The Ultimate Dimension

A Practice with Dying and Death

By Haven Tobias

Some friends and I joined in a practice to write about death and dying.* When we shared what we had written, we learned that the following drama was everybody’s worst-case scenario.

I am in a nursing home where, even if someone cared enough to prop me up so that I could look out the window, I would see only a parking lot. The nursing home is so institutionally gray and dull, and my room is so gray and dull, that I cannot tell what time of day it is, much less what season. There are no flowers or plants in my room. Whatever it is I am dying of, it is taking a while, and I have been lying in this bed a long time, becoming a drooling, pants-wetting, shriveled-up old lady. I am being warehoused, away from contact with human beings, other than a nurse’s aide, whose sole expression seems to be annoyance. I can no longer see to read, or watch movies, or do jigsaw puzzles. There is no one to read to me, or play Cyrano to my Roxanne, bringing me the news of the day. There is no one to spread lotion on my dry and cracked back and feet. There is no discernible end to this nightmare—no death, just a drawn-out dying by increments.

There was an end to the nightmare—it was a writing exercise, not immediate reality. My friends and I could conceive of more horrific circumstances, such as being kidnapped and tortured to death. But all of us agreed that the worst-case scenario, lingering on without loving care in an institutional setting, was worst precisely because it was common and probable.

While I kept trying, as I wrote, to turn my attention to compassion for all those who languish in nursing homes, honesty compels me to admit I was wallowing in self-pity for that lonely little old lady that was me.

Fortunately, the exercise did not finish with the worst-case scenario. It was with some relief that I moved on to the second part of the exercise, writing about my ideal scenario.

Ideally, I know in advance that I am dying. I can take a gentle leave of my friends and family and remove myself to the sea, to a cottage along the coast in Massachusetts or Maine. I have my wits about me. The pain comes and goes, and when it comes I am able to breathe and say, hello, I know you are just pain. Perhaps my daughter is with me. I know she understands I am at peace about my death. She knows I am at peace about my dying, too.

It is late spring or early autumn. It is warm, and I am still physically able to walk to the shore when the day becomes night and sit on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the stars. As first light comes and I watch the sky over the water turn to pearl, I have enough acuity to remember the closing gatha of the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.” I lie down in the sand and die.

Sharing our ideal death made all of us more emotional than sharing the worst-case scenario. There was fear that the ideal was so much less likely than the worst case. Almost all of us wanted to die on a shore or mountaintop or under a tree, and not in a hospital or nursing home, but we feared the odds.

We were ready for the third part of the exercise: what can we do, here and now, to make a life worth dying for? Most of us, perhaps to calm our emotions, became very practical. We made promises to work on wills and to speak with family members about worries and fears and wishes and feelings. But we also understood that preparation for death is not limited to practicalities.

As for myself, in preparation, I have read and reread Thay’s book No Death, No Fear. Thay teaches that when the fear of dying is exacerbated by the fear of death, it is like receiving a second arrow in a wound. Thay also teaches about recognizing choices. Choice permeates every aspect of our life, the way we live it, and the way we die.

There is no element of choice in death. The self that I call “I” will die. But I can choose to overcome fear of death.

There is an element of choice in dying. Whatever the causes and conditions of my dying may be, I can choose to participate in the process with equanimity. I have two daily practices to help me understand the process and to water the seeds of equanimity.

The Five Remembrances

I practice every day with the Five Remembrances, a meditation taught by the Buddha:

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death.

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir.

This teaching of the Buddha about the impermanence of life in the historical dimension, in the “mundane world,” is a core practice in Buddhism. I am also mindful, as I practice the Five Remembrances, of Thay’s teachings about the ultimate dimension, or what some would call nirvana. Awareness of the ultimate dimension informs both my understanding of the mundane world and my grasp of the reality of no-death.

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age. But I am not this body, and this body is not me.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health. But mindfulness practice guides me to protect my health as best I can, in my choices of what to eat or not eat, and what to drink or not drink, and in the choices I make about my activities and my attitudes. The reality of interbeing, which is the truth that no self is a separate self but rather “inter-is” with every other being, teaches me that every choice I make has consequences for myself, for my family, and for society. I cannot choose to eat a steak every day, I cannot choose to drink a bottle of wine every day, I cannot opt to watch a violent program on TV instead of taking a walk outdoors, and pretend there are no personal and societal consequences.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death. But I was never born, and I will never die. When causes and conditions were sufficient, I manifested in this body. When causes and conditions cease to be sufficient, I will no longer manifest in this body. But just as surely as the morning star is still “there” even after the sun rises, so shall I be. There is a famous Zen koan: what did you look like before your grandparents were born; what will you look like in one hundred years?

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this. We all have to leave our stuff behind. That house we put so much of ourselves into, that car we thought was so important to own, the jewelry, the gadgets—all of it will turn to junk, before or after we’ve left. The important thing is love, and because the ultimate reality is the reality of interbeing—that we all contain one another—love does not die. Love continues in every kind word I have ever spoken and every smile I have ever smiled. Kind words and loving smiles get passed around the world and back again.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir. Where I am now, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is the sum total of all that I have done before now. Karma is the consequence of every action I’ve taken. But karma is not my fate. If I have had a tendency in the past to act in a certain situation with anger or anxiety, I can choose, now, not to act in that situation with anger or anxiety. In every moment, I can choose to nourish my seeds of peace and compassion rather than feeding my seeds of anger or fear.

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Never the Same Path

My second daily practice is a walking meditation. I always walk with Thay, and breathe with the Buddha. Here, now. Walking, breathing. Walking with Thay. Happy feet, peaceful steps. Breathing with the Buddha. Releasing, letting go.

I walk the same path every day at the same time. But of course, it is never the same path and it is never the same time. I know, because the whole cosmos has told me on these walks that I am not walking the same path at the same time. The whole cosmos tells me that nothing lasts forever as it is now. And that is a blessing.

If everything lasted forever as it is now, five-year-olds could never become teachers or nurses or mothers or fathers. New friendships could not begin. Relationships could not deepen. Everything is in the process of change. Sometimes if we are fearful or grieving, it feels like loss. But it is not loss; it is transformation.

When I start my walk, I count the stars. I count a couple of dozen without even moving my head. After twenty minutes, I look again and count maybe fifteen stars. I walk a little longer, and it is dawn, and there is only the morning star. Are all the stars gone? They are here. It’s just that you can’t see them. They are not gone. Night has become morning in the natural process of change. But maybe indeed one of those stars has transformed. I could have been seeing the light of a star that exploded zillions of years ago. Is it gone? Or are we all stardust, interchanging our energies?

I close my walk, as I hope to close my life, with the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.”

These two daily practices, sitting with the Buddha’s Five Remembrances, and walking with Thay’s interbeing, help me to develop equanimity about death and dying. And, oh, about life and living too, and the gift of the present moment.

* This practice was adapted from one recommended by Joan Halifax Roshi in her book Being with Dying. She advises that the exercise be done in community, so each writer has support. On two separate occasions, I facilitated different members of my meditation group sharing this practice. We found that intimacy is one consequence of this exercise and that therefore trust and respect are essential.

Hmb53-TheUltimate2aven Tobias, Embracing Freshness of the Heart, facilitates the Norman Meditation Group, which includes practitioners from many traditions. She is a semi-retired lawyer.

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Diamond Life

Losing my Brother in a New York State of Mind

By Nate Metzker

mb53-Diamond1My girlfriend, Cameron, and I moved to New York City in 2005 with great expectations for her career as an educator and my career as a musician and novelist. My girlfriend’s career soon exceeded expectations. I, on the other hand, did not fare as well. By the end of six months, I’d run out of savings and found it difficult to locate a job that gave me time for my art.

Optimism carried me for a while, but eventually, my optimism began to wear off: gigs were hard to come by, selling music was next to impossible, and depression set in. I was attending Sangha meetings in the city, which I enjoyed, but I was not able to let go of my attachments to my version of success.

I had been at Deer Park Monastery the day it opened, and had spent a lot of time there—sometimes months without leaving—and now I returned to the monastery, thinking I could get my head together. And I did. And it was wonderful. But when I returned to the city, I began a slow descent back into depression. I started to think I needed to get back to the monastery again, but then realized: No, Nate, you need to deepen your practice where you live. I vowed that I would go back to Deer Park only when I had been able to become peaceful and happy in New York City.

Transforming New York City

My plan of action was simple. Scheduled meditation was difficult for me, so I had to recognize that, and not be too hard on myself. I was spending a lot of time en route to different parts of the city to participate in open mics, jam with other musicians, explore, and commute to temp jobs. So, the sidewalks had to become my mountain paths, and the subway had to become my hermitage.

The reason people walk so fast in New York is not because the entire city is composed of Type A go-getters. It’s because one often has to walk long city blocks, over long bridges, or to and from subway stops. If you walk slowly here, it takes forever to get anywhere. I decided on a pace that would get me where I needed to go, but allow me to relax at the same time—something along the lines of driving on the highway at sixty or sixty-five miles per hour rather than seventy; just enough of an adjustment to take the edge off. At that pace, I could really enjoy my steps and take each one with all my love and compassion.

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Breathing in, love and compassion flow from the soles of my feet.

Breathing out, I am happy.

Love and compassion.

Happy.

This meditation allowed me to smile to passersby and enjoy the city for the extraordinary place that it is. It inspired me to write positive music that deepened my practice, instead of turning to laments and despair.

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Time on the subway became a time of deep practice for me as well. Once I found a job, I had to commute forty to fifty minutes each way, and wanted to make sure that I was alive during that time. I always had a book about the practice with me, and I often carried my Five Mindfulness Trainings certificate too. On the subway, I would enjoy my reading for a while, then stop, breathe, and look at the people around me. It was easy to see what a wonderful, extraordinary situation I was in: people from all nations, cultures, and religions packed into a small space together. With this new perspective, I was constantly amazed at how courteous people were—giving seats to the elderly, helping people onto trains, making space for others. There are many places in the world where this doesn’t happen.

Many times I’ve heard Thich Nhat Hanh say, “At the airport, when they search you before boarding a plane, they are not looking for your Buddha nature—they are looking for your terrorist nature. We have to start to recognize our Buddha nature.” It was important for me to notice manifestations of Buddha nature in the city.

Sometimes I sat, closed my eyes, and meditated on my breath. I got in over an hour of sitting meditation every day, and just as much walking meditation (I almost always took the stairs at the workplace). The only other place in which I had that much time to practice was at the monastery.

In the spring of 2008, my worldly situation hadn’t changed a lot, yet I was much happier. Practicing mindfulness had allowed me to transform New York City in my mind, so I was now able to walk in a city that was a beautiful practice center. At that time, I was studying Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. Reading the text helped me achieve a lot of insight into the nature of interbeing, and the way we erroneously define our world. In the Diamond Sutra, there are ideas akin to: A tree is not a tree; that is why we call it a tree. After some meditation, I took a tree is not a tree to mean that a tree is the whole cosmos, composed of awakened nature. We call it a tree because we are under the illusion that it has a separate self. But like everything else, a tree is of the nature to be both birthless and deathless. With the teachings of the Diamond Sutra in my heart, looking at the faces in the subway car became even more wonderful because I felt more connected to my community.

My Brother’s Presence

On May 28, I got a phone call in the middle of the night with the news that my brother, Jason, had died. He was thirty-seven years old. In a hotel in Elko, Nevada, where he worked as a dentist, he had run up three flights of stairs to avoid being on a full elevator. He then bought a drink from a vending machine, turned from the machine, took a few steps, fell forward with his arms hugging his chest, and died. We later found out that he had died from an overdose of Demerol.

My family went through a complex process of mourning. And while Jason was the sibling to whom I felt closest, I am sure that my suffering was reduced because I entered it meditating on interbeing and our birthless and deathless nature. When I saw my other siblings and cried, I wasn’t always crying because Jason wasn’t there with us. Sometimes I cried because I was so happy to be in the presence of my family. Now, many months later, much of my family is still sometimes crippled with despair and sadness. But, because of my practice, I feel very in touch with my brother and feel his presence in all things when I am mindful. In fact— and I know this may sound strange—his death feels to me like he made a decision to move forward with his life.

Everything’s in Everything

I returned to Deer Park in the second half of December, 2008. I’d achieved my goal of deepening my practice in New York City and now felt I had to be in a quiet place to make sure I wasn’t in a state of denial about my brother’s death.

During my retreat at Deer Park, we were put into groups for Dharma discussion. I told the group about my experience with the Diamond Sutra and my brother. There was another man in the group—I’ll call him “H”—who had also lost his brother the year before, and still appeared to be in a lot of pain. The next day, as the Sangha walked among the sage and boulders of the surrounding mountains, I thought to myself, Jason is not Jason. That’s why we call him Jason. “H” was walking ahead of me, and he immediately stopped and turned around. He smiled and gave me a great big hug that pushed my hat askew and stopped the long line behind us.

