freedom

Dharma Talk: True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery

August 22, 2001

You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

There is a lot of Dharma talk in the air, and there is a lot of air in the Dharma talk. Today is the 22nd of August 2001 in the Deer Park Monastery.

There is a sutra with the title Yasoja—that’s the name of a monk, the Sangha leader. This sutra is found in the collection called Udāna, Inspired Sayings.

Yasoja was a Sangha leader of a community of about five hundred monks. One day, he led the monks to the place where the Buddha lived, hoping they could join the three-month retreat with the Buddha. Ten days before the retreat began, they arrived very joyfully, anticipating seeing the Buddha and all the other monks. There were a lot of greetings, a lot of talking, and from his hut the Buddha heard a great noise.

He asked Ananda, “What is that noise? It sounds like fishermen landing a catch of fish.”

Ananda told him the Venerable Yasoja had arrived with five hundred monks and they were all talking with the resident monks.

The Buddha said, “Ask them to come.”

When the monks came, they touched the earth before the Buddha and sat down. The Buddha said, “You go away, you cannot stay with me. You are too noisy. I dismiss you.”

So the five hundred monks touched the earth, walked around the Buddha, and left the monastery of Jeta Park. They went to the kingdom of Vajji, on the east side of Kosala, which took them many days to reach. When they arrived on the bank of the River Vaggamuda, they built small huts, sat down, and began the Rain Retreat.

During the ceremony opening the retreat, Venerable Yasoja said, “The Buddha sent us away out of compassion. You should know that he is expecting us to practice deeply, successfully. That is why he sent us away. It was an expression of his deep love.”

All the monks were able to see that. They agreed that they should practice very seriously during the Rain Retreat to show the Buddha that they were worthy to be his disciples. So they dwelled very deeply, very ardently, very solidly. After only three months of retreat, the majority of them had realized the three enlightenments, the three kinds of achievement. The first is about remembering all their past lives. The second is to realize the truth of impermanence, to see clearly how the lives of all beings come and after a time they go. The third realization is that they have ended the basic afflictions in themselves: craving, anger, and ignorance.

One day after the Rain Retreat, the Buddha told Ananda, “When I looked into the east I noticed some energy of light, of goodness. And when I used my concentration, I saw that the five hundred monks that I sent away have achieved something quite deep.”

Ananda said, “That is true, Lord, I have heard about them. Having been dismissed by the Buddha, they sat down in the Vajji territory and began serious practice, and they all have realized the three realizations.”

Buddha said, “That’s good. Why don’t we invite them to come over for a visit?”

Teacher-Disciple Relationship

When the five hundred monks heard the invitation of the Buddha, they were very happy to visit him. After many days of traveling, they came at about seven o’clock in the evening and they saw the Buddha sitting quietly, in a state of concentration called imperturbability. In this state you are not perturbed by anything; you are very free, very solid. Nothing can shake you, including fame, craving, hatred, or even hope.

When the monks realized that the Buddha was in the state of imperturbability, they said, “The Lord is sitting in that state of being, so why don’t we sit like him?”

So they all sat down, very beautifully, very deeply, very solidly. All of them penetrated the state of imperturbability and sat like Buddha. They sat for a long time.

When the night had advanced and the first watch had finished, the Venerable Ananda came to the Lord, knelt down, and said, “Lord, it is already very late in the night. Why don’t you address the monks?”

The Lord did not say anything. They continued to sit until the second watch of the night had gone by. About two or three o’clock in the morning, Ananda came, knelt down, and said, “Lord, the night has gone very far. It is now the end of the second watch. Please address the five hundred monks.”

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

But the Buddha kept silent and continued to sit. All the monks continued to sit also. 

Finally, the third watch of the night was over, and the sun began to appear on the horizon. Ananda came for the third time, and kneeling in front of the Buddha, said, “Great teacher, now that the night is over, why don’t you address the monks?”

The Buddha opened his eyes and looked at Ananda. He said, “Ananda, you did not know what was going on and that is why you have come and asked me three times. I was sitting in a state of imperturbability, and all the monks also sat in that state of being, not disturbed by anything at all. We don’t need any greetings. We don’t need any talk. This is the most beautiful thing that can happen between teacher and student. We just sit, dwelling in a state of peace and solidity and freedom.” 

I find that sutra very, very beautiful. The communication between teacher and disciple is perfect. A student should expect nothing less than the freedom of the teacher. The teacher should be free from craving, free from fear, free from despair. When you come to the temple you should not expect from your teacher anything less than that. You should not expect small things, like having a cup of tea with the teacher or having him praise you. These kinds of things are nothing at all. 

You should expect much more than that. If your teacher has enough freedom, enough peace, enough insight, then that will satisfy you entirely. If he does not have any solidity, any freedom, then you should not accept him or her as your teacher because you’ll get nothing from him or her. 

What do you expect from a Dharma teacher or a big brother or sister in the Dharma? What do you expect from your students? You should not expect small things. You should not expect him or her to bring you a cup of tea, a good meal, a cake, some words of praise. These things are nothing at all. You should expect from your students their transformation, their healing, their freedom. 

When teacher and students are like that, they are in a state of perfect communication. They don’t have to say anything to each other. They don’t have to do much. They just sit with each other in a state of solidity and imperturbability. That is the most beautiful thing concerning a teacher-student relationship. 

I find this sutra very, very beautiful.

When a student practices well, he or she can see the teacher in himself, in herself. And when a teacher practices well, he can see himself in the student. They should not expect less than that. If you always see the teacher as someone outside of you, you have not profited much from your teacher. You have to begin to see that your teacher is in you in every moment. If you fail to see that, your practice has not gone well at all. And as the teacher, if you don’t see yourself in the students, your teaching has not gone very far. 

True Transmission

When I look into a person, a disciple, whether she is a monastic or a layperson, I would like to see in her that my teaching has only one aim: to transmit my insight, my freedom, my joy to my disciples. If I look at him and I see these elements in his eyes, I am very glad. I feel that I have done well in transmitting the best that is in me. Looking at his way of walking, of smiling, of greeting, of moving about, I can see whether my teaching has been fruitful or not. That is what is called “transmission.” 

Transmission isn’t organized by a ceremony with a lot of incense and chanting. Transmission is done every day in a very simple way. If the teacher-student relationship is good, then transmission is realized in every moment of our daily life. You don’t feel far away from your teacher. You feel that he or she is always with you because the teacher outside has become the teacher inside. You know how to look with the eyes of your teacher. You know how to walk with the feet of your teacher. Your teacher has never been away from you. This is not something abstract; we can see this ourselves. When you look at a monk or a nun or a lay disciple and you see Thay in him, you know that he is a real disciple of Thay. And if you don’t see that, you might say that this is a newly arrived person, he has not got any Thay within himself. That is seen very clearly. 

When we look into ourselves, we can see whether our way of walking or smiling or thinking has that element of freedom, of joy, of compassion. If we see it, then we know that Thay has been taken into ourselves; we are a true continuation of our teacher. You don’t need another person to tell you; you can see it for yourself. And when you look at your fellow students, you can see it as well, if the teacher-student relationship is good. If it is good, that transmission is being done in every moment of our daily life. 

Every time we take a step, we know for ourselves whether that step has peace, joy, solidity, or not. You don’t need your teacher to tell you. You know whether your step is a real step, containing solidity and freedom. If your step does not have freedom, you know it doesn’t. If your step does not have the element of solidity, you know it doesn’t. It’s not hard; it’s so obvious. 

[Thay holds up an empty glass.]

Your step is like the glass. It can be empty and then maybe some juice or some tea goes in. 

[He pours tea into the glass.]

If there is some tea in the cup, it is obvious. With the tea in the cup, you can drink and enjoy it.

[Thay sips the tea. He draws a row of circles indicating steps on the whiteboard.]

Suppose I make a step here, a step here, a step here. My practice is to fill each step with the elements of solidity and peace, because I know that each step like that is highly nourishing and healing. When I make a step, I say, “I have arrived, I am home.” There is the element of arrival here, and you know whether you have arrived or not. 

We have been running all our lives. We do not know how to enjoy every step we make. Now that we have become a student of the Buddha, we want to make real steps. Every step should be full of the element of arrival, full of the element of here and now, full of the elements of stability, solidity, and freedom. 

In the time of the Buddha, there were no airplanes, there were no buses, there were no cars. The Sangha just walked from one country to another. They spent time in many countries, and yet they only walked. With their way of walking, they were able to enjoy every step. The Buddha was a monk, and many of his disciples were monks. They were traveling monks, walking from one place to another. They only stopped traveling during the three-month retreat, so they had plenty of chances to practice walking meditation. Wherever they went, they inspired people because of their way of walking and sitting. 

Walking is a kind of sitting. You can arrive fully when you walk, just like when you sit. You are not in a hurry; you are not looking for something outside yourself. You know that everything you are looking for is in the here and the now. That is why every step you make helps you to arrive in the here and now. That is why the teaching and the practice of arrival is so wonderful, so marvelous. 

Our society is characterized by running. Everyone is running to the future. You want to assure a good future, and since you see other people around you running, you cannot resist running too.

We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

We do not have peace; we are not capable of being in the here and the now and touching life deeply. Running like that, we hope to arrive. But running has become a habit, and we are not able to arrive any more. Our whole life is for running. 

In this teaching and in this practice, the point of arrival is not somewhere else. The point of arrival is in every minute, in every second. Life is like that. Life is a kind of walk. [Thay taps each circle on the board.] Life can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, making a step. Here, here, here. We continue like this. So life can be found in a step and in the space between steps. If we expect to see life outside of these steps and the space between steps, we don’t have life. The great majority of people are running, and that is why the practice of arrival is so important. It’s a drastic kind of medicine to heal our society and ourselves, because we carry, in each of us, the whole of society. The whole of society is running, and therefore we are running. So awakening can bring the desire to resist, to stop.

The Three Doors of Liberation

The teaching of the three doors of liberation is crucial. The door of emptiness, the door of signlessness, and the door of aimlessness. Aimlessness means that you are not running anymore because you already are what you want to become. What you are searching for is already there in the here and the now. 

Your peace, your happiness, your solidity, your freedom are available in every step. Aimlessness means you should stop, you should not run anymore. If you think of getting peace and freedom, peace and freedom are right here, right now. The belief that peace and freedom are somewhere else is an error. That is why every step you take should be able to bring you to the place where freedom and solidity exist. Freedom and solidity are the grounds of true happiness. Without solidity, no happiness is possible; without freedom, no happiness is possible. That’s why every step can generate stability, solidity. Every step can generate the energy of freedom. If you practice walking correctly, then the energy of freedom and solidity can be generated in every step. Happiness is right there, in every step. 

Another person watching you walk is able to see whether your steps have the elements of solidity and freedom. But you don’t need him to tell you; you know very well whether the step you take has the elements of solidity and freedom. You are walking but you have already arrived with every step, and walking like that is your daily practice. Arrival is achieved in every step. It would be nice to send Thay a postcard with the inscription, “Thay, I have arrived.” It will make him happy. “I have arrived, I don’t run anymore.” 

The habit of running has become very strong. It is a collective habit, a collective energy. Mentally, you find it normal to run. But it’s not normal, because if you continue to run like that, happiness will not be possible, peace will not be possible. We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

Freedom from Afflictions

The Buddha and his monks did not have a lot to consume. They did not have a bank account. They did not own big buildings and houses. Each monk was supposed to have only three robes, one begging bowl, and one water filter, which they carried with them. The monks and the nuns of our time try their best to follow this example.

If you want to become a monk or a nun, you should know that a monk or a nun should not have a personal bank account. No one in the Deer Park Monastery has a personal bank account. No one has a personal car. Even the robes we wear do not belong to us—they belong to the Sangha. 

If you need a robe, your Sangha will provide you with one, but that does not mean that it becomes your robe. It remains a robe of the Sangha. Even your body is not your personal property. When you become a monk or a nun, your body doesn’t belong to you as personal property. You have to take care of your body because it is part of the Sangha body. Other monks and nuns have to help take care of your body, and you have to allow them to take care of you. They can intervene in the way you eat and drink, because your body does not belong to you, it belongs to the whole Sangha—the Sangha body, Sanghakaya. You don’t own anything at all, including your body, and yet happiness is possible, freedom is possible. Happiness and freedom are easier if you don’t own many things. Usually if you don’t own anything, you are very afraid, you don’t feel any security. But the practice of a monastic goes in the opposite direction. What guarantees your well-being is not possessions but the giving away of all possessions. 

I remember when Sister Thuc Nghiem, Sister Susan, became a nun, along with others. They took everything from their pockets and they gave it to Thay, everything from coins worth thirty-five cents to the key to their car. They gave everything to Thay. To become a nun or a monk, you should give up everything. You have to donate everything before you can be accepted as an ordained novice. You are advised not to donate it to the temple where you are going to become a monk or a nun. You have to donate it to some other organization, not the temple you accept as your home.

One day Thay gave an exercise to all the monks and nuns: “Tell me of your daily happiness. List your daily happiness on a piece of paper.” Many of them filled up more than two pages. Among the things Sister Susan wrote down was, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore, even one cent.” That is true. Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. But after becoming penniless, she got a lot of liberty, a lot of freedom, and that is the foundation of happiness. That is why she wrote down, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore.” That is what she really felt. 

Many people believe that practicing as a monk is the hardest, but that is not the case. It is easy to practice as a monk or a nun. You have entrusted yourself entirely to the Sangha. You don’t have to worry about anything: food, shelter, medicine, transportation. Everyone around you is practicing walking mindfully, enjoying every step, so it would be strange if you didn’t do the same. You are naturally transported by the boat of the Sangha. Even if you don’t want to, you go anyway, in the direction of peace and freedom! You have left behind your family—your father, your mother, your friends, your job—to become a monk or a nun. Your purpose is to be free because you know that true happiness is not possible without freedom. You aspire deeply to freedom, and freedom here means freedom from afflictions. 

Of course, political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions, then political freedom does not mean anything. You are a refugee and do not have that piece of paper that allows you to go anywhere you want. The deepest desire of people is to have a piece of paper called an identity card or passport. There are those of us who waited ten, twenty, thirty years, and still didn’t get that piece of paper. They believe that when they get that piece of paper they can become free, and they can go anywhere they want. But there are also those of us who have that passport, that piece of paper, but don’t feel any happiness, and many have even committed suicide. 

Political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions—namely craving, despair, jealousy—suffering is still there within you and around you. That is why the purpose of the practice is to get free, so the Kingdom of God is available to you, so true life is possible for you in the here and the now.

We have the impression, very clear sometimes, that the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha and all its marvels are very close. In fact, everything in us and around us is a miracle. Your eyes are a miracle, your heart is a miracle, your body is a miracle, the orange you are eating is a miracle, the cloud floating in the sky is a miracle. If they do not belong to the Kingdom of God, then to what do they belong? In our busy lives we sometimes have the clear impression that the Kingdom is there, available, but since we are running all the time, thinking we do not have freedom, we cannot get into it; it is not available to us. 

I always say the Kingdom of God is available to you, but you are not available to the Kingdom. That is why we learn to breathe and to walk in such a way that we become a free person. That is the meaning of all the practice. 

To practice is not to become a Dharma teacher. A Dharma teacher is nothing at all. It does not mean to become a Sangha leader. Being a Sangha leader does not mean anything at all. What is the use of being the head of a big temple if you continue to suffer deeply? The purpose of practice is to become free, and with your freedom, happiness is possible. When you have freedom and happiness, you can help so many people. You have something to share, you have something to offer to them. 

You don’t share what you have accumulated from your Buddhist studies, because even professors of Buddhist studies may suffer deeply if their Buddhist studies haven’t helped them. Buddhist studies may be helpful, but what you need is not really Buddhist studies; what you need is freedom. 

So our happiness is the accumulation of peace. What we study, the authority we get in the Sangha or in society, the fame we get, are things that people are looking for in society. Many of them get plenty of these things, but they aren’t truly happy. Many of them commit suicide. Our way should be different. Our way is the way of freedom. 

Is it possible to be free? Looking into the person of a practitioner, whether that is a Dharma brother, a Dharma sister, or your teacher, you can see how much freedom and happiness she has. You would like to have true Dharma brothers and sisters. Sitting close to them and living close to them, you profit from their happiness and freedom, because their happiness is based on their freedom and not on anything else, like fame, authority, or power. What we profit from in a Sangha is the opportunity to do what the other people are doing—namely sitting, walking, smiling, breathing. In arriving, all are having freedom. 

The Brown Jacket: An Opportunity to Practice

What is the meaning of wearing a brown jacket? It is not to say that I am an ordained member of the Order. That’s nothing. It’s like the value of a student identity card. You got into a famous university, and it has given you an identity card. But if you don’t study, what is the use of having the identity card? Having the ID is so you can make use of the library, go to classes, and have professors. It means to study. So when you get the ordination, when you receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, when you get a jacket, that is the identity card, and that allows you to profit from the Sangha, from the teaching, from the practice. 

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

There are Dharma centers, there are monasteries, there are teachers, there are Dharma brothers and sisters who practice. Our being a member of the OI helps us to profit from all these things in order to advance on our path of freedom. As we have freedom, we can begin to make people around us happy. We know that practicing without a Sangha is difficult. That is why we try our best to set up a Sangha where we live. To be an OI member is wonderful. To be a Dharma teacher is wonderful—not because we have the title of OI membership or the title of Dharma teacher, but because we have a chance to practice. 

As an OI member, you have to organize the practice. Wherever you are, it’s your duty to set up a group of people practicing; otherwise it does not mean anything to be an OI member. An OI member is expected to organize the practice in her or his area—a group of five people, six people, ten people, twenty people—and to practice reliably on a local level and sometimes on a national level. So the advantage is that having a Sangha, you have to take care of the Sangha, and the Sangha is what supports you in your practice. Thanks to the Sangha, you have to practice. The Sangha is there to support you in your practice. So building the Sangha means building yourself. If the Sangha is there, you practice with the Sangha. So a Sangha builder can benefit. She has an opportunity to practice. 

Being a Dharma teacher is also an opportunity, because as you teach, you cannot not practice! As you teach, you have to practice in order for your teaching to have content. How can you open your mouth and give a teaching if you don’t do it? Teaching is an opportunity. Even if you are not an excellent teacher yet, being a Dharma teacher helps very much, because when you open your mouth and begin to share the Dharma, you have to practice what you are sharing. Otherwise it would look strange. It’s like a monk living with other monks, all doing walking meditation; it would look strange if that monk did not practice. Being a Sangha builder, you get the opportunity to practice; being a Dharma teacher, you get the opportunity to practice. 

Every member of the Sangha can be a favorable condition to you, whether that member is good in the practice or not so good in the practice. Each inspires you to practice. So being a Sangha builder, being an OI member, being a Dharma teacher, is a very good thing, if you know what it means. 

It would be strange if we got the precepts, the transmission, and got a jacket, but we didn’t have a Sangha to practice with. It would be exactly like getting a student ID and not going to the library or to the classes. So Sangha building is what we do, and Sangha building is the practice. Sangha building means to help each element of the Sangha to practice. You are like a gardener; you take care of every member of the Sangha. There are members who are so easy to be with and to deal with, and there are members who are so difficult to be with and to deal with. And yet, as a Sangha builder, you have to help everyone. There are members of the Sangha you can enjoy deeply. They’re so pleasant to be with. There are other members of the Sangha with whom you have to be very patient. 

Please don’t believe that every monastic or layperson in Plum Village is equally easy for Thay! That’s not the case. There are monastics who are very easy to be with and to help, but there are monastics who are so difficult. As a teacher, you may have to spend more time and energy with those who are so difficult. You may want to say no to these elements, but you need to surrender. You cannot grow into a good practitioner, you cannot grow into a good Dharma teacher, if you only want the easy things. 

Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. 

In a Sangha, it is normal to have difficult people. These difficult people are a good thing for you. They will test your capacity of Sangha building and practicing. One day you’ll be able to smile and you won’t suffer at all when that person says something not very nice to you. Your compassion has been born, and you are capable of embracing him or her within your compassion and your understanding. And you know that your practice has grown. You should be delighted when you see that what they say or do does not make you angry or upset anymore, because you have developed enough compassion and understanding. That is why we should not be tempted to eliminate the elements we think to be difficult in our Sangha.

Sangha building needs a lot of love and compassion. If you know how to handle difficult moments, you will grow as a Sangha builder, as a Dharma teacher. Thay is speaking to you out of his experience. He now has a lot more patience and compassion. His happiness has grown much greater because he has more patience and compassion. You should believe Thay in these respects. We suffer because our understanding and compassion aren’t large enough to embrace difficult people. But with the practice, your heart will grow, your understanding and compassion will grow, and you will not suffer any more. You have a lot of space, and you can give people space and time to transform. Thanks to the Sangha practicing, thanks to your model of practice, they will grow, they will transform. The transformation of difficult people is a greater success than for only pleasant, easy people. 

Love is not only enjoyment. We enjoy the presence of pleasant people, lovely people, but love is not just that. Love is a practice. Love is the practice of generating more understanding and compassion. That practice generates true love. Please always remember that love is not just a matter of enjoyment. Love is a practice. And it is that aspect of love that can bring you growth and happiness, the greatest happiness. 

There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second. Happiness, joy, peace should be every moment. Peace is every step. Happiness is every step. It’s so clear, it’s so plain, it’s so simple. 

Four Levels of Sangha Practice

[Thay writes on the board.]

Suppose I draw a circle representing my root Sangha, where I have gotten my ordination in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, where I have gotten a teacher and many Dharma brothers and sisters. I’m born from that place. The root Sangha is my spiritual birthplace, and every time I think of it I should feel joy, pure joy, and hope. That is a lovely place, that is my birthplace. I have so many brothers and sisters living there. I have many teachers living there. When I think of it I feel inspired, I feel happiness. All of us should have such a place, and we carry that place with us everywhere we go. That place is situated not just in space; it is within us. Those of us who do not carry such a place in our hearts do not have enough happiness. It’s a pleasure to go back to the root Sangha and to be there. I have my function, my role in society, but I hold my root Sangha within my heart, a source of inspiration, a source of energy for me, and around me I build a local Sangha.

I’m aware that although it is my local Sangha, it will be the root Sangha of many other people. Whether it is in Chicago, in Buffalo, in Montreal, my local Sangha will become the root Sangha for friends who come. So the root Sangha is not out there; the seed of the root Sangha in me will help make this local Sangha into a root Sangha. I am a member of the OI. I have to make it into a home for several of my friends who constitute my Sangha here. And my Sangha here reflects the image of the root Sangha there. 

In my Sangha, people know how to enjoy every step, every breath. They know how to take care of each other. They know that the purpose of the practice is to get freedom and nothing else. I build my Sangha out of love, out of my deepest desire. That is the path I undertake, the path of freedom. I devote my time, my energy to building a Sangha of brotherhood. If brotherhood is not there, happiness is not possible. The mark of an authentic Sangha is brotherhood of those who come to the Sangha because they want to have brothers and sisters in the practice of freedom. If the practice is correct, then brotherhood will grow and sustain us. Even in difficult moments, brotherhood is always there to sustain us, to help us stand firm in our practice. 

Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second.

We know that nearby there is another local Sangha, with an OI member who is doing exactly what we are doing. So weekly, we practice with our local Sangha. We organize local events such as Days of Mindfulness, short retreats, Dharma discussions, tea meditation, and walking meditation. From time to time we invite other local Sanghas to join us and create a regional activity. We combine our talents and our experience with other OI members and Sangha builders to create the regional event. Everyone can contribute, and everyone can learn a lot from activities on the regional level. 

illustration by Felicia Spahr

illustration by Felicia Spahr

Then from time to time we organize activities on a national level. You might organize at a Dharma center like Deer Park or Blue Cliff to hold national activities. And finally, there will be activities on an international level, where we meet with practitioners from all over the world. Together we share our practice and learn from one another. 

So there are four levels of practice: local, regional, national, and international. Happiness should be possible on the local level, in our daily practice. 

The Living Dharma

We recognize the suffering that is going on around us and inside of us. Our practice is not to get away from our real problems, our real difficulties, our real suffering. The practice, according to the path shown by the Buddha, is to recognize suffering as it is, to call it by its true name, and to practice in such a way that we can identify the deep causes of suffering. The division in families, the violence in school and in society—all these things have to be confronted directly with our mindfulness in order for us to see deeply the nature of suffering, of how the suffering has been made. 

Ill-being, that is the First Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is the making of ill-being. This understanding of the making of ill-being should be very clear. We have to consider every cause that has led to suffering, such as alcoholism and drugs, AIDS, violence, the coming apart of families. We have to look deeply into the nature of ill-being to see their causes. We have to call these by their true names. 

Understanding the nature of suffering is the practice, the Second Noble Truth. When understanding of the Second Noble Truth is deep, then naturally the path will emerge: the Fourth Noble Truth, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It means the birth of well-being. So with the understanding of the nature of ill-being, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being becomes apparent. The Third Noble Truth is just the cessation of ill-being. 

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It has been repeated and repeated that once the Second Noble Truth is understood, then the Fourth Noble Truth will reveal itself. That is the true Dharma. The true Dharma should be embodied by the practitioner, by the Sangha leader, by the OI member. You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

It is great happiness when someone in the Sangha embodies the living Dharma. Your Sangha may be five people, ten people, twenty people, fifty people. If there is one of you who embodies the path, the living Dharma, that’s wonderful. And everyone can look to him or her as a model for practice. Very soon the Sangha will carry the Dharma within herself. The Sangha will embody the Dharma. That is when the Sangha becomes the most convincing element, because it is a true Sangha, a living Sangha. The Buddha and the Dharma are contained in it, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. 

If you are a Sangha builder, be sure that in your Sangha there are those who can embody the living Dharma. They live in such a way that makes the Dharma apparent—the Dharma not only in cassette tapes, books, and Dharma talks, but the Dharma in the way you live your daily life. 

Training OI members does not mean to acquire a lot of Buddhist studies, although Buddhist studies are very helpful. But we want something more. When Sister Annabel offers training for OI members, she doesn’t just offer Dharma talks. Everyone participates in walking, in sitting, and in other practices. This method presents more than a set of theories; it presents the living Dharma. 

After having practiced for one year, a person might like to ask for ordination and become a member of the core community. But if during that period, she or he has had no chance to train, then the ordination ceremony is not possible, because the ordination ceremony is offered based on the training and not on the desire of someone to become a member of the core community alone. The desire is good, but it’s not enough; there needs to be training. If you are a member of the core community, it is your task to train people in your local Sangha so that they know the practice, know what the true Dharma is, and know how to apply the Dharma in their family life, in the workplace, in social life. The Dharma should be their way of life, the art of mindful living. 

Many of you may come together to discuss how to organize a regional event of seven to ten days, so OI members and aspirants for ordination can be trained. You might ask two or three sisters from the root Sangha to come and help you, or you might ask a lay Dharma teacher.

Of course, on the national level the root Sangha will be involved. There should be documents and materials for training. But the training should be done in concrete terms, so that transformation and healing is possible. In six-day retreats, we see a lot of people transform, like the one we had at the University of Massachusetts. Eight hundred and fifty people came for a retreat of six days. The quality of the retreat was very high, and people enjoyed it so much. Many reports of transformation came each day. Reconciliation was made among members of families, even with people who were not present, through telephone calls. If you have been in a retreat, you know that the presence of those of us who have a solid practice is very helpful to retreatants. 

In the retreat at the University of Massachusetts we had seventy monastics, many OI members, and many experienced practitioners. There were so many new people who had come to a retreat for the first time. They arrived and joined the practitioners very naturally, like a small stream of water joining a big river. The sisters and brothers who attended the retreat shared many stories of transformation. That made us very happy, because the retreat helped so many people, including many young people. 

I remember one day I invited all the children to sit on my right, around one hundred of them, from little children to teenagers. And on my left I invited all the schoolteachers to come, one hundred of them. I asked them to talk to each other about their sufferings and their expectations. It was so wonderful. 

Many people cried during the retreat because they listened to their own suffering and they learned the practical way out of suffering. They got a lot of energy because many of the good seeds inside themselves were watered. All of them wished the retreat would last longer. 

At the regional level, we get the training not only in how to help other people, but also in how to help ourselves. At the end of a retreat we should come out as a stronger practitioner, a stronger Sangha builder, a stronger and more skillful Dharma teacher. This should be organized regularly. 

Please do use your intelligence and your power of organization because Sangha building is the most noble task. The way out is Sangha. The most precious thing we can offer to our society is Sangha. Everyone has to learn to be a Sangha builder. There are many monks and nuns and laypeople who are excellent Dharma teachers. They can teach Buddhist studies very well in Vietnam and in other countries, but not many have the skill of Sangha building. 

My expectation, my desire is that every OI member will learn the art of Sangha building, because Sangha building will bring you a lot of happiness. Sangha is desperately needed in our society, a place where people can come and feel embraced and understood, and learn to see the path of emancipation. A true Sangha is what we need, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the Buddha and the living Dharma. It is the living Dharma that makes the Sangha into a true Sangha, a real refuge for us and for our society. 

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey.

Practicing as a Dharma Teacher

Some Suggestions for Order of Interbeing Members By Sister Annabel 

Many, many people want to learn about the practice of mindfulness which Thich Nhat Hanh teaches and writes about. They want to practice it and bring it into their lives. Therefore they want authentic Dharma teachers who can be their good friends guiding them on the path and showing them ways to practice. How are we to find and train these teachers? What qualifications should they have? When someone asked Thay what qualifications someone should have to be a Dharma teacher, he replied that a Dharma teacher should be a happy person.

In the monastic tradition, it is only five years after receiving the full ordination that someone can be regarded as a Dharma teacher. Of course if we are really to succeed in transmitting the Dharma doors we have to have that kind of happiness which is based in solidity and freedom. Our solidity comes from total immersion in the practice, twenty-four hours a day. The practice is not something which can be switched on and off. It is not possible to succeed if we only practice when a formal retreat is organized for outsiders and on the days when there is no retreat we fall into forgetfulness, running after things which cannot bring us real happiness and allowing our body and mind to consume toxins. We have to practice very day, three hundred and sixty days per annum. It is suggested that when we have received the Fourteen Mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing, we practice sixty days of mindfulness every year, but teaching the Dharma is something we do by practicing mindfulness everyday. We teach by the way we walk, we eat and we conduct ourself from moment to moment.

A monastery can be organized in such a way as to make practicing twenty-four hours a day possible. There are always brothers and sisters close by us to remind us when we forget. There is the daily schedule, the fine manners and the clock, the bell, the telephone. After five years of training like this we can have the solidity to teach the Dharma. Once we receive the transmission we obviously must continue the training day in and day out for as long as we live. Once we cease to train we cease to teach because we teach with our body and our person more than we teach with our words. It looks strange if our daily life is not in accord with our words. Our friends and our students only expect two things of us: our solidity and our freedom. Those are the only things that we want to transmit and the only things which are worth transmitting.

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For a lay Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing it is the same; the training is lifelong and takes place twenty-four hours a day. It is best if a lay Dharma teacher can live year-round in a lay or monastic practice center which is organized as a real mindfulness community or Sangha body where people do not live separate lives as private individuals. Failing this, we have our root center to return to for as many months of the year as we are able. When we are ordained as a member of the Order of Interbeing, there is the root center from which we are ordained. It is like our family home and we are always refreshed and happy when we can return there. You may consider Plum Village to be your root practice center or Deer Park Monastery or Green Mountain Dharma Center. We always need that root to return to and inspire us with renewal in our practice. When we become a Dharma teacher or we establish a local Sangha, our local Sangha also becomes a root for the people who are introduced to the practice there. It would be a pity if we could not return to our root practice center of ordination in order to keep the link between our local Sangha and our root practice center alive. Lay Dharma teachers are encouraged to come back to Plum Village, Green Mountain Dharma Center and Deer Park whenever they can and scholarships will be available for such periods of practice and retreat. Those who have been nominated as Dharma teachers in training also have the same access to their root practice center.

For lay centers of practice there is already the Interzein Center in Germany and the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, U.S.A. A lay village as part of Plum Village in France is also under serious consideration. These centers are also roots for many people and their founders also have their roots to return to.

Please refer to the guest master or guest mistress of your root  center for details of how it is possible to stay there for extended periods of time.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is the abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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“Mitakuye Oyasin”

Monks’ Experiences of the Ancient Stone People Lodge Ceremony mb37-Mitakuye1

Immediately after the Colors of Compassion retreat, on the first of April, fifteen monks participated in an ancient ceremony of the Indigenous Peoples of this land—a Stone People Lodge ceremony. It was a historic event, in that we had the opportunity to experience firsthand the joining of Buddhist and Native spiritual traditions, from Vietnamese and Lakota lineages. Plus, it was a sacred meeting of representatives from several cultures: Vietnamese, French, English, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, Swedish, Filipino, African American, Canadian, American, Chinese, and Lakota. Truly, a United Nations meeting of the heart, a meeting of spirit.

Built on Kumeyaay land on the Viejas Reservation (east of San Diego), the lodge is a simple structure made from willow saplings. The Inipi (from the Lakota language) / Stone People Lodge ceremony is a means for purifying and renewing our mind, body, and spirit. This sacred Indigenous spiritual practice allows us to shed manifestations of ego as we sit inside the lodge—the womb of our Earth Mother, Maka Tizi—and pray for all beings. The prayer “Mitakuye Oyasin”—To All Relations/We Are All Related—encompasses this understanding of inter-being, inter-dependence and inter-connectedness with all life. Through all the preparations––covering the lodge, selecting the stones, building the fire, making the prayer bundle offerings––every step, every action is part of the prayer of the ceremony.

The experience in the Stone People Lodge is an immersion into another realm of reality, into a realm beyond time and space, where our prayers for health, peace, and the planet have a particular potency. This ceremony feels as ancient as the red hot Stone People who are sitting with us in the center of the lodge. Sitting in the lodge, touching the Earth, we begin anew with our Earth Mother and with all our sisters and brothers of the Earth. The lodge ceremony reaffirms and strengthens our connection to the sacred hoop of life, to the Sacred Mystery, to all our ancestors, and to the ancestors of this land, Turtle Island (the American continents).

Once inside the lodge, embraced by the steam—the breath of Earth Mother—and enveloped in the sacred black light, we dissolve into the black light and the stillness, as ego, distinctions, definitions, discriminations, and thoughts fade. A shift from the visible to the invisible takes place. The sacredness all around us and within us, inter-connectedness, nondiscrimination, and non-separation are experienced very directly.

It was a great honor to facilitate this lodge ceremony for our brother monks. It was an amazing and deep experience which affected each of us profoundly, and sent ripples into the world and into the cosmos. In the days following the ceremony, the participants wrote about their experiences. With deep respect and gratitude we offer some of these writings to you.

Mitakuye Oyasin / To All Relations / We Are All Related, —Chan Tue Nang, Joseph Lam Medicine Robe

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Hello to grandmother earth Hello to the stone people, my ancestors Hello to father sun Hello to the fire, my ancestor Hello to the air that I breathe Hello to the steam and water I drink All of you are my relations I bow to you We are one Sitting in the beginning Looking at the black light I am in the womb of the earth Mother’s breath penetrating into me Spirit radiating out into the cosmos —Chan Phap Ngo

Stone People Lodge

Four hours cooking in a willow branch hut. Too small to stand, sitting close, no room to move, next to each other, sixteen brothers, in a circle, around the red hot stone people, embraced by the steam, breath of the earth, grandmother earth, mother’s love in this womb. Together in the heat, in love, in water, with brotherhood and grandfather spirit, in blackness—there we sat to renew, to purify, rebirthing, allowing ourselves to burn, to die, but not to sleep, not to dream.

Touching the Earth, we sat on the ground—a circle of brothers, a circle of life, a cycle of ages—heritage passed down to keep us in touch with all our relations—Mitakuye Oyasin. Offering our prayers for peace, for transformation, for healing. In preparation we gathered wood and placed so mindfully the stones one by one—one to the west, one to the north, then east, then south, in line with the colors black, red, yellow, white on poles on this ceremonial site, this land within a land within a land. An expanse of flat land, with bare black burned trees, a circle of mountains made our horizon, and blue for above, green for below.

Lighting the fire, a line of energy now alive between the fire, altar and into the door through which we crouched to go inside a blacked out space—the willow branch lodge. In preparation we generated mindfulness, brotherhood, and more and more concentration. Aware, sensing, in touch with each other. Strings of prayer bundles for all beings in the entire cosmos and one for our own family and close ones. Circumambulating the lodge and the fire with my string of seven prayer bundles, I brought to mind all those who have made me, shaped me, nurtured me, neglected me, hurt me, loved and supported me, taught and guided me—with my breath I brought them into my body and those ancestors I do not know and children of cousins and children not yet born—I took them all with me into this so small space.

And so this lodge becomes a house with many mansions containing past, present, and future. We all shared deeply of our aspirations and fear and suffering—we gave thanks for this ceremony and expressed regret for past wrongs of peoples to peoples. I shared of being in touch with the suffering of my father and his brothers when one of them took his own life, and of a brother or sister who was lost before birth. We chanted in the intense heat and in the blackness. I saw a nothingness to my personality and life—what did my fear mean in that black?—and yet a sense of trust was also there.

In gratitude, Mitakuye Oyasin —Chan Phap Lai

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Black Light Night

It was a night in which the sun disappeared and, then, reappeared in the blazing wood people who transmitted their red hot energy into the stone people so that the earth men could be purified.

It was a night in which mother earth embraced all her sons, collecting them into the half sphere lodge, all her sons from all around the globe.

It was a night in which brothers huddled together, bundled their prayers for all beings in the universe as well their own individual blood families, sharing their aspirations and gratitude.

It was a night in which brothers from all over mother earth gathered to chant and send energy of the Native American and Buddhist bodhisattvas to all beings.

It was a night in which the Lakota Shaman guided his young bald headed brothers, plus one not so young, through their anxiety, uncertainty, unknowing—in the Black Light Heat—to a deeper realization and consciousness of their oneness, their interbeing with each other and all beings.

It was a night that ended with the brothers being soaked with the blessings of the cosmos, sopping wet and dripping gratitude.

—Chan Phap De

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A Hut

A hut made of willow branches, like a mother’s belly directed to each planet, in the center, a hole in the ground. An altar, made of soil and stones, the moon. The sun of fire embraced by a half-circle, a wall protecting from the winds. Simple blankets cover us up, the brothers sitting in the hut are listening to the fire, the air, the steam. In the belly of our Mother Earth, listening to the Mystery. Dear Grandfather, in gratitude for that love that surrounds us, for this opening and the little more abandoning, I thank you for teaching me the confidence of being in the here and in the now, enriched by love and at the same time even more poor. I thank you for being more conscious too. On the path of celebration in gratitude for our teacher Thay. Discovering the Eye who sees simple joy of being together. Time has disappeared. The rain is blessing the earth. The stars are joining us. Fire, master fire, Thay fire, who shows us how to love, how to respect the right distance, without fear. The red stones in the center of the earth filled with the light of the stars. The clear water perfumed with sage, the steam which envelopes us and penetrates us. A chant from the Buddhist tradition, A chant from the Native Indian tradition, one breath, one heart. A deeper and more subtle release. Joy of being here and now, in the Mother’s arms, in the Father’s arms. Mystery of an invisible Presence, Free hands offered, each cell offered as flowers. In gratitude —Chan Phap Tap The hot air brought me close to my fear, my panic of losing it totally. Let me meet with courage the most difficult state of mind, so I can live freely, without shadows of doubt and fear. May we all be free from our mind shadows. May we come out to the light and stand freely there. May compassion embrace the whole of our minds and hearts. —Chan Phap Son

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Stone Presence Lodge

There is a grace to stone that weathers centuries. Infused with the heat of joy fire we offer this stone to the womb of the willow. Imbued with the tumult of sky we offer this grace to the womb of our body. The moon at the zenith, waxing our limbs we offer what is to the womb of the awakened. In time unborn we rest here Enfolded by vapors The sweat runs unchecked off the bulk of our baggage To flay bare the unspoken To fuel this still yearning To release the stuck remnants of past altercations For the call of the eagle, The caress of the soil, For the presence of stone heat enlodged in our membranes. For the space where all going and coming is done for and rest poised in vision subdues all desire. Mitakuye oyasin. For the current which guides us from known to unknowing and blesses the soil it carries with laughter. Mitakuye oyasin. For the clan of the spirit that moves us as one mind and perfumes our abode with fragrance of silence. Mitakuye oyasin. Let the oceans bring rain. Let the charred stems bear branches to bear witness to rumor, this fine simple offer. Let this kinship of blood, sweat and steam forge a vision of the exotic here, of unprecedented now Casting down what with measure would ream the unbroken And take him to the view we of old have forecasted. Let the holy find ground In the temple of the wishless. —Chan Phap Luu

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.

In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.

In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.

But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.

If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.

I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.

A Logical Proposition

I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.

I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.

Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.

I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.

If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.

It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.

The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.

Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.

The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.

The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

The Power of Right Thinking

We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.

In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.

“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.

If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.

The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.

The Territories of the Mind

A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.

But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.

When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.

But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.

To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.

In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.

Being on Automatic Pilot

We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.

Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.

Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.

You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”

You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.

There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.

Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.

The Way Out of Depression

We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.

When you come to a house and you want to meet someone in the house, you ask, “Is anyone home?” And if someone said, “Yes,” then you’d be happy. You don’t want to go to a house where there is no one.

Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.

If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.

The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.

A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.

The Key to the Door of Happiness

In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.

When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.

There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

A New Year’s Resolution

Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”

The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.

If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.

At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”

And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.

What Is Right View?

Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.

So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.

What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.

The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.

Tasting the Wonders of Life

There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.

While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.

While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.

The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.

Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.

Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.

As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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

Beloved Dharma Teacher Karl Schmied Passes Away

On May 7, 2006, Brother Karl Schmied, True Dharma Eye, a senior OI member and Dharma teacher from Germany, passed away. Karl was a very active Sangha builder and also did a lot of work for the Hungry Children’s Program in Vietnam. Some of you may have met him recently when on tour with Thây inVietnam. With Karl and Helga Riedl, he started Intersein Zentrum (Haus Maitreya), a residential practice and retreat center in the tradition of Plum Village. He also founded “Intersein,” the German magazine for the Sangha. On Sunday, May 14th, after returning to Plum Village, Thây spoke quite a bit about Karl in what was a tribute to this OI member. Here is an excerpt from this Dharma talk (listen to the whole talk at www.deerparkmonastery.org). mb43-Beloved1

Last week during the teaching tour in Holland and Belgium, I learned that Karl Schmied, a Dharma teacher of Plum Village, passed away in his home in Fischbachau, in southern Germany. We decided that a number of brother and sister monastics would go from Plum Village and take care of the funeral. In Plum Village we are very grateful to that delegation who went to Germany to take care of the funeral of Karl Schmied.

This is an excerpt from what Sister Bi Nghiem, a member of the delegation, wrote Thây:

“On Wednesday we brought some white flowers and came to Karl’s house around 9 a.m. He was lying in his meditation room in front of the altar surrounded by Buddha statues in the windows. Several big photos of Thây were around him, as well as candles, burning incense, and flowers. We put a photocopy of Thây’s fax, “no coming, no going,” directly beside him.

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Usually the dead are dressed in formal wear—a black suit and white shirt. But Karl was dressed in his Order of Interbeing jacket with brown pants and a yellow turtleneck sweater, just like when he used to come to Plum Village. But his clothes were the only thing that were the way he used to be. Not only had Karl lost much weight but he had gone through a great transformation. His face showed a quality I hardly can describe. He showed a great inner freedom that comes from letting go. I felt a deep spiritual quality in him which I had never seen in him before, like a monk, is the only way I can describe it, like a real monk. I have seen dead people before but never anything like this. It was obviously the result of his life-long practice, of his trust in the Dharma, of his service to the poor in Vietnam. While I was sitting there, I felt it help me overcome my own fear of dying.”

Karl Schmied began his studies with Lama Govinda and he became a Dharma teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He was a successful businessman and his first contact with Plum Village was in a retreat that Thây offered in Germany. Our publisher in Germany wanted him to come and see Thây but he refused. “I have seen many monks before and don’t need to see one more.” “But this monk is different, you should come to see him.” So he came to the retreat. That began a new chapter of his life. He began to practice according to the Plum Village teaching, became a Dharma teacher of Plum Village, a very happy Dharma teacher. He also went to Vietnam and taught, gave Dharma talks on mindfulness and how to practice. He helped the poor, the hungry children in Vietnam at a time when Thây and Sister Chan Khong could not go to Vietnam and do these things.

I remember one day after he had completed one retreat in Germany, he said good-bye and went to the south for a meeting for his business. I asked him whether he could release that meeting in order to come to our second retreat. He said, “That meeting is very important in my business.” So we went to the second retreat without him. The next morning at the sitting meditation session I looked down and saw him sitting. He told me afterward that while he was driving south at one point he was able to release that cow and make a u-turn and go back to the second retreat.

He had suffered from cancer for about eight years and this morning when I read Sister Bi Nghiem’s letter I saw that that cancer was a gift for him. Because with that cancer he started to practice more deeply, more wholeheartedly. That’s why he got the freedom that was expressed so clearly in Sister Bi Nghiem’s observation. About a month ago Sister Chan Khong and I went to Germany because we learned he was dying. We spent three days and three nights with him, and he was very happy during that time. We practiced together and he was able to accompany us to the airport when we went back to France.

When you know that you don’t have a lot of time to live, you know that you should use that time to practice deeply for your release, for your freedom. You don’t think of any other things. You don’t think of money, power, fame, or sex anymore. You are free. That is why Thây said that the cancer is a gift. You get freedom.

Sister Bi Nghiem wrote that while she was sitting there looking at his dead body she overcame her fear of dying. Because if you can die like that it is wonderful, you are free. Freedom is the greatest gift and freedom is the fruit of the practice. Without freedom you cannot die happily, you cannot live happily. And the way True Dharma Eyes, Karl’s Dharma name, the way he lived during the last few months before he died gave us a lot of confidence in the Dharma, in the practice. If you have the true practice usually you get the freedom that he got. There’s no doubt about it.

About 30 years ago a practitioner coming from the United Kingdom asked me, “Dear Thây, when do you think we are ready to be a teacher? When do you know you can be a good teacher?” And Thây said, when you are happy; because if you are not happy you cannot be a teacher. When you are happy, you are nourished by happiness and you nourish the people around you with happiness. This is real happiness. Many of us think of happiness in terms of power, fame, money, success, sex, because we have desire in us and happiness is the satisfaction of this desire. Many of us have been running after these objects of desire and we continue to suffer deeply by doing so.

In the teaching of the Buddha there is the expression “joy and happiness.” The practice should bring us joy and happiness. How to be joyful, how to be happy—the kind of joy and happiness that nourishes us and nourishes the world—that is the true question. In Plum Village we remind each other that life is available. With the true practice we can get in touch with the wonders of life in us and around us, so that we can be nourished, so that we can be healed, so that we can help nourish other people around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh Lower Hamlet, May 14, 2006

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Wedding Meditation

By T. Ambrose Desmond mb56-Wedding1

On August 28, 2010, surrounded by family and friends on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Annie Millar and I were married. It was an extremely moving experience for us, and a deep teaching.

Upon becoming engaged, we had decided to wait a full year before getting married. We knew that organizing a wedding is often experienced as stressful and harried, and we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to go slowly and enjoy the process. For the first few months, we didn’t think much about logistics at all, but just enjoyed the solidity of our decision. It was also a time of contemplating what marriage meant to each of us, and asking our friends and family to share their stories of getting married.

During this time of reflection, each of us came into contact with some of the cultural habit energies about marriage within us. While our processes with these energies were different, the main theme for each of us was the tension between commitment and freedom. How can one promise to do or be something in the future and still remain free and open to impermanence?

Ultimately, we decided to make our ceremony about the present rather than the future. We held a circle and asked our friends and family to offer their Sangha wisdom about caring for a relationship. People shared poems, songs and reflections on love, creating a beautiful collective energy. Then, instead of exchanging vows or promises, Annie and I committed to the practices that we had found to be the most supportive so far in our relationship.

Annie’s practices are:

I will practice using our experiences of both joy and pain to grow in my love for myself and for you.

I will practice sharing myself with you, especially when it’s hard, and trusting the love, safety, and power for transformation in our relationship.

I will practice loving you unconditionally, appreciating the beauty in every aspect of you.

I will practice letting you know what I want and feel, and listening to what you want and feel, knowing that both of these are a gift to myself and to you.

I will practice knowing and loving myself so that I can most fully love you.

My practices are:

I will practice letting go of my ideas of who you are in order to see your reality in every moment.

I will practice to recognize and transform the energies of fear and criticism in me in order to protect our connection. Instead, I will focus on what we both feel and need.

I will practice caring for our relationship so that it can thrive. I will try to recognize when our relationship needs more attention and make it a priority.

I will practice giving you all of the freedom and space you need so you can be happy. I will let go of demands and expectations and trust that the life within you is perfect.

I will practice trusting that you love me and want to make my life more wonderful. I will share my whole self with you.

We plan to continue reciting these practices together in order to begin anew and strengthen our connection.

T. Ambrose Desmond, True Mountain of Joy, joined the Order of Interbeing in Estes Park in He works as a therapist in private practice and directs a program for emotionally disturbed children in Oakland, CA.

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