Thay’s paper burning talk

Poem: The Gift of Non-Fear

Three Moments on the Way to Dwelling in Equanimity By Lyn Fine

1: Sumb60-TheGift1nday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village, France. Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

We are sitting together in the Meditation Hall at the Lower Hamlet. Listening, we are aware of our breathing. We are present together.

In the midst of your Dharma talk, you pause. Quietly, you strike a match. You touch the flame to a sheet of paper. Smoke wafts into the air. Flames appear. The paper is burning. Now there is only black charcoal ash.

Gently, between the thumb and two fingers of your right hand, You pick up the charred remains. “It’s hot,” you say softly, calmly. On your lips, there is a half-smile. You hold the black charcoal for an instant. Then, releasing your fingers, you let the burnt remains drop into the bell.

In mindfulness I watch, aware of my breathing.

Breathing in, I am aware that ancestors are present Jewish ancestors burning in ovens — here, now Vietnamese sisters and brothers burning in self-immolation to stop the bombs of war — here, now wise-woman witches burning at the stake — here, now churches of African-American brothers and sisters burning in the United States — here, now ancient trees burning from human forgetfulness — here, now Breathing out, I do my best to smile with equanimity and compassion — but I cannot — not yet.

Breathing in, I know I am touching seeds of pain and suffering in me from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness — seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief Breathing out, I am aware that I am unable to smile — nor to cry, nor to cry out. I cannot — not yet. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in Breathing out, I am aware: conscious breathing is my anchor.

Suddenly, your gentle voice penetrates the clouded-over sky-mind. “We will put these [charred remains] in the garden,” I hear you say. Tears come and a half-smile. Fear has released. The heart opens.

mb60-TheGift22: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village. Outdoor Walking Meditation

It is Sunday, September 15, 1996. It is the second day of the Jewish New Year, 5757. This year at Plum Village, during a three-week retreat,

— “The Heart of the Buddha,” it is called — We are observing the highest holy days of the Jewish people, in the way that they — or some of them — would observe them.

The seed you planted more than a decade ago has borne fruit. “To make peace on the planet,” you said at a Reverence for Life Conference in 1982, “each religious group should observe the most important holiday of each other religious group in the way that group would observe the holiday.”

For the seed and for the fruit, And for all the conditions which have allowed the gradual ripening of the fruit I am grateful.

Now we are walking together in walking meditation. Hand in hand, we walk through orchards of plum trees in the Lower Hamlet. The trees are bearing fruit — sweet purple plums. Our steps touch the Earth gently. We are embraced by sunshine and blue sky.

Breathing in, I know that sunshine and rain, blue sky and Earth have nourished the fruit and its gradual ripening that residents of Plum Village, lay and monastic, have cared for the trees, harvested the fruit, and turned it into plum jam that children in France gave money to plant these trees so that children in Vietnam could have medical supplies and food Breathing out, I am aware that present in us in this moment are all of our ancestors and all of our descendants We are the sunshine. We are the blue sky. We are the trees bearing fruit.

Here, now, we walk, hand in hand. We are walking as a community, a Sangha. We are walking with each other, we are walking for each other. I walk for you. I know you are walking for me.

“Touching, touching” “Connecting, connecting, connecting” With each in-breath, I am walking two steps. With each out-breath, I am walking three steps. Step by step I am walking, breathing in, breathing out. But I am aware that I am not truly present — not yet.

I walk in peace, but the mind goes in a million directions. The energy of seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness remains strong. The mind remains caught In a net of burnings.

Breathing in, I am aware of regret: There is sadness in me. I am caught. Present in me — here, now — are blue sky, white clouds. But I am not wholehearted. The mind is caught In the past. The wounds of suffering, still present.

mb60-TheGift3Breathing out, my resolution deepens: I vow to cultivate mindfulness with determination I aspire to be fully present to the miracle of being alive — here, now. I aspire to open, wholehearted, in joy, to this present moment.

Crossing a narrow plank bridge, we arrive at the pond. Human beings and trees, we encircle the water. Together we stand, in the stillness. Listening. Waiting. Breathing in, I am aware: breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware: breathing out. We hear the silence.

Hearing, hearing. Breathing in, aware of birds chirping. Breathing out, aware of leaves rustling. Jacqueline begins to play her violin — the ancient Jewish melody Avinu Malkeinu. We sing. No boundary. Touching Jewish ancestors. No boundary. Touching all ancestors. No boundary. For some of us, this moment is the first time To touch our ancestors.

In silence, We pick up small sticks and stones, take lint from our pockets. We name the times when we have missed the mark. We acknowledge that we have sinned, as individuals and as communities. By omission and by commission, we have caused suffering. One by one, and together, we cast our sticks and stones and lint into the water. One by one and together as a Sangha we transform consciousness.

Breathing in, I am aware of our multiple origins — We are from Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Israel, Egypt, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Romania, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, England, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, U.S.A., Indigenous Peoples, New Zealand, Australia Breathing out, I realize: not two, not one.

Breathing in, I am aware that in our Buddhist retreat center We are observing tashlich, an ancient Jewish custom of renewal. We are observing tashlich as Jews would observe it. We are observing tashlich as Jews around the world are observing it, on this day. We are observing tashlich amidst the trees, around a pond. We are observing tashlich with friends from numerous countries — former enemies. Breathing out, I know we are returning home, to our true origin and Source.

mb60-TheGift43: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village. After Outdoor Walking Meditation

Now the walk is over and tashlich too. We have cast into the water Our unwholesome states of mind

And those times when we have missed the mark — sinned — Individually and collectively. We have deepened our determination To cultivate wholesome states of mind, Deep listening, deep looking, and wise action that meets the mark.

A novice monk thanks me for the tashlich observance. He speaks to me from a place of love. He speaks to me from the depth of his experience. I hear what he is saying, and I am very happy. We breathe together. I speak softly of the burning of the paper, Of the seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness which arose in me, and remained so strongly present.

I speak of the black charcoal remains, Of your suggestion that we would put them in the Plum Village garden — “We will put these [charred ashes] in the garden,” you had said — I speak of the release in me when I heard you say that. For a moment, we breathe together in silence. “The ashes have been put in the Plum Village garden,” My Dharma brother says with a gentle smile. And I wonder — is it only by chance that I am speaking to the very monk Who was given the ashes, who himself scattered them in the garden?

So — Now it is done. In nurturing soil of love and remembrance and compassion In a small hamlet in southern France Burned ancestors, brothers, and sisters, and children Rest now. Charred remains renew the Earth. Burned and burners: not two, not one.

A meditation appears: Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of suffering in me from my [Jewish and other] ancestors — seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief Breathing out, I vow, for the well-being of all beings, to transform these seeds with gentle caring

Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of well-being in me from my [Jewish and other] ancestors — seeds of joy, seeds of love, seeds of wisdom Breathing out, I vow, for the benefit of all beings, to discover and nourish these seeds with tenderness

Breathing in, I touch no birth, no death Breathing out, I go beyond fear Breathing in, I touch the Ground of All Being Breathing out, I know that in this moment I have returned home, to my true self A smile appears. The precious gift of non-fear, always offered, has been received. Thank you, my dear friends, for our observance together.


Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I Am Home (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California,

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, is from New York City and now lives in Berkeley, California. She received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in 1994.

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