difficult emotions

Book Reviews

mb66-BookReviews1Zen BattlesModern Commentary on the Teachings of Master Linji

By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2013 Softcover, 266 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

This re-issue of Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, originally published in 2007 by the Unified Buddhist Church, is lightly edited, re-titled, re-designed, and refreshed. It is curious that the publishers chose the title Zen Battles, as Thay and all of his students in the Order of Interbeing are well known for gentleness, peace, and reconciliation. So the word “Battle” in the title is not meant in the usual sense. While in Master Linji’s teachings, the master often strikes his students and sometimes shouts at them, we can absorb these teachings as a metaphor, much like the sword-wielding bodhisattva Manjushri who has the capacity to cut through our bonds of delusion. Thay tells us that the spirit of our Zen ancestor, Master Linji, is in everything we are taught and everything we do.

Born during the Tang dynasty in ninth-century China during a time of political unrest and repression of Buddhism, Linji studied with a recluse master and gradually developed his signature direct and dramatic teaching style: “If something has arisen, do not try to make it continue. If something has not arisen, do not try to make it arise. This action is more valuable than ten years’ pilgrimage.”

Reading these cases is like cracking a code. Yet it cannot be done with the mind. Each case presented by the author is a koan. First, we encounter Thay’s translation of twenty-three of Linji’s teachings, known as the Record of Linji, followed by the bulk of the book, Thay’s commentary on each of the cases. The author suggests we first read through Linji’s teachings completely, then repair to the commentaries.

Master Linji emphasizes that his insight was not with him from the time he took birth, “...but came about through polishing, refining, training, experience and investigation, and then one day I broke through to the truth.” Eventually, Master Linji let go of his studies in order to follow true Zen practice. The wonderful irony is that we read the book so we can throw the book away.

There is one paragraph in this book that is the only Dharma talk you’ll ever need. I leave it to the reader to find that paragraph for herself.

mb66-BookReviews2The Mindfulness Survival Kit Five Essential Practices

By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2014 Softcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening

Kits contain tools useful to a particular purpose. So too, The Mindfulness Survival Kit is filled with tools to help us practice with the Five Mindfulness Trainings and explore how they can be meaningful and useful in our lives.

The book first examines the historical background of the Five Mindfulness Trainings—the Plum Village version of the five precepts given by the Buddha. Having rooted readers historically, Thich Nhat Hanh then invites us to let go of any attachment to these practices as Buddhist concepts or dogma. Instead, he encourages readers to five ways to practice with the trainings that transcend divisive labels. “One of the deepest causes of our suffering,” he writes, “is our insistence on seeing reality in a dualistic way and our attachment to our beliefs.” Throughout the book, he invites the reader to use these trainings diligently, mindfully, and openly, “with an awareness of your capacity and of what is possible.”

The book examines each training individually, including commentary from Thay’s experience, as well as specific practices for the reader. Each commentary examines the training’s purpose, reminding us that practice is more than memorization and that we engage these practices for our own healing and for healing the world. Thay show us ways that he envisions such healing, and invites us to be open to new ways of practicing with each training and to explore these ways individually and within community. His commentaries show the interweaving of the trainings and the interbeing nature of all life.

The second part of the book is a study of comparative ethics and the mindfulness trainings. Here, Thay offers details about different ethics structures as a way of exploring how the Five Mindfulness Trainings fit with other structures and how we might practice with them. Again, he invites us to connect with others, not to set ourselves apart by labels and dogma.

Thay’s earlier commentary on the trainings, For a Future to Be Possible, included commentaries from many practitioners. I had found a great deal of meaning and support in this material and thought I’d miss it here. When I finished this rich book, however, I rejoiced that Thay repeatedly encouraged us to explore these practices, individually and as communities. And I recognized that the earlier commentaries were just one method of such collective sharing.

