Shining the light of her wisdom on small groups of stanzas, Chödrön brings the twelvecentury old teachings home to present-day Westerners.

The emphatic and pragmatic title gives us a no-nonsense summons to get down to business in our own life and practice. Shantideva and Chödrön encourage us to use our lives to water seeds of love. As we set out on the bodhisattva path to free endless beings from their suffering, Chödrön offers, “Everything we encounter becomes an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart.” The authors repeatedly remind us to fall back on our essential Buddha nature.

Chödrön offers a helpful study guide at the end, which is useful while reading. Our Sangha’s aspirants to the Order of Interbeing will use this book as they enter the bodhisattva path. Compared to two previous translations of Shantideva, I found this one the most helpful for its rhythmic, poetic translation and for Chödrön’s down-to-earth commentary. Allen Ginsberg’s translation of the last famous lines of the Heart Sutra captures for me the imperative of this book: “Gone, gone, to the other shore gone, reach (go) enlightenment accomplish!”

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Remember Remember Remember

By Sister Dang Nghiem

mb43-Remember1

When I close my eyes, I see hundreds of little eyes looking at me: round, dark, innocent eyes, eyes opened wide. They wrench my heart and force me to seek deeper understanding of my path.

Therese came to visit our Understanding and Love Program in the highlands of South Vietnam. We organized a tea meditation at Prajna Temple on the night of her arrival to celebrate her visit and the visit of one of our elder sisters. The meditation hall was packed with over 250 monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.

Our Venerable Abbot spoke warmly to welcome the visiting sister and Therese. He told the history of our Prajna monastery (“Prajna” means “understanding”). Around 40 years ago, inspired by Thây’s teachings that he had read in Fragrant Palm Leaves, he and seven other young novices had the aspiration to continue Thây’s teachings and practices of engaged Buddhism in the highlands of South Vietnam. They built their first hermitage in what is now known as An Lac Temple (Temple of Peace and Happiness). That temple gave birth to seven other temples including Prajna, the most recent, established in 1998. Except for An Lac, the temples are situated in the remote areas of the highlands where the aboriginal K-ho people live and the poor people from North Vietnam have come to resettle.

Over the years, our Venerable Brother and his monastic disciples lived with and supported the people in these underserved communities. They established a school following the model of the Understanding and Love Program begun by Thây’s social workers in the 1960s.

When our Venerable Brother wanted to expand the school program, he went to Plum Village to ask Thây for support. For the eight years that followed that visit, Thây’s lay students trained through the School forYouth and Social Services have worked with the Venerable to establish 39 kindergarten schools for children in the distant areas of the highlands.

The next morning we all got in a van—our Venerable Brother, Therese, four social workers, the driver, and me, Therese’s translator.

Noble Veterans of the School for Youth and Social Services

The four social workers who accompanied us were young men in their twenties when they joined the School for Youth and Social Services (SYSS), established by Thây. Now they were all in their sixties. In the 1960s they had gone to war zones and worked together with the villagers to build bridges, create makeshift classrooms, and establish health clinics.

“Over three hundred social workers had graduated from the School for Youth and Social Services,” they said. “Thây continued to provide us guidance even after he went to Europe and the United States to call for a stop to the war in Vietnam. However, when the communists took over Vietnam, all of our social works were forbidden. We lost contact with Thây for fifteen years!

“After contact was re-established, we began to do social work again. Now, there are only a few more than 30 active social workers working throughout the three regions of north, central, and south Vietnam.”

I asked the men what fueled their minds of love after all these years. “It’s our love and loyalty to Thây,” one replied, and the three other social workers nodded in agreement. “It’s also the practice of the Dharma that nourishes us. We certainly would not be able to continue this work if we did it for the money.” (They receive every month from Plum Village an equivalent of less than $100 dollars.)

Fresh as the Dew, Solid as a Mountain

The first of the kindergarten schools we visited was not far from our monastery. I hesitate to call these locations schools, because they are just one to three rooms (each room about 3 by 4 meters), one small kitchen, and a toilet (squatting style). Most of the schools stand isolated in a field of tea plants; some are built adjacent to the house of the people who have donated the land.

As we walked to the door of the first school, the children stood and joined their palms into lotus buds to greet us. “We respectfully greet Thây” (to our Venerable Abbot). “We respectfully greet Su Co” (Su Co literally means Miss Teacher, which referred to me, a Buddhist nun). “We respectfully greet our aunts and uncles” (this to the social workers and Therese). The children all looked at us with their big eyes, then quietly returned to their places. There were no tables and no chairs. Thirty to forty children sat on the floor next to each other along the walls of the room. At some schools, the floor had ceramic tiles, but at the more remote locations, the floors were made of bare cement.