We walked to an open space where we all sat on boulders and ate our lunch. I smiled, remembering a conversation I once had with Brother Phap Dung, the abbot of Deer Park, about being at the monastery. “Here,” he said, “when you need a brother or sister, a brother or sister is there for you. When you need a mom, a mom tends to appear.”

A simple, childlike painting that Cameron made hangs in our bedroom in New York. It’s a large group of people, all colors and sizes, each with a heart in their chest, sitting under a yellow sun and torn-paper sky. If you look closely, you can see that the little clouds are words torn from a dictionary: we…all…have…a…beating…heart…in…our…chest. On Christmas Eve, I played a song to the Sangha gathered in the meditation hall at Deer Park. I looked at all the faces there—the children, parents, brothers, sisters, monks, and nuns—and told them how much they reminded me of the painting. The song was called Everything’s in Everything, inspired by Cameron’s painting, The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion, and the reality of interbeing.

We all have a beating heart in our chest

There is nothing separating East and West

We are breathing in and out the same sky

We are looking at each other with new eyes Everything’s in Everything

Everyone’s in Everything

Everything’s in Everyone

Everyone’s in Everyone

I love all the people passing by me

I love all the buildings in the sky of the city

I know all the forests are my lungs breathing

I know all the oceans are my blood streaming

Peace is resting in the palm of our hands

We can see it in a tiny grain of sand

Breathing in and out we smile to the moment

Everything’s in everything and always flowing

mb53-Diamond4Nate Metzker, Compassionate Sound of the Heart, is a novelist and musician who lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the McCarton School for Children with Autism. On his website, www.natemetzker.com, is an mp3 of the song mentioned in this story.

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Mindfulness on Campus

By Simone Blaise-Glaunsinger

Our days in academia are marked by a constant hum of activity— the staff working through piles of paperwork, answering phones and typing away on the computer, faculty preparing for classes, grading exams and advising students, and most of all our students, who are studying, writing papers, and often working part-time jobs to make ends meet. What better place could there be than the Mindfulness Practice Center, where one can re-center, breathe, and just be mindful of the present moment?

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The Mindfulness Practice Center was started in 1998, when Thich Nhat Hanh inspired its formation by a large public talk at the University of Vermont (UVM) and a donation of the proceeds went to support it. The Center was founded to help UVM community members cope mindfully with the many challenges of academic life, bringing greater fullness, freedom, and compassion into their lives. We offer a range of meditation opportunities, from weekly sittings to stress management workshops to one-day retreats.

The Center for Cultural Pluralism houses a small meditation room where the groups meet, and is available for students to meditate at other times. Miv London, the Center’s coordinator, works out of the University’s Counseling Center which offers mindfulness-based stress reduction workshops for students. These workshops run over a period of seven weeks, meeting once a week. The workshops are based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program, in which participants learn mindfulness principles, sitting and walking meditation techniques, body scans and hatha yoga to deal with stress, pain, or depression. Last year we started offering this program for UVM staff members. It was such a success that the center continues to offer it for staff on a regular basis. The workshops end with a half-day retreat.

Every semester, a day-long retreat is led by Miles Sherts, a mindfulness teacher and owner of Sky Meadow Retreat in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Mindfulness has also caught on with the psychology department in Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, a class taught by Dr. Arnold Kozak.

As a staff member at UVM, I started coming to the mindfulness meditation group almost six years ago. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step was one of the first books I read about mindfulness, and it inspired me to start the practice. Integrating mindfulness into my everyday life has helped me to deal with my stress and anxiety. Every day, the teachings and my practice enable me to be a more compassionate and patient listener, meditation instructor, hospice volunteer, Reiki practitioner, and receptionist.

Currently I facilitate a weekly mindfulness group on campus. Having a meditation community on campus has expanded my connection with the university and the community as a whole. The people coming to my group, newcomers and regulars alike, inspire me in my own practice as I notice the steady integration of mindfulness into their lives. I asked what it meant to them to have mindfulness on campus, and they shared their insights:

David H., a staff member: “I began this practice almost fifteen years ago to combat severe work-related stress. As I developed my ability, the stress lessened, and I found that the practice helped me in many other, sometimes surprising ways. Today, I continue a practice of mindfulness during the day in order to both maintain a sense of calm and a deeply felt internal energy that ‘ties’ me together.”

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Eric G., a graduate student: “I’m practicing mindfulness mainly to help me get to know myself and stay in touch with who I am and who I want to become. I can look at the direction my academics are taking me and ask myself whether this is in harmony with my values and my vision for myself.”

Amy H., an undergraduate student: “Mindfulness has been very helpful in my life through both practices and various readings by Buddhists. My academic life has somewhat improved by increasing my attention span and concentration, but other aspects of mindfulness are more powerful. For instance, the experience of mindful walking is very fulfilling. Mindfulness also helps us solve deep mysteries within ourselves that have been untouched for many years.”

Many participants have told me it helps them to have a scheduled time during the week they can put aside to come to the group and meditate. They also appreciate the group dynamics, and the ways in which it can create a sense of belonging. We always end meditation groups with a discussion about how it was for all the participants, and what worked or did not work. It is a time for reflection, questions and mindful dialogue.

The Mindfulness Practice Center helps faculty, staff and students to see beyond their wandering minds filled with memories of the past or plans for the future. They experience witnessing their thoughts instead of overanalyzing them. Rather than succumb to the feeling of being overwhelmed or paralyzed by assignments, they begin to approach their projects one small step at a time, and consequently are more productive. The participants go from walking with their minds caught up in thought patterns and their ears plugged into their music devices to an awareness of every step and the world around them, smiling at people they pass, and thereby spreading peace and harmony across the campus.

Whitney H., an undergraduate student, writes: “On campus, I find that I am more empathetic to other students and staff, and with such a diverse group of people all around us on campus, we really have the chance to appreciate and celebrate different opinions and ideas. Mindfulness opens my mind!”

The Mindfulness Practice Center at the University of Vermont has certainly changed my life in a very positive way. Mindfulness is clearly beneficial for the health and well-being of the campus community. My wish is that this message of mindfulness spreads everywhere and continues to bring peace and harmony into others’ lives as it has into my own.

mb54-Mindfulness4Simone Blaise-Glaunsinger works as an office manager at the UVM Department of Art and Art History. She has been a member of the UVM Mindfulness Practice Center (which she considers her Sangha) since 2002. She can be reached at sbhealingsoulstice@gmail.com.

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The Joyful Buffalo Herder

By Brother Phap Co

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mb55-TheJoyful2Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

This morning, I was doing walking meditation with the Sangha. I breathed in and out with every two steps, and after a while, I saw that I was becoming calm. I was able to direct my calm mind to the wondrous surroundings, the green trees, warm sun, flowers, and grasses of Deer Park Monastery. I felt light and at peace. I continued to bring my peaceful mind into contact with my brothers and sisters and with nature. Gradually I saw I was a part of nature, so no effort was needed to enjoy it, because nature seemed to have permeated me and flowed inside of me. I realized my past is behind me and my future is in front, and if it is beautiful and clear in front of me, then the past behind me is also beautiful and clear. If we live beautifully and mindfully in the present and in the future, then our past will also be beautiful, with wonderful memories.

I would like to share my memories about taking care of buffaloes. I grew up in the countryside in Vietnam. My father was a farmer with thirteen children and over thirty water buffaloes. I was the herder in charge of the buffaloes. In the morning, I let the buffaloes out into the fields for grazing, making sure they did not feed on rice plants and other crops. This kind of attention required my constant presence, leaving little time for schoolwork. That’s why by the age of thirteen, I was only in the third grade. In our society at the time, the uneducated and illiterate were often called “buffalo herders.”

When herding buffaloes, one has to know how to keep buffaloes of different characters together. Some buffaloes, once out in the field, will look for rice, sweet potatoes, or other crops to eat rather than staying with the herd. Some buffaloes like to walk by themselves. Some refuse to be led to the field. The first duty of the herder is to collect the herd using three tools: a wooden rod, a long piece of rope, and the best-behaved buffalo, called the “herd gatherer.” This buffalo must be the fastest, strongest, and best trained of the herd. If a buffalo decides to leave the herd, the herder must promptly dispatch his gatherer to bring it in.

Buffaloes graze for five or six hours and you have to be with them all the time. When they have eaten enough, the herder takes them to a large, empty field so you can all rest. Buffaloes like to play with the large, beautiful cranes that gather in these fields. Cranes’ songs are very beautiful and so are their dances. The buffaloes lie on the ground and the cranes approach them to feed, sing, and dance.

The herder often relaxes by making up songs which imitate the sounds of the cranes. Vietnamese literature contains a lot of references to buffalo herding. Here is one of the traditional songs:

Who says buffalo herding is a tough job?
Sitting on the buffalo I dreamily listen to the birds up high
There are days I skip school and chase after butterflies by the pond bridge
Caught by mother, I cry even before the whip comes down
There is a young girl sitting by, watching me and giggling
Aren’t her round black eyes forever so lovely?

 Cranes and Buffaloes inside Us

We have both the crane and the buffalo in ourselves. Taoists love cranes and often praise these birds for their quietude. Cranes are symbolic of nobility and calm. Zen practitioners compare the mind to a buffalo, which tends to wander and run after various distractions. A Zen practitioner is said to be a buffalo herder, keeping his or her mind from causing havoc.

Our mind has many parts; it does not have just one buffalo but a whole herd. Anger, blame, and resentment are not the good kinds of buffaloes. These emotions cause disturbances in our mind, and we have to know how to keep them in check. What are our tools to keep our minds from running wild?

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The rope we use to maintain direction over our buffalo mind is mindfulness. Mindfulness has the capacity to embrace mental formations that are running wild. When negative mental formations arise, we must recognize them immediately and ride the mindfulness buffalo after them. Recognition through mindfulness puts the negative mental formations on hold. How can we use mindfulness to take care of the scattering buffaloes? One good method is to do walking meditation, being aware of the breath and the steps. This form of meditation creates the energy of mindfulness so that we can take good care of our mind.

In order to generate the energy of mindfulness, certain conditions are necessary. A buffalo herder finds time to rest once he has taken his animals to a good grazing field. We must bring our mind to a spacious place so that it can rest and relax. We generate mindfulness so that we may take proper care of the wild buffaloes and the confusion of our mind.

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When we come to a practice center, if we feel spacious and light as a crane, and if we feel there is nothing important we have to do, it means our mind has become relaxed and calm. We do not feel the need to meet the abbot or visit with monastics, because in our mind, the most important thing to have here is spaciousness for our practice. We create merit through our practice, not through contact with someone like the abbot. For the energy of mindfulness to arise more easily, we have to be calm and light as a crane, with a lot of concentration.

When we perform a deed in accordance with the Dharma, our mind is quiet and calm, and we work in mindfulness. When we learn about the Buddha and do everything in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, we are performing a deed in accordance with the Dharma. Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out—that’s breathing in accordance with the Dharma. When we arrange the cushions in the meditation hall, our hands pick up each cushion and place it carefully on the mat in alignment with the others. This is arranging the cushions in mindfulness, in accordance with the Dharma. If we do things with that mind, not being concerned whether a deed is large or small, then even if the work is as small as a speck of dust, the merit associated with the work is so large that it is indescribable.

Imagine seeing a cherished friend off at the train station. We don’t know when we’ll see him again. Our mind is totally concentrated on our friend, not distracted by other people or things. We are with him until the last moment when we shake hands as he boards the train. Our eyes follow the train until it disappears before we turn back. That memory, which we will carry in our heart forever, is possible thanks to mindfulness, which means that our mind is aware of the event that is taking place, and this awareness brings about a deeper understanding of life. That is our memory, and it can take us forward to the future. If we have a beautiful past, then our future will be joyful and beautiful, too.

When we come to the monastery, when we walk very slowly with our mind concentrated, it is a deep practice, and it becomes a part of our memory. When sharing a meal with the Sangha, we do it with a concentrated mind. We sit quiet and upright, let our mind relax, stop and breathe with the sounds of the bell, and have a deep appreciation for the food which is the gift of the earth and sky, as stated in the Five Contemplations. Aware that the food does not come by itself, we eat with deep gratitude. A meal like that, even simple, can be a good memory. It’s rare that we have an opportunity to share a meal with so many friends. Walking, eating, seeing a friend off, we always have the same sense of gratitude because we are aware that these opportunities don’t take place all the time. This awareness helps us feel intimate with life.