It is easy to lose oneself in a book, to think all the “answers” lie between its covers, that all we need do is read and understand the wisdom there. In The Mindfulness Survival Kit, Thay doesn’t let us off so easily. Instead, this toolkit offers guidance as a map might, and holds a light up for us to find our own ways to make these trainings come to life.

mb66-BookReviews3In the Garden of Our Minds and Other Buddhist Stories

By Michelle L. Johnson-Weider (White Lotus of the Source) Softcover, 108 pages Blue Moon Aurora, LLC, 2013

Reviewed by Sandra Diaz

In the Garden of Our Minds and Other Buddhist Stories is a collection of children’s stories that bring traditional Buddhist teachings into the context of modern life through the lens of a western Buddhist family of four.

Five of the seven stories introduce classic tales from the Buddha’s life and teachings in a way that illuminates modern-day issues. When Mama tells the story “Prince Siddhartha Renounces the Throne,” the children, Briana and Alex, have a chance to explore what constitutes true happiness.

In “Fighting the Demon Mara,” the story of how the Buddha overcame doubt is transformed into a lesson about dealing with difficult emotions. “Mara is a name we give to the emotions that make it hard for us to do the right thing,” Mama explains.

“The Value of Persistence, the Story of Mahaprajapati” demonstrates perseverance and creative problem solving. Mahaprajapati, a follower of the Dharma, successfully convinced the Buddha to ordain women as nuns despite his original resistance to the idea. This story helps Briana to discover that “Persistence, determination, and allies can help you succeed in almost any situation if you have a worthy goal.”

“The Doorway of Death” tells the story of Kisagotami, a mother who begged the Buddha to bring her dead son back to life. The story brings valuable perspective to the topic of grieving and fear of death by encouraging us to fully appreciate this life while we have it.

“Lessons in Stopping” is the story of Angulimala, a murderer who renounced violence to become a monk and follow the Buddha’s teachings. Mama tells this story to demonstrate to Briana, who gets in trouble for talking in class, that “we can stop doing any bad action, even really really bad actions, once we make the decision to start acting correctly.”

The title piece, “In the Garden of Our Minds,” takes us through a Thich Nhat Hanh-inspired guided meditation in which children think of good qualities they have cultivated and imagine them as fl wers in a garden.

In the final story, “A Visit with Rinpoche,” the family goes to hear a Dharma talk by a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. The children’s questions provide an opportunity to explore the complexities of being Buddhist in a mostly non-Buddhist society. Briana and Alex are inspired by the teacher’s description of a bodhisattva as “a great hero who lives with a heart of love for all sentient beings.”

In the Garden of Our Minds includes a glossary of Buddhist terms, as well as a section called “Conversations with Children,” which offers questions designed to spur discussion. This book is a simple but entertaining way to teach children about the Dharma in a home or classroom setting. Colorful illustrations by Brian Chen show an interesting mix of scenes of modern family life as well as from the time of the Buddha. Even though the book is designed for children, adults will find it an enjoyable way to learn about the Buddha’s teachings.

mb66-BookReviews4Teaching Clients to Use Mindfulness Skills A Practical Guide

By Christine Dunkley and Maggie Stanton Routledge, 2014 Softcover, 104 pages

Reviewed by Miriam Goldberg

Don’t let the title fool you. This book is a gem of mindfulness practice for everyone. Consistent with engaged Buddhism, it demonstrates deep listening, mindful speech, and right diligence, foundations of healthy Sangha practice.

For readers interested in teaching mindfulness, the book offers an organized sequence with “key tasks” and “stylistic factors” noted at the end of each chapter. For experienced practitioners, the five exercises on sensation and perception may be a review, but their variety and explanations support fresh eyes and the more complex practices that follow. Therapists and anyone interested in the intrapsychic value and effects of mindfulness will find concise descriptions and applications to some challenging habits of mind. Everyone can benefit from the authors’ focus on mindfulness in daily life to experience present moment, wonderful moment.