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Therese and I walked into the room and sat down with the children. Their teacher led them in a song: “Here is the Pure Land. The Pure Land is here. I smile in mindfulness and dwell in the present moment….” Then she started another song: “Breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in, breathing out. I am blooming as a flower. I am fresh as the dew. I am solid as a mountain. I am firm as the earth. I am free.” The four- and five-year-olds sang enthusiastically with their hands gesturing for flowers and mountains. The very little ones just lip-sang or sat wide-eyed in silence.

Keeping the Children Safe and Fed

At each location, Therese asked why there was a need for our Understanding and Love Program. The teachers and social workers explained that the local government only provided primary schools; there were no schools for toddlers. In addition, the parents had to pay for school fees and daily meals. Since most of the people in these regions work on tea and coffee plantations, either working for themselves or for the Taiwanese companies that have 50-year contracts for use of the land, they are too poor to send their children to the government school. Many parents had to leave their children at home so that the parents could go to work in these plantations. The children had many accidents at home by themselves. These were the reasons the parents came together and petitioned our Venerable Abbot for a school for their toddlers.

The families promised to take turns offering a room in their house for the school; often the woman in that family also offered to be the teacher for the school. Eventually the parents planned to put together enough money to buy land for a real school for their children, but when the parents cannot raise enough money for a school, the Understanding and Love Program helps them buy the land, purchase the materials for the school building (the parents work together to build it), pay the teacher’s monthly salary, and feed the toddlers two times a day.

The Joy of Giving

In some locations, the parents donate the land for the school. I met a woman who had offered the small piece of land that her family owned for a place to build a school. The Understanding and Love Program has not yet collected enough money to build it, so she was also allowing the school to meet in her house. Her house has only two rooms and it is small and shabby. I was too curious not to ask her, “Your husband and you are so poor. Why did you not sell the land that you have? Why did you donate it to the school?”

She exclaimed, “We would never sell the land!”

“Then why did you donate it?”

“Grandfather Monk (referring to Thich Nhat Hanh) and the monks and nuns do charity work for us. This is my contribution to the charity work,” she said.

My heart sank into a deep silence.

Her two children were helping with the school program. I asked the younger one if it was annoying that so many children were in her house. “Not at all, respected Su Co,” she replied.

“Does it bring you joy then?” I asked.

“Yes, very much so, Su Co,” she answered with a smile. “What do you do to help?”

“When I come back from school, I help my mother wash the children’s hands and feet,” she said.

I turned to her older sister. “Do you help your mother with the children, too?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly. “Are you still in school?”

“No, Su Co. I stopped going to school after fourth grade.” “Do you wish to go to school?”

“Yes,” she replied quietly.

“Does it make you sad that you cannot go to school?”

She simply looked down to the floor; her face turned pale. I stroked her unkempt hair and breathed mindfully. Later, as we walked out of the woman’s house, Therese said to me, “It’s so sad that the mother’s salary as a teacher is not enough to put her own children in school!”

Serving the K-ho People

We visited a school of the aboriginal people of K-ho. The teacher was 24 years old. She had received a scholarship to go to a university in the city, but she chose to stay and teach her own people. She taught a night class to teenagers and adults for a number of years, and thanks to her, illiteracy was eradicated in her area. During the day, she took care of toddlers and taught them how to speak, read, and write in Vietnamese. Each year, she would take the ones who had just turned six to the public primary school, then for a week to ten days, she walked with them to their new school, staying in class with them as they got familiar with the place and became less frightened. Then she returned to her own preschool class. She was the only teacher to thirty toddlers. Another woman helped cook breakfast and lunch for the children.

We went deeper into the forest to visit another location. The local government had received funds to build a primary school in each sub-district but they ended up leaving many of the schools vacant since the parents could not pay for their children to attend the school. Our Venerable Brother borrowed one of these primary schools for our Understanding and Love Program. (“We’ll eventually borrow all of them,” he said with a charismatic smile.) I was surprised to discover that these public schools include just a few relatively big rooms and no toilets or sinks! (The tea plants surrounding these schools must grow well with the natural fertilizers.)

The children at this location were also of the K-ho ethnic group. Their clothes were discolored and many did not even have socks or hats. It was cold and windy, but they all sat on a thin straw mat on a cement floor; there were no toys and no decorations in the room. The children simply sat still and silent.

I placed a small girl on my lap. The teacher said to me, “The father of

that child died last year in a vehicle accident. Her mother is only 22 years old and she has to take care of two children by herself. They are very poor.” The child was 17 months old, but when I pulled her up, she could stand for only a few seconds before she sat back down. Yet her face was beautiful and calm like a full moon, and her eyes opened wide.

