illness

Dharma Talk: Knowing We Have Enough

A Dharma Talk by Sister AnnabelAt Maple Forest Monastery, June 25, 2002 Photography by Jan Mieszczanek

This is enough, I know it well. This is enough, I don’t need more. The call of the bird In the bleak gray sky Is the bright pink rose in a sea of green. This is enough. I thought I needed more But now I know I am so rich. My teacher, my Sangha, Are precious jewels. Every moment a gem, alive or dead. Health and sickness are precious gifts, Doors of the practice for all to learn. The great living beings are always there To guard and to guide and bring us home. You are enough, you know it well. No need to do more, just come back home! All that you want is already there, Breathe and take a step to see your home!

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Dear Sangha, today is the 25th of June in the year 2002, and we are in the Buddha Hall of the Maple Forest Monastery.

This morning I tried to find a new way to walk up to the Buddha Hall from where I was sleeping, and I lost myself in the heart of the forest! I was thinking, that I should not arrive in time for the sitting meditation that morning and maybe not even for the Dharma talk! I would go a certain distance and then I would have to turn back because the path was blocked by many wild rasp-berry brambles. Suddenly, my mind became very still. I did not know why, it just happened like that. I looked  up,  and  I  saw  the  Buddha Hall. I was just below it. That experience showed me that I often think that what is going on in my mind is disconnected from what is happening in the world. I perceive something outside of my mind. But now I see that the Buddha Hall is also in my mind, and the Buddha Hall symbolizes quiet and peace. When my mind is quiet and peaceful, then the Buddha Hall manifests itself. The hall was so beautiful with the white roof against the blue sky and the sun shining on it through the trees.

Dear Sangha, the practice of tri tuc in Vietnamese, means knowing we have enough. This has become a Buddhist practice, but in fact it was taught by Confucius. Confucius said that the important thing is to know that we have enough. The expression used by Confucius has the Chinese word tri meaning to know, to have understanding, or wisdom. Knowing when we have enough is wisdom. As long as we think that we do not have enough, we shall not have enough. When we know that we have enough, we have enough.

As a Buddhist practitioner, whether monk, nun, layman, or laywoman, knowing enough is an important part of the practice. In the Christian tradition when people take what is called the vow of poverty, it also means knowing enough. This practice belongs at least to Confucianism and Christianity as well as to Buddhism. It is a practice that our world needs very much at this moment.

Knowing enough is not just knowing enough materially – which is very important – but knowing enough spiritually and emotionally, too. Knowing that we have enough materially is based on knowing that we have enough emotionally and spiritually. Often it is an emotional need which craves more material things. Our craving comes from the feeling of insecurity rather than from a material need. That is why we have to practice mindfulness of our emotions in order to reach the root of our desire for material things. I wrote a very simple song about knowing enough. (see above)

When I feel discontent I need to look deeply at my discontent in my daily life. To do this I practice sitting still. As I sit still I begin to feel satisfied with the richness of my life. It is a very gray day with no sunshine, and I could think that the gray sky is not enough, and I need to have the sunshine. I hear the bird call through the sky, and I see that the gray sky is quite enough. The gray sky holds the call of the bird. And although the sky is so gray, there’s a pink rose, it’s very bright, and the grass is very green. The gray sky shows up the pink rose and the green grass. So I feel grateful for the gray sky. Looking deeply I see that the blue sky is always behind the gray sky. So I say to myself, “Well, this is quite enough.”

My thinking in the past made me say, “I need more.” But now I understand that I’m a very rich person already. I have an enlightened, awakened person to be my teacher, to show me the way. I have the Buddha, and all the ancestral teachers. I have my Sangha. It’s the most precious thing. One reason why my Sangha, my teacher, and my ancestral teachers are so precious is because they have taught me to be able to dwell in the present moment. The present moment becomes a most wonderful gem. Every moment is a gem.