The book begins with definitions of mindfulness, a psychological context, and resources—from books and TV shows to recent research. All the practices suggested in the book address mindfulness as an experience of purposeful, present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness that helps us choose where we focus our attention and how we relate to experience while cultivating acceptance, compassion, and open inquiry in our thoughts, speech, and actions. With many examples of therapist-client interactions and commentaries that show kind and respectful inquiry, presence, and reflection, the authors demonstrate deep listening and mindful speech.

Buddhist instruction includes mindfulness of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and breath. The authors here succinctly address the seldom-mentioned problems of teaching mindfulness of the breath to people who have a history of trauma or anxiety. Step by step, they show us how to bring clarity and compassion— rather than blame, shame, defensiveness, and/or denial—to our mental logjams and emotional upheavals. Their approach to habit-driven thoughts and emotions focuses on the thoughts that fuel the emotions. This is one effective way to cool down heated responses. Its success, however, is rooted in the underlying equanimity, compassion, and understanding consistent with Thay’s teachings to hold in mindfulness those parts of ourselves that get activated and need our steadiness.

In later chapters, the authors help us move from habit to choice and pick the best modality for a given moment. We can water mindfulness with emotion mind or reason mind, doing mode or being mode, internal or external focus, thoughts or feelings or sensations, and by recognizing effectiveness and using wise mind.

This book is not a quick read. Whether it is taken a chapter at a time, example by example, or straight through, one can absorb an approach to mindful awareness that can open transformation at the base, bring compassionate eyes to oneself and others, cultivate inclusiveness—rather than divisiveness, comparison, or isolation—and nourish communities with understanding and love.

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Smoking Buddha

Transforming an Addiction to Smoking By Carolyn Cleveland Schena


At two o’clock in the morning I am wide awake and I really want to smoke a cigarette. I should be exhausted and sleeping soundly after being awake since five a.m. the day before, but I am not tired. I am thinking about everything under the sun, and yet nothing at all. The list of things that I need to do grows with each passing minute. I wonder how I will get it all done. I really want to smoke a cigarette.

For years, smoking was the best way to solve my sleeplessness. Some time after college, when I decided to be a more “spiritual” person, I became ashamed of my smoking habit –– after all, I had never seen any statues of a smoking Buddha. But instead of quitting I crept into the closet with my nasty habit and maintained a healthy image. At night I had the freedom to express the other half of my life that I kept safely hidden, an addiction that I still could not admit I had. Over the years I became quite stealthy at sneaking outside for a midnight smoke, even when I was living in a house with six people.

There were three spots on the stairs that let out an evil creak when absentmindedly stepped on. I knew all of them by heart even in the pitch dark. The cold of the flagstone hallway was a minor irritation, compared to the silence that was secured walking in bare feet. The sliding glass door could be opened with the usual clunk and thud, but over many desperate-to-smoke nights, I had learned to open it with out a sound.

The third step was my perch, far enough down to be away from the windows for invisibility and off the ground enough to protect my naked feet from all those things that crawl in the night. With each inhale and exhale I watched my thoughts and the smoke swirl around me. Sometimes I would notice the stillness of the night, the moonlight dancing off tree limbs. Mostly I tried unsuccessfully not to think, and when I was sufficiently high from the nicotine I stumbled my way back up the stairs to bed, leaving the shame of addiction in the darkness.

Aware of Difficult Emotions

That practice went on for years and years. As my meditation practice grew steadier, my ability to look more deeply at the root cause of my actions and emotions also grew. Eventually I noticed that I was deliberately creating a smoke screen, a way of buffering myself from deeper emotions I did not want to feel.

The number of cigarettes I smoked slowly decreased as my ability to be more present with all of the thoughts and feelings that arose in the stillness of the night increased. I began to see that the late night urges for smoking reflected the intensity of the day. At midnight, when the world was stopping and resting, my mind and body were racing and greeted the silence like a train wreck. I was trying to lessen the impact of the crash with a buffer of smoke.