Little Zen Masters

Again and again at each location, Therese and I were deeply struck by the children’s demeanor—and by their eyes. They were quiet and still, but their bodies and minds were not flaccid or lethargic. Their eyes were wide open and calm, yet penetrating. I saw them as little Zen masters in meditation, sitting in ease and acceptance.

We went to three more locations that afternoon. When we arrived at the last school we had tea with the two teachers and an elderly woman whose granddaughter attended our school. The tea was particularly strong and fragrant. The women told me that most of the tea plantations in this area belonged to Taiwanese owners who lived in Bao Loc with their families. The local workers were allowed to use only the old tea leaves for drinking (called chè); the young tea leaves were harvested for exports (called trà). I said to them that I must be drinking trà, and the elderly woman smiled in embarassment, saying, “Well, it’s a special occasion that the Venerable and you are here, so I went to the tea garden back there and took a few young leaves.” She smiled.

Spiritual Nourishment

I asked the teachers if they were tired after taking care of the children from 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday. They smiled, a smile of kindness, acceptance, and endurance.

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“How do you nourish yourselves?” I asked them.

“We go to Prajna temple and the monks and nuns teach us how to take care of the children and of ourselves,” one teacher told us.

“How does the practice help you?”

“I learn to bring joy to other people. I don’t get so upset anymore. If I didn’t hear the children’s voices for a few days, I would miss them!” she replied.

On our visits to the schools we discovered the importance of spirituality. “Hunger and poverty is one kind of suffering,” said our Venerable Abbot. “Yet, the lack of spirituality is a greater suffering. The people in these areas are very poor, but they live their lives with honesty and joy because they have a spiritual practice. If not, their lives would be much darker,” he said.

The Beauty of Interbeing

Towards the end of our time together, our Venerable Brother slowly looked at each of our faces. Then he turned to speak to the four social worker brothers, “Well, do you have any last thing to say to sister Therese? Tomorrow, on our way to Saigon together, we will be practicing silence and hand gestures!” Everyone laughs wholeheartedly because they know I will not be in the car with them to translate.

On the way to the car, Therese and I reached out to embrace one another. I follow mindfully my in-breaths and out-breaths, as I feel concretely Therese’s presence in my arms. We have shared meaningful and beautiful moments together. I am keenly aware that I may never see her again, yet our lives are forever intertwined.

And the eyes of the children, they will always remind us to reflect deeper into our path and to remember. Remember. Remember.

Sister Dang Nghiem worked in the U.S. as a medical doctor before she became a nun. She lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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Miracle within a Miracle

By Susanne Olbrich

Music was present in my life from early childhood on, and I loved every expression of it. I was termed “musical,” and the wide-ranging classical training I received from elementary class to university degree both gave me a solid foundation for what now is my profession, and it left bad bruises and paralysing self-judgment. In years of breathing, smiling and looking deeply, Thay and Sangha friends helped me to untie those knots, reclaiming joy and creativity in my music practice. Now, by sharing it with others through playing and teaching the piano, performing, composing and improvising music, I can see many lovely seeds being watered within and around me.

Deep listening is key and a source of delight, too: Listening inside as music arises to be discovered and shaped into a new composition. Listening to the subtle interplay of body, movement, and sound while playing. Fine-tuned listening to my fellow musicians so we can anticipate each other’s breath, playing truly together. Listening to my students, each one of them having their own approach to music and individual learning style.

In my own pieces, mindfulness practice has found different manifestations. “Just Clouds” is a jazzy waltz inspired by watching thoughts and emotions coming and going. Thay’s poem “Contemplation” I suddenly heard set to music while reading it. “Night is Falling” is a mantra-like love song to the Earth, “Beyond Gone” my cradling of grief after a friend’s suicide. Each piece feels like a mini Dharma sharing, reflecting deep moments of life.

Two years ago I was invited to share my experiences as part of the “Festival of Arts and Spirituality” in Edinburgh, which gave birth to the workshop “Sounding the Source: Deep Listening and Intuitive Music as Spiritual Practice.” In a church with beautiful acoustics a very mixed crowd joined me in sounding their voices and experiencing walking meditation and deep listening exercises as taught by the wonderful composer/musician Pauline Oliveros. Just as mindfulness produces miracles, sounding and playing music together in mindfulness is a miracle within a miracle!

Offering “Sounding the Source” workshops now has become part of my regular teaching. I find it very rewarding to help people

(re)discover the joy of music, as well as support musicians in bringing a spiritual and creative dimension to their music.

I would love to be in contact with other practitioners in whose lives music plays an important part. If you would like to water the seed of a Music & Mindfulness Network, please contact me!

mb49-Miracle1Susanne Olbrich, True Ever-Present Stability, practices with the Northern Lights Sangha in Findhorn, Scotland (www.myspace.com/susanneolbrich, creativepiano@yahoo.co.uk).

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Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Kinds of Intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverence for the Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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