The Treasures of Sickness and Death

I could think that when someone I love dies, I don’t have enough, because I have lost the person I love. But when I live deeply the present moment, I know that without death I cannot possibly be alive. When you walk through the forest, and see the dead leaves making room for the green leaves, it is so clear. In Australia, in forests of a special kind of eucalyptus, the seeds will only open and the new trees will grow when they are subjected to intense heat. So the forest fire makes the new forest possible. Without death there cannot be life, for death is something very precious. Death is a precious gem.

In my Buddhist meditation I have learned to look deeply into my fear of death, sickness, and old age. When I say that health and sickness are precious gifts, it’s because so many people who have come to me and have been sick have told me that it is the most precious thing that has happened to them. When we stand on the outside and we look in, without the experience of the people who tell us that, we say, “How can they say that ill-health is the most precious thing?” But that is what people have said to me. When I have been sick I have always been happy to be well again. Having been sick is an opportunity for me to appreciate good health and a wonderful opportunity to begin anew my life anew.

In the past people said that children have to be sick with measles, mumps, chicken pox, to develop an immunity to these diseases and not contract them when they were older when it would be much more serious. Today scientists have developed vaccines so that it is not necessary to go through the sickness in order to be immunized. Since scientists have seen the suffering they have compassion and do not want it to continue any longer. Without suffering there cannot be compassion and without compassion there cannot be happiness. When we know how to practice when we’re sick, then sickness can become a very precious gift. Although the experience brings us painful feelings we learn so much about ourselves and the great beings are always there to guard and to guide and to bring us home.

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Faith in the Great Beings

I have faith that there are always great beings, the bodhisattvas, and I have that faith partly because I’ve recognized that in myself and all members of my sangha there’s a bodhisattva.  The doctors in Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, are bodhisattvas. They do not confine themselves to helping people in their own country, but go to the countries where there’s the least medical supply, the least favorable circumstances for curing disease. There are also teachers without frontiers. Somewhere in the world there are always great beings who can show me how to love and understand. In myself there is also that great being, although it has not yet flowered fully.

You Are Enough

You are enough, you know it well! We think that we are not enough yet. We have to be something better. We have to go somewhere, do something in order to be enough. We don’t think we are enough just as we are. Not only do we have to know that this is enough, we have to know that I am enough, or you are enough. That is also a kind of wisdom.

In Buddhism one of the doors of liberation is called wishlessness or aimlessness. It means I know that I’m enough. We have the tendency to think, “If I could do more I would be enough, I would be better. I have to be doing more all the time!” But no, we have to say that I am enough already. You don’t need to do in order to be enough. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do, right now. We’ve been taught, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But our teacher in Plum Village says, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Our teacher has also told us how to look deeply into what is called our habit energy. My habit energy wants me to do something, to do more. He asks us to look where that habit comes from. It partly comes from what we have been taught and it is also handed down to us from our ancestors in our consciousness.

Transforming Our Habit Energy

In Buddhism we say we do not only receive our body from our ancestors, we also receive our consciousness, because our body and our consciousness interare. Our consciousness is part of our body and our body is part of our consciousness. We inherit so much more than our bodies from our ancestors. We inherit habit energy and consciousness. Maybe our habit energy to do something comes from a time when our ancestors needed to work very hard. If I imagine that I have come from Europe to New England, and I was one of the first settlers, I would probably have to work very hard in order to be able to have enough to survive. I have to plant this, I have to store this, I have to prepare this, in order to have enough for the winter. So taking care of the future in order to survive would become a very important internal formation with me. In times of suffering and stress, we create internal formations, knots in our consciousness, which we can hand on to future generations if we don’t know how to untie those knots.

Here is an example. Plum Village is our practice center in France. Every year there is a retreat that lasts for a month. Many, many families come and practice together, children and parents. We teach the children, “When you’re angry, don’t say anything, don’t do anything. Just breathe deeply, because if you say or do something you may regret it afterwards.” Some of the children, especially those who have come every year, learn how to do that. When they feel anger come up in them they can close their eyes and breathe deeply. Closing the eyes is an important point, because as long as you look at the person who is making you angry, it waters the seed of your anger. So you close your eyes, close your ears, close everything, close your thinking, just breathe.