Mindfulness has given me the tools to embrace difficult emotions. I learned that I didn’t have to run away from what I perceived as difficult or overwhelming. I began to see that what I most resisted never left; it just sat there waiting for my attention with great persistence and would still be there, even after the nicotine buzz had worn off.

The midnight secret smokes were a relief from the stresses of the day and they were my own secret pleasure. In the beginning, I enjoyed them, even though they fueled the conflict of who I was in the world. Was I the wholesome, hard-working spiritual type that people perceived me to be, or a just confused girl with a closet addiction? I could not humble myself to admit to friends and family that I did not have the strength to overcome a habit that I found disgusting. I chose instead to live in denial; if no one saw me smoke then I did not have to see myself as a smoker either.

Even in a metropolitan area of over a million people, loneli­ness permeated my existence. I could not be with anyone because I could not be who I really was. I was ashamed of my secret, so I kept myself away from others. I left parties early in order to sneak away to smoke. I walked home alone to indulge my habit. I was sure that I could not reveal who I really was, because I believed that the friends and colleagues who admired me would certainly abandon me if they knew. Even though I desired to live with my heart wide open and to have the kind of joy that is present when true intimacy is alive in relationship, I could not let go of the one thing that was stopping me from bringing that into my life.

The suffering of giving up my one or two cigarettes a day was greater than anything I could dream of replacing it with. So I continued smoking. And pretending not to.

When I was in environments where smoking was not the norm, I would begrudgingly let go of my midnight habit for the few days or weeks that were necessary to keep up my image. It was during those times that I began to see that the smoke-free me carried a more open and joyous heart that was not only attractive to me, but to those around me. However, once I was back at home, the habit of smoking and the relief that I perceived it brought me were too strong, so once again I would re-enter a cycle of shame and self deprecation when I lit up the next cigarette.

This cycle continued for years. And it took a few more years before I learned to have compassion for myself and be happy that I no longer smoked fifteen cigarettes a day, that one or two cigarettes was my only struggle. I began to be able to laugh about the absurdity of the need to have just one cigarette. I also shared openly with friends about my habit and was surprised each time my friends did not respond with criticism. I was laying more blame and shame on myself than anyone else ever could. Eventually I came to accept that I was a smoker, and once I did this I was able to stop smoking. After all, I could not give up a habit if I didn’t even admit that I had one.

Breathing to Let Go

At two-thirty a.m. my mind has been churning for a good thirty minutes. I laugh out loud with the wonderful realization that I have been thinking. As Sharon Salzburg says, “the miracle of mindfulness is the moment when we realize we are thinking.” And then I begin doing what worked at six a.m. earlier today day when the dog barked, and at noon when my boss demanded a meeting with me, and at four p.m. when I was cut off in traffic. I follow my breath.

Lying with my back flat on the mattress, I place my hand on my belly and drink in my in-breath, feeling every morsel of it as it enters in to my body through my nose. A thought arises, and I bring my mind back to my breath and slowly smile as I take in another deep breath. And then I watch the desire to smoke a cigarette dissolve.

Before practicing mindfulness, my idea about smoking was simple—it was bad, and I should quit. Mindfulness has given me the ability to see smoking not as bad or as good—it is just smoking. Looking deeper I can see all the reasons, all the causes and the conditions that I created in order to allow me to light up a cigarette. I can also see all the causes and conditions that now allow me not to. When I choose not to smoke, I am choosing to be fully present with life and every emotion and feeling it has to offer. Pleasant or not, I am grateful that I can experience them. And then it occurs to me: maybe that is why I have never seen any statues of a smoking Buddha.

mb39-Smoking2Carolyn Schena, Peaceful Flower of the Heart, practices with the Island Sangha in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. She and her husband Gary own Studio 12, where they create ceramic works of art and inspire others to do the same.

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