Connecting with Others

When we experience the joy of life deeply, we develop a close connection with others, and this generates within us a love for our fellow human beings. If we feel distant from others, it is a sign that we are also distant from ourselves and we lack a deep understanding of life. People are a part of life. The thought that we can stay away from people by living in nature is not logical, because people are part of nature. When we suffer from negative mental formations, we tend to blame it on other people, but the root cause of this suffering is the fact that we are not in touch with life and do not understand life. We may be competent in many fields of study, but we have not devoted enough time to understanding our own mental formations and those of the people living close to us. This creates a separation between ourselves and others, and life. When we live mindfully and wholeheartedly, we learn to be present so we can listen to the other person with an open heart, which relaxes and gladdens our mind. To be able to sit for a cup of tea or to share a conversation with someone, even for a few moments, makes wonderful memories that nourish us, helping us see that we are not alone on our life journey.

We cannot handle such negative mental formations as anger when we are not in touch with our own mind. But when we are mindful and in touch with life, we have a good “herd-gathering” buffalo which enables us to get hold of the anger at the level of mind consciousness, and take good care of it. Because they have such strong momentum, anger, worry, or sadness may not cease immediately when we recognize and try to embrace them. When this happens, we should not try too hard. When we see that the mental formation arising in us is creating tension, we should put only sixty to seventy percent of our attention on it. If the mental formation continues to run wild despite our effort, we develop the impression that we are helpless and powerless, and then our mind may become even more agitated. So we should pay only sixty percent attention to the mental formation, and save the other forty percent for relaxing and getting in touch with wonderful things around us. This is a useful technique when our concentration is not strong enough to completely embrace the negative mental formation and resolve it right away. Patience is important in this situation.

Equanimity is the absence of grasping. With equanimity, our mind is as unencumbered as when we take the buffaloes to the empty field. When the mind is able to observe anger, the anger is gradually subdued, and it merges with the mental formation of mindfulness. The runaway buffalo is gradually brought back by the “herd-gathering” buffalo, and the herd comes together as one. When anger is embraced with mindfulness, it becomes less strong, and it is transformed into the energy of mindfulness, like water and milk mixed together. We need to practice mindfulness diligently so that we gradually develop the capacity to embrace our anger and sadness. Once we are able to do this, we will be able to care for all other mental formations, such as jealousy, hate, love, etc. We begin with simple recognition, calling a mental formation by its true name as it arises. Then, also with mindfulness, we gradually embrace it, feeling the mind calming down, seeing that everything is mind. And when we can see the full depth of the mental formation and pull up its root, transformation happens. The buffalo herder and the Zen practitioner are similar in their approaches. Zen practitioners tame the buffaloes of our minds.

This is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given at Deer Park Monastery in January 2010.

mb55-TheJoyful6Brother Phap Co was ordained in December 1999. He is Vietnamese Australian. He is very loved in our Sangha, because he is always positive and helpful to everyone. He loves to hike, bake bread, and work in the garden.

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Scorpion Nature

By Sister Dang Nghiem 

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There is a story about a scorpion and a frog. One day, the scorpion needs to cross a pond. So the scorpion tells the frog, “Frog, my friend, would you please take me across the pond?” The frog replies, “Well, I want to be helpful to you, but what if you sting me midway? I will die.” The scorpion says, “Why would I do that? If I sting you, you’ll die and I’ll die too.” The frog feels reassured, so it says, “Okay, that is reasonable. I do not mind carrying you across the pond. You can jump up.” The scorpion jumps on the back of the frog, and the frog gets into the water and begins to swim. Everything is going well until, halfway across the pond, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog is in deep pain, and as it is drowning, it cries out to the scorpion, “Why did you sting me? Now I’ll die, and you are going to die, too.” The scorpion replies, “I know that, but I cannot help myself. It is my scorpion nature.”

When the scorpion stings the frog, it knows that it is going to harm itself and the frog, and yet it still does it; that is the scorpion nature. Do we have scorpion nature? What is our scorpion nature? Certain things we do and say, certain thoughts we have—we know that they are not going to help anybody, including ourselves, and yet we still do them. Why is that? It is because we cannot help it; we simply cannot resist it.

One time, Thay said to me, “It is not an issue whether you like it or not.” I did not understand what he meant, but I did not like what he said. However, out of total respect and confidence in my teacher, I received his teaching and kept it in my mind. After a few years, suddenly it came to me: when we like something or we do not like something, that is our habit energy, and it is already ingrained in us. “I like this color. I hate that color.” “I want this iPad.” “I want to sleep in, and I don’t want to wake up early in the morning to go to sitting meditation.” “I need another degree.” “I need another outfit.” There are things that we like and things that we do not like. There are things that we want and things that we do not want. These likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs are clearly defined in our minds. We can understand this as our scorpion nature, driving us to think, speak, and behave reflexively.

Our deeply ingrained instinct is to survive and to avoid death. The sense of “me” and “mine” is essential to the survival of the “I”—which is reflected in our likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. Our tendencies and habit energies have their roots in our animal ancestors, their aggression, and their primal fight-flight-freeze response. Through evolution, humans have also developed the capacity for self-awareness and inhibition. Unfortunately, many of us resort to our primal instincts more often than to our highly developed capacities, and we easily identify ourselves with our habit energies. For example, you can claim righteously, “That is the way I am! I can say whatever I want to say, and I can do whatever I want to do!” I used to say these things to my beloved friends. I said those things out of frustration, sadness, and restlessness, and still I justified them.

If we keep doing that, with time, people put up a wall to protect themselves against us. They are not open to be there for us and to listen to us anymore, and so we become more frustrated, our speech becomes harsher, and the vicious cycle continues. Before we know it, we are far apart as parents and children, as friends, as brothers and sisters. We are like separate cosmos because we think, “I am like that. This is how I am, and this is my nature. You are like that. This is how you are, and this is your nature.” If you look deeply, you will realize that this is the scorpion nature because it bites us and it bites our loved ones, severing us and killing us slowly.

In medical school, when I rotated through the hospital ward with patients with Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other chronic intestinal problems, I was told that they could be the most irritable and needy patients. Now I can understand this phenomenon from an insider’s perspective. Chronic physical pain can cause a person to feel uncomfortable, restless, irritable, and reactive. When you are sick for a long time, your family members and friends become used to your illness, so they may not pay as much attention to you. It is easy to feel lonely, deserted, depressed, and needy as a result. If people say something insensitive or unskillful, you may replay their words a thousand times, harboring feelings of unworthiness, disappointment, resentment, and even hatred. All of these emotions are harsh and powerful, and they can cause your speech and bodily actions to be unpleasant and difficult for others to tolerate. Therefore, others avoid you, and your negative feelings are confirmed and strengthened, creating a vicious cycle. These fleeting feelings, if fed day after day, can become our attitudes and then our personality.

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From my own illness, I have learned to pay close attention to my likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. For example, monastic brothers and sisters are preparing to go hiking. Usually I would not miss a chance to go hiking, but when my energy level is low, the thought of walking under the sun for a long distance feels repugnant, and the mind translates this feeling with conviction: “I don’t want to go hiking.” It even goes so far as to say, “I don’t like hiking anymore.” Aware of this thought, I breathe and smile, returning my mind to right view: “It is not that I don’t want to go hiking or that I don’t like hiking. I simply do not have enough energy to do that right now. Perhaps I will have enough energy to do it tomorrow or some other time.” When you are not well, you find yourself not wanting to do many things and not liking many people. It is important to recognize the reason behind your likes and dislikes and not to identify yourself with these feelings, which can mold you into a certain personality.

Transforming Scorpion Nature 

Mindfulness will help us to recognize our Buddha nature as well as our scorpion nature as they are. For example, you can have a beautiful flowerbed, but if a lot of tall grass grows, you will not be able to see the flowers. Once you are able to identify the grass and weed it, the flowers can reveal themselves more clearly. Earlier today, I was doing walking meditation with the Sangha. The heat was scorching, my headache felt worse, and I began to hear myself wishing that I were in a cool room. Then I touched the cone hat that I was wearing, and I felt grateful for it. I had a pair of sunglasses on, too. Otherwise, the sunlight would have been too bright for my eyes and worsened my headache, and so I was grateful for my pair of sunglasses. Then I heard the breeze moving through the trees, so I stood waiting for it to come and felt it brushing my cheeks with its coolness. In just a few seconds, my awareness and my gratitude cooled down the heat that was inside of me.

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Walking meditation is one of the practices that can help us to transform our scorpion nature. The scorching heat is there, but there are also conditions that we can be grateful for, like the cone hat, the pair of sunglasses, the occasional breeze, and the presence of the community. Mindfulness helps us to take care of our scorpion nature, which is complaining, “Gosh, it’s so hot! Why do we have to walk in the heat like this? I must be crazy. I want to be inside doing something better. Why do I have to be out here?” One of the characteristics of the scorpion nature is that it complains. Aware of our steps and breaths—one step at a time and one breath at a time—our mind becomes more focused, the inner chattering quiets down, and we become aware that many conditions of happiness are supporting us. Mindfulness helps us to recognize the negativity in our internal dialogue, be present for it, and quiet it down.

If we do not recognize the negativity as it is, then it goes on and on in our mind without our awareness. Suddenly, we can explode and yell at somebody, because the undercurrent has built up enough momentum to surface as a powerful wave. Therefore, it is important simply to recognize something as it is. We can say to ourselves: “Breathing in, I am aware that this experience is unpleasant. Breathing out, I am here to relax the tension in it.” Or: “Breathing in, I am aware that there is something unpleasant arising in me. Breathing out, I am here for you.” This practice of simple recognition helps us to face a situation or person with more stability and equanimity.

The cultivation of gratitude is essential to the transformation of our suffering. If a person is blind, what she wants the most is to be able to see. If a person is having an asthma attack, what he wants the most at that moment is to be able to breathe in and breathe out normally. If you are having chest pain or a heart attack, what you want the most is for the pain to go away and for the heart to function normally again. What conditions are we in right now? Can our eyes see? Can our lungs breathe normally? Can our heart function normally? Yet, we may not recognize or acknowledge them, and so we are not grateful for them. Instead, the scorpion nature will say, “I wish I could be here or I could be there. I wish I could have this or have that.” The wanting never stops, driving us to be restless and dissatisfied, which is the source of our suffering. We want things other than what we already have, but in the most critical moments, what we truly wish is for things to be normal again. Our practice is to recognize daily the positive conditions in our lives and to be grateful for them, so we don’t wait until they are gone and then yearn for them.

There is a practice called “tri tuc,” meaning you know that you have enough. “Tri” means “to know, to master, to remember,” and “tuc” means “enough.” Interestingly, this character “tuc” also means “feet.” You remember that you have enough and you master what you have. It also means you remember that you have feet, and you master your feet! In your daily life, do you have awareness that you have feet? When you walk across the parking lot or around your office, do you have mastery of your steps?

To know that we have feet—that is enough to make us happy. Therefore, our feet symbolize all the conditions of happiness that are available to us right here and right now. Without mindfulness, we take what we have for granted, and we feel forever impoverished. We can even take the mindfulness practice for granted; as a result, we are actually less fortunate than those who are sincerely seeking a spiritual path. With awareness of our steps, of our bodily movements, of the in-breaths and out-breaths, we train to dwell stably and gratefully in the present moment. This is also a concrete way to check whether we are practicing correctly and authentically or not.

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Learning to Be Grateful to Our Illness 

A teenager in a retreat shared, “I have asthma, and I hate it! I just hate asthma!” He said it with all of his conviction. Should we hate our illness? Hating our illness is our usual response. However, we can learn to be grateful to our illness. When I was in medical school, I was strong and athletic. From my school on 3rd Street, I could run through Golden Gate Park all the way to the ocean, which was near 57th Street. Then I swam in the ocean even though the water was perpetually cold. After that, I jogged back to my school. It was something fun and effortless to do. Then, I developed low blood pressure in my late thirties and contracted Lyme disease in my early forties. Right now, I cannot run as I used to. I even feel out of breath walking from the dining hall to my room at times. Yet, instead of feeling distraught about what I have lost, I am learning to be more grateful for what I still have. I am also more grateful for the moments when I am well.

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When you have limitations or discomfort in your body, you can practice sitting still and coming back to your breathing, or you can lie down and put your hand on your abdomen and say, “I am here for you. It is okay.” You learn to recognize the fragility of your body, feeling deeper love and appreciation for your body because against all chances, your body is often healthy and forgiving. Even if you stay up until one in the morning or even if you drink and smoke, your body still tries to heal itself. It will heal itself repeatedly so that you can wake up the next morning and function normally. It continues like that year after year, until one day it is not able to recover so well. You start to cough and feel tired walking up a hill because of the damage that has been done to your body. At every stage, we can recognize what is going on and what we still have. We can say “I am here” for the losses as well as for the gains of life.