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In one family, the young boy had many difficulties with his father. This difficulty probably arose because his father came from a different culture than the culture the boy had been brought up in. His father had the tendency to be angry whenever the boy fell down and hurt himself. The son would say, “ I can understand my father being angry if I do something wrong, but I can’t understand my father being angry when I have done nothing wrong.” He thought that a good father would take pity on him and help him when he fell down. So he had a strong internal formation about his father.

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One day at the retreat the boy was with his younger sister. She was playing in the hammock with another little girl and the hammock tipped and they fell out. When his little sister hit the ground she cut her head and it was bleeding. The brother was standing nearby and he saw all this, and he felt very angry. He wanted to shout at her, “How stupid! Aren’t you big enough to know better?” But fortunately, he had learned to shut his eyes when he was angry. He breathed, and he walked away from the scene. He thought the best thing he could do was move away from the scene while other people took care of his little sister.

He walked into the forest slowly, he looked into his situation to realize the truth of what was happening, and he saw that this anger was his father’s anger. He didn’t want to be angry, but he was angry because he had inherited that habit energy. He then realized that the reason his father was angry with him when he fell down was because his grandmother or grandfather used to be angry with his father when his father fell and hurt himself. No one in the family had yet managed to transform this habit energy. The young boy saw that if he was not careful, when he had his own children, he would be the same, and after him his children would continue to be the same. If he could transform this habit energy in himself he would not have to hand it on to his own children. He also wanted to talk to his father about the understanding he had come to that day. When he was able to talk to his father he was able to become his father’s friend.

With mindfulness practice we can undo the knots we receive from our ancestors.   When we undo those knots we do it not only for our self, but we do it for our ancestors, because our ancestors are still alive in us, and we are their continuation. It is a simple, and essential part of our practice.

There’s no need to do any more in order to be enough. We can undo the knots of always having to be doing something. We practice for our ancestors, but we also do it for our descendants, for our children and our grandchildren. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do.

When we can be with nature, we realize how precious it is, and we automatically take good care of our environment, preserving nature. Every morning before breakfast in the Green Mountain Dharma Center Sister Susan sits outside contemplating the mountainous scenery. It does not matter what the weather is like; rain, snow and wind may come but she is still there. For her that is a time of being. She is there for the mountains and the mountains are there for her. Someone who is as close to nature as that will never take thoughtless measures which will harm the environment. Our ancestors, who had more time to be, did not behave thoughtlessly towards the environment. When we are too busy to be with nature we do not recognize how precious it is, and therefore we are not in a position to preserve the ecology of our planet earth.

Where is My Home?

You don’t need to do any more. Just come back home. A Plum Village motto is, “I have arrived, I am home.” You might like to ask, “Where is my home?”

One time the Brahmins in India came to the Buddha and they said, “In our religion we aspire to live with the Brahma, the creator-god. Can you teach us how to do that?”

So the Buddha asked them a question. He said, “What are the qualities of Brahma?”

They answered, “The qualities of Brahma are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.”

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The Buddha told them, “If Brahma is practicing loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, and you want to live with Brahma, you will have to do the same. When you practice loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity you will already be living with Brahma.” These four qualities are called the Brahmaviharas the abodes of Brahma, and that is the address of Brahma.

The Buddha also has the qualities of compassion, love, joy and equanimity. The address of Brahma is also the address of the Buddha. In a place where these qualities abound we feel completely secure and our true home is where we feel secure. To help us develop love and joy we have to practice mindfulness. To practice mindfulness is to be able to live the present moment with deep awareness.