Often I say “I am sorry” to myself. I did not know to say “I am sorry” to myself before. I just expected things to be a certain way, and when it was not like that, I felt frustrated, angry, or despairing. As a monastic practitioner, I have learned to be grateful and to be sorry for my own unskillfulness. It is a sign of true love when you can say “I am sorry” to your own body. You learn not to show off your body because it is beautiful, because it has nice clothes on, or because it is attached to a nice looking car or a cool phone. You learn to love your body because you realize that it is the best friend that you can ever have, and that it is the most forgiving partner that you can ever find. This is “tri tuc:” to know, to remember, and to master what you already have.

If you have a bell, you can invite one sound of the bell while you sit beautifully, with your back upright and relaxed. As you listen to the sound of the bell, scan through your body slowly and say to yourself:

Breathing in, I am aware of my head.
Breathing out, I relax my head.
Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, thank you, eyes. You are still in good condition. Thank you for allowing me to see the beautiful nature and the lovely faces around me.

Take time to scan each part of your body: the ears, the nose, the mouth, the hands, feet, the lungs, the heart, and all the other organs. They are always there for you, taking good care of you and forgiving your unskillful thoughts and deeds.

This Too Shall Pass 

When we experience something pleasant, we want more of it. When we eat an ice cream cone and it tastes good, we eat quickly while thinking about the next one. When we have a lot of fun, we wish it would last forever. However, in our practice we also learn to recognize that “this too shall pass.” This practice helps me to cherish deeply what I have in the moment and, at the same time, to release it from my grasping. Even when I am very happy being in the presence of a particular person—we can truly connect and understand each other—something in me whispers, “This too shall pass.” It is bittersweet, because you remember that everything is impermanent; it comes and it will go. Every so often I look at myself in a mirror and say, “My youth is passing by me right now.” It was yesterday that I was a child singing to myself on the street, and today I am already confronting early premenopausal symptoms.

When we listen to the sound of a bell, we simply stop to follow our breathing and we let go of our speaking, moving around, or doing things. Even if a thought or a feeling arises, we smile and release it with our out-breath. When impermanence becomes a concentration in our daily life, our capacity to let go deepens. Slowly and steadily, we train ourselves to be aware of the arising and the disappearance of the in-breaths, out-breaths, thoughts, and feelings, as well as all other phenomena. Even the most beautiful things we have to let go.

The awareness that “this too shall pass” helps you to be there, thoroughly and wholeheartedly, in that moment. You do not take the person in front of you for granted and think, “Oh, I will see him again,” or “This situation is always like that.” Then when the person walks away, or when the situation is no longer there, you will not regret. We only regret because we don’t touch the moment deeply. When we touch something deeply, it is always there inside of us, and we have access to it to nourish us in times to come. Therefore, the concentration on impermanence and the understanding of “this too shall pass” helps us to enjoy the present stage of our life. We do not have to regret the past or feel afraid about the future. This is it, and we are free from worries, fears, and grasping.

mb64-Scorpion6Sister Dang Nghiem received her Doctor of Medicine degree from UC San Francisco School of Medicine. She’s been a monastic practitioner for thirteen years. Her deep joy is to be with teenagers and young adults. She is currently at Blue Cliff Monastery. This article was adapted from a Dharma talk she gave at Magnolia Grove Monastery in June of 2011.

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A Magnolia Grove Remembrance

By Connor Figgins

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I remember back to September 29, 2011, at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi. I clutched the hand of one of Thay’s monks, and we were walking together right behind Thay and the other children. As we walked into a big field, about a football field wide and a football field across, we noticed the long grass crunching beneath our feet as another monk put out Thay’s mat and cushion. Thay turned around, looked at all of us, and sat down. The field was sloped all around with one opening with walls about ten feet high. As Thay sat down he took out his bell, put it in his hand, bowed to it, lightly tapped it, and held it to wake it up. Then he rang it for all of us to hear and enjoy. Not just us, but all the birds around it, all the animals.

Once he was done with the bell, he reached his hand back for his tea, which another monk just poured out for him. The teacup was about three inches tall with an indent in it. As he slowly took a sip of his tea, a little cricket, or frog, it kind of looked like a mixture of both, jumped onto my lap, and then jumped right into his tea. As he noticed it, he picked up his teacup and angled it just enough so it could fall out. As he handed his teacup back, I noticed that another monk got out another teacup and took out a small teapot, enough to fill up just one cup. He opened it up and I noticed all of the crisp leaves in it. The monk noticed that there was no tea left. He took out a thermos from his bag and filled up the teacup and handed it back. Thay slowly drank his tea, but quick enough to make sure no cricket jumped in it again. When he was done with his tea, he leaned over and looked at the cricket, and he looked up at the two children in front of him and asked if it was okay. One of the children said, “Yes,” and he looked up and seemed happy for it.

After that, Thay slowly got up and noticed that one of the trees had a gust of leaves fly out of it. The leaves were purplish green color. As they fluttered down, we all waited and watched until every single leaf hit the ground. We walked slowly away from there, with me clutching one of the monk’s hands, and I felt good. It was nice to feel the soft cold grass beneath my feet. We walked out a different way from where we came. As I looked down, I noticed that there were leaves beneath my feet. The children in front of me were dragging their feet to make a rustling sound in the leaves. I slowly picked up my feet and put my feet down, trying to save as much natural beauty as I could. As I looked around, I noticed everything that was beautiful. The different colored trees, the different colored vines. Once we got to the end of the path, Thay turned left and walked into his hermitage. His hermitage was very nice. It was a log cabin with golden logs.

As I walked back by my mom and grandma, I noticed that everyone was watching him go into his hermitage with the two monks at his sides. I seemed to notice my grandma walking around, so I walked up to her and said, “Hey Grandma,” and she looked at me and said, “Oh, hey,” and I said, “Let’s wait for Mom.” So we both sat in the nice damp leaves and waited. And we finally found Mom and I told her how Thay went into his hermitage, and we started to walk toward the big white tent in the middle of the field for a Dharma talk with Thay. The Dharma talk was a very nice Dharma talk. It was about the mind of love. Thay excused the children early and had us bow to the Sangha, and we walked to our Magnolia Room. I remember that day of September 29, 2011, at Magnolia Grove Monastery.

mb64-AMagnolia2Connor Figgins, age thirteen, was eleven when he went on retreat with his mom and grandma. He especially enjoyed serving others at the beverage station during the retreat. Connor lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he volunteers in his community and supports his family’s mindfulness practice.

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Story of a Little Limace

By Sister Trang Mai Thon

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I would like to share my story with you. But first, perhaps I should tell you a little bit about myself. How should I start? I can talk about things like who I am. Actually I am you. I am that big-mouth frog; I am that dead leaf, wet and nearly rotten. I am also that big, fragrant, and beautiful rose. So I am basically everything.

Now I have to come back and call myself by my true name. Well, many people know me as a slug, a baby one. I live on the poplar plantation, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, France. There, they call me a limace. I was born just this spring, and today is the first time I have come out to enjoy the wet ground, still covered by dead leaves from last autumn. The soft rain this morning brings about very pleasant conditions, lots of food for me to enjoy. And just like any other healthy baby, I have a good appetite.

While I am enjoying myself, especially the food, together with so many others of my kind in different sizes and of various generations, I hear stumbling noises approaching me. Then thousands, no, maybe hundreds (I haven’t learned to count yet) of giant sticks are stomping the ground. I have to shrink myself to the smallest size possible and try my best to stay safe. Ah, it’s walking meditation. I don’t know who these people are, and they don’t know me, either. But as their teacher says, we all inter-are. So I suppose I do know them, and vice versa, to a certain extent.

There’s one thing I do know: some of those people are really scared of me, or at least one person is. Her name is Sister So-and-So. I know that for a fact because a couple of days ago, I overheard her telling another sister that anything crawling is her worst fear. Just to name a few examples: caterpillars, slugs, and worms. So, she’s scared of me. And yet she doesn’t even know who I am, how I was born, what I eat, my life span, or my habitat, let alone my favorite color. She only knows my kind: limace. And yet she’s already worried about me.

I’ll tell you this, and it’s confidential, okay? She said to another sister that she is scared of me to the point that if anyone were to hold me up to her and ask, “Did you, Sister So-and-So, commit an act of killing last night?” she would say, “Yes,” even though it would violate the first precept about not killing.

Today she is one of the walking people, treading the ground where I am. So what do you reckon? Who should be scared of whom? Let’s imagine that a couple hundred slugs—all my family members, my relatives, my friends, and my whole neighborhood— had gone for walking meditation over where Sister So-and-So practices her deep relaxation. It would be a shock for anyone to hear the number of crimes to which Sister So-and-So would have admitted.

After I wrote you this story, somehow Sister So-and-So became aware of it, and she sent me the following message:

Dear Little Limace,

I am so sorry to have had such a discriminating mind against you. I have done a little bit of contemplation on it. So, today I would like to make a formal Beginning Anew with you.

Since I read your story, I have been more mindful of my steps when I walk or stand. I am aware that we share the same planet, Mother Earth. We are actually in the same family. I can’t say that I am ready to pick you up with my bare hands, put you on my palm, and take you around with me for a walk. However, I am aware that you have your own beauties—for example, your ou standing orange color, your extreme flexibility, and your mindful moving when you slide from here to there. At least I feel peaceful compassion towards you. I look forward to more meaningful conversations with you.

Your sister,

So-and-So

My dear friend, I don’t respond to Sister So-and-So. It’s not necessary. Anyway, when the heart is connected, we don’t really need to say much. You know it and I know it. That’s quite enough. Wouldn’t you agree with me?

Limace is the French word for “slug.” 

mb63-Story2Sister So-and-So is Sister Trang Mai Thon, of Vietnamese origin. Before becoming a novice nun in 2011, she lived in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and practiced with the Brisbane Mindfulness Practicing Group (English-speaking) and the Solidity and Freedom Sangha (Vietnamese-speaking). She currently lives and practices with the Plum Village Sangha in the New Hamlet.

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The Path to Peace

By Bridgeen Rea

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I was “born and bred” in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and grew up in “The Troubles,” during which over 3,500 people were killed. The people of my country have a lot of heartache, pain, and suffering still as a hangover of the conflict here, even though we are now years into a peace process.

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As I sat in the temple surrounded by Vietnamese, who bowed to us Westerners in our Ao Trang (Vietnamese traditional dress), the scale of the Vietnam War seemed impossible to even imagine. Spontaneously, I had a thought: I wish Thay would come to Belfast and do this. Wow, the idea was beyond my wildest dreams. With the help of the wonderful people of Mindfulness Ireland, especially Sister Jina and Brother Phap Lai, Thay did indeed come to my home city on 17 April 2012.

His presence in Stormont (the Northern Ireland Assembly, our equivalent of parliament or the seat of government) had a huge impact. It was covered in all three daily papers and by both TV news stations. One of the local political journalists, Eamonn Mallie, tweeted throughout Thay’s talk nine times—I’m not really sure this is mindful listening, but perhaps the Dharma rain entered somewhere. I was delighted that so many people got to hear Thay’s name and see his picture and hear a sound bite of his message. In fact, three NEW Sanghas have sprouted as a direct result!

I had spent nine months preparing for this one day, so when Thay arrived, I was just bursting with nervous excitement and joy! As I led Thay and the accompanying monastic Sangha along the marble corridors of power, Thay paused and put his hand at the small of my back, leaned in, and said, “Walking meditation.” Of course! This is what I still need to learn every day. In fact now I think I might have dreamt it, as in my head he says, “Walking meditation, my dear.”

Thay spoke to the waiting crowd of the local public, whom he would lead on a walking meditation to the bottom of the Stormont Mile on the government estate. He explained a little about walking meditation: “I breathe in and take one step. I breathe out, I take one step, and I arrive in the kingdom of heaven.” As he said the last three words, the sun came from behind the clouds and shone directly on his face, perhaps reflecting the dreamlike quality the day seemed to be having for me.

When we got to the bottom of the hill we sat in meditation just like I have done in Plum Village, in Blue Cliff, and in Vietnam. How did this happen in Belfast?

As for healing the wounds of the conflict in Ireland, I believe it was another important step on the path to peace, an encouragement to work for peace inside ourselves and in our community, a significant day to build new dreams on.

mb62-ThePath3Bridgeen Rea, True Profound Happiness, has been practising in the Plum Village tradition since 2005 and has invited a Sangha to gather in her home since 2007. She works in public relations for the Executive Information Service of the Northern Ireland Government and is studying for a master’s degree in mindfulness at the University of Bangor in Wales.

 

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Snowy Steps

By Tracey Pickup

mb62-Snowy1The sound of the cold wind, the crunch of ice and snow under each foot and the swish of heavy coats are the only sounds of the Sangha. High on a white ridge overlooking the city, the Sangha slowly puts one foot in front of the other. It is impossible not to hunch slightly before the wind.

It is January and many degrees below freezing. It is our Day of Mindfulness. Looking at my friends, I think to myself: Why on earth should we do this? I see the great blue sky before us, small birds hanging in the bare shrubs and bushes. The dim winter light scattered over the valley.

It’s hard enough to slow down and pay attention when the conditions are beautiful and comfortable. Most of the time under these winter conditions, I run through the wind to get somewhere warmer.

Here we are, approaching this noble practice under these conditions simply because they are the ones before us. As we turn slowly towards each other and sing one soft song together, I realise that we practice this waking up for what is right here in this place. This place is our home of mindfulness. Just as Sanghas around the world take mindful steps under whatever conditions are before them, so do we. Though it is sometimes a cold and difficult place, these are our mindful steps. For us and for all beings together.

 

 

mb62-Snowy2Tracey Pickup, True Fragrant Field, began the Calgary Sangha in her apartment in 2003. She enjoyed walking meditation in the snow until she moved to a more coastal climate. She now lives at Mountain Lamp Community, a rural retreat centre near the west coast of Washington state, and serves as the Temple Keeper.

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Dharma Talk: Sitting in the Wind of Spring

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Here is the first Dharma talk that Thich Nhat Hanh gave on his recent tour of Vietnam, at Phap Van Temple in Ho Chi Minh City on February 22, 2007. This excerpt presents the last part of the talk, including questions from the audience and Thay’s answers. Later in this issue we offer a story of that day along with photos from the journey. To hear this talk in full, go to www.dpcast.org and look for “Mindfulness and Healing in Vietnam.” 

Thich Nhat Hanh

While we’re sitting still, sitting peacefully, there are three elements that we need to harmonize. The first is the body, the second is the mind, the third is the breath — mind, body, and breath.

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Sometimes our body’s there but the mind has run off somewhere else. It runs off to the future, to the past. It is caught in worries, sadness, anger, jealousy, fear. There is no peace, no stillness. If we want to sit still we have to bring the mind back to the body.

How can we bring the mind back to the body? The Buddha taught in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing that we need to know how to use the breath. When we breathe in, we bring the mind back to the breath. I am breathing in, and I am aware that I am breathing in. Instead of paying attention to things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, we bring the mind back so that it can pay attention to the breath.

This sutra has been available in Vietnam since the third century. Zen master Tang Hoi was the forefather of Vietnamese Zen and this is one of the most basic sutras in meditation practice. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out. This is the first exercise of the sixteen exercises in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing, which I have translated from Pali to Vietnamese and from Chinese to Vietnamese; it has been published in many languages.

The day I discovered the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing I was so happy! It is a wonderful sutra for our practice of meditation. If we practice wholeheartedly, in a few weeks we can bring peace and happiness back to our bodies and to our minds.

The Practices of the Buddha

In Plum Village we have a gatha, a short poem that we memorize. It has only a few words.

In, out.
Deep, slow.
Calm, ease.
Smile, release.
Present moment, wonderful moment!
The first one, “in, out,” means breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out.

The second one is “deep, slow.” Breathing in, I see that my inbreath has become deeper. Breathing out, I see that my out-breath has become slower. In the beginning our breath is very short, but if we continue to follow our breathing for a while, naturally our in-breath becomes slower, deeper, and our out-breath also becomes slower, more relaxed.

This is our practice. Just as when we want to play the guitar, we have to practice every day, or if we want to learn to play tennis, we have to practice to be a good tennis player, we also have to practice our breathing. After one hour of practice we already feel better. Then slowly we’ll be able to sit still like the Buddha, and be worthy to be his disciples.

Perhaps for a long time we have been going to the temple only to do offerings. But that’s not enough. We have to learn the teachings of the Buddha, the practices that the Buddha wanted to transmit to us.

Breathing for Our Mothers and Fathers

We practice not to be happy in the future; we practice to be happy right in the present moment. When we’re sitting, we should have happiness as we are sitting. When we are walking, we should have happiness as we are walking. We sit with our breath so that the body can be calm and the mind can be calm; that is called sitting meditation. When we know how to walk, to take steps in lightness and gentleness, that’s called walking meditation.

In practice centers that practice in the Plum Village tradition, we walk peacefully as if we were walking in the Buddha Land. We do not talk as we are walking. If we need to say something, we stop to say it, and then we continue walking. If you visit Plum Village or Deer Park or Green Mountain or Prajna or Tu Hieu, you will see that the monks and the nuns in these centers do not talk when they walk. They pay attention to each of their steps, and the steps always follow the breath.

When you come to live with the monks and the nuns, even for just twenty-four hours, you can learn how to walk and sit like the monks and nuns. Peace and happiness radiate as we are sitting, as we are walking. When we practice correctly, there’s peace and happiness today; we don’t have to wait until tomorrow. Lay practitioners who attend our retreats learn to breathe, to sit, and how to pay attention to their steps right in the first hour of orientation.

While we are here in Vietnam we will also offer these teachings during the monastic retreats and retreats for lay friends. So everybody will learn about sitting meditation, walking meditation, breathing meditation.

“In, out, deep, slow. Calm, ease, smile, release.” That’s the fourth exercise: “Smile, release.”

Breathing in, I feel calm, I feel such a sense of well-being. Breathing out, I feel light. This is what we call the element of ease — one of the seven factors of enlightenment. When we practice through the third exercise we feel calm and ease. When we breathe like that it’s not just for us, but we are continuing the career of the Buddha. We are breathing for our fathers, our mothers in us. When we practice like that it’s so joyful.

I often write these statements so that the young monks and nuns can send home a calligraphy as gifts to their parents. “I am taking each step in freedom for you, Father.” “I am breathing gently, peacefully for you, Mother.” When we practice like that we practice for our whole family, for our own ancestral lines, and for our whole country, not just for ourselves alone.

The Healing Power of Total Relaxation

We accumulate so much stress! This can bring a lot of illnesses if we do not know how to practice total relaxation. That is why the Buddha taught us: breathing in, I relax my whole body; breathing out, I smile to my whole body.

In Plum Village we have the Dharma practice called “total relaxation.” We can do total relaxation as we are sitting or as we are lying down. I ask you to learn this practice. If you practice total relaxation each day for about twenty minutes, you can avoid a lot of illnesses. If you hold in too much tension and stress in your body or your mind, it can generate illnesses in the future, such as high blood pressure, cardiac diseases, or stroke.

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If we can practice as a family each day, with a time allotted so that the parents, the children, can lie down and practice, that is a very civilized family. In Plum Village we have produced CDs that can help people to practice total relaxation, available in English, French, Vietnamese, and German. At first when we don’t know how to lead total relaxation, we can listen to the CD and the whole family can practice. After a while we can take turns leading total relaxation for our family.

In the West there are hospitals that apply these breathing exercises to save patients when there are no other ways to help them. In an article in the Plum Village magazine, Brother Phap Lieu [a former physician] wrote about a doctor who learned about the sutra and the practices of Plum Village and then applied what he learned to help his patients.

Peace and Freedom in Each Step 

There are people in the West who are from the Christian tradition yet they know how to take advantage of Buddhist wisdom to help themselves. We call ourselves a Buddhist country, but many of us only know how to worship and make offerings. We do not yet know how to apply the very effective teachings transmitted to us by the Buddha through the sutras such as The Four Establishments of Mindfulness or Mindfulness of Breathing.

We have this temple — Phap Van (Dharma Cloud) — as well as Prajna, Tu Hieu, An Quang, and other temples. We can go to these temples to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha. We learn about breathing meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, total relaxation meditation, so that we can apply them into our daily lives.

At the retreat for businesspeople in Ho Chi Minh City, they will also learn breathing meditation, sitting meditation, and walking meditation. We have organized a retreat like that for congressmen and –women in the United States. Presently in Washington D.C. there are congress people who know how to do walking meditation, how to coordinate their breath and their steps. A congressman wrote a letter to me, and he said, “Dear Thay, from my room to the voting chamber I always do walking meditation. I come back to my breath and my steps on my way to this place. My relationship with the voting process and with my co-workers has improved so much because I know how to apply walking meditation practice.”

We have also organized retreats to teach these practices to police officers in the United States. Imagine all these big police officers who now take steps in peace, in gentleness. Do you know that in the United States there are more police officers who commit suicide than are shot by criminals? They witness so much suffering and they cause so much suffering to themselves and to their families; they feel they had no way out. That’s why a retreat like ours benefited them so much and they suffer much less.

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In prisons there are those who know how to organize sitting meditation. Last month an American prisoner wrote to me, “Dear Thay, even though I am in prison, I’m very happy, and I see that sometimes being in prison is good for me. This is an advantageous condition for me to do a lot of sitting and walking meditation. If I were outside right now, maybe I would never have learned this practice. I am not a monastic, but I see that I am living in prison and I live according to the mindful manners and precepts in the book Stepping Into Freedom. Stepping Into Freedom is a revision of the book written for the monastics; it contains the essential practices for the novices.

Over the centuries when people have been in deep despair and have come in touch with the wonderful teachings of the Buddha, they have been able to transform their lives. We are children of the Buddha — for many generations. Buddhism has been in our country for over two thousand years. If we have not learned these basic practices of meditation, it is a shame.

That is why I very much hope that those of you who are present today are determined to learn these basic practices. We have to be able to sit still. We have to know how to breathe in such a way that we feel comfortable, peaceful, and we need to know how to walk so that there is peace and freedom in each step. We’re not doing this for ourselves only, but for our fathers, for our mothers, for our children, and for our country.

In the Anapanasati Sutra on mindfulness of breathing, the Buddha taught us to use the mindfulness of our breathing to heal our body and our mind. When there is relaxation in the body, our body has the capacity to heal itself and medication becomes secondary. When stress is so great, we can take a lot of medication, but it’s very difficult to heal. So while we’re taking medication, the most important thing is to relax the body. When the nurse is about to give us an injection we tense our body because we are afraid there’ll be pain. When we tense up the muscles like that, if she gives an injection it will be very painful. So she says, “Now take a deep breath!” And when we’re breathing out and we’re thinking of the out-breath, then she sticks the needle into our arm.

While we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they while we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they practice to work in a spirit of relaxation. That is why they’re able to maintain their freshness, their smile, their happiness. We can do the same as the monastics.

The Secret of Zen

After we bring our mind back to take care of the body, we can bring our mind back to take care of the mind. In our mind there’s suffering, fear, worry, irritation, anger. Often we want to suppress these feelings but each day the tension and stress grow greater and greater. Eventually they cause us illnesses of the body and mind. The Buddha teaches us to bring the mind back to the body to take care of the body and to bring the mind back to take care of the mind.

Among the sixteen exercises of breathing, there is one exercise that aims to relax negative mental formations, such as anger and worry. Breathing in, I am aware that there’s irritation in me. Breathing out, I smile to my irritation. Breathing in, I am aware that there are worries in me. Breathing out, I take care of my worries. Our irritation or worries are like our baby. We use our breathing to generate the energy of mindfulness in order to embrace our worries and our fear.

Right mindfulness means we know what’s going on. For example, I am breathing in, and I know that I am breathing in. That is right mindfulness of the breath. When we take a step and we know that we are taking the step, that is right mindfulness of the step. When we drink a cup of coconut juice, in that moment we have mindfulness of drinking. We bring the mind back to the body so that it’s present as we are sitting, standing, lying down, putting on our robe, taking off our robe, brushing our teeth. Our mind is always present. That is the secret of Zen.

When the body and mind are relaxed, we have the capacity to listen to the other person and to speak gentle words. Then we can re-establish communication between us. The other person may be our spouse, our partner, our daughter or our son, our friend, or our parents. That practice is deep listening and loving speech. If there is no peace in the body and the mind, we cannot practice loving speech and deep listening. When we are able to practice deep listening and loving speech, we can help the other person to suffer less. Joy can be re-established in the family.

I’d like to inform you that Western practitioners, after just five days of practice, can reconcile with their families, with their parents. If they practice, they invest a hundred percent into their practice because they want to succeed and not practice just for form.

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Children of the Buddha

We organize retreats for Westerners to practice with Vietnamese. In these retreats the Vietnamese see the Western practitioners practicing diligently and correctly.

We have been children of the Buddha for two thousand years. We cannot do worse than Westerners. We can do just as well or even better. We have to have deep faith in the teachings and practices of the Buddha. Buddhism is not a devotional religion, it is a treasure of great wisdom.

It’s just like a jackfruit. The devotional part is only the shell outside. When you cut it open and go deeply into it there are parts that are very sweet, very fragrant and soft. Many of us have been practicing just on the outside of the jackfruit, but when we go into it we can enjoy it very deeply. We need to learn — not in order to accumulate Buddhist knowledge, but so that we can apply it in our daily lives.

First of all, we learn to practice in such a way that we can sit still and relax our body and mind. We learn so that we can listen deeply and speak lovingly. Perhaps in only one or two weeks we can change our whole lives. We can bring happiness into our family. Many people have been able to do it. If we want to we can also do that.

This is the first dharma talk. I don’t want to speak very long, so I will leave a little time so that you can ask questions.

Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment 

Woman from audience: First of all I would like to wish Thay and the monks and nuns good health so that you can continue to transmit the teachings to us and to future generations. When we practice we can come back to the present moment and dwell happily and peacefully in the present moment, and in order to do that we have to bring together the three factors of body, mind, and breath. But what if one of these three factors, for example, my foot, has a problem and I cannot keep it still. So then would my practice yield peace or ease?

Thay: Very good! [audience applause] First of all, do not wait until you have pain in your foot, then say, “I cannot practice!” Practice when you don’t have pain in your foot. When there’s pain in the leg, first of all we take care, we try to find treatment for the leg and at the same time we find a way to sit so that there’s comfort. There are people who have problems. Instead of using one cushion, they use two cushions. Instead of sitting in a lotus position they sit in a half-lotus, or they sit on a stool or in a chair. People may sit in a chair but they can still bring their mind back to their body.

As for the breath, for example, it may be very difficult when we have asthma. So we should practice when we are not having an asthma attack, and then when we have an asthma attack we can still practice with that.

Do not use the excuse that I have this particular difficulty with my body or my mind or my breath. There are people who are victims of vehicle accidents, who were artists and now they cannot draw with their hands, so they use their feet to draw — beautiful paintings. So if we have a little pain in our feet or we have difficulties with our breath, we can still practice. We don’t use that excuse to be too lax in the practice.

Invoking the Buddha’s Name 

Man from audience: When we use the breath to invoke the name of Amitaba Buddha, breathing in, we say “Namo” [“praise”]; breathing out we say, “Amitaba Buddha.” “Namo, Amitaba Buddha.” This is the Buddha of the Pure Land, and so when you teach us, “Breathing in, I feel calm, breathing out, I feel ease,” I can say it’s somewhat equivalent to my practice. Slowly it brings me to this concentration of the breath at a higher level. When there’s concentration on the breath and on invocation of the Buddha, it can help heal us. So I would like to share that with you, and I would like to express my gratitude of your teaching today.

Thay: Very good. We can combine the practice of invoking the name of Amitaba Buddha with the practice of breathing meditation. But tonight we talk about the sutra Anapanasati, Mindfulness of Breathing, which was taught by the Buddha himself. We can use this original sutra in all different Buddhist traditions, whether Pure Land or Zen or other traditions. We did not say that this is the only method of practice, because there are many other practices. We just brought up a few exercises that the Buddha suggested to us. It does not mean that we do not affirm or recognize other practices.

mb45-dharma6Whatever Dharma practices bring us to relaxation, freedom, and peace of body, they are all best practices. We don’t want to waste time saying that this practice is better than other practices.

Some people feel comfortable with certain practices; other people may not feel that they succeed in a practice, so they try another practice. Whatever practice we do, we want to reach the fruits of that practice — freshness, happiness, calmness. There is peace and happiness right away, and we don’t have to wait until three, four months later or three, four years later to taste that fruit. It’s the same way in the practice of invoking the name of the Buddha. We invoke the name of the Buddha in such a way that there is peace and happiness right in the moment while invoking the name. If we feel fear or anxiety, it is not in the spirit of the teachings of the Buddha. So that’s what it means, dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment.

Being in Touch with the Departed

Man in audience: In a magazine they said that today Thay would give a Dharma talk about being with my loved one, and how to practice to bring peace to myself. When you gave the Dharma talk tonight, you said that when you are able to be in touch with your breath, you have peace and happiness. Do you mean that when we have peace and happiness, we can be in touch with our loved ones who are dead?

Thay: We will go slowly, step by step. There are many different topics. We will have the three ceremonies to pray for the people who passed away during the Vietnam war, and we can pose the question: “My loved ones have died in the war. How can I bring them peace? How can I help them to be liberated?” These topics need a lot of time to understand because they are very deep.

Just like any scientific field, Buddhism needs to take steps. When we cannot take the first step and the second step, it’s very difficult for us to take further steps. That is why we should not hurry too much or be pulled away by the theoretical realm. We need to grasp the basic practices first.

When we have enough peace in the body and the mind, we have the capacity to listen. Then we can take care of more difficult situations. In us there are certain preconceptions that we have accumulated from the past. When we listen to something new, we have a tendency to fight against it. Maybe there’s this structure inside us when we first listen to a teaching. That is why the Buddha taught us how to break through these views, whatever we learned yesterday. If we cannot let go of what we studied in the past, we cannot go on to the next step. If you don’t let go of the fifth step, you cannot take the sixth step. If you want to go to the seventh step, you have to let go of the sixth step.

In this past century many scientists have found that Buddhism is very inspiring. Einstein said that Buddhism is the only religion that can go in tandem with science. That is the spirit of breaking through knowledge, through views that we have accumulated from the past.

‘To Sit in the Wind of Spring’

We should end the dharma talk now. We will see each other tomorrow. This morning our delegation had a chance to visit An Quang Temple. We offered to the abbot of An Quang a calligraphy that said, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”

I explained to the abbot that in the old teaching, when the brothers and sisters sit together in this love on the path, when the teacher and the students sit together and exchange their experiences in the practice and teach each other and support each other, there is this happiness as if we were sitting in the spring. We benefit from the wind of the spring that is like a nourishing breeze. So that’s why this morning I wrote the calligraphy, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”

I have a feeling that tonight as the teacher and students sit here together, we also sit in the wind of the spring. We have the good fortune to meet each other to exchange our knowledge and experiences. This is a great happiness that I would like all of us to be aware of.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem;
transcribed by Greg Sever;
edited by Janelle Combelic
with help from Barbara Casey
and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.
 

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Dharma Talk: True Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha, today is the twenty-third of June, 2005 and we are in the Lovingkindness Temple in the New Hamlet.  

Happiness is a practice. We should distinguish between happiness and excitement, and even joy. Many people in the West, especially in North America, think of excitement as happiness. They are thinking of something, or expecting something that they consider to be happiness, and, for them, that is already happiness. But when you are excited you are not really peaceful. True happiness should be based on peace, and in true happiness there is no longer any excitement.

mb40-dharma2Suppose you are walking in a desert and you are dying of thirst. Suddenly you see an oasis and you know that once you get there, there will be a stream of water and you can drink so you will survive. Although you have not actually seen or drunk the water you feel something: that is excitement, that is hope, that is joy, but not happiness yet. In Buddhist psychology we distinguish clearly between excitement, joy, and happiness. True happiness must be founded on peace. Therefore, if you don’t have peace in yourself you have not experienced true happiness.

Training Yourself to Be Happy 

You have to cultivate happiness; you cannot buy it in the supermarket. It is like playing tennis: you cannot buy the joy of playing tennis in the supermarket. You can buy the ball and the racket, but you cannot buy the joy of playing. In order to experience the joy of tennis you have to learn, to train yourself to play. In the same way, you have to cultivate happiness.

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to train yourself to be happy. You are here, and you look in the distance and see a pine tree. You make the determination that while walking to the pine tree, you will enjoy every step, that every step will provide you with peace and happiness. Peace and happiness that have the power to nourish, to heal, to satisfy.

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There are those of us who are capable of going from here to the pine tree in that way, enjoying every step we make. We are not disturbed by anything: not by the past, not by the future; not by projects, not by excitement. Not even by joy, because in joy there is still excitement and not enough peace. And if you are well-trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment. You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step. You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step and touching the wonders of life in that step can be a wonder, and you live that wonder every moment of walking. If you have the capacity to walk like that, you are walking in the Kingdom of God or in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

So you may challenge yourself: I will do walking meditation from here to the pine tree. I vow that I will succeed. If you are not free, your steps will not bring you happiness and peace. So cultivating happiness is also cultivating freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the things that upset you, that keep you from being peaceful, that prevent you from being fully present in the here and the now.

One nun wrote to Thay that she has a friend visiting Plum Village. Her friend did not take the monastic path; instead she married, and now has a family, a job, a house, a car, and everything she needs for her life. She’s lucky because her husband is a good man; he does not create too many problems. Her job is enjoyable, with a salary above average. Her house is beautiful. She thinks of her relationship as a good one although it is not as she expected; sure, you can never have exactly what you expect.

And yet, she does not feel happy and she is depressed. Intellectually she knows that in terms of comfort, she has everything. Many of us think of happiness in these terms, as having material and emotional comforts. Not many people are as successful as that friend, and she knows that she is fortunate. And yet she is not happy.

We Are Immune to Happiness 

We have the tendency to think of happiness as something we will obtain in the future. We expect happiness. We think that now we don’t have the conditions we think we need to be happy, but that once we have them, happiness will be there. For example, you want to have a diploma because you think that without that diploma you cannot be happy. So you think of the diploma day and night and you do everything to get that diploma because you believe that diploma will bring you happiness. And you forecast that happiness will be there tomorrow, when you get the diploma. There may be joy and satisfaction in the days and weeks that follow the moment you receive your diploma, but you adapt to that new condition very quickly, and in just a few weeks you don’t feel happy anymore. You become used to having a diploma. So that kind of excitement, that kind of happiness is very short-lived. We are immune to happiness; we get used to our happiness, and after a while we don’t feel happy any longer.

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People have made studies of poor people who have won lotteries and have become millionaires. The studies found that after two or three months the person returns to the emotional state they were in before winning the lottery. From two to three months. And during the three months there is not exactly happiness; there is a lot of thinking, a lot of excitement, a lot of planning and so on––not exactly happiness. But three months later, he falls back to exactly the same emotional level as he was before winning the lottery. So having a lot of money does not mean you will be happy.

Perhaps you want to marry someone, thinking that if you can’t marry him or her, then you cannot be happy. You believe that happiness will be great after you marry that person. After you marry, you may have a time of happiness, but eventually happiness vanishes. There is no longer any excitement, any joy, and of course, no happiness. What you get is not what you expected. Then perhaps you know that what you have attained will not continue for a long time. Even if you have a good job, you are not sure you can keep it for a long time. You may be laid off, so underneath there is fear and uncertainty. This type of happiness, without peace, has the element of fear and cannot be true happiness. The person you are living with may betray you one day; you cannot be sure that person will be faithful to you for a long time. So fear and uncertainty is present also. To preserve these so-called conditions of happiness you have to be busy all day long. And with these worries, uncertainties, and busyness, you don’t feel happy and you become depressed.

So we learn that happiness is not something we get after we obtain the so-called conditions of happiness: namely, the material and emotional comforts. True happiness does not depend on these comforts; nothing can remove it from you. When we come to a practice center, we are looking to learn how to cultivate true happiness.

The Buddha’s Teaching on Happiness 

When I was a young monk people told me that the teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in four short sentences. I was not impressed when I read these four sentences. People asked the Buddha how to be happy and he said that all the Buddhas teach the same thing:

Refrain from doing bad things
Try to do good things
And learn to subdue, purify your mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas. (1)  

Very simple; and because of that, I was not impressed. I said, “Everyone agrees that you have to do good things and refrain from doing bad things. To subdue and purify your mind is too vague.” But after sixty years of practice I have another idea of the teaching. I see now it is very deep, and that it is a real teaching of happiness.

Let us consider together. The gatha I learned is in Chinese, in four lines, and each line contains four words.

The bad things, don’t do it.
The good things, try to do it.

It does not seem to be very deep: nothing spectacular about it. Everyone knows, the good things you should do and the bad things you should not do. You don’t need to be a Buddha to give such a teaching. So I was not impressed. The third line and fourth lines are:

Try to purify, subdue your own mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas.

Now I understand that the bad things you should refrain from are those that create suffering for you and for other people, including other living beings and the environment. But how can you recognize something as good to do, or as bad to do? Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to know that this is a good thing to do and this is a bad thing to do; to know that if you do these bad things you bring suffering to you and to the people around you. So the bad things bring suffering to you and others. This is a very simple and yet precise definition of good and bad. And of course, the good things are the things that bring you joy and true happiness. Anything that is good, try to do it. That means anything that can bring peace, stability, and joy to you and to other people. It is easy to say, it is easy to understand, but it is not easy to do or to refrain from doing. The first two things depend entirely on the third thing: to purify, subdue your mind. The mind is the ground of everything.

The Most Special Thing in Buddhism 

If there is confusion in your mind, if there is anger and craving in your mind, then your mind is not pure, your mind is not subdued, and even if you want to do good things you cannot do them, and even if you want to refrain from doing bad things you cannot. And that is why the ground, the root, is your mind.

When you refrain from doing bad things you are practicing compassion, because refraining from doing bad things means not bringing suffering to you or to other people. Practicing compassion is practicing happiness, because happiness is the absence of suffering. And then:

Try to do good things: karuna, maitri. This teaching is the practice of love, of compassion, and of lovingkindness. When you understand, the first two sentences have a lot of meaning. You practice love, you practice compassion, you practice lovingkindness and you know that practicing love brings happiness. Happiness cannot be without love. The Buddhas recommend us to love, and the concrete way is to refrain from causing suffering and to offer happiness.

You can do this easily and beautifully only when you know how to subdue your mind, how to purify your mind. This is very special. If you ask the question, “What is the most special thing in Buddhism?” the answer is that it is the art of subduing your mind, of purifying your mind. Because Buddhism gives us the concrete teaching so that we can purify, subdue, and transform our mind. And once our mind is purified, subdued, and transformed, then happiness becomes possible. With a mind that still has a lot of confusion, anger, craving, and misunderstanding, there can be no love and no happiness for oneself and for the world. So the most important thing you should learn is the art of subduing and purifying your mind. If you have not got that, you have not got anything from Buddhism.

T.S. Eliot was a poet, playwright, and critic, born in Boston in 1888. When he grew up he went to Europe and he liked it there so he became a British citizen. His poetry is a kind of meditation; he tries to look deeply and many of his poems are like gathas presenting his understanding. He said that he always tried to look deeply; those are the words he used: to look deeply, to understand the roots of suffering. He found out that the mind is the root of all suffering; our own mind is the foundation of all the suffering we have. That is exactly what the Buddha said. The suffering we have to bear and undergo all comes from within our mind, a mind that is not purified, that is not transformed and subdued. But T.S. Eliot only said half of what the Buddha said. The Buddha said that all suffering comes from the mind, but also that all happiness comes from the mind. All happiness too. So the mind that remains unsubdued, untransformed, confused with hatred and discrimination, brings a lot of unhappiness and suffering; but the purified and subdued mind can bring a lot of happiness to yourself and the people around you.

When you walk from here to the pine tree you begin with one step, and you train yourself in such a way that that step has within it the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you really practice walking meditation, you will find out that every step you make can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, bringing you a lot of happiness. Because the three elements–– mindfulness, concentration, and insight–– purify and subdue your mind and bring out all the goodness of your mind. When you walk like this, you are first aware that you are making a step: that is the energy of mindfulness. I am here. I am alive. I am making a step. You step and you know you are making a step. That is mindfulness of walking. The mindfulness helps you to be in the here and the now, fully present, fully alive so that you can make the step. Master Linji said, “The miracle is not to walk on air, or on water, or on fire. The real miracle is to walk on earth.” And walking like that––with mindfulness, concentration, and insight––is performing a miracle. You are truly alive. You are truly present, touching the wonders of life within you and around you. That is a miracle.

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Most of us walk like sleepwalkers. We walk, but we are not there. We don’t experience life, or the wonders of life. There is no joy. We are sleepwalking through our own life and our life is a dream. Buddhism is about waking up from your dream. Awakening. One mindful step can be a factor of awakening that brings you to life, that brings you the miracle of being alive. And when mindfulness is there, concentration is there, because mindfulness contains concentration. You can be less or more concentrated. You may be fifty, sixty, or ninety percent concentrated on your step, but the more concentrated the more you have a chance to break through into insight. Mindfulness, concentration, insight: smirti, samadhi, prajna. Every step you make can generate these three powers, these three energies. And if you are a strong practitioner then these three energies are very powerful and every step can bring you a lot of happiness, the happiness of a Buddha.

Mindfulness and concentration bring insight. Insight is a product of the practice. It is like the flower or fruit of the practice. Like an orange tree offers blossoms and oranges. What kind of insight? The insight of impermanence, of no-self, and interbeing.

Happiness Is Impermanent 

Impermanence means that everything is changing, including the happiness that you are experiencing. The step you are making allows you to get in touch with the Kingdom of God, with the Pure Land of the Buddha, with all the wonders of life that bring happiness. But that happiness is also impermanent. It lasts only for one step; if the next step does not have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then happiness will die. However, you know that you are capable of making a second step which also generates the three powers of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so you have the power to make happiness last longer. Happiness is impermanent; we know the law of impermanence, and that is why we know that we can continue to generate the next moment of happiness. Just as when we ride a bicycle, we continue to pedal so that the movement can continue.

Happiness is impermanent but it can be renewed, and that is insight. You are also impermanent and renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. Although it is impermanent, happiness is possible; the same with you. And if happiness can be renewed, so can you; because you in the next moment is the renewal of you. You are always changing, so you are experiencing impermanence in your happiness and in yourself. It’s wonderful to know that happiness can last only one in-breath or one step, because we know that we can renew it in another step or another breath, provided we know the art of generating mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

The Insight of Interbeing

Happiness is no-self, because the nature of happiness is interbeing. That is why you are not looking for happiness as an individual. You are making happiness with the insight of interbeing. The father knows that if the son is not happy then he cannot be truly happy, so while the father seeks his own happiness, he also seeks happiness for his son. And that is why the first two sentences have a wonderful meaning. Your mindful steps are not for you alone, they are for your partner and friends as well. Because the moment you stop suffering, the other person profits. You are not cultivating your individual happiness. You are walking for him, for her, you are walking for all of us. Because if you have some peace in you, that is not only good for you but good for all of us.

With that mindful step, it might look as though you are practicing as an individual. You are trying to do something for yourself. You are trying to find some peace, some stability, some happiness. It looks egoistic, when you have not touched the nature of no-self. But, with insight, you see that everything good that you are doing for yourself you are doing for all of us. You don’t have a self-complex anymore. And that is the insight of interbeing.

If, in a family of four, only one person practices, that practice will benefit all four, not only the practitioner. When that person practices correctly, she gets the insight of no-self and she knows that she’s doing it for everyone. Just as when she cleans the toilet, she cleans the toilet for everyone, not just herself.

When a feeling of anger or discrimination manifests, the practitioner recognizes that to allow such an energy to continue is not healthy for oneself or for others in the world. The practitioner practices mindfulness of breathing, of walking, in order to recognize the feeling of anger, to embrace the anger, to look deeply into the nature of the anger, and to know that practicing in order to transform your anger is to practice happiness for yourself and other people. If you don’t practice like that, anger will push you to do things or say things that will make you and others suffer. That is not something to do, but something not to do. And when you practice looking deeply into the nature of your anger, you are doing it for yourself and you are doing it for the world and you have the insight of no-self.

With the insight of no-self you no longer seek the kind of happiness that will make other people suffer. The insight of impermanence will help bring the insight of no-self. And no-self means interdependence, interconnectedness, interbeing. This is the kind of insight that can liberate you and can liberate the world. With that kind of practice you subdue your mind, you purify your mind. A mind that is not purified or subdued contains a lot of delusion. And that is why practicing looking deeply to see the nature of impermanence and no-self means to take away the element of ignorance and delusion within yourself. That is to purify yourself. When the element of ignorance is no longer there, the element of anger will be transformed. You get angry at him or her or them because you still have the mind of discrimination. He is your enemy. He makes you suffer. He is to be punished. All these thoughts are no longer there because you have already touched the nature of no-self.

Purify Your Mind 

To purify your mind is to transform your way of perceiving things, to remove wrong perceptions. When you are able to remove your wrong perceptions you are also able to remove your anger, your hate, your discrimination, and your craving. Because if you crave something, it means you have not seen the true nature of that thing. If you think of happiness in terms of fame, profit, power, and sex, it is not a correct idea of happiness, because you have seen people who have plenty of these things but suffer so much from depression and want to kill themselves. Understanding that you have wisdom within you frees you from craving. In the teachings of the Buddha, our mind can be intoxicated by many kinds of poison: the first is craving, the second is hate or violence, and the third is delusion. The three poisons. To purify your mind is to neutralize and transform these poisons in you. You neutralize these poisons by the three powers: mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

When your mind is purified, it is so easy to do good things and to refrain from doing bad things. But if your mind is still unpurified––filled with hatred, anger, delusion, and craving––you have a hard time doing good things and refraining from doing bad things. That is why this is the ground of every kind of action that benefits you and benefits the world.

We have invented many types of machines that save a lot of time. We can do wonders with a computer. A computer can work a hundred, a thousand times faster than a typewriter. In farming, it used to take several weeks to plough the fields; now you can do it in a few days. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand anymore, there’s a washing machine. You don’t have to go fetch the water, the water comes to your kitchen. We have found many ways to save labor, and yet we are much busier than our ancestors were. Everyone is busy; that is a contradiction. Why is that? Because we have acquired so much and we are afraid of losing these things, so we have to work so hard to keep and maintain them. That is why even if you have a lot, you still suffer and become depressed.

Manufacturers of medicine will tell you that the kinds of medicine we consume the most in our society now —tons and tons––are tranquilizers and antidepressants, sedatives. The whole world is under sedation. We need a lot of tranquilizers because we have created a world that has invaded us. We can no longer be peaceful and happy, and that is why we want to forget ourselves. You want to protect yourself from the world, you want to protect yourself from yourself, and that is why you take tranquilizers, antidepressants, sedatives. We are not capable of touching the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, the wonders of life that have all the powers of healing and nourishing. We have brought into ourselves so many toxins, poisons. The world we have created has come into us. We cannot escape anymore. Not even in our dreams, in our sleep. And the drugs we take are to help us forget the world we have created for a few hours or a few days. When we go in this direction we are no longer civilized, because we are not going in the direction of peace, of solidity, of awakening. The drugs help us not to be awake to reality, because we want to forget reality–– the reality of the world, and the reality of the confusion, the craving, and the violence in us.

Peace and happiness are still available, once you are capable of seeing that the conditions we think are essential to our happiness may bring us the opposite of happiness—depression, despair, forgetfulness. And that is why we have to listen to the Buddha. We have to begin with our breath. We have to breathe in mindfully to know that we are alive, that there are still wonders of life around us and in us that we have to touch every minute for our transformation and healing. We have to use our feet to learn how to walk in the Kingdom of God, because each step like that will be transforming, healing, and nourishing. It is still possible.

So from here to the pine tree, I wish you good luck. Make a step in such a way that mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated, so that you are capable of being in touch with the here and the now, of touching the wonders of life. Forget about the conditions of happiness that you have been running after for a long time, because you know that once you get them, you will still be unhappy, and then you will have to use the drugs that other people are using. Buddhism is about awakening. We should be awakened to the fact that the situation of the world is like that, and we don’t want to go in that direction. We want true life, true happiness.

Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Phap Tue; edited by Barbara Casey. 

(1) This translation is from the Chinese version of the Dhammapada.

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Dharma Talk: The Power of Visualization

By Thich Nhat Hanh

From talks given June 11 and June 14, 2004, at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat, Plum Village

Thich Nhat Hanh

mb38-dharma3In June, 2004, Thich Nhat Hanh offered teachings on the nature of consciousness at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village. Expounding on the material published in Transformation at the Base, Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness (Parallax Press, 2001) Thay offered methods of practice that will deepen our understanding of ourselves and of reality. 

Here, Thay speaks about the practice of visualization, explaining how it can enhance our mindfulness through such diverse examples as recent information from nuclear science and a marvelous story about the mother of the Buddha. 

Also included in this section is Learning to Speak the Truth, an excerpt of a talk given at the same retreat by senior student and Dharma teacher, Thay Phap An, who shares stories of some of his difficulties as a young monk in the early days at Plum Village. 

The practice of visualization is very important in Buddhism, but practitioners of other disciplines need imagination and visualization too. In order to learn, in order to create, we need the capacity to imagine and to visualize. For example, studying mathematics takes a lot of visualization. If your power of visualization is weak you cannot learn a kind of mathematics called projective geometry. If you are an architect, you have to visualize in order to create new forms of architecture. Many scientists have to visualize a lot, because they have to see molecules and atoms with their mind, since they cannot see them with their eyes. Theories concerning the elementary particles of the cosmos come from visualization.

While scientists use instruments and tools to empower their vision, practitioners use visualization to purify their minds so they can look deeply at the nature of reality.

Visualization While Walking 

Using the techniques of visualization during walking meditation can bring us love, wisdom, and joy. When we study the levels of consciousness, we see that the sixth––mind consciousness, also called the gardener––has the power to imagine, to visualize.

When you make a step, you might visualize that your mother is taking the step with you. This is not difficult to do, since you know that your feet are a continuation of the feet of your mother. As we practice looking deeply, we see the presence of our mother in every cell of our body. Our body is a continuation of our mother’s body. When you make a step you might say, “Mother, walk with me,” and suddenly you feel your mother walking with you. Perhaps during her lifetime she did not have a chance to walk in the here and the now, and to enjoy touching the earth like you have. So, suddenly compassion is born in you, because you can see your mother walking with you. Not in your imagination, but as a reality. You can invite your father and other people you love to walk with you, and you feel they are present in the here and the now. You don’t have to be with them physically in order to touch their presence.

If we know that all our ancestors are fully present in every cell of our body, then when we make a step, we know that they are all taking that step with us. Your mind can see the feet of all your ancestors, millions of feet, making a step with you. Using visualization in that way will shatter the idea that you are a separate self. You walk, and they walk too.

Our Perceptions are Mental Constructions 

There are many incorrect things on the screen of our consciousness, and if we know how to focus we can erase them. We bring our wisdom to that view of illusion projected on our screen, and we recognize it as an illusion. Then we press on the mouse, and it is erased from our screen.

When illusion is erased, something appears. The disappearance of ignorance (avidiya) helps the light, the wisdom to arise. So when you use your mind to erase the illusion, the truth appears. Thanks to our practice of looking deeply, we know that what appears in our consciousness is the collective construction of our mind. With practice, we are no longer sure of our perceptions. We become more careful. We know that what is perceived is very much the collective construction of our consciousness.

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Parakalpita means collective mental construction. In the past, when we did not practice, we believed that the world of mental construction is a solid, objective world. But now as we begin to practice, we learn that what we touch, what we see, what we hear, is only a collective mental construction. We begin to understand that what we perceive is very much the construct of our consciousness. To recognize parakalpita as a mental construction is a step toward wisdom. And our practice will help us to see that the nature of the world as we see it is the nature of parakalpita, the nature of mental construction.

So with the practice of mindfulness you become more alert. Anything you hear, you touch, you see––you know that it has the nature of mental construction, and you do not consider it as reality. The world of representations may carry some substance of the world, of things in itself, but it mostly consists of representations. And it is collective in nature; for example, the person sitting next to you will see and hear almost the same things that you see and hear. Because you are made similarly, you perceive in the same way.

The Process of Seeing and Hearing 

We know that the images we see are projected onto our retina, and our brain translates them into electrical impulses, which forward them to the center of sensation in the occipital lobe. We don’t see with our eyes; our eyes only receive images which are translated into the language of electrical signals. And an image does not come as a whole; it comes as millions of dots, received and processed by more than thirty different regions of the cortex.

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The same happens with sounds. A sound is received and translated into electrical signals, then goes to an area just below the occipital lobe, and then is transferred to many areas of the cortex, and finally sent to the parietal lobe. Then we become aware of it.

Whether it is sound or image or touch or smell, all are translated into electrical signals so that the mind can receive and process. It is very, very complicated. That is why the teacher Vasubandhu said that the processing of store consciousness is not something that mind consciousness can access. And that is why we agree with what the Buddha said in the Diamond Sutra: All conditioned dharmas are like a dream, are like magical performances, are like water bubbles, are like reflected images, are like a drop of dew, are like lightning. The Buddha said, “Dear one, you have to train to look at them like that.”

Because of what we know, we don’t believe that what we perceive is objective reality. It is the mental construction of our consciousness, and we know that is the nature of our perceptions. What we conceive to be personalities, people, atman––what we conceive to be entities, dharmas––are just mental constructions. They are evolving in many ways, but they are all manifestations from consciousness. That is the first verse of The Thirty Verses on consciousness, offered by Vasubandhu.

Touching Interbeing

Knowing that we live in the world of parakalpita, we should practice looking deeply in order to discover the nature of interbeing, because if we look deeply into the world of mental construction, we can touch the nature of interbeing, the nature of paratantra. Paratantra means “leaning on each other,” depending on each other in order to manifest. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with everything else.

For example, a flower has to rely on many non-flower elements in order to manifest. That is why when we look at a flower we don’t see a separate entity. If we see a flower as an entity, then we are still in the parakalpita world. And when we see another person as an atman, a separate self, then we are still in the world of parakalpita. That is why using mind consciousness, we are not focused on these so-called selves and dharmas in order to discover the nature of paratantra. Empty inside, empty as a self, empty as an entity: for that you need the energy of mindfulness and concentration. You live your day mindfully. You look deeply at anything you come in touch with, and you are not fooled by appearance. You are not caught in a world of parakalpita; you are capable of seeing that those you meet are devoid of any solid entity, any solid selves.

Looking into the son, you see the father and the mother and the ancestors; you see the son is not a separate entity. Looking into yourself––your suffering, your happiness––you don’t see you as a separate self, you see a continuation. This is to learn how to see everything in the light of interdependence, interbeing. Everything is based on everything else in order to manifest. Slowly the notion of one and of many vanish.

Training to See the True Nature of Reality 

The nuclear scientist David Bohm practiced looking deeply, and he said that an electron is not a separate entity; one electron is made of all the other electrons. He seemed to understand that the one is made of the all, and just touching the one deeply, you touch everything.

So touching the nature of paratantra, we understand that there are no separate entities. There are only manifestations that rely on each other to be possible, like the left and the right. The right is not an entity that can be by itself. Without the left, the right cannot be. Everything is like that.

The first verse of Vasubandhu’s thirty verses is that the metaphor of selves and dharmas are evolving in several ways. They are creations of consciousness, mental creations. The sixth, the seventh, and the eighth levels of consciousness create.

The Buddha offered us the insight of impermanence and the insight of no-self, as tools for us to touch the world of parakalpita so that we can discover the nature of interbeing, the nature of interdependence, which is devoid of any solid, separate self. One day the Buddha told his beloved disciple, Ananda: “Whoever sees interbeing, that person sees the Buddha.” If we touch the nature of interdependence, of interbeing, we touch the truth, we touch wisdom. We touch the Buddha.

During the day, while walking or sitting, eating or cleaning, you dwell in the concentration of paratantra, so that you can see things as they are, not as selves, not as entities, but as mental constructions that rely on each other in order to manifest. This is the process of training. And finally, when the training is complete, the nature of parinispanna will appear, will reveal itself entirely, and what you touch is no longer a world of illusion, but the world of thing-in-itself. These are the principles of the practice.

First of all, we should be aware that the world in which we live is being constructed by us, by our mind, collectively. That if we look deeply, if we know how to use mindfulness and concentration, we can begin to touch the nature of interdependence. And when our practice is deep, we can erase the illusion of parakalpita so the true nature of reality can be revealed: the nature of parinispanna.

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Visualizing Before Touching the Earth 

Visualization can be very helpful. When I was a young novice in Asia, this practice was taught to us, but most of us could not do it. We memorized very well, we chanted very beautifully, but we could not do this visualization for the first ten or fifteen years. The moment you can do it, you feel wonderful. You can erase the notion of self through this practice.

mb38-dharma6If you are an intelligent practitioner, you do not touch the Earth with the intention of begging the Buddha to give you something, or to forgive you for having done something. That practice is still based on the notion of separate selves: the belief that you and the Buddha are different; that you are almost nothing, and the Buddha is everything; that you need him to give you a little bit of wisdom or happiness. With that kind of intention, you still live in the world of parakalpita. So before touching the Earth before the Buddha, you have to visualize that you are empty of a separate self, and also that the Buddha is empty of a self. The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty. It’s difficult to find another tradition with a similar practice. For instance, you cannot stand in front of the deity you worship, and say, “You, my God, you are empty!”

Before you bow, you say something like this: “Dear Buddha, I am bowing to you, but I know deeply that I am empty and you are also empty, because you are in me and I am in you. When I am touching the Earth before you, it may look ridiculous. But looking deeply, I see that I bow like this in order to touch you in me, and so that you can touch me in you also.

Then you visualize countless Buddhas appearing, like the image of Indra’s net. This is a net made of jewels, and in each jewel you see reflected all the other jewels. Looking into the one you see the all. Suppose you build a hall made of mirrors, and then you enter holding a candle. Looking into a mirror you see you and the candle, and when you turn around you see that each mirror reflects you and the candle in the mirror too. You just need to look into one mirror to see all the reflections of you and the candle. Countless yous and countless candles are reflected in just one mirror.

So you are standing there, about to touch the Earth and get in touch with the Buddha. And you have to visualize countless Buddhas appearing around you, and in front of each Buddha there is one you who is touching the Earth. You touch the Earth in such a way that the barrier between you and Buddha is no longer there. You use the tool of your mind to erase the distinction between you and the Buddha, so that you can touch the nature of interbeing, and you can be free of the notions of one and many, the same and different. And that is the purpose of visualization––to erase the duality between you and Buddha. Before you can wipe out that kind of separation, the practice of bowing is not deep. You have to see the nature of interbeing between you and Buddha before the bowing can bring a deeper result.

So touching the Earth before a Buddha is not an act of superstition. You develop your wisdom by doing so, and you realize freedom. You transform your suffering, your loneliness, by this kind of practice.

The Mother of the Buddha

In the Avatamsaka Sutra there is a delicious portion describing the young man Sudhana looking for the mother of the Buddha. Sudhana’s teacher is the great boddhisattva Manjushri, who encouraged his disciple to go and learn from many people. Not only old teachers, but also young teachers; not only Buddhist teachers but also non-Buddhist teachers. And then one day he was told that he should go and meet the mother of the Buddha, that he would learn a lot from her. So he looked hard for her, but he couldn’t find her.

Then someone told him, “You don’t have to go searching, you just sit down and practice mindful breathing and visualization, and then she will come.” So he stopped searching. He sat down and he practiced. Suddenly he saw a lotus with one thousand petals come up from deep in the Earth. And sitting on one of these petals he saw the mother of the Buddha, Lady Mahamaya, so he bowed to her! And suddenly he realized that he was sitting on one of the petals of the same lotus, and then each petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals.

You see? The one contains the all. The lotus has one thousand petals, and Lady Mahamaya was sitting on one petal when suddenly that petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he saw himself sitting on one petal. And suddenly he saw that is petal had become a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he was so happy. He joined his palms and looked up, and a very nice conversation began between the mother of the Buddha and the young man Sudhana. Lady Mahamaya said, “Young man, do you know something? The moment I conceived Siddhartha was a very wonderful moment! There was a kind of bliss that made my whole body and mind feel wonderful. The presence of a Buddha within yourself is a wonderful thing! You cannot be happier than that.

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“You know something, young man? After Siddhartha came to my womb, countless boddhisattvas coming from many directions came and asked my permission to pay a visit to my son in my womb, to make sure their friend was comfortable in there. And before I had a chance to say yes, they all entered my womb. Millions of them. And yet I had the impression that if there were more boddhisattvas who wanted to come into my womb, there was still plenty of room for them to enter.

“Young man, do you know something? I am the mother of all Buddhas in the past. I am the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And I shall be the mother of all Buddhas in the future.”

That is what she said. Beautiful, very deep. And that is the work of visualization: to show you the nature of interbeing, to show you the truth that one contains the all. The smallest atom can contain the whole cosmos.

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We all Carry Buddhas Within 

You know that the human body is made of cells, and now science has declared that cloning is possible. From one cell they can duplicate the whole body. How is it possible? Because one cell contains the totality of the genetic heritage of that person. If not, how could we, from one cell, bring the whole body into full manifestation? So current science has proved not only in theory but in practice that, in the one you touch the all.

And we all have all our ancestors fully present in every one of our cells. We carry all of them while we walk, while we eat, while we do things. Without visualization you cannot see it. That is the power of the sixth consciousness, called the gardener.

Who is Mahamaya, the mother of the Buddha? Is that someone outside of you? Or is she you? Because all of us carry in our womb a Buddha. Mahamaya is very careful because she knows that she carries a Buddha within. Everything she eats, everything she drinks, everything she does, every film she watches––she knows that it will have an effect on her child. The Buddha Shakyamuni said, “You are a Buddha. There is a baby Buddha in each of you. Whether you are a lady or a gentleman, you carry within yourself a Buddha.” We also carry a Buddha but we are not as careful as Mahamaya in our way of eating, drinking, smoking, worrying, projecting and so on. We are not responsible mothers of the Buddha.

Like Mahamaya, there is plenty of room inside of us, not only for one Buddha but for countless Buddhas. We can declare, like Mahamaya, that we were the mother of all Buddhas in the past. We can be the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And we shall be able to be the mother of all Buddhas in the future. Mahamaya is hope. Is she outside in objective reality or is she inside ourselves?

So if you visualize like that, all negative feelings, all complexes will vanish. All doubt that you can behave with the responsibility of a Buddha’s mother will disappear and the Buddha in you will have a chance to manifest for yourself and for the world. And that is why visualization is a very important tool of meditation, of transformation. With a mind that is polluted by greed, by anger, you cannot do it well; that is why the purification of our thinking, of our mind, is very important. The practice of the Mindfulness Trainings, the practice of mindfulness of walking and sitting, the practice of samadhi to help purify the mind and to bring the fire of concentration to burn away the ignorance, the delusion. Through these practices, we erase all the wrong perceptions in us so that reality can reveal itself very clearly to us.

When mind has become true mind, when mind has become beautified in true mind, the world parakalpita is no longer there. Instead, the world parinispanna reveals itself completely. There is no longer any fear, any craving, any sorrow, any anger, because all these have been created by our wrong perceptions and our complexes.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Barbara Casey.

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