The Greatest Security

We have a deep insecurity. It makes us feel that we are not at home here and now, that here and now is not safe. We have to invest in the future. We have to safeguard to make sure that the future is okay, and then we’ll be secure. We sacrifice here and now for security in the future. If we look deeply at the world as it is, is there really any security? Can we guarantee our security for the future? Can anyone guarantee that security? If we look deeply we see they can’t. Do you know anybody who doesn’t die? We tell ourselves maybe, “Oh, I won’t ever die!” Do you know anyone who’s never, ever been sick? I think it would be difficult to find that person. Is there anybody who doesn’t day by day get a little bit older? All these things hap-

pen. They are the truth. They are the reality. We have to accept that.

With mindfulness we recognize that, “All that I cherish, everyone I love, is of the nature to change, and we cannot avoid being separated from each other.” That’s true. Nothing is secure. We know we have to be separated from our loved ones, and when we meditate deeply like that, it has a very positive effect. It is not negative at all. The positive effect is that we see that our loved ones will not be always be here, and so we love them even more.  We do our best for them today because we know that tomorrow may be too late.

When we practice the meditation on loving kindness we aspire first of all, “May I be happy, peaceful and light in my body and my spirit. Then we meditate: “May the one I love live in safety and security.” Finally we aspire: “May the one who has made me suffer be happy, peaceful and light in body and in spirit. We wish for all beings that they live in safety and security, because we know that is our deepest desire. We see clearly that if it is my deepest desire to be safe and secure, it must be the desire of other beings. Even of the tiny little ant.

The other day an ant crawled onto my toothbrush. I was not very happy with that ant. I wanted to clean my teeth, but there was an ant caught up in the bristles of my toothbrush! Probably there was something sweet in the toothbrush. So I banged my toothbrush rather hard to knock the ant out, and the ant fell out of the toothbrush and was quite dizzy. The ant went around and around in circles as if it was dizzy. I looked at that ant and I suddenly remembered that that morning when I woke up I had said a little poem to myself, and that poem had gone something like,

Morning, noon, and night, all you little insects, Please look out for yourselves. If by chance I happen to step on you by mistake May you be reborn in a pure land of great happiness.

I suddenly thought, I said that poem this morning and what did I do here? Knocked the ant till it became dizzy! I looked at the ant and I breathed on it, saying the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and the ant said to me, “Did I really deserve to get a knock on the head like that, for crawling onto your toothbrush?” When I heard the ant say that, I had to say, “Of course you didn’t deserve it at all.” It’s very clear that even the little ants want to have safety and security. So I make a deep wish, “May all beings be in safety and security.”

The chant on happiness goes, “Although there is birth, old age and sickness, now that I have a path of practice, I have nothing to be afraid of.” The greatest security is the practice of mindfulness. I am secure because I know what I am doing, so that I’m less likely to have accidents. But accidents can always happen, even if I know what I am doing. That is part of my karma, part of the fruition of my actions, that things will not always go right. But, since I have the practice, even when things go wrong I have a kind of security. That is the security that I wish for all beings to have.

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Enjoying Conscious Breathing

That is my home, the practice of mindfulness, to be in the here and the now. If I can enjoy my breathing, I am in my true home, my Brahmavihara, my Buddhavihara. Why do I practice conscious breathing? Is it because the teacher says I have to? Is it because the Buddha says people have to practice conscious breathing? Is that why I practice it? Or do I practice my conscious breathing because I enjoy it? I feel that conscious breathing is to be enjoyed.

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One time when some of the monks were not practicing correctly, the disciple Ananda said to the Buddha, “They practice the wrong path that has brought them much suffering and brought the Sangha much suffering.” The Buddha said, “Ananda, did no one tell them how to enjoy their breathing?” Because the Buddha had so many disciples, he could not be with them all.  It was up to the eldest students like Ananda to show the younger students how to enjoy their breathing.

When we enjoy our breathing we do not expect a result in the future, because we already have the result right now. It is the same with our mindful steps; stepping into the present moment we have the result right now. We enjoy it right now. All that you want is already there. Breathe, and take a step, to see that you’re home.

This is enough. We see everyone we love, and everything we cherish as very precious, because we know that it will not always be there. As far as relative time and space are concerned they will not always be there. With conscious breathing we look even deeper and we recognize our loved ones in new forms. They just change their appearance, like the water. You may say, “Oh, my dear cloud, you’ve gone,” but in fact the cloud is still there in the rain. You go to the lake in the early morning when the sun begins to rise, you see the mists are evaporating from the surface of the lake, and that is yesterday’s rain going back to be today’s cloud again. No increase and no decrease is the teaching of the Prajnaparamita and that is why what we have is enough.

Sister True Virtue (Sister Annabel) is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Jan Mieszczanek practices photography in her homeland of Poland. She says, “I met Thay one lazy, warm and sunny day. I was sitting in my garden and I was reading Peace is every step. That was a five years ago. Today I take a lot from Buddhism. I try to help the people around me, including myself, my two daughters, and my grandson to find happiness.”

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Lamp Transmission of Shalom

at the Great Ordination CeremonyDeer Park, California February 13, 2004

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Respected Thay, respected Venerables, brothers and sisters and friends, I offer Greeting to this House, greetings to the people and to the ancestors of this House.  Greetings to the land, the mountains, the rivers, and the sea. Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa (translation:  Greetings, greetings, greetings to you all).  In New Zealand, this is a traditional and respectful way to begin to speak as a guest of another community.

I have a sense that if I were to turn and look behind me I would see the New Zealand Sangha sitting, supporting me, and see my beloved daughter, who ten years ago insisted that we sell our house and go to Plum Village. She was eight, and she was very wise.

About fifteen years ago somebody put a book of Thay’s in my hand. I read one page, and that page was the beginning of the lamp transmission. I didn’t know anything about Buddhism, but I knew that this man knew what I wanted to know. For me, it is very beautiful to see this physical manifestation of the lamp, but the lamp of the Dharma, the lamp of Thay is in here, in my heart.

With my mother behind me and my daughter in front of me, there is a hardness in our family line. The practice gave me a lot of courage to transform that hardness so my daughter wouldn’t have to suffer so much. In the early days at home I would literally stop when there were difficulties between me and my child, and I would turn to Thay and I would say, “And what am I supposed to do now?” Many of you will probably know what he answered. He said, “Shalom, do the dishes.” Because that was what was in front of me. And I would do the dishes, very mindfully, and the difficulty between us would calm down.

A few years ago I was very sick. I’m not quite sure how this will sound to you, but it was a wonderful experience! It was very difficult and there was pain, and for many days I felt as if someone had pulled the plug out, because there was no energy, and this body suffered a lot. But something wonderful happened. I could experience for myself the softening of that hardness. I felt a lot of compassion and a lot of love for this body. I could feel the energy of the teaching from Thay, of the mother holding the baby.

Some mornings I would wake up and walk from my bed to the kitchen, and I would get halfway through cutting an apple, and there would be no energy left, so I would have to put the knife down and leave the apple half cut, and walk mindfully back to bed.  My body was very ill, but my mind was very clear.  So I lay in my bed and I breathed in, and I breathed out, and I could do that quite easily.  I could look out at the hills and the sky, and I was very happy.

It’s very wonderful to sit together and receive the Dharma lamp, all of us. I’d like to say to my lay friends: Don’t wait for the Dharma lamp that looks like this. It is a great good fortune for us to be able to be here. I wish you all well. I wish you well in body, heart, and mind, and I thank you for supporting me and teaching me.

Shalom lives in a community of mindfulness practitioners called Dharma Gaia Garden. They welcome guests throughout the year, for organized retreats and for informal visits. Some scholarships are available

The Path of Emancipation, a twenty-one day retreat, July 10– 31, will follow Thay’s teachings from the book of the same name. Cost: $400 plus dana for the teachings.

Go to www.freewebs.com/dharmagaiagarden or e-mail mindfulness@xtra.co.nz.  Write to Dharma Gaia Garden, RD1 Coromandel, New Zealand; phone (+ 64  7) 8667995

Shalom’s Insight Gatha

The deep purple delphinium drops her petals one by one. Magnificent! And my countless faces appear and disappear, bubbles on the ocean’s surface. Beauty and pain quiver my ripening heart. The earth trembles. I step gently, this foot anointed by the bodhisattva’s hand.

Thay’s Gatha to Shalom

The seed that has been planted in the Precious Land now has a chance to be penetrated by the spring rain. Day and night, let us dwell peacefully in the position of touching the earth so that everywhere flowers will bloom and reveal our true mind.

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Letting Go and Being Happy

By Ben Matlock mb38-Letting1Seven members of our Sangha volunteer as Buddhist chaplains at a large, local hospital. We visit Asian and Western Buddhist patients, consult with staff, and lead a weekly meditation in the hospital chapel, mostly attended by staff members.

I have noticed that much of the suffering I encounter in the hospital is created when the patients and staff cling to the image of the patient’s formerly “well self.” Much sadness arises in patients who see their illness as changing them permanently, and much energy is spent by staff trying to restore that state of supposed wellness for the patient, often in vain.

My personal practice includes exploring the areas of belief where I try to hold on to my ideas and perceptions at all costs. I wrote the following guided meditation while traveling on the subway to lead a session at the hospital. Somehow during that journey, the implications of continuing to hold on for dear life to the very things that make me unhappy became much clearer to me than they had before. I realized that I even had to convince myself from time to time that I actually wanted to be happy.

We used this meditation at Sangha on the Wednesday before the presidential election. We each agreed to spend the following week looking deeply and becoming friends with one of our attachments. Then we envisioned what life might be like were we to let go of that attachment. The third step was to investigate with compassion what is keeping us from letting go. In sharing this guided meditation with you, I hope you find this process of deeply looking freeing and transformative.

Guided Meditation On Letting Go

Breathing in, I see the need I have to control my life. Breathing out, I let go of the need to control my life.

Breathing in, I see that control is an illusion. Breathing out, I relax in my inability to control.

Breathing in, I see how critical I am of myself. Breathing out, I let go of the need to be critical.

Breathing in, I see all the goodness in me. Breathing out, I relax in the knowledge of the goodness in me.

Breathing in, I see the many ambitions I have for myself. Breathing out, I let go of the many ambitions I have for myself.

Breathing in, I see that I am sufficient in all ways. Breathing out, I relax in knowing that I am sufficient in all ways.

Breathing in, I see that I crave many things. Breathing out, I let go of the need to crave many things.

Breathing in, I see that I have enough. Breathing out, I relax in the knowledge that I have enough.

Breathing in, I see that I am too busy. Breathing out, I let go of the need to be too busy.

Breathing in, I want a less hectic life. Breathing out, I relax in the quiet of this moment.

Breathing in, I see that letting go can make me free. Breathing out, I am free.

Breathing in, I see that by being free I can be happy. Breathing out, I am happy.

Ben Matlock, True Equanimity of the Sangha, lives in Roxbury, Massachusetts and practices with the Boston Old Path Sangha. An administrator at Episcopal Divinity School, he is the father of Adam, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore, and was married this summer to Ted Todd, also an Order of Interbeing member.

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The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.

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Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.

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Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly Doing nothing Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.

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Presently Minding My Children

By Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner mb42-Presently1

One of my core beliefs is that parenting, in and of itself, is a form of mindfulness. My experience of mindfulness in the family, however, recently underwent a metamorphosis. This happened after good seeds were watered at the 2005 Summer Family Retreat at Maple Forest Monastery. The catalyst for this change was a bacterial infection that dragged on for over three months.

Before taking ill, I felt I was mindfully parenting my four children: Maddie, 6, Patrick, 7, Nicole, 9, and Emily, 16. This included planning vacations, making plans with friends, keeping the children involved in activities, and driving children to play dates. I was busy keeping us busy. This busy-ness disappeared, not by choice but because of the infection. For three months, I was fatigued, sore, and unable to engage in our usual whirlwind of activities. Inertia ruled many of my days. Helplessness, frustration, and guilt became emotional themes. Being a single mother exacerbated the situation.

But I discovered, while often stuck in bed, a new repertoire of parenting skills: listening deeply, looking with compassion, and cuddling. Soon each child’s unique set of needs and strengths emerged, traits I had not noticed while I was busy parenting.

Children as Teachers

Now I was not busy making plans, running errands, scheduling events, talking to friends, logging on to the Internet, or tending to thousands of other things. I only had time to be with my children, who were quite happy having my undivided attention.

A deeper aspect of mindfulness had crystallized. I had learned to be present with my children without other people, events, or props. Sometimes my children were bored, but they were calmer, happier, and easier to be with.

I began to take to heart Thay’s teachings on watering good seeds so they can grow stronger and more available for use in our daily lives. I recalled how genuinely my children had enjoyed being with the monastics at the retreat. I realized it was because the monastics give their undivided attention to children: they are truly present whether baking chocolate bread, collecting flowers, picking tomatoes, playing a game, or singing a song.

I also learned from my children. Perhaps they were my best teachers. My six-year-old daughter, Maddie, found a dragonfly with an injured wing. I watched as she gently picked it up on a stick and tried to feed it grass. Many adults walked by; a few children also passed. They were too busy to stop. Then after a while a small group gathered around Maddie. The dragonfly had long lacy wings and big blue-green eyes. Its legs were long and graceful; they tickled Maddie’s little hand as it unsuccessfully struggled to take flight. Maddie carefully placed the dragonfly in a flower garden. What a gift to be truly present with my daughter and to see her joy and laughter in such a simple thing!

I played Lego with my son Patrick, which required me to pay close attention. I took time to understand my sixteen-year-old Emily’s push for autonomy, and her need to struggle against me, something that required patience and energy.

Breaking the High-Tech Habit

As a parent, it is hard to slow down and just be with my children in their world—not the world I created for them, which is all too often defined by schools, activities and events—but to be with them in their world. In this high-tech era it is hard to disconnect: to turn the cell phone off, to leave the Palm Pilot home, to not check my e-mail or voice mail several times a day, to even let the mail sit for a day. Research indicates many teenagers and adults experience distress even while on vacation if they do not have access to the technological world left at home.

Now, as I regain my health, I try to avoid a symbiotic relationship with these high-tech trappings. I have learned to say no to many opportunities that I would enjoy, even greatly benefit from professionally. I just want to focus on being a parent: being a parent in a simpler way.

Ajahn Chah said, “Everything is a hassle, everything is presenting obstacles—and everything is teaching you.” My intention is to be fully present, with undivided attention, to these moments in my daily life—and with my children.

Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner, Radiant Nourishment of the Source, lives in Troy, Michigan. In addition to being a mom, Cindi studies Tae Kwan Do, is learning to speak Thai, and is looking forward to finishing her Master’s Degree in Counseling later this year.

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Joleah’s Gift

I received this drawing from my eight-year-old granddaughter, Joleah McComb, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. Joleah attends days of mindfulness when we lead them in that city. She has recently been diagnosed with neural damage from toxic molds, and has been sick a lot over the past two years. Her family had to leave their home and all of their belongings because of the dangerous molds. She recently had to leave her school on the ocean as well, since toxic molds were discovered in her classroom. The family has suffered, as they have all been sick and now displaced. mb42-Joleah

For her eighth birthday, because I know she likes to practice mindfulness and meditation, we gave Joleah a jolly Ho Tai statue and an incense burner so that she could set up an altar in her bedroom, which she did. Here’s what she wrote about meditation.

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain,  North Carolina